|War IV: Regrouping
Author: Guede Mazaka
The fighting around the walls intensified as night fell, as if the Woads knew they weren’t going to have much longer. It might have been simpler if that really was the case and the Britons simply slipped off before Ambrosius’ approach, but only in practical terms. Politically speaking, the Woads had to stay around because that way, Ambrosius would be more inclined to see this as a near-disaster than as a colossal example of incompetence exhibited by his subordinates. And in turn, that meant that he’d be more likely to come down on Arthur’s side.
But praying for the Woads to stay meant more hours of shooting at lightning-swift shadows and ducking arrows, of watching knights and legionaries fall all around, of sleeping so little that soon Lancelot had trouble telling the difference between that and waking. Noise grew blurry and dim, so he had to ask men shouting into his face to repeat themselves, and sight smeared so the world was more a patchwork of colored blobs than clear and distinct shapes.
One brown angular splotch detached itself from the rest and limped up to him; he squinted and willed his eyes to focus till Gawain appeared. “It’s been night for an hour now,” the other man said.
“I know.” There was something to come after that, but by the time Lancelot finished saying the first sentence, the second had vanished from his mind. He wanted very badly to slump against the nearest post, but Gawain’s presence reminded him that he couldn’t do that. Not while he was the one everyone looked to.
How Arthur managed to stand it every day, all days, without a break, Lancelot couldn’t begin to understand. It should’ve broken the man long before this.
“Is Arthur better?” Gawain asked.
Startled, Lancelot gave him a sharp look, but it seemed to be only coincidence. “Yes.”
Relatively speaking, because Arthur still had difficulty just sitting up without help. He choked down horse’s blood—from Lancelot’s and his own stallion—and bits of liver from their rapidly dwindling herd of goats, and as a result, the color was slowly creeping back into his face. But his skin still looked like delicate white tissue-cloth, and his lips were ragged from biting against the pain. When Lancelot kissed Arthur, he tasted old stale blood.
And the tang of change, which was still too new for Lancelot to decide whether it would be sweet or sour. He hoped for the former, somehow, with some particle of optimism that had managed to survive the years, but at the same time, he doubted it. For one, Arthur had formerly talked of Rome as a beautiful gold idea he wanted to plant in British soil, but now a trace of wistfulness had crept in alongside the dreaminess. He wasn’t looking to stay in Britain now, and Lancelot didn’t have the energy to face what that might mean.
But before Arthur had also looked at Lancelot with something bound up in his eyes, something restrained that Lancelot couldn’t quite figure out. It’d been why he had always pushed, always fought and lashed out even though every wince Arthur made carved itself inside Lancelot as well. He’d thought it the condemnations of the Christian faith, the strictures of proper Roman behavior that Arthur imposed on himself despite his usage of the occasional Sarmatian custom, like drinking horse’s blood to restore strength, and Lancelot had hated the idea that Arthur was letting those stupid contrived notions interfere.
Now—Arthur still prayed, still conducted himself like a Roman as much as he could, given his state. And now Arthur watched Lancelot with clear, determined eyes, as if he’d finally settled something within him. That alteration didn’t grate on Lancelot—it frightened him. If it was the same kind of focus Arthur applied to Pelagius’ teachings and to doing his duty…
…Lancelot wished he could simply sit down and talk. For once, Arthur couldn’t move away from him, or claim responsibilities elsewhere, and Lancelot was still so damned shaken by Arthur’s close call that his patience had improved. They might actually manage to avoid having the argument first and the explanations second.
“Lancelot?” Gawain was frowning and waving a hand before his face. “You were starting to doze.”
“Was I?” A harsh chuckle rippled out of Lancelot’s throat. He rubbed at his eyes, trying to placate the itching in them. Dreaming, was he? Perhaps he should amend his wish to no disturbances, a comfortable bed, and a warm, long nap beside Arthur.
The other man’s frown deepened to a grimace. “Don’t pass out on me.”
“I’m trying not to. Since you’re already caretaking Galahad and Tristan and…anyone else?” Briefly amused by the annoyance in Gawain’s face, Lancelot checked over the man’s shoulder for any major changes in the men on the ramparts. Nothing—a few soldiers limping for the surgeons, a few more limping up to take their place—nothing he needed to deal with, so he could afford another moment of semi-rest. “Don’t you ever get tired?”
“Do I look like I’m having a good time?” Gawain snorted, rolling one shoulder as if it pained him. The puffy blue-black beneath his eyes stretched almost to his mouth, while the rest of his face looked as if his skin had been wrenched over a skull two sizes too large. His hands were trembling a little with fatigue, and he couldn’t stop blinking so he resembled a girl inexpertly flirting. In the dim light of the torches, he was more shade than man.
“True,” Lancelot agreed. A muscle in his neck suddenly decided it was a good time to twist hard; he winced and reached up, rolling his thumbs hard into the new sore spot. “But still…”
And one knew Gawain was exhausted when he didn’t bother to dress up his words in tact. “Of course I get tired. But it’s not like having a favorite barmaid, you thoughtless jackass. It’s whether you want to be fed up or whether you want them dead.”
“Galahad’s a bad influence on you.” The crick had almost worked itself out, but that last spark of ache deftly eluded Lancelot’s clumsy fingers. He resisted his first impulse to just snap that muscle—he’d probably miss and break his neck—and doggedly chased it. “And you’ve known Tristan for what, a week?”
“You can talk about me when you’ve been sainted,” interrupted Galahad, stumbling up. He shoved something at Gawain, who stared for a moment before deciding it was safe to take. As it turned out, it was dried beef. “But all right, I can’t explain Tristan. Except maybe Gawain likes hawks and bad senses of humor.”
Teeth working at the meat, Gawain mumbled his words, but the meaning of his glower was clear enough. “He offers intelligent, thoughtful conversation, minus the ill-temper. He’s a friend, and those are rare enough here. And thank you for the food.”
Galahad’s idea of a gracious ‘you’re welcome’ was a grunt, but his ducked head didn’t quite disguise a slight lightening of expression. He shuffled closer to Gawain and for a moment they were leaning in, breathing the same air, but it passed before Lancelot could blink. If anyone else had been watching, it would’ve only looked as if the two men had been whispering, possibly sharing a threadbare joke. With so many eyes watching, they couldn’t afford to do any more.
“Ambrosius!” someone shouted.
Lancelot whipped around and ran for the wall, dimly registering that the other men were following. He took the steps, little more than rudely-smoothed flattish pegs of wood, two and three at a time. “Where?”
The same man who’d shouted, one of the older centurions, dodged a spear and pointed across the river. And there was the flapping black ripples of standards against black sky, and the line of glint too low and thickly-clustered to be stars. A moment later, Gawain and Galahad arrived just in time to hear an eerie whoop whip across the dark waters.
“Gorlois. I’d recognize that voice anywhere,” Gawain gasped, abruptly sagging against the wall. Behind him, a panicked Galahad made a grab for him, but his batting-away of Galahad’s hands showed it was only relief and not an injury that had made him collapse.
High in the sky, a crescent moon provided some light, and the fires on the other side of the river provided more. They watched the perfect ranks of Ambrosius’ soldiers come into the red-yellow circle and then break into smaller but no less perfectly-ordered groups that smashed through the town, driving all before them.
“Galahad,” Lancelot snapped, but Galahad was already running for the soldiers stationed on their side of the river. Gawain went after him, as did many of the knights on the ramparts, and shortly thereafter the Woads fleeing into the river met a ruthless storm of arrows blocking their way. Lancelot didn’t see a single one that escaped.
Back at the town, more of Ambrosius’ forces were starting to emerge from the forest, the gleam of their armor duller—because of the gore on it, Lancelot realized. If nothing else, Ambrosius was methodical and had been sure to go through the forest; there was no point in taking the town without the accompanying countryside. That would just result in two armies under two separate sieges.
On Lancelot’s side of the river, a bone-chilling cry abruptly soared into the night: the Woads here had noticed the fate of their comrades. Lancelot risked a look over the side of the wall, dodged back and ran down to one corner, where he checked again—the Woads were retreating, melting back into the forest.
“Thank God,” breathed someone. A legionary, eyes raised to the moon.
Arthur…Lancelot turned to head down and tell the other man, but the moment his foot touched the ground, Paullus rode up. The man clumsily yanked at the reins, prompting an outraged whinny and some furious rearing from his stallion.
“Down! Down—shhh, it’s all right. The stupid Roman’s got a hard hand with the reins, yes, but someday he’ll forget to tighten the girth strap,” Lancelot half-hissed, half-shouted at the horse trying to stomp him into the dirt. The next time it reared, he slipped beneath to the other side and made a successful snatch at the flapping reins. “Shhh, pretty. When that day comes, he’ll try to mount and he’ll be right in the shit.”
He was speaking in Sarmatian, which horses seemed to like better than clipped, cacophonic Latin, smart creatures that they were. Whether it was the language or the suggestion, Paullus’ stallion very quickly calmed and planted all four of its feet back on the ground, while a relieved Paullus almost looked grateful. But then the man seemed to remember that one, he ranked, and two, he was Roman so he had supposedly ranked from birth, and merely gave Lancelot a curt nod of thanks. “Ambrosius’ forces have secured the far bank. Get your men ready; I want to be out of this death-trap by morning.”
So much for catching a bit of sleep, though Lancelot was as eager as anyone else to escape to the other side. There the surrounding land had been long since cleared so a broad circle of plain separated the town from the damnable woods, and there they’d be able to move and breathe and think like men, and not like cornered animals.
But there Arthur would have to face outwards again, and now Lancelot wasn’t sure whether Arthur would remember to look back.
“Lancelot?” Paullus’ temper was about as short as an eunuch was fertile.
“Yes. Sir. I’ll see to it.” Tired of playing the good subordinate, Lancelot released Paullus’ horse and walked off. Behind him, he could hear the stallion beginning to panic once more, but he pretended he hadn’t heard.
* * *
Granted, it was a relief to be able to finally stretch his and his horse’s legs with a good long ride, but Galahad would rather that he’d done that in a nice pasture than by trotting endlessly back and forth across the river, helping to oversee yet another shifting of camp. He was getting entirely too familiar with water. And anyway, he didn’t have the temperament for this sort of job, with its constant stream of questions that were all the same, with its frustrating little breakdowns that managed to stop everything in its tracks. Gawain did, but Gawain was supposedly busy. And the man still owed Galahad a return favor for just before everything had turned on its head.
Of course, if he’d brought that up, Gawain would’ve simply said he was being petty. Maybe that was true, but Galahad’s back ached and his legs were almost numb and his eyes were hurting so badly he could do little more than squint. It wouldn’t be petty if he collapsed from exhaustion and fell off his horse.
Anyway, Gawain could use the rest as well. His hair, which the girls hanging about the tavern liked to call honey-colored, was now nearly as dark as Lancelot’s due to the dirt and blood and other bits of filth in it, and the few times Galahad had caught a glimpse of him, he looked worse off than the beggars in the streets. A long soak in a hot bath—one of the few Roman customs Galahad had decided was a good thing to take up—and maybe a soft bed, big enough so that Gawain’s knees didn’t dig into Galahad…
…a different kind of splashing. Blinking fast, Galahad shook himself out of his daydream to see Owein approaching. “What?”
The other man reined in, flopping his hair out of his eyes so Galahad couldn’t help but note the lurid gray of Owein’s skin. They were all exhausted, ready to drop, and yet they had to keep going lest morale sag even lower. Frankly, it was a bit pointless; all of them combined weren’t Arthur, and Gawain should stop trying to make that so. For one, he didn’t have nearly Arthur’s ability to soften Lancelot into a reasonably companionable human being.
“Almost done,” Owein rasped. “Sick are coming, and that’s it.”
So that was why he was here—his troop had taken the most casualties, as it’d turned out. As skilled fighters as they were, they didn’t seem to have a good grasp of when there’d been enough killing. In consequence they wore themselves out and were too damned proud to stay near other knights, so they had farther to go when making it back to the surgeon.
Then again, Galahad wouldn’t be inclined to keep the line if he were positioned next to Perceval, who was escorting a wagonload of Sarmatian corpses hastily bundled into their horse-blankets. The man actually took the time to sneer at Owein as he passed. “Stupid callous son of a bitch,” Galahad muttered.
“You’ve noticed?” Owein didn’t seem to know whether to be sarcastic or surprised.
“Do they bring you all up to be this mocking?” Galahad snapped, forgetting himself in his irritation at anything and everything. “Dinidan—”
And then his memory lashed him across the face, and then he ducked his head in too-late regret while Owein stiffened into grimness. No reply came, but even the dead could’ve seen that Owein was choking back rage.
Another wagon passed. This one was full of groaning legionaries that cried out at every jolt. The water was above the axles and dangerously close to the bottom of the wagonbed, which had been hastily raised. Good thing they were crossing now; if they’d left it another day they probably would’ve had to build a bridge.
“Sorry.” Galahad dropped his gaze to his reins, with which he fiddled while he pretended he wasn’t peeking at Owein’s reaction. “Really. I—he deserved a better death.”
“He deserved a better life,” Owein rasped, staring straight ahead. The corners of his eyes and lips twitched as he smoothed all the emotion off of his face, replacing it with the customary distant disdain of his men. Behind him were tall billowing towers of smoke—Ambrosius’ men were tidying up, burning the legionary and Woad corpses in the old camp. “I watched him and Tristan grow up. They were the same age as my youngest brothers would have been.” Then he glanced at Galahad and lifted his shoulders in a tiny shrug. “Though Dinidan wasn’t always careful with his jokes. Had a tongue as quick as his hair was black.”
Well, in all honesty, Galahad had heard worse. It’d been nastier when he had been too small and slender to defend himself as well as being slow to grow a beard. After he’d grown and learned to handle himself in a fight, Perceval and Agravaine and the rest had had to find other targets. “He probably saved the army.”
“That’s small comfort.” Eyebrow quirked, Owein shot Galahad a sardonic look. “You think I want to lead heroes? Heroes die early and young and painfully. I want to lead men. I want to see them home. I don’t want to name them and have empty places in the ranks the next day.”
Guilt. That was what Owein was struggling against, Galahad suddenly realized. Not anger, but guilt, which Galahad should’ve recognized sooner, given all the time he’d spent around Arthur. And he should have learned what to say by now, what words to give to the abrupt need he had to answer Owein, and to answer with something that the other man would listen to, but he hadn’t.
“Your friend,” Owein said, when the silence had gone on too long. “Gawain. What is he trying to do?”
“Be nice,” Galahad muttered, shrugging. He caught the shuttered worry in Owein’s expression and turned around to give a longer answer, a little relieved that he could actually do so. “He listens to Arthur a lot—sometimes I think it’s his goal in life to personally see every knight he meets back to Sarmatia in one piece. And he thinks Tristan’s funny for some reason.”
A flicker of a grin appeared on Owein’s face, and the set of his shoulders relaxed a fraction. “Tristan can be, on occasion. Could be. Now—” mouth twist to cut off that line of talk “—never mind. But I wouldn’t worry, if I were you. Keeping more knights out there means there’s less chance of someone killing you.”
Which was a confusing statement to make, but before Galahad could ask for an explanation, Owein had wheeled and headed for one of the sick wagons. The man came up beside to the frantically-gesturing driver, then whipped about and jabbed his hand at the town. “Where’s Lancelot?”
“Why—what happened?” Galahad started to turn his horse toward the wagon, but then a commotion on the riverbank made him reverse himself.
For a moment, he stared in disbelief and didn’t care in the least that a slack jaw made him look an idiot. Then he shoved his heels into his horse’s sides and headed for shore as fast as possible.
* * *
By Gawain’s count, at least three people had told Ambrosius that Arthur was still extremely weak and thus was crossing with the rest of the injured, but the man had apparently refused to hear any of them. He was striding up and down the bankside, loudly and lengthily explaining how he hadn’t expected this level of incompetence and rudeness from such seasoned officers.
Paullus’ face was blank as a freshly-washed sheet, but his sword-hand occasionally twitched toward the hilt at his hip. Lucius’ two top officers, Galerius of the infantry and Pelles who’d taken over the cavalry after Bercilak’s death, were having more difficulty controlling their resentment. And Lancelot? Well, to the casual—or enraged and vocal—eye, he appeared to be listening quite closely. Gawain, however, had known the man for much longer than that, and he knew Lancelot was dozing. He’d long since grown used to the eeriness of Lancelot’s ability to nap with eyes open if he wanted—unsurprisingly, it was a popular habit to cultivate among soldiers—but Gawain still found himself disturbed by Lancelot’s uncanny sense of when to wake.
“And now you tell me that the reason I found no fortifications here was because Lucius Cornelius failed to build any? Tell me, why didn’t you send to him earlier, so he had time to?” Ambrosius whirled on Lancelot, who blinked—and was fully conscious, as simple as that. “Why didn’t Artorius go before night fell? Galerius said Lucius Cornelius reached town a full five hours before dusk.”
“Sir, we didn’t reach our campsite until two hours before dusk. The road on the other side is longer and goes through rougher terrain. And Arth—torius—” Lancelot wasn’t quite as quick as he usually was, though given the past week that was understandable “—went as soon as he could. Sir.”
Gawain winced at the faint insolence in Lancelot’s words; Ambrosius was a cut above the usual inattentive Roman officer and was sure to catch it.
Fortunately, at that moment Paullus stepped in and distracted Ambrosius. “What they say is true, sir. We received the scouts’ reports the same time we noticed the absence of proper fortifications on the other side of the river. Where we were, the woods are thick. It wasn’t possible to see Lucius Cornelius’ army from the road until we’d emerged at our campsite.”
Ambrosius stopped pacing and was gracious enough to wave them all to a more secluded area of the riverbank, where curious eyes and ears couldn’t eavesdrop. Their new meeting-ground was a small side-pier half-shielded by thick brush, just at the edge of the ford where the deeper water made boats possible. The general commanded the end projecting into the river, while Paullus claimed the spot nearest the exit path, the other infantry officers clustering around him, and the knights gradually drifted around Lancelot.
“What the fuck is up his ass?” Pelles muttered, dropping into his dialect. “He can’t bear to soil his tent floor with the likes of us?”
“Better than that,” Lancelot replied out of the corner of his mouth. He dropped his head a bit to pinch at his nose, as if trying to stave off a headache. “Everyone knows some officer fucked up from the very beginning. So he wants to get the blame assigned, and publicly, lest the soldiers decide to lynch him.”
Frowning, Gawain tried to remember the fragments of Roman history Arthur dropped from time to time. “How often does that happen?”
“Enough to make me almost wish I were a legionary right now.” Then Lancelot raised his head and looked grimly at Ambrosius, who appeared to be thinking very hard and fast about something. Nearly as one, the other knights all turned to face the same way.
After a few moments, Ambrosius suddenly snapped up his head, as if he’d just been struck by the greatest idea in the world. His eyes, however, had the same light as that in a fox’s. Gawain’s gut started to sink.
“So now we’ve not only had to waste time retaking a town that should never have been lost, but our reputation has also been severely degraded by your misfortune in being penned up by a pack of renegade Britons. For the love of God, they wear nothing but blue paint!” Ambrosius rubbed at his right eye, which was bloodshot and ringed with darkish puffiness, but not nearly to the same degree as those of all the men he was watching so contemptuously. “And of the three ranking officers involved, one never even went out of camp and one is reportedly too ill to be seen because the last one apparently lost his mind before being killed by the Woads.”
“There were many witnesses to Lucius Cornelius’—” Lancelot started, voice rising right from the start, detachment ripping away.
But before he could go further, Paullus quickly stepped in front of him and shot Gawain a look that said very clearly to silence. Normally Gawain would think about it before he took an order from someone besides Arthur or Lancelot, but in this case he was willing to make an exception. There was too much riding on Ambrosius’ mood, so Gawain grabbed Lancelot’s arm and jerked him back to leave Paullus the floor.
“There were many witnesses, including myself, to Lucius Cornelius’ tragic lapse,” continued Paullus, producing a honey-coated tactfulness of which, to judge from the surprise around the group, no one had thought him capable. “From all levels of rank. And the common soldiers all seem to find that a very appealing explanation.”
Lancelot was visibly seething at Paullus’ usage of ‘explanation’ to describe fact, but he held his tongue. For his part, Ambrosius seemed to acknowledge the truth in Paullus’ words, but with great reluctance. His eyes were still searching for a scapegoat. “I see. However, that matter will have to wait. Currently we have Woads to crush, and I don’t seem to have a single senior cavalry officer with which to do it.”
Both Lancelot and Pelles looked stung by that, and Pelles was beginning to open his mouth when someone splashed up the ford.
“You do, in fact.”
And they probably all looked very silly: grown men starting and whipping about like scared children. Though Arthur certainly was pale enough to play the part of the ghost. He wasn’t wearing full armor, or even his red cloak, and his clothing bulged rather oddly around his ribs—layers of bandages, Gawain realized. A few peeked from Arthur’s collar, and his arm was in a makeshift sling, but he was using two hands to handle the reins. He also wasn’t sitting very well in the saddle, and when he made a slight, stiff inclination of his upper body, Gawain wasn’t the only one holding his breath.
“I apologize for not immediately coming to meet you,” Arthur went on, voice thready and soft, though his gaze was shockingly lucid and steady.
“Ah…well…” It was the first time Ambrosius had ever been seen to be speechless. However, he quickly recovered and waved Arthur up, whereupon everyone had to move as Arthur’s horse climbed the bank.
Gawain finally remembered to check on Lancelot and turned to see either the angriest or the most fearful man in the world. As Arthur’s stallion shook the last droplets from its hooves, it slipped a bit on some loose sand and skidded off the ford, its hind-leg momentarily sinking almost up to the hock; Lancelot went white and jerked forward.
Thankfully, the horse quickly scrambled up and was on dry ground, then the pier before Lancelot did anything…conspicuous. On the other hand, all the jolting and quick movements had drained even more blood from Arthur’s face. His lips were clamped together with silent pain and he had one hand clenched so hard in his horse’s mane that he had to be pulling out hairs.
As soon as possible, Lancelot moved to help Arthur down. Gawain followed, while Pelles hastily seized the reins to Arthur’s stallion and held it still. Between them all, Arthur managed to dismount with some dignity. Then he politely but pointedly freed himself from their support and haltingly walked over to Ambrosius. “Again, I apologize for my tardiness. What’s the situation upriver?”
* * *
Ever since they’d crossed, Bors had been muttering about Ambrosius’ temper. But the bustle and confusion of changing camps had separated him from Dagonet before Dagonet could ask about that rumor.
The actual relocation had happened with all the customary efficiency of the Roman army, and temper aside, Ambrosius had seen to it that his men soon took over all the work, so that had very soon left Dagonet with little to do in a strange camp. He was tired, but the enforced constant watchfulness of the last few days had left his nerves too tense for sleep to be a choice. In the end, he let his stomach dictate his movements and went about until he found the mess area.
Paullus’ and Arthur’s men were being generously seen to by Ambrosius’ men, both because of sympathy—any soldier with any experience dreaded the siege most of all—and because of, apparently, direct orders from the general. This second reason, however, was looked on with scorn by most of the officers.
“…distracting us while he chews up Arthur,” Bedivere was grumbling into his bowl.
Dagonet quietly took a seat facing the man but away from the rest of the officers, which put him behind Owein and, after the light had shifted to reveal the shadow was a man, one of Owein’s knights. Tristan, if Dagonet remembered rightly.
“You said Arthur sneaked out of the wagon?” Perceval asked Owein, somehow making it sound like an insult.
From his position half-sleeping on Galahad’s shoulder, Gawain roused and glared at Perceval. The other man subsided, but still appeared to be waiting for an answer.
Owein’s jaw muscle ticked, but he remained relatively calm. “He did. It must have been shortly before crossing. I’m not certain how he got to his horse.”
“One of the Britons he had evacuated from the town,” Urien said, slurping at his food. He snorted, blackly amused. “The idiot was trying to get into Arthur’s tent with some nasty concoction of his grandmother’s for Arthur. Told me all about it. Jols, I think his name is?”
“Arthur has the strangest luck,” Gorlois remarked in a musing, half-admiring tone. Then he stood up like an old man suffering from bad joints, wincing, and dusted himself off. “Comes out with more friends from something like this. I’m off to sleep; wake me when they’ve decided where to fight. Or if it’s finally time to bury a little commonsense into Ambrosius.”
Most of the knights didn’t even bother to react to his departure, for they were simply too tired to do more than chew their first full meal in a week. But Gawain fluttered a few fingers, Galahad managed to laugh, and Owein and Tristan watched Gorlois go with expressions that might have been pensive under all that ice.
Tristan suddenly flicked his eyes over and caught Dagonet observing. There wasn’t any point in pretending otherwise, so Dagonet looked a moment longer, letting Tristan know that he was assuming right, before biting into his bread.
“I wonder if the new ones come close to filling the holes,” Tristan said, so softly that Dagonet almost thought he’d imagined it.
“They aren’t. But it pulls you forward.” For a moment, Dagonet let himself think of the dead bodies rotting in the woods upriver. None of them had had a fraction of Bors’ open-hearted generosity, but they had not been bad men, and there were things about them to miss.
His statement earned himself a sharper look, as if Tristan was trying to divine the presence or absence of something in Dagonet. If it was how did Dagonet know—he didn’t. But he knew the sound of grief well enough.
“Where’s Lancelot?” Perceval asked, a bit warily. For good measure, he scanned around the area as he spoke. Bors had said the two men weren’t friendly, and that was readily apparent in Perceval’s face.
Galahad seemed to doubt Perceval’s intent, for he paused and gave the man a narrow-eyed scorching glance-over before answering. “He went with Arthur and Paullus and Ambrosius. He’s entitled.”
“True.” That single word of Perceval’s implied many, many things, and none of them were particularly pleasant.
Bedivere suddenly snarled and shoved Perceval nearly off his feet, and when the other man regained his balance, Bedivere pushed again so Perceval had to scramble into a standing position. Then he twisted around, one hand dangerously near his sword, while all around the other officers were hurriedly jumping to their feet. “I’m sick of it. I’m sick of listening to you and your sour tongue. I have to put up with everything else—I don’t have to put up with—”
“Down.” Jumping between them, Gawain stretched out his arms so both men had to step back. “Stop. Go get some sleep. None of us are on-duty till tomorrow. So sleep. You’ve earned it. All of you.”
“It’d be a stupid man who didn’t take that offer,” Galahad added, casually stepping up next to Gawain.
While Bedivere readily backed down—he didn’t seem one for prolonged bouts of anger—Perceval held his ground. He gave Gawain a long, hard stare, then turned to Galahad almost as an afterthought. More than likely it was deliberate, considering what Dagonet had seen of the man’s character so far. “When the truth comes from the mouth of boys, then we are in trouble.”
He spun on his heel and stalked off, curious faces hastily scrambling out of the way as he went.
Gawain stopped Galahad charging after Perceval by tapping the furious man on the arm and looking desperately tired. Very grudgingly, Galahad removed his eye-daggers from Percival’s back. “Well, that was productive.”
“I think it was,” Tristan said in a bland tone, getting up himself. He started to leave, but had to pause when a suddenly-worried Gawain moved into his path. Tristan’s eyebrow lifted—and his hands were in fists, Dagonet suddenly noticed. A second look at the man revealed more than a few hairline fractures in his apparent composure. “I’m not such a fool,” he told Gawain in a low voice.
“Good. Because he’d make a bad candidate for an honor guard.” Apparently deeming it all right, Gawain stepped aside. Behind him, Owein seemed to be hiding a sarcastic smile.
Tristan made a dismissive sound as he walked off—in the opposite direction. “But his horse would be worthy.”
Halfway to sitting down, Gawain straightened up and looked worried again. But Owein was already walking after Tristan, and Galahad had a firm grip on Gawain’s arm. “Let it go. Come on. Bed.” When Gawain still resisted, Galahad yanked harder and pointedly glared at Gawain. “Bed.”
Gawain went. That left Dagonet and Urien and a very quiet Pelles, but soon it was only Urien and Pelles. Dagonet’s nerves untensed all at once, dropping him into almost irresistible drowsiness, and he decided to follow the letter of the other men’s example, if not quite the spirit.
Bors, of course, had found their tent first and was busily snoring away. Dagonet winced, smiled, and laid down in the cot next to Bors’.
* * *
The private interview was very short and brisk. Ambrosius unrolled his map and marked out the current distributions of their forces and of the Woads, as far as anyone knew. “I’ve swept them off the river settlements,” he said with a scornful look at Arthur and Paullus. “But they’ll just move back in as soon as we leave. We need to raze them to the ground.”
“Pitched battle, you mean.” Paullus sounded as if he was having a problem swallowing his emotions, but his words showed his practicality was functioning well. “The Woads have learned better than that by now.”
“Maybe not. They haven’t done sieges or concerted attacks in a long time, yet they’ve just done so. There’s been a leadership change.” A sudden wave of nausea and black rolled through Arthur and he had to stop, lean against the table and take a deep breath. Feet shuffled behind him, but halted just short—Lancelot didn’t trust Ambrosius and only tolerated Paullus, and he wouldn’t act naturally in front of them. He also understood why Arthur had to look capable of independent action. Arthur hoped. “I believe so. These recent attacks are much more organized and aggressive. And last night aside, they’ll still be overconfident from their earlier victories.”
A trace of nerves flickered through Ambrosius’ eyes, though he quickly covered it up with sarcasm. “I rather think last night would have reinforced that feeling, given that it was a rescue and not a real battle.”
Somewhere a strange grinding sound started. A moment later, Arthur realized it was Paullus gritting his teeth; he gave his colleague a sharp warning look and Paullus stopped, acknowledging that they had to walk gingerly here.
Gingerly. God, it hurt just to breathe…Arthur’s vision faded out a little and he willed it to come back. He needed to think. Aggressive Woads--Merlin.
Merlin and treachery and stark despairing madness and so much worry in Lancelot’s face over a man as imperfect as Arthur. No. The campaign.
“If we can give them a tempting target,” Arthur went on. “A slow, heavy baggage train—”
“But there’d be no reason for us to send out an unguarded or even a lightly-guarded one,” Paullus objected. Ambrosius, meanwhile, had withdrawn a little and was watching the two of them work it out among themselves.
It irked him that he couldn’t do it himself. And he was already angry, and doubting them…something had to be done to show Ambrosius that they weren’t going to take advantage of his weakness in military strategy. That they weren’t aiming at his position, but instead meant only to serve Rome.
The idea snapped into Arthur’s mind fully-fledged. “Then wagons of sick and wounded back to the garrison. Both sides of the road are clear, it’s supposed to be our territory—we can hide soldiers in the wagons and use only a light escort. It’ll draw them out of the woods and then we can fall on their rear.”
“Not bad…” Forehead wrinkling with thought, Paullus considered the plan, gradually relaxing into what he did and liked best—tactical warfare. “But I still think they’ll be wary.”
“They won’t if I’m in that train. They saw me fall—they know I’m injured, and I rank highly enough that they’d risk it.” And even when Lucius had been alive, Arthur had had no problem in saying he was the better commander as far as conducting battle went. If the Woads had wanted him dead badly enough that they’d actually go through the pretenses of making a deal with Lucius, then they’d be more than willing to come for him again.
Paullus was staring at Arthur as if they were meeting for the first time and Arthur had some kind of facial disfiguration. “You? But—you know we’ll have to hold the rest of the army far back if the Woads aren’t going to notice us till the last moment.”
“I think it’s a fine plan,” Ambrosius interrupted, glancing back and forth between them. When his eyes landed on Arthur, a momentary flash of remorse softened his expression. “It’s a very generous and selfless offer. Thank you, Artorius. Pity about Lucius Cornelius, though as I understand it, madness does run in his father’s side. I imagine you’ll both be quite busy, so I’ll take handling that matter off your hands and leave you to deal with the upcoming battle. Artorius, the knights are yours. Paullus, you’ve temporary field command.”
Arthur exhaled and sagged against the desk. Beside him, Paullus was doing the same—that was what they’d been waiting for. Absolution. Ambrosius would see to it for them.
And Ambrosius was the old kind of Roman, keeping his promises once they were given whether that was for an underhanded deal or an instance of benevolence. As long as the battle was won, Arthur and Paullus were safe from political repercussions.
After a few more administrative details, Ambrosius dismissed them. Surprisingly enough, Paullus stayed to help get Arthur back to his tents, and then for a word while an…oddly quiet Lancelot went inside to chase out whoever was rattling things inside.
“I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be capable of commanding such loyalty,” Paullus said, staring past Arthur’s shoulder. Then he snorted at himself and looked at Arthur. “I’m content with what I have, but sometimes…well, I’m glad you were stubborn enough to live. For one, I don’t fancy trying to control that kn--those knights of yours.”
He flicked his eyes once again at something behind Arthur, then nodded. “I’ll bring the plans by tomorrow morning. You look like you could use sleep and food.”
“Thank you. And…Asia Minor.” Arthur found himself leaning more and more heavily against the tentpole, though that only increased the pain of his back and shoulder. He fought down a flinch. “You may have to wait till next year. But I’ll keep my word.”
“As long as you remember, I can do that. And you never forget anything, do you?” Paullus flapped a hand at Arthur and turned down the path, shoulders sloping heavily with his own exhaustion.
Lancelot reappeared, followed by the man Arthur had persuaded—sweet-talked, Arthur recalled rather ashamedly—into sneaking his horse to him earlier in the morning, once it was made clear the surgeons wouldn’t allow him up.
Jols. That was the name. “Jols? I thought you were seeing to your mother.”
“Did that. Then I was thinking you might need some more help, given your injuries and all.” The man smiled, pleased that Arthur had remembered their conversation. Over Jols’ shoulder, Lancelot glared and gestured.
“Thank you, but I’m fine. Though…could you check on my horse?” Arthur asked as pleasantly as he could, given that everything from the back of his neck to his waist was on fire.
Jols could. And Jols went off, happy as could be, while a murderous-looking Lancelot helped Arthur inside. He did wait until after he’d set Arthur on the cot and stripped Arthur to the waist so he could change the dressings.
Then he flicked a damp rag at one of the lacerations. It was like being speared through—the pain burst up from Arthur’s gut and out his mouth as a gasp before he could even blink. He flinched forward a little too far, jerked himself back on the bed and somehow ended up with his face pressed into Lancelot’s shoulder and his hands knotted in the sheets, around Lancelot’s thigh.
Fingers grabbed at Arthur’s hair and roughly stroked it. “You know,” Lancelot said, voice shaking with fragments of too many emotions to identify, “Most men are more cautious after they almost die.”
“You fucking—I can’t believe—no, I can, and that’s the sorry part. You idiot!” Lancelot let go of Arthur’s head and pushed backward on the cot, temper flaring high in cheeks and eyes. “You can’t even sit up by yourse—”
Biting his lip, Arthur straightened and shifted so he didn’t have to twist himself to face Lancelot. He watched Lancelot close his eyes as if the light pained him to see and drop his head into his hands, every ragged breath heightening the burning hurt in Arthur’s back.
“Don’t do this,” Lancelot groaned. “Not again. Don’t—make me—Arthur, the last thing I want to see is you dying.”
“And I have no intention of doing so. There’s no point in bargaining with Ambrosius if I don’t expect to live to see the benefits of it.” Arthur started to lean forward and caught himself on an abrupt rise in pain. He stopped, reset the clamp of his teeth together, and then continued, grabbing for Lancelot’s shoulders for balance. “But this has to be done.”
When Lancelot nodded, he refused to look at Arthur. His lashes fluttered, picking up a few crystal droplets, but otherwise he didn’t show any emotion.
“You’ll command the others—” Arthur began.
“No. If you’re going to be this incredibly stupid, I want to be where I can see you. Let Urien or Owein do it.” Now Lancelot met Arthur’s eyes, and with such a stubborn expression that Arthur almost said something quick and sharp and over-hasty. But then Lancelot smiled, all sad irony, and ran a finger over Arthur’s aching shoulder. “In a few years you won’t be able to order me around, and then what will you do?”
That light touch was too much to bear; Arthur released Lancelot’s shoulder and pulled his arm to him, wincing. Something dark and equally raw flecked Lancelot’s eyes, then disappeared as he leaned forward. Very gently, he helped Arthur put the arm back in its sling.
“You’ll have learned something, I’d hope. At least from my mistakes. And you’ll be careful.” Arthur still had one hand on Lancelot, and that one he curled about Lancelot’s neck, stroking where those frayed curls trickled away into bare smooth skin. “Back in Sarmatia. You will get there. I swear.”
Lancelot rolled his eyes and produced a sarcastic smile, dismissing that for now. “Turn around. I’ll get your back cleaned and then I’m going to collapse in your chair. By the way, you need never fear that I’ll steal your job from you. I hate it.”
Sometimes Arthur did as well. As slowly as he could, he drew his hand from Lancelot and moved, surrendering to the requirements of propriety.
* * *
For the fourth time in ten breaths, Galahad opened his eyes. He looked about the dark tent, noting the shadowy forms of the other knights bunked with them. Then he reached down and shoved the knee out of his stomach.
“What?” Gawain mumbled, flopping around a bit more.
“If you’re having that much trouble sleeping, we could move to the floor. Be less cramped than this broken-down cot.” Galahad sat up—a little too fast. Hissing, he rolled his hips till his weight wasn’t bearing down directly on the deep soreness between his legs.
Not that that wasn’t unwelcome, but…it also wasn’t typically Gawain. Usually Galahad was the one who went at it hungry and fast and too overwhelming to do more than gasp.
“Go to sleep.” An arm came up and wandered around till it found Galahad, whereupon it started halfheartedly batting and pulling.
“I was. Several times. You’re the one who isn’t sleeping,” Galahad retorted. The next time it came near his face, Galahad grabbed Gawain’s wrist and wrestled it back down to the bed. Then he bent over the other man and stared till Gawain ceased faking and opened an eye. “What?”
That eye looked as if it could strangle Galahad all by its lonesome. “Not—actually, there was one thing.” Gawain rolled over and hooked his arm around the back of Galahad’s knees, knocking Galahad down. Before Galahad could recover, he’d been pulled into a prone position and then slumped over by Gawain. “How do you do that?” the other man muttered, almost annoyed.
“Do…how do I sleep?” Granted, Galahad had made reasonable headway into making up for lost rest, but he was still far enough behind that he had to sit and think about that question. Either Gawain was so tired that his mind had stopped functioning, or he meant something else.
Some other meaning, Galahad’s gut insisted. His own mind wanted to tell Gawain to shut up and stop gouging knees and elbows into him, but Galahad wasn’t about to do that. He wasn’t that stupid. Or unappreciative, or unobservant of the slackness in the curve of Gawain’s back and the tension in Gawain’s shoulders, which were pinning down Galahad’s hands. He pushed at them a little, testing their dead weight—Gawain didn’t move.
At first. Then, very slowly, the other man slid sideways a few inches. “Never mind.”
“Listen to him,” grunted Bedivere from across the tent. “We gave you two your hour. Now shut up and sleep.”
“As if you…” As much as Galahad wanted to say something back, he couldn’t think of anything nasty enough. In the end, he closed his mouth and scuffled under the blankets, worming around various bits of Gawain as he did.
His knee slipped while he was working it past Gawain’s hip and he nearly knocked himself off the cot. Galahad bit down on his swearing and scrabbled back on, trying not to move the furs too much.
He didn’t quite succeed. Sighing, Gawain propped himself up enough to grab Galahad and pull him into the center of the narrow cot. Then he wrapped his arm around Galahad’s waist and poked Galahad’s head down with his chin.
“Better?” Galahad whispered.
Gawain shrugged, but it felt as if he’d relaxed a bit. “You’re being nice. Oddly so.”
“Well, I’m tired. And for once, you’re being the idiot that doesn’t know how to look after himself.” Galahad tugged up the sheets and pushed his face closer to Gawain’s chest, eyes already fluttering shut. But he made himself stay awake until Gawain had fallen asleep first.
* * *
Owein caught up with Tristan near one of the gates, where Tristan was studying the patterns of the guards’ movements.
“There’d be little point,” Owein said. He stopped beside Tristan but didn’t look over, choosing instead to stare at the winking stars. After a bit, he dug out some dried bits of meat and began feeding them to the cranky hawk on Tristan’s arm.
She wanted to sleep, but for some reason, she would go into fits of wing-feather rattling and soft cries whenever Tristan started to leave the tent. So he’d taken her with him, but apparently she was waiting till he slept as well. Normally he would have done so to spare her any exhaustion, but at the current time he simply wasn’t capable of sleeping. His body was bone-tired, his mind told him he needed it if he wanted to be able the next day, but the cot was too large. There was too much space in the tent, and his horse had too much room to move because there wasn’t another horse hobbled and tethered to one side of it.
“You’re not going out.” That was an implicit order, to judge from Owein’s tone. “You can kill more Woads if you stay and fight with the rest.”
In truth, the reason killing Woads had taken on a new dimension of appeal for Tristan had nothing to do with whether they died on the battlefield or in a two-man duel with him. And what hurt was not, in fact, the knowledge of death—they’d been living under its shadow for too long—but the absences. No things because they had little to begin with and Dinidan had taken everything on which he’d stamped his personality; the few belongings he’d left were pieces of standard gear that were cold and storyless even to eyes, a spare twist of leather thong he’d tied into Tristan’s hair, and the hawk, who had been more Tristan’s anyway. No body he could wash and wrap and bury. Not even a sword to mark the grave mound.
So he would give those absences back to the Woads. The Romans disliked the putrefaction and danger of disease that accompanied letting the bodies of the fallen lie where they’d fallen—they burned them all as soon as possible after the fighting was over, enemy and friend alike. Except for the Sarmatian bodies, since Arthur had argued for special dispensation there. But the Woads that died in battle went onto the pyres, and those they left behind had only the absence to mourn. That would continue. Tristan would see to it. He would let the Woads bleed into their precious land and see that they dwindled to nothing.
Shuffling noises. Though any casual observer would have said Owein’s expression hadn’t changed, Tristan could tell otherwise.
“I have a spare sword,” Owein finally said, that trace of discomfort in his voice speaking volumes.
“Save it. Yours might break.” It was a kind offer, but it ultimately meant nothing. Another man’s sword marking an empty grave—that told a different story than the one Tristan wanted remembered.
Gawain had learned a good deal about him in the few days they’d known each other. For a moment, Tristan was impressed.
His hawk ruffled and bobbed her head, snapping only half-playfully at his nose. He tried to soothe her by stroking her feathers, but she was still unsatisfied. “Sleep, then,” Tristan murmured. “No need to wait for me.”
Half-overhearing, Owein studied Tristan for the span of several slow breaths. Then he returned to watching the stars, a minor hobby of his. “I would not see you going off on your own. Not until necessity forces that. We’re fewer and fewer, and we can’t afford the risk.”
“Even if Geraint had brought something back—if he’d brought a body—” Tristan stopped and recollected himself “—then there would have been a simple burial. It still wouldn’t have been enough.”
“And what would have been? A king’s burial?” Owein rasped. He sighed and dropped his head, rubbing at his eyes. It was the first time in years that Tristan had seen the man publicly betray signs of his internal condition. “Tristan. I don’t have favorites, but you two were mine. Arthur bought you a few more years, so did Gawain—don’t toss that away. Try it first. Or, if I’d ever done something good for you, then wait until I’m dead and can’t see to—”
“—slip out and go looking for what I can of him? Kill Woad sorcerors and horses to lay in his grave? Steal gold to decorate his rotting corpse?” Tristan mockingly finished. It wasn’t deserved—Owein had done many things for him and for Dinidan—but suddenly everything was snapping loose and Tristan had to turn it on someone. Unfortunately for Owein, he was nearest.
And fortunately for Tristan, Owein had enough patience and insight to not reply and thus offer Tristan further opportunity. So Tristan had to choke the flash of rage back down, but it wouldn’t fit into the dark recesses from which it’d come and spilled out again. Only this time, it was in a way that, though it was too dark for anyone to see, made Tristan duck his head so his face couldn’t been seen.
Sometime during it, Owein took the hawk from Tristan’s arm and held her till Tristan was empty, hollowed and calm because he had nothing with which to replace that.
Then Owein spoke again. “It does little. I had a brother who was also drafted by the Romans and sent here—he died during an ambush by a river and his body, his horse, all was swept away. Into the ocean, perhaps. And I avenged him, and mourned him, but those are not the same. And the first does little.”
“I want to kill them,” said Tristan’s mouth and pulse, while Tristan’s mind struggled to remember that it couldn’t sleep, that that meant dark and separation and even forgetting and that he couldn’t yet do that.
“So kill them.” Owein glanced over, eyebrow raised. “Kill them. Kill as many as you want. But do it to honor, and not to avenge. That’s why we bury our kings and queens with gold, with horses, sometimes with the men who had been their best servants in life. We think them worthy of that honor.”
The words Tristan understood, and the meaning he comprehended, but he didn’t quite feel—he didn’t want to feel yet.
The other man nodded, as if he’d heard something Tristan hadn’t yet told him. He handed Tristan’s hawk back and then took Tristan by the arm, pulling him away from the gate. In silence they walked to Tristan’s tent, where Owein stopped, back to the entrance so half-roused, curious eyes couldn’t see out. He put his hands on Tristan’s shoulders and squeezed. Tugged forward a fraction, as if he meant to embrace Tristan, but changed his mind at the last moment. “There’s no shame in being the one that lives,” Owein said, low and intense. “None. Not as long as you live well and honor your dead. They will wait for you, and they’ll want to hear about a good life when you do come to them.”
Then he released Tristan and spun away, halfway down the path without making a sound before Tristan could blink. And the stars were still the same, somehow, and the hawk was finally starting to doze, and there were men around Tristan. Groaning, grumbling—a distant snore that was most likely Bors.
Tristan went inside and settled himself for sleeping. And he did.