|War V: Assault
Author: Guede Mazaka
“…and it’s barely morning and he’s already being a pain in the ass,” Galahad moaned, head in hands and elbows propped up on saddle. He pressed at his temples to stop the headache, pressed at his eyes to stop the drowsy itch, pressed at his ears so he wouldn’t have to hear Lancelot’s yelling. Too bad his hands didn’t stretch quite far enough to cover all the spots that needed it. “Why isn’t he still tired like the rest of us?”
Two days later, they were all back on duty and hurriedly preparing the ambush for the Woads. At least, some of them were. Galahad happened to be overseeing the loading of the wagons with the knights who were going to play sick. Down the way was the centurion responsible for the play-acting legionaries, and just past him was Owein, busy fabricating ways to make horses look injured so there’d be enough mounts for the knights going with Arthur.
As for their commander, he was closeted with the officers that were staying with Ambrosius: Gorlois, Urien, Perceval, Pelles. Bedivere too, though some of his men had been moved to fill out Owein’s depleted ranks, since Owein’s troop had been given the duty of escort. Now that had been an interesting discussion to watch—Perceval had objected on vague and stupid grounds, and Arthur had simply asked if Perceval knew of better knights for the job. Of course the man hadn’t been able to, since cavalry and plains were the more natural fit, and only Owein’s men had made a specialty of skirmishing in or near the woods.
There’d been more argument after that, since none of them had wanted to stay behind and be under Paullus’ command, however nominal; now that Arthur was up, no one wanted to let him out of sight. That was thanks partly to Perceval’s over-large mouth and nasty tongue, since many of the knights suspected that the only reason Ambrosius hadn’t fed them all to the Woads was because of Arthur.
“Which isn’t all wrong, but you say it’s more complicated than that. And it has to be if Lancelot hasn’t killed Ambrosius yet.” To be honest, Galahad could understand. If he hadn’t been going with the wagon train, he probably would’ve been upset as well. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t see and hear, and what he saw and heard was that Ambrosius, who wasn’t a stupid man by any measure, was desperate to win a battle. No one did that by slaughtering their cavalry.
“Did I say that?” The man to whom Galahad had been talking stopped secreting arrow quivers beneath blankets and poked his head out the back of the wagon.
Galahad started and nearly fell off his horse. “You! Where—how—what happened to Gawain?”
Tristan shrugged and went back to work. “He went out the front while you were complaining.”
“Bastard. He’d better apologize when he gets back.” Red-faced, Galahad moved his horse back a few steps and concentrated on taking in the whole line. There seemed to be a slight slow-down in reinforcing the wagons from the inside against arrows, but otherwise everything was proceeding according to schedule. And some poor knight had attracted a scolding from Lancelot.
Sometimes that could be amusing to watch—especially when it was Perceval or Agravaine getting the reprimand—but usually it was nothing more than the same over and over again. So Galahad turned back to the wagon in front of him, absently looking over the alterations. “You’re going to be one of the injured?”
Pausing, Tristan glanced down at his hands. A flash of irony and something heavy and leaden twitched a smile onto his face as he looked up at Galahad. “So it seems.”
After a moment, Galahad got it and winced. He suddenly wished hard that Gawain would hurry up and come back, because he didn’t know how to handle this sort of thing. Knights had died, some of them closer friends than others, but none of them had been…well, on a level with Gawain. Though Galahad had mourned them, he hadn’t felt the kind of blackness that had resided in Tristan’s eyes for that one second.
“Gawain told you to watch me?” Tristan asked, only mild curiosity in his face. His fingers were deftly sorting arrows without him having to look.
“No, actually. He can do his own watching—he’s the one that likes you.” Galahad scanned the line again, tracking the various trends of activity. As it turned out, where Gawain had gone was to talk to Lancelot, probably about how his nastiness wasn’t really a great way to motivate men. Owein was done with the horses and was riding down the wagons, occasionally stopping to speak with his knights. “You aren’t going to do anything stupid, are you? Because if you drag him into something—”
It was an odd, raspy, low sound. Something like when Galahad chipped the rust off his armor…Tristan was laughing under his breath. It looked like it hurt to do.
“Then you should watch him,” Tristan finally said, composing himself. He didn’t manage to control all of his emotions, for some were still making the muscles in his jaw work, but Galahad suspected those no longer had anything to do with humor.
“I do.” More uncomfortable than before, Galahad switched to staring at the gate.
Very soon they were going to be riding out that and onto the road, looking as helpless and slow and tempting as possible. Gawain and Lancelot would be on either side of Arthur’s carriage—the only one in the train—while Galahad had been assigned to the end of the line. There, he’d either have the brunt of the attack fall on him, or have to watch the Woads swarming the middle section from a distance, and either way, they would all have to wait for the arrival of the rest of the army to settle matters. And if Paullus was a bit slow…
Galahad wished again that Gawain would come back.
“Are you worried?” And suddenly Tristan was on the ground and standing by Galahad’s saddle without making any sound.
Even Galahad’s horse didn’t notice till Galahad did, and together they leapt back a few steps. “Don’t do that! You know, you make it very hard for people to like you.”
Tristan walked up, hand out with palm up. Though wary at first, Galahad’s horse apparently saw something Galahad didn’t and quickly moved back, nuzzling Tristan’s hand. The man slowly ran his fingers over its nose, whispering something to it.
“You still think Perceval’s horse is nicer, right?” Galahad asked. Possibly a little more quickly than he should have, given that that was going to remind Tristan of…this very much wasn’t Galahad’s area of expertise—and frankly, he hoped it never would be. “And I mean what I say about Gawain. He would mourn you, you know. Him and your troop leader.”
The other man was turned and had his head slightly bent so his hair was obscuring his expression. His fingers splayed out and pressed down on the muzzle of Galahad’s stallion, but only lightly. They held still for about a breath, then rubbed down as they drifted off so the horse whinnied in complaint at the loss of the petting.
Then Tristan looked up, but his eyes and face were perfectly blank. “I can see why he watches you. And your horse is nice, but a bit small.”
He went off just as Gawain came up, which prevented Galahad from asking what that had been all about. Or from responding to Tristan’s insult, which the man had tossed off with a strange, strained casualness. It hadn’t sounded at all like Tristan even meant it, but more as if it was merely something he thought he needed to say.
“What were you two talking about?” Gawain queried, tugging at Galahad’s stirrup leather. He looked doubtfully between the two of them till Tristan suddenly slipped behind another wagon, and then he stared up at Galahad.
“Oh, he was just molesting my horse. And…I don’t know. It was—” Galahad stiffened “—he sounded a bit like Dinidan for a moment. Or…well, like someone that wasn’t himself. But it was deliberate. I’m certain of that.”
That was more than a little creepy, but for some reason Gawain seemed to find it worthy looking concerned about. He started to move towards Tristan, then caught himself. “Well, it’ll have to wait,” he muttered, pulling on Galahad’s leg. “Come on. Everything’s just about done.”
“Time to take our places—or not.” As soon as Galahad had dismounted, Gawain nodded for another knight to watch Galahad’s horse and pulled on Galahad’s arm, leading them away from the wagons. “Gawain?”
“Not for a little bit.” The muscle in Gawain’s cheek ticked, but he didn’t look back. His fingers squeezed Galahad’s arm, trying to make some kind of point.
And then Galahad understood, and picked up his speed as they headed for the nearest quiet, secluded spot.
* * *
Once Arthur had risen from the sickbed, he could hardly go back to it. A simple tour about camp showed too many relieved faces that were too, too fragile to risk crushing morale again. And the surprising thing was how many of those faces were infantry as well as cavalry.
“Well, no one likes losing a good officer. And they know.” Gorlois jerked his chin at the bustle of passing soldiers. “Slow and stupid as turtles, legionaries are, but they’ve got enough sense to know who’ll win them battles.”
“Flighty, finicky bastards, though. You can lose them the very next day,” Bedivere snorted, passing by on his way to his knights. He almost made to clasp Arthur’s shoulder, but a glower from Lancelot hastily turned that into a light touch. “It’s good to see you up again, Arthur.”
Unfortunately, Bedivere had neglected to remember which was Arthur’s injured shoulder, though the bandages were hidden under Arthur’s clothes so it was difficult to tell. Arthur swallowed down his initial urge to wince and made himself grab Bedivere’s elbow. “Thank you. And the next day is never known, but I’ve no intention to lose today.”
His words had the immediate effects of sending Bedivere off with a lighter step, and eliciting a disgruntled sound from Lancelot.
“Spoken just like your father,” was Gorlois’ approving comment. Never a garrulous man, he took his leave with a nod and a dubious look at Lancelot, who bridled.
It was probably a good thing Perceval had left as soon as possible, Arthur thought. Though he regretted letting the man go while Perceval was still angry, he also wasn’t about to put up with the kind of rancor that had apparently sprung up while he’d been down. Yet another reason why he needed to stay up despite his injuries—too many divisions and old sores seemed to have appeared, and none of them could afford to let those fester.
“He thinks I’m a bad influence on you.” Lancelot covertly slipped an arm under Arthur’s, providing the support needed to get Arthur to their horses, while nodding in the direction that Gorlois had gone.
“He was a close friend of my father’s, and never had any children of his own. And given what you’re both like, it’s understandable.” The armor, an unavoidable necessity, was a heavy dragging load on Arthur’s bad shoulder and a tight compress on his back, lacing every movement with pain. So far he had somehow evaded any ripped stitches, but he doubted he’d be so lucky by the end of the day.
As he helped Arthur mount, Lancelot made an unamused face. “That isn’t my fault. I’m a perfectly pleasant person when I don’t have to worry about something.”
Arthur caught the reins thrown at him, a little harder than strictly necessary, and sighed. “What we’re about to do—”
“I know, I know. I don’t want to argue any more about this. I just want it over and done with.” With quick grace, Lancelot flung himself into the saddle and clucked at his horse, starting them down the path to the wagons. He looked tired and worn-down, and he kept fidgeting with his chainmail, adjusting and readjusting it.
While Arthur would’ve preferred to see him in the heavier plate armor, their aim was to try to lure the Woads out of the woods and into close combat, and not to conduct a mounted charge. The plate armor was too restrictive and not suitable for the skirmishing they’d be doing before the rest of the army arrived, and moreover, it would be a dead give-away that they’d be expecting a Woad attack. So they would have to risk the arrows of the Britons.
Arthur wasn’t in full armor either, and Lancelot had had many pointed words to say about that earlier. Though if the pain was this bad with only a simple cuirass and chainmail, then Arthur was certain he’d be bedridden in anything heavier.
Of course, Lancelot would have claimed that for another reason why someone else should be the bait. And he’d wanted to say that—Arthur had seen that in the man’s eyes as Lancelot had helped him dress—but he’d refrained for some reason. Which worried Arthur.
Startled, Arthur came back to himself and stared at Lancelot, who made a dismissive wiggle with his fingers. He leaned over and pulled at Arthur’s shoulderguard, resettling it so it didn’t strain the half-healed wound there quite so badly. “Stop thinking. It’s all decided, all we have to do is get through it, and that’s going to be immensely fun—can’t you put off whatever it is until afterward?”
“Can I?” Arthur replied, watching the way Lancelot’s eyelashes swept down against his skin. He wanted to reach out and run his finger along the other man’s jaw, smooth away all the tension there. He wanted to turn around and get off his horse and pass out till his body stopped reminding him so often that death was only a second away, and he wanted to take Lancelot with him.
Instead of doing any of those things, he nudged at his horse to move a little faster. There was a good point in the other man’s words; many of the concerns crowding so closely about him couldn’t be dealt with until after the battle. But it was precisely that—they would be waiting for his attention—that forced Arthur to think on them.
A small bark of laughter, not entirely unpleasant to hear, slipped out of Lancelot. “No. Then you’d be…I don’t know, Galahad. But damn it, Arthur. I wish I were a bad influence on you, instead of it being—”
He cut himself off before he could reveal too much to possible eavesdroppers, then pointed with an abrupt gesture. “You might want to have a chat with Owein before you get into your litter. I’m to Gawain—I’ll be back when we start moving.”
Lancelot waited only for Arthur to nod in return before he whirled off, cantering down to the head of the wagons. Meanwhile, Owein had noticed Arthur’s arrival and came up, accompanied by…a knight that seemed very familiar. Arthur frowned, trying to remember what Lancelot and Gawain had said about the meetings and events Arthur had missed; the trouble was that they seemed to know two different stories, and those stories imperfectly matched up at several points.
“Everything’s ready,” Owein said, riffling sawdust out of his hair. While Tristan held onto Arthur’s horse, Owein helped Arthur get off. “This is Tristan. He’ll be in the carriage with you.”
“Thank you,” Arthur replied, trying not to flinch too much. Short as the ride across camp had been, his muscles had stiffened during it and now the cramps were pulling hard on the stitches. He looked at Tristan again—then remembered. “I see the pike did miss you.”
Tristan blinked, surprised in a way that said he wasn’t often so. “Yes. I…thank you for that.”
“No need. Anyway, I should be thanking the both of you—according to Gawain, you did exceptionally during the siege.” Arthur looked away to unbuckle Excalibur from his belt, as there was no way he’d be able to climb into the carriage with it weighing down his side. Doing that released a good deal of strain on one side and the pain momentarily blinded Arthur, then receded so fast that that hurt as well. “And I’m sorry about…Dinidan. Do I have his name right?”
Both Owein and Tristan had frozen, staring at Arthur as if they couldn’t decide whether he was mad, or they were. But then something cracked in the background—a wagon had made its need for more grease on its axles loudly known—and they snapped out of it.
“He was one of my best.” Owein seemed about to add something else, then stopped himself and changed the conversation to a few last details about the ambush. While he and Arthur discussed those, Tristan quietly disappeared.
After Owein had gotten all the answers he needed, he considerately left to see to a few last changes, so Arthur didn’t have too much of an audience to his struggle into the carriage. Inside was even darker and more airless than the usual, due to the extra layers of wood hammered to the walls and roof, and the few slits left for free passage of air were near the bottom to avoid letting arrows have entry, which meant that little light managed to get in.
Tristan was at the back, rummaging with what appeared to be a pile of blankets. When Arthur heaved himself in, panting a little with the effort, the other man paused to give him a hand.
“Thank you.” Arthur took a seat in one corner and unsnapped Excalibur from its belt, since it was unlikely he’d need to sheath it during the next few hours. He could leave the belt and scabbard in the carriage when the fighting started.
“They say you’re part-Briton.” The words were very flat, telling nothing about Tristan’s intention. He was closing the carriage doors, which cut off nearly all light so his expression, if he had one, couldn’t be seen.
Before he answered, Arthur thought very carefully about the many reasons why Tristan might be interested in that. “My mother was one.”
A contemplating pause. Then Tristan squatted down by Arthur, little more than a shadow and a pair of gleams where his eyes should be. “What do they do with the bodies of their enemies? Not the ones fallen in battle. The…the ones…”
As the other man had gone directly to the point, Arthur decided it would be best if he returned the favor. “They—suicide’s something that frightens them. In the old days, they would have let him lie. But they’ve been fighting the Romans for a long time, and some of the old customs are gone because of that. They probably would’ve stripped him of anything useful and dropped the body in a…cleansing place. The river, probably.”
“Ah.” The other man moved away, depositing himself in the far corner.
“After this…we’ll hold the river again. If you’d like a party to look for the body—it might’ve washed up on shore—” Arthur began, still not able to read Tristan’s tone.
“With the spring floods? There’d be nothing worth looking for.” Shifting body, slight unbending of voice. “But thank you.”
It was said so softly Arthur almost didn’t hear. He let out a breath and released one worry, then closed his eyes and said a quick prayer. Let it be over, soon, and let there be as little loss as possible.
* * *
From his place near the end of the line, Dagonet could see the whole wagon train uncoiling like an old snake, bones groaning and creaking with age. The grass was starting to green again, but there were enough brown and grey splotches so that the similarly-colored wagons seemed to grow into the surrounding landscape.
The land on either side of the road had been cleared so the true treelines were some five hundred yards back, but some time after the initial clearing, up-keep had been allowed to lapse so there were small shrubs and saplings dotting the field nearly up to the roadside. It seemed as if the Romans had grown confident of their hold on this area.
And it was the perfect place for an ambush. Arthur had leaned out several times along the way to chat with Lancelot, so he was known to be present. They were halfway between the camp and the garrison so any riders sent for help would have a tough choice and a long, hard gallop for aid. Any Woads watching would have had more than enough time to send word to their comrades and assemble along the road, which declined and ascended in a dip that was slightly too steep for an effective repulsing charge of any kind to be marshaled in the middle. If victory was going to come, it’d be over the tops of the gentle hillocks around the area and thus be the responsibility of Paullus.
“My skin creeps.” Eyes narrowed, Bors sat a little straighter in the saddle and warily peered at the woods. “They’re there, all right.”
Dagonet nodded, though he was watching the various bushes nearer the road. “We won’t have to go far for a fight.”
The clip-clop of approaching hooves soon resolved into a tense Galahad, whose hands clenched on the reins as if he wished they were clenching something else. He had apparently overheard their conversation. “Think they’re in the trees?”
Bors started to assent, but then stopped. “Dag?”
“In the bushes.” As Dagonet whispered, something whisked through the leaves of a clump of shrubs about a hundred yards away. It could have easily been the breeze, if they’d been anywhere else.
Galahad looked approving. “That’s what Owein said. He thinks it’ll be when Arthur’s carriage hits the middle of the shallow, so get ready.”
Then the man rode further down the line, appearing to be just chatting with the rest of the knights, but from the way each knight shifted stance in the saddle, Dagonet knew otherwise.
“About time. This damn cloak’s itching.” Scratching at said garment, Bors hawked and spat at the road. They were all wrapped up in cloaks ostensibly because it was cold—and it was—but really to hide their armor and weapons. All the Woads should have been able to see was a double line of bored knights, carrying little more than a sword and perhaps a dagger, guarding a slow, lurching wagon train.
Ahead of them, Arthur’s carriage had almost reached the deepest part of the field. Dagonet reached around and wrapped his fingers around his ax. “This close, it won’t be arrows.”
“Well, they got cheated out of our skins before. Probably upset them into wanting it hand-to-hand.” Bors shrugged. “Not that I—”
All around, there was a sudden, shocking surge in green. Blue. Screaming Woads leaped out of the roadside vegetation, scaring several horses into rearing and whinnying. Through the air came the whining of arrows, which Dagonet ignored because there was a Woad trying to pike him down. He swung out his ax, ripping off his cloak in the process, and splintered off the pike-head with one blow. Then he yanked his bucking horse’s head around and forced it between Bors and the wagon, coming out behind the Woad. Another whack cleaved the man’s head in two, and the momentum of Dagonet’s stallion kept him moving so the ax whipped out covered with grayish brains.
He was already moving to take down the next Woad, who had dodged past and was struggling with the driver. Dagonet severed the Briton’s backbone and twisted around, pulling the spasming body off the driver as he did. The legionary had been stabbed, but not deeply enough to keep him from leaping down and hacking off the arm of a Woad coming up on the left.
It seemed that the arrows had all been meant for the oxen drawing the wagons, so the driver didn’t have a reason to stay put. Likewise, neither did Dagonet—the legionaries hidden within the wagon were pouring out and coming to grips with the Woads, while the knights were jumping on the horses that had been tethered to the back of the wagon. So Dagonet jerked his ax free of the corpse, blinked away the resulting spray of blood, and spurred on through the milling mass of fighting men. He wheeled and lifted his ax, then brought down the blade on another Woad skull and let the carry-through movement swing his arm up and over so it crushed the head of an attacker on the other side.
One howling mouth, brutal red in the middle of a ice-blue face, appeared directly in front of Dagonet. No time to move, so Dagonet charged straight on and deafened his ears to the way the man’s warcry squashed to a sickening gurgle. His horse stumbled and he ducked down over its neck, hissing encouragements into its mane, hoping that it hadn’t been seriously injured. He hadn’t seen what kind of weapon the Woad had been holding.
Luckily, whatever the cause of the stumble had been, it was only momentary: his stallion recovered almost immediately and lunged into another pocket of Woads, going as fiercely at the men with its front hooves as Dagonet did with his ax.
After he’d worked through that group, he found himself nearly at the middle of the train; somehow he’d galloped half its length in no more than a minute, perhaps two.
“Dag! Dag, you pigheaded son of a whore!” One Woad suddenly disappeared in a misty cloud of hot red droplets. The next moment, a corpse crashed into the nearest wagon hard enough to rock it, and Bors appeared, spinning his kukri around and around. Each blow took at least one attacker down with it. “Idiot, don’t you know better than to go running like that?”
In truth, no. His previous unit had all seemed to prefer fighting singly, and his previous commander hadn’t cared as long as they stayed close enough to hear orders. He was still trying to get used to fighting in a pair.
An unusually tall Woad rose up behind Bors. Then he fell, face split in two by Dagonet’s thrown ax.
“What’d you do before me?” Bors snorted, ripping out Dagonet’s ax. He paused to backhand a Woad before he gave it back; she shrieked and bounced off the wagon.
“Sorry.” Though there were distinct advantages to how Arthur ran his troops, and to staying near Bors.
The Woad woman rolled up onto her feet again, bloody snot dripping from a crushed nose, and went for Dagonet’s side. His ax rose and fell before he could think. Then he took a breath, flinching at the way the air rasped him.
“To your right!” A smack at Dagonet’s knee, and then Bors was ducking behind Dagonet’s horse to deal with something. Dagonet looked on the side indicated and nearly got his eye stabbed out with a spear.
He ducked so it slashed through his cheek, smacking his heels into his horse’s side at the same time. It leaped forward, partially trampling the Woad as it did, but the man still had enough strength to jab at Dagonet again. The spearhead skidded along Dagonet’s gauntlet but failed to penetrate; he twisted his hand and grabbed it while lifting his ax for a killing blow.
Before he could deliver it, the Woad was shot back by two arrows. Dagonet looked up, was momentarily dizzied by the flashing metal and red spurts, and shook his head. His vision cleared just in time for him to see some of Owein’s men coursing back and forth before the treeline, shooting as fast as they could into it.
But it wasn’t fast enough—they probably took all the archers in the trees and kept more arrows from being showered down onto the wagons, but they couldn’t stop the outpouring of Woads from the woods. As Dagonet watched, one daring Woad vaulted onto the back of a knight’s horse and flung a garrote about his neck. The pair’s fighting twisted the horse into a pack of Woads so thick the beast reared, lost its balance and fell sideways. Blood flung itself at the sky.
Trumpeting. Dagonet heard a whoosh just beneath that brassy blast and dodged another spear. He rode down another Woad, then dismounted. Well-trained, his horse had overcome its initial panic and now was bucking and kicking beside him while he wielded his ax.
The Woads were out in the open. Someone had blown the signal call. Now, all they could do was fight and wait for the rest of the army to come.
* * *
Lancelot was counting off kills since the bugle call. It was easier than trying to keep track of time, which bent in unpredictable ways during a battle. The Woads were so thick around them that he estimated he was killing one about every ten seconds.
Nearly all of the knights were down from their horses, fighting on foot with the legionaries, who honestly weren’t doing too bad. At least Paullus had picked out the better foot-sloggers, which were getting scarce on the ground; every time an infantry unit won a few battles, its commander asked for transfer elsewhere and usually got it. Whereas cavalry had to stay put, and damn that bargain Lancelot’s forefathers had made. If he could, he’d go back in time and give his ancestors a good thrashing.
Since he couldn’t, he let the Woads have it instead. A few of the knights had flipped over the wagons and were using them as shields behind which they could snipe arrows, so the Woads didn’t have the usual advantage of their archers. That left Lancelot free to move around away from the wagons, backhanding a Woad here, slashing a throat there, but he generally tried to stay near Arthur’s carriage. It wasn’t too difficult, since it seemed to be the prime target of most of the Woads.
A massed scream suddenly went up from the other side of the carriage. Something ripped Lancelot’s stomach down to his knees.
He went right, but two Woads dove at him and drove him back. Well, he could go around the other end just as easily, so he let them. Then elbowed whoever was coming up from behind him and twisted to hamstring one of the Woads. On his way to straightening up, he brought his other sword up and into the second Woad, catching the woman under the ribs. He yanked out his blade and spun to punch the first Woad into—
--the hooves of Owein’s horse. Somehow still mounted, he kept going and jumped his stallion over the slumped bodies of the horses that had been pulling Arthur’s carriage. That had the effect of temporarily clearing the way, so Lancelot hastily followed. His boots slipped on a pile of steaming intestines—some idiot had missed and cut the gelding’s corpse open—and he had to grab one of the arrows sticking into the horse to keep his balance. Of course, there was a spearhead coming at him right then; Lancelot made a wild slash at it, barely knocked it aside and thus completely lost his balance. He went to one knee in the gore between the two dead horses. Scrambled up one, flipped his swords around and threw himself under the spear the next time it came at him. He thrust both blades in and tumbled with the Woad down the other side of the horse.
A rattling blow struck his shoulder as he landed and he lashed out with his foot. Then he got his knee up between him and the now-twitching body and shoved it away. There was blood plastering his hair to his face and blood running down his collar and blood in his mouth, but all Lancelot could do was blink fast and spit. He rolled up in time to cut down a Woad at the waist, then turned.
“Damn it.” Lancelot struggled to his feet, snapping his swords around both to keep off anyone tempted to take him and to fling off the accumulated gobbets of flesh on the blades. He hacked at someone and elbowed them out of the way, then ducked back as a legionary-Woad wrestling pair stumbled by and dodged through an opening in the mass.
He’d lost count, too. The last number he remembered was something around fifty.
Owein had his horse caracoling to the music of some old, iron-hard, harsh song; with every downbeat, the hooves went down and the sword twisted swiftly through another attacker. Nearby, Gawain was shouting something over the din, but the clash and reverberation of so many swords split and resplit his words into so much nonsense. And near him, Tristan was stalking through the Woads like a mountain cat. He was flicking his eyes around, assessing as if it were all some private dance just for him. Occasionally he’d select a Woad—usually the current strongman or lethal bitch around which the rest were rallying—and then there’d be no more than two strokes to send that Briton to…wherever Tristan was sending them. Lancelot hadn’t really been paying attention when Gawain had tried to explain what was going on with that man.
And frankly, he didn’t regret that. Life was short, Arthur was fighting and looking too damn pale, and Lancelot was still over three yards away. He had better things to worry about.
A shout interrupted. He looked up just in time to realize he should’ve looked down, or ducked. The Woad came flying down, outstretched knife ripping down Lancelot’s front. It didn’t go through his armor, but in the subsequent tumble and thrashing his attacker got in a second jab that did slice through his leg. Snarling, Lancelot smashed a swordhilt into the bastard’s temple, then threw him into—
--Perceval. Perceval, roaring in with his longsword scything along one side and his short one stabbing on the other. The man speared the Woad Lancelot had tossed with his longsword before charging onwards. Then Lancelot saw the uneven ranks of knights behind Perceval, and gasped his relief. The army was here.
He yanked himself back on his feet for the second time in…not a very long time. Not that it mattered, really. Ignoring the burning slicking down his leg was a little harder, but by now Lancelot was used to choking down pain.
The knights had come down first, riding from the woods to crash into the Woads’ side and rear. That trapped all the fighting between the infantry Lancelot could hear following, their march shaking the earth in perfect synchronized time, and the wagons. That meant he and Arthur were in the middle of a crowd of desperate, savage, proud Woads that were being squeezed towards them like grapes in a press.
Lancelot ducked a spear and sprinted the rest of the way to Arthur, arriving just in time to pull the man out of the way of Owein’s horse, which had gotten piked in the breast. “Idiot.”
“I was not going to stay in there where I couldn’t see,” Arthur panted, eyes fierce and unguarded with it. He was white-faced and swaying, and the pain was clearly swamping him, but he still looked like a man who could take on the world and cut it to its knees.
It wasn’t anything like the right time for it, but Lancelot’s breath caught.
Then Arthur whipped about and hacked down the Woads coming for Owein, half-trapped beneath his horse, which left Lancelot to drag the other knight free. Owein groaned and hissed, but was capable of climbing to his feet. “Broken shoulder,” he muttered, showing with his good arm that that wasn’t going to be too much of a problem.
“Fuck.” A commiserating nod, and then Lancelot was back by Arthur while Owein went off, probably after Tristan, who apparently didn’t understand that they were in a battle and not a hunt. Lancelot did his best to keep the number of men Arthur had to handle to zero, but the Woads were mobbing thicker and thicker and Paullus wasn’t driving through from the outside fast enough.
Not from lack of trying, to give the man his due. Occasionally Lancelot could get a glimpse of Paullus trying to force his horse through the roiling mass of fighting, sword beating up and down and mouth open in enraged shouting. He was driving the charge with little more than his tongue-lashing, but the Woads weren’t yielding quickly enough.
And there was blood welling out of Arthur’s sleeve. Lancelot ripped through the Woads on that side of Arthur, then pivoted and did a quick look-over. No break in the armor, so it was coming out from the inside. “Fuck. Arthur. You pulled a stitch.”
“Stitches,” Arthur corrected, wincing so hard he nearly dropped to his knee. Somehow he twisted that around into a jump onto an overturned wagon; cursing, Lancelot followed and cut down any Woad who went for Arthur.
Who was staring around, as if he had nothing better to do than sightsee. Then he stiffened. Grabbed a spear sticking from the wagon floorboards and yanked it out with his injured arm. His face spasmed, but he managed to stand. Even shout. “Paullus! Paullus!”
Miraculously, Paullus heard and glanced over just long enough for Arthur to throw the spear into a broken wagon two down. Then Arthur slumped against Lancelot, nearly knocking them both off, and Lancelot had to shove Arthur back. He gritted his teeth, fought down the wave of bile that rose when Arthur made a desperately pained sound, and tackled the next Woad.
Paullus saw whatever it was and began to wheel his men around, while Arthur did not go back to just killing Woads, but instead divided his strength again and slashed open a Briton from collarbone to groin while screaming for Gorlois. The knight happened to be passing nearby, and at Arthur’s call, he instantly plunged toward them. But halfway a spear caught him in the side and he went over.
Arthur cried out, something inarticulate and raging and grief-stricken. And Lancelot couldn’t do anything except kick off the Woad currently trying to stab him in the knees.
Gorlois had been a bit of a strange one—he’d been discharged and on the point of leaving Britain when Uther had died, and then the man had decided to stay. Re-enlisted under Arthur, and had been one of Arthur’s few links with his father. And a good knight, and a great fighter.
A moment of eternity later, Arthur had remembered himself and slashed away a Woad reaching for his leg. “Perceval! Swing around!”
He gestured with his sword as well, so Perceval, who clearly couldn’t hear Arthur, still got the gist of the shout. The knight promptly yanked his horse in the right direction, and Urien, even farther away, caught on and followed. Then Lancelot saw what Arthur was doing—Paullus was mired down because some clever Woads had dragged around the wagons at one end to form a makeshift fort. That way, they had something to put their backs against.
But it also had the effect of shifting the battle to just one side of the collapsed wagons. The legionaries had moved up to make sure of that, trapping all the Woads on Arthur’s and Lancelot’s side. And if the knights could circle about and take those corralled wagons from behind, then they could break the Woad line for good.
Then someone blindsided Lancelot and his thinking came to a shaking halt. He punched back, tried to swing his swords around so he could stab whomever, but his foot slipped in a puddle of something and he fell off the wagon.
Hitting the ground hurt. It shook him till his teeth snapped into his tongue. That pain shocked Lancelot out of his momentary daze, and then agony slammed up his leg. He channeled it into his next punch, which knocked up the Woad so the man could raise his ax.
Lancelot had dropped his one sword in the fall, and his other hand was pinned beneath the Woad’s knee. He swore and grabbed at—
--snatched his hand back as several inches of sword burst through the center of the Woad’s chest. Then his attacker was swung off of him and a grey-faced Arthur stared wildly down at him.
One breath. Ignoring his ringing lightheadedness, Lancelot rolled over and retrieved his sword. Then he tried to stand and discovered his ankle was blown. Sprain, at the least. And the laceration from earlier was still bleeding, albeit sluggishly, which explained the reluctance of the dizziness to leave. “Shit.”
“Don’t die on me.” Arthur got a hand under Lancelot’s arm and jerked him up, pushing him toward the overturned wagon so he could support himself. Whereupon Arthur, who looked as if he was going to pass out any moment, went back to fighting.
“Right.” The irony in that could wait till later to clog Lancelot’s throat. He braced himself against the planks as best he could and finished off the Woads Arthur sent his way. They were growing fewer, so hopefully that meant the battle was almost over.
* * *
Several riderless horses were running free and one nearly ran down Tristan. A hand snatched him back just in time—Owein. Then Owein was sliding past Tristan to grab at the horse’s reins. A swift leap put the man in the saddle, wincing and favoring his left arm, which was his weaker sword-arm. Not by much, since they all learned to fight ambidextrously to some degree and Owein was the best at it, but it was beginning to tell in the man’s blows.
Tristan had worked his way nearly to the end of the train, where the Woads had turned the wagon wreckage into an impromptu set of barricades. Geraint was there, blood streaming down the side of his neck from where his ear had been. He flinched when he saw Tristan, then threw himself at a Woad.
He needn’t have worried. Dinidan had been lost in Britain, not Sarmatia, and so it made more sense to kill Briton companions to the otherworld than to kill Sarmatians, however much they might deserve it. That had been the conclusion shining razor-sharp and clear in Tristan’s mind when he’d woken earlier, and that was what made him go forward now. Step up, deflect a scrawny swordsman towards another knight, and then touch blades with a tall brute of smeared blue skin and straggling brown hair. The man had seen more than one battle and gone home, for his body was as gnarled with scars as a lightning-struck tree.
He’d see no more. His blade whirled around and came low, aiming for Tristan’s belly, but tiredness slowed him. Tristan whipped about and slashed through the opening left by the strike, hitting breastbone. A twist of the wrist and his sword-tip slid down to pierce into the soft gut; the man screamed and fell backwards, freeing Tristan’s blade for him. He walked on, giving a backhand slice as he did to keep the man down.
“Tristan!” Owein snapped his head towards the other side of the wagon-circle, where thunder and dust were beginning to turn into horsemen.
They were charging the re-formed Woad lines…Tristan glanced about and saw another horse, its head cut about till it was nearly mad with the pain, galloping blindly about. But nevertheless it was moving in the right direction—away—so he ran and grabbed the saddle horn. Pushed off with his feet at the same time, mounting just before the horse broke into an uncoordinated gallop that would’ve prevented that.
Due to all the men in the way, it couldn’t go very far; he managed to jerk it about by main force just in time to see the knights slam into, tumble over the wagons. Some couldn’t leap the wreckage quickly enough, some picked too broad or too high a spot to jump. The air filled with the shrill shrieks of downed horses and the hoarser cries of frenzied men.
But enough knights rampaged through with their horses relatively unhurt to collide into the back of the Woads massed against the corral’s near side. They slowed then, but the Woads couldn’t withstand them and began to break. Flood outward, straight into the waiting blades of the rest of the army. Such as Tristan’s, after he’d gotten his horse under some control.
He was pulling his sword free of a corpse when someone roared—a Woad, blood all over, one arm laid open to the bone by a sword cut, rushing Owein with a pike. The Briton had a spear in his back and by all rights should have been dead, but he apparently still had enough life—or rage—to power one last attack.
He did lack the strength to actually strike the horse, but the sight of the pike-head was enough to spook the overwrought animal. It shrilled and reared, misstepped and came crashing down sideways, while Owein threw himself free barely in time. The man landed on his shoulder—and instantly collapsed, though there was still hard fighting all around him.
“Fuck! Come on!” Geraint ran past, smacking at the rump of Tristan’s horse as he did, and hacked at the Woads converging on the fallen knight.
Tristan blinked. Watched the vague red haze dissolve and belatedly braced himself against the snap of present back into him. It wasn’t solely his war. It wasn’t a walk only he was taking. And his officer was down.
He ripped at the reins, trying to force his now-hysterical mount closer to Owein, but it was plunging about randomly, uncaring of who it struck. Deeming it a lost cause, Tristan waited till his horse blundered in the right general direction, then jumped off. He whacked at its flanks and sent it ramming into a group of Woads, then ran for Owein. Geraint was standing over him, doing the best he could to keep the Woads at bay, but by now the Britons knew they’d lost and they seemed determined to make every death count.
Owein was trying to stand, on his knees and one elbow, but whenever he tried to move further, something in him jarred his whole body into a moaning cry. And Tristan was still cutting methodically, but with an aim towards speed and not selection. Nevertheless, he was still two yards too far when a Woad leaped at Owein’s back. Time stretched—
--slapped Tristan in the face, though he ducked in time for the Woad’s severed head to miss him. Then he had to side-step quickly back as Perceval continued to ride through—right onto a pike.
His horse skidded forward, its momentum shoving it till a foot of pole had gone into its breast. Its eyes rolled to the whites and it whinnied a final time before bucking into a heavy, earth-shaking collapse. Perceval didn’t go with it; he’d been trying to jump off and had been flung over Tristan’s head by the force of his horse’s last buck. The man went crashing to the ground a bare foot from Owein, who had taken time from struggling with his pain to look astonished. He had doubly good reason—as soon as Perceval hit the ground, a Woad pounced on him, knife flashing up and down.
Owein’s face twisted in a snarl and he suddenly pushed up, grabbing a sword from the ground. One slash and the Woad was off Perceval, and Tristan was there in time to grab Owein under the arm so he wouldn’t fall again. Blood splattered over them from a swing of Geraint’s.
“You jackass sons of bitches,” Perceval gurgled, spitting long streams of blood as he rolled himself to his feet. He swayed, clutching at the hole in his chest that sucked wetly and blew red bubbles between his fingers with every breath. “Be damned if I’d let a Briton kill you before a Sarmatian could. And be damned if I’ll owe you my life.”
He still had his sword, and with one last effort, he spun to lash a thin red line across the back of a Woad, who instantly turned. Perceval hawked up more blood into the Woad’s face as his attacker ran him through with a sword and died, still as angry and bitter as ever.
“Even trade,” Owein muttered, watching Geraint then send the Woad directly after Perceval to death. He leaned against Tristan for another moment, skin paling at a frightening rate, breath far too shallow.
Internal, Tristan thought with eerie lucidity. Something torn during the fall—maybe the first, maybe the second.
“Let me go.” Owein yanked at his arm, causing Tristan to only now notice he’d wrenched his grip tighter on it. “Let go. When it comes, you can’t stop—can only walk towards it as best you can.”
“No,” Tristan found himself saying, but his hold on Owein was already loosening. It had to; there were still Woads coming at him and it was more difficult to beat them off with only one arm free.
With a growl, Owein heaved himself free. “I want to hear a good story when I see you again. Both of you,” he hissed.
Geraint whipped around and shouted then, but Owein had already flung himself forward. The man had no sword, no daggers…he grappled with his Woad till he could fist his hands in his opponent’s hair and twist. The resulting snap was a good accompaniment to Owein’s subsequent collapse to the side, a long knife sticking from his chest and a faint sigh escaping from his slackening lips.
Sobbing, tears streaking his bloody cheeks, Geraint abruptly lunged for the body, but Tristan shoved him back. Had to do it with one arm, because his other was busy gutting a Woad. “Not now!”
“But—” Geraint looked as if he was going to murder Tristan.
“Not now! Not.” Tristan sucked in a breath. “Not now. Later.”
Grudgingly, angrily, reason came back into Geraint’s eyes and he nodded, returning to his fights. And Tristan continued with his, but this time he remembered to circle back every so often. Remembered that he needed to circle back, that there was something to circle back to, and that he couldn’t yet walk straight into the horizon.
Besides, all around the horizon was coming towards him. One by one, the Woads fell in flapping, twisting whirls of blue and red, like pieces ripped from the sky. And there were less and less now, and it was all Tristan could do to stand till the shower of them ended.
* * *
Gawain had to brace his arm against the saddle to keep himself from slumping over his horse’s neck. Every two or three steps, he had to cluck his tongue and tap his heels against his stallion’s ribs to keep it moving, for it was as tired and hurt as he was. But someone had to go through the battlefield’s litter of fallen, and horsemen could do it faster than Paullus’ foot-bound hospital detail.
Bedivere had borrowed a horse and was going through the other side, while Urien was back with the surgeons, struggling to breathe with three shattered ribs, and Paullus himself was having his broken arm set. It hadn’t been a particularly good day to be an officer.
“Gawain?” One hunched form rose and made a limp wave, then stumbled forward to grab at Gawain’s stirrup. “You took your time,” Galahad muttered, laying his forehead against Gawain’s shin.
It hurt to breathe. Or blink. For a moment, Gawain just had to stay there, bent over Galahad’s head so he could smell the fetid stink of slaughter coming from the man’s hair, and it was the sweetest scent in the world.
When he touched Galahad’s face, he found that the other man was trembling. But as was typical, Galahad quickly shrugged it off. He pointed behind him at two relatively able knights, who were systematically going through the Woad bodies and making certain they were all dead. “Bors and Dagonet, from Bedivere’s troop. You should see them with their axes.”
“Next time,” Gawain chuckled, though his throat was dry as the winter wind and it hurt to do so. He wanted to just go to sleep then and there, with Galahad’s curls under his hand, but there was still half a field to go through. “I need to—”
“I know. Be a little quicker about it, all right? I’m going to go see if they’ve got dinner going yet.” Galahad’s words were light, but his look was heavy and his squeeze of Gawain’s wrist seemed to brand his fingerprints into Gawain’s skin.
It’d been a massacre, Gawain saw as he moved on. The Woads had refused to surrender—the total casualties Gawain didn’t even want to guess at, so many were the bodies on the ground. But whatever the numbers were, the reality would have broken Woad power in this district for some while.
Odd, that. Whoever had commanded the initial attack on Lucius’ army and then the siege had been far more clever than this. Then again, Arthur was responsible for most of the recent Roman victories over the Woads, so maybe they’d assumed the risks were worth it to get at him.
Or maybe the Woads had the same quarreling and jealousies afflicting their high command, Gawain sourly thought. Then he shook it away, too tired for such things, and kept going, occasionally pausing to wave over a stretcher crew.
He ran into Tristan standing over Agravaine’s body. As Gawain approached, Tristan looked up. “Not my sword.”
“I…” Well, Gawain couldn’t really say anything to that except that he was relieved, and that could be read easily enough from his face. So he didn’t say anything.
“Perceval and Owein are both dead,” Tristan added. The set of his shoulders was exhausted, but his gaze was clear and comprehending and calm, as if he’d learned everything he’d ever need to know and was content with that. He looked past Gawain, raised his arm—
--and his hawk alighted softly on it, cooing to him.
“I’m sorry.” Gawain tried to pull himself a little straighter in the saddle.
“For which?” Black humor briefly colored Tristan’s face, but then he turned away. “It doesn’t matter. They’re all beyond us now.”
He sounded just a little too serene for Gawain. “But you’re staying here.”
“I…am.” And now Tristan’s hand faltered before petting his hawk in long, smooth strokes. His head was slightly inclined so Gawain couldn’t see his expression, but his voice sounded human for a moment, and not merely soldierly. “I have business still to see to.”
That seemed to be as good an answer as Gawain was going to get, so he accepted it and went on.
Lancelot was sitting with Arthur’s head in his lap, and for a nasty second Gawain nearly thought—but Lancelot looked irritated and worried and resigned, and not as if he were about to break, and with himself break the rest of the world.
“He passed out again,” was Lancelot’s laconic answer to Gawain’s inquiry. “But the bleeding’s already stopped, and he’s breathing fine. Still, such an idiot.”
Gawain motioned quickly for the nearest stretcher, and snapped at them to hurry when they seemed reluctant to traverse all the intervening corpses. “And what about you?”
“I need a fucking crutch.” Lip curling at himself, Lancelot seemed about to expand on that, and at great vitriolic length, but at the last moment he decided otherwise. He sighed and looked at Arthur, fingers gently touching Arthur’s slack, peaceful face. “So?”
Before Gawain replied, he got the attention of a second stretcher crew. Then he turned back to Lancelot, squinting at the man with burning, strained eyes. “So we won. Completely. Crushed the whole Woad army, probably settled everything for the rest of the campaigning season. Ambrosius is overjoyed.”
“I’ll be sure to let Arthur know when he wakes up.” Another, more mocking look at Gawain. “So?”
“A third of the knights are down, either dead or wounded. Infantry had less casualties, but still bad. And everyone lost a lot of officers,” Gawain murmured. His head was too damned heavy and he couldn’t hold it up any longer, so he laid down on his horse’s neck. Only for a moment, he warned himself.
Unsurprised and bitter about it, Lancelot nodded. “Promotions and burials a-plenty when we get back to the garrison.”
“We’re alive.” Gawain told himself to remember that. “We’re alive.”