|Under the Wide Sky I: Homecoming
Author: Guede Mazaka
Sometimes Gawain was very, very glad that Lancelot hadn’t been born a Roman. And sometimes he wondered how the man had survived so long.
He glanced at the couple Lancelot had brought back, then grabbed the other man by the arm and dragged him behind the nearest tent. “Are you insane? We’re trying to organize alliances and you invite a Roman here? Why don’t you just ride into their garrison and spread out our plans for them?”
“He’s not really Roman. He’s only one on sufferance.” It was a weak protest, and Lancelot knew it, to judge by the way he wouldn’t look at Gawain.
No—on second check, it became apparent Lancelot wasn’t looking at Gawain because the man was unstrapping his cuirass, showing only a thin shirt beneath it. Gawain pinched the bridge of his nose and smacked Lancelot. “On sufferance? What’s that supposed to mean? Whose sufferance?”
“Ask Guinevere. She was starting to explain, and then we got here,” Lancelot muttered, rubbing at the side of his head. He shot Gawain an underhanded look, then glanced in the direction of the woman. She was eying the people slowly surrounding them with a mixture of curiosity and lofty detachment, which seemed vaguely familiar. “Look, he’s half-Sarmatian, and his great-grandfather came from my tribe. I’ll just take him around and get his father’s ashes buried, and then we’ll send him back. It might even help—he’d see that no, of course we aren’t mobilizing and he’ll pass that on to the Roman authorities.”
“You’ll take him around.” For a moment, Gawain just stared at the sky and asked it why he got saddled with ridiculousness like this. Then he shrugged it off and reminded himself that he was going to be stuck with it till he pushed all the way through it, and since he wasn’t a masochist, he’d best get moving. “What’s the other half?”
Lancelot was sneaking glances at the man again, who did look much more at-home without the telltale armor. In fact, he’d already struck up what seemed like a vigorous but civil conversation with one of the elders, which was slightly reassuring. Knights were a bit like goats—the older they grew, the nastier and trickier they got—so if the man could charm Gorlois, then it might be all right. “Briton. Name’s Arthur. Did you see his eyes?”
On the other hand, even if the man turned out to be harmless, Lancelot certainly wasn’t. “I’m sure you’ve looked at them enough for both of us,” Gawain snorted.
“Oh, for—I just met him today; I don’t even know if he’s inclined that way.” Another glare sent at Gawain, as if Lancelot had ever managed to kill anyone with looks alone. Though he’d earned something of a reputation for killing because of looks…which was why Gawain’s stomach was still twisting itself in knots.
Bristling like a wet cat, Lancelot stalked off a few paces, then whirled and came back to hiss in Gawain’s face. “Look, the entire way back here we spent talking about different horse-brands, and how we make cheese here, and if there’s such a thing as free will. That is not what a man bent on war talks about. You’d do better to worry about Galahad, but no—he goes with the delegation to the eastern tribes and brings back a knife-happy hawk-kisser, and you think it’ll help improve his character.”
Gawain just grinned, because he was looking over Lancelot’s shoulder. There Tristan was standing, a thoughtful expression on his face and a ruffled hawk on his shoulder. That was it. Guinevere and Tristan…same attitude.
“What’s so—” Then Lancelot understood and dropped his head into his hand. “Which one?”
“The knife-happy one.” Tristan casually walked past Lancelot’s wince and tossed something to Gawain: a worked-gold token. Another representative was nearing the camp, which meant they needed to get the Romans—Britons—whatever those two were—out of sight. “Bercilak wants to speak with both of you.”
Lancelot abruptly straightened, daring Gawain to comment on whatever snap decision he’d just made. “Well, he’ll have to make do with Gawain. I’m owing a visit to the cousins.”
Before Gawain could actually comment, the other man had pushed past Tristan—ducking the lunge of an irate hawk—and was heading towards Arthur and Guinevere. Eyebrow raised, Tristan looked after Lancelot while calming his hawk, then towards Gawain for an explanation. Which Gawain would’ve been happy to give, if it wasn’t so absurd and if Lancelot hadn’t just dropped placating elders in Gawain’s lap. As quick-tempered as Lancelot could be, he was also more quick-witted and subtle and thus did better at that. Not to mention he ranked higher as well, so he was shirking his responsibilities again.
“He also owes Galahad a horse,” Tristan said. “His isn’t that lamed.”
Startled, Gawain gave him a sharp look, but Tristan’s smooth face betrayed no secrets, and certainly not the one of how he always managed to know what people were thinking. “Somehow I’ve a feeling that you already stole it back.”
He didn’t get an answer to that, but Tristan did grin as he turned to watch Lancelot chivvy Arthur away from the discussion with Gorlois, which didn’t look to please that hoary old warrior one bit. It must have been an interesting topic, since normally Gorlois’ range of words didn’t extend past the best ways to kill someone in a given situation.
“Lancelot has guests,” Gawain sighed, giving up on that for now. He didn’t have the time to worry about it nor the rank to make Lancelot send them away, so he’d just have to trust that the man would be intelligent and politic. The first Lancelot always was, but the second was a little more spotty. “The man was some kind of military commander in Britain.”
“That’s far.” And that was a surprising thing to say, since Gawain had absolutely no idea where Britain was. Apparently Tristan’s knowledge of the land was more expansive than Gawain had figured. “So you think Galahad needs to improve his character.”
Most of the time, Gawain didn’t mind Tristan’s perpetual deadpan because he could see the man’s actions and read his intent from those. In addition, Galahad might’ve been more prone to jump the horse too soon than even Lancelot, but he wasn’t an idiot when it came to judging men, and he seemed to like Tristan, so…Gawain used that as a benchmark for measuring the man. But occasionally that lack of outward emotion could make things very awkward. Like now, when Gawain couldn’t tell whether Tristan was amused, irked, or offended for Galahad’s sake.
“Do you?” was what Gawain finally settled on. It was a reasonably neutral response, and it put the burden of criticism on Tristan.
The other man flicked a glance at Gawain. His lips twitched upward and he started to move off almost in the same moment, so Gawain nearly missed it. “Only his temper,” Tristan dryly answered.
Gawain laughed, both in good humor and in relief. It kept him from noticing how irritated he was with the new complications right up until the delegation rode in.
* * *
From the main camp to his—second? Third? Lancelot never could remember—cousin’s outlier was an easy two hours’ ride or a fast one-hour one. Since it was warm out and Arthur had conveniently pulled open his collar to show a nice collarbone and chest, Lancelot opted for a lazy walking trot that allowed for conversation. His little burst of temper had stuck him with these two, so he might as well get to know them.
In all honesty, he’d gone to Gawain trying to figure out how to get rid of them, but he hadn’t expected Gawain to blame him for everything. It wasn’t as if he made Arthur shoot that man—and there was another intertribal grudge Lancelot was going to have to bother with now—and it certainly wasn’t as if he liked having to owe his life to Arthur. And anyway, Arthur did have Roman associations, but his father’s blood demanded he at least get a fair hearing. Which was in Lancelot’s realm and not Gawain’s, given from which tribe Arthur was descended. But no, Gawain had listened partway and then had started scolding Lancelot like a mother and a reckless child, and that had just set the wind up Lancelot’s back.
…so Lancelot did have a bit of a contradictory streak. As long as he knew about it, it couldn’t wreck too much havoc with his life.
“Hmm? Sorry, I didn’t catch that.” Lancelot shook himself back to attention in time to see Arthur watching him with patient curiosity, and Guinevere rolling her eyes. Arrogant bitch. If Gawain had wanted to kick her out, Lancelot wouldn’t have had a problem with that.
Arthur ran a hand around the back of his neck, then pulled it down to rub the sweat he’d collected between his fingers. The movement pulled his shirt sideways a little, just enough for Lancelot to glimpse the tip of a scar. “If we’re not in a hurry, and it’s not a…problem, would you mind if I stopped to wash in the river?”
The short pause before Lancelot’s answer was needed because he had to debate whether fate had decided to hate him or love him for the day. Then he mocked himself for even needing to question that and just took what was offered. “Why would it be a problem?”
“Oh, property rights, bad water—take your pick. It’s enough of a problem in other places that it’s usually prudent to ask,” Guinevere interrupted. She was already kicking heels into her horse’s sides and heading for the river, about a hundred yards to their left. There was a nice secluded copse of trees around a small bend in it, which apparently suited her fine enough so that, her words aside, she was willing to risk it.
“We’re on my tribe’s land, and I don’t see any herds pissing upstream, so no. Not a problem. Though I am wondering why you need to wash; you don’t look as if you need it.” Which was the truth, but Lancelot needed to teach his tongue the meaning of not looking too closely at a gift horse. He prayed he hadn’t just offended some weird foreign sensibility of Arthur’s.
Thankfully, he hadn’t: Arthur smiled a little ruefully, which looked good on him, and turned his horse so he could catch the leads to the packhorses that Guinevere threw at him. “The garrison commander offered me use of his bath, but I’d just spent two weeks on a ship and I wanted to get some fresh air. Which I’ve now got, and I can smell those two weeks on me.”
“Bath? Oh, right—you Romans have that obsession with it.” It was meant to be mildly mocking, but Lancelot’s hatred of Rome bled out a little faster than he could block it off. He drew in a sharp breath and started to add a mitigating something, but then stopped. Seeing Arthur’s reaction might actually be useful knowledge later.
And Arthur’s reaction was a flinch and a downcast look as he clearly understood everything Lancelot had accidentally said and had deliberately not said. For several long moments, they rode side-by-side in silence.
When Arthur spoke again, he did so in a measured, low tone as steady as the gaze he had on Lancelot. “I’ve lived too long and seen too much to tell you that Rome is good. But parts of her are—were—and for a long time I believed I was fighting for those. I can’t tell you she hasn’t left her traces on me, but I hope you’ll judge me by the whole and not by the part.”
Something about his sincerity made Lancelot want to look aside and blink hard, as if he’d just looked at the sun and needed to squeeze away the burn. “You don’t talk like a Sarmatian.”
“Nor a Briton, nor a Roman, according to Guinevere, and I lived in those places.” Arthur drew a deep breath and stared up at the sky. The air around Lancelot cooled quite a bit. “Before this, the closest I ever got to here was in the stories passed down from my great-grandfather.”
“Well, what do you think? Not a real city in sight, none of your comforts of civilization…” They were at the edge of the grove now, so they dismounted and led in their mounts. Arthur took a moment to tether his horses besides Guinevere’s, then leaned against a tree and stretched out his legs while Lancelot tried not to stare too obviously. The man wasn’t inclined that way, damn it—if he was, there was no way he couldn’t know what kind of an effect he was having. “…and the natives are all ‘stinking barbarians’…”
That made Arthur flash a smile at Lancelot, just before the man stripped off his shirt. “You smell fine to me. And so far, you’ve been more considerate than many civilized men I know.”
Lancelot did his best Tristan-impression as he calmly noted the scars and the well-developed muscles. On second thought, bathing might be an idea worth adopting, if it always got people to disrobe this carelessly. “You’re welcome. Though it’s really more your doing, since you kept that man from killing me.”
“You almost sound as if you didn’t want me to shoot him,” Arthur said, amused. He carefully folded up his shirt and shoved it into a saddlebag, then moved to the packhorses to get another. One particularly long scar started somewhere beneath his waistband and spiraled around his back to end halfway up his left ribs.
There were trees, so Lancelot took advantage of them and leaned against one, crossing his arms over his chest. No point in being more uncomfortable than he had to be. “Oh, no, I’m quite happy to be alive and not nursing a slashed shoulder. It’s only a little…well, you…”
“…were in the Roman army, and members of that aren’t very welcome in Sarmatia right now. It must be awkward feeling grateful to one. Though if it makes a difference, I don’t consider you as owing me any kind of debt.” The spare shirt seemed to be well-tucked into the bags, which forced Arthur to twist around and dig. Aside from making his back-muscles ripple and smooth in a soothingly rhythmic manner, it also moved him into the dappled light so Lancelot could see a set of odd-looking scars on Arthur’s arm.
They were rather short and straight, leftovers of some incision, but a fight didn’t seem to be a likely explanation given that they were all parallel to each other. In fact, it looked as if they’d been done deliberately…
…and Lancelot very much needed to stop spacing out. He looked at the tree against which he was supposed to be leaning, then to the hand that had snapped around his wrist. A final glance at Arthur showed a surprisingly tense face, with something grim staring back at Lancelot. Then Arthur blinked, came back to himself and looked apologetic as he let go. “Sorry. I didn’t…”
“What are those?” When in embarrassment, pretend it was done on purpose and brave it out—that was the general plan of action that Lancelot followed. Usually it worked. At the least, it kept him from thinking about things like what Arthur’s hand had felt like.
“Bloodletting cuts. It’s…our surgeons do that to bring a fever down.” The memory slid a black mask over Arthur’s face, then shrunk back as he turned. Guinevere was calling him.
And Guinevere was also walking towards them, wringing out her long coil of hair, with her clothes clinging to her damp body. For a moment, it nearly made Lancelot forget about her nasty tongue.
“Your turn,” she said to Arthur. Her mouth was grinning, but her eyes were solemn and quick as they searched his face. Then they glanced over Lancelot and she made a little knowing snort, which sorely tempted Lancelot to find out whether she did know how to use that sword.
Arthur smiled back at her, all fondness and appreciation, but the shadow still lingered around his eyes. So whatever it’d been, Guinevere had been a part of it as well.
Lancelot was still thinking on that when Arthur walked off, coincidentally in the same direction that Lancelot was looking. And that was the truth, and so Guinevere had no right to laugh at him like that. “Something amusing, lady?”
“Don’t use a title unless you’re going to respect its meaning.” She was bent slightly at the waist so her hair hung free, fingers swiftly fingercombing out the snarls. After a moment, her hand went behind her to rummage in a saddlebag; it soon produced a finely-worked bone comb, which she applied to separating her hair into three pieces. “It is a good view from behind, isn’t it? And frontwise, and—”
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’re encouraging me.” Shame that calling her into a fight, even if it was just enough of a brawl so that he could give her a richly-deserved spanking, would probably upset Arthur. Little that Lancelot knew of the man, he could already tell that Arthur had one peculiar code of honor. “Or are you one of those…free women that don’t mind a crowded bed?”
The three pieces were being deftly braided into a neat plait, which Guinevere looped over her shoulder as it grew in length. She shot a look over it that was half-vixen, half-steel. “Free to me means that I do what I please, when I please, with no one to gainsay me. But I suppose such thoughts are a little too deep for you.”
“You do like making your assumptions, don’t you,” Lancelot retorted, making his voice silky and seething. With one stride, he was next to her; he propped his arm against the tree so he could lean over her as well. “Easy to talk.”
“Hard to do.” She tied off the braid and abruptly flung her head back so her swinging hair nearly whiplashed Lancelot across the face. Then she was stepping forward before he’d leaned back from his dodge, pressing the advantage. If she hadn’t been grating so badly on his temper, he would’ve found it admirable.
Guinevere held up her arm and pulled down the sleeve to show the same pattern of scarring that Arthur had had. She let Lancelot have his eyeful, then elbowed him aside so she could go back to digging in her saddlebags. “Britain’s a full Roman province—you aren’t that yet. So don’t talk to me of freedom till you’ve lost all of it—you don’t know till then.”
“You hate Romans, and yet you ride with one?” Lancelot mused, pacing clear of her. He was absently gazing around when he came upon the break in the underbrush and the clear view of Arthur in the water.
He must have found a gravel shallow, for the water barely came up to his waist, and occasionally it would dip below his hipbone as he bent over to rinse out his hair. That long scar on his back ended about mid-hip; it was ragged and raised and dull pinkish, and Lancelot wondered what on earth could leave that kind of mark.
“Arthur was a Roman by choice, and now he’s only a Roman because he hasn’t had long enough to learn to be something else. But even before, he wasn’t really one. He cared about people as people.”
When Arthur straightened up, he threw his head all the way back. His mouth drifted open and his shoulders went down, jerkily, as if he didn’t relax so deeply that often. “A saint?” Lancelot asked.
“Hardly, though he used to be Christian, too. He made war on us while we had the strength to rebel, and he was the worst enemy we’d ever had. But then the fever rose in the marshes and spread, faster than anyone could send word, and he took us all in. He gave us doctors and gave us shelter and gave us good burials, even when Rome told him to stop.”
Something smacked Lancelot’s shoulder; Guinevere danced away from his return blow, casting a scornful look back at him. But that was soon replaced by a smile that was almost sad, though its edge remained sarcastic. “So now Britain’s barely got enough people to survive, let alone rebel. And I’m here instead of there, and he’s here instead of in Rome.”
“You’re being very…familiar, considering we only met today.” Irritated with her and with himself, Lancelot pointedly returned to his horse and occupied himself with checking the strained tendon in its right foreleg. That was almost back to normal…still, he should probably trade it for a younger one once they’d gotten to his cousin’s.
“I thought you might like to know where things lie. Or don’t,” she replied, tone suspiciously careless. Guinevere looked at Arthur, who had finished and was coming back through the trees, then at Lancelot. “What’s your cousin like?”
Lancelot eyed her the same way he would a cornered bear. “Owein? Looks a bit like me, but his personality isn’t nearly as sparkling.”
“You mean a nicer temper? I might enjoy meeting him, then.” She put special emphasis on the word ‘meeting,’ and then laughed when she saw how Lancelot couldn’t help taking a second look at Arthur.
In this case, Lancelot deserved that. Face burning, he untied his horse and remounted so he wouldn’t have to look at either of them.
* * *
“Where have you been?” Galahad didn’t bother looking; by now, he knew that when the back of his neck prickled, it was just Tristan softstepping around in hopes of scaring him senseless. Bastard had such a bad sense of humor—it was anyone’s guess why Galahad put up with him.
Then again, Tristan did have a nice way of easing down so his warmth and pressure rolled gradually into Galahad. Good thing, because lying on a hill just above the Roman garrison was not a good place to…yelp like a puppy, as Gawain had put it. Someday Galahad was going to have his revenge for that, and it was going to be absolutely delicious.
“Lancelot has guests. A Briton woman and a half-Briton, half-Sarmatian knight who soldiered for the Romans.” Tristan laid his head down and peered through the tall grass at the tiny men moving about in the valley below, eyes immediately going to the long wagon train being let into the fort. The Romans were gathering an unusual amount of supplies, given that winter was still months away.
And a knight fighting for the Romans? At first, Galahad was about to comment on Lancelot’s lack of sense, but then he recalled something. “Britain? So a descendent of the fifty-five hundred that were exiled?”
That earned him a vaguely impressed look, which in turn earned Tristan an elbow in the ribs.
“Yes, I do listen to the news, so stop looking at me like that. And half-Briton…what was the name…oh, right. Was he called Arthur?” Galahad muttered.
This time, Tristan graced him with a full twist to stare him in the face.
Galahad grinned, pleased with himself and fully deserving it, and nipped at Tristan’s nose, which made Tristan’s eyelashes flutter as he briefly allowed his confusion to show. “And I listen to the marketplace gossip, which is sometimes useful. He’s supposed to be a crack cavalry commander and a legend—some of the Roman cavalry officers were talking over battles he won in Britain. They were wondering why Rome would let someone who actually knew what he was doing retire, instead of sending him here to rescue them.”
“We keep smashing their cavalry for reasons besides bad leadership,” Tristan observed. After a moment, he ducked in and nibbled at the underside of Galahad’s jaw.
So he did have more than one good point. Too bad that they were supposed to be doing something else, and that Galahad’s sense of self-preservation was such a loud screamer. He nuzzled at Tristan for a moment longer before backing off and pointing out the new bad news. “Maybe not now. See?”
“Yes.” The slight lightening of Tristan’s expression disappeared.
The cover on one of the wagons had come loose and was flapping; a Roman soldier finally noticed and hastily tied it down, but not before Tristan had seen what Galahad had been morosely staring at for the past quarter-hour. Armor large enough for a horse. Someone had finally pried a heavy-cavalry unit loose from elsewhere in the Empire, and now it was coming to face them. That meant the Romans could finally match the Sarmatian cavalry in terms of armament, and badly led or not, the casualty rates were going to go up.
“Maybe you should’ve stayed east,” Galahad murmured, mostly to himself. “You didn’t need to come; we asked you to guard our backs from the far east while we handled Rome here.”
And even Galahad still didn’t know why Tristan had decided to ride back with him; true, that hunt had been…memorable, but…
“And maybe I’ve killed plenty of raiders, but not nearly enough Romans,” Tristan countered. Something in his eyes went soft, but it could’ve been a trick of the light since he kissed Galahad so fast and hard that Galahad didn’t have the time to make sure of what he had seen.
“You know, it’s when you say things like that that you make Gawain nervous for me.” But impending war and worried cousins aside, Galahad was glad Tristan had come west.
* * *
Guinevere was up to something. And Arthur was more than a little afraid of what the answer to his inevitable question was going to be, but he squared his shoulders and asked it anyway. If she was going to turn the world upside-down, he’d best have advance notice. Even if it didn’t help him prevent it, at least he wouldn’t feel guilty about not having asked when he clearly should have. “Guinevere?”
They had arrived at a much smaller camp, which was tucked in a v-shaped shallow created by two hills running together at an angle. Just as in everywhere else in this land, they’d received plenty of curious, wary looks, but Lancelot had gone in ahead and had told his relatives…something reassuring. Enough so to get Arthur and Guinevere whisked into a spare tent, where they were currently unpacking. “Hmm?” Guinevere said, debating which knife to stick under her pillow.
There wasn’t really much to unpack, so Arthur had long since finished and was now sitting on the other end of the single bed—he’d have to sleep on the ground, he supposed—watching one side of the tent. It was twitching a little. He switched to Briton. “Are you planning to kill him or sleep with him?”
That brought her head up and shocked her face frozen, but only for a moment. Then she was snickering at him. “Who, our handsome and intrepid guide? Don’t be ridiculous.”
“About which?” Arthur pulled off his boot and dug in it till he found the pebble that’d been paining him for the last hour. He rolled it between his fingers, getting a feel for its shape and heft, and then flicked it at the shaking wall. On the other side, someone let off a panicked giggle, and the sound of small running feet soon followed.
Something brushed over Arthur’s cheek, startling him. He looked back just in time to see Guinevere almost reveal a wistful expression. “We’ve been here barely two days and you’re more relaxed than I ever saw you in Britain,” she murmured, flipping her chosen dagger beneath the pillow. “No, don’t look serious again—you should smile like that more.”
And Arthur did try, but now that he was consciously attempting to, his face felt stiff and sluggish, determined to stay the way it was. Only when he acknowledged the sour humor in it did he manage to smile, but it wasn’t in the manner that he had before. “I can’t remember the last time I had so few things to worry about. No battles to plan, no wounds to bind, no graves to dig…there’s only finding a place for the ashes, and worrying about what atrocities you’re planning on committing.”
“Not me,” Guinevere snorted, flopping down on the high pile of furs on the low cot. This particular tribe of Sarmatians had been in contact with the more settled peoples around them long enough to have adapted some customs from them, it seemed. “I’m discreet.”
Arthur merely looked at her while putting his boot back on.
A strand of hair had escaped from her braid and was now dangling over her face; she blew out a short, quick breath that made the strand whip derisively at him. Occasionally Guinevere reverted to the childhood she mostly hadn’t had—it was how Arthur could tell she was happy, and so he was always more glad than not to see a sign of it. “More so than Lancelot, knight of Sarmatia. And it’s terribly amusing to me how you’re ignoring all the tension.”
“The garrison commander told me there weren’t going to be any campaigns till next year.” Though to be truthful, Arthur hadn’t entirely believed him. The interview had started out well enough, but when Arthur had refused the offer of a guide by saying he knew the native languages, the other man’s warm welcome had quickly cooled. And Lancelot had bridled every time Rome was even mentioned…something was going to snap, and soon.
Which did concern Arthur quite a bit, but he hadn’t known Roman-Sarmatian relations had deteriorated so badly until it was too late to turn back. They’d just have to keep their distance from the border, where the fighting was most likely to be, and probably head back in a wide loop. Once Arthur had figured out where he intended to go.
Still, he was being oddly careless about the situation. It wasn’t that he didn’t know full well how potentially dangerous it could be, but rather…that he did know. That he’d spent the better part of his life knowing it on intimate terms, and so he was…comfortable with it. More so than he had been in a pacified Britain.
It was an unsettling realization to have: military service had dulled Arthur’s senses so much. He was more glad than ever he’d decided to take his discharge; it was worth the guilt he felt over leaving Britain in such poor condition.
“One war zone’s much like another? Though it’s not as bad as Britain. They’re still fighting to win; we were fighting to simply hold our ground.” Guinevere rolled over, propping elbows on bed and chin on hand, to look thoughtfully at Arthur. “But I wasn’t actually talking about that. I was talking about how Lancelot is very fond of watching you.”
“The others don’t seem to agree with him about our not being a threat. And he probably is still wondering that himself.” A good reason not to show worry, at least outwardly—any sign of uncertainty on Arthur’s part would probably be taken as an indication that he had something to hide, or was preparing to do something harmful. The more detached they seemed about the escalating hostilities, the less of a threat they would appear.
Guinevere was rolling her eyes at him. Then she smacked his arm and sat up to fingercomb his hair. “He’s not watching you like he’s worried you’ll do something. He’s watching you like he’s wishing you’d do something.”
Arthur rapidly reviewed the past few hours in an attempt to figure out what she meant. He’d been rather distracted by the landscape, so different from Britain yet beautiful in its own way, and by trying to persuade many people in many languages that yes, he really was here just to rebury his father’s ashes. So what…oh. He raised his eyebrows and ignored the slight burn at the edge of his cheeks. “Is that why you’ve been provoking him so much?”
“No.” She gave one last pat to his hair, which was still damp, but was now neatly swept out of his face. Then Guinevere draped her arms around his neck and smiled impishly in his face. “Arthur, we had our time, and we ended it for reasons that I don’t believe have changed. Unless you’ve suddenly decided you want to tear Rome down to her foundations? No, I was teasing him because he annoys me. But he’s not bad-looking.”
“I assume that makes sense somewhere in your mind.” It’d been more the pressure of circumstances flinging them together, but nevertheless that had been a rare bright spot in his life. And she was still intelligent and beautiful and a great friend. So Arthur smiled, cupped her face to kiss her forehead, and then let her go with only the sweet traces of that time lingering in his mouth.
Guinevere merely grinned and stood up, twitching her clothes around to best show off her figure. “You’re a private citizen now, Arthur. For once, you have absolutely no excuse not to relax. And part of the reason I nagged you into letting me come was to make sure you did.” Her voice briefly softened from lilting taunt to genuine concern. “What do you think of him, anyway?”
Sometimes Arthur did regret her lack of tact, which he knew was deliberate because he’d seen her dance diplomatic circles around far more experienced men too many times. “Guinevere, I’m not in the habit of—”
“I hope you don’t make him a habit. Then I might have to kill him,” she tossed back, heading outside.
With a sigh, Arthur heaved himself to his feet and went after her. “You never answered my question. What are you going to do that would need me…preoccupied?”
“I’m not going to start the war early, if that’s what you’re worried about.” A little irked, she pushed at him. “Oh, go stare at the stars. I’m young and I want a little fun before I die, even if you don’t.”
The conversation would’ve gone on longer, except fate apparently had decided she liked making jokes with Arthur in them. Lancelot stepped out from behind another tent, saw Arthur and gestured for him to come up, which gave Guinevere her chance to slip away. Once a Woad, always a Woad.
For a moment, Arthur thought about going after her. But he didn’t have anything concrete on which to base an accusation, and as capricious as Guinevere could be, she might only be wanting to tumble a Sarmatian herself.
Probably not that simple, but in all fairness, Arthur didn’t have a good reason to stop her yet. So he stayed put and hoped she would behave herself.
* * *
Much to Lancelot’s relief, Owein had some excellent stallions he was willing to trade, which saw that business done with more easily than Lancelot had expected. It probably helped that his cousin, still without a wife, had been fascinated with the way Guinevere’s hips moved. For that matter, she was apparently not unwelcome to that idea…
Well, Lancelot had discharged his duties in introducing everyone and explaining the situation. Owein was a grown man, and could judge that temperamental bitch for himself. He was a bit humorless, so she’d have a harder time getting through his skin.
As for the barbs of hers that had gotten through Lancelot’s, they were not—he was not going to prove her right, he told himself. He told himself that at evening meal, and then afterward when he was catching up on the news with his relatives, and he kept telling himself that right up until he turned a corner and saw Guinevere taking her leave of Arthur. It really was annoying how Lancelot couldn’t help taking a good look.
Then again, it wasn’t his fault that the man was only in a light shirt and trousers. And anyway, when was the last time Lancelot let someone else’s opinion override his own? Guinevere could go play in his cousin’s bed; after she’d pricked Owein’s temper, Lancelot would have a legitimate reason to go after her. “Evening.”
“There isn’t much trouble, is there?” Arthur saw the confusion in Lancelot’s face and hastily clarified. “It’s hard not to notice how uncomfortable people are around us.”
Oh, damn. He’d spoken at least two Sarmatian tongues around Lancelot, and he probably knew more—he’d overheard every single stupid comment anyone had made. Sometimes Lancelot was profoundly embarrassed by his younger cousins. “More curious than anything, I think. The knights exiled to Britain have turned into something of a legend, and I believe you’re the first to ever come back.”
“I’ll probably be the only one to.” That dark memory was rising in Arthur’s face again. His voice and his head both dropped, and he turned to stare pensively at the sunset. “There—a fever swept through Britain about a year back. It wiped out nearly all of the descendents, as well as a lot of the general population.”
“Guinevere mentioned that,” Lancelot cautiously said. He slipped up beside Arthur to see what was so special about the sky, but as far as he could tell, it was no different than any other dusk. “The cuts on your arm…”
Which Arthur absently wrapped around himself so he could rub his palm over the scars. Then he caught himself and flicked a wry grin at Lancelot, mocking himself. He looked as if he did that often. “Guinevere and I had milder cases, and I fell sick near the end, when the surgeons had learned more.” His mouth flattened. “They’d had many others to practice on.”
The way Arthur talked about it, slow and deep and biting off the ends of his words, Lancelot had the impression that the vast majority of the story was being left out. But a glance at Arthur’s face told him now wasn’t the time to ask about it.
“So your father missed Sarmatia that much?” As soon as Lancelot had spoken, he winced. Trying for a change of conversation, trying to lighten the expression on Arthur’s face, and of all the possibilities he had to pick such an obvious statement. His mind seemed bent on making him look like a fool around Arthur.
On the other hand, it did produce a laugh from Arthur. “He was planning to finally come, after he’d finished his term of service, and bring my mother as well. There’s this rock formation—he called it the Wind’s Needle—”
“Oh, that? That’s only about two days’ riding from here.”
Arthur stopped and blinked, then gave Lancelot a relieved smile. “I was afraid it’d have disappeared by now—it was special for some reason to my great-grandfather, and my father always wanted to be buried there.”
“So he will be. I’ve a few days free; we can start tomorrow.” In truth, Lancelot should’ve said he would have a few days free, since he hadn’t actually discussed the getting of those days with anyone yet. But then Arthur smiled again, and Lancelot resigned himself to another long lecture from Gawain, Bercilak, and anyone else within hearing distance when they returned.
“Thank you,” was Arthur’s simple response. He seemed to have lost the train of his thought, because for the next few moments, they simply stared at each other.
Then one side of Arthur’s mouth quirked up in deprecation and he looked back at the horizon, chewing on some thought. He glanced at Lancelot and parted his lips to say something, then abruptly stopped himself.
It was getting dark, but Lancelot could’ve sworn he’d seen something like a fast blush run over Arthur’s cheekbones. “Why didn’t your parents come?”
“They died. My mother was killed during a Woad—rebel Briton—raid on our home, and my father in battle.” Arthur’s voice went rough once more.
“For the Romans, I take it. It’s interesting that you still went into the army.” Which Lancelot had meant as polite curiosity, but as usual, he couldn’t stay objective when talking about that subject. “Coincidentally, my parents both died fighting as well.”
“Against the Romans,” Arthur finished. He looked down at the ground, shoulders hunching in pain so palpable Lancelot could feel it scraping at him. “I’m sorry.”
Only a day, and Arthur was already causing drastic alterations in Lancelot’s character, because Lancelot actually regretted taking the conversation down this path. Guinevere had warned him, in a way—Arthur did clearly care, and so much so that it overflowed and seeped into people like Lancelot, who normally wouldn’t see the point in being concerned about something besides the necessities of life. “Why? You weren’t the one that killed them. You’re too young.”
It wasn’t much of an apology, but it was more than Lancelot had given anyone else. And it was a good note on which to walk off—short and snappy, leaving him with the higher ground. So he should walk away, and fast, so he could figure out just what he might be doing before he did it. Because if it was one thing Lancelot didn’t do, it was change for anyone besides himself. Arthur was handsome enough, but he wouldn’t be worth all that effort and trouble and probably pain, as well. No one was.
Lancelot needed his feet to move.
“I…thank you very much. For all that you’re doing for us.” Arthur looked uncertain, eyes searching Lancelot’s face and lips pursing, and that didn’t help a bit. “I think I’m going to head for bed now.”
He waited for Lancelot to answer, but Lancelot didn’t because he was slightly terrified of what would come out of his mouth, given the conversation that had just transpired. After a moment, Arthur gave up and nodded to him, and Lancelot nodded back. Then the other man turned and did as he’d said he would, while Lancelot watched the way the shadows flowed over and off of him.
* * *
Tristan was lifting his head from Galahad’s back before he had fully woken, hand sliding beneath the bedding. He paused to gather his thoughts into a coherent conclusion, then found the long knife he’d hidden and carefully tracked the shadow moving around the outside of the tent.
Galahad stirred, opened bleary eyes. “What…Tristan, if that’s one of my sisters you’re about to toss a knife at, I’m not going to hold them back.”
“How about a cousin?” called Gawain’s voice. He stepped in almost immediately afterward.
“You’re getting better.” The ashes in the brazier beside the bed were still faintly red, so it was very early in the morning. A few moments’ stirring and some fresh charcoal, and the light was bright enough for Tristan to see the worry carving harsh lines into Gawain’s face. He started to reach for his clothes.
Gawain shook his head, negating that, and perched on the edge of the bed. “Thanks. It’s all the practice I’ve been getting in handling everyone’s tempers while Lancelot goes off with some green-eyed Roman…Galahad, up. Don’t make me dump water on you.”
“Cousins are fair game,” Galahad grumbled. Rubbing at his eyes, he rumpled himself up and glowered at Gawain. “If it’s not the Romans invading, I’m going to—”
“—it might be,” Gawain muttered. He grimaced and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, then dropped them to blink tiredly at his suddenly-earnest listeners. “Tristan, I need to borrow you for a day. Sorry about the short notice.”
The extra work was telling on Gawain, especially under the eyes—someone badly needed to have a word with Lancelot. Though everyone swore on their best mares that when Lancelot wanted to he could be brilliant, it’d been a month since they’d met and Tristan still hadn’t seen any evidence of it. “Where do you want me?”
“And why him?” Now Galahad was wholly engaged, eyes fixed on Gawain while he retrieved various pieces of clothing. He started to throw on a shirt, stopped and passed it to Tristan, who in return gave Galahad his right gauntlet. “What’s happened? No—what might’ve happened that we need to know about?”
Gawain blinked hard again, visibly struggling to focus. “We lost track of Ammianus’ vexillations.”
“You—what—wait—how the fuck do you lose track of half an army of legionaries? You—”
The biting hurt, but Tristan was pressing his hand down hard enough so that Galahad couldn’t get a very good angle, so it wasn’t too bad. He finished doing up his jerkin with his other hand, then turned around to see if his hawk was awake yet. No, which would make it easier to slip out and leave her with Galahad. As much as he wanted to take her with him, he had a feeling she’d be a little too noticeable for where he was headed.
“You do when the commander’s a good one,” Gawain snapped, apparently not registering that his cousin was gnawing on Tristan’s palm and yanking at Tristan’s wrist. “Look, there’ll be time to assign blame later. Right now we need to find him again and to know what his targets are. Tristan—there’s riders searching all over for him, enough so that we should know soon. So we don’t need you there.”
“Then where?” A bit surprised, Tristan let his grip slacken.
Galahad pulled off Tristan’s hand and tossed him a glare as a bonus, then did up the rest of his clothing in short, violent movements that almost ripped a few seams. “He wants you to sneak into the garrison. The riders can find Ammianus, but they damn well can’t figure out where he’s going quick enough to get word back to us. If he’s good enough to shake us, he’s good enough to not take a direct route.”
Both Gawain and Tristan stared at Galahad, and for good reason: he had managed to put together all of that, but he apparently couldn’t match his gauntlets to the correct arms. He looked down, swore low and long, and hastily switched them.
“We’re lucky it’s a two-day market. I’ll go in as soon as they open the gates,” Tristan finally said, choosing not to comment on Galahad. There really wasn’t need.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” Galahad hissed. He dragged a quick hand through Tristan’s hair, fingers lightly brushing over Tristan’s nape, and then almost literally flung himself off the bed. “And I mean my idea of stupid. I hate sewing you up, and your hawk throws fits every single time. Which I also don’t enjoy.”
Expression vaguely amused, Gawain twisted to call after him. “Where are you going?”
“To kick some bastard out of bed and send him after Lancelot. He’s skirmished with Ammianus before, and it’s about time we saw the benefits of him living to tell about it.” Even the tent flap falling down behind Galahad did so in an irritated way.
Though it was certainly a good idea, and it made Tristan appreciate once again Galahad’s capacity for surprising people. Once the hot temper was stripped away…
“You know, I never did get the whole story from Galahad. And usually he’s willing to tell me all about the miseries of his life, in great detail and loud voice.” Gawain was thoughtfully staring after Galahad.
While Tristan had a fairly good idea of what Gawain was referring to, he started gathering his gear instead of replying. If it was that, he’d rather wait to see exactly what Gawain wanted to know before he volunteered any information. It’d only been a month and a few weeks, and his body alone had just finished healing.
“He said all the delegates went hunting as a way to get everyone comfortable, and then a snowstorm blew up. Plus something about a wild boar goring his horse.” The look Gawain gave Tristan wasn’t judging, but it was considering.
Galahad had an astonishing number of relatives, but of them all he seemed particularly close to Gawain; he’d explained it by saying that Gawain had fostered with his family and had been the only one to not try and rub his face in the mud, but obviously it went deeper than that. After all, gratitude wasn’t precisely something for which Galahad was known.
Moreover, Gawain was in his own right an honest, straightforward and capable man, and so Tristan was doubly concerned about keeping on the man’s good side. Which Gawain’s protectiveness made a bit tricky at times, but it was…a much less offensive obstacle than the usual machinations Tristan encountered in the higher ranks of Sarmatian hierarchy.
“I’m just curious as to how…not to insult, but you two couldn’t be more different.” The smile Gawain directed at his hands was rueful. “Honestly, sometimes I thought we’d have to trade away an entire herd to get someone to tolerate him.”
“It was my horse that was gored,” Tristan said after a moment. He slung his pack over his shoulder, then checked one last time that his hawk was fast asleep. By now Galahad should know better than to need a reminder to take care of her. “And my leg. The snow kept us from getting back to camp, and…if the cold is strong enough, it doesn’t hurt. You just want to sleep.”
When Gawain rose to accompany Tristan, he was a little pale around the lips. “But you didn’t, otherwise I wouldn’t be talking to you.”
“No, I didn’t. Galahad knows an impressive number of curses,” Tristan remarked, heading for his horse. “And he gets very insulted when people start to fall asleep on him.”
The dry humor Tristan forced into his words registered with Gawain, but didn’t carry much weight. Instead, the other man peered even harder at Tristan, as if looking for the scars, and then leaned back to shake his head. “The oddest things turn out to be useful…but it’s not just because of that, is it? Because—”
“—if it was, he’d be annoyed and he’d probably try to throw me out.” Whether giving or receiving, thankfulness was not something Galahad found especially welcome. And if Tristan was truthful, that was what had made him really pay attention to Galahad. When life was hard and violent as it was in Sarmatia, it was a rare man that turned down an advantage like a life-debt. And Galahad would’ve been well within his rights to exact it, but he’d thrown the offer back in Tristan’s face and had muttered something about not needing the help of someone who couldn’t even stay on his horse.
Possibly Tristan had been insulted as well. But he’d gotten over that, once he’d realized Galahad said things like that to keep from being the first one to be hurt. It wasn’t very sensible, but then, neither was trading a safe place at the rearguard for one in the front lines. It was just how each of them lived.
Gawain was ruminating on something, but he looked as if his burden had just been lightened a bit. “You are going to be good for him. And Lancelot can shut up.”
“We talk a good deal about him when he isn’t here. I suppose that’s how you tell whether someone’s truly important,” Tristan muttered.
* * *
Guinevere rode up to the two men waiting at the top of the hill, beaming cheerfully at both of them. She hoped Arthur hadn’t been an idiot and had taken the bed, since she’d never bothered to use it. “You do have lovely dawns here, I’ll admit. Though I think the color’s brighter in Britain.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Lancelot growled, jerking his horse around and starting off the moment she crested the hill. He certainly wasn’t one for mornings.
On the other hand, perhaps it was a little more complicated than that. Because Arthur was watching Lancelot in an entirely different way from how he had before. Suppressing a triumphant grin, Guinevere edged up beside him. “Not to your taste? He’s got a large family; we can probably find someone amenable.”
“I’m sure you could,” Arthur dryly replied, gaze flicking to Guinevere’s neck. She wasn’t embarrassed in the least, but he didn’t seem comfortable with it, so she pulled up her shirt to cover the mark. He stifled a snort and looked away, jaw tightening as he prepared to crush whatever suggestion she was about to make. “And while I appreciate your concern in this area—”
“Oh, he is. You never are this defensive when you aren’t really interested.” Good, Guinevere thought, and ignored the tiny voice telling her that maybe she should let Arthur decide for himself.
Men were all flawed, but he was possibly the best she’d ever meet. She’d seen him through a good deal, and now that they had the time and chance, she very much wanted to see him without the traces of gauntness in his face. That was a genuine feeling on her part.
And, she reminded the voice, a contented Arthur by definition worried less about the world. It was for his own good—he was the kind of man that couldn’t stay still and let things pass him by, and ever since they’d left Britain, Guinevere had spent long hours watching Arthur futilely trying to adjust to an unstructured life. He couldn’t, and whether that was due to innate personality or to years of military service, the fact was that it’d be unhealthy for him. On the other hand, she didn’t want to see him ragging himself to pieces over yet another war. Dealing with a companion would give him something to do without working him into the ground.
Well, not in an unpleasant way. “Hostilities haven’t broken out yet, but neither of us think that’ll last for much longer. This might be the only time you get to see Sarmatia peaceful within your lifetime. You might as well take advantage of it.”
“I intend to. But I’m not going to…” Arthur trailed off, looking at something ahead of them.
As annoying as Lancelot was, he did cut a fine figure against the sky. Guinevere didn’t bother hiding her smile.
“There’s something wrong in your reasoning, and I’ll figure it out sooner or later,” Arthur muttered, dropping his head. He nudged his horse into a slightly faster trot, since Lancelot also looked impatient and plainly wasn’t dealing well with it.
“My reasoning? Maybe you’re just overly suspicious.” The sun was rising fast and hot, and sweat was already beginning to bead on Guinevere’s neck. She briefly let go of the reins to clip up her braid so it wouldn’t trap heat against her skin.
Her horse started to wander and Arthur reached over to grab the reins, pulling it back on a straight line. “You’re still gripping too hard with your knees. It makes him think he should turn. And no, I don’t think I am. I’ve known you too long.”
Horse-riding was a surprisingly finicky art, but it was necessary that Guinevere master it. So she bit down on her frustration and obligingly let her legs relax. “You could at least find out if it’s a possibility. Wasn’t it you that told me the more choices available, the better?”
“Yes, but I didn’t mean that for…you’re not going to let this go, are you?” he sighed, leaning back. The wind abruptly picked up, throwing Lancelot’s call to hurry up in their faces. “I suppose we—I—should at least try to stay on his friendly side, given everything…but I doubt anything will happen.”
Guinevere didn’t reply to that, choosing instead to let Arthur drift slightly ahead of her so she could watch the conversation between him and Lancelot. It was a delicate situation, and she had no intention of being the one responsible for breaking it. Anyway, a longer wait made the gloating afterward even sweeter.
It looked as if it was going to be a beautiful day, she thought.