Author: Guede Mazaka
The mist had not yet burned off the fields when they rode out, which was as it should have been. Hunts should always begin before dawn, and in that Tristan included both hunting for necessity and for pleasure, the latter of which they were pursuing now.
They had no dogs with them, or any of the others, who intended to hunt boar to the north. In truth, Tristan had expected to find himself on his own, for where others preferred the excitement of chasing brute savagery, he liked to match his wits against the quieter, wilier denizens of the forest. But when he had turned to Arthur to take his leave, there had been Gawain riding up beside him.
“It’s been a while since I’ve had the taste of fresh deer,” the other man had explained. Another explanation had lain in the tight set of his shoulders and the restless way Galahad had fidgeted amongst the second group, always turning his horse away from empty space beside him.
Arthur had given his permission, gaze thoughtfully measuring all three men, before wheeling his horse in besides Lancelot. He had paused first, looking at Tristan, but though Tristan disliked riding to hunt with unsettled emotions, he could give no reason to reject Gawain that would hold up in the light. So Tristan had kept his peace.
Away from the others, Gawain spoke almost as little as Tristan did. He made no jokes and his gaze soberly tracked the forest as they rode towards a deer-path Tristan had marked earlier in the season. When Tristan loosed his hawk into the chilly air, Gawain did exclaim at her swift flight, but otherwise he seemed to have shed his cheerful, talkative self for Dagonet’s…no, that didn’t describe the change. Dagonet always had an air of unwavering calm. Whatever bound Gawain into this strange somberness was something else.
“Wouldn’t they group around the river?” Gawain idly said. The sound of their horses’ hooves clipping the frosted grass was louder than his voice.
“So do the wolves, and all the hungry eaters of the woods. The smarter ones head for a smaller waterhole, where the terrain is too rough for anyone else to climb.” Above their heads, the hawk wheeled left, confirming Tristan’s guess. He turned the head of his horse to follow her, and after a moment, so did Gawain.
Downriver, on which they’d just turned their backs, was where the rest of the knights were hunting. It made sense to keep the two groups widely separated lest a stray shot result in tragedy, but Tristan thought that reason unlikely to be the main one for explaining Gawain’s easy acquiescence.
A lock of his horse’s mane blew over his neck; he flipped it onto the right side and smoothed it down. “I thought you hated this part of the woods.”
“I broke an arm here, so I’m wary of it. But all places in Britain grow to be the same, don’t they?” The twist Gawain gave his words should have been optimistic. He knew that, and he ducked his head with how uncomfortable it made him.
For a moment he let Tristan look at him, their breaths steaming a fog in between them. Then he clucked to his horse and went on ahead.
Tristan didn’t pretend to be the bosom-brother of any of the other knights. He liked solitude when he liked solitude, and he liked company when he liked company, and whenever one like gave way to the other, he let it. That was his nature. Gawain, however, did better among men. He stood drained grey among the bodies of the dead on the battlefield, or, like now, he was washed pale by the starkness of the British forest. But put him near a campfire, surround him with the faces of others whether they be pale with exhaustion or red with cheer, and the color returned to him.
It was very curious that he chose to follow Tristan.
The hawk made another large loop, urging Tristan on. He tapped his heel against the side of his horse, and nudged it into the trail Gawain’s horse had broken.
* * *
Soon after they’d penetrated past the edge brush to the beginnings of the true woods, Gawain quietly relinquished his lead. He seemed content to let Tristan guide them and never questioned why, though Tristan might lead them through scratching briars and down frozen little streams that tested the agility of their horses. If he had asked, Tristan would have given him a reason strong enough to bet an army on, but he never did.
Once, when they had stopped to let Tristan read a jumble of prints pressed into a patch of snow, Gawain had become interested enough to speak. “Sometimes I think our lives are like that. We step over each other and wipe out the old, only to have everything melt in the spring.”
“But while the snow lies on the ground, it can be read,” Tristan mildly, awkwardly replied. He wasn’t accustomed to offering reassurance. That was what Gawain did, that was why men gathered around him though he might not have the raw pull of Arthur or the brilliance of Lancelot. “Gawain.”
The other man turned aside, and got off his horse. He led it over to a tree and began to tie the reins to a branch. “I’m sorry. You don’t need to be bothered with nonsense like that. It’s why you range out so far even in winter, isn’t it? To get away from the idiots we turn into when we’ve nothing to do.”
If it had been a lie, Tristan would have denied it. But it was truth of a sort, so he let the words stand. “We could have ridden a little farther.”
“But you’d rather not. I know—I saw you playing with your reins. It’s all right—this is your hunt anyway, and I know I pushed myself into it.” Gawain pulled his bow and quiver off of his saddle, then slung the latter over his back. He rested a hand on his saddle and then looked up at Tristan, hair hanging in icy tangles around his solemn face. “We’ll do it your way.”
“I don’t consider you an idiot,” Tristan said. What Gawain said was truth, and Tristan did judge it better to leave their horses here, but nevertheless he hesitated to get out of the saddle. At least on the horse, men had to move in connection with another living being. Off it and on their own feet, they could find it simple to move into complete isolation.
The corner of Gawain’s mouth turned slightly up. Then he ducked his head, looking at something—a loose boot-lacing. He bent down to knot it together while Tristan dismounted and led over his horse. “That’s very appreciated.”
Tristan snorted to himself. He made no sound, but he’d momentarily forgotten that in these temperatures, any breath showed as a white puff. And though he might be crude on occasion, Gawain was smarter and sharper-eyed than most of the knights who tried to laugh or sneer themselves through life. It was why Tristan respected him as he didn’t Lancelot.
“No, truly.” Gawain straightened and looked at the sky. The skin over his cheekbones and around his jaw tightened, making him gaunt as the leafless trees that surround them. “You never allow yourself to be tangled into other people’s messes, so you probably have a better view of all of us.”
Though Tristan’s company did not seem to be doing much good for Gawain. He shouldered his bow and waved the other man towards a small rocky outcropping in the distance. “That overlooks the watering-hole. There’s a large oak about fifty yards to the right—I’ll be there.”
“You want me to scare them towards you?” Gawain asked.
That had been Tristan’s original idea, but now as he regarded the other man, he thought otherwise. “No. No, if you see a shot, then take it.”
Surprise fluttered in Gawain’s eyes; he had some idea of what it meant already for Tristan to be showing this place to him, and now Tristan was essentially giving the kill to him. The highlight of the hunt, and where men found glory and catharsis and victory, however brief.
Gawain was going to refuse. The idea was plain in his face, and it was unnecessary for the kill didn’t particularly matter to Tristan, except on the field where it was a means of keeping his back unharmed. It was the stalking, the knowledge that his mind was working both in the past to piece together what had happened and in the future to shape what was to happen. There was a kind of power in that which satisfied him, and he needed no more.
“Why did you come hunting?” Tristan asked.
“To…” Whatever the answer was, it dragged on so long that it might as well not have been spoken. In the end, Gawain walked past Tristan and climbed the hill. It only took a few moments before his hunched form seemed a weathered projection of the rocks.
It looked wrong, Tristan thought. It looked as how he imagined he looked himself, only he was watching Gawain, and so it wasn’t right.
* * *
Sometime after Tristan had climbed into the tree, his hawk had swooped down to join him. He had draped part of his winter cloak over a branch to form a windbreak for her, but otherwise he made no attempt to protect her from the elements. She would have fought him if he had.
Across the way, Gawain shifted slightly so the angle at which his body crouched changed, but otherwise he betrayed no sign of his presence. The cramp would be tormenting his muscles now, and the cold biting where its hot ache did not, but the other man was bearing up under it well enough. Perhaps he was thinking, meditating on whatever had driven him out here to try and sample what peace he thought Tristan found. It was a fool’s errand, for one man could not be cut into another any more than death could be reversed, but Tristan found himself reluctant to condemn it.
Brown flickered on the edge of Tristan’s vision. He silently pivoted on his feet, easing down one knee as he lifted bow and arrow.
At the edge of the woods, where trees abutted the convergence of two hills too steep for anything but brush growth, a slender form slipped out into the open. A hart, fur coarse dark brown but throat so white it blended into the snow and created the illusion of a head perched on a mere strip of neck. The rack it wore had sixteen points, a trophy worthy of a king.
It came alone, a thing of fluid power. But Tristan’s eyes could detect a wavering, a wrongness, a dull look in the eye and a lack of spring in the step. This winter had been the hart’s last in more than one way.
He didn’t mourn for that, but he remembered the thought for later as he readied to loose his arrow. And then, just a heartbeat before his fingers let it fly, a thin streak of black darted from Gawain’s perch.
The other man’s arrow stung the hart in its haunches but did not bring it down. It bellowed and danced in agony, then readied itself to spring for the safety of the woods’ thick cover. But Tristan, cursing, had already adjusted his aim and shot. His arrow took the deer in the eye; blood splattered the snow away from the grotesque curve of its neck. Its head remained slung to the side for a moment, like a man who had suffered the indignity of a blow, and then, slow as the withering of grass, its knees crumpled. The right one went first, then the left, and it came down on its left side.
Tristan flapped his cloak to urge his hawk into flight, then dropped from the branches. The pulse in his temple was beating hotly and it was a sore test of his patience to ignore it.
Eventually the cold chilled away his anger, leaving behind only puzzlement as Gawain walked over. “That was your shot,” Tristan told him.
“But it’s your hunt,” Gawain snapped. Then he stepped back, looking from Tristan to the deer. His eyes rested longest on the blood congealing in the frozen grass before moving to the trees in the direction of the other hunting party. From there came the faint sound of a horn, and as it echoed, Gawain’s chin lifted. He leaned towards it.
Tristan felt his mouth begin to grimace, pressed his lips straight, and turned away. He set aside bow and arrow and drew out his knife. Then he knelt by the deer and straightened out its limbs, preparing to dress it. “What are you doing here?”
“What are you?” Gawain countered, squatting down besides Tristan. He hesitated, then deliberately turned his back on the horn.
The hide was tough, as was to be expected for one that had lived so long. Dealing with it occupied Tristan’s attention, and so he almost did not notice when Gawain began to help. The other man knew what to do and how to do it, and so Tristan’s quarrel was not in the man’s skills. Nevertheless it was difficult for Tristan to not shoulder Gawain aside.
The entrails spilled out, steaming so hot that Tristan could warm his hands over them. He did so, enjoying that simple pleasure before he cut off the choicest bits of the viscera to set aside for his hawk. Once she had come swooping down to the pile, he turned back to the deer only to see that Gawain had taken over the main of the task. For a moment, Tristan sat on his heels with hands pressed against the handle of his sheathed knife.
Then he shook his head, nearly laughing, and got up. “I’m going for the horses.”
Gawain stopped him by catching hold of his trousers. When Tristan turned, Gawain’s fingers slipped so the streaks of blood could be seen.
Seeing that gave Gawain pause, but only briefly. He dropped his hold and rocked back to look up at Tristan, squinting against the winter glare of the sun. “I’m not…this is…this was unfair to you, but I’d like to make it not so. What am I doing wrong?”
There was a name Tristan wanted to throw at Gawain in order to test the sincerity of the other man’s words, but it stays in his mouth because Gawain tilts his head and Tristan can see the lingering traces of surprise on Gawain’s face. Whatever the other man had planned, it had not turned out as he had expected, either.
Tristan knelt again, and took Gawain’s knife from him. Then he picked up the deer liver, flipped it and carved off the juiciest part. “This is my hunt. And you’re intruding. You can’t…I can’t hunt for you.”
“So I should learn again?” Gawain said, eyebrows rising.
“No, you know how.” Though Tristan might know and understand much, he knew it the way he knew it. Explaining meant trying to make people know it, only so they knew it the way they knew it. “Listen. I am fine out here. But—if there were two of me, I wouldn’t…I don’t know what you’re doing here. When I’m out here, I’m here with nobody. Not even myself.”
And when he was in the garrison with the other knights, he looked at men like Gawain and he wondered with the look that Gawain was now giving him. Only Gawain’s look was changing as he stared at Tristan, some other knowledge telling him the rest of Tristan’s meaning and then more besides, so his eyes softened and the sober mask of his face cracked, melted.
He let his hands drop between his legs and his head dip, then looked up again. And then he reached up and dragged his fingertips lightly over the side of Tristan’s face. “What you see never tells you all about a man. I’d learned that lesson just before I came out here, but I’ve already forgotten.”
Tristan had meant to offer Gawain the liver, or so he dimly remembered, but whatever his intentions had been were blurred in the heat of Gawain’s mouth pressed to the corner of his lips, the underside of his jaw. He did not make the mistake of turning his head to catch Gawain’s mouth; what had brought Gawain here was still too fresh, and Tristan read but did not take the leavings of others.
What this was, this mad scrambling tangle, was not taking but some strange meeting in between times. Their breath alternately warmed and chilled, clouded their sight as they ran bloody-sticky hands over each other’s bodies, smearing their clothing. The wind bit into every scrap of revealed skin so they were forced to huddle together rather than hold, grappling in between and around awkward joints, mouthing over half-frozen hair. Their muscles were sore from the long motionless wait and they spasmed, dropping Tristan to a knee when Gawain’s fingers slid between his trousers and his prick. Raking a gasp from Gawain as Tristan pressed open-mouthed kisses to the other man’s neck, hand rubbing what parts of Gawain’s chest, stomach, thighs that he could reach beneath the heavy wools and heavier leather.
Tristan came first, so quick he could feel his cheek burning the flesh of Gawain’s throat. But no laugh came from the face buried against Tristan’s shoulder—only harsh deep breaths, and as Tristan stroked and caressed as best he could, Gawain’s fingers tightened harder and harder on his arms. The moment Gawain bucked and splashed a different kind of sticky warmth over Tristan’s blood-crusted fingers, Tristan’s hands went numb.
He pressed them without thinking against the warm flesh of Gawain’s thighs, but when he realized what he was doing and tried to pull away, the other man seized his wrists. Gawain held him there till their hands were thawed and able to work again, and then for a moment longer.
* * *
“Are you happy out here?” Gawain asked.
They were wrapping up the meat they could carry in the hide, divided in two so their horses would be equally burdened. The question made Tristan’s hand slip a little on the thong he was using to bind up his share.
“I am,” he eventually said. He let his mouth quirk a smile. “I’m no martyr.”
“I didn’t think you were.” Most of the flush had died from Gawain’s face, but a trace of red lingered. It made his eyes dance, poor though the light was getting. Then he dropped his head and his voice, and spoke seriously again. “Are you happy when you stand at the edge of the tavern, and watch us boast like the drunken idiots we are, sometimes?”
This time, Tristan finished his knot, but after that he sat and thought instead of shifting it onto his horse. He picked some of the blood-mixed-come from beneath his nail, and wondered idly if anyone would notice or if they’d only see it as the filth that was ever-present in their lives.
“That’s your hunt,” he quietly replied. “You cut out the worst from us, when it comes out in the middle of drunken boasting.”
“Maybe I tire of that from time to time. Maybe I’d rather spend some time elsewhere. Maybe not even hunting.” Gawain tied the last knot on his burden and sat back, rolling the strain from his shoulders. The honest desire in his eyes pinned Tristan more surely than a thousand jibs would. “Perhaps simply riding.”
Tristan’s mouth was slightly dry. He swallowed and picked up his hide-wrapped meat to fasten it to his saddle. “Why would you do that?”
“Because hunting ends up leaving men alone, and I’d like to have company.” For all Gawain’s directness, he could not look directly at Tristan. Instead he busied himself with securing his meat, and then with mounting his horse. “Your company.”
He leaned over and unknotted the reins of Tristan’s horse, then held them while looking back at Tristan. It wasn’t necessary; any knight that survived could at least mount a horse without needing assistance. But then, assistance was not what Gawain’s gesture meant.
The hawk suddenly wheeled and dropped from the sky, and Tristan raised his arm to take her on it. That gave him time to think, but even after he’d settled her, he still hesitated. Gawain’s eyes dropped from his, and then the other man began to let the reins slip through his fingers.
Tristan abruptly kicked his foot into the stirrup and swung himself onto his horse. He jarred his hawk so she screamed and battered at him with her wings, but she was soothed soon enough. And, when the screen of her feathers was no longer blocking his sight, he saw that Gawain was still holding the reins.
He took them from the other man without looking and turned his horse back to the garrison. At first Gawain followed behind him, but gradually the other man eased up till he was riding beside Tristan, and Tristan neither found nor wanted any objections to it.