|Wolfskin Prologue: Steppes
Author: Guede Mazaka
Arthur was on the point of calling off the patrol and heading back to camp when he caught the scent, so faint it merely whispered against his instincts. He lifted his head into the light breeze, sniffing, while beneath him the saddle creaked and the horse uneasily nickered. Riding was a tricky thing when almost every horse was born knowing they should throw him off, but fortunately, there were ways and exceptions.
Rustling grass and a blast of steaming breath at Arthur's elbow signaled Tristan's horse. "Young. Frightened and bleeding."
Nodding, Arthur twisted about and waved over Bedivere. "Go ahead with the rest. Tristan and I are going to check something, and then we'll ride back to camp."
Bedivere was a year Arthur's senior in age and centuries in experience, but he only bent his commander a short, sharp look before whirling about and cantering off. Arthur turned and watched as the knight gathered the others and herded them back toward camp; some of the knights on this patrol were so young they still hadn't learned to properly manage their too-long sword-scabbards. Occasionally, the group would slow so one red-faced boy could be swept off the ground, roughly shaken free of grass, and then deposited back in the saddle in a single motion. One of Bedivere's favorite stunts, and one that stood him in good stead.
"It'll take them a while at that rate." Tristan's horse skittered at a passing shadow, and he absently reined it in, one hand tangled in its mane and slowly combing through the coarse hair. His gaze took in the sere rockiness of the land, the bird passing overhead and the horses edging into the dark. Then he abruptly turned his horse about and set it at a brisk trot, leaving Arthur to scramble after.
From any other man, the action would have smacked of disrespect and Arthur would have had to do something about it, but with Tristan, it was only focusing on the business at hand. So Arthur didn't mind the slight eccentricities.
He followed the other man as Tristan led them over the ridge and down into a clump of scraggly, sway-trunked trees whose bare branches seemed hung with the growing stench of angry fear. Once they were properly inside the grove, Arthur dismounted and took out a dagger in case the situation wasn't right for words. Tristan did the same, and without consulting with each other, they fanned out to slowly sweep through the trees.
When they found him, Arthur almost had his head bashed in for his efforts.
Luckily, his peripheral vision noticed the flicker of black in the dark shadows and he was able to duck in time. The body hurtled past him, flipped over a root and crumpled into a filthy, bruised groan. Behind it, Tristan already had his sword out, its curve matching the fragment of silver crescent that garnished the sky.
"Don't," Arthur hissed. He'd almost lost his balance in his dodge sideways; his knee screamed, but it held and he pivoted around to face the new one.
A boy. For some reason, girls never seemed to suffer this fate. Or perhaps they did, but they were simply able to hide it better.
Black hair, wildly curling around sticks and dirt and dead leaves. Bloody feet and palms, and an assortment of cuts and bruises showing wherever rags didn't hang loose on youth-raw boniness. One of the less promising first impressions...but the eyes were fierce as lightning over water. And watching Arthur, wary and pained and pleading for something that furiously tried to crack into him.
He got down on his hands and knees, then remembered his dagger and slowly put it aside. In response, Tristan was tensing up, ready to intervene, but the boy didn't move. A bit encouraged, Arthur opened his mouth--and croaked. He'd learned some of the Sarmatian tongues as a boy, but forgotten them all when his father had died and then had to relearn them when he'd been sent to Uther's birth-land. They were throat-grabbing languages of slippery roughness, and if he approached them too quickly, they were liable to turn snake-quick on him.
Arthur flushed, licked his lips and tried again. "Artorius Castus. I know what you are."
The boy flinched, then set his shoulders and chin in a pose he probably thought was belligerent. It mostly accentuated his gauntness; he hadn't eaten in a few days, at least.
"And I think you know what I am," Arthur added. He spread out his hands on the ground, palms-up, and held them like that for a breath. Then he crawled forward and reached for the boy. "Where did they hurt you?"
"What would you know about that?" The voice had taken as much of a beating as the rest, but it wasn't lacking at all in bravery. "You're a Roman."
And this was even harder than speaking Sarmatian. Arthur debated the merits for a few moments, but when he saw the determined disbelief in the boy's eyes, he knew nothing short of real, true proof was going to be enough. Sighing, he closed his eyes. Rolled his shoulders. Tried to relax and to keep himself in check at the same time.
It didn't work. Like every other time, he came back to himself weighting down a shivering, feverish body, with his teeth poised over a jugular pulse and his mind full of hate. Snarl wrenching his lips back, he yanked himself to the side and pretended to glare at the gnarled branches while his vision faded back in and his sanity restored itself.
"Oh. That's how."
It took several minutes of deep, controlled breathing before Arthur believed himself calm enough to face the source of that low, shocked exclamation, and even then, he had trouble keeping his eyes from drifting to the boy's throat. Arthur forced himself to stare at a point a little above the eyelashes of the boy's left eye. "Yes, I'm a Roman officer, but my father was a Sarmatian knight. I'm here to collect knights for service to the Empire."
"And they'd take--"
"They don't know. Or they've heard, but as far as I know, I'm the only officer that believes the stories, and that's because I have to." Arthur shrugged and went to retrieve his dagger. "Romans are generally very practical. We don't believe anything we don't see for ourselves."
Tristan was growing restless, though he didn't betray himself by any movements. Only a slight shift in scent. According to the low angle of the moon, it was late, and they'd have to hurry back if they didn't want to be questioned by a guard fresh from the bedsheets and cranky as an old nanny goat. Arthur preferred to bring in conscripts like the one in front of him under cover of darkness, just in case something happened. Tiredness and poor light were excuses that served for almost all situations.
A sliver of intelligence peeked out from behind the caution in the boy's face. "So it's either be hunted down by my own tribe, or go with you and be slave to the Empire?"
"Fifteen years. It's not forever. And you will be treated well. When you're discharged, you can go wherever you like. There are lands that have never even heard a whisper about what we are." If Arthur had to fight for every inch of that himself, he'd make it so. He'd never realized what a man's mind could be capable of until he'd come to Rome, and he'd never realized what a man's unreasoning hate could be capable of until he'd been sent to his first post. His mother had always made sure he'd been treated as equal to anyone, though not quite in the same way, and it'd been a bone-deep shock to find that the native Sarmatians could love fierce and tight in one moment, then howl for the blood of their brother or son in the next. When they found out, and it seemed they always found out, sooner or later.
Rocking back on his heels, the boy considered the matter. He picked at his nails, which were ragged down to the quick and scabbed over with thick crusts of dried blood. "Not much of a choice, is it? Them or you?"
Arthur could almost feel the wind change as the point turned in his favor. Instead of answering, he undid his cloak and held it out.
For a long second, they watched each other, and Arthur suddenly had the feeling that he didn't entirely have the upper hand. It was the sensation of slipping a little, fingers sliding on the thin edge.
"Lancelot." Newly-named, the boy painfully hauled himself across the separating space and bundled himself into Arthur's cloak. His neck, beaten rough tan by sun and wind, had a sickly undertone of white, and when his cheek brushed against Arthur's hand, it felt like the searing air just above a fire.
Arthur had been waiting for the eventual collapse, and so it was easy to catch Lancelot. Even easier to carry him back to the horses, for he weighed so little he seemed to float in Arthur's arms. He was rank with the inevitable result of several days living like a dying animal, and the smell seemed to clot in Arthur's nose as they rode back to camp.
"Halt! Who goes--" called the sentry.
"Artorius Castus." A second for the recognition to sink in, and then Arthur nudged his horse onwards. They were used to him bringing in half-starved youths in the middle of the night, and in fact, if he didn't show up with one, they teased him for days. The price of success, the camp commandant would grunt. That was one who wasn't so dulled by the distance from Rome that he could manage the effort to wonder about Arthur's methods, but the numbers of the conscripts kept increasing, and in the end, that was all that mattered to the high command.
Tristan slipped up beside Arthur as they headed toward their stables, turning a coolly assessing eye on Lancelot, who'd dozed off. "Not more than a week. He won't know anything about it."
"He seems to learn very fast." Arthur shifted his burden so Lancelot's breath wouldn't land on his ear. He looked down at the sleeping face. "Not too young, after all. Only a little more so than you."
"They threw me out sooner. Where I come from is far from where you found me." But Tristan spoke as he would any truth, and didn't lace his voice with any contempt. That was one of the reasons Arthur preferred to have him along whenever they went after an outcast. "I'll go wake the surgeon. His ankle is twisted."
With that, the other man turned his horse away and vanished into the shadowy lines of buildings. Arthur slowed his own mount, marveling as always at Tristan's abilities, but when Lancelot stirred, moaning a little, Arthur picked up his pace and hurried to the stables.
When Lancelot woke again, it was to find some bastard Roman wrenching agony out of his ankle while that odd quiet-voiced knight and another one held him down. "What--don't--ow--you sons of whores--"
"Well, his mouth isn't broken," muttered the second knight, who had long wild brown hair and hands that could have crushed rocks. At least, that was what it felt like they were doing to Lancelot's shoulder.
"Stay still," said the first one to Lancelot. He followed up the command with a low, low growl which reverberations seemed to shake Lancelot's bones in their flesh casings.
Suddenly, almost hysterically terrified, Lancelot instantly flicked his eyes to the Roman, but to his immense shock, that man didn't seem to have noticed anything. He glanced back at the knights, who gave him looks that promised a beating if he didn't settle.
Having no other choice, Lancelot gritted his teeth and tried not to cry so hard that it was really noticeable. But it was hard, whimpers beating against the backs of his teeth, pain shooting straight up his spine as the Roman went from leg to ribs, and in the end, he more or less passed out from the strain of the conflicting impulses. Not that his vision blacked out, or that he fainted, but for all intents and purposes he might as well have. Nothing he saw or felt or heard registered from the time the Roman threaded a needle through his flesh to the time that he vaguely heard the three men leaving.
After a while, Lancelot managed to roll over and sit up, which was when he discovered that he'd been roughly washed as well and moved from table to the most comfortable bed he'd ever been on by far. There was a hunk of dried-out bread and a water pitcher on a nearby table. Hunger unexpectedly whiplashed to life and he frantically scrabbled for it, cramming chunks of bread into his mouth and drinking straight from the pitcher.
"Don't do that so quickly. You'll only get sicker." Art--Artorius stood in the doorway, halfway through stripping off his armor.
"Where have you been?" Lancelot countered. He slowed a little, but his stomach whined so much that he still made a mess.
Hands seized his wrists and made him eat at a tortuous crawl. "I had to report to the commandant."
"Oh. Oh...this is your room?" With slightly better appreciation and a much fuller belly, Lancelot took a good look around. His fingers slipped on the pitcher handle, and only Arthur's fast reflexes kept it from shattering.
Face unnaturally blank, Arthur set it down, then wiped off Lancelot's mouth with the back of his hand and force-marched Lancelot over to the bed. Then he resumed undressing. "Yes. You would've been put with the other knights, but the transport ships are late and so we're overflowing with soldiers ready to be sent out."
"Generous of you." Lancelot gingerly laid back, trying not to strain anything too badly. He sighed as his cheek touched the soft furs and woolens.
Arthur tossed him a look that was pleased, guilty and wary all at once. A most tangled man, though he seemed decisive enough. "You can have the bed," he said, mouth twisted up with irony. "Though I'll have to smoke the fleas out tomorrow, I think."
As sorry as Lancelot was feeling right now, the attempt at laying guilt on him rolled right off the overwhelming sense of warm safe softness. In any case, his attitude had always been that if someone was willing to offer a sacrifice in his favor, it'd be rude not to accept. "You Romans have worse pests. Like greed."
Silence lurched between them, and for a second, Lancelot thought he'd gone too far. But then Arthur chuckled--tired, stressed, but definitely amused--and it was fine.
The last thing Lancelot remembered was the rustle of Arthur's clothes as he settled into a chair, and the whisper of a strong breeze outside.