|Wolfskin I: Sarmatia
Author: Guede Mazaka
The sun was shining directly into Lancelot's eyes, but he couldn't shift away because Arthur was sleeping like a huge log right where he needed to go. At seventeen, Lancelot had gained a respectable height, but he was still as skinny as his sword. Arthur, on the other hand, was tall and well-muscled without being a lumbering bear like Bors--though that wasn't to say that Arthur couldn't seem a hulking menace when he wanted to.
Fortunately, after five years in Sarmatia, the other Roman officers had learned to leave Arthur alone and not to question his methods, which were much more successful than the norm. So there was little call for that sort of intimidation. It helped that Arthur had managed to keep back a squadron of knights from being shipped off, claiming he needed their help to find his way around the land. A bit of a lie now, because he knew Sarmatia as well as any of his knights, but Lancelot wasn't about to argue. Not when he didn't have to leave for some foreign land, and Arthur's fellow officers watched him and the other knights as if they suspected that any moment, Arthur would turn his men onto them like dogs at deer.
Of course, Arthur wouldn't, but Lancelot rather liked the thought that it was a possibility.
"You're making the grass rustle. Can't you ever lie still?" Arthur's face remained still--all but his lips, which had sneaked into a smile.
In response, Lancelot shoved an elbow into Arthur's side and made the other man sit up with a gasp. As soon as the space was clear, Lancelot flopped into it and gave fervent thanks for the shade of Arthur's shadow. His eyes had been beginning to burn, both from the sun and from the strong, icy breeze. "If I wanted to."
"We get a half-day, and you don't want to?" Arthur was patently disbelieving.
"Well, it's hard to do that when you're thinking so loudly. Worse than Bors' snoring." Lancelot rolled onto his belly and pillowed his chin on his arms. "Do you ever stop worrying?"
Typical Arthur sigh, matched perfectly to furrowed brow. For such a good soldier, Arthur was very bad at a fighting man's essential ability to live in the present. Lancelot supposed that the foresight that spawned so much brooding came with being a good general, and Arthur was that; in the beginning, the ranking Roman officer of the camp had tried a few obvious attempts at getting rid of his annoyingly upright subordinate, sending a poorly-equipped and supported Arthur against the occasional rebellion, but it hadn't worked.
Curious, that. Somehow, Arthur had gotten Sarmatians to follow him against their fellow countrymen. More than once.
"I'll stop when the world is perfect and there's nothing to worry about," Arthur replied. He wasn't entirely joking.
All right, if Lancelot really thought about it, he could understand how Arthur did what he did. Most of the Sarmatian tribes had bad blood between them, and it wasn't that difficult to set them against each other. If the Romans didn't slip up and badly annoy them once in a while, the tribes probably never would unite at all. And to be perfectly honest, Lancelot thought he could fight another Sarmatian if he absolutely had to. He loved his land and its traditions, but his body still remembered the way his people had treated him.
And then there was Arthur. If the rebels and raiders had won, then Arthur would have had to die, because the man would never surrender. He'd have died, and his knights would've gone to some block-headed Roman who still thought anything could be won with a simple mention of 'Rome,' and...
Lancelot disliked where his thoughts were going, so he cut them off at the root. So far, it hadn't been a choice he'd had to make, and so he wasn't going to worry about it until it was. If that ever happened. Arthur was very good at picking his men so he didn't pit father against son or cousin against cousin.
That always amused Lancelot. His friend's practicality and military sense, plus his slavery to duty, usually led him to be far more devious and backhanded than his cherished philosophies and religion said he should be. Which didn't quite follow to the black fits to which Arthur was prone. Whatever his father had been, however well Arthur had come to know his father's homeland...when it came down to it, Arthur was more Roman than most of the Romans Lancelot had met. So of course he was going to be good at warfare. Why he persisted in mourning the enemy, Lancelot couldn't understand. It was hard enough just dealing with their own dead and their survivors. People did what they had to, and that was all life required of them.
"You're smiling," Arthur commented. "Making fun of me?"
He reached down and affectionately ran his fingers through Lancelot's hair, grinning as if he wasn't doing anything extraordinary.
Well, he wasn't, but it still felt as if he'd set Lancelot's nerves to shivering. To cover up his reaction, Lancelot batted away Arthur's hand and smacked him in the shoulder. "All right, all right. Worry. But you could at least tell someone. Keep bottling it up and someday you'll burst."
"And I suppose you want me to tell you." Undaunted, Arthur chucked Lancelot under the chin like he would a particularly mischievous boy.
Lancelot wanted to bite that hand. In what kind of mood, he wasn't quite sure. So instead of doing that, he sulked just out of reach. "You see anyone else around?"
"I could take a walk. Dagonet's just over the hill." Still amused, though that faded with a gratifying speed once Arthur noticed how annoyed Lancelot was. He laid back down next to Lancelot and folded his arms under his head, pensiveness once again stretching over his face. "It's Galahad. He's not adjusting well."
Youngest one, of course. Lancelot had no illusions as to the kind of tag-along he must have made those first few weeks, stumbling around and trying to learn control without giving everyone away, but he was certain he hadn't been nearly as bad as that brat. He snorted into the grass poking up his nose. "Who didn't go through that? I think he's just trying to be difficult."
"Lancelot." Arthur's voice was both an aural eye-roll and a plea for understanding.
"He thinks that his family will take him back, that it was all just a misunderstanding. Look, Arthur--we've all tried to talk to him. Gawain keeps talking to him, even though it's obviously useless. He won't listen." The wind stirred, raking invisible fingers along the ground so the grass parted in irregular grooves. It brought smells of dirt, smoke, leather. Sweat-spiced horseflesh from their hobbled mounts, who were quietly grazing a few yards away. Artorius Castus, which was a tingling mix of oiled metallic sharpness and musky earth.
Lancelot suddenly grew tired of lying around and pushed himself up into a sitting position. He vaguely registered Arthur's startled jerk, but he was more preoccupied with the heat flushing through his mind. It began to leak into his cheeks, so he bunched his knees to his chest and used them to hide that. "He blames you, you know. Says you stole him away and forced him to join the Roman army."
"I did, more or less." Recrimination was a boon companion to the tiny anxiety-crinkles Arthur was already getting at the corners of his eyes. Only twenty-two, and already life was etching him away.
"Not you alone," Lancelot snapped, feeling unaccountably protective. And ridiculous, since Arthur didn't need that. "Well, yes, you were the one to bring him in, but if you hadn't, some centurion would've come along and done the same thing. I figured out that years ago."
Arthur's shoulders relaxed, but his eyebrows flew up. "So you don't blame me?"
"You are unbelievably stupid sometimes." It was Lancelot's turn to do some eye-rolling, and he did so with great glee.
Mock-snarling, Arthur lunged for him, and they spent the next five minutes wrestling like morons, all laughing and knees slipping into soft spots and hair being pulled as if they were women. Eventually, Arthur managed to trap Lancelot's arms behind his back, which put them chest to chest. When Lancelot discovered no amount of wriggling was going to get him free, he finally gave in to the urge and sank his teeth into the side of Arthur's jaw. They'd known each other long enough to not expect a fair fight with each other.
He'd expected Arthur to curse and shove him away, then laugh. Ruffle his damned curls again.
Instead, Arthur froze. Then he let out his breath, a little bit at a time, as if he was trying to hold it but couldn't. Lancelot's cheeks began to warm up again, and this time, his gut joined them. He couldn't stop staring at the blurry stubbled patch of skin in front of him.
"That hurts." Arthur enunciated each word very carefully, as if he was afraid they would break once his lips let them go.
Lancelot nodded. The motion slid his mouth from the line of Arthur's jaw down to the underside of Arthur's chin. He decided to sniff, though for what reason he immediately forgot, and then his head seemed to be floating on waves of salt-spiced scent. His lips tentatively nipped, then repeated the gesture with a little more force when Arthur didn't do anything.
It was a telling measure of how far gone they were in the strange mood that neither of them had even noticed the approaching horseman. Both of them sprang away at the same time and turned flustered faces to a clearly amused Gawain.
Arthur recovered first, but then, he had a lot of practice at making his face like stone. "What happened?"
"Nothing much. Galahad just annoyed a legionary, but he went for a ride later and was so angry he managed to knock himself off his horse. Bit of a bump, and he's woozy, so we dropped him off at the surgeon's. But the legionary's centurion would like a word with you." Gawain spoke in a light enough tone, but it was detectably strained.
And there went the nice half-day of rest. Of course Arthur immediately made for the horses, and there was nothing for it but for Lancelot to follow. If someone didn't take that brat in hand, Lancelot thought, he was going to do it himself. And at this point, he wasn't feeling like being too careful. Galahad kept up his antics like he was and they were all going to be in the shit.
Arthur always was in a hurry when one of his knights was in trouble, which was both an endearing and irritating trait. While he was waving away the dust Arthur's horse kicked up, Lancelot suspected he was leaning toward the latter feeling. "That half-grown jackass."
"Don't call Galahad that." The sharpness of Gawain's tone was a little unexpected, given his general good nature. In fact, it seemed to surprise even him, and when he went on, it was in a decidedly confused voice. "Anyway, he seems to have saved you from making a fool of yourself. Courting?"
"Shut up." On the other hand, Arthur had a point about rushing away. Lancelot dug his heels into his horse's sides and went to catch up with the other man with Gawain's knowing laugh burning into his back.
Galahad restlessly tugged at the bandage he'd had wrapped about his head. It was itchy and too tight and sat too low on his forehead so whenever he needed to blink, he practically had to drag his eyelids down with his fingers. And it didn't help that Tristan, sitting in the corner, never seemed to blink. "Would you stop watching me?"
"I'm facing away from you."
"Are not." He actually was, but Galahad couldn't tell that from the feel of things. It was like a thousand sleepy eyes were crawling all over his body. "Look, he said I'd be fine. So go away."
"He also said it would be good to keep an eye on you for a few days." Tristan produced a knife and whetstone from somewhere and proceeded to sharpen his blade with long teeth-clenching scrapes. Which settled it: he was deliberately trying to annoy Galahad.
Well, Galahad wasn't going to give him the satisfaction. Tristan could just sit there, calm as a lake on a windless day, and play with his stupid knives, and--
"He's still here? I thought you said he was fine."
Wonderful. They'd sent for Arthur. Galahad had to clamp his hands around the edge of the bed-frame in order to keep from...he didn't know. Bolting out the window. Getting up and punching Arthur, and then doing something that would definitely get him killed by the other knights. Curling up in the bed and crying because his mother had had long soft hair and he was starting to forget its color.
"He is fine. But--" Whiny surgeon.
Gawain's mutter. "We thought you'd want a word with him."
A flicker of browns and blacks caught Galahad's eye: Tristan, soundlessly putting away knife and whetstone and slipping out as Arthur walked in, Lancelot sidling at his heels like always. Gawain's concerned face briefly popped in as well, but Tristan caught his shoulder and escorted him away. Then came back and did the same thing to a frustrated-looking Lancelot.
That feeling Galahad could understand, though he couldn't the apparent reason behind it. Arthur was half-Sarmatian, yet he still managed to go in and wreck the families of his own people. And the sympathy in his eyes rubbed Galahad raw every time it showed up. What did he know? For that matter, what did he care about? Rome. Only Rome. If he would have just let Galahad go after Galahad had healed--but no, the empire needed cavalry, even if the cavalry didn't give a shit about the empire.
The chair creaked as Arthur sat in it. Galahad hoped it would break.
"I had a talk with the centurion of that legionary--"
"It was not my fault," Galahad broke in. "And you saw that soldier, didn't you? He was twice my size."
Arthur stopped and patiently waited for Galahad to go on, as if he were expecting the defensive torrent. It was grating. Like getting skin sliced off with a stone knife.
"And...and I hate this. Those Romans barely fill a third of the camp, and yet they lord it over everyone. Oh, I'm sorry--that includes you, doesn't it?" The pent-up anger had hold of Galahad's tongue now, and the more he spoke, the harder it pulled at him. "It's not fair! It's not! Why do I have to go and fight for some city that I'm never even going to see, whose people probably don't even know where Sarmatia is? Why? Why me?"
Arthur clasped his hands together and stared at them, then lifted his head and solemnly looked at Galahad. "This isn't some kind of personal grudge-match. You weren't singled out by anyone. Rome's decrees are binding on everyone, though if you would give us a chance, I don't think you'd find us as bad as you seem to think."
"Stop lying to me. I'm not starving and half-dead anymore; I can tell when you are. You don't fool me." Galahad crossed his arms over his chest because it was starting to feel as if it'd crack with the next breath. His next words straggled out in a whisper. "I just wanted to see them again."
"You aren't allowed to leave camp by yourself," Arthur said, sounding as if he was struggling not to argue. Grooves appeared around his mouth and eyes, and he suddenly looked much older than he was. "Galahad...I know how difficult it is. I lost both my parents when I was ten. But there's a reason I don't let knights go back to their villages."
Snorting, Galahad moved closer to the wall. His head was beginning to ache abominably now, with the pain centering around his right temple. "You're afraid we'll desert."
"No!" The word spat from Arthur's mouth with all the force of an artillery bolt. He rose a little from his chair, clenched fists first, but caught himself and sat back. "No," he repeated, a little more calmly. "I'm afraid your family will kill you--no, hear me out. Once I had a knight...like us...who heard about his father falling ill and wanted to go visit him. The knight wasn't due to leave for another month, so I went and escorted him out."
Arthur swallowed and closed his eyes, like his head had just throbbed with the same excruciating stab that had shot through Galahad's. "We got away, but I had to kill half the village to do it and the knight ended up dying of his wounds a week later. And then a cohort went out and slaughtered whatever villagers were left for rebellion."
"Well, his village couldn't have been like mine." Galahad saw the plain incredulity in Arthur's eyes and bit down on his lip. As furious as he felt, he could see that taking it out on Arthur wasn't going to further his cause.
Especially since this was the only time he'd seen Arthur shaky and without something to distract him. His gut told him that this was a chance he needed to run with, and soon. "Arthur, please. I saw some faces that didn't agree with what they were doing. I know I did. I know if I can just go back and show that I'm still alive, that I'm well--"
Outside, someone kicked the wall, and Arthur jerked out of his mood. His shoulders set and his lips thinned, though his eyes remained deceptively soft. "Galahad, no. I can't."
"Then get out. Get out!" Galahad started to throw the blanket at Arthur, then remembered that the other man was, after all, his superior officer. And as a fucking non-Roman, he could be flogged.
A tiny particle of rationality mentioned that Arthur had never, ever done that to any man, that in fact Arthur had never been anything but unfailingly kind and polite, but a much larger part was screaming that Arthur was keeping Galahad from at least saying farewell to his family. And that part was currently ruling.
For a moment, it seemed as if Arthur was going to stay for yet more arguing, but then his back slumped into a tired curve and he got up. His hand twitched, almost reaching out, but it fell back to his hip as he turned and left. As he passed through the door, a dark shadow swiveled out of a corner and fell into step slightly behind and to the step. Whatever Lancelot thought he was going to get from Arthur, he was going to be sorely disappointed.
So was Galahad, because a moment later Tristan stepped back in, followed by Gawain. "Come on. We're going to miss dinner," Gawain said.
He tried to take Galahad by the arm, but Galahad shook him off and got up by himself. The hurt on the other man's face sparked a bit of regret, but that was quickly swallowed up by the surge of bile in the back of Galahad's throat. Field rations. As if that was anything to look forward to. And then later, everyone was going to be running around like idiots, getting ready to send off another regiment of knights to go die on alien soil.
Galahad stopped on that and chewed the thought while he allowed Gawain to lead him away. Everyone would be busy. With the regiment that was leaving.
Arthur stayed kneeling for another five minutes, but when he was no more peaceful than when he had begun, he had to give up. Soon he had to go his evening rounds, and he hadn't yet gotten his dinner.
"You haven't eaten. They were asking about that." Like Arthur's thoughts made flesh, Lancelot swung into the room, laden down with enough food that some of it almost certainly had to have been snitched. He tossed a hunk of bread to Arthur and set the rest down on a table, then produced a sizable flagon of wine from beneath his cloak. "Aren't beginning to think you're too good to eat with the rankers, are you?"
Good-humored tone, but in Arthur's current mood, the words themselves bit like wet leather whiplashing over his flesh. He flinched, tried to hide it, and noticed too late that Lancelot had been watching.
"I was making a joke," the other man muttered, voice tighter than it'd been before. He almost broke the flagon with the force with which he slammed it down.
Arthur caught himself in mid-sigh and swallowed, rubbing at the bridge of his nose with his fingers. "It wasn't you. I'm sorry."
"You apologize far too much. I keep thinking that someday, you're going to get tired of that and explode like Greek fire in a woodpile." Lancelot made a point of sprawling out in his chair. Sometimes he seemed more smug cat than anything else, and Arthur wanted dearly to smack some discretion into him...except then he had a tendency to do something so brave and loyal that Arthur felt his heart shrivel in on itself with fear. He didn't deserve that much devotion. He couldn't be trusted with that much.
A knife handle tapping the table edge brought Arthur back to the present; Lancelot now looked resigned instead of frustrated. "Arthur. I'm looking forward to the day you lose your temper. You'd be healthier if you weren't so damned calm all the time."
"I seem to be healthy enough as it is." To prove his point, Arthur picked up the wine and a nearby water pitcher, poured himself a well-watered cup and drained it in one swallow. He tried not to gasp too much afterward. Raised his eyebrow in challenge.
Face blank, Lancelot calmly reached across and took Arthur's cup. He filled both it and his own, then downed them one after another without pausing for breath. Afterwards, he returned Arthur's and leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest. "Well?"
"I feel like I'm fifteen again." Arthur pressed down on his twitching lips, but in the end he couldn't hold in the laugh.
"See? You look much better when you're not frowning." Snickering, Lancelot sat up straight and started dividing up the food into two rather unequal portions. He casually took the larger share for himself, and when Arthur bent a sharp look on him, he merely shrugged. "I'm your knight, not your servant. It's not every day I bring you dinner."
Well, as skinny as he was, he probably needed it more. Arthur let it go and began eating. "Thank you for that, by the way."
"You'd better be welcome." As always, Lancelot's tone was just shy of insubordination. Some day he was going to run foul of an officer, and Arthur wasn't going to be able to do anything to mitigate the result.
They ate in silence for several minutes while Lancelot's feet tapped progressively louder against the floor. Consequently, Arthur felt around with his boots until he found the offending appendages, then trapped them under his own.
Lancelot grunted a little, more in surprise than pain. His eyes briefly flashed irritation, but quickly dropped back to his food.
Then he started rapping his knuckles against the table.
Arthur gritted his teeth and reminded himself that Lancelot was only seventeen and when Arthur had been seventeen, he'd been a pest to the other officers. "Yes?"
"You're crushing my toes." That was the same innocent look Lancelot most likely had used to cover his thievery of the mess storerooms.
"Lancelot." When Arthur reached for the next bit of food, his fingers touched nothing. Startled, he looked down and discovered that he'd somehow managed to gobble everything. Like a soldier in the field, he supposed, but he wasn't currently in that situation and he didn't normally eat at that speed. True, he wanted to try to talk to Galahad again, but he didn't need to give himself a stomach cramp while he was at it.
A finger intruded into his line of vision, but as soon as he focused on it, it flicked his nose. Lancelot grinned. "Paying attention now?"
Arthur rolled his eyes and began to get up. "Thanks for the meal. I need to go--"
He was interrupted by a hand whipping out and latching onto his wrist. "You spent not more than five minutes eating," Lancelot said, all seriousness now. "Even the newest ones get longer than that. Arthur, would you just stop for a minute? Why do you keep running away?"
"I'm not running," Arthur snapped, futilely pulling at his arm. "I'm going to see to my duties."
"Well, one excuse is much like another." Lancelot yanked back and nearly sent Arthur falling over him. "You've been avoiding me since this morning, and I don't think it's only to do with Galahad's little temper tantrums."
It always seemed like Lancelot knew just what to say when he shouldn't have said it. Charming habit, really.
With a last glance at the door, Arthur gave up on starting his evening responsibilities early; if he was honest with himself, and he generally tried to be, he valued Lancelot's friendship above all his other ones. They'd come a long way since the morning he'd woken up in his chair with a badly cramped neck and a spindly waif of a boy sleep-drooling over his blankets, and for the life of him, he still couldn't remember how. But he knew its worth well enough. "I'm not avoiding you."
"You are. Worse yet, you're making up the free time with that God of yours." Lancelot jerked his chin at the cross on the wall. "I bet he must be thrilled, having you on your knees at the slightest wind of--"
Arthur waited, but the other man didn't finish the sentence. It didn't actually matter, for he could see the direction of its end. "You're jealous of my religion? Lancelot, honestly, I don't think--"
"No, you don't think." Lancelot was muttering under his breath, accent roughening the Latin until it was sharp enough to sliver Arthur's hearing. He was staring at Arthur's hand, which he still held. His thumb moved, rolled its pad over the palm's shallow hollow and then traced back to run along one faint vein-shadow.
The gesture stirred both warning and something else in Arthur; it took a long, breathless moment for him to figure out what the second emotion was, but when he did, he wanted to sink into the earth. "You're only seventeen."
"I killed my first man at fourteen, had my first woman at fifteen. You should know. You were there for both." And now Lancelot looked up, eyes wide with a shy plea. He was gradually pulling Arthur to him, as slow and as inevitable as the tides. "I've lost count of how many times I've woken up in your bed."
"Because you were always too drunk to make it to your own." Arthur tried to laugh, but the sound came out strangled and thick. He pulled again, hard and fast, but Lancelot stood even faster and so all that happened was that they ended up standing with their breath in each other's face. The air hissed between Arthur's teeth, which he clenched together so they wouldn't wander. If he had been able, he would have glued them that way. "Lancelot...if you have any sense, you won't make me turn you down."
Of course, that damnable pup just took another step forward so his clothes rustled heat into Arthur's and his lips brushed Arthur's ear with every word. Their arms were twisted up between them--a poor barrier, and a mockery of the warrior's hand-clasp. "Is it your Christianity? Is this numbered among those many, many do-not's it lists in exchange for your soul?"
And Arthur closed his eyes, trying to ignore the stretch of neck that was his, if he only turned his head just a little. "No. If you've listened at all, you know I regularly break at least three commandments."
"Murdering, adultery..." Lancelot trailed off with an interrogative uplift.
"Thievery," Arthur added. "I take boys from their families. I persuade them to go."
"'Render unto Caesar'. It seems to be a convenient quote for the other Christians here." Pressed up against Arthur's breast, Lancelot's fingers uncurled. They crept up to Arthur's shoulder and settled there, five long weights of fire. The bared length of throat shifted nearer, so much so that Arthur's nose was filled with hot sweet burning scent. "I know you, Arthur. You wouldn't do something that you truly disagreed with. And somewhere in there, you think sending Sarmatian boys away is more good than bad. It's a duty you owe the Empire."
White spots were dancing in the blackness, alerting Arthur to the fact that he was squeezing his eyes shut with entirely too much force. "Do I?"
"And I desperately wish you didn't think so, but then you wouldn't be you if not for your duty. But that's an entirely different argument, and one I fully intend to win. Later." Lancelot's smile grazed Arthur's cheek, searing the curve into it. "Stop second-guessing yourself."
"If I didn't do that, I would also not be myself." With a last effort, Arthur got himself under control and pushed himself back, holding Lancelot away by the shoulders. He saw the hurt and the uncomprehending anger boiling up in his friend, and he tried to forestall it. "Lancelot, you're a knight under me. And that's all that I demand of you--be my knight and fight by my side. Whatever else you think you owe me--"
The shoulders brutally twisted out of Arthur's grip, while Lancelot's face seemed to undergo a similar process. He flung himself away, then halted and began to turn back. "You--it's not about owing, Arthur! Do you honestly think I'd--I'd--sometimes I honestly think I could kill you. Not everything comes back to duty, you know."
Arthur opened his mouth, hoping that the right words would come. They didn't, and Lancelot went on, arms cutting the air to ribbons with their short slices.
"Look, I hate that I have to fight for fucking Rome. I hate that I have to leave someday and probably die on someone else's soil, and I hate that no matter what happens, I'll never see my family again. But believe it or not, Arthur, I don't blame you for that. None of us do. You do what you can around what you have to." As Lancelot finished, he let his arms fall to his sides and looked up at Arthur, face completely drained. For a moment, space and time wavered, and Arthur was again watching the young boy who he'd just brought in, weak in everything but the spirit bound up in those dark eyes.
He wanted so badly to believe in what Lancelot said, but five years in Sarmatia learning the ways of how an empire sustained itself in practice were too much for him to immediately dismiss. It was a flawed system--beautiful and capable of producing incredible accomplishments--and it depended on fallible men. This far from Rome's influence, Romans turned ugly and crooked, running rampant without anything to keep them in check. And if the one thing Arthur feared most in the world was losing the control he'd so painfully learned. One misstep, and it'd be more than his life in danger.
"We can't--" he started.
"--Lancelot!" Arthur seized the other man and had him up against the wall before he knew what he was doing. When that realization shocked through him, he nearly dropped the other man. Except Lancelot yanked him back and, the fool, kissed him as hard as possible.
The next few seconds were as long as a year of sorrows and as short as the life of a spark. There were teeth in Arthur's lip and then metallic wetness etching the inside of his mouth. There was fury nestling beneath his tongue, and muscles bunching beneath his hands, daring him to tighten his hold until they gave and he did that. He was being eaten from inside out, and so he returned the favor.
Somewhere in the distance, a fist hit wood.
Arthur shoved himself up against the limp body, swallowed every gasp and moan. Then he chewed his way down to soft, vulnerable skin. Let the pulse-fade-pulse of life flutter against his teeth, and when its rate sped up, he bit down. Not quite breaking the skin, but he could if he wanted to--
"Arthur. Arthur!" More knocking. "Arthur! It's Galahad!"
Gal--knights. Camp. His room.
The world seemed to swirl out of nowhere, but when it fully opened, it did so with a bang that rattled Arthur's bones. He blinked. Then had to watch the image of a white-faced, bloody-mouthed Lancelot swim into view. Little red marks trailed from the torn lip across one cheek to end in an already-darkening bruise on the side of Lancelot's neck.
"If you say you regretted that," Lancelot suddenly said, voice thin but firm, "I'll kill you. I swear."
"You'll regret it. Wait a few years..." Arthur stepped back, wiping at his mouth and trying desperately not to lick at the blood on his fingers. He came very close to gagging onto the foul mixture of self-disgust and longing that rose in the back of his throat, cloying and acidic. "You have no idea what you're trying to do."
The door nearly broke from its hinges under a fresh assault. "Arthur!"
Damn it. Damn it.
"You liked that. You wanted that," Lancelot hissed. His hand flew to the bite mark on his neck, touching it gingerly. Almost reverently. "Arthur--"
"Arthur! Are you in there?" Gawain.
One thing at a time, Arthur told himself. "We'll talk later. But till then--don't," he said to Lancelot. Then he whipped around, jerked up the locks and yanked open the door. "What happened?"
Gawain was never going to forgive himself. For that matter, Tristan wasn't very happy with himself, either. He could track a trail a week old over the roughest terrain, yet he couldn't keep an eye on one utterly stupid fifteen-year-old.
Arthur came into the stables, checked himself at seeing his horse already wearing its tack, then mounted and trotted to the head of the group. "All right, Gawain says he's most familiar with the village, so he and Tristan will lead. Keep your swords sheathed until I tell you--no matter what the circumstances."
Astride a big bay charger, Agravaine muttered his usual vaguely mutinous complaints. "Are we on our own again? Or have the legions decided to do their own dirty work?"
"I think we'd all rather the legions stay out of this," Arthur replied, terse and glowering. "Unless you'd like to ignite a war. No? Thank you. Gawain, Tristan--"
Tristan obediently swung his horse out onto the path leading to the western camp gate, and a moment later, Gawain trotted up beside him. The other man's face was set in a stolid mask, but his fingers plucked and tangled in his reins until his horse was fairly dancing with confusion. As soon as they'd exited the camp, Gawain kicked his horse into a gallop, and in the space of a heartbeat he'd nearly lost them in the blanketing dark.
Curses from the other knights flung after Tristan as he hurried up to Gawain and caught at the other horse's bridle. "Slow down."
"It's been at least an hour since anyone saw him. The village isn't that far; by the time we get there, they might have already killed him." Gawain tore the leather out of Tristan's hands, taking off a layer of skin in the process.
Tristan bit back the hiss of pain that lashed up his throat and quickly dug out a rag to wrap around his hand. He'd forgotten to put on his gauntlets in the rush after losing track of Galahad. "We'll be in time, but that will do no good if we're outnumbered."
"And I bet half of them won't even fight for Galahad," Gawain mumbled, as if he hadn't even heard Tristan. "Can't blame them--that idiot. I told him to talk to me. I asked--I even begged him to, but he wouldn't."
High in the sky, the moon emanated a lifeless pale light that did little to aid sight. As they raced over the ground, Tristan searched what ground he could see as best he could, but it was difficult to make out anything that was more than a few feet away. Gawain was only visible as a ghostly patchwork of creaking shadowy leather and slightly lighter skin, and at the rate they were going, warning irregularities on the far-from-smooth ground seemed to leap up directly before the horses. If a hoof were to stumble, it would almost certainly result in a catastrophic fall.
"That stupid, stupid bastard. As if he was the only one that's ever missed his family. I had brothers that were conscripted, wandering around the same camp and I had to hide every time they came by because they didn't end up like me, come twelve." The more he spoke, the more tightly the fury in Gawain's voice wound about the worry. He kept forcing his horse faster and faster, and in order to keep up, Tristan had to push his own mount to the point where lather was coming off its sides onto his knees and wheezes squeezed out of its nostrils with every step. "What was he thinking? What? Didn't he believe me when I told him--"
"He started late. The centurions didn't take him on his twelfth birthday because he looked so small and young, and he probably was beginning to think he'd avoid service altogether." It was awkward, but Tristan managed to get into one saddlebag with his left hand. His fingers grazed leather, and he whipped out the gauntlets. They were his old pair, and painfully tight, but they would do for a night. "You can't believe if you don't listen."
Gawain's glare was more of a scorching sense than something Tristan actually saw. "Why are you so reasonable?"
"Because if I'm not, you're so upset you'll get us lost." A little bit of the exasperation and humiliation Tristan thought he'd had safely tucked within him slipped out. The pace staggered a moment as Gawain unwittingly signaled his surprise to his horse. Struggling to keep his head level, Tristan realized he was curling his nails into his injured hand only after hot blood soaked through his makeshift bandage. "It wasn't your fault. I told you I'd watch him while you got dinner for us."
"Oh, don't even think of blaming yourself. Wasn't like you could've turned down that order from the legate, and we all figured Galahad would sulk in the stables all night." When Gawain chuckled, it was edged with high-pitched strain; his voice had more or less settled into its manhood timbre, but when he was under extreme duress, it tended to crack.
Tristan started to respond, then realized that he wasn't quite sure if he could. The silence that was between them now was not the kind that was to be broken lightly, and while it weighed on him, he suspected that words would only add to the leadenness.
So they rode and rode, the rest eventually catching up, and Tristan ignored the muffled oaths and the thud-clank of leather and mail in favor of concentrating on the less-obvious noises: the difference between the rustle of untrodden and trodden grass, the faint smell of determined youth that had passed here, the slow-growing spot of brightness on the horizon. He was still furious with himself for failing to keep his word, but he'd learned long ago that preoccupation with anything but the trail only led to more losses. And for Gawain's sake at least, he wouldn't let that happen.
Personally, Tristan thought they could do without Galahad, who didn't seem to bring anything special to the table and who didn't seem inclined to even take the precautions upon which all their safety lay. He was only threatening the whole, and not offering anything in return.
Except Gawain had been the one to go out with Arthur the night they'd found Galahad, and Gawain had been the one to volunteer as a guide to the new one. He was kind like that--he'd been among the first to try and speak to Tristan, even though they were from distant tribes and the difference in their dialects jarred like clashing swords--and when his eyes rested on Galahad, they seemed to soften just a little. A rare thing in the harsh, torn life they lived.
"I'm sorry." Low and heartfelt, and the surprise of it was about equal to a sharp blow to Tristan's solar plexus. Gawain's hand briefly ghosted over Tristan's arm, and then they had to draw apart to keep the horses from accidentally tangling hooves in the dark. "I didn't mean to take everything out on you."
"I didn't notice that you were." And even if Tristan had, he doubted that he would have cared. Some things were worth paying for in a little hurt, and hearing Gawain's thoughts was one of them, because for all the other's seeming openness, he actually kept himself quite close. Until this night, Tristan had never known about Gawain's brothers, and now he wondered if he ever would have.
A third horse surged up beside them, and Lancelot's face gradually emerged from the blackness. "Arthur says when we get there, slow down and circle the village. Quietly. He wants to know what's going on before we go in."
"It's only another few minutes." Gawain lifted his arm and waved at the bright red glow loomed before them. Another few yards and they were in the circle of its lurid light, which highlighted all the worst parts of the dawning comprehension on Gawain's face. "See...oh, no."
"Fuck!" Lancelot reined in and fell back, undoubtedly to consult with Arthur.
In the precious few seconds he had before Gawain leaped into rage, Tristan reached over and seized the bridle of Gawain's horse. It brought them dangerously near each other and made him lean too far out of the saddle, but he doggedly held on. "Don't run in. It'll only make his death more likely."
"What would you know about it?" Gawain hissed, grabbing Tristan's wrist and yanking, though Tristan's grip didn't slacken.
"I don't smell burning flesh," Tristan replied. He absently noticed that his voice had gone flat, but he was too busy fighting down the memories to pay much attention to that or to Gawain. Dropping the bridle revealed that he'd reopened his raw palm for the third time in the night, but there was no time to do anything except grit his teeth and hope the gauntlet would hold the bandage on. "You weren't the only one with brothers. Except mine was like me. He didn't make the walk up here."
Gawain's sharp intake of breath almost masked the sound of wild shouts coming from the village. The region's typical collection of low round huts, with only flimsy fences as barriers; the Romans didn't permit any substantial fortifications. Tristan reminded himself that objectively, it was going to be an easy fight.
Arthur charged up between them, his face painted in red stripes of cool, thinking fury. "Tristan, Gawain, stay here. The rest of us will go around back and ride in to disrupt...whatever they're doing. I'm going to try to bargain first, but...if you hear any fighting, go in and get Galahad."
He rapped out his orders in a single breath, then turned his horse about and led the rest off. Gawain sawed on the reins with uncharacteristic clumsiness to slow his horse down, a muscle in his jaw ticking off the seconds.
"If he were already dead, we'd smell a lot more excitement." Tristan moved his hand up and down his horse's neck, trying to soothe its nervous whickers.
"You're terrible at reassuring people." As soon as Gawain spoke, he winced and ducked his head. "But thanks. Damn it, why is it taking so long--"
A loud scream interrupted him, then went on to shatter itself against the glassy black sky. And then they were spurring their horses into the thick of a milling mass of open-mouthed, hate-eyed people, swords up. Tristan looked about for Galahad, but only saw a stunned-looking Lancelot pulling his sword out of a fresh body, moving as if he were in a nightmare. A man ran up behind him and raised an ax, but then Arthur plunged in and the axman fell beneath the gore-splattered hooves of Arthur's horse.
Turning about got Tristan a good look at Gawain's back and at an oncoming makeshift spear, probably a relic of some ancestor but still deadly for all its age. He ducked under the point and drove his horse forward to force the other man back, then chopped with his sword as he rode by. The blow jarred on bone and stuck, but Tristan hung on to the hilt and a moment later, the body fell away. Blood splashed the underside of his chin.
"Galahad--no--give me your hand--your hand--"
Some women charging Percival cut off Tristan's view for a second, and when he could see Gawain again, the other knight had Galahad half-into the saddle before him. It looked as if Galahad was still fighting to get away.
Tristan swallowed a burst of anger whose fierceness momentarily shocked him and drew up alongside them. He gave Galahad a shove that made the other cry out with pain--Galahad was bloody and had at least a dislocated shoulder--but that got the fool into the saddle. In response, Galahad whipped about and snarled. "You bastards, let me down--"
Shriek that rattle Tristan's spine. He belatedly recognized it as a disowning curse, but by then its originator had come up and slammed a sword into his horse's face. Swearing, he immediately jumped off, as far as he could from the pain-maddened steed, and swung out his sword in a wide arc. A woman faced him, arms as thickly corded as any man's, mouth wide with vitriol and blade slicing at Tristan.
He blocked, stepped sideways and spun to cut open her back. She stumbled forward and nearly went down.
Nearly, because Galahad had seized the reins of Gawain's horse and shoved it between Tristan and the woman. "It's my mother!"
"She's--" Gawain yanked back the reins, but not before the woman's sword had struck his arm. He swore, backed up his horse while Galahad sat frozen with disbelief before him, and thus gave Tristan enough room to step in and cross blades with her.
He had her disarmed in seconds, and was about to deliver the last blow when Galahad again screamed. Gawain gave a hoarse shout. For some reason, Tristan hesitated.
That was long enough for the woman to rise up and stab a hidden dagger into his thigh. Tristan crumpled to one knee, caught himself, and then threw himself aside to avoid another villager coming up. Silver flickered from his other side, and--
--pounding hooves. Arthur's gauntlet knotting itself around Tristan's arm and pulling him up to safety, while from behind Agravaine swept in to take care of the woman and Lancelot to deal with the man.
"Enough!" Arthur yelled. His face was drained of all color, and the sickness was rolling off of him in waves. "Knights! Withdraw, now!"
"Now?" repeated Agravaine. "Shit. I just started repaying these sons of whores for their raids on my village."
Arthur spun about and delivered a glare that rivaled lightning for crackling promised destruction. "Now."
His voice was so far away...Tristan realized what was happening, and dug fingers into his leg-wound, but everything insisted on drifting and he had to move with it.
"Tristan? Arthur, please, he's--"
Gawain? Or Galahad?
Couldn't tell. Too dark.
"You know Imperial policy, Artorius. I've let you flout it so far because your ways seemed to be working, but this last little incident...God have mercy, but it's going to be a mess." Lucius Cornelius was a fairly honest man, as the Roman officers went, but he didn't deal well with crises. As Arthur generally caused the least number of them, they usually got along all right, but now that was looking as if it'd irrevocably changed.
"Human sacrifice is also outlawed under Imperial policy, sir." Arthur kept his gaze lowered, though that forced him to stare at the blood caking his hands. It was a cold night, and the red stickiness had already congealed.
With a heavy sigh, Lucius sat down and plucked a paper from the stack on his desk. "Barbarians still. After all we've done...well, it's still a bad situation. Hard enough to keep peace as it is; I've got chieftains constantly knocking down my door about their petty little grudges, as if I didn't have enough to do."
"Sir. With all due respect, Galahad was enlisted. By attacking him, the villagers were by extension attacking us--" The argument was foul and stinking on Arthur's tongue, but in the end, the welfare of his knights meant the most to him. And he had given the villagers a chance at a peaceful resolution; they had been the ones to reject it and raise arms. That should have been enough to settle his doubts.
"A true Roman never would have found himself in that position!" snapped Lucius. Not a passionate man, he soon cooled to resignation. "In any case, it's not a discussion point, Castus. You've been reposted."
Arthur's stomach plummeted. The objection crashed up his throat and was nearly out when Lucius went on. "And you're to take your knights with you. All of them. I told you, soldiers are not supposed to serve in their homelands, and tonight just proved the wisdom of that. I've ordered the outgoing regiment delayed so you can leave with them tomorrow afternoon. To Britain. And that will be all."
"Sir," Arthur said, reflexes carrying him out of the room and back to his own.
Britain. God have mercy on them, indeed. They were going to Britain.
Arriving in his bedroom provided no relief from the new worries, and in fact awakened older ones. Lancelot was curled up on the bed, fever-bright eyes fixed on Arthur, who stopped and waited.
After a long silence, Lancelot closed his eyes and spoke. "Just this morning, I thought I could kill anyone for your sake."
"I..." wouldn't ask you to do that, Arthur wanted to say, but that was a transparent lie. He slowly crossed the room to a water-stand and washed off the worst of the dried blood, then stripped himself of his armor. "Rome is...Rome was the only place that ever welcomed me. Men can and will do horrible things in her name, but they also work marvels. And I believe that in the end, serving her is the best way to make things better."
"I can kill anyone for you. I found that out tonight, and it frightens me." Lancelot opened his eyes, his stare enough by itself to bring Arthur to the side of the bed. "For you. Not for your Rome or for your God--Arthur, you have your beliefs, but you aren't them."
Arthur swallowed. Unbidden, his hand went out to cup Lancelot's cheek. "We're going to Britain tomorrow. All of us."
"Then let me stay tonight. I want one memory of this on my birth soil." Fingers wrapped around Arthur's hand, pulling it down, and damn his weakness, but this time he couldn't not follow.
Gawain woke sometime in the very early morning when the sky was just graying, color of an aged hermit's hair. In the corner, Galahad watched him, face tear-stained but oddly calm. "How's..."
"He'll be fine. Lost a lot of blood, but the wound itself wasn't bad." Tristan was warm against Gawain's chest, but not too warm, which was good. No fever so far. "What are you doing here?"
"I wanted to...I didn't mean..." Galahad's stoic façade suddenly dissolved into fearful uncertainty. "I'm sorry."
"You did mean to. You planned everything very well." Although Tristan didn't so much as twitch, his voice rolled out as if he'd been awake for hours. He better not have, or else Gawain was going to give in and let that cackling crazy of a surgeon drug him.
Galahad's brows scrunched together, and he fiddled with his arm-slung. "I didn't want for anyone to get hurt."
"Then you should've listened to us." It was too early, Gawain was too sore, and he was just a little irked at having all his efforts at helping thrown away like they'd never meant anything. He laid back down and buried his nose in Tristan's hair.
Tristan sucked in a breath, then relaxed very slowly, as if he wasn't sure what was going on. To be honest, neither did Gawain; it'd started with him being too tired after pinning down Tristan for the surgeon's work to find his own cot, but now, he didn't know where he was. He did know it was comfortable and suited him in a deeply satisfying way that he'd never come across before.
"I know, all right?" And Galahad's temper was back, so it appeared he was fundamentally none the worse for the night. "But--how am I supposed to believe something like that, told to me by men I barely know? Look, until I happened, no one ever talked about those stories except to make fun of them. We've been near Romans for years. We've been civilized, or so the braggarts say."
"Because--" Tristan stopped, apparently reconsidering. "That isn't a bad point."
Gawain blinked in surprise, then glanced up at Galahad, who looked equally startled.
"You still should have known when they drove you out," Tristan added.
"I'm sorry," Galahad repeated, suddenly going quiet and broken and worn, like a blade honed so thin it was on the verge of snapping. "It's only...one of my sisters was going to have a baby. She promised she'd name it after me. And--and my mother's dead now."
Nervous, Gawain sat up. "Are you going to blame Agravaine for that?"
"I want to." The raw honesty in Galahad's face made Gawain's chest squeeze in on itself. "I do want to, badly. But he didn't know...and she was aiming for me when she did that." Galahad reached over and tapped the bandage around Gawain's arm. "You blocked her."
"Well, I think you deserve to live. Though sometimes it seems like a stupid idea." Gawain snuggled back into the blankets, hoping to catch a few more seconds of sleep. After a few seconds of trying, it became glaringly obvious that sleep had run too far to be found, and Gawain was left to stew in his increasingly tangled thoughts. "And if you put us through that again, I will kill you myself. Damn it, Galahad, do you think any of us liked fighting your family?"
When Galahad answered, he was much, much closer than before. Practically lying over Gawain and Tristan, in fact. "No, I know you didn't. I...um...do I thank you for that, or is it one of those..."
"Just...lie down, shut up and pay attention, all right?" Gawain shoved Galahad down in front of Tristan and determinedly resolved not to deal with anything until he'd gotten at least another hour of sleep. Nothing was ever concluded well when he was cranky.
Surprisingly enough, Galahad did as he was told. And for whatever reason, that was when sleep decided to find Gawain again. There was something odd about that, and he needed to think about it, but later. Right now, he wasn't going to turn down the gift when given.