|Wolfskin II: Britain
Author: Guede Mazaka
Arthur's return to Britain hadn't been much different from his departure, save that this time, he had been taller and more observant. If he sat down and truly thought about it, however, he could draw enough fragments of childhood memory under the gaze of adulthood to realize that it was the same bloody, fractious land he had left. It still ate men at a prodigious rate, spitting out widows and orphans to wander through the moors and mists.
Sadly, the weather was in fact worse than he remembered.
"I knew I'd find you here."
No need to turn and greet, because Arthur already knew what he would find: Lancelot, fully-grown and beautiful and hard in a way he'd never been in Sarmatia. Winters seemed to be harsh wherever they went, but here, the snow brought arrows in the night and dead bodies nearly at their doorsteps. Snow quieted feet of the already silent Woads, and the sight of soldiers huddling close to hearthfires undoubtedly emboldened them.
If Sarmatia had shown Arthur how men hated, then Britain had reminded him that he too wasn't exempt from that emotion. This had been the land that had killed both his parents, that had driven the young, shivering boy-him to Rome and then to the other side of the empire. This was now the land that was killing his knights, slow but sure.
A hand came to rest on his shoulder, like the simple gesture of comradeship. Then it slid further, fingertips just stroking the small strip of skin between his collar and his hairline, nails curling down in a decidedly intimate manner. Arthur bit his lip and felt the blood start to freeze as soon as it welled out.
"You mourn the longest of any of us. Sometimes it seems as if you never do stop."
"As always, you're far more perceptive than you ever will realize." Delivering the insult-wrapped compliment provoked a bit of playfulness out of hibernation, but their present surroundings soon recalled Arthur's grim mood. Still, Lancelot was warm no matter what the temperature, and barring the constant possibility of Tristan ghosting by, no one else was near. "I don't suppose you'll ever cease to goad me?" Arthur teased, reaching up and grabbing Lancelot's wrist.
He pulled the other man to him and pressed their cheeks together, then took a long whiff to steady himself. Lancelot's breath caught, puff of heat burning through the icy air, and then the other man dropped his head to the side, silently encouraging. It wasn't something Arthur could really afford to give in to, but at the moment, he was feeling too despondent to appreciate the need for further sacrifices. And Lancelot smelled like...leather and earthy horseflesh, honest steel and...if Arthur buried his nose into those soft curls, like Sarmatia.
"Odd. I miss your country." Arthur tangled his other hand in Lancelot's hair, lazily petting the other man. "It can't be anything like what you're suffering, but it hurts."
"I was enjoying that." Lancelot irritably nipped at Arthur's ear, then apologetically licked the spot. His free hand was busily tucking itself into the side fastenings of Arthur's cuirass. "You do realize that there's a difference between suffering and pain? If I were half as relentless about being depressed as you are, we'd never get anything done. So be happy at least one of us knows how to get on with his life."
A reluctant grin found itself to Arthur's face. Nuzzling at Lancelot, he drew two knuckles down the curving slope of the other man's spine and watched in a moment of pure amused pleasure as Lancelot arched and whimpered. Through layers of leather and wool, no less. Of all Lancelot's weak points, it was one of Arthur's favorites. "Forgive me for trying to make you out to be like most good men, then."
"You should know by now that I'm not like other men," Lancelot loftily pronounced, though he crumpled against Arthur quickly enough when teeth were applied to neck. His knee insistently pushed at Arthur's, trying to wedge in. "Some pure fellow you turned out to be. Right in the graveyard."
And it only took two little words to sling Arthur right back into dark reality of the true world. He stiffened, felt Lancelot do the same, and then dug as deep as he could for the right words to smooth matter over, even though he already knew he wouldn't find them.
"Bors was right. I should keep my mouth shut more often." Lancelot sounded reflective. Deceptively calm. And his face was a perfect match to his tone as he stepped back and pulled free of Arthur. He struck up a fast pace toward the graveyard's exit, not even slowing when he threw an explanation over his shoulder. "By the way, whenever you're done praying over Bedivere, some new orders came in. They're waiting on your desk."
Notably, it wasn't an explanation of the most pressing question that hung in the air. Arthur caught himself cursing, hurriedly turned it into a quick blessing on the fresh grave beside him, and then rushed after the other man. "It wasn't because of you."
"It's never because of me--no, that's not right." Lancelot kept his eyes on his fast-moving feet, and his hands clenched to his sides. "It's always something that I can't do anything about. That begins to grate after a while, Arthur. Seven years after that first time you put me to bed...you know, that night I thought you were some kind of god, come down to rescue me."
"Well, I'm sorry if it disappoints that I'm only a man. That I weep and grieve and fail." The shift from sadness to hot anger took Arthur by surprise, and in that moment of unsteadiness, he managed to get hold of himself before he followed instincts and slammed Lancelot into the ground. Another difference between Britain and Sarmatia, hellish though they both were in their own ways: the very air seemed to feed the darker facets of Arthur's restlessness, and the soil stirred with spilled blood. Sarmatia was severe, but Britain nourished rebellion. "What do you want me to do, apologize for what I'm not?"
The laugh that Lancelot produced was low and parched with bitterness. "You do that already. So much that I choke on it. So pious, so compassionate, that Artorius Castus is--so damned blind. You are not the only man that feels Bedivere's death, however determined you seem to be so."
They were inside the camp now, and garnering curious stares with every pace that they stalked. Arthur saw a pair of centurions meditatively stare at them, then turn and whisper together. Wonderful. The last thing he needed was more rumors about the oddities of the Sarmatians; it'd only been two years since they had come, but with every passing day, a transfer elsewhere looked less and less likely. And if they were here to stay, then they had to be especially careful.
That was a mood to which Lancelot was not very conducive, and while Arthur wouldn't change anything about the other man, he couldn't help but think sometimes that it would be a little easier if Lancelot were only...and then he hated himself for thinking such things. A bout with Pelagius' essays usually helped, plus a perusal of the few other scrolls Arthur had managed to acquire, but in this case, they probably wouldn't be enough. "Lancelot. I mourn the knights I lose because I happen to cherish them that much. If you were to--if you were to--"
"If I were to die," Lancelot finished, savagely twisting the words out of his mouth. He grabbed onto the side of the door and kneed it open, then swung in. Barely-contained rage shadowed his every movement; as it was Lancelot, he still looked incredibly good like that, but Arthur shouldn't have even been considering such notions.
Except damn it, anger had a stinging, peppery scent that did increasingly strange things to him. It knotted his reason in on itself and let out the blacker parts of his mind to roam free among the jerking, furious energy that filled his body.
"If I were to die, you'd stand by my pathetic little grave and mutter prayers that I don't believe in. And then you'd use me to scourge yourself at every chance you got, whether I would have wanted you to or not." Banging down the corridors, Lancelot scattered people out of his way like a wolf plunging into a flock of sheep. He stopped to catch the waist of one woman, who was scurrying from a bedroom--the tiny objective part of Arthur's mind made a note of that--and spun her about, a ferocious smile on his face. "Well met, lady. You're a bright sight in these dark halls."
She nervously giggled and vibrated back-and-forth, as if unsure whether to encourage or discourage him. Arthur unclenched his teeth and came forward to lead her away. "No women allowed in the barracks," he told her. "Please leave."
As they watched her go, Lancelot leaned in and pushed his smirk up to Arthur's face. "Any other time, you might've invited her back with us."
"If you were to die, I would do more than just weep," Arthur snarled, grabbing that insolent fool by the shoulders and dragging him into the next room. The door slammed into one side of the entrance, while on the other Arthur pinned Lancelot to the wall and mashed the smugness off the other man's face. He dragged himself away long enough to let Lancelot breathe, then lunged in and sucked the air right out of Lancelot's lips. "If you were to die, I'm afraid of what I would become. So don't you--ever--say that again."
Perhaps they should have invited the girl. Because now Lancelot's mouth was swollen and bruising dark, which was going to be hard to explain.
"Ah. We're just going to leave." Gawain's apology made them all jump: Arthur and Lancelot closer together and Gawain a little farther from them. "Sorry. We're..."
"Leaving." Tristan was already halfway out the door, and he was only that slow because he had to haul along a plainly curious Gawain. He yanked the other knight the rest of the way and closed the door. "There's a lock, by the way."
Lancelot buried his face in Arthur's shoulder and sighed. "I hate how he does that."
There was a witty response to that somewhere, but the anger was still roiling about the edges, filing the sharpness off Arthur's brain. His fingers fisted in Lancelot's clothes, around arms that winced and tried to wrench away, but he wouldn't let them. "I want you. I want you so much that sometimes I don't think even salvation could compare."
For a long moment, Lancelot stayed frozen against Arthur. Then, like water rolling downhill, he relaxed and settled against Arthur's chest. "You've had me for years, you know. I'd just like to be able to have you once in a while, aside from the duty and the God and the equality for all."
"That would be nice." The fury was abating now, smoothing over as Arthur learned all over again the lines and slopes of Lancelot's back and sides, memorizing their gracefulness to hold against the inelegant brutality they dealt out every day. He promised himself that he would quit working early and spend a little more time on the other necessities in his life. But first--
"The orders. Try to remember you're not married to them. If you don't show up for dinner again, the men are going to start wondering seriously." When Lancelot backed off this time, he wore an ironic smile that did little to cover up his festering disappointment. But he went quietly enough.
Arthur watched him go, then stayed a moment longer, basking in the scent that still hung in the air. Only after that did he leave himself and head for his room.
"That explains a lot. Like why Arthur hasn't yet killed that mouthy bastard." Whistling his continuing amazement, Gawain hopped up on the fence besides Tristan and spread the broken bridle across his knees. He spent five minutes of visibly increasing frustration threading his needle, then started sewing. When he concentrated, Tristan noticed, Gawain tended to stick the tip of his tongue out of the corner of his mouth.
The knife Tristan had been sharpening was the last one, so he put away it and the whetstone and got out the half-made jesses he'd been working on for the past week. "You mean you didn't know?"
"That they were that serious? Of course not. Lancelot's such a..." Gawain stopped his mending and stared. "You did?"
"Since we left Sarmatia. There've been women, but they meant next to nothing in comparison." Just one more piece of leather, and the jesses would be done. Tristan was fairly sure he'd brought the necessary bit along, but he didn't remember exactly where on himself he'd stashed it, as it'd been in a hurry. He dug around, producing various random trinkets but no leather.
Frowning, Gawain plucked a carved fragment of bone from Tristan's hand. "I think I've seen this before."
"In some Woad's hair. I took that from the last one I killed." Tristan retrieved the bit and resumed searching, but he still had no luck.
Curiosity from earlier still unsatisfied, Gawain kept picking away things for closer examination. "Wait. This one--" he waved a battered piece of ivory "--I really do remember. That one puffed-up legionary bragged about it for days. All the way from Egypt, he said."
Well, the jesses could wait a few more days; it would be at least that long before the starving, weak fledging Tristan had found would be fit for flight. So he put them away and got out the knife with the broken hilt instead, then took back the ivory piece and began carefully shaping it. "Maybe."
Gawain had a touch of disbelief in his smile, nestled right under the pride. "Well, it'll help kill more Woads as part of your knife."
Tristan kept his face carefully blank, but he had a feeling Gawain could still see through it. Occasionally that worried him, but not ever very seriously. "I...found it."
Laughing, Gawain clapped him on the back, then twisted about to straddle the fence. "Right. And Galahad's the most prudent of us all."
The good humor lasted for about two minutes, and then Gawain was drumming his fingers on the fence in time to the thoughts transparently racing over his face. He stared out at the horses in the paddock, chewing on his lip.
"They're usually more careful than that," Tristan finally offered. Gawain was one of the few knights that had kept an ability to be cheerful without restraint, and it was oddly painful to see him otherwise. A little disorienting as well; a man couldn't go through life without some touchstones, and Gawain happened to be one of Tristan's.
"I'd hope so. What happened back there didn't look...healthy." The words stumbled out of Gawain's mouth, and he uncomfortably ducked his head as he spoke. This sort of thing never was Gawain's specialty, though he was better at it than most of the knights. Bors, for one, always seemed to be in a fight with the red-head that ran the tavern.
About Vanora. Tristan hoped that Arthur had noticed that, because if those two ever got serious, the consequences would affect all the knights.
Done with the knife-handle, he knocked off the old hilt of wood and gingerly wedged the blade into the new one, then began binding it in place with some leather. Beside him, Gawain resumed working on the bridle. "What Arthur and Lancelot have seems to work well enough. Most of the time. It's not like a normal..."
"You always know a lot about this, and I keep forgetting to ask how." In contrast to his earlier clumsiness, Gawain was deft and quick as he moved the needle through the tough leather.
Tristan wasn't entirely sure how much of an answer he should give to that. On the one hand, they were no longer in Sarmatia, and Gawain had accepted everything else so far with remarkable equanimity. On the other hand, Gawain also had a tendency to act as if he were like any other man, only with a slight problem. And he tended to tell Galahad everything, and Galahad was not nearly as quick to accept certain facts of life.
Ironically enough, it was Galahad that saved Tristan from a decision. The other knight suddenly appeared from around a near building and trotted up to them, grinning. He flourished a brace of freshly-killed hares, thus drenching the air with sticky-sweet, delicious blood-smell. "Good hunt. You two should've come along instead of doing all those chores."
"Those chores keep our things fit for living with, thank you. I hope you got something a little more substantial than that." Despite his sarcastic tone, Gawain looked pleased. Understandable, considering the days that they had time to go hunting were few and the usual dried meat wasn't very palatable, even to Tristan's undiscerning tastes.
Galahad's grin bloomed, revealing that he had flecks of red in his teeth. "Deer. Dagonet and Bors are butchering them as we speak. Have to give up some to those foot-sloggers, but there'll still be more than enough for us."
"Good. I have a feeling we'll be out again, soon." Tristan did the last wrap of leather, then tested the blade to see if it would rock in the hilt. When it didn't, he put it away and got down from the fence to take the hares from Galahad. They were plump with glossy coats--surprising for a winter catch. "You've gotten much better," he said, looking up at Galahad. "Should rinse your mouth, though."
"A tongue'll do just as well," Galahad shot back. His first reflex was still to be annoyed by any advice, though he usually took it. Eventually.
Tristan waited while Galahad tried and failed to probe the bits of meat from his teeth, then offered his largest knife. "Want to pick them out?"
"Stop it, would you?" Gawain interrupted, a bare moment before Galahad's rising temper would have gone off. "Both of you. It's--it's like watching women."
Both Tristan and Galahad turned to look at him, and in response, he held up his hands but didn't take back his words. Then he quickly finished fixing the bridle and slung it over his shoulder as he dropped down to the ground. "Look, if you didn't do it, I wouldn't have to say it."
But Tristan was already turning toward the new interruption. A few moments later, the hoof-beats caught the attention of the other two, and they did the same in time to greet Agravaine boiling up on a lathered horse. He reined in just long enough to shout at them--"Get packed! We're leaving at dawn"--and then cantered off.
"Shit. I was looking forward to gorging myself and then sleeping it off," Galahad muttered. "Now what?"
"The Romans and the Woads. What else?" Nothing to be done now except obey, so Tristan tossed the hares back to Galahad and walked off. It'd cost some of the rarities he'd scavenged, but he thought he could probably talk Alymere into watching his hawk for him while he was gone.
A hand touched his shoulder, then ghosted down his arm. "See you at meal-time then," Gawain said.
Galahad didn't say anything, but he nodded at Tristan as he trotted after Gawain. Which was the best that could be expected from him, Tristan supposed. Given what the three of them were working themselves into.
Back in his region of Sarmatia, the surrounding lands had been impenetrable enough for the occasional outcast to elude his hunters, and so over time a kind of shadow tribe had evolved, always skulking about the edges of their former homes. He'd spent his first month with them, but isolation and longing had twisted the humanity out of them, and in the end, he had had to leave. His brother had stayed, in a manner of speaking. Tristan hoped that someone had buried him.
That was really all he thought he was lacking in now: someone to make his grave after he was dead. Though sometimes when he rolled against Gawain, and yes, once in a while when Galahad was being tolerable, Tristan thought he might just want a little more. But he didn't dare ask. Not when their lives were already uncertain between the dawn and dusk of a single day.
Guinevere sprawled out in the branches above the meeting of elders, though she was careful not to rattle anything, or otherwise betray her presence. That was hard, given how the chill of the evening was effortlessly cutting through her meager clothing and the coating of grease on her skin, but she managed it.
"The latest retreat has left this village exposed. Most of its people have fled to behind the wall, but some traitors still remain. The scouts say they leave the river unguarded at night." The youngest elder scratched a rough sketch into the dirt. "We can boat down, slaughter them, and be back within the morning."
Merlin hummed, so deep in his throat that Guinevere almost expected the earth shake with it. "And why this village? There are closer ones. Easier prey."
"Because a Roman officer goes there, the one who buys foodstuffs for the army. He dallies with his mistress whenever he comes for supplies. We've watched him. When he goes, we'll go." The other man looked up, and even from the awkward angle, Guinevere could see the war fever shining out of his eyes. She felt it hit in her belly and spread downwards, like drinking hot soup and feeling the heat travel through her.
Impassive, Merlin continued to study the rough map while the others fidgeted and coughed, impatient for a decision. He at last nodded. The rest of the elders instantly slipped away, undoubtedly to work their men up to fighting pitch, and left him alone in the clearing.
He stretched out a finger and corrected an inaccuracy in the map. "What do you think?"
"Good plan. It'll be a black eye for the Romans. But..." Guinevere bit her lip, thinking. Her excitement got the better of her nervousness and she dropped down to squat beside Merlin. "The river. It will be all right going down, but going up would be harder."
"Exactly. Good." Merlin's huge hand briefly swept over Guinevere's head. "So?"
Well...Guinevere bent down and eyed the grooves cut into the dirt. She closed her eyes and imagined the corresponding water, trees, hills and valleys, watching them rise in her mind and then sink below so she could see the little men and women running over and around them. "I think we should go by the river for the attack, but plan to go home through the woods. And I think we should attack at night."
"Very good." The staff thumped its approval, making Guinevere beam. "Though I want to go at night for different reasons."
Guinevere blinked. "Hmm?"
"I think the Romans will send their Sarmatian knights to escort this officer. And I want to see those men for myself. I want to see this Arthur..." Merlin's eyes were glittering with some distant contemplation as he stared at the soil. Then he glanced at Guinevere, and for a second, his eyes glowed gold.
"You also think they're...they've..." It was an awkward thing to discuss because for the longest time, the Britons had been certain that they were the only people with such an advantage. But now, rumors suggested that their final reserve path of survival was no longer unique. Moreover, that it was shared by their most ferocious and skilled enemies.
Slow and languid, Merlin moved his hand through the dirt and raked it clean. "We shall see. We shall see."
Lancelot had just finished packing when Arthur caught him. Literally. Coming from behind, arms wrapping around his waist and hauling him against leather-clad muscle so a hot mouth could fix onto his throat. His breath immediately died away, and he could only grab at Arthur's arms and hang there, gasping for air that never seemed to be enough.
"You were distracted," Arthur murmured, licking a wet burn from Lancelot's ear to his collarbone. "I got in and locked the door, and you didn't even notice."
"Some advantages to having more rooms than soldiers, then." The dark mood from earlier hadn't lifted--Arthur's sudden impulsiveness had more than a touch of desperation to it--but it had transmuted to a smoldering heat that as far as Lancelot was concerned was free to blister him to death.
If it would open up Arthur again. Every time the other man snapped shut, it was more and more difficult to pry into him. Lancelot's greatest fear was that some day, he would try and fail, and Arthur the man would be lost to him forever.
But that wasn't now, and if he wanted to put off that day, he needed to start doing something. A good way to start would be to twist about and drag Arthur down to the cot, so Lancelot did just that. Something jabbed him in the side--sword-belt. He twisted to take it off and found himself entangled in a violent, addictive kiss.
The belt eventually came off, and with it went all the clothing that covered the upper half of Lancelot's body. Arthur ran his palms wherever he could reach, rippling fingers over ribs, stroking over muscles as they clenched and unstrung. His mouth ravaged from jaw to throat back up to lips, sucking hard on Lancelot's lower lip.
Much, much fiercer than usual. Lancelot curled his fingers into Arthur's shoulders and tried to breathe around the waves of hazy pleasure that insisted on drowning him. All he got, however, were huge gulps of intoxicating scents, all originating from Arthur: skins and metal, skin and sweat. Nervousness, after all this time. Though it was much weaker than the aggression and possession that rolled off Arthur as heavy as any British rain, that pulsed down into Lancelot with every swipe of Arthur's tongue and every graze of his teeth.
"You--you have no idea what you do to me," Arthur groaned, chewing on Lancelot's shoulder. His hand lifted to yank at his own clothing, and Lancelot sluggishly moved to help. "Damn it, you--it's like tasting damnation, and liking it. I just want--whenever you're near--"
"Stop mixing me up with your Christianity. I'll live in hell, and I'll gladly go to it, if it even exists." Quick as he could given his tendency to start melting like red-hot ore around Arthur, Lancelot shucked the last interfering layers off of them. Then he wrapped his arms around Arthur and dragged them together, trying to bury himself in the physical slide-rasp of flesh and the sweltering heat that wrapped about them. "It's my damned soul, and I get to decide what I do with it."
Arthur's pupils had shrunk to pinpricks, while faintly glowing gold ringed his irises. He propped himself up on his elbows and stared at Lancelot as if he were seeing straight through. One of his knuckles ran down the side of Lancelot's cheek, making it turn. As if in a dream, Lancelot watched himself lick at the veins in Arthur's wrist, then at the tendons that were standing so far out from the skin. He distantly heard the growl rumble up from deep in Arthur's chest, and felt his own answering one well up within him.
"I would leave it alone. If I didn't know that what you do, you do for me." It was impossible to tell whether Arthur sounded happy or angry about that, and then it was impossible to think about it because lips were roughly nursing Lancelot's nipple, and fingers were fumbling oil across his belly, then slipping it inside where it slicked over his tightening muscles.
He threw back his head, forcing himself to breathe more slowly and relax, and consequently caught a glimpse of the shattered lamp on a nearby table. Precise and careful as Arthur was, he was also responsible for more broken things in Lancelot's room than anyone else. Not that Lancelot minded. Not when he could get clever fingers teasing his prick into slapping its hardness against his stomach, when he could get bluntness implacably shoving itself inside him, filling and securing and imprinting deep inside the knowledge that he at least had this much from Arthur that he could call his.
They'd whored together too many times for Lancelot not to notice that Arthur never broke apart this much with anyone else. Never squeezed his eyes shut till the lines of strain in his brow threatened to become permanent, never let himself go past the point of even fragmented speech. Arthur couldn't talk now, could only drop his face into the cot beside Lancelot's head and muffle wild cries while he completely lost control of himself.
Pain spiraled up alongside the pleasure, but only as edging. Mere decoration compared to the bone-deep wrenching bliss that twisted Lancelot around Arthur, that had him use nails and knees and everything else to urge on the other man until he too seemed to find it.
Settling was something like being a falling snowflake, Lancelot imagined. Once one hit the ground, it locked with its fellows and became inseparable. Solid.
"Are you going to be able to ride tomorrow?" The regret was already back in Arthur's voice.
Rolling his eyes, Lancelot shoved at Arthur's shoulders until he had enough room to slide free. Then he experimentally flexed his thighs. Winced a bit, but it was a good, healthy burn that promised a long reminder. "You're not that good."
To his relief, Arthur slowly grinned at that. Bent down and rasped stubble over Lancelot's still-trembling skin. "Don't tempt me to try again."
"If I didn't, no one else would." Lancelot hooked his arms around Arthur's neck and slumped, letting his body weight hold the other man in place. "Don't leave yet."
"I have to. Sooner or later." But Arthur was just as reluctant, preoccupied as he seemed to be with lapping up all the sweat on Lancelot's face.
His words still stung, truth in them lacerating too deep. Lancelot twined his legs around Arthur's as best he could, given that they still had trousers puddled around their knees and boots on--shit, his cot had to be a mess. "Rome's going to have the rest of your life. Give me a little longer."
"You..." Arthur sighed. And stayed.
An annoying bit of deer meat was firmly wedged between two of Galahad's back molars, and every attempt to remove it only made the dull throbbing pain in his jaw ache even harder. He ducked his head, trying to dig it up with his thumbnail without anyone noticing.
Which of course guaranteed that Arthur would. And once he had, everyone did. "Sorry, sir."
"Do that again and I'll have your ass nailed to the stable doors," Agravaine hissed. Bastard. And a damned uptight one since he'd gotten command of Galahad's decury, as if having nine men report to him was such a great honor.
Gawain surreptitiously kicked Galahad, then nodded toward the reddening Agravaine. It was difficult, but Galahad managed to swallow his initial retort and choke out, "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir."
"All right, one more time so there aren't any misunderstandings." Arthur was casually standing in his stirrups so he could be seen by everyone; the stance put him directly in the sunlight, which thoughtlessly highlighted a bite-mark that was just peeking out of his collar. "We're escorting Lucius Marcius Phillipus down to collect the taxes from the surrounding villages, then scouting out the surrounding area while he's arranging for transportation. There've been some reports of Woad movements, and I want to know what they're doing this far south."
"As if they haven't been edging closer and closer as we give up land," Galahad muttered. He didn't particularly care about whether Rome lost her empire, but he did chafe against formally ceding land that, only a few months ago, knights had given up their lives to protect.
On Galahad's other side, Tristan slanted a warning look. As if Gawain hadn't lectured enough last night about the need to be extra careful because they were going to be working with knights that didn't know the whole truth about them. Honestly, it wasn't as if Galahad hadn't been doing that for the past two years.
"Any questions? No? All right--Agravaine and Kay, you're with Phillipus and the wagons. I'll be riding point." Arthur sat down and wheeled his horse down the path. Though everyone was grumbling a little at the early hour, they nevertheless quietly fell in behind.
Gawain walked his horse up to Galahad, grinning as he watched Lancelot trail after Arthur. "He looks sore."
"Got a whore that bit back, did he?" It was a common enough riposte where Lancelot was concerned, so Galahad was rather confused when Gawain suddenly doubled over in a fit of coughing. "Gawain? Gawain? Are you choking?"
"No. No." After a minute, Gawain managed to get himself under control. He flapped a limp hand at Agravaine to show that there wasn't a problem, then glanced at an expressionless Tristan. "Nothing...think I'm going to drop back, see if I can pry some more information out of the cart drovers. Arthur's bringing too many knights for just a few wagons."
Which left Galahad with Tristan, who may have been a marvel at scouting and at fighting, but whose presence irritated in a way which obscurity only added to the grating. "What the fuck was Gawain laughing about?" Galahad mumbled, not really expecting an answer.
Consequently, he got one. "Are you going to keep your mouth shut, or will this turn out like the time with Agravaine and the village girl?"
"Wouldn't have been long before he accidentally bit her head off. I was doing her a fav--" Tristan had a very lowering glare, considering he was only a little older than Galahad. "No, this won't. I can keep quiet. You know that."
"I wonder sometimes." They were clattering out of the camp now, and Tristan was clearly itching to ride out into those woods, wander around in places that drove other men mad with their eerie, misty impenetrability. His fingers twitched on his reins. It was an oddly reassuring sight.
For his part, Galahad kept his eyes fixed on the road before them. The sooner they got there, the sooner they could get back behind Hadrian's Wall. Skulking about under the protection of a barrier irked the large part of Galahad that yearned for wide-open steppes, but he hated even more the feeling of eyes always on his back, and that was what he always felt when they went out. The damned Woads were everything.
"Arthur and Lancelot are...if they were animals, you would say mated." Tristan's calm whisper was in stark contrast to the worry that was uncharacteristically visible on his face. "Our kind make bonds for life."
"Oh." The mild sound was a placeholder while Galahad's mind instantly froze, then slowly unthawed. "Oh. All right. But who's going to tell them that?"
His question earned him the sharpest glance from Tristan that he'd yet gotten.
"What? It's not like it's anything new. I mean, you and--and Gawain are--and I do have eyes." Though Galahad often wished he didn't. Or that Gawain would remember for good that Galahad was now seventeen and a man and not exactly oblivious. Or repelled.
Tristan was silent. Well, he did that a lot, but this time, it had a different quality to it. Like...sadness.
"I am. Gawain isn't. He doesn't know. And if you tell him--or, for that matter, talk to Arthur or Lancelot--I will gut you with my dullest knife." And with that kind of hard razor expression, Tristan would.
"I won't. It's not like I hate you, you know, and even if I did, you're still one of us." Galahad snorted, mostly at himself for saying such ridiculous things. But surprisingly enough, they were both true and sincere. He thought it would be easier without the added presence of Tristan on the side, but he didn't wish the other man gone. "You're touchy today."
For a moment, it looked as if Tristan might actually lose his temper. But then something between them evaporated, leaving behind a small, sardonic smile on Tristan's face. He reached over and flicked his fingers at Galahad's sword. "So you did grow up."
Before Galahad could come up with a suitable retort, Tristan had already ridden away to the front of the group, while Gawain was coming up from behind, frowning. "What happened?"
"Ah, nothing. He just wants to be first." Galahad grinned at Gawain, doing his best to project the right mix of sarcasm and good humor. "So? What'd you hear?"
"We're hauling our asses out here for a woman. Tcah!" Bors leaned over his saddle and spat. "If that Roman wants his bed-toy seen safe back in the garrison, he's got plenty of legionaries that he can use to guard her. Doesn't have to drag us into it."
"Downfalls of a good reputation. We're just so fearsome that he won't trust anyone else." Salacious smirk firmly fixed on his face, Lancelot shifted so he could rest his elbows on his mount's shoulders and get the pressure off his rather achy rear. "Though why Phillipus thinks she'll be safer with me, I have no idea."
Clueless bastard that he was, Bors bellowed a laugh and slapped Lancelot on the shoulder, thus jarring things that really didn't need that. All right, maybe Arthur had been that good. "Only if I'm elsewhere, boy."
"Ah, yes. Last I checked, Vanora was looking quite blooming," Lancelot replied, arching an eyebrow. He snickered at Bors' annoyed expression, but the fast-falling night wasn't terribly conducive to high spirits, and soon they were back into nervous, crass humor. If there was any one duty Lancelot hated most, it had to be night-watch. Even mucking out the stalls wasn't too bad in comparison; at least then he was doing something that he could clearly see. And smell. Even if it was all shit.
Sitting on a skittish horse in the dark, space between his shoulders itching for the phantom arrows he knew were aimed at it, was an entirely different story. He wanted to get off his horse and shift to his better senses, roam around and check out all those damned crackling shadows for himself, but he couldn't. No, instead he had to stay put and act like he wasn't begging for something to happen so he could put his uncertainty out of its misery.
"She's pregnant." Bors had spoken so softly that Lancelot almost hadn't recognized the voice as him.
"What?" The word came out before Lancelot had completely thought things through. When he had, the shock jerked him up and thumped his sore ass. "Fuck! Wait--what?"
Beneath him, his horse suddenly whinnied and danced a little. Its unease spread to Bors', and for several moments they were preoccupied with calming their steed.
Once everything was calm again, Bors turned to face Lancelot, stricken face clear enough in the dim light. "She's pregnant. Two months, and I haven't told her what we are."
"Well, you've got to now," Lancelot hissed, trying to keep his voice down so as not to set off the horses again. He curled and uncurled his fingers around the saddle horn, desperately wishing Bors had told someone else. Like Arthur. Arthur would've known how to deal with this, but Arthur was across the village, checking on the other guards. "Of all the--Bors. Are you a complete idiot?"
"Maybe. I think I'm in love with her." And damn him, he actually looked happy about that.
Lancelot sank back down. "This is getting worse and worse."
"I know, all right? I hope for my discharge just like everyone else, but in the meantime, I'm not going to turn down anything good I can get here. And she's that." Bors was now alternating between dove-cooing satisfaction and complete terror. His horse had noticed, and it was acting up again. "I think she'll take it all right. Really, Lancelot. These Britons...they've got some funny stories, you know. Like this one they tell about--"
On the other hand, the prickling on the back of Lancelot's neck wasn't entirely due to him being upset at Bors. Lancelot waved the other man silent and desperately shushed their horses, straining his hearing and sight as far as those senses would go.
Nothing but a bad feeling that wouldn't go away.
"How long till Arthur reaches here?" Lancelot asked, though he already knew the answer to that. He and Arthur had been together so long that their timing was just about instinct to each other. "Never mind. Do you think you can raise Agravaine and Tristan without waking the whole damn place?"
"I'm already awake," whispered a voice from the ground. One spine-chilling heartbeat later, Tristan melted out of the dark, creeping low to the grass. "We're being surrounded."
Another whiff of the still air brought just the faintest hint of woad paint and grease mixed with sweat; normally, that wouldn't be enough for suspicion given its ubiquity around Britain, but combined with Tristan's testimony...Lancelot reached over a shoulder and laid a hand on one of his hilts. "Right. Have you told Arthur and Kay?"
"Just now. Arthur assigned Kay to guard Phillipus and sent Agravaine to watch the road. You're to gather up the rest of your decury and move to the river. Arthur will meet you there." A flash of dull gray interspersed with silver, and then Tristan was gone.
"Hope he didn't greet Kay like that. Man hates wolves, and he's always looking askance at us." With a last grim chuckle, Bors tugged at his reins and eased his horse toward the next guardpoint: Dagonet and Gareth.
Following, Lancelot slid out his right sword as quietly as he could. The rasp of blade against scabbard was worryingly loud in the dead silence, and so he held off on getting out his other one. He was going to need one hand free for any hard riding, anyway.
"Hmm?" The river. Figured. Nice landing beach there, and stupid Phillipus had insisted on a heavy guard around his whore's house, which had kept Arthur from having enough knights free to properly address that weak spot. He'd made do by setting extra guards on it, but it was still a bad situation.
Bors' saddle creaked as he leaned over. "If I die before I can tell Vanora, I want you to do it. And tell her I'm sorry. I would've told her earlier if I'd known she was that way."
"Don't tell me that!" Lancelot tried not to punch the other man. He forced himself to take a deep breath, to concentrate on listening to the woods. "All right, I will. But if you do die, I'll be damned annoyed at that, so you'd do better not to."
"You don't know how to treat a vixen like that proper, anyhow," Bors snorted, sounding more like himself. "Dagonet? Gareth?"
Two horses unsheathed themselves from the dark, their knights tall blotches on the black. Lancelot could just about make out Dagonet's nod. "Down to the river, you two. Care for a bit of Woad-spearing?"
Their grins were white enough to light up the sky.
Despite its name, it was more of an uncommonly broad stream than a river, full of flattish boulders that were irregular humps sticking out of the inky swishing water. Shallow enough for fording, but Gawain bet it could freeze a man to death in a matter of minutes. He really did hate fighting in winter. Shame that the Woads didn't keep to a campaigning season like every other marginally civilized people.
Well, couldn't be helped, and could only be put up with. With that in mind, he nudged his horse forward, trying to keep to the softer turf where the hoof-beats would be muffled. Unfortunately, the grass was thick with frost, and crunched so loudly that he wondered if Londonium could hear it. "Arthur?" he whispered.
Part of the night detached and slipped out to meet him. Arthur looked more tired than usual--probably from having to make nice to that ass Phillipus, and from keeping Kay's decury from touching off something nasty with the other two. While the knights under Kay had no idea about the true make-up of the other two decuries, they must have sensed something because they were noticeably uneasy, even around Arthur. "Gawain?"
"Agravaine says that no one seems to be appearing on our side, and do you want him to swing round to you?" Someone else peeled away from the group Gawain could now make out on the riverbank. He started to reach for his ax, but then recognized Lancelot.
"No, stay where you are for now. That road's our exit, and I want it held at all costs." Arthur pursed his lips, thinking. "But if you hear fighting from here, call up Kay to hold the road and wheel down, but upstream of us so you catch the Woads' flank. Phillipus can make do with the personal guard he brought."
Gawain was just about to nod when the first howl came from the river. Halfway to meet them, Lancelot instantly whirled around and sent his horse plunging down the bank, while Arthur whipped out his sword and also turned toward the water. "Go! Tell Agravaine!"
Even though he wasn't truly running from the fight, it still was hard to ride in the opposite direction. But those were his orders, and Arthur had pulled them out of too many debacles for Gawain to question them now. He whipped the reins over his horse's hindquarters and let them fly over the ground without any regard to secrecy. It wasn't needed now.
Agravaine stared, arm thrown up against the dirt clods, as Gawain skidded into the gathered knights of his decury. "What's going on?"
"They're attacking at the river," Gawain gasped, already breathless. "Arthur says--get Kay up here, and then we're going round to come down upstream of them--turn the flank--"
Already standing up in his stirrups, Agravaine twisted and roared: "Galahad! Get Kay and his bastards out here! Everyone else, to me! You charge when I tell you, and not a moment before or I'll string you to a tree for the Woads to play with!"
"In this kind of night, I think I'd rather fight off the horse," Tristan muttered as he raced by.
Gawain spun and sent his charger after the other man, easily matching gallops as they'd done so many times before. "Don't be ridiculous. There're too many witnesses."
"The ones on our side are staying in town, and the ones on the Woads' side are going to be dead. But the horses won't go near the water." Tristan had palmed one of his knives somewhere along the line; it flashed once before he pressed it between hand and saddle.
"Well, I'd hope we'd stay out of the water. We don't have enough men to go running around on the other bank. Even on four legs instead of two."
They reached the fighting before Tristan could deliver an answer, and then they were in the middle of a deafening cacophony: shouts, screams, glittering blades and blood spraying in black gouts all over. Agravaine shouted for them to form line, and Gawain had only the vaguest sense of obeying, thanks to the in-grained habits of drills and two years of hard fighting.
The Woads had come up in small round boats that were barely distinguishable from the river rocks, and so they'd managed enough surprise to gain a narrow strip of beach. But Arthur and the others with him had stopped the advance there and tangled the Briton front line in a morass of rearing horses and plunging swords. They were holding for the moment, but more Woads were still coming out of the river, and soon there would be enough to either push back the knights by sheer mass or to well around the knights' undefended sides. It didn't help that it seemed the knights were having trouble keeping their horses aimed toward the water; the animals whinnied and bucked whenever they got too near the river. Bad footing--loose pebbles, if Gawain remembered right--ice patches and freezing water. Another few minutes, and Arthur might lose the bank.
If reinforcements weren't already waiting. Gawain missed Agravaine's yell, but did see his leader's sword rise and fall; in response his heels went into his horse's sides and he leaped forward with the rest of the line. The land sloped slightly downwards, adding to their momentum, and so when they cannonaded into the side of the Woad force, they managed to carry forward several yards before the press of flesh brought them to a stop.
By that time, Gawain had already chopped through at least two that weren't going to live to see another day, and probably three more that were going to have a tough time of it. He heard the whine of an arrow and threw himself forward just in time for a flight of them to pass overhead.
"Sons of whores--" Agravaine clutched at the arrow in his side, folding over it. Two Woads spotted him and ran up, but Gawain was already shoving through. He caught one of them with the backhand of his mace, then tossed his ax at the other. It struck home, and he had just enough time to retrieve it before the body slipped into the trampled mud. And Agravaine looked to be going the same way.
"Shit." Gawain grabbed at Agravaine's shoulder and tried to hold him up, but the other man's eyes were already rolling back into his head. His teeth started to rattle, and thick fluids welled out from between his lips. "Oh, shit."
"Hey! Watch your back!" Galahad suddenly hammered in, his horse's hooves crushing a Woad that had been about to stab Gawain in the leg. The swirl of the fighting carried him on, dragging his horse towards the spot where Bors was laying waste, so he should be fine.
But those arrows...fuck, across the river. Tristan had been right to worry. "Sir," Gawain urgently whispered. He kept slashing away with his free hand, trying to keep the Woads away. "Sir. You--"
The last particle of lucidity in Agravaine's eyes focused on Gawain, and then Gawain was shoved away so hard he nearly fell off the other side of his horse. He grabbed a fistful of mane to steady himself, then had to let go and bash in another skull with the mace.
"I hate Britons," Agravaine growled, not in Latin but in his mother-tongue. He toppled off, and Gawain had to gasp because that was all he could do, given that both his hands were busy killing.
But instead of being trodden to death, Agravaine rolled away and came up on all fours. He snarled again and sprang for the nearest blue-painted throat, knocking over the terrified Woad in a welter of blood. Neither of them got back up.
So much for hiding. The thought was a tiny spark in Gawain's numbed brain. It flared up just as a huge wolf came out of nowhere, leaping for his face. His arms came up, crossing mace and ax, and he beat the animal off. Would've killed it, too, if his horse hadn't been in the grips of uncontrollable hysteria. Battle it could take, blood and dying men it could handle, but gigantic wolves apparently called up too many instincts for it to ignore. Gawain could barely keep himself on top on it.
Tristan swooped in, his horse nowhere in sight. His sword slashed down, and the howling beast before him fell. Twisted into the limp body of a Woad.
"God--they have them too." Arthur had burst through the intervening wall of attackers just in time to see. "Almighty God."
"And now we both know about each other," Tristan remarked. He was coolly fitting arrow to bowstring, and when he had finished speaking, he let fly.
Across the river, there was a high cry and a crashing sound. By that time, Tristan had already loosed another arrow, and now that his horse had finally stopped bucking, Gawain could see other knights doing the same; the fighting on the shore had seemed to come to a head with Agravaine and the Woad-beast, and now it had more or less died away. Dagonet and Bors were going among the survivors, killing the Britons and lifting the wounded knights back onto their horses.
Lancelot trotted up, both horse and man smeared with blood. His eyes were still glowering gold, though they were slowly fading back to their normal dark grey. "Well, here's a pretty surprise. Though I doubt it's in either of our best interests to spread the news."
"No..." Arthur shivered, then looked up and across the river. On the far bank, which had been previously empty, a huge, burly Briton now stood. He held a staff, but by the looks of him, that had nothing to do with a need for support.
Then Arthur did a curious thing: face stiffened to stone, he dismounted and stalked down to the river bank to stop at the very edge, boot-tips in the water. Cursing, Lancelot and the rest scrambled to get arrows nocked and ready, just in case someone on the other side decided to take advantage of the fine target Arthur presented.
One moment it was a Briton matching glares with Arthur, and the next it was a magnificent wolf, white teeth bared in a silent snarl.
"What--" Lancelot started, but then he stopped and stared like everyone else.
Arthur had done the same thing.
Gawain pinched himself to check if he was dreaming, but unfortunately, he wasn't. He watched in disbelief as Arthur and the Briton shook themselves back to two legs, as the Briton raised his staff for a second and held it there, then whisked himself back into the woods. Meanwhile, Arthur was shaking the water off of his hands.
Tristan was the first to speak. "Do we go after them?"
"No. No. And it was good that you didn't shoot, either. Merlin has an army in those woods, and we couldn't have won. Neither side can press forward, so it's a stalemate." Arthur closed his eyes and tilted back his head, moving as if his aches were catching up to him. "Gawain. Since Agravaine's dead, you're to take over for him. Coordinate with Lancelot and get things here cleaned up. I'm for the village; I suppose someone's got to calm Phillipus down. And I trust that I don't have to say that nothing unusual happened here."
"Just your ordinary night ambush, duly repelled by the good knights of Sarmatia," Lancelot said. His smile was strained, but the humor was real enough and it did a great deal to lighten the tense mood. Even Arthur seemed to relax a little. "So that was the famous Merlin. Bit of a sorcerer after all."
Arthur turned away and headed for the village, though he did pause long enough to deliver a sharp reply. "He's not any more of one than we are. Get to work."
Visibly stung, Lancelot opened his mouth to say something. Then he seemed to think the better of it and turned to Gawain instead. "Well? How's it feel to be promoted?"
"Bloody," Gawain replied. He looked at Agravaine's broken body, then glanced away before he embarrassed himself. Uptight son of a bitch or not, he had been a good knight and leader.
And he was dead, and they weren't. Moving on, Gawain thought. Right. He could still do that.
Lancelot didn't slip into Arthur's bedroll until near dawn, which left them perhaps a half-hour before they had to rise. Still, Arthur wasn't at all annoyed by the disturbance, and when he lifted his arm, Lancelot eagerly curled beneath it. He pulled the other man as close as he could, both to conserve warmth and to smell the life that seemed to always soak Lancelot.
"You and Merlin." A cold nose poked Arthur's throat.
"He killed my mother. He's why I left Britain." And he was now killing Arthur's knights, the face to the enemy in the shadows, and as the night had shown, he truly was at the bottom of every single question in Arthur's life. "Now I wonder which parent gave this to me."
At that, Lancelot lifted his head to show eyelashes that were already fluttering with exhaustion. He was solemn with his fatigue, and still caring in that unique combative, backhanded way of his. "You sound like you're ashamed of it. And when you've spent all those years to convince us otherwise."
"I'm not. I'm..." Arthur closed his eyes and burrowed his head beneath Lancelot's chin. "My father was a knight that was hunted by his own people. My mother was in the same situation, and now I'm...I only wonder about what passes along in the blood and what comes from living."
"Well, I never met either one of your parents, so I'll never know and frankly, I don't really care." Lancelot rested his hands on Arthur's waist and laid his cheek against the top of Arthur's head. He squirmed a little so more of the blankets fell on him.
Smiling was painful, but Arthur was happy to find that he could still do it. He had so many things to think over, much to plan for, but he also had steady comfort lying right beside him and it would be churlish not to appreciate what Lancelot was doing. Irresponsible hotheaded brat that he was, but if Arthur was going to be haunted by a face, he'd rather it be Lancelot's than Merlin's.