|Wolfskin III: Battleground
Author: Guede Mazaka
"Well, it's a decent plan." Gawain squatted over the rough sketch Lancelot had made on the ground with sticks and pebbles, studying the layout. He caught sight of Galahad's confused face and obligingly explained the main points of the strategy. "Main army here on the plain, looking small and weak. Reinforcements hiding up on the hills. They'll charge down once the Woads have been drawn into the center of the plain and fall on the Woads' rear."
"And the Woads are going to be stupid enough to come into the center because we'll ride out, convince them that we're pathetically easy to beat, and then gallop back like our tails are on fire. Because if we don't go fast enough, those idiot archers in the Roman lines are going to shoot us as well as the damned Britons." Lancelot hadn't been happy when he and Arthur had walked into the general's tent, and he'd been even less happy once they had walked out. That had been late last night. Now, his face probably could've committed all by its lonesome. "Yes, we'll win the battle, but for what? To keep this stupid port for a few more months so we can complete evacuation of this area."
Tristan stopped tapping his dagger-point against the ground and thrust it into the soil, then rested his wrists on the hilt. "We have to hold it till the harvest is in, or we won't eat. Would you rather evacuate under constant attack? And starve?"
"I'd rather not fight at all and just leave this damned country. Four years here, and all we do is give up land. There wasn't much to fight for in the first place, and now the Romans are making sure that we're doing it for nothing. They could at least tell us to our faces that they're trying to butcher us." Lips twisted with irritation, Lancelot stood and kicked dirt over the map. Then he sighed, all anger seeming to drain out of him as he watched the legionaries marching into position. His shoulders rolled a few times, and then he reached up to massage one; an arrow had grazed him there a few weeks ago, and Gawain wouldn't have been surprised if the scar badly ached, given Britain's dampness.
He stood as well and stepped up to beside Lancelot. Camp was on the middle top of three hills that were all clustered around one side of the battlefield-to-come, so from here they could see the whole sweep of the army as it deployed in the dawn mists. An impressive show, and Gawain would grudgingly admit that the legionaries generally lived up to their imposing reputation, but like Lancelot said, it was all just a temporary action. Whatever was accomplished here was doomed to be wiped out in less than a year, scraped off Britain and memory. That was what truly hurt--blood and death and pain being forgotten so quickly.
"It starts in two hours," Tristan reminded them.
Lancelot closed his eyes and tilted his face up, as if to better feel the changes in the wind. "Then again, if we weren't fighting, we truly would be useless. So I suppose it's better to use the sword on yourself than let it rust."
"You're in a depressing mood. Keep it up and we aren't going to have the heart to make it back to the front lines." Gawain had never seen the point in making a bad situation worse, and neither had Lancelot. Until recently. Something had happened between him and Arthur--anyway, that was what Tristan said--and ripples from it were throwing the whole regiment awry.
Fortunately for today, Lancelot found Gawain's remark funny and laughed, full-throated and genuine, like he hadn't in days. He clapped Gawain on the shoulder and moved off, probably to see to his horse. Hopefully also to cheer up the men, who could use it. Two years of practice, and even the sliver of leadership Gawain had as head of a decury was still tricky to manage. He sometimes envied Lancelot's effortless ability to handle it, but then he always remembered all the other problems Lancelot had and he felt a little better. Selfish and unkind of him, really, but what worked was what survived.
Tristan came up to Gawain's shoulder, gazing after the departing knight. "Arthur's suddenly realized how easy it would be to lose Lancelot, and he's taking it out on him."
"That's your guess?" Gawain asked.
"It is." The hawk on Tristan's shoulder made a tiny disturbed noise, so he took a moment to transfer it back to his wrist, where it usually sat. "It's hard to watch people you care for go into battle. It's even harder if you're the one ordering them there."
Startled, Gawain slanted a scrutinizing look at Tristan. "That's...I didn't know you knew anything about it."
A shadow flitted over Tristan's face, making his eyes seem to recede into dark opaque pits. Then it passed, and he looked as he always did. "I watch and listen. And I learn."
With that cryptic statement, he murmured to his hawk and loosed her legs and hood, then tossed her high into the sky. Before Gawain could collect himself for an apology over an offense he still didn't quite comprehend, Tristan was leaving.
"And you all think I'm the slow one," snorted Galahad. He none-too-gently smacked Gawain in the arm, then folded his arms and stared after Tristan, chewing his bottom lip like he always did prior to doing something stupid. "You know something? Lancelot's right. We all might die today. But if we don't, I'm not spending another four years watching this idiocy."
Gawain grabbed for Galahad, but too late: the other man was already down the hillside and catching up to Tristan, whom he grabbed by the arm and dragged behind the nearest tent. Cursing, Gawain went after them and prayed to whatever sordid little gods actually liked living in Britain that Galahad wouldn't be so foolish as to challenge Tristan to a fight. Those two would always dance around each other, sniping and jabbing like five-year-olds who--
--oh. Well. Now that Gawain thought about it, that comparison could be applied in that way. But who would've ever suspected...
Certainly not Tristan, who seemed stunned into stillness while Galahad held him by the shoulders and...very thoroughly kissed him. It looked as if they'd done a little too well in picking whores who were willing to properly initiate Galahad.
At that thought, an unexpected heat flared in Gawain's gut and cheeks. It took him a moment to realize that it was due to a boiling mix of emotions, and it wasn't until he noticed his nails were cutting into his palms that he identified the components as lust and jealousy.
And now Tristan had moved his hands to Galahad's arms, fingers both pushing and pulling, and Tristan was moaning a little, and Gawain very seriously wanted to hurt them both.
Horrified by how appealing he found that thought, he stumbled backward, which at last brought his presence to the attention of the other two. Tristan's face was uncharacteristically open, and full of...fear? On the other hand, Galahad was determined and annoyed right up until the moment he seized Gawain's hair and yanked him down for a kiss.
Yes, Galahad definitely knew how to do that.
When they broke apart, Gawain was gasping for air and trying to blink away the spots in his vision. Galahad, on the other hand, looked little worse for the wear. "There. And stop looking so surprised. You've both been around, lecturing me and warning me and trying to keep me from irritating the other one of you. What did you think would happen?"
"You're welcome," Gawain managed to say.
Galahad rolled his eyes and stomped off, still exasperated. In his stormy wake, Gawain and Tristan stared at each other, but found nothing but confusion and uncertainty and a roused internal heat that was going to be very awkward to fight around.
Tristan blinked first. Slow and deliberate. "I'm going to kill him. I know you like him, but I am."
"I'll hold him down for you." And in the time that it took Gawain to say that, a lot of little pieces started hooking together. Not fast enough for him to draw any conclusion, but enough for him to feel that conclusion coming. He stepped forward until he was less than an inch away from Tristan, and when the other man's eyes suddenly went soft-hazy, even more so than when he looked at his hawk, then Gawain knew for sure. "Four years, and now right before a battle that's likely to kill us. You usually have better timing than this."
"You usually don't notice." Tristan started to lean forward, but then the bugle trumpeted and he jerked away.
Damn. Gawain shuffled his feet for a few seconds, trying to work himself up to it, but the bugle called again. He swore in as many fragments of languages that he knew, and then he saw the ridiculousness of the whole situation and laughed.
After a moment, Tristan added his own soft chuckle, and shaking their heads, they headed for their horses. But before they split up to ride away--Tristan now being in Lancelot's decury--Gawain reached over and clasped Tristan's hand. "I'll see you afterward."
Tristan paused, then squeezed Gawain's fingers. He didn't say anything as he rode off, but Gawain fancied that Tristan might have been smiling a little.
Of course, they were still going to have to deal with Galahad, that impulsive ass. But now, that might be something to look forward to. Once they'd gotten through the battle.
Guinevere tried her best pout, but Merlin's face refused to soften.
Well, she knew when she was beaten. Next time, she'd simply have to start working on him sooner. "All right, I won't sneak off to the battle. I'll go north and learn how to be a leader. I promise."
Chin propped on his knees, he locked eyes with her for a few endless, chilling minutes; Guinevere shivered and cringed, but she forced herself to meet his gaze until he looked away. Merlin passed a huge, callus-hard hand over her hair as he always did, then straightened up and took his staff from where it had been leaning against the tree. His fist slowly moved up its length, his fingers wearing its carvings ever deeper as he stared through the woods. If someone had told Guinevere then that Merlin could see through the trees all the way to the Roman port, miles away, she would have believed it.
"It's not yet your war," he suddenly said. "It's mine and Arthur's. Don't be impatient; soon enough the gray hairs on my head will overcome the fury in my blood, and then I will have to pass it to you."
"It's everyone's war." The words came out a little more sharply than Guinevere had intended, but once they were out, there was no taking them back. When in doubt, go forward--something Merlin himself had told her once. "Whatever you two did to each other, you're not the ones that have been dying. I still owe my parents--"
Merlin cut her off with an abrupt jerk of his staff that nearly stabbed a hole through her foot. Guinevere whipped herself back and was nearly up the nearest tree when he waved her down. His expression was almost apologetic. "Guinevere. When you're at rest or waiting, you have all the time in the world to think of the past and future. But when you're at war--when you fight--you only have time to think of the present. Remember that."
A sudden coldness in Guinevere's belly made her wrap her arms around herself. As she chafed her prickling arms, she closely watched Merlin. "You...you...are you predicting your--you can't die! We need you!"
"I will, in time. But not today, I think. Not today." A bird fluttered high in the tree-tops, catching Merlin's attention. He gazed upwards with narrowed eyes, murmuring old sacred words as he listened for each wingbeat and call.
When the bird finally flew out of hearing, he glanced back at her, an uncharacteristic softness in his eyes. Then he nearly surprised Guinevere into stabbing him when he reached out and pulled her close in a brief, tight hug. Before she could even relax, he'd let go of her. "Go with the others. Watch and wait, like you always have. You're our best, and we're saving you for great things."
Long after he'd left for the battle, Guinevere stood there, trying to memorize every particle of his scent and appearance. She knew it would be years before she saw him again--she refused to consider the possibility that she wouldn't--and she didn't want to forget anything of the man that had raised her. That had taught her not only how to fight, but how to think as well. And now she had a chance to repay him, acting as envoy to the northern tribes while he harried the Romans right back to the their great wall.
Still, Guinevere felt uneasy about today. They shouldn't be trying to fight a straightforward battle. The strength of the Romans was in the field, and the strength of the Britons was in the forest. History had proven that over and over again, giving the storytellers a long, sad, infuriating list of defeats, yet the hotheads of the Britons insisted on trying once more. They saw only a port that was too well-supplied by river to be taken quickly, and they failed to see that for all their bravery, not a one of them thought like a true general.
Not even Merlin.
The sacrilegious thought stopped Guinevere in her tracks. Stricken with horror, she immediately tried to wipe the traitorous notion from her mind, but no matter how she tried, she could not. The truth would not go so easily into the dark, no matter its terrible appearance.
So very, very slowly, she accepted it. Truth was truth, and she could do nothing else. Except...think on it for a while. Truth was also knowledge, and knowledge was advantage. And Guinevere had long since promised herself that she would never miss a chance to win.
As Arthur waited among his men for the battle's start, he reviewed the strategy again and again in his mind, futilely trying to reassure himself that it was sound, that it made sense, that even Lancelot hadn't been able to come up with a reasonable objection to it so it was fine. Aside from the fact that no matter how the battle played out, the knights were guaranteed to have high casualties.
The half of the legion that was playing the "army" was arranged in typical right-wing, center, left-wing formation, with the knights playing the tips of the wings. They were supposed to pretend to be over-excited, gallop too far from the infantry and then race back, thus luring in the Woads for the hidden reinforcements' final blow. With any luck, the massive army the Woads had somehow gathered to throw at this one crucial port would be completely destroyed.
Objectively speaking, it would be worth the sacrifice. This one battle had the potential of crushing the Britons so badly that they would need years to recover. Conversely, if the Romans lost this port too soon, then the rest of their withdrawal from Britain would be bloody, tortuous, and slow death by starvation until the legions were reduced. With the winter storms coming, that would have to wait at least till next year. So they had to fight now or fight later, and either way, Arthur's knights would suffer.
"You know, I have no problem with dying by the sword. At least it's better than being burned. Or rotting away in bed." Lancelot was shifting in his saddle as if his rear was aching, though Arthur knew painfully well that that wasn't the cause of the other man's restlessness. It'd been a cold night since their last serious argument--talk--let alone their last shared bed. "I just have a problem with understanding why someone wants me to run onto the damn sword for their sake."
Arthur chanced a quick glance at the other knights, but none of them were paying attention, and Tristan was across the plain in the other wing. Kay was leading that half of the knights, and hopefully he had gotten over his bout of melancholy. By rights Arthur should have put Lancelot there, but Kay ranked senior by age and still fought too well to be summarily demoted.
And, whispered a little voice in Arthur's head, this way Lancelot was where Arthur could see him.
"No one's asking you to kill yourself," Arthur muttered, keeping his voice as low as possible. He prayed that Lancelot would do the same; the man was intelligent to know what the sight of officers bickering just before a fight could do to morale. "We're--"
Rolling his eyes, Lancelot derisively fluttered his fingers against his horse's neck. His mount snorted and pranced a bit, so he hastily patted it into complacency. "Saving Rome. Spreading Christian salvation and civilization. Yes, I remember your little speech."
"And we're helping to defeat the very people that have been trying to kill us--that have been killing us all these years." The irritation rising in Arthur's throat cooled once it reached his mouth, icing his tongue with bile. His knees were beginning to lock up, and he forced his legs to hang loose and relaxed.
Out in front, the Woad lines had just finished assembling. At first and then at second glance, Arthur could see that the predictions about how many Woads could smuggle themselves past Hadrian's Wall had been more than underestimations. Worrying enough...and then some dark glimmer caught his eye. He squinted at it. Swore and clamped his fingers around the reins. "Merlin."
"Of course." When Arthur looked over, Lancelot was fixedly watching the Woad leader, a strange edge of bitterness to his hatred. He glanced at Arthur, irony staining his eyes. "Wouldn't be your war without him."
The cold nerves in Arthur suddenly dissolved to smoldering fury. "What?"
"If you're going to put this much of yourself into a war, you might as well admit it, Arthur: there's no ideals here. Ever since you and Merlin saw each other across that river, you've grown farther and farther from me. You won't even listen to me now, let alone talk." Lancelot started with the words boiling out of him, but by the time he had finished, he looked as drained and pale as the anemic sun above them.
Arthur, however, was in no mood to consider the meaning behind such details. He couldn't believe--from Lancelot? From the one man he counted on to understand him, no matter what the circumstances. It was worse than a betrayal--it was like seeing death in the face of the one person on earth that could move him both to tears and to laughter.
"If you're going to dislike so many parts of me, then perhaps you should reconsider why you bother," he hissed back. "Don't trouble yourself with chasing a dream, Lancelot. I am what I am."
The raw hurt that flashed, then settled on Lancelot's face echoed deep within Arthur, but the anger still had him and burned more fiercely than even the pain. "I do that for you," he added. "Can't you--"
Brassy and brutal, the bugle call permanently interrupted their conversation. And then there were the thousands of clinks and clacks and rustles all piling into cacophony as knights walked their horses out, as legionaries trudged behind. Arthur's mind shut off its frail, distracting emotions and prepared for battle. Beside him, Lancelot rode with a flinty face that betrayed nothing of his earlier heat, and behind them both, the best of Sarmatia obligingly followed. They would follow their leaders to hell if asked.
Two minutes later, that was what Arthur demanded of them. He heard the call for charge rattle down to his marrow, heard the wild eerie shrieks of the oncoming Woad horde. The tremendous dissonance caught him in between, split his senses into disorientation as he raised his hand and waved the knights into full gallop.
His sword was somehow in his hand, heavy razor promise precipitously balanced there, and he was rising a little in the stirrups to get the right angle for a downward chop. The sight of Woad line shattered on his eyes, broke apart into individual targets with red, red mouths and blue skin like bloated corpses in the cold water. Arthur instinctively picked out a succession of targets, and then he was among them, his horse was trampling the first while his sword cut through the second. It took a third on the return stroke, and then he had to twist around to stab another one coming up on his other side.
The rhythm of hack and stab soon found him easily enough; he'd done this so many times he even dreamed of the motions, and sometimes he found himself flailing everything off the bed: him, the blankets, Lancelot--
--a bare few feet away, cutting and slashing with a ferocious grin on his face while his horse smashed gory hooves onto shouting mouths. Arthur dimly felt himself breathing a sigh of relief that he gasped back a moment later as he narrowly dodged a spear-thrust. The point caught his sleeve but didn't penetrate to the skin, and then Bors' huge kukri caught Arthur's attacker under the chin. Arthur glimpsed white vertebrae just before the gout of bright arterial blood caught him in the face. Spitting and roughly wiping at his face, he instinctively sliced down with Excalibur and felt the blade grate on bone. A second to yank it free, another to shove his horse through a gap in the fighting, and suddenly Arthur was staring at Merlin.
The burly man was about fifteen feet away, whirling both staff and sword around him with deadly accuracy. Gawain and Kay were spinning their chargers around him, darting in and out, trying to bait him into a mistake. That wasn't going to happen. As much as Arthur hated Merlin, he didn't fool himself as to his nemesis' capabilities.
And then--maybe it was a stone, maybe it was a body--Kay's stallion stumbled. A fraction too late, Gawain surged forward and tried to parry Merlin's blow, but the staff merely swept aside Gawain's mace and continued on to slam into his other arm.
Strange how certain sounds carried over the tumult of battle. Arthur heard the snapping bone as clearly as if he were standing right beside the fight.
Gawain went white and nearly fell from his saddle, but at the last moment his horse swerved from some other fighter and swung him back on. He grabbed for the saddle horn with his good hand and nearly got speared while he was thus defenseless, but Galahad came from out of nowhere and cut down that Woad. Then he seized the bridle of Gawain's horse and dragged them both away while Kay covered their retreat from Merlin's renewed assault.
By then, Arthur had already turned his horse and started driving for the fight, but a tangle of Woads and knight interfered. Lancelot was off his charger and gleefully slaughtering his less skilled opponents.
A fragment of memory stabbed Arthur's mind. "Lancelot! Damn you, get back on a horse! Now! Retreat!"
Disbelieving eyes flicked up at him, only the faintest hint of comprehension visible in all that fighting lust. Then the both of them jerked about, pulled by a high mashed scream.
Kay had erred, and now he was paying the price, throat crushed to a bloody spurting mess. He grappled at it, choking and gurgling, as his fear-maddened horse danced back from Merlin's red-topped staff. Before he had fallen from his saddle, Merlin was pushing past him and heading straight for Lancelot.
"Retreat! Knights, go back!" Tristan. Tristan, the only one with a cool head now, was directing the fall-back. Gawain was wounded, Kay twitching himself to death, Lancelot meeting Merlin with a fool's smile on his face--and Arthur, still too far from that pair and frantically trying to make up the difference.
God, God. God in His Infinite Mercy, Arthur prayed. Don't take this from me. Not this. For the love of everything good and great, not this. I can't suffer this.
He was screaming it too, but too loudly for him to hear himself.
Two seconds in, Lancelot knew he'd made a mistake. This Merlin wasn't only a dark sorcerer and a man with two skins like the knights, but he was also a damned good fighter. In fact, possibly the best Lancelot had ever come up against, even compared to Arthur. Even compared to himself, and when it came to fighting, Lancelot didn't brag. His swords talked well enough for themselves.
Though they were having a hard time singing now. Merlin was incredibly fast with his staff, and his sword seemed to be many stinging wasps, flickering everywhere at once. Lancelot had his hands full just blocking blows, let alone trying to attack.
Of course, some idiot had to interfere and that forced him to turn and cleave a skull. The wind changed, air compressed, and Lancelot twisted back. Ducked. But the chaos of fighting had thrown off his senses just enough for the staff to catch him low in the belly.
It didn't hurt. Surprisingly.
Though the pain was crippling a moment later when Lancelot dodged the sword that slashed at him. His insides flared up, burst against his ribs and choked off his air; he gasped and clawed greedily for air, but none seemed to be going into his lungs. Staggering, he dredged at his rapidly-emptying wells of strength and barely managed to parry Merlin's next attack. His swords screeched off Merlin's, heavy as lead as they then had to swing around to deflect that brutal staff-head.
Lancelot's vision was swimming. He couldn't tell whether it was from blood that'd been splashed on his face, or from tears of exhaustion. Both were equally likely.
"You're his best knight."
It took the span of another exchange of blows for Lancelot to recognize that Merlin was speaking to him. The idea that the stinking bastard Woad actually had enough breath to talk grated up enough anger to power Lancelot through a risky dive that mostly worked; Merlin drew back with a deep red cut across his left side, and Lancelot with a new bruise on his shoulder.
"What of it?" he panted, trying to ignore the hard press of his armor on his aches. His legs were beginning to tremble--if he let the quakes get a foothold in him, he could be down in seconds.
Merlin's eyebrows rose over eyes that abruptly flared gold. When he smiled, his teeth briefly flashed long and then short. "Then you mean the most to him."
That confused Lancelot. And in that small space of opportunity, Merlin drove forward, almost too fast to comprehend. Lancelot wrenched up his swords in a cross that held back the blade, but then the staff rammed into his chest again. Something cracked, releasing a flood of blinding pain.
No. Not to this man. Not to the one that had twisted so much of Arthur, that had laid the groundwork for everything that threatened to hammer home the wedge between him and Lancelot.
The sight of Merlin's shock as Lancelot surged back up was almost sweeter than that of Arthur, asleep and at peace. Lancelot's left sword missed, just grazing the skin of one arm, but his right one cut straight through Merlin's side--
--and stopped only half an inch in, slamming up against the staff that, impossibly, Merlin had managed to swing around. The other man had dropped his sword in order to block with both hands, but that made little difference. Only sheer will was keeping Lancelot's hilts in his hands.
He fell to one side and one knee, one blade going at an angle into the ground. It was something to hold onto while his ribs burned a tight clasping ring around him and the Woads closed in. Snarling, Lancelot wildly lashed out, caught flesh with his blades and then the agony was too much. He stumbled and lost his balance, recovered it long enough to stab away Merlin's arm. And then he lost it again, and this time, he knew he wasn't going to get it back.
Lancelot looked up, and all he could see was Merlin's sword.
"No!" And it wasn't a human voice that said that. Human voices didn't go that low, or roughen their words to the point where they scraped the edge of incoherency.
Merlin's head snapped up, and then he scrambled back as a charger and knight so bloody they looked to have been flayed plunged into the mess. For his part, Lancelot was beyond strength or will--he was purely reaction. Instinct. That howling growl was something that reached down into him, twisted around his blown muscles and yanked them into standing so an arm could drag him into a saddle. Somehow, he was still holding his swords.
"I could kill you for what you do to me," Arthur snarled into his ear. "I should. I should, but God, God--"
Roaring at full-strength, Bors and Dagonet were covering their retreat, and so Lancelot was certain that he was the only one who heard the sob in Arthur's voice.
"God. Thank you, God. Thank you for not taking him." The words seared against Lancelot's neck, hurting even worse than the fire of his broken rib. Arthur was breaking, and falling away, and it was in fact Lancelot's fault.
A bare handful of minutes. That was all, from the moment they'd hit the Woads to the moment Arthur and Lancelot had shot out of the hungry mob.
Well, at least there wasn't a problem with the convincingness of their hurry to flee. Galahad was trying to hold two horses to the same pell-mell gallop and keep an increasingly more faint Gawain from falling to the ground, where there'd be no time to pick him up. A good third of the knights that had gone in hadn't come back out--none of the normal ones had survived this battle, a particle of objectivity that Galahad hadn't known he'd had--and the ones that had weren't in good shape. Even stalwart Bors was lagging a little.
Tristan seemed all right, but he was kept busy shooting behind them, trying to keep off the Woad archers while the knights desperately raced for the safety of the Roman lines. And Arthur--Arthur--
Galahad had never, ever even suspected that their stoic, thoughtful leader was capable of such things. For that matter, he didn't think he'd ever seen anyone kill that many Woads that quickly. Let alone the expression on Arthur's face, which had been verging dangerously close to shifting. In broad daylight. In the middle of a battle.
"You're late!" yelled some puffed-up infantry officer, sitting pretty on his unblooded Italian stallion as they finally came within range of safety.
"Shut. Up!" Arthur was more hiss-roaring than speaking. His tight hold on Lancelot couldn't be comfortable, given that Galahad was almost positive Lancelot had broken a rib--and come to think of it, the match between Lancelot and Merlin had been damned impressive itself--but Lancelot wasn't letting Arthur loosen up at all. He had his hands clamped onto Arthur's arm, and from the looks of things, it was going to take a lightning bolt to pry him off.
Gawain suddenly slumped forward, giving Galahad barely enough time to grab at him. Going for the shoulder, caught the broken arm instead--Gawain screamed. Nearly jolted out of the saddle.
Wincing, Galahad could do nothing but hook his fingers into the side-seam of Gawain's armor and pull him back. "Sorry! Sorry!"
"Fuck this for a battle. I've had whores last longer." If Gawain gritted his teeth any harder, his smile was going to break.
"It's just begun," Tristan tossed over as he drew up along Galahad's other side. He was--his face was too pale.
Galahad swallowed hard and tried to gauge just how much longer they had to go. "I can't carry both of you. Damn it--you're supposed to be better than me! I'm the one that gets wounded!"
"Just be happy that we aren't going to be able to kill you for earlier." Tristan swayed in his saddle, then clumsily caught himself. A trickle of red leaked from his side; he caught Galahad staring horrified at it and shrugged. "It's not bad. The leg's worse."
"Sometimes I can't believe you. You're such an idiot." Galahad's lips were numb, and frankly, he couldn't believe they were capable of speaking, let alone criticizing Tristan of all people.
Instead of slaying by reply, or by knife, Tristan merely grunted and slapped a hand on his horse's flanks. That sent Galahad past worry and well into terror, but--nothing he could do except ride, and ride, and ride.
They pounded up and into the clear path that the legionaries had opened in the middle of the ranks, racing arrows and time all the way. And then they were sawing at the reins, trying to turn aside their lathered, hysterical, exhausted chargers before they rammed themselves into the Roman artillery at the back of the legion. The ropes of one ballista were so near to Galahad when he passed it that they seemed to burn through the air and scorch his cheek. In the end, they didn't manage to halt until well past the lines of battle and nearly to the top of the hill, a few hundred yards from the camp.
The moment they ceased to move, all the fatigue and hurts leaped into prominence. Galahad's horse was pitifully hanging its head between its legs, croaking for air, sides heaving so hard that they bounced his feet. He didn't feel much better, but he still forced himself to dismount and help first Gawain, then Tristan get down.
As they'd stayed to wait for Arthur and Lancelot, they were among the last to arrive; the surgeons weren't going to come out till battle's end, but someone had already sent to camp and gotten medical supplies. The knights had become used to taking care of their own, after all. Galahad grabbed everything that he could get and hurried back to the other two.
Tristan had laid down on his back and looked almost to be sleeping, save for the drawn lines around his bloodless mouth. On the other hand, Gawain had apparently gone feverish and was now sitting, now standing as he tried to make out the continuing fighting. "It looks like we're winning."
"Winning what?" Galahad snapped. He was disgusted to hear tears in his voice, and even more so to find his hands trembling too much to do anything useful. A few deep breaths, a mental lashing, and he steadied enough to start peeling the armor and leather from the bloodiest patches on Tristan.
"You'll have to cut those loose." Tristan still hadn't opened his eyes.
Galahad swallowed again, even though his mouth was parched and he could've used the spit. "I know that."
"They're all dying. Look at them," Gawain said. He sounded as if he were miles away. "All those Woads."
"Wonderful. It worked." The words tasted like ashes on Galahad's tongue, gritty cinders getting stuck in his teeth. He remembered one afternoon when juicy bloody deer meat had done the same, and Tristan had mocked him for it. And in that annoying, familiar, back-handed way of his, warned Galahad to be careful, to not give them all away. Tristan was always there, watching out for danger and meeting it, and Gawain was too, smoothing things over when they stole a bit of peace. Galahad couldn't imagine a life without the pair of them, just as now he couldn't quite see how he was picking out the bits of shredded leather from Tristan's oozing wound.
Something in the air shifted--Gawain's scent went flat and dull. Barely in time, Galahad dropped the probe and tweezers to catch the collapsing man. But Gawain weighed a little too much more than Galahad, who was dead tired anyway, and so the best that could be done was to ease Gawain's fall to the grass.
"I didn't think a broken arm would be this bad," Gawain murmured, surprised eyes flickering unfocused over Galahad's face.
"There's more than just that." Had to get back to work, Galahad told himself. Had to clean and stitch Tristan's wounds, had to set Gawain's arm and see what else was turning Gawain the color of snow. Had to, had to, had to. So much to do, and only him.
A tiny dot in the sky swirled, then streaked down and large to become a hawk alighting by Tristan. He opened his eyes then, wan smile on his face, and stretched out his hand to stroke its head, smoothing its feathers.
For Galahad, watching it was like feeling himself being stroked back into calm. He was a Sarmatian knight. More than that--he was one who could go on four legs as well as two, and only those had survived this long. He could handle this.
With sure hands, he took up the surgical instruments and re-addressed himself to Tristan's injuries. Gawain could wait for a little while. Not long, but Galahad could be that quick and good when he had to be. He'd had good teachers.
"He's not dead." Arthur was sitting by Lancelot's cot, but he was looking out the tent flap at the merciless black of the night. "Merlin survived today. I can feel it."
"He wouldn't have if I have been a little faster." Disappointment and hatreds of several kinds acidly bit at Lancelot, pooling like poison beneath his tongue. "I wanted to bring you his head as a gift."
That startled Arthur. Enough for him to finally turn and look Lancelot in the eye, as he hadn't done since he had glared the terrified surgeon into doing the best work of his pathetic life, then sat himself in the corner to watch. "I never asked you to do that."
"No, you didn't." And he never would have, even though the thought of living Merlin was eating Arthur alive. Chewing up his reason and replacing it with a terribly jealous kind of dedication that brooked no competitors for Arthur's attention.
In the beginning, Lancelot had understood. Revenge was something that rang true to him, and revenge of a parent? Well, his had thrown him out--but they had loved him first for twelve years, and he still remembered what that feeling was like. He remembered that in the years between that event and now, he'd never found its like, though he had thought he'd found something that surpassed it like the sun's brilliance surpassed the moon's. And then he had started to realize just what Arthur's enmity with Merlin was putting at risk.
"He was going to kill you because of me," Arthur said. His hands unconsciously curled into fists on his knees, and his body hunched away from everything in the room, including Lancelot. "That man...sometimes I wonder if he is a sorcerer. He seems to know a great deal about me."
"Well, you're responsible for the deaths of many of his people. He'd be a poor leader if he didn't try to learn about you." Lancelot's body protested with agonizing shocks, but he forced it upright. His vision swam with black streaks, and he had to pause a moment to catch his breath. "I wanted to spare you his blood on your hands. You already brood enough on them as it is."
Air hissed through Arthur's teeth, low and ragged, and the half of his eye that Lancelot could see glittered with steel anger. "He almost killed you. He didn't, thank God, but--five more seconds."
"Do you even understand how close I came to--to--" Arthur suddenly, violently, jerked around and seized Lancelot by the shoulders, flexing fingers till the bones in Lancelot's shoulders screamed with pain. "I told you once: if you were to die--"
Lancelot's breath caught high in his throat, squeezing his voice into a fearful thin thing that he hadn't produced since boyhood. "You're frightening me now. And back on the field--Arthur, that's what Merlin does to you. That's what Rome does to you. That's what I didn't want to see you become."
"No, that's what you do to me. I know I can't protect you from the world. You'd kill me yourself." A mirthless, ironic smile momentarily slipped over Arthur's face, doing nothing to lighten the darkness there. "But I won't see you die for me."
"Too late for that," Lancelot muttered. And he was strangely content with his decision. Arthur was reason enough to die--but he was also reason enough to live, and Lancelot supposed that that was why he didn't hate Arthur for being the constant chink in his armor. For overshadowing Sarmatia and Rome and Britain and every other place that had left its marks on him.
Whatever gods watched over men like them had to be laughing, because Lancelot knew he wasn't going to have Arthur forever, and yet he willingly continued to throw himself after the other man. Fifteen years...and of that, nine had already passed. If all he had was six, then he was going to be as jealous of that time as anything else was. Christianity and Rome could wait. Merlin, however, couldn't.
Lancelot wrapped his hand around Arthur's wrist and gently tugged the other man onto the bed. "Most men would be honored by that kind of sacrifice, you know."
"Your arrogance never ceases to amaze me. And I've long since given up trying to understand your complete--complete obliviousness." Arthur abruptly took Lancelot's face between his palms and pressed their foreheads together. He was slumping with an exhaustion that was more than physical, and yet something hot and ferocious and undying still struggled to free itself from him. "I don't want your sacrifice. I want your life. I want you to live, damn it. That's what would make my life meaningful."
"What about your God and your city?" As soon as the words had left Lancelot's mouth, he wished they had never seen birth.
Stiffening, Arthur slowly withdrew from him, and the loss stole all the warmth from Lancelot. He shivered and grabbed at Arthur, but that jarred his rib and the resulting pain clawed out a cry from him.
Arthur froze in place. Then, even more slowly, he sat back down on the edge of the bed and cradled Lancelot against his chest. A few minutes later, he finally started to relax, dipping down to nuzzle the side of Lancelot's face and throat. "You're going to be the death of me," he sighed.
"Then we're even." Lancelot swallowed hard and tried to enjoy the moment, because those of its kind were getting rarer and rarer. He lifted his head and pressed his lips to Arthur's, then ducked down again and pretended that he hadn't tasted the ashes there.
"...and the third one's already putting up a fight in Vanora's belly," Bors proudly said. He scratched at his grin with a handful of blood-grimed nails, benevolent chuckles dripping down his filthy front. "I'm thinking it'll be a boy again."
"Keep going and you'll have your own pack soon. You can set them at the nearest rabbits," Galahad snorted. He ducked Bors' cuff and went right on fussing with Gawain's bandages. "Hand me that splint, would you?"
Eyes rolling, Gawain snatched it first and used it to prod Bors away, then surrendered it to Galahad. "This time get it right, would you? Unless you think I like having my arm reset."
"If you hadn't wrecked the first splint because you wanted to help carry Tristan, we wouldn't be doing this again." Righteousness was disturbingly at home on Galahad's face. So was smugness, which came forth as he stepped back to make way for the surgeon.
When the black spots in Gawain's sight stopped dawdling with the bright ones, he refocused on Galahad and Bors' idle chatter, which was a loud, useful distraction from whatever witchery the surgeon was up to. Gawain had never liked surgeons, and every time he had to submit to one, his repulsion towards them only got worse.
"So--I always forget to ask," Galahad said, switching to his native dialect. The Roman surgeon threw a mildly curious glance at him, but clearly didn't understand a thing and soon returned to binding Gawain's arm. "Bors. You ever tell Vanora?"
Bors grew quieter and serious as he nodded, and he didn't actually speak for a long while. When he finally did, it was very slowly, as if he was having problems remembering his homeland's language. "I did. And she didn't...well, she stared for a while, and then she laughed, like it wasn't much of a surprise. Hasn't given me any trouble about that since, though she made me promise to teach them about it myself."
"Well, you have a while. Doesn't start till twelve, at least." Galahad snickered a bit; his voice was strained, Gawain suddenly noticed. And there was an unhealthy gray tinge to Galahad's tanned skin, and deep lines around his mouth and nose that hadn't been present at the start of the day. "Better pray for girls so you don't have to do as much."
"Girls or boys, it's hard work getting them. Hard but worth the while." A lascivious wink on Bors was like a flower garland on a dungheap. It was terrifically hard not to laugh at the sheer incongruity of it all, but Gawain somehow managed it.
The surgeon yanked on the bandages one last time, then tied them off while Gawain struggled to stop his eyes from watering with the pain. He muttered something in response to Galahad's grudging thanks and staggered out, obviously worn near to breaking by the night. It'd been a complete Roman victory in terms of casualties and goals accomplished, but no aftermath was ever kind to the survivors, no matter what their side.
"Well, I'm for my tent, unless you need me to haul around someone," Bors muttered, face suddenly drawn with fatigue. When Galahad shook his head, Bors absently flapped a hand in farewell and ducked out the front.
As Galahad did up the lacings of the tent-flap, taking twice as long as usual because of his tiredness, Gawain maneuvered himself to lie the other way, facing Tristan. "You're not asleep."
"No, but I was close." Tristan had eyelashes like a girl's, long and thick and surprisingly delicate, considering the man's nature. Quiet, violent, and unashamed about it. Gawain wondered if Tristan had ever regretted anything in his life, and then he wondered if that was a happy way to live.
"Can we just leave everything till morning?" Galahad broke in. Done with the tent lacings, he was finally attending to himself. When the armor began to drop from his body, Gawain stared. When Galahad started rinsing himself with the same bloody water he'd used to clean Gawain and Tristan, Gawain realized that he was staring.
A low laugh from the side returned his attention to Tristan, who still hadn't opened his eyes. In the far corner, perched on a chair, his dozing hawk ruffled up, then smoothed down its feathers. "Grown up."
"And wonder of wonders, you're still a bastard." As Galahad finished his washing, he threw repeated nasty looks at Tristan, which somewhat reassured the queasiness in Gawain's stomach. The world had always been changing and always would, but the least it could do was keep to a constant rate instead of jerking about in random bursts.
"Better kisser than Gawain, though," Galahad added, and the bottom of Gawain's stomach dropped out from under him. He'd lost count of the number of times it'd done that since dawn, but he certainly hadn't forgotten the vivid nausea that accompanied it.
Tristan opened his eyes, lifted his head and blankly stared at Galahad. Gawain wondered why that expression made him want to shove his face in Tristan's neck and lick. Maybe it was the uncharacteristic uncertainty, which for some reason was quite appealing.
Galahad let out a contemptuous snort and plopped onto the side of Gawain's cot, which jarred many things, none of which particularly enjoyed the sudden motion. "Ow!"
"Sorry." Though Galahad appeared to be no such thing as he met Tristan's gaze. "What? It's not like I could get around you."
"You don't like me at all," Tristan replied. He still hadn't blinked.
Galahad emitted a sound that most closely resembled the bastard child of a groan and a grumble. Rather too dramatically, he flopped down and curled into Gawain's least-pained side, then belatedly muttered an apology for jouncing the cot once again. The bed really wasn't big enough for three men, but Gawain had the feeling that Galahad would pass out if he moved around any more. "As far as I can tell, liking doesn't really have much to do with it. Look at Arthur and Lancelot."
"What are you two talking about?" Gawain demanded, by now thoroughly confused.
"Just the fact that when you two came too damned near to dying on me today, I almost killed you both anyway because--because--oh, forget it." Still looking annoyed, Galahad levered himself up, slid his fingers into Gawain's hair, and then proceeded to reenact the morning's pre-battle events.
This time, however, Gawain was slightly less surprised. It probably helped that he was too tired and in pain to truly realize what he was doing when he sat up, wrapped his good arm around Galahad's back and sucked the wind out of Galahad's earlier insult. By the time they broke apart, Galahad was more than a little breathless and had a very lovely flush in his cheeks.
"I'm trying to sleep," Tristan grumbled.
Galahad gave Gawain a very serious look. "If you don't shut him up, I will."
And Gawain's mind still hadn't caught up with the world, because he somehow managed to mistake that as a challenge. Not being one to turn down such things, he twisted around and did as Galahad suggested.
Oh. So that was what shock looked like on Tristan--and then the balance flipped and Gawain was whimpering, clinging as a tongue skillfully rendered him into a mass of boneless heat. He tried to drag himself closer and consequently bumped his splint. "Ow! Fuck!"
"Great. We're finally all in agreement, and you two idiots have to get yourselves half-killed." Though Galahad's acerbic tone was as sharp as a glass shard, he betrayed a fast-rising sleepiness when he spoke. "So much for a warrior's comfort."
"Do you or do you not want to live to see dawn tomorrow, you ungrateful brat?" Gawain demanded, slowly flipping around to find...a drowsing Galahad, hand curled just beneath his chin. Sighing, Gawain gave up and laid down, gingerly adjusting himself to fit between Galahad and Tristan. Someday it would all make sense. He hoped.
As if reading Gawain's thoughts, Tristan chuckled and nestled closer. "Try not to think about it. Then it doesn't hurt as much."
Though he was still reeling from the injuries that knight Lancelot had given him, Merlin forced away the healers as soon as he was able. Then he sought out the few wounded that had survived the retreat, and spoke to them. And after that, he struggled up and down the lines of bodies that they had brought with them, knowing that any found by Roman soldiers would be subjected to such indignities that their spirits would never forgive their descendents for a thousand years. It was hard agony, even with the help of his staff, but he did it. And he thought.
Arthur. Artorius Castus. Sarmatian by father, Briton by mother, Roman by choice. A true general, even though it remained to be seen what he was like without the constraints of rank and deference forced upon him. A worthy enemy. And one that carried a deep well of fury within him, no matter how well he hid it. Merlin had seen into the man's eyes; it would be never before Arthur forgave him for almost killing his best knight.
It made Merlin wonder what that first wrong between them had been--what unforgotten event had roared from the backs of Arthur's eyes the first time they had met as equals, two years before by the river.
Not that that mattered, aside from satisfying a whim of curiosity. Whatever the causes, the effects were apparent enough, and of more immediate concern. Arthur would never leave Britain until he felt his duty was discharged, and it wouldn't be until one of them were dead. Although Merlin had a feeling that Arthur did not yet understand that.
The barest rustle betrayed another's presence. Merlin straightened himself, though it cost blood and breath to do so, and waited.
A few moments later, a runner emerged from the brush and knelt at the edge of the clearing. Despite his reverent fear, he couldn't help sneaking horrified glances at the corpses.
"You're to go north, to Guinevere. Take her aside where no one else will hear and tell her of what happened today," Merlin said. His vision wavered with the effort, but his voice didn't suffer the slightest tremble. "Tell her of what happened, and not what you wished to have happened. Do not try to make a fool of me. Or of her, because she will know if you lie."
The runner nodded and began to rise, but Merlin waved him back down.
"You saw the knight they call Arthur, and the one they call Lancelot?" When the man silently assented, Merlin inclined his head in curt approval. "Tell her of them as well. Of both of them."