Author: Guede Mazaka
Her head barely comes to the center of Dagonet's chest, and the thinness of her wrists as they bend to her dress lacings is almost too delicate to be believed. She has lank brown hair, the color of the dirt caking his boots. Her face is too long, and her body so flat that he thinks in passing that his horse has a better figure.
"You want me down on my knees, or on the bed? Your friends paid enough for both," she mutters, voice already that of an old crone's.
They would have, for they are generous, if not entirely all-seeing. Arthur is a good, strict, upstanding commander, but no matter how much his mind might argue differently, his gut knows that his knights need a little comfort once in a while. And while he might be an attractive catch in this forsaken land, he does not want the additional burdens that a mistress or a wife would put on him. None of them do; they're young, reckless, and fiercely protective of the few freedoms they do have. An engagement with a native woman that isn't shielded from meaning by the tarnishing exchange of money is just another way for Rome to chain them to their duty.
"You make up your mind?" A hand comes to rest on Dagonet's arm, and he instinctively flinches back. For the past few days, all the touches he's had have been blows, cuts, or the rough fumblings of a soldier trying to play doctor.
She seems to assume a different meaning for his actions. "Look, I may not be the best-looking one-"
"No." The word's out of Dagonet's mouth before the understanding catches up. Then he hurries, trying to wipe out the misunderstanding, but he's not used to speaking much in the first place and so he feels as if he's trying to cross a bog in pitch-black night. "No, not that-I-"
Her hard face softens with worn humor. "Oh. Your first time?"
"No!" And Dagonet doesn't talk often for this very reason: he's seen the power of words, the carelessness of their use, and the disastrous results of their confusion. A single sentence was enough to take him from his home-the centurion didn't even have to show the written proclamation as proof because the words "in the name of Rome" were all that was needed to evoke the power behind him. "No..."
"No," she repeats, amusement turning to vinegary annoyance. "No. You're wasting money."
In the corner of the room, a tiny voice pipes up. "Good. I want him to go so you can come back and play with me."
In an instant, the woman's face fills with panic, and she shrinks away from Dagonet as she rushes over. "Damn you, quiet-sorry, sir, I'll take him away, please forgive me-oh. Oh, please don't, don't--"
The boy is curly-haired with dark eyes and dark skin, and when Dagonet kneels down in front of him, he throws his toy. The tiny wooden horse bounces off Dagonet's temple and lands neatly in his hand. He turns it over, examining the crude thing-four blocky legs, a head like a knot and a tail of filthy wool. "This is pretty."
"It was my Da's," proclaims the boy. Beside him, his mother is stiff with fear. "But then he got speared and never finished it."
"That's a shame." And Dagonet is already taking out his knife and shaving the hindquarters into proper haunches.
Little fingers poke at his knee. "Give it a star on its head."
Later, when they've moved to the bed and the boy is sound asleep by Dagonet's side, the woman starts asking questions again. This time, she seems interested in what the answer is, instead of simply wanting one. "How old are you?"
"Seventeen winters." Dagonet is actually eighteen, but when he was very young, the village elders made the decision to try and keep their male children for as long as possible, so he's grown used to the lie.
"Seventeen. You're broad for that." She folds her legs into her ragged-edge skirt, bony knees under bony chin, and Dagonet suddenly realizes that she's about the same age. With a boy-child already. "You're good with him."
Her eyes slant, as if she's still not sure of him. It's like a skittish colt, and as the knife moves along the wood, Dagonet carves a tensed muscle into one side of the horse. "I had a child."
"I think. I was thirteen-the girl was sixteen-and the day after she told me, the centurion came to take us to Rome." Dagonet flicks away the last sliver of wood and blows on the toy to brush away all the sawdust. He hands the horse to the woman, who takes it with both hands as if it were a very heavy ewer.
"Thanks." Her lopsided bangs hang over her eyes, recalling Tristan for an odd few moments, but then she lifts her head and puts the horse aside without looking away from Dagonet. In the same way, she moves the child to the side, tucks a scrap of blanket around him, and then she gathers Dagonet to her.
It doesn't feel like money, or love, or any kind of transaction. It's simply them for less than an hour, and when he leaves, he doesn't look back. When the other knights swarm round, demanding a story, he does as he always does and doesn't answer. Eventually, Bors roars up from the darkish, buxom redhead that helps her mother run the bar and shoos them away. He throws his own curious look Dagonet's way, but leaves well enough alone.
One side of his mouth up a little, Dagonet picks up a stray stick from the ground and whittles himself a boy.