|Know Thy Enemy
Author: Guede Mazaka
They go to watch them. Everyone does at one point or another; it's been a sort of rite of passage ever since the first rebelling mob bashed itself to bits on that wall and the Britons had to acknowledge that their land had been changed. That those precise Romans with their neat rank-and-file and dull intellects that couldn't even see the spirits dancing through the trees were around to stay.
The knights are different, though. It's been heard that those fearsome horsemen come from a land called Sarmatia. Sar-ma-tia. Guinevere drew out the 'ahhs' when she first heard the word, rolling the foreign burr of it over her tongue, feeling it prickle against the roof of her mouth. All the children listen to the stories of fire and blood and swords arcing down from five feet of galloping horse, but she's the one that stayed after and pestered the elders for details. What kind of sword? What kind of bow?
Because she doesn't want to just scream out her rage and fight them to the death-that dream is not shared by her. Yes, she wants to meet them in battle, but she also wants to win. And for that, she has to know them. The wolves of the forest have shown her that, what with the way they band together and track their prey, learning the deer trails and the waterholes. The knights themselves have; they have a man that whisks himself in and out of the dappled forest ground like a ghost. Or like a Briton.
So when the elders laugh at this skinny little girl, and ask her why she asks so many questions, does she want to become like their enemies?-she answers yes. And they grow quiet, and in the morning, the one called Merlin takes her where she has not yet been allowed to go, to the edge of the forest and the beginning of the Roman fort.
"They call us Woads, because they don't bother to come see us if they don't want a fight. So they only see our warriors. Remember that." Merlin firmly plants his feet in the crook of the branch on which they're sitting. He takes Guinevere by the arm and uses his staff to point out the parts of the garrison. "...and there is where the Sarmatians are."
She squints at the tiny buildings behind the great wall, wondering that she can barely make them out when Merlin, who is so much older, can rattle off details about the roof tiles and windows. "Are there any outside?"
"Not yet." He gives her a sharp look, like a hawk angling for a mouse. "They're brave, strong men. And wild. Would make good Britons."
"But they're not Britons." Guinevere chews her lip, thinking about whether the branch will support her weight a little further out. Just six more inches and she might be able to make out the stables.
Horses are mysteries of brutal power. The Britons have some, but none as big and fast as the monsters the knights ride. To control such beasts, the knights must have great powers, Guinevere thinks, and she tells Merlin so.
His eyebrow moves just enough for her to notice. "Perhaps. But then, it must be one that can be taught, for I've seen the younger ones fall again and again from their mounts."
"Then I'll learn how, too. And I'll learn how they fight." Guinevere draws herself up to her full height, hoping the daring in her voice will mask her uncertainly. Her foot slips, and for a moment, she seems to float on fear.
Then Merlin's arm is around her waist, rough skin rasping her, and Guinevere is back on secure footing, half-crouched over her gasps. Her cheeks seem to fill with flames, and she wishes she hadn't spoken out last night.
Surprisingly, Merlin doesn't laugh at her. Instead, he sets her upright and then lets go only to clap his hand on her shoulder, which is nearly engulfed. "That's a good idea. But never forget who you are." The corner of his mouth tweaks upward. "Almost none of the Sarmatians can climb."
"I know. I can outclimb anyone," Guinevere declares, and it's not an idle boast, either. She even beat Merlin up this tree.
"They're brave, strong men," Merlin repeats, slow and deliberate. "And they're fighting for their homeland too, in a way. But they're not in it; they're in ours. That matters as well."
She doesn't quite understand, but she remembers Merlin's words, long after the two of them have climbed down the tree and gone back to camp. She keeps them safe in her head, and every once in a while, she adds a campfire story, an overheard bit of spy-talk to that little trove. Someday, she thinks, she'll throw them back at the knights, and they won't be able to hide behind their walls.