Some years there are several empty seats at Arthur's great round table when the Yule chill swirls around the Wall.
The fifth year after Jols arrives, the seventh after Arthur took over the knights, none of the Sarmatian horse warriors died, and the 27 knights that rode out in the spring sat down to a midwinter feast, and the carousing lasted until the winter sun was high in the cold sky.
Not three days later, Agravaine went down in a Woad ambush, not ten miles from the fort, an arrow through his throat.
Jols had become part of the routine by then, steady and useful, even when tears stood in his eyes while he passed fine cloth and sweet oils, then stood by in respect and watched the knights polish blood off the dead knight's weapons, as they anointed and wrapped the bodies of their comrades for burial.
This is the province of the knights, not the task of their women, or mere friends, and Jols is always conscious of the honor of standing in the background.
Then he would get Arthur to his quarters, to allow the commander to be private in his grief, only to slip out to the courtyard door and watch the wake in the tavern. There he would wait, part and apart, until Arthur was needed to break up the inevitable fight, as soon as it became truly dangerous.
Jols never wanted to help prepare Lancelot for the flames as he has the other lost knights over the long years. His spirit was too bright for death. As often as Lancelot was in the thick of a battle, as often as he returned bloodied and bruised, he had always returned, laughing or raging or silent, but burning with life.
Now it has come to it, and Jols does not know if he has the courage to stay and watch over his friend. Surely Lancelot had been his friend, after all their years of looking after Arthur together?
Lancelot does not look peaceful in death. He doesn't smile like Safer did on his bier, or look surprised like Meliot, or pained as so many others have.
Lancelot just looks gone.
Glad to be finally out of Britain, Jols hopes.
For years, Jols has watched the knights die from the outside, the end coming slow and sudden; violently or with a gentle sigh. He's been on the battlefield himself, gone over the wounded after the fighting is done, looked after Arthur's knights in the sick tents in camp.Jols never thought he would be standing over Lancelot's body, lying on his old bunk in his barrack quarters.
There will be no fights tonight, Jols is certain, and he will not attempt to put Arthur to bed. But he will stand in the background, as long as he is allowed, and watch over his charges.
Arthur claims the task of washing and dressing Lancelot's body himself, and the three living knights stand by, stunned silent, and wait for their own tasks.
There are wounded Woads all over the fort, and their family wail for them and prepare their own death rites, but Jols can hear nothing in this room but the soft slop of water in the bowl.
Somehow, Bors has found time to clean Lancelot's armor, Gawain and Galahad his black-hilted swords. Lancelot's war gear stands ready.
Jols has attended to Lancelot's clothing, the jerkin and shirt he wore under his armor when he was killed, his padded breeches and boots, all cleaned of battle stain and waiting for their master. His wounds honor him, and they are not to be concealed by an untorn shirt.
Arthur drops the cloth back in the bowl, lays his hand over Lancelot's heart, over the ragged hole in his strong chest, and his face contorts. But Arthur spent his grief aloud on the battlefield. Action is his only refuge here.
Arthur gestures to the knights, and they take Lancelot's clothing from the table he had used for dice and cleaning odd bits of tack and begin the awkward task of fitting leather and cloth onto Lancelot's unhelpful corpse.
Jols swallows a ragged sound that may have become a laugh. If they were doing this with the living man, he would be equally unhelpful.
Arthur puts Lancelot's greaves on, big hands gentle on unresponsive flesh, cradling each ankle to tighten the straps as carefully as he were riding once more into battle and had need of this protection.
Gawain lifts Lancelot's shoulders up to let Galahad slip the back plate under him, and Bors fits the punctured breastplate over Lancelot’s cruelly wounded chest, and buckles the pieces in place.
For a moment, the knights look at their fallen comrade.
Galahad shakes himself, reaches for the bolt of fine white linen Jols has set on the low chest.
"Hold," Arthur says.
Gawain nods. "Tristan waits for us, knights," he says. They close the door quietly after them, but it squeaks. There's a trick to it, Lancelot had told Jols once. He could slip out when he liked with no knight the wiser. None of the other riders, except Tristan, had mastered the way of opening the door silently, so they could not sneak up on him and play pranks. There's something about me that makes my brothers itch to throw me in the horse pond, Lancelot had said once, with a smirk.
Arthur does not move, and Jols, having witnessed so much of Arthur's life unnoticed, steps into the hall, where he waits, thinking as little as he can.
Some time later Galahad comes out of Tristan's room. He hesitates at seeing Jols in the hall.
"Go on," Jols says in a low voice. "Tristan deserves his rights."
Galahad opens the squeaky door, exchanges a word with Arthur.
"Jols?" Arthur rasps.
"I'll stay," Jols says, and slips into Lancelot's room.
Jols waits until Arthur is well out in the hall to step closer to Lancelot, daring to lay a hand on Lancelot's still arm.
Jols is not one of the knights, just a stolid Briton, not a warrior, or any kind of noble man, but he loved Lancelot. Perhaps not as his brothers did, not the same way, but Lancelot's death has opened a hole in his heart and given him pain he did not know he could feel. He loves Lancelot as he loves Arthur, as something greater than himself, as men worthy of respect. Jols cannot put words to what he really feels for these warriors, warriors he takes pride in, the way one takes pride in kin. As the man who sees them at their worst, and their best.
As a man who would give them ease if he could.
Jols lifts slow fingers to Lancelot's hair, brushes it from his forehead, dares to card his fingers gently through soft curls. He has spent years wanting to give this restless man ease, to say be quiet, leave off fretting and forget your anger, as the knights soothe their stallions.
There is little else Jols can do. He's forgotten the prayers he'd learned as a child, but he knows Lancelot does not want prayers.
"Gallop home, warrior of the grassland," Jols murmurs.
A small noise echoes from the hall. Jols slips his hand away from Lancelot's curls and steps back to his station by the door.
Arthur comes back in, shoulders set, resolute. Gawain, Bors and Galahad file into Lancelot's room, battle-dirty faces slack and exhausted.
Jols is not a knight. Courage is not the chief guide of his life.
Jols turns away, for he cannot bear to see Lancelot wound in his shroud.