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The Road to the Grail is Paved with Hermits

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The men in the clearing tensed as the rustle in the underbrush became the loud cracks of snapping branches, overlaid with angry grunts. Everyone gripped their spears tighter and even Dinadan, who had been keeping up an innuendo laden string of jokes about men and spears, mostly featuring Galahad and his lack of experience, looked grim now. Angry boars were no joke and Steve, who'd only done this once before, knew that even the slightest moment of inattention could be fatal. Unlike the stags and the wolves who ran from hunters, boars were notoriously bad tempered and territorial and would fight back with everything they had. Steve looked around him. Tristan, Gareth Pretty Hands, Dinadan and Gaheris all had their boar spears solidly butted in the ground and angled in the right direction. The only chance of making a clean kill was to get the boar to impale itself on the spear, while it was planted in the ground. No one, except maybe Steve himself, could hold the spear in his hands and hope to keep a hold of it while 250 pounds of enraged pig tried to get at your guts with its tusks. Failing to make a clean kill was asking for death. Steve watched as Galahad, muttering in irritation, tried to wrestle his spear into the right position. He was the newest of Arthur's knights, seventeen years old and still very wet behind the ears.

The crashing and grunting was almost upon them and still Galahad was fidgeting with the heavy spear. Steve cursed silently. Did he think the boar was going to do the chivalrous thing and wait for him to be be ready? This wasn't going to end well.

Seconds later the boar burst out of the underbrush and proved him right. Its attention drawn by Galahad's panicked motion, it headed straight for the hapless boy. Galahad didn't freeze, Steve had to give him that, but his spear wasn't ready and it hit the massive beast in the shoulder instead of the chest. The boar spun and the movement wrenched the spear out of Galahad's hands. Screaming in rage and pain, it went for the boy. On the other side of the clearing, Steve has risen as soon as it was clear the boar wasn't headed his way, and lacking his shield, he did the only thing he could think of. He hurled the massive boar spear at the hog. This type of spear was never meant to be thrown, but the upside of being dosed with super serum was that you were able to throw a wide variety of things that weren't meant to be thrown. The spear caught the beast in the side of the neck and yanked it sideways, pinning it to the ground as it went clear through. But the wickedly curved tusk took a sizable chunk out of Galahad's thigh as the boar went down, and the boy collapsed screaming in pain. The animal was screaming too, its hooves pawing the air frantically, still refusing to die.

Steve sprinted over and pulled Galahad aside before yanking the boy's spear loose and aiming it at the hog's heart. After the thrust silence descended over the clearing. He straightened up, wiping his forehead and willing his adrenaline fueled breaths to even out. Raising his eyes he met the gaze of the other four men who were staring at him in shock. Right. That had probably been a bit much with the displays of super human strength and speed. He swallowed.

Then Dinadan broke into a grin, pounded Tristan on the back and proclaimed: "Well, that sure was some manly spear handling!" Steve started to smile tentatively, but then Galahad behind him bit back a broken sob. He turned to look at the boy, but not before he caught Gaheris crossing himself furtively out of the corner of his eye.

Galahad was in bad shape. The tusk had missed the artery in his groin, or else he'd be dead by now, but he was bleeding profusely. The others joined Steve, looking down at the boy. Tristan shook his head morosely and Gareth Pretty Hands bowed his head and started murmuring a quiet prayer. Gritting his teeth in annoyance, Steve ripped a strip of linen from his under tunic and started fastening a tourniquet above the gaping wound.

"The village we passed had a healer. If we get him there quickly she can stitch him up and he'll have a chance." If he didn't get an infection, or blood poisoning, or gangrene, or if he didn't die in any of the other hundreds of creative ways this century seemed to delight in. Tristan seemed to read his thoughts, or maybe he was more of a realist in general.

"It seems doubtful he will make it that far. Maybe we should let him meet God in peace."

Steve searched for a way to phrase his objection in a way that would convince these men and their piously passive mindsets. Sometimes he really still felt like an alien here.

"We've stopped the bleeding. Maybe God will grant him a chance to heal so he can devote his youthful prowess to His service. I would not not deny him that chance, be it small or large," he tried.

Tristan merely shrugged, but Steve knew the man would let himself be led by Dinadan, as usual, so he fixed his eye on the short guy with the curly hair who was still beaming at him.

"Well said, Sir Stephen! Alright, fellows, back to the village we go."

Steve carefully picked up the wounded man, who had fortunately passed out while his fate was being decided and started walking towards the camp where they had left the horses.

"Wait! What do we do with the boar? It is rightfully yours, Sir Stephen. You made the kill." Gaheris interjected.

"Do with it what you will, Sir Gaheris. Leave it here or drag it along to the village. Surely they will be delighted to feast on the monster that has caused them so much grief. Would it not spoil before we got to Camelot?" He looked over his shoulder at Gaheris, who regarded him as if he was feeble minded.

“You would give your prize to the peasants?”

“I would,” said Steve. “They looked hungry to me. And it can pay the healer for the services Galahad needs.” He kept on walking. As an afterthought he added: “Take the tusks, Galahad may want them.”

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They camped on top of a small tor which provided them a good view of the surroundings. Steve had second watch and positioned himself with the camp fire at his back so as not to spoil his night vision. He stared at the undulating landscape, oppressive in its blackness, with the fingernail moon hiding behind the clouds and not a light in sight. No orange glow from cities over the horizon, no cars with headlights, no streetlights. His sense of displacement often hit hardest on nights like this when there was nothing else to distract him. In the light of day, he could not escape the fact either that he was currently living in the Middle Ages, but at least there was little room for agonizing when he was hunting boar or doing sword drills or any of the other tasks that were required of the knights. As often as he told himself that he'd essentially done this time travel thing before, so he should be used to it, it didn't help with reconciling himself to the situation. He had just started to understand the difference between Apple and Android, and now he was having to learn to keep a calendar by memorizing saints' names. As a result he wasn't quite sure how long he'd been here, but it had been more than a year, judging by the passing of the seasons.

 

One moment he'd been standing over a downed Hawkeye, shielding him from whatever strange energy beams Loki was hurling at them and the next moment he was standing on a foggy little island in the middle of a lake, Loki's mocking voice still echoing in his head.

“Such a chivalrous man you are, Captain. You truly aren't from this time, are you? Let me remedy that for you.”

He'd stayed put on the island for as long as he could, because he remembered his mother's adage 'When you are lost, stay where you are, so I can find you', but after a few days his stomach had forced him to leave the island and find food. That's when he had found out how truly and utterly lost he was. For the second time in two years he was a man out of time.

This time it was much, much worse though. It had taken him a few weeks to even learn the language, for starters, because for all that it was supposed to be English, it really wasn't English that he recognized as such. He'd wandered around for a few weeks, trading manual labor for food and board while he was getting his bearings. Said food was another thing. No potatoes or tomatoes, no rice, no tea, no spices, it was weird. When he'd ended up at King Arthur's court he'd decided to stay put for a while. His prowess with his shield earned him a place between the knights, and since he had no clue where else to go, it was as good a place as any. But if he was making any effort to fit in, it was half hearted at best.

 

It had taken months for the hope to die. The hope that somebody, anybody, would figure out how to bring him back. Tony was supposed to be a genius, wasn't he? And Thor should by rights be able to undo what his brother did. Surely somebody would care enough to come for him. He had expected it to happen any day. But nobody had come. Month after month had passed and here he still was, without a clue of how to get back. If he was completely honest, a big part of his reluctance to fit in here was petulance and self pity. He'd been working so hard on fitting into the future for two years straight and he'd finally started feeling somewhat at home and somewhat connected to people like Sam and Natasha. And it had all been for nothing. Now he was living among people who didn't even know America existed or that the Earth moved around the Sun and he'd only stopped screaming his frustration into his pillow at night a few months ago.

Steve sighed heavily. Natasha would have his guts for garters if she saw him maudlin like this. So would Peggy, for that matter. And Tony would needle him with relentless sarcasm, because that was the kind of annoying guy he was. An annoying guy that he had imaginary conversations with these days, though, because it never failed to cheer Steve up a little to imagine what Tony would have to say about living in this particular era. Or to imagine Tony actually living in this era.

 

A moan from Galahad broke through his reverie. The village healer had stitched him up alright and swaddled the leg with a poultice and clean linen. She'd given him willow bark for pain and sent them on their way with more fortifying concoctions and a shake of her head. Now it remained to be seen whether he'd survive the blood loss and potential infections. With only the willow bark as pain killer it was a miracle Galahad had been sleeping at all. Steve knelt by his head and offered him the water skin, which he accepted gratefully. Green eyes looked up at Steve, so very much like Lancelot's, except now they looked a little feverish. Steve felt his forehead. Yes, his temperature was definitely high. Galahad cleared his throat.

"Are you an angel?" He croaked. Steve snorted indelicately and smiled.

"No, I am afraid I am just a mortal like you, Sir Galahad."

"I am not afraid to be mortal. I am not afraid to die. I would like to see the kingdom of heaven and sit at my Lord's side."

"I am glad to hear it, but you aren't ready for heaven quite yet."

"Why don't all people go to heaven, angel? Why do they sin? Why can't they follow the righteous path? It is so clear when God lights our way." Galahad sounded genuinely puzzled.

Steve felt old, all of a sudden. Young people, always so convinced they knew right from wrong. Then, with a stab of shame, he remembered himself telling Tony how self centered he was, hours before the man flew a nuke through a portal into outer space to save everyone in New York City. Okay, so maybe not so young people could be righteous asses too.

"You're young, Sir Galahad. You haven't encountered a lot of temptation yet," he offered.

"Why did my father...." Galahad trailed off, then spoke a little more forcefully. "Why does my father not like me?"

Because you are a sanctimonious little twit.

"I am sure Lancelot will like you well enough once he gets to know you. You gave him no chance to get acquainted before you beat him in battle." And you told him afterwards that he lost because he found no favor with God due to his conceiving you out of wedlock. That he was a sinner of the flesh and of thought. "And perhaps you could have judged him less harshly in public."

"It was not I who judged him. It was God who favored my sword and therefore my words. God made it clear I was in the right."

"Yeah. Well. Judge not, lest ye be judged yourself." Steve was running out of patience rapidly. "Go back to sleep, son. You need your rest to heal." Galahad obediently closed his eyes.

 

Steve turned back to his outlook, scanning the surroundings for trouble, be it human or animal. He sighed again. Maybe Loki was right to move him here. Not because of the chivalry. There was a lot less reading poetry to ladies of the court than he'd expected. Maybe that was somewhere else. Maybe they flounced around in rose gardens reciting poetry in France.

Maybe Loki put him here because there were plenty of other sanctimonious pricks to keep him company.

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Camelot was in disarray when the boar hunting party arrived home. Where normally half the population of the keep would come out to welcome them back and congratulate them on their prowess (and the boar's head that Gaheris had insisted on dragging along), now they barely merited a glance from the few people rushing from one end of the courtyard to the other. A pair of buckets were lying on the ground next to the well, their contents long since soaked into the cracks between the cobblestones, and an abandoned horse only half loaded with lumpy packs of something was trying to get at the weeds near the courtyard wall. Steve exchanged a worried glance with Tristan who indicated silently that he had no clue what was going on either, but whatever it was he didn't like it. Steve turned to his men.

"Okay, let's find out what happened here. Tether the horses and, Sir Gareth and Sir Dinadan, carry Galahad's litter. We can't leave him until we know more." The boy still lived, but his fever hadn't abated.

It took a few minutes to get everything ready, then they marched inside. Tristan and Steve in front, swords sheathed, but Steve had his shield at the ready. The others followed with the litter, and Gaheris fell in behind to watch their backs. They made their way to the throne room slowly. A few older servants were crying in an alcove and one young girl, that Steve had always thought was too excitable for her own good, was having a bout of hysterics, while several women were trying to calm her down. He could hear the commotion in the throne room long before they made it to the doors. Several people were trying to outshout each other and could be heard over the din of the excited voices of what seemed to be everyone in the keep who wasn't having a breakdown in the hallway.

Steve paused in the entrance to the hall and surveyed the scene. Arthur and Guinevere were seated on the dais, with all the knights milling about in front of them, the rest of the keep's inhabitants crowded around them. The shouting turned out to be Sir Gawaine having an argument with his brother Sir Agravaine, which was not uncommon and definitely not something that normally drew an audience this size.

"You cannot forbid me to go, brother!" Gawaine was adamant. "The demon doesn't scare me and that Grail looks like a fine prize. Why would you deny me such a grand adventure?"

"You have plenty of adventure, oh virtuous one," Agravaine shot back, his tone implying that Gawaine was anything but virtuous. "Do you not remember that you cut off the Green Knight's head almost a year ago and you swore to have him return the favor a year and a day hence? You are due at his castle in two months and you do not even know where it is." He didn't add 'idiot', but Steve and everyone else could hear it loud and clear.

Gawaine merely grinned at him. "Why, has it been that long already? Can't wait to be rid of me again? Surely I have time for a little side trip." He turned to the king. "What do you say, Sire?" Arthur regarded both brothers.

"You can not break your word and forfeit one quest in favor of another, Sir Gawaine. You can go look for this Grail, but you can not swear that you will complete the quest. When the time comes to meet the Green Knight, you must abandon your search and fulfill your word." Gawaine turned to smirk at his brother and for a moment Steve thought he might stick out his tongue at him. Arthur looked up and noticed the newcomers by the door. He hailed the men gathered there.

"Sir Tristan, Sir Stephen, you have returned! You have just missed the most wondrous visitation. There was a chalice filled with wondrous light. It was shown to us by a vile demon who challenged the noblest and most virtuous of knights to come and find it." Before he could elaborate further, though, his eye fell on Galahad's litter as the party made its way into room and he paused.

"How fares Sir Galahad?" His voice was hesitant and his eyes cut over to Lancelot for a fraction of a second.

"Sir Galahad was wounded in the thigh, Sire, and he is feverish, but he has survived so far and may yet recover with time. The boar is no more." Steve answered. In his peripheral vision he noticed Galahad struggling to sit up.

"It was the Grail?" He said, almost panting with the struggle. "Sire, you must allow me to search for it. It is what I was born for. I need to-" He fell back down on the litter with a little gasp.

"It pains me to say it, but you are in no condition to travel, Sir Galahad. I can not permit you to go anywhere until you are healed."

"But, Sire, I..." Galahad trailed off in sobs. Soft as they were, they pierced the silence. Many of the knights looked uncomfortable.

"I swear I will find it and bring it back for you, Sir Galahad." Lancelot's voice was firm. Everyone looked at him. Steve could tell Galahad wanted to protest, but he quelled the boy with a look. When he was confident Galahad had gotten the message that if he didn't have something nice to say then he shouldn't say anything, he brought his attention back to the situation at hand. Both Arthur and Guinevere looked like they wanted to protest. Steve didn't get their dynamics, really. Ostensibly the word was that Arthur was being cuckolded by his best friend and his wife and Steve thought that was probably true given the looks he'd intercepted between Lancelot and the Queen, but in Steve's personal opinion it wasn't really all that clear cut who Arthur was jealous of in this situation. The way he looked at Lancelot was often more heated than the way he looked at his wife. Could be jealous rage, of course, but Steve didn't think that was it. The stricken way the royal pair looked just now reaffirmed his opinion they would both be pining for Lancelot in his absence. But Arthur had no choice but to affirm Lancelot's decision, now that he had sworn to it.

Behind Steve, Dinadan sniggered. "Well, with these two most virtuous of knights going on a quest for virtue, how can we fail to win the prize?"

Lancelot flushed. Gaheris, who had a tenuous hold of his temper at the best of time, punched Dinadan between the shoulder blades and growled at him to not insult his brother. This caused Dinadan to almost drop his end of the litter and Galahad groaned in pain at the jolt.

"Oh relax, brother," laughed Gawaine, "no one is questioning your virtue."

When the commotion had died down Arthur asked who else was volunteering to go. Steve kept his mouth shut. Demons were nasty and while he kind of felt he should participate in ridding the world of one, holy cup or no holy cup, he'd just gotten back and he wanted a bath and a bed and a bit of a break. If these men couldn't manage the job, he could always go later. Two more young (and significantly more virtuous) knights volunteered. Bors was short and stout and had an annoying tendency to see everything in shades of black and white with nothing in between, ever, and Percival was tall and lean and surprisingly strong. Steve hadn't figured out yet if he was stupid or just ignorant. He was about to take his leave and go find that bath when Percival started to address the the other Grail Knights who had gathered in a cluster to make plans.

"I have seen the Grail before, although it looked a bit different, but there was a cloth over it, so I can't be sure. I failed to ask a question, though, that was what my cousin said later, anyway. I can't remember the question. And then I was turned out of the castle and the gate would not open for me no matter how much I shouted. And there was other stuff as well, a bleeding lance and a candelabra and a broken sword. But they must have moved it because I don't think the castle was named Castle Aaargh and I don't remember a demon called Shawarma, either."

Steve stopped dead in his tracks. A castle called Aaargh and a demon called what? He spun around.

"Sir Percival! What did that demon look like?"

Percival looked at Steve in surprise. "Could you not see him? Oh! You weren't here. Right. Well, he was red and gold and he had icy blue fire shooting out of his feet and hands and his chest. And his eyes were empty and soulless and his voice was as loud as...." He continued on, but Steve wasn't listening anymore. Hope speared through him, hot and urgent and almost leaving him unable to speak. It couldn't be, but it couldn't not be. Tony had been here. Oh sweet Mary, mother of God, someone had come for him. He wanted to fall to his knees and cry.

When he found his voice, he turned to King Arthur and said: "I am going too. I swear I will find this demon and vanquish him."

Arthur looked a little constipated, but Steve didn't care one bit. He was going to find Tony and get out of this place.