The attack came swift and without warning, catching even the experienced Sarmatian knights by surprise with its savage violence.
Tristan was the first to notice that something wasn’t right. The forest had been too quiet, the voices of the birds had fallen silent. Before he could do so much as scream alarm the Woads were on them, their faces painted bright blue and their screams like the roars of wild animals. The spectacle may have intimidated the common Roman soldier, superstitious as they were, but Arthur’s knights were cast from a different mold.
When they fought it was a tightly controlled dance, violent, skillful. Not one breath was wasted, no move unnecessary.
Tristan’s bow sang as he released arrow after arrow, hailing down death on the wildlings. Too soon, his quiver was empty and he drew his sword. The screams of the dying rose to a deafening crescendo and blood dyed the undergrowth red. He risked a glance at his companions before yet another Woad charged at him. From what he could see, all of his friends were still alive and engaged in battle. Good.
He evaded a vicious swing of a battle axe aimed at his head and countered the attack with an upwards slash, the edge of his blade cutting through air, skin, flesh and bone. With a gurgle, his opponent went to his knees, his hands desperate to stop the blood bursting from the wound on his neck until he lay dead at Tristan’s feet.
Soon enough, another took the place of the dead man, equally quick to fall victim to his blade, terror-stricken eyes on him as the man collapsed, his hand clutching Tristan’s breeches as if he could strike a bargain with death itself. Fear was in the taut lines of his face and fear was all that remained when his heart stopped beating. Tristan’s sabre slid back into its scabbard before the lifeless body hit the ground.
Death wasn’t something Tristan feared, but he was well acquainted with the feeling. Fear kept you alive, fear made you cautious, and a man without fear was a foolish and soon to be dead man. Tristan was no foolish man.
He whistled once, a crystal clear sound from his rugged lips that travelled across the battlefield and up to the sky. Moments later, his call was answered.
Isolde came to him, a flurry of feathers and rage, descending upon his enemies like a vengeful goddess. Talons sharper than any blade ripped out eyes, her beak tearing flesh and skin from unsuspecting prey. She had no taste for human flesh, but she was gracious enough to lend Tristan her strength, skill and natural weapons. No doubt she would demand an offering later for the hassle he had put her through.
It was over as quickly as it had begun and afterwards Isolde made herself comfortable on Tristan’s shoulder, cleaning her plumage from blood and grime with a leisure born from satisfaction. He threw her an amused look, which she pointedly ignored, before heading over to his companions.
The Woads had been clever in trying to separate them, every knight forced to fight on his own, but while the Woads may have been passionate and skillful warriors, they couldn’t have hoped to best the knights of Artorius Castus, all of which had been raised with a sword in hand.
Tristan let his gaze wander. His companions were alive, mostly unscathed, only Bors had been too rash, too caught up in his battle lust as he was so often and it had earned him a nasty looking gash running from his ear to the tip of his chin. It wasn’t deep enough to warrant concern, but it would undoubtedly leave a scar.
Yet Bors couldn’t expect any sympathy from the others. Always it was him who rushed into battle, consequences be damned. Reckless, ruthless, not eager to die but eager to fight.
Lancelot laughed at him and sheathed his sword, mischief dancing in his eyes as he regarded his sworn brother.
“I’d say it’s an improvement. Distracts from that ugly face of yours.”
Roaring laughter erupted, echoing across the planes and even Tristan allowed himself a ghost of a smile, merely a twitch of his upper lip. They were laughing surrounded by the corpses of their slain enemies. They were laughing because they were living, breathing and still together, still alive.
“Tend to the wound, Lancelot, if you find it so charming,” Arthur intervened as he adjusted the clasps of his armour, Excalibur already dangling at his side, safely sheathed away. “The others, see what booty there is to be found and then burn the dead.”
“Burn them?” Gawain asked, his long hair matted with blood. “Why not leave them here for the wild beasts to find? They would’ve done the same if it were us lying dead at their feet.”
“But we’re not them. We show as much respect as we can, now that we have taken their lives.”
Tristan didn’t listen to Gawain’s muttered complaints as he stomped off to gather small branches and splintered wood at the forest’s edge, ever careful not to set foot inside. He didn’t move to lend a helping hand to his companions either, his eyes darting over their dark forms and dread curled tightly in his stomach.
“Where is Galahad?”
As soon as the words had left his mouth, silence settled over them. A moment later, his question was echoed back to him by half a dozen voices, nothing but an anxious crescendo of whispers. Where is Galahad? Where is he? Was he not with you? I thought he was with you. Where is Galahad?
His stallion was pacing nervously on the edge of the battlefield, lost without his master’s comforting weight atop him. They searched the field for Galahad’s body to no avail. It was as much relief as it was despair. If his body was not among the dead it could only mean one thing. He was taken by the Woads.
The horrible truth hung between them like a venomous cloud and nobody dared to breathe and break the silence.
“Why would they take him?” it finally burst out of Gawain. He had always had a soft spot for their youngest, being not much older than Galahad himself and taken from the same tribe when they were boys still. “How could they even? Why did nobody notice?”
“Because we were all busy saving our own hide,” Tristan reminded him, voice sharp with reprimand.
Gawain glared at him but could do little more, his impotent rage obvious in the way he flexed his fingers, his body hardly capable of keeping the fury threatening to make his tight self-control burst at the seams under control. Let him be angry, Tristan thought. Anger was always preferable to despair.
“He’s your sworn brother! Do you have no heart? Do you not worry for Galahad and his safety?!”
“Gawain,” Lancelot interjected, but Tristan cut him off with a sharp gesture of his hand.
“You do a fine job of replacing Galahad and his unreasonable resentment when it comes to my person, but don’t presume to know my heart. Galahad is not dead, or his body would be among the corpses. The Woads have taken him, for whatever reason, but he’s alive. To assume otherwise would be a disservice to him and his abilities as one of our own.”
“Tristan is right,” Arthur agreed, when both Gawain and Tristan refused to say anything more on the matter. “Galahad was taken, it’s the only sensible explanation.”
“But why?” Gawain asked, throat tight with apprehension.
“Ransom perhaps? He’s one of the Sarmatian knights, after all,” Lancelot offered.
Tristan scoffed at the idea. “And what use could the Woads make of Roman coin? Woads don’t take prisoners for ransom, they hardly take prisoners at all.”
“But they took Galahad. What other reason do they have to take him if not for gold?”
Tristan’s eyes darkened, his thin lips pressed together as another thought surfaced unbidden in the back of his mind.
“Sacrifice,” he spat out, taking in the horrified expressions of his companions. “He’s Galahad the Pure. What better sacrifice than him?”
“The Woads sacrificing their virgins in times of great hardship is nothing but a rumour,” Arthur argued. He was as much their fearless leader as he had always been, but Tristan could smell the sharp tang of fear on him. Fear that the rumours might be more than just that. Fear that a rumour would be enough to kill Galahad.
“Is it something we can risk?” Lancelot shot back, hands on the hilts of his swords.
Next to Tristan, Bors growled.
“I’m going to kill those bastards! I’m going to give them all the blood they want. No way in hell am I going to let them sacrifice Galahad to whatever puny gods they worship,” he bellowed, hitting his armoured chest with his massive fist as he heaped insult after insult upon Merlin’s people.
“You’re louder than a hart during mating season. You’ll be dead before you even set foot into their territory,” Tristan deadpanned.
“And what would you have me do? Sit idly until they’ve slit our boy’s throat? Maybe afterwards I shall go and ask nicely for his corpse. Before or after I have kissed those bastards’ asses, what do you think, Tristan?”
“I rather have you not go at all.”
“I shall go. I’m a scout, the best of this group. Nobody else but me knows how to move through the undergrowth without a sound, how to imitate the song of the birds, how to remain unheard and unseen.”
Bors muttered curses underneath his breath and stared at Tristan with impotent fury in his eyes. They both knew Tristan was right. All of them knew. There was no need for further arguments.
“Gawain?” he asked as he took his saddlebags, his mare neighing with satisfaction when the heavy weight was lifted off her back. “Take care of her. Galahad’s stallion as well.”
Gawain nodded, mouth falling open before he thought better of it and closed it again with an audible snap.
“No, Tristan. I won’t risk losing two of my knights. We’re not equipped for a rescue mission and all of us are exhausted after such a fight. You too - don’t even try and deny it. Tomorrow I shall send for reinforcements and then you may scout so we can bring Galahad back. Until then, you should show some of the faith you thought so severely lacking in Gawain. Galahad may be young, but he’s as much of a knight as any of us. He’ll survive.”
Tristan regarded Arthur, his leader, his brother and friend. Never before had he questioned any of his commands, always doing as was expected of him. The others were already starting to get fidgety, unsure what to make of Tristan’s sudden, if silent, disobedience, until finally he relented with a bow of his head. He would submit, for now.
Later, when the stench of burning flesh had ruined everybody’s appetite, Tristan busied himself with feeding Isolde small stripes of dried meat. She was perfectly capable of hunting on her own, which would have led to far fresher and more delicious meat than what Tristan offered her, but she indulged him, generous mistress that she was, and nibbled lovingly on his fingertips whenever he offered her another piece.
“I know you’re angry.”
Arthur emerged from the shadows, his cloak drawn tightly around him to fend off the nightly cold. He looked more man than general now, more a friend who allowed the worry for Galahad to show on his clean-cut face.
Tristan’s face betrayed nothing.
“I know you want to go after him, save him. We all want him back with us, but we can’t rush things without risking his life. You of all people should know that.”
“His life is already at risk.”
“His life is always at risk, because he’s one of the knights of Lucius Artorius Castus.”
Tristan didn’t argue, couldn’t, for Arthur was right, but he refused to give any indication that he had heard either.
Instead, he turned to Isolde, who was demanding another piece of meat, her impatient cry cutting through the deafening silence, and Tristan was all too happy to indulge her if it meant that he could avoid Arthur’s stern glare.
“If it’s true what they say then the Woads will not make a sacrifice without a great feast beforehand. Every faith is fond of their lengthy rituals, the Christians as much as the heathen Woads. They will not kill their sacrificial virgin without proper pomp.”
Tristan snorted, his breath ghostly white in the dark of the night.
“Galahad is no virgin.”
He heard Arthur shift next to him, slowly rising to his feet once more and only then did Tristan deign to look at him. Even in the dark, the smile tugging at his thin lips was clear to see.
“Then we can only hope Galahad is not one to easily betray secrets.” Arthur pulled the cloak tighter around his shoulders and turned to leave.
“Arthur,” Tristan called, voice barely audible over the clacking sounds of Isolde as she cried for more meat. “How long have you known?”
“Known? My friend, I knew the moment you two laid eyes on each other back when we were nothing but boys, brash with all the foolishness of youth. I knew when you still assumed Galahad resented you and when Galahad believed your pitiful attempts at courtship were an especially cruel form of teasing.”
Arthur didn’t stay to see the momentary surprise flitting across his face and Tristan was thankful for it. It was shameful enough to know that what he thought Galahad and him had so cleverly hidden had been discovered by Arthur without much effort. He had no desire to be subjected to further humiliation by witnessing the fond but teasing smile that must have graced Arthur’s face as he made his way through the darkness and back to his own tent.
They had kept it a secret from their brothers not because they feared rejection - none of their brothers were so petty and even Arthur, who prayed to the Christian god, cared little about whom they shared their bed with. They had done so because every bit of privacy was a gift in circumstances such as theirs. They didn’t owe it to their friends to inform them of their relationship, had no intention of making it any more complicated. Nothing much had changed for them. Galahad was still as feisty as usual and Tristan still delighted in teasing him. Only now, he paid for his antics not with Galahad’s stubborn silence, or a shouted challenge to meet him in the ring to fight him for his honour, but with sharp teeth dragging along the skin of his neck in the safety of a shared tent, and the hot breath of Galahad’s whispered curses ghosting over his skin as the boy rolled his hips in Tristan’s lap.
Now that Galahad was gone - taken from him and imprisoned at best, dead at worst - all Tristan could do was to respect his leader’s wishes and be patient, at least for the moment. Tomorrow though, he would ride, and no word from Arthur could hold him back.
“Listen, friend,” he whispered as he fed Isolde the last of his meat. “I need to ask you a favour.”
She tilted her head, golden eyes sharp and accusatory, already knowing what it was he would ask of her.
“Apologies, my dear, but it’s important. I know you can’t bring him back to me, but bring me something of his, proof that he is alive.”
Isolde puffed up her feathers, no doubt considering his request beneath her, but the dried meat had proved sufficient bribe and with another soft cry she opened her wings and disappeared into the night.
Puh, so this was the first chapter.
I'd be happy to hear your thoughts. We writers are affection-starved, needy creatures, so I'd be immeasurably grateful for any comments, kudos and bookmarks!
Chapter 2: Awakening
Galahad's destiny is revealed and he wants no part of it.
He awoke with pain exploding in the back of his skull and the instinctual knowledge that he wasn’t where he was supposed to be. Galahad kept his eyes closed and his breathing even in hopes of keeping up the illusion of the unconscious prisoner for as long as possible. Other senses than sight would have to serve him now.
Wherever he was, it smelled of alderwood and - surprisingly - of rosemary. The ground underneath him was soft to the touch, blankets made of fur, no doubt. It would have been comfortable if not for his bound hands and feet, the rope cutting into his skin and digging deeper with every move he made.
His pounding head made it difficult to gather his scattered thoughts but he concentrated to hear the busy clatter of people not far from him, albeit muffled. This and the lack of the harsh British winds cutting the exposed skin of his face and thighs led him to believe that they had brought him inside a tent.
The memories of what had happened were fuzzy, but there was no doubt about the identity of his captors: Woads. It was unusual for them to take prisoners and Galahad would rather not imagine for what purpose they had kept him alive - whatever the reasons, it was hardly a pleasant situation to find oneself in - for now though, he could do little but accept his fate. He was alive and mostly unharmed. Everything else he would have to figure out at a later time.
“You can open your eyes, Sir Galahad, no harm shall come to you.”
Galahad had never heard that voice before, yet he knew without a doubt to whom it belonged: Merlin.
There was no point in pretending to be asleep anymore and Galahad begrudgingly did as he was told. He was indeed lying in a tent, just as he had suspected, bound, stripped down to his tunic, his armour and sword nowhere in sight and with Merlin’s impressive figure looming over him.
Far from being a tall man, Merlin yet had an aura that demanded respect. Old, his fingers crooked and brittle, but with a sure grip on the staff he was carrying. Galahad didn’t doubt he could wield it as a weapon, and expertly so. Bound like he was, Galahad stood little chance of overpowering the man and making an escape.
“You know me,” Merlin said, amusement obvious in the sea-green of his eyes, not quite unlike Galahad’s own.
“I know your name and reputation. Little more than that.” And Galahad had no desire to broaden his horizon in that regard.
“Not much indeed.”
Galahad huffed, annoyed more than frightened, despite his current predicament.
“Is that how it shall go? Me at your feet, ridiculed until you grow tired of it and show me mercy by cutting off my head?”
“Who said it’s your head we want?”
“Woads don’t take prisoners.”
“No, my people don’t. But at times, circumstances make it necessary.”
Galahad opened his mouth, a question on the tip of his tongue, only to be interrupted by the shuffling noises of Merlin kneeling down before him. Fear crawled up his spine when he found himself face to face with a small, curved knife that Merlin must have pulled from the folds of his heavy robe.
“If you’d be so kind as to hold out your hands, Sir Galahad?”
He did, too confused to protest or deny a so politely worded request, and watched as Merlin cut him free of the restraints around his wrists. The stinging sensation of blood rushing back into his fingertips after having been cut off from proper circulation for so long was nearly comforting compared to the pain Galahad had first expected when he laid eyes on the curiously shaped blade.
“It’s not an instrument of death, like your sword. It’s purpose lies elsewhere: cutting herbs and flowers needed to make medicine. I did the blade quite the disservice when cutting you lose with it. It dulls so quickly,” Merlin explained, a profound fondness tinting his voice as he rolled the bone-cut hilt in his hands.
“Yet you did. What is the point of all this? Tying me up first, then cutting me loose again with that precious knife of yours?”
For a moment, Merlin stayed silent and regarded Galahad with what the knight suspected was mirth shimmering in his eyes, regarding him like somebody would regard a much beloved but insolent child.
“My people can be overly cautious at times. Many a story has been told about Artorius Castus and his knights. Are we not right in fearing them when they have taken the lives of so many of our warriors?”
“Just as they have taken the lives of my brothers,” Galahad shot back.
Fear made him rude, Tristan had once told him, and Galahad bit his tongue before any more careless words could tumble past his lips. Back then, he had reacted with indignation, brows furrowed in anger at such accusations and he had promptly challenged Tristan to a duel for such an insult. He had lost, of course he had, but while the humiliation had burned sharply in his belly, it had also humbled him. Now, he saw the truth in Tristan’s words. If he wasn’t more careful then his insolence would surely cost him his tongue, if not more than that.
To his luck, Merlin remained indifferent to his heated outburst and motioned for Galahad to rise to his knees. This time, Galahad did as he was told - if only to avoid angering the man any further.
“There’s no need for fear, young knight. We have no need for your blood, or head.”
“Then why am I here?”
Sitting upright was less humiliating by far, but his bound feet hurt, especially his ankles where the rope cut deeper and deeper into his flesh with every passing second. His legs had already begun to tingle with the effort to keep himself upright.
None of this made sense. Woads kept no prisoners, yet here he was. “If it’s ransom you want, I have to disappoint you. Arthur is no fool, he will not try and buy my freedom.”
Merlin laughed, a crystal clear sound so unexpected coming from his chapped lips that Galahad was momentarily stunned into silence.
“I disagree, but it’s not ransom we want either. We have little use for Roman coins. They don’t keep you warm at night, don’t sate your hunger during a merciless winter. No, we don’t want Arthur’s gold. But we’re in dire need of your abilities, Sir Galahad.”
“My abilities?” Galahad asked and shifted his weight from one leg to the other, his head tilted as he regarded Merlin. “You have capable warriors of your own. Skilled with axe and bow, better ask them, for I’d rather die than lend you my sword.”
Merlin shook his head, a small smile still gracing his lips, almost obscured by the grey mass of his beard. “I don’t doubt your skill with the blade, the Sarmatian knights are rightfully feared, but it’s not what we need from you.”
“What is it you need from me then?” Prisoner or not, Galahad had grown tired of these little games Merlin seemed so fond of playing.
Merlin nodded softly as he put his staff aside and made himself comfortable on the furs. “Have you ever heard of the Grail?”
Galahad blinked once, twice. “No.”
If Merlin was offended by his ignorance then he hid it well. “Hardly a surprise. It’s an old tale of a wondrous grail said to perform miracles and heal the sick. Not even my people remember much of it anymore, and with every tale it has grown over the years until there was little left of the truth. Still, a kernel remains and now the time has come to retrieve the Grail and heal the wounds the Romans have left the land with, our land.”
Merlin’s green eyes flicked over to Galahad’s white thighs, bare as usual.
“Britain is a harsh mistress. My people are sturdy folk, used to wind and weather but there is little happiness to be found in constant endurance. The Grail is said to heal, to give in abundance to those who hold it. It’s prophesied that only the purest of knights can succeed in the quest for it. A young lad of virgin heart and virgin body, and are you not known as Galahad the Pure?”
Known as the Pure he was, if only because he was the youngest among Arthur’s knights and because, unbeknownst to any, no maiden’s soft bosom held any appeal for him, not when Tristan’s hard chest, covered with silver hair, was that much more attractive.
“I am,” he admitted.
“And never have you known a woman’s touch?”
Realisation dawned on Galahad, curling tight and hot in his belly. A myth was what kept him alive. The foolish hope of a foolish old man to lead his people out of the dark embrace of the woods and fens, into a bright and fruitful future. And all this with the help of a magical trinket Merlin had dreamt of at night and a knight he believed to be a blushing virgin.
Galahad swallowed the nervous laughter threatening to burst from his mouth. It would do him no good to insult Merlin any further.
“Never have I felt a maiden’s hand in mine.”
He had heard many tales during the years in which he served in Britannia, from Romans and Celts alike. Both were fond of their fantastic tales, of their gods or only one god, of magical healings and men rising from their graves, of wizards and witches, demons and saints. Even Arthur’s men had found themselves the heroes of such stories already. Galahad still remembered a bitterly-cold night at Hadrian’s wall some winters ago when sleep had refused to come to him and he had ventured outside, cloaked by darkness.
Two of the guards who had been tasked with holding watch were huddled around a small fire, their breaths ghostly white in the moonlight as they exchanged whispered words, completely oblivious to Galahad hiding in the shadows.
“And his sword,” one of them had said, his voice barely above a murmur. “They say a nymph had given it to him, her glowing arm reaching out of the water of a lake, Excalibur in her hand and Arthur took it from her. He has never lost a battle since.”
The other guard had scoffed, unknowingly covering the amused chuckle Galahad failed to suppress at such an adventurous tale.
“Yeah? Well, I say that’s a pile of hot horse shite. A nymph, my ass. He pulled it from a stone. A stone, I tell you, proving himself the greatest of all living knights.”
Their quarrel had gone back and forth for quite some time but Galahad hadn’t stayed to listen further in fear of losing control over his own giggling.
Great men like Arthur would always be made even greater by the people revering them. Galahad hadn’t bothered to walk up to them and tell them the true tale of Arthur and his sword Excalibur, but he had returned to his quarters that night with a smile on his face that wouldn’t diminish until he had retired to bed, pulling the warm furs tightly around himself. There had been no harm in letting them believe in magical swords and mystical nymphs. Every man coped with the harsh reality of war differently and who was Galahad to judge them, endearing as he believed those stories to be?
This though, this was ridiculous.
“You have taken me from my brothers, risked the lives of your own people by engaging us in combat, you let them die, because of an old tale about a magical goblet?” he asked, his hands fisting the hem of his short tunic. He was no friend of the Woads, but neither did he delight in unnecessary bloodshed.
There was no doubt Merlin could sense the anger boiling hot underneath Galahad’s words and he lifted one gnarly hand in a placatory gesture.
“Not a dream, young knight. A prophecy that came to me during the early hours of the morning. The time has come, the purest of all knights shall set forth on a quest to retrieve the Grail. He and he alone shall succeed in this endeavour. He alone will be able to heal the wastelands. The men and women that have died on the battlefield, they have died willingly and knowingly. Their sacrifice shall neither be forgotten nor in vain, Sir Galahad. You’re one of Arthur’s knights. You know what it means to give your life for a greater cause.”
“For a greater cause, but not for a myth!” Galahad growled. To hell with being cautious. To hell with holding his tongue. Galahad’s temper could only be contained for so long.
“They died for what they believed to be true, what we all believe is true. Don’t cheapen their sacrifice by assuming they died in vain simply because you do not share their beliefs.”
Galahad wanted to argue, wanted to scream and rage, chest tight with barely contained fury, but when he opened his mouth he found that he couldn’t, the words falling to ash on the tip of his tongue before he had any chance to voice them. He threw a questioning glare at Merlin, but was ignored.
“You have been born to become the knight of legend,” he said. “It’s your destiny and your duty to heal this land, Sir Galahad. It’s true we took you from your friends by force, but I ask for your help as a humble supplicant.”
“And should I deny you your request, humble as it may be?” Galahad asked, bitter resentment dripping from every word.
“I fear that is not an option, young knight. It’s a quest too important to be dependant on the goodwill of one stubborn lad. Out of respect, I asked you once, in hopes that our plight would soften the hard edges around your heart, caused by the manner in which we assured your presence here. There are other ways and means to ensure your cooperation. I simply had hoped it wouldn’t have to come to this.”
“You think you can threaten me, old man? You think the prospect of torture and death could sway me?”
Merlin rose from his spot on the ground with a grace no man his age should be capable of. “No, I don’t. But every man has his demons, every man his limits. I take no pleasure in finding yours, Sir Galahad, but I will find them if it means you’ll undertake this quest.”
No more words were exchanged and with a shuffle of his robe he took his staff, the bone-hilt knife, and the remains of the rope he had freed Galahad from with him and left. Galahad was alone, defenceless and enraged.
His first impulse was to tear at the rope still around his ankles, until his nails were broken and the skin of his palms red and roughened from pulling at the coarse material. It was futile and Galahad howled in frustration when, after minutes of frantic struggling, the knot remained as tight as if he had never touched it.
Outstretched he lay on the ground, long furs tickling his thighs and arms. The things Merlin had told him, nothing more than fairy tales mothers told their children at night. Yet here he was, caged because of a myth grown men chose to believe in, and believe in enough to sacrifice the lives of their own.
His stomach clenched painfully, half in impotent rage, half with hunger, and it dawned on Galahad that he had not eaten since before their group had set out to investigate rumours of Woad activity close to a Roman settlement. Who would have thought it was nothing but a lure intended to catch a knight?
Hunger and anger soon mixed with worry. Were his sworn brothers alive and well? Could they win the battle once the Woads had what they’ve been coming for and retreated back into the impenetrable forest?
Unbidden, the image of Tristan came to mind, covered in blood and lying lifeless on the field of battle. Nausea made Galahad’s head spin and he turned around, letting the soft hair of the fur ease his anxiety and pain.
Merlin could not have known about Tristan or he wouldn’t have called Galahad pure. Therein lay a grim kind of comfort. To know that he could not be what Merlin wanted him to be, no matter how much he believed in it. For a moment, Galahad entertained the thought of revealing his relationship with Tristan to Merlin, telling him about the countless nights he had spent in the other knight’s arms, screaming until his lover had to silence him with open-mouthed kisses, or risk awakening the whole camp with his wanton cries.
His life would surely be forfeit then. Merlin had made it clear only the purest of knights was worthy to undertake his nonsensical little quest. It was not his own death he feared, but exposing his relationship with Tristan to Merlin would have made him vulnerable.
He had no desire to give Merlin that much power. Galahad may believe only little of what Merlin had told him, but he didn’t doubt him when he had threatened to find whatever weakness he might have and use it to make him bend to his will. For now, Galahad could do little else but wait and play the chaste knight until an opportunity for escape presented itself.
Hunger had him half delirious when the flaps of his tent were pulled aside and the two men standing guard in front of it moved to make way for a small girl.
Galahad sat up, almost forgetting his bound feet and looked at the newcomer. She was small, hardly older than fifteen, with long braided hair and the blue markings of her people painted onto her bare arms and face. In her hands she balanced a huge wooden bowl, covered with a lid made from the same material.
“Sit properly,” she huffed and looked Galahad over, clearly not impressed.
Too surprised to argue, he straightened up, pulling his legs underneath himself. Even in a position like this, down on his knees, she was barely taller than him.
“Does Merlin fear me so little he sends a child to look after me?” he asked.
The girl rolled her eyes at him. “They fear you enough, oh great knight. Nobody else wanted to bring you your meal.”
She removed the lid from the bowl with a little flourish and in an instant the small space was filled with the mouthwatering smell of rabbit stew. Galahad’s stomach grumbled painfully and the urge to reach out and snatch the bowl from her was near overwhelming.
Sheer stubbornness stilled his hands.
“But you did it. Do you not fear I could snap your neck with one little twist and flee? Strangle the guards with the rope once I got it off my feet and then return with my brothers with cold steel and full of vengeance?”
She huffed, her frustration over his antics palpable. “Because that’s not what you do, is it? You have no taste for cruelty. You wouldn’t kill an innocent child. Besides, you’d never make it out of here alive.” With a shrug, she flopped down across from him and put the bowl between them.
“It’s not poisoned, you know? Just eat so I can leave again.”
“Am I not allowed to eat in peace and unobserved?”
“No,” was her simple reply and her voice left no room for an argument. Galahad didn’t try to argue. His hunger had overpowered his pride. When he took the first bite, tearing at the surprisingly tender rabbit meat, all his caution was forgotten and he scoffed down the food like a starving wolf.
All the while, he was aware of the girl’s bright eyes watching his every move, her legs drawn up and her chin resting on her knees. There was a brashness to her, in the way she met Galahad’s eyes without hesitation or fear, and with unabashed curiosity.
“What’s your name?” Galahad asked when he finished his meal, the bowl empty and the insistent grumbling of his stomach ceasing at last.
“Then I thank you, Bridei, for saving me from starvation. Now if you’d only be so kind as to loosen the restraints around my feet? I’d be eternally grateful.”
“No.” Her curt reply wasn’t unexpected, but the mischief dancing in her eyes was.
Galahad huffed. “Leave then and tell Merlin, delicious stew or not, I won’t help him.”
She didn’t move from her spot across from Galahad, the empty bowl sitting forgotten between them.
“I changed my mind. I think I’ll stay a bit longer.”
“And why the sudden change of heart?”
She hesitated, the barest shadow of a blush dusting her painted face. “Because you’re different from the stories the men tell around the fire.”
Galahad raised a brow and she was quick to elaborate.
“Prettier for one. They always say the Romans are demons who drink the blood of their enemies. And they cut their hair so short they cannot even braid it! Your hair is long though, long enough to braid.”
He had to bite his tongue to keep himself from breaking into bellowing laughter. How charming to see her so horrified by the way the Roman men wore their hair, while the drinking of blood seemed to warrant nothing more than a shrug.
“Well then, I wager it’s good I’m no Roman.”
She straightened up and scrunched up her nose in obvious bafflement. “You serve the Romans-”
“No,” he interrupted, harsher than he had intended and she winced at his unexpected anger. Not as brave as she pretended to be after all.
“No,” he repeated, more gentle this time. “My loyalty lies with Arthur, nowhere else.”
To her credit, she composed herself quickly enough. “If you’re not from Rome then where are you from?”
A curious little thing she was, probably too curious for her own good and she would do good to learn some restraint. Nevertheless, Galahad indulged her. She had brought him food after all.
“I was born in Sarmatia, a land far to the East.”
“Oh!” she perked up, eyes alight with intrigue and wonder. “What was it like there?”
“I…I don’t know. I was still a young boy when they took us to serve Rome. There’s little I remember.”
Over the years, Sarmatia had become a distant shadow, more dream than memory and the faces of his family and friends had become blurred and distorted until they were almost completely gone.
“What do you remember?”
Her innocent voice cut through the thick fog of his jumbled memories and he looked up, the smile on his face twisted and sharp. There had been no malice in her question, only childish excitement at the prospect of hearing tales from a far away country she never heard of before. Little could she know about the wounds she tore open within Galahad.
“I remember the sun,” he mumbled. “Warm on my arms and legs as I rode across the golden plains of my homeland. I remember my mother’s dark hair and how it fluttered in the breeze right next to me.”
“Your mother could ride?” Bridei gasped, voice high with disbelief.
Galahad’s smile widened and the bitter edge around the corner of his mouth softened as he regarded her. “All Sarmatian maidens can. They learn how to wield the axe and sword, throw the javelin and use the sling. They would learn all this and would not marry until they had slain at least three men.”
The black of her pupils very nearly swallowed the blue of her irises. She fidgeted in her spot, brimming with poorly suppressed excitement.
“The Picts teach their women how to fight as well, but we don’t ride and nobody expects us to kill three men before our wedding.”
“Picts?” Galahad asked, the word foreign on his tongue.
“Our people,” she explained. “The name we have given ourselves.”
“I believed your people were called Woads?”
The glare she threw his way could have melted the peaks of mount Braeriach. “That’s what the Romans call us. An insult and nothing more. No Pict would call themselves that.”
She rose with a huff, gathering up the empty bowl and storming out before Galahad had any chance to apologise for his ignorance. A remarkable young maiden she was, fierce and intelligent, her braveness only eclipsed by her curiosity. What was it she had said? The others were too afraid of him to bring him food.
He shouldn’t have been so harsh with her, or so careless with his words. She was a child still, unaware of Merlin’s plots no doubt. Galahad wouldn’t be surprised if she had only known him by name and reputation and found him an interesting distraction from her usual life.
Time trickled by like raindrops on unrelenting stone and when the flaps of the tent parted once more, Galahad was nearly grateful for whatever distraction had presented itself to him. At least, for as long as it took him to realise who had come to visit him once more.
“My will is not so easily broken, Merlin. Did you think a bowl of stew delivered by a child could be enough to sway me?”
The man chuckled and stepped closer, this time without his staff. He didn’t bother to lower himself to Galahad’s position on the ground.
“I didn’t expect you to. Bridei is an exceptional girl and not as easily frightened by the monstrous tales of the Sarmatian knights as her peers. She finds you interesting more than intimidating.”
“She’d be wise to fear me though,” Galahad grumbled.
“Of course, but let us hope she never has to. Come now, Sir Galahad, rise to your feet.”
“So you can watch me struggle with these bindings?”
“So that I can cut you free.”
And we're at chapter II~
Thanks so much everyone who gave kudos, wrote a comment or endured my whining over this fic on twitter! Love you all!
Chapter 3: Saviour
Galahad and Bridei reach an understanding, at least for the moment.
Galahad was used to harsh marches across the planes of Britain. He was used to spending night and day on horseback until his thighs were sore and Tristan had to rub lotion into his irritated skin at night to sooth the ache, chiding him for never wearing breeches, even though he was the one deriving the most pleasure from the sight of Galahad’s naked skin.
However, he was not used to the thick undergrowth of the woods, with their barbed black vines and hidden swamps. He was not used to his boots being swallowed by the muddy ground and the thick droplets of rain dripping from the trees and down his neck. It was tiring to avoid tripping over dead wood, or stepping into murky water, even more so with a collar around his neck and a leash attached to it, held by one of the tribe’s warriors. Galahad felt like a dog, pulled and pushed whenever his captors thought he moved too slowly. Only of little comfort was it then that his hands and feet were free and that his captors had foregone gagging him. The small courtesy was not born from a sense of compassion, Galahad was sure, but from one of practicality. Nobody would hear him scream for help in the depths of the forest and they knew it.
The Woads had done well to change locations instead of waiting for Arthur to find them. Merlin had ordered his people to split into several groups, all of them heading into different directions until, at one point, their paths would meet again deep inside the forest. Not even Tristan could possibly follow Galahad’s trail among all these different footprints and with the rain washing away most traces.
Galahad risked a look at the faces of the men and women. No one returned his curious gaze, neither would they answer his questions when he enquired about the designation of their march. They looked ahead stubbornly, their backs bent with the weight of their belongings on their shoulders. Clothes, weapons, tools for the hunt and only little of sentimental value. They did not have cattle or horses to bear their burdens and the strongest of the men were tasked with carrying the folded up tents made from a dark, heavy leather. One single Woad was carrying Galahad’s own armour and sword, wheezing with the heaviness of it and it brought Galahad no small amount of satisfaction to see him struggle so.
There were no children among their group and Galahad wondered why Bridei was the exception. He had asked about the girl once, but the tall woman who flanked him and watched his every move with hawk-like eyes didn’t even bat an eye. Either she didn’t speak Latin, or chose to ignore him. Given his current situation and his reputation among her people, Galahad was positive it was the latter.
His knowledge of Woad culture was limited at best, but even he knew that they weren’t nomadic by nature, not like his own people, and among the group escorting him were no elderly people, no children apart from Bridei. All men and women present were warriors, trained with sword and shield, their skin covered in scars and blue tattoos. The camp he had first been held at had only been a temporary solution. Now he was brought deep into their territory, to one of their scattered settlements.
Galahad had to escape before they arrived at whatever place Merlin was leading them to. If only they would leave Galahad unobserved for a moment.
They kept walking until night fell around them and even the sharp eyes of the scouts moving ahead couldn’t make out the near-invisible path they were following anymore. When they settled, a small fire was lit, just big enough to scare off any curious creatures during the night. It emitted enough light to allow his guards to erect the tents once more. They were fast, efficient even in this half-light, and soon enough Galahad found himself back inside one. This time they had foregone the ropes and he was free to roam around in his limited space.
Bridei returned a few hours later, with a frown on her face and another plate of food for him. A piece of dried meat this time, and a handful of berries she must have picked herself. Her hands and clothes were dark red with thick juice, minuscule scratches on her arms cutting through the blue of her markings.
She was angry. It was obvious in the way she held herself, with her back straightened and stiff, her lips pressed into a tight line as she regarded him.
Galahad couldn’t blame her. “I’m sorry,” he said as he took the plate from her. She twitched as Galahad moved, but her hands were steady and she held his gaze with stubborn determination.
Galahad began to eat the berries, crushing them between his teeth. They were ripe and full of flavour.
“For insulting your people,” he clarified.
Bridei stayed silent - no doubt believing it to be an adequate punishment for his transgressions - until curiosity got the better of her and she sat down across from him, snatching a few of the small berries for herself.
“I picked these, you know? Got up early just so I could collect them where they grow deep in the forest, along a small stream not far from here. They only grow there, nowhere else.”
It was her version of an apology, Galahad realised. He rolled one of the pulpy fruits between his fingers, before popping it into his mouth. “They’re delicious. Even though I’m sure I don’t deserve such kindness. My words the other night, they were inconsiderate. It was very ignorant of me.”
“It was,” she huffed. “But so was I. I thought all of Arthur’s knights were mindless slaves of Rome. Demons summoned by them.”
Galahad laughed, very nearly choking on a piece of meat.
“Demons summoned by Rome?” he guffawed.
“Don’t laugh! It’s what the men have told me!” Her cheeks were bright red underneath the blue marks adorning her face. “I’ve seen you, you know? The first time I went out with the warriors. It was supposed to be an ambush, I had my bow, but no sword. You escorted a Roman official. One of your brethren killed the man next to me, I still remember the silent gasp as he was hit, an arrow stuck in his eye socket. Your companions came over us like a storm and only a few survived. You fought with bow and lance and sword. Your legs as bare as they are now, as if you think you needn’t fear cold steel.”
She paused and shuffled her feet, plucking at the fur underneath her. “I was so frightened I couldn’t even nock an arrow. Yet, when we fled you didn’t chase us, didn’t even care for us, and I survived another day. You fought well and you won, but there was no joy in your eyes, no pleasure in taking the lives of my people. And I didn’t know anymore if you were a demon or not.”
Galahad listened with rapt attention, food forgotten for the moment. He couldn’t remember the particular battle she was talking about, there had been many a Roman who thought Arthur’s knights were little more than common guards, but Galahad didn’t doubt her words.
“We bleed like any other human. Rest assured, there’s nothing demonic about us.”
“Yet you don’t seem completely human either. Merlin says you’re the one to find the Grail, the purest and most worthy of all knights.”
“Are you?” she prodded further.
He flicked a berry at her, hitting her square in the chin and she squealed in surprised indignation. “Does it matter?” he asked. “Merlin believes me to be and I’ll be held a prisoner until he finds a way to force me to go on this nonsensical quest of his, searching for a relic that probably doesn’t even exist.”
“But it does!” she protested and Galahad couldn’t help but smile at her youthful naivety.
“It does!” she insisted. “Merlin’s visions have never failed. If he says you are chosen to find it then you are.”
She crossed her arms over her chest, her chin covered in red juice, the pitiful remains of the berry he had thrown at her.
“Is that what you believe?” Galahad asked. “Or merely what you’re hoping for?”
It was not his nature to argue with children, neither did he derive any pleasure from crushing their hopes and dreams under the heavy weight of truth, but the last hours had left him weary and irritable.
Bridei swallowed thickly at his words, any further protest forgotten as she struggled to find an answer.
“I hope,” she admitted after a tense moment of silence.
“Of course you do. It’s what keeps you alive, isn’t it? Almost fifteen years I’ve been a slave to Rome, fighting, killing, suffering for them in a war that isn’t my own. All this only in hopes of finally having fulfilled my duty - if there ever had been one - and be allowed to go home. Now I find myself at the mercy of yet another man, with yet another promise of freedom once another task I have no say in has been completed. Forgive me when I say that I find myself rather unwilling to lend my services to anybody anymore.”
“We ask not for 15 years of servitude,” Bridei pointed out in a voice so weak it was obvious she didn’t believe in it herself. “We only ask for one thing.”
“You ask for something that doesn’t even exist.”
“We ask for your help!”
“While I remain a prisoner!” Galahad shouted, his temper getting the better of him.
The next thing he knew, he found himself lying face down on the ground, a knee digging into the small of his back.
Blood was rushing in his ears, drowning out most of the noise around him. Though he could still hear Bridei screaming for the men to release him before switching to her mother tongue. They didn’t pay her any mind but Galahad felt a rush of affection surge through him nonetheless. He didn’t understand a single word, but insults sounded the same in every language.
To his own surprise, he was spared the renewed humiliation of the ropes around wrists and ankles, if only because he suspected Bridei placated the guards after she had exhausted her remarkable plethora of curses. His back was hurting from the weight previously put on it, his cheek stinging from when he had been pushed to the ground, but the guards seemed careful not to leave any lasting marks on him.
Bridei threw him a last apologetic glance before she was escorted outside and Galahad was left alone, dried meat and berries scattered around the tent.
Nobody came that night, neither to retrieve the empty bowl nor to punish him for his misbehaviour. Little could he do but retire. He made himself comfortable in the farthest corner of the tent, his back pressed against the leather despite the damp cold of the night seeping through. He curled into one of the thick fur blankets, the long hairs tickling his skin, and allowed himself to indulge in the fantasy that it was Tristan’s coarse beard brushing over his cheeks as he bestowed featherlight kisses upon him.
The next morning he was awoken by the busy clatter of people working outside his tent. No doubt, they were preparing to leave and continue their tiresome journey.
No food was brought to him and with an empty stomach and his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth he had to stumble through the hostile forest. The collar around his neck was chafing his skin and he could neither spot Merlin nor Bridei among the men.
Galahad didn’t know how long they had wandered. Their pace was slower this day, with the trees growing thicker the deeper they ventured and they had to tread carefully to avoid the gnarly, interlacing roots. One wrong turn, one heedless step and they might have found themselves lost forever. By the time they stopped to rest Galahad felt like the only colour left in the world was the deep, vibrating green of leaves. Even the sky seemed little more than a distant memory, hidden by the thick crowns of the trees.
Nobody spoke when a few men began to hand out stale bread and some water was passed around in bulbous wineskins. Galahad himself was only offered one after everybody else had their fill.
Surprise flitted across his face at the first hesitant sip. It wasn’t water. It was ale, and he wanted to laugh in delight at such an unexpected luxury. Instead, he drank until there wasn’t a drop left. It tasted different from the ale he was used to, less bitter, almost fruity. The bread was less pleasant, stale and hard, but enough to stave off the hunger clawing at his insides and that had to be enough.
Galahad had just finished his meal when Bridei unexpectedly joined him.
She carried a short, curved bow, not unlike Galahad’s own, and a hunting knife strapped to her thigh. Thrown across her shoulder were a pair of dead hares and her eyes shone bright with pride when she noticed Galahad’s gaze flickering to her impressive yield.
“I was one of those tasked to hunt. We’ll have at least another two days of march ahead of us and couldn’t bring much provisions with us when…” she trailed off, her heedless words having caught up with her.
Galahad didn’t have it in him to feel indignant anymore. “When you attacked us,” he finished for her.
Bridei shrugged and lowered her head to hide the deepening flush on her cheeks.
“You don’t bring provisions to a fight.”
“So you had to resort to hunting. And you were successful it seems.” He jerked his head at the animals dangling from her shoulder.
“I always am,” she paused and moved closer, sitting down next to him. “You’re not angry?”
Galahad turned to muster her. Of course he was angry. He was furious and frustrated and desperate to be back where he belonged. Who wouldn’t be full of fury? Captured and held prisoner like he was? Yes, he was angry. But he wasn’t angry with her.
“I’m not angry,” he said because there was little else he could have done.
“I told them to leave you alone, but they wouldn’t listen. They thought you tried to hurt me. That’s why I couldn’t come to see you in the morning. They wouldn’t let me.”
Galahad snorted. “I can’t fault them for it. My temper got the better of me, as it does so often.”
“I’m not angry either,” she added after a moment. His surprise must have shown on his face for when he turned his head to look at her she laughed, delighted at his confusion as only a child could be. “I know you’d feel bad too. So I tell you now that it’s alright. Here, look what I brought you.”
She let her kill slip to the ground, not caring where it might land, and started to rummage through a small bag slung around her narrow shoulders. With a triumphant cry she pulled a brittle branch from it. It was still fresh, though slightly bent from the transport, and laden with the same blue fruit Bridei had brought for him the other night.
“You seemed to like them, so I gathered more. We’re close to the stream now. I didn’t have to wander far to get them for you.”
Galahad sat in dumbfounded silence, the small branch resting in his lap where Bridei had dropped it. It was a simple kindness he had not expected, especially after he had treated her so roughly, not once but twice, even though she had shown him nothing but compassion.
He wanted to thank her when a sharp cry made his skin crawl. The words died on the tip of his tongue and he whipped around, eyes wide as hope blossomed in his chest. It hadn’t been human, yet it was all too familiar to Galahad.
Bridei gasped in surprise as he leapt to his feet and very nearly choked himself when the leash was drawn tight, the collar almost crushing his larynx. He didn’t care. His gaze turned upwards at the sky, his eyes searching, searching, searching.
Galahad felt Bridei’s eyes on him, felt her confusion as she mirrored his movements and tilted her head upwards. Fortunately for Galahad, nobody else had seen the hawk yet, still too caught up with their meagre meal to care for one single bird in the sky.
Adrenaline was pumping through his veins, his heart beating a painful rhythm against his rib cage. He needed to find her and find her fast before—
There she was! Flying in narrow circles above the clearing. Galahad couldn’t recall a moment her presence had ever filled him with more joy. Beautiful, deadly Isolde!
Judging from Bridei’s sudden outcry she too had spotted the hawk. Already her hands reached for her bow and Galahad knew he had to act. He pulled his lower lip between his teeth and released air in a shrill whistle.
Galahad didn’t wait to see if Isolde heeded his call. Instead, he made a grab for the empty wineskin that, up until now, had been lying forgotten on the forest floor, and wrapped the leather around his left hand. With the other, he pulled Brunei’s knife from its sheath on her thigh and cut himself free from the leash, not caring for her startled yelp.
He whistled a second time and started to run. As far as his legs carried him before the Woads would inevitably catch up. He almost stumbled twice and cut his cheek open on one of the lower hanging branches as he yanked a lock of hair from his scalp, wincing at the sharp pain. He wound it tightly around the branch of berries Bridei had given him and raised his leather-clad hand high above his head, the branch and hair tucked between two fingers.
There was the unmistakable noise of men hot on his heels. Three or more judging by the noises and Galahad whistled a third time, desperation crawling up his throat. He had only this one chance, this one opportunity.
He was under no illusions that they would catch him and catch him fast. These men knew the forest better than him, they were used to the uneven undergrowth and muddy ground.
Please, he thought, his chest heaving from the strain. Isolde had never shown him the same loyalty as Tristan. On the contrary, he had been merely tolerated. No doubt because of her master's fondness for him, and while Tristan had spent much time and patience on teaching him the words to summon her, hardly did she ever answer his call. Soon he wouldn't be able to run anymore.
"Please!" he cried out and, finally, she showed mercy. Her claws cut into his skin despite the leather covering as she descended from the heavens and Galahad hissed as the warm blood ran down his fingers and hand.
A moment later she was gone and, with her, his lock of hair and the branch. Galahad slowed down instantly, his breath coming in short gasps bursting from his chest. Blood was seeping through the leather and he unwrapped his hand to throw the wineskin as far away as he could.
He fell to his knees, neck bared as he watched Isolde disappear into the sky, a ringing cry her last farewell, and Galahad smiled. He did it.
Not even the rough hands pressing him to the forest floor a moment later could dampen his mood. He didn't resist when they escorted him back to camp and collared him once more, the leash so short he could barely stand and had to kneel on the ground. Now he was truly nothing more than a dog. And a disobedient one at that, one that needed to be put back into its place.
Merlin came soon after, his lips pressed into a thin line. He wasn't pleased and Galahad couldn't help the twinge of dark satisfaction curling in his belly at the sight.
"They say you tried to flee."
"What they say is true," Galahad replied, not bothering to hide the self-satisfied grin tugging at the corners of his split lips.
"It was foolish, young knight, and I have thought you wiser than that. If you had escaped, what would you have done? Alone in a part of the forest unknown to you, with pursuers on your heels, no provisions and no water. Did you really think you could have survived?" Merlin asked.
"Better to die a free man than to live as a slave."
Merlin sighed, weary and tired of the youth's antics.
"Have we shown you not enough kindness? Have I not made sure you are properly looked after? Have I not treated you with respect?"
"A cage remains a cage, no matter how comfortable it is," Galahad argued. "I will speak no more, Merlin. Leave me be, you won't gain my aid today nor any other day."
And to his surprise, Merlin did what he asked of him, leaving him with nothing but a shake of his head and a lingering sadness in his eyes Galahad couldn't care less about. He was a prisoner still, but there was hope. If fate was kind, then he might see Tristan again after all.
And Chapter III done!
Thank you, everybody who gave kudos and commented. I have to apologise, I had planned to update yesterday already but was feeling a bit discouraged.
It's all better now though and I'm very happy to read that you've all taken a liking to Bridei. She was my Abigail stand-in to be quite honest (and a few of you have noticed) and I'm very fond of her.
Chapter 4: Hunter
Tristan will hunt those who have taken Galahad from him down, with or without Arthur's permission.
"It's madness, Tristan! Will you not see reason?"
Gawain twitched at the harsh words, his hands reaching out for Tristan who brushed him off without so much as a glance. His amber eyes were on Arthur and a storm was raging in their depths.
"Two days, Arthur. Two days that may have taken Galahad out of our reach forever. The Woads are gone and they have taken him with them. Their trail leads into the forest, away from the battlefield. They're moving with one purpose only: to bring distance between us and them. We need to move and we need to move fast."
Never before had Gawain witnessed Tristan raising his voice in such a manner. To see him so openly display his emotions, his rage, it sent a spark of fear jolting up his spine. The worry for Galahad was evident in every one of Tristan’s heated words and if Gawain had not known any better he could have sworn there was a desperation in his voice that spoke of more than pure concern for a brother.
He looked at the tense faces of the others, all of them hesitating to intercede in the dispute between the two men. Even Lancelot held his tongue and watched with thinly-veiled confusion. Bors ground his teeth, no doubt eager to end this idiocy with a well-placed fist into Tristan's side. Dagonet stayed silent.
"You think I do not know this?" Arthur growled, his usual calm demeanour gone, replaced with powerless desperation. "What do you have me do, Tristan? Lead my men into a battle they cannot win? Right into the heart of the Woads' territory? Galahad's life would be forfeit the moment they caught sight of us."
Tristan's upper lip twitched in annoyance. "Then we can't let them catch sight of us. I don't ask you to come with me." He looked around, meeting every man's eyes once before turning back to Arthur. "I don't ask any of you to come with me, but I will go, Arthur. And I will go with or without your permission. However, for the sake of our friendship, I hope that when I'll go, I go with your blessing and permission."
"This is madness, Tristan." Gawain could no longer listen in silence and made a hesitant step towards the other. "You can't possibly hope to overcome so many Woads all by yourself."
"I don't plan to," he replied and shook off the hand on his shoulder. "Stealth will be my weapon in this endeavour. If I'm lucky, no Woad will notice my presence and Galahad will be back home, safe and sound, before they realise he’s missing."
"And if they do, what do ya wanna do then? Just ask them nicely to let you leave?" Bors grunted, arms crossed over his impressive chest. "I'm not gonna let you go all alone. I'm coming with you, like it or not."
Tristan didn't argue and he bowed his head in gratitude, thankful for the offer even though he didn't accept it just yet.
"I don't ask you for an army, Arthur," he continued as he turned to their leader once more. "A small group at best. Those willing to undertake this quest to save one of their own."
"I'll go with you, Tristan," Gawain assured and made sure not to meet Arthur's disapproving gaze. He was not eager to incur Arthur’s wrath, but Galahad was his friend, closest to him in age, and he felt a responsibility for the boy not unlike that of an older brother to his younger sibling.
"So will I," Dagonet chimed in, his voice rough but determined, and Bors nudged him in the side with a triumphant roar, obviously pleased with his friend’s decision.
Arthur sighed in defeat, his shoulders slumped in bone-deep exhaustion as he mustered the knights in front of him.
"Believe me when I say that I want to find Galahad and bring him home as much as any of you, if not more so, but I have an obligation towards all of you and not only towards him. This mission could mean certain death."
It was Lancelot who broke the following silence with an easy laugh, so ill-fitting in this moment, yet so comfortingly familiar. He strode up to Arthur, lips parted in an easy smile as he grasped him by the shoulders.
"Like every other mission as well. Yet we follow you willingly and gladly. We will follow Tristan just as gladly to save one of our brothers. I will go, Arthur. Will you?"
Arthur looked at his companions, his eyes shadowed and brows furrowed as he regarded them one after another.
"I will," he finally relented.
Bors shouted in delight, the battle cry of their people spilling from his mouth like one of Arthur's prayer of thanks and all but Tristan and Arthur joined him.
There was no need for further words, but Tristan and Arthur remained standing still when the others scattered to sharpen their weapons and prepare for their departure.
"Don't think I wouldn't do anything in my power to bring Galahad back, but this is dangerous and you know it, Tristan." Arthur said.
Tristan didn't try to argue. "It is."
"We don't even know where they are headed. You said it yourself, the trail separates two miles from here, leading into three different directions. How do you know which is the right one? We could be chasing a shadow and not realise it until it’s too late and Galahad is lost to us forever."
"Do you think so little of me, Arthur? Where I failed, Isolde will not. She's my eyes and ears and she will find Galahad."
"It's been two days since you sent her away. No word yet," Arthur pointed out.
"There will be."
He paused and looked up to the sky, eyes narrowed. "Speak of the devil..."
Tristan raised his arm and whistled. His call was answered with a piercing cry and soon enough, Isolde came to settle on his leather bracers.
"There you are," Tristan whispered with fondness in his voice as he stroked over her feathered head and sharp beak.
"And she brought a gift it seems," Arthur said with wonder. "A branch from a tree?"
Tristan took it from her claws - red with dried blood - and rolled it between his fingers.
"A branch and a lock of hair."
With utmost care, Tristan plucked the strand from the branch, opening the knot with which it had been tied to it. It was dark brown, almost black and curled, it's texture silky soft despite the specks of blood clinging to it. He knew whom it belonged to, had combed through it often enough with deft fingers and gentle affection, or grabbed it tight in the throes of passion.
Isolde cried out in agreement and Arthur's eyes widened with joy.
"It seems so. The hair was pulled out by the root, not cut off. It's still silky. He's alive."
If Arthur noticed the relief reverberating in those words then he was kind enough not to comment on it.
"Yet we still don't know where the Woads have taken him."
"I do," Tristan said and Arthur looked up in surprise.
"This branch," he explained. "And the berries it carries, they're rare in this region and only grow along the riverbanks of a small stream leading to the Eastern parts of the forest. The Woads head to the East where the trees give way to wide plains and rich farmland. They bring him to one of their settlements."
"Then we need to find him before they reach their destination. No matter how capable we are, we can't storm a whole settlement all on our own."
"No," Tristan agreed. "Come sunrise I will be gone."
He curled the lock of hair around his finger and lifted it to nose, inhaling the last lingering traces of Galahad's scent.
"Will you come with me, Arthur?"
They had to leave their horses behind. The overgrown forest was no place for these proud animals and they would’ve only been a hindrance. So they set out on foot with Tristan leading them through the thick undergrowth and twisted paths left behind by the woodland folk.
It was tiring and at times it felt as if they barely edged ahead. Often enough, they lost their trace between dead wood and soft moss, the imprints of feet near impossible to discern or washed away by the rain.
"We're never gonna catch up at this rate," Gawain lamented after a whole day and night of restless wandering.
None of them were weak in body or mind, but their never changing surroundings and the worry for their lost companion left them exhausted and sullen.
"Not if you keep whining, boy," Bors grunted and cut a a low hanging branch from a tree.
"Silence," Tristan reminded them. "These woods are the home of the Woads and they are not known for letting noisy intruders frolic through their territory undisturbed."
"I’d rather have them fight us right here, right now, than stomp another day through this bloody forest," Bors huffed.
"There will be enough fights for us to win, dear Bors. Just not now. I hate this forest as much as you do, but it's stealth we need, not an open fight," Lancelot quipped in. Of all the companions, he was the one whose cheery mood had not fully abandoned him yet.
"What we need is Galahad back with us, safe and sound," Arthur threw in.
He caught up to Tristan who was a few paces ahead of them, his eyes firmly on the ground, ever looking for more traces that would lead him to Galahad.
"They're too noisy," Tristan grumbled in way of greeting.
"They're warriors,” Arthur reminded him. “Not scouts. Patience is not for them and the forest is wearing what little they have of it thin."
"I won't risk Galahad's life because they can't hold their tongues and move through the woods like newborn fawn."
"And neither will they. Have a bit more faith in them. They love Galahad as dearly as you do. Well, maybe not quite as dearly."
Tristan's eyebrow twitched, his expression carefully neutral as he regarded a footprint left in the muddy ground with more interest than it warranted.
"We're getting closer," he said and moved onwards, leaving Arthur's teasing words uncommented. "The trail is fresher here and there are traces of a camp. Remains of a fire and a hasty meal."
"Careful," he grunted when Lancelot nearly trampled all over a pair of footprints different from those they had seen already.
Tristan crouched down, examining it with close scrutiny. "This one is not from a Woad. They wear light boots, suitable to move in a forest while hunting, the kind of footwear that doesn’t leave much trace, shallow footprints at best. This one here has been made by a heavy boot with thick soles."
"It can only be Galahad's!" Gawain exclaimed and stepped up to Tristan's side to examine the footprint.
Tristan nodded. "Indeed. No doubt he's alive then and able to walk on his own."
"Which would make an escape easier," Arthur said.
"And gives us hope. Whatever they need him for, they need him conscious and whole." Lancelot added.
Tristan didn't point out that it was easier to lead a lamb to its slaughter instead of killing it immediately.
Deeper and deeper he led his friends into the forest, hot on Galahad's trail. No sleep, no rest, and Tristan urged them on mercilessly and unrelentingly. Not so much with words as with his silent gaze, a determined stare, his long legs never halting, his eyes never closing, on and on until they found a clearing where the Woads must have made camp not too long ago.
There were messy tracks all over the ground, the grass bent where humans had sat down to rest or sleep and even the sad remains of slain rabbits that must have been butchered during the Woads short stay. Nothing of it held much interest to Tristan. He was looking for signs of Galahad, examining every footprint in hopes of finding the ones belonging to his lover.
"Here are more footprints that must belong to Galahad. They're leading away from the camp in broad strides. He must have been running. There are others following him. The Woads must have noticed his absence and pursued him."
He moved faster, following the trail left by Galahad, eyes on the ground. "He didn't get far. The trail ends here, they must have caught up with him."
"You think he tried to escape?" Lancelot asked.
"Possibly, but not likely." Tristan bent down and plucked a leaf from a tiny shrub. "Dried blood, maybe Galahad's. A few small hairs as well. He must have ripped it out himself to give it to Isolde."
"Why did he run then, when he knew he couldn't escape?"
"To distract them from the fact that he sent a message. Isolde is fast, nothing but a vague shadow, come and gone in an instant, but a hawk attracts attention nonetheless. Galahad must have tried to avoid her being seen. He wanted to keep up the illusion of a desperate escape, when in reality he contacted us and sent us hints to his whereabouts."
"Clever boy," Lancelot smiled and Tristan huffed in agreement.
Clever boy indeed. If only this manoeuvrer hadn't cost him his life after all.
"What is this?" Gawain asked suddenly and Tristan whipped around.
Gawain held up a bloody piece of leather, what looked to be the sorry remains of a wineskin, mangled and ripped at the seams.
"More blood, obviously," he hissed and took the shredded wineskin from Gawain. "Not older than a few hours. It hasn't flaked yet. We need to move."
Tristan was unrelenting in his pursuit, leading his brothers through the forest with silent determination that often left them panting and cursing. Night had settled over them when he finally stopped and with a simple gesture of his hand bid the others to do the same.
"Tristan-" Lancelot whispered and was promptly cut off by his hard glare, the maroon of his eyes visible even in the moonlight.
Another gesture before Tristan moved forward, his back bent and head held low, a predator on the hunt.
The other knights followed his example as best as they could, even though they possessed none of Tristan's stealth.
"Tristan?" Arthur gently prodded when they made their way through the darkness.
"They made camp," he grumbled. "Do you not smell the fire? Or blood? There."
He pointed ahead and, true enough, there was a soft glimmer visible between the inky black of trees.
"Silence now," Tristan whispered and inched closer, his shield brothers in tow as they made their way towards the Woad camp.
They didn't dare to move further than to the outer ring, careful not to step foot into the circle illuminated by the fire in the centre of it.
Woads - men and women alike - were busy with various tasks. Mending weapons, sharpening blades, a young woman was skinning a pair of wild rabbits, another carved them up.
Nowhere did they catch any sight of Galahad.
"Where is he?" Gawain asked entirely out of breath, his voice a mere whisper.
"One of the tents," Tristan said.
"And how are we supposed to know which is the right one? There are half a dozen." Bors grunted next to him.
Tristan didn't answer. His mouth was curled into a vicious snarl, his teeth bared at the Woad who dared to point his sword at him.
Things are picking up!
Now our boys will finally seach each other again, isn't that great? :D
Chapter 5: Reunion
Tristan's upper lip twitched as he revealed his sharp teeth in a vicious snarl. He regarded the man holding the leash to Galahad's collar with thinly veiled disgust as he committed the brutish features to memory. His blue tattoos, the flat nose, his piggish eyes. This man would die for having laid a hand on Galahad. Not now, not here, but Tristan would find him and kill him once Galahad was freed and back at his side.
It was impossible, he argued with himself. He should have heard them approaching. Should have heard something, anything. Not even the Woads should have been able to fool him and his sharp ears, his fine sense of smell. Yet here he was, encroached by seven of their blue-painted warriors, all of them eager to drive a blade through his heart.
Bors cursed violently next to him, all caution forgotten, and Tristan's fingertips were already tracing the hilt of his sword when a gentle voice held him back.
"No pointless bloodshed here. Arthur, if you'd call back your bloodhounds, so we may speak to each other?"
Tristan knew the voice and the man it belonged to. Merlin had never occupied his thoughts for very long — an old man, leader to his people, but at the end of the day a Woad like any other. Rumoured to be a magician by some, yet Tristan cared little for it. Magician or not, he’d still bleed when struck.
"We shall speak, if only you swear by your honour that no harm shall come to my men." Arthur's voice rang out clear and sure, as always, but Tristan didn't turn to see if his expression matched his words.
"Be assured that I have no interest in harming any of your men. You, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have come for idle talk only, armed as you are."
Tristan growled, eyes narrowing as he regarded the old man before him.
"No, we didn't," Arthur agreed. "We came here because we believe you’ve taken one of our own. We demand you hand Galahad back to us, for he's our dear companion and we won't leave without him."
It was Bors who voiced what they all thought. "To bloody hell with this! Give us back our boy, or I swear I'm gonna rip you a bloody new one."
Merlin didn't take his eyes off Arthur. Tristan had seen this kind of look before, the look of a merchant seeing an opportunity, a chance to make an unexpected profit.
"Come," Merlin said, "You’re clearly longing to see the boy. Your wish shall be granted."
They were escorted to the camp, surrounded by Woads, the tips of their blades pointed at them. There was fear in the Woads’ eyes, hatred of course, and undeniable curiosity. No chains were put around their feet, their hands, nobody tried to take their weapons, but Tristan had no doubt that, should they so much as suspect Arthur's knights to pose a threat, no Woad would hesitate to slay them where they stood.
In front of one of the small tents they came to a halt and with a Sarmatian curse, and other colourful insults, Galahad emerged, bound with a collar and held on a leash by a Woad twice as broad as him. He twisted in the hold, heaping insult after insult on his captor until he became aware of the newcomers. His mouth went slack and his eyes widened as he took in the faces of his brothers one by one.
Oh, how painful it was to be reunited like this, to have failed Galahad so, yet the only thought running through Tristan's sharp mind was how beautiful he was, how alive, how the blood was pumping underneath his skin. His eyes shone with defiance and pride, his sweet mouth spilling obscenities without shame. Oh, how he yearned to devour this boy whole. Cover his mouth with his own until they shared one breath. How he wanted to bury his fingers in the luscious locks and pull until Galahad moaned his name.
Tristan did none of these things. Instead, he lowered his gaze, broke eye contact and bit down on his lower lip until he tasted blood.
"As you can see, he is unharmed, but I cannot let him go with you."
Galahad gasped for air, but whatever protest was lying on the tip of his tongue died as Arthur sent him a pointed look, his fingers twitching in a minimal gesture.
"You have no use for prisoners, nor for ransom, but if we can buy his freedom we will. What is it you want?" Arthur asked.
"Nothing you can give us, Arthur. You're right when you say we have no use for ransom, but we have use of him."
Merlin was fond of his little games, Tristan thought. To withhold information in order to determine how much another knew. As it stood, neither Arthur, nor any of the other knights knew what it was he needed Galahad for and anxiety settled like a heavy weight in the pit of Tristan's stomach.
"If you think we'll let you sacrifice Galahad to those bloodthirsty gods of yours, then you're sorely mistaken!" Gawain's voice was loud but trembling, his anger overshadowed by his fear.
"Silence, Gawain," Arthur reprimanded without taking his eyes off Merlin.
He too was overcome with fear, yet hid it better. The signs minuscule but obvious for somebody as skilled at reading people as Tristan. The taut line of Arthur's shoulders, the hand on Excalibur's hilt, a hardly noticeable twitch of his lips as he forced himself not to think of barbaric sacrifices that needed a virgin's blood to appease cruel gods.
"I always thought the rumours of Woads sacrificing their virgins were just that, rumours," Arthur said.
"They are," Merlin replied and smiled. "We're not as barbaric as you might think, good Sir Gawain. We need neither ransom from you, nor blood from your brother."
"What do you need him for then?" Tristan asked. It was the first time he spoke up since they'd been captured and immediately Merlin's attention was on him, the gaze of those unsettling sea-green eyes drilling itself into the back of his skull.
"He has been chosen," the old man explained. "The purest of all knights, destined to retrieve the Grail and heal the lands."
"The Grail?" Gawain asked, not caring much for Arthur's previous command.
"The Holy Grail, holding the blood of Christ...?"
The name held little meaning for Tristan. He neither cared for the gods of the Woads, nor for the Christian god Arthur prayed to, but the reverence vibrating in his leader's words made him perk up.
Merlin smiled still. "It's what the Christians say, but this prophecy is older than your bible, or your god, Arthur, and it won't be a Christian fulfilling it."
"You think Galahad is the one chosen to retrieve it?" Arthur asked, his voice a mere whisper. "Merlin, this is madness. He's neither Christian, nor does he follow your rituals and rites. You can't possibly believe-"
Merlin cut him off with a gesture of his hand. "It matters little who he prays to, or if he prays at all. He's pure of body and mind and he will retrieve the Grail."
"I shall not!" Galahad shouted.
The heated protest earned him a hard shove from his captor and he fell to his knees with a dull thud.
Tristan's upper lip twitched as he revealed his sharp teeth in a vicious snarl. He regarded the man holding the leash to Galahad's collar with thinly veiled disgust as he committed the brutish features to memory. His blue tattoos, the flat nose, his piggish eyes. This man would die for having laid a hand on Galahad. Not now, not here, but Tristan would find him and kill him once Galahad was freed and back at his side.
Too late did he notice Merlin's gaze on him, head tilted in curious contemplation and Tristan quickly schooled his features into indifference.
"You shall not? You’d rather see your brothers dead than swallow your pride and do what I've asked of you?" Merlin asked and fixed his eyes on Galahad.
Gone was Galahad's prideful resistance, gone his flaming temper. His eyes were black with fear and in a moment of weakness, they flickered to Tristan.
"You said you don’t fear death, young knight, and I believed you. I gave you a promise to find your weakness, but it seems your weakness has found its way to us all on its own. You shall go on the quest to retrieve the Grail, or the lives of your companions will be forfeit."
"Merlin, don't be foolish. The Romans do not take kindly to anybody killing their most prized servants. They'd seek revenge if news of our death reached them. Your whole tribe, all your people would suffer greatly, and for what? For a myth," Arthur tried to reason with him.
"There will be no deaths if Galahad forgets his pride and does as we ask," Merlin said, entirely too sure of himself. "He's predestined, he will not fail in this endeavour, not if the survival of his companions hinges on his success."
It was a clever move, Tristan had to admit, to pressure Galahad into cooperation by using his loyalty for his brothers against him, but two could play this game.
"He cannot possibly venture out on his own. A single wanderer is an easy target for bandits and other shady folk," he added for consideration. "You want to see this quest fulfilled? Give him an escort party."
Merlin regarded him carefully and Tristan returned his look with equal intensity.
"If Galahad goes, three of you shall accompany him. The other three stay with us."
"As your prisoners?"
"As our guests. Until Galahad returns with the Grail. Then you all shall be free to go."
"Is that a promise?"
"It's more than that. On my honour, no harm shall come to any of you if I have Galahad's word that he'll undergo this quest."
Galahad's struggle was plain to see, his fair face twisted in agony, his full lips pulled between his teeth as he contemplated the offer. Tristan yearned to reach out and take the boy into his arms, kiss the abused lips until the worried lines on the beautiful face straightened out and Galahad grew pliant underneath his skillful hands.
"If I have your word that my companions will be safe then I’ll go and I’ll bring you the Grail," he finally gave in, eyes lowered to the ground so as not to bear witness to Merlin's triumphant smile.
"You have my word," Merlin assured. "Return with the Grail and you and your companions will be free."
He turned to the Woad who held Galahad by the leash. "Cut him loose and remove the collar. Bring him his sword and armour."
The man obeyed and Tristan watched as he went to do Merlin's bidding. Galahad rose to his feet with as much grace as he could muster, his long curls falling over his forehead, obscuring his eyes. He still wouldn't look at Tristan.
"You three, you shall go with him," Merlin said and pointed towards Arthur, Lancelot and Gawain. "All of you are capable fighters it seems, fit to accompany Galahad on this journey. The others stay."
Galahad twitched and lifted his head, staring at Tristan in horror. Panic ran through him, manifesting in a violent shiver before he could regain control of his body once more.
Merlin — for all his insight - hadn't noticed his small slip in control. Arthur, on the other hand, was more observant and knew Galahad better.
"Capable fighters indeed, but it's a long and tiresome journey, brute strength alone will not be enough," he said. "Galahad will need somebody able of tracking, somebody who knows the land and can hunt for game should provisions run short. Tristan is the best scout in all of the lands. He should go."
Merlin's gaze fell upon Tristan, sizing him up. He straightened his shoulders and schooled his features into a careful mask that showed little but grim determination and easy confidence.
For a moment, he feared that Merlin would figure out Arthur's little gamble. It was not an unreasonable request, albeit an unusual one. After what seemed like a few moments stretched into eternity, Merlin bowed his head in permission.
"As you wish. He goes, you stay."
Merlin was not as cruel as they might have thought. He allowed them a brief reunion in the relative privacy of one of the tents. Of course, there were guards positioned outside and those who agreed to stay behind had to hand over their weapons and armor, but it did little to dampen the joy of seeing their youngest alive and back in their midst.
Bors pulled Galahad into a bone-crushing embrace and ruffled his already unruly hair, spouting profanities with such a fondness that not even Arthur found it in him to reprimand Bors for his vulgarity.
Soon, Gawain and Lancelot joined the embrace, almost burying the boy underneath them. Dagonet was less enthusiastic when the others released Galahad. He put a heavy hand on his shoulder, eyes shining with fondness and relief to have him back.
Galahad laughed, drunk with joy and not caring for what might come the following day, forgotten his oath to go on a quest for Merlin for a few precious hours. Tonight, he would enjoy being alive and in the company of his loved ones. Tristan had never seen him as beautiful as he was now.
"Welcome back, Galahad. It's good to have you with us, at least for now," Arthur said with unusual gentleness and pulled him close, resting their foreheads together in a brotherly touch. "I imagine you’re hardly keen on pondering the things that are to come, but I fear it's a necessary evil before you can enjoy what little freedom you have left, until the sun rises and we have to part ways once more."
Galahad's gaze flickered over Arthur's shoulder towards Tristan and he returned it with a soft nod. As usual, Arthur was the voice of reason and as little desire as Tristan had to discuss their strategy before setting out on their quest, he knew it was the right thing to do.
"What do you know of the Grail, Galahad?" Arthur asked.
Galahad shrugged. "Only what Merlin has told me and that seemed to be little more than the ramblings of an old, confused man: a magical object said to grant its owner incredible power. He hopes to free the land from the Romans with it."
"What utter horse shite," Bors interjected, before he stuffed himself with bread and meat that the Woads had left for them on wooden plates. At least they made good on their promise to treat them like guests more than prisoners.
"Maybe," Arthur acknowledged. "Maybe not. It's said that the Holy Grail, holding the blood and sweat of Christ, was brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea. It’s a powerful and sacred object, said to heal the sick and wounded, or even grant immortality."
"Which is utter horse shite too." Bors threw Arthur a lazy grin that the other didn't return.
"If it exists, then its retrieval won't be easy and it will be full of trials."
"And if it doesn't exist then it shall be even harder," Tristan deadpanned. "And yet you agreed to stay as a prisoner of the Woads until Galahad returns with it. Was that wise, Arthur?"
"No, it wasn't. But it's what I had to do. For Galahad's sake."
Tristan didn't argue further but he was well-aware of the questioning look Galahad threw his way at Arthur's words. He would demand an explanation later, Tristan was sure of it.
"I don't even know where I'm supposed to start looking for this twice-forsaken grail," Galahad huffed and his previously joyful expression shifted to a thoughtful frown.
"Legend has it that behind the wall and behind this forest there’s a castle, 100 beautiful maidens live there, imprisoned by six knights who don't age and don't die. Doesn't that sound like something your grail could do?" Lancelot said.
"It sounds like a fairytale," Galahad argued, the corners of his lips curling up in a hesitant smile. "Like one you've heard at a tavern when you were in a drunken stupor, and you only remember because how could Sir Lancelot forget 100 beautiful maidens, held captive in a castle?"
Lancelot laughed and raised his cup to Galahad, neither embarrassed nor ashamed. "And it's quite possible I've heard it there, but do you have a better idea?"
Galahad paused for a moment. "No, I don't."
"Lancelot's sources may be dubious but I too have heard of this castle and its keepers. No doubt, the stories are exaggerated, but if these knights guard the castle so fiercely, maybe it is worth an investigation. After all, we have nothing to lose," Arthur said.
"Nothing but our lives," Galahad muttered.
Arthur lifted his hand to Galahad's cheek, the touch as gentle as a soft summer breeze.
"Have more faith in us and in yourself, Galahad. You will find a way and even though you don't share my faith, I'm convinced God will guide you in this endeavour. And so will Tristan, Lancelot and Gawain. Don't despair. We shall let you rest now. A hard day lies ahead of you and I'm sure you have more pressing matters on your mind."
Arthur pulled away and motioned for the others to follow as he left the tent with a last farewell. All but Tristan obeyed. He stayed behind, eyes dark as he regarded Galahad.
Neither of them moved, waiting until the noises outside had subsided and they could be sure Arthur and the others had been escorted to their own tents. There were still guards positioned outside, but Tristan cared little for them and judging from the heated glimmer in Galahad's eyes, his lover shared the sentiment.
Careful, almost hesitant, Tristan stepped closer until they could feel each other's breath on their faces. He reached out for Galahad's hand, the touch of his fingertips enough to cause a shiver to run through the younger man, and lifted it to his lips.
"I see you have successfully summoned Isolde," he whispered and kissed the bandaged fingers, one after another, until Galahad was trembling in his hold.
"She came because you sent her for me, didn't you?"
Tristan's answer was a deep hum and he pulled Galahad close, his hand resting comfortably at the small of his back.
"I apologise for the pain she caused you, the pain I caused you."
Galahad's smile was a beautiful thing, even more so when he was the cause for it, and Tristan felt the desire to lift his boy up and carry him to the bed made from furs, to ravage him until Galahad's wanton screams filled the night.
"Arthur knows," he mumbled against Galahad's knuckles instead.
Immediately, the younger tensed up.
"Don't worry, he has known for longer than you can imagine. As it seems, even longer than we ourselves have known."
Galahad furrowed his brow, his lips parting, no doubt to demand for Tristan to stop speaking in riddles.
Tristan wouldn't let him. He kissed him. Roughly, with an intensity born from desperate longing, and any protest Galahad might have had melted away with Tristan's insistent mouth on his.
"We shouldn't do this," he whispered when they broke apart, a beautiful flush on his boyish face.
"No," Tristan agreed and kissed him once more. "We shouldn't. Does Merlin truly believe you to be a virgin? With that filthy mouth of yours?"
"He only asked if I‘ve ever shared my bed with a maiden. The last time I looked you weren't a maiden. Or is there something you need to tell me?" Galahad chuckled, his eyes alight with mischief and smug satisfaction at having fooled Merlin so.
"What a cunning boy you are," Tristan purred as he pressed featherlight kisses onto Galahad's exposed neck. "Maybe I should give you a reminder that there is nothing maidenly about me, if you forgot so quickly."
"Maybe," Galahad agreed and wound his arms around Tristan, his fingers tugging on the unruly strands of hair long enough to fall over Tristan's back.
"Do you think you have it in you to stay quiet?" Tristan asked.
It was entirely unreasonable and entirely too tempting.
"No," Galahad gasped and rubbed himself against Tristan. He was hard. "I guess you’ll just have to press my face into the furs then, to keep me from screaming your name too loudly."
Finally reunited! Now the real fun part begins!
Thank you all for you lovely comments, your constant encouragement and your enthusiasm for this fic! Love you all!
Chapter 6: Departure
Tristan can't keep his hands to himself. Not in the way you think though.
The morning came soon, too soon, and with it came the bitter taste of reality. The air was heavy with the smell of rain and Galahad emerged from the tent with a frown on his otherwise handsome face, fully armoured, with his sword dangling from his side, and a hardly noticeable limp that he knew filled Tristan with smug satisfaction as he followed closely behind.
His lover was right behind him, and he too was in his armour, his curved sword on his back. Tristan made an impressive sight, with his braided hair and Isolde sitting comfortably on his shoulder. The men made sure to step out of his way, even though they were prisoners still, and Galahad couldn't blame them. Not too long ago, he had seen nothing but death looming in the depths of Tristan's eyes, had accused him of enjoying death and slaughter. He knew better now, but he couldn't deny that death clung over Tristan like a shroud.
They were escorted to the outer edge of the camp, the askance glances of the Woads following them until they were out of sight, where Arthur and the others were already waiting for them. Most of them were bearing their weapons and armour, their hands bound like Galahad's had been not long ago, with only Merlin and two guards at their sides. Lancelot and Gawain had their armour on and were laden with heavy bags, no doubt filled with provisions and other things they might have need of during such a long journey.
Only then did Galahad realise that they would have to set out by foot. Their horses were gone after all and the Woads did not keep any. What a bleak prospect, not to feel the living breathing animal between his thighs and the wind tugging at his curls as he rode.
"Are you ready to set forth, Sir Galahad?" Merlin asked. "I believe you have already decided where your way would lead you, at least for the beginning."
Galahad didn't ask how he knew of their plan to search for Lancelot’s mysterious castle, in fact, he'd prefer not to know. He may not believe Merlin to be a magician, but the old man obviously had his way and means to garner information.
He swallowed thickly, the lump in his throat making it difficult to breathe. No, he wasn't ready. But what other choice did he have? He had sworn to do what had been asked of him. Had struck a bargain with Merlin that was as desperate as it was absurd: the lives of his friends in exchange for a mythical trinket.
"I wish to bid a last goodbye to those of my companions who agreed to stay behind," Galahad said.
"It shall be granted to you. Me and my men will give you the privacy you deserve," Merlin agreed after a moment of contemplation.
When the old man made his way back to the camp in unhurried steps, the guards followed only after some moments of confusion, their eyes shifting back and forth between the knights and their leader before they heeded Merlin's unspoken command.
Galahad had no doubt that they would stay close enough to observe every single one of their moves and, if necessary, intervene should they attempt to do more than hug in goodbye.
"Arthur..." Galahad began as he stood in front of his leader, ever the epitome of composure, before his voice failed him.
"Do not worry for us, Galahad. We have nothing to fear from the Woads. Without us, they lose every leverage they have on you. No harm will come to us, I'm sure of it. So don't worry for us, but think of us from time to time, when the path you're taking seems bleak and dark. Remember that all our prayers are with you, that you are not alone in this endeavour. That we are your friends and your family."
Galahad's thick curls fell into his face and obscured his eyes as he lowered his head, his rosy lip pulled between his teeth.
"Thank you, Arthur," he finally mumbled, voice thick with hardly suppressed emotion. "Not only for having faith in me, but for everything else as well."
At this, Arthur smiled, a soft and gentle thing, a rare sight on his sombre face.
"You are most welcome, Galahad. Some bonds shouldn't be severed after all."
Galahad said no more, but when he lifted his head to return Arthur's look, his eyes shone with unshed tears and eternal gratitude. It was selfish, in a way, to be relieved over having Tristan by his side, instead of Arthur. The price for having his lover with him - the imprisonment of one of his brothers - was paid by Arthur and Galahad would never be able to repay him for the sacrifice he made by offering himself up to the Woads so Tristan was free to go with him.
"Now, this is goodbye."
They hugged, one after another, and parted with words of encouragement that sounded hollow to their own ears, no matter how much they wished to believe in them. Galahad didn't look back when they walked away, his mouth pulled into a tight line, his eyes wet with tears.
Nobody spoke, not even Lancelot who was usually the quickest to make a joke or lighten the mood with one of the many stories he told at the tables. The only sound was Isolde's occasional cry for attention when she rested on Tristan's shoulder and wasn't flying circles high above their heads.
The sun had nearly set, the last rays casting long shadows on the ground and colouring the leaves and wood a vibrant red, when they first made rest, their feet aching and their hearts heavy.
"Two days in this god-forsaken forest and I'm already tired of it," Gawain finally broke the silence as he sat down on a thick tree root. His boots were covered in mud and shining wet, no doubt already soaked through.
Galahad couldn't argue with him.
"One more night and one more day, then we should reach the edge of the forest," Tristan said.
"Which is only of little comfort, don't you think?" Gawain grumbled while he pulled one of his boots off, scowling as he regarded the soaked through cotton bandages around his feet.
Tristan ignored his protests. "We will not rest for long. Only until the sun rises once more and we can follow our path. I fear I don't know much about these lands, but if we're lucky then there will be an inn along the road where we can buy horses and plan our next move."
"You think they take Roman coin this far north of the Wall?" Lancelot asked, hope and scepsis in his voice balancing each other.
"Maybe," Tristan conceded. "If not, then there is still this."
He pulled a delicate necklace from the folds of his tunic, grinning widely with mischievous delight as Lancelot and Gawain stared at him with open mouths. It was a lovely thing, made from gold and inlaid with precious gemstones that shimmered blood-red in the receding light.
"How—? Tristan, when did you?" Lancelot swallowed and shook his head, torn between disbelief and amusement.
"Nobody was caring much for the rough looking scout when the knight of legend, pure Sir Galahad, was walking next to them. All eyes were on him, while mine were on this necklace around a very lovely neck. I'm sure she won't miss it. Much."
Gawain and Lancelot stared at Tristan, speechless for a moment before they broke into bellowing laughter.
"The best scout of the land, indeed. As well as the best thief," Lancelot chuckled and patted Tristan on the back.
"This is not something the Woads have made. It's Roman," Galahad remarked, eyeing the glittering jewellery with interest.
Tristan nodded. "Spoils of a successful raid, I imagine. It matters little who made it as long as we can sell it."
"It's worth more than four horses," Gawain said.
"Then we will have enough for provisions and an actual bed for the night," Lancelot replied and his grin widened at the prospect of warm sheets and an actual roof above his head. "And maybe lovely company as well."
"Not for everyone of course," Lancelot quipped as he threw Galahad a pointed look. "Now, who would have thought Galahad was destined to remain pure. I do remember oh so fondly the raunchy stories you used to tell around the fire."
"A filthy mouth doesn't necessarily mean a filthy life, does it?" Gawain asked and elbowed Galahad in the side, not too harshly, but enough to cause Galahad to sway in his seat.
Galahad's cheeks were bright red, embarrassed not by his alleged inexperience but by the teasing edge in his friend's words.
"So does this mean lewd thoughts and words do not diminish his pureness? Then what does? Do you touch yourself, Sir Galahad? Or would that taint your snow-white innocence?"
Tristan's dark voice sent a shiver down Galahad's spine and liquid fire rushing through his veins. He lifted his head to return Tristan's gaze - a heated, predatory thing - and narrowed his eyes.
The impertinence he had, Galahad thought. He knew full well Galahad touched himself, often with him watching from a seat across the bed, fully clothed, while Galahad lay bare in bed, legs spread, and moaning as Tristan gave instructions with a voice as calm as if he were giving instructions on how to hold his boy, just like he used to when they were younger, while Galahad was going mad with lust.
"Now, don't give him ideas," Lancelot chuckled.
Galahad rolled his eyes at him and pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders. It was late and he felt no particular desire to indulge Lancelot any longer.
"How noble of you, Lancelot, to protect my virtue so fiercely. I'm sure you'll protect my life just as fiercely when you stand guard for the night until Tristan relieves you," he huffed and rolled onto his side, his back to his companions as he closed his eyes.
He didn't need to see Lancelot's face to know that he was blinking owlishly at Galahad's back, mouth hanging open at having been tricked like that. It was a small victory, but a victory nonetheless and Galahad succumbed to sleep with a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
It was Gawain who woke him after what felt like mere minutes and Galahad rose with a grumble, his hair even more of a tangled mess than usual. His back hurt where one of the gnarly roots had poked him all night and he was freezing.
The forest was as little charming in the morning as it had been in the evening, the leaves dripping with dew and heavy fog wavering around their feet as they packed what little belongings they had and continued on their journey.
They talked only little and laughed even less, their minds occupied with thoughts of the friends they had to leave behind.
"Galahad?" Gawain asked after an hour of silent walking.
Galahad knew the tone, knew the fraternal pitch that always came with Gawain trying to express his often unwarranted concern for the youngest among their group.
"You're not mad, are you?" Gawain asked.
"Mad? About what?"
"About our little jabs at your purity. It was in bad taste, I know."
"It was, but that's not all of it, is it?" Galahad prodded.
They knew each other for too long to be insulted over something as trivial as a bad joke and unlike Tristan, Gawain was incapable of hiding his true emotions under a carefully constructed mask. There was worry in every line of his face, in his eyes and the stiff, tight line that was his mouth.
"It's not," Gawain admitted. "How are you holding up, Galahad?"
Galahad had no desire to broach this particular topic, not even with Gawain whom he considered a dear and beloved friend. He had left Arthur and the others in the hands of their enemies, their survival bound to Galahad’s success in a mission he himself did not believe in.
“I’m not some fragile little cup, Gawain. I’m fine.”
He was not, and Gawain wasn’t so easily fooled.
“It’s a great burden you carry, Galahad, but you don’t have to carry it alone. We’re here for you. There is no shame in confiding in your friends.”
And how could he confide in his friends? How could he admit to being relieved that it was Tristan at his side, not Arthur? How could he not feel ashamed of his traitorous heart that skipped a beat whenever his eyes would wander and fall on the tall frame of his lover, free and alive and with him, when it was Arthur whom he owed his loyalty?
“I‘ve left the man I’ve sworn to serve and protect in the hands of our enemies, Gawain, and yet I sit with you and laugh with you under the stars as a free man. How can I be so carefree, when the lives of my brothers-in-arms are at risk?”
It was the truth, if only half of it.
Gawain shook his head beside him, his long blond hair swaying softly at the motion. “You’ve sworn to free them, not to wallow in misery. Don’t chastise yourself for being alive.”
“How can I do anything but? They paid a high price for my freedom, one I do not know if I can ever repay.” Galahad said.
“Are you saying we should have left you there to die?” Gawain huffed, voice tinged with incredulity.
“I’m saying it was selfish of me to send Isolde back, hoping you’d come to my rescue, despite the danger and the number of enemies,” Galahad answered.
Gawain stared at him, Galahad could feel it. The stern gaze prickled on his skin but he didn't turn to face his friend, looking stubbornly ahead instead.
"Is that what you would have done? Let us die because it would have been the wise thing to do?"
Galahad winced and shook his head, appalled at the mere insinuation.
"Of course not!" he huffed and kicked at a pebble lying on the forest floor, watching as it slithered through dead leaves and mud. "I'd never--"
"And neither would we," Gawain interrupted him. "We would have come for you even if all the armies of the world had stood between us."
He paused and chuckled suddenly.
"You should have seen Tristan. He was adamant to come as soon as his hawk returned with proof of your survival, willing to stand up against Merlin and kill every Woad standing in his way. I think I've never seen him this passionate."
There was little else Galahad could have said, his throat tight and his heart fluttering in his chest at the mere mention of his lover's determination to have him back safe and sound. For a moment he wondered if it struck Gawain and the others as odd, to see Tristan so lively, so openly concerned, and if they suspected that there could be more between them than friendship.
Gawain wasn't one to keep guessing though, or tiptoe around an issue. He would have asked outright if he had doubts concerning the relationship between Tristan and Galahad. So when he simply shrugged and carried on, Galahad knew that his secret was still safe.
"Stop dwelling, Galahad." Gawain said, not ungently. "It doesn't suit you. Enjoy your freedom, enjoy what little pleasantries life has to offer, at least for now. We all know there is enough to worry about later."
Finally, Galahad turned to face Gawain. There was warmth in his friend's eyes, a profound fondness Galahad felt unworthy of but enjoyed nonetheless. Maybe Gawain was right. Maybe he should enjoy what Arthur had given him. He had sworn an oath, after all. To return to them victorious, to free them and bring them home. It was time he started to believe in it, just as Arthur did already.
Galahad nodded at Gawain, forcing a small smile.
"I'm glad you're with me, Gawain."
Gawain laughed and slapped Galahad on the back, the sound echoing through the silence of the forest and drawing the curious gazes of both Lancelot and Tristan.
"And I'm glad you're here with me and not being sacrificed to the gods of the Woads."
Galahad snorted, amused despite the stinging pain in his back.
"So am I, Gawain. So am I."
When they finally reached the edge of the forest and saw the plains stretching for miles before their tired eyes, Galahad felt a strong desire to fall down to his knees and kiss the grim soil.
"I've almost forgotten what the sky looks like. It feels as if I’m seeing it for the very first time," Gawain said with his head tilted upwards, a grin on his face big enough to reach from one ear to the other.
Tristan hummed in agreement, his eyes closed as he let the sun warm his weatherbeaten face. He didn't even open them when Isolde set off with a powerful cry and disappeared into the cloudless sky, too high to see with the bare eye.
"And the gods must finally be smiling upon us as well," Lancelot said. "Look, there it is, a proper road."
"A proper road?" Galahad asked and eyed the dusty trail ahead of them. Little did it have in common with the paved and well-maintained streets of the Romans. "It's little more than a well-walked path."
"We're past the wall, my friend. No Roman roads to be found here. This is all we'll get. Now come, I want to bring as much distance between this damn forest and us as possible."
With their spirits higher once they’d left the forest, and the path underneath their feet so much easier to follow than the twisted undergrowth of the woods, they made quick progress. By the time the sun set the forest was nothing but a dark line on the horizon, little more than a bad memory.
They reached a fork by nightfall and, just as Tristan had predicted, there they found a small inn, comfortably nestled in between the two branching roads, with adjoining stables and a good dozen horses inside. Light and laughter was spilling from the open windows, the flickering shadows of men moving inside, and the smell of roasted meat tickled their noses as they stepped closer.
Galahad couldn't remember the last time such a simple sight had evoked such desperate longing in him, and judging from the blissful faces of his companions, they shared the sentiment. Only Tristan remained watchful and he stopped them with one hushed word as they tumbled forward, drawn to the divine smell and the prospect of a proper bed for the night.
"We're strangers here and possibly not welcome, some may even consider us a threat. Stay alert, look out for your coin. Keep your tongues and drink in check," he reminded them.
"Do you think us fools, Tristan?" Lancelot asked and smiled. "We're simple travellers, looking for a place to stay the night and we plan to spend a lot of coin. Everybody loves a man who can pay."
As it turned out, Lancelot was right. Even though they were greeted with dark faces and even darker stares as they set foot into the inn, distrust etched into the hard lines of the men's faces, it only lasted for as long as it took Lancelot to announce that he had money and would like to spend it by buying every man in the room a mug of ale.
A chorus of joyful shouting followed as soon as these words had left Lancelot's mouth and he stepped up to the bar, spilling a handful of coins on the smoke-dark wood. They were still close enough to the wall that the innkeeper took their Roman coin without much fuss. Soon, the ale was flowing freely and every man in the small taproom drank to Lancelot's ever-lasting health and the health of all of his offspring.
"He made himself quite at home," Gawain remarked as he set down three mugs of ale and made himself comfortable next to Tristan and Galahad.
They had reclined to the table furthest to the corner, barely illuminated by the fire crackling in the open hearth, their backs to the wall. Tristan had taken off his boots to let them dry at the fire and Galahad was busy changing the bandages on his injured hand.
It was a lively place. Almost every table was occupied and the air smelt of sweat, food and ale. The sturdy maid was balancing heavy trays through the mob with a dexterity that belied her round appearance and she made her way to their table without faltering once. The food was simple, but plenty and it filled their bellies with pleasant warmth. Half a wheel of cheese, a spicy stew served with cold meats, blackberry tarts for each of them and loaves of bread together with slabs of butter.
"He's charming like that," Tristan agreed as he watched Lancelot laughing with two men, the prettier of the two barmaids sitting on his lap, her cheeks flushed red as he whispered depraved little promises into her ear. "It will be easier buying horses and information from these men if they're well-disposed towards us."
"You're not worried?" Gawain asked and took a sip from his ale.
"That he does something stupid?"
"He always does something stupid, there's little point in agonising over it. If I did that I would have despaired long ago." Tristan leaned back in his chair, legs outstretched underneath the table. "Don't worry Gawain, he's too busy trying to seduce that poor girl to spill our secrets to these men by accident."
"Emphasis on the trying," Galahad agreed and allowed himself a soft smile.
And we're finally getting SOMEWHERE! I'm the slowest writer in existence, I'm so sorry.
Thank you all so much for your continued support and your patience!
Chapter 7: Virginity
There was a heavy weight pressing down on him, his legs trapped between powerful thighs, and with lightning fast movements Tristan made a grab for the knife hidden underneath his pillow.
It earned him a gasp and a soft chuckle when the blade nicked soft skin.
"Foolish boy," Tristan grumbled and relaxed into the sheets.
There was a heavy weight pressing down on him, his legs trapped between powerful thighs, and with lightning fast movements Tristan made a grab for the knife hidden underneath his pillow.
It earned him a gasp and a soft chuckle when the blade nicked soft skin.
"Foolish boy," Tristan grumbled and relaxed into the sheets.
"Perhaps, but you'd never hurt me. You'd know me blind," Galahad whispered, his hands skimming along Tristan's sides, underneath his nightshirt, up to his chest where he curled his fingers into the thick patch of hair.
"You shouldn't be here," Tristan said with little conviction.
Galahad was a sight to behold even in the dim room, lit only by the dying fire of the heart. His curls framed his fair face, his beard was neatly trimmed, shorter than Tristan remembered it to be just a few hours ago and his skin was soft and sensitive to touch, smelling of soap and fragrant oils. He must have taken a bath prior to sneaking into Tristan’s room.
"No, I shouldn't," Galahad agreed. "But it gets lonely with nothing but the moans of the barmaid and Lancelot's strained grunts next door for company."
Finally, Tristan lowered the knife and let it fall to the ground as he reached up to grab Galahad by his hips. He was dressed in nothing but a simple undershirt, not long enough to cover his thighs and riding up with every move he made.
"So you decided to disturb my sleep instead?"
He let one hand slip past the hem of Galahad's shirt, his fingers brushing ever so carefully along the muscular lines of his body, moving up and between his thighs, higher and higher, every inch provoking a hitch in Galahad's breathing.
"I could have paid Gawain a visit instead, but I thought you might appreciate it more," he whispered.
Galahad was flushed already, his freshly bathed body already covered in a fine sheet of sweat again and Tristan could smell the heady scent of arousal rolling off him in waves.
"How selfless of you, to grace an old man like me with your presence instead."
"The old man should do less talking and more undressing," Galahad hissed and rolled his hips, rubbing his obvious erection against the growing bulge between Tristan's legs.
"Insatiable boy, lewd boy," Tristan growled, fond and with burning affection.
He ripped the flimsy shirt off Galahad and flipped them over so that Galahad was lying underneath him, spread out on the sheets with his curls framing his face like a dark halo.
"Beautiful boy," Tristan whispered and kissed Galahad, all tongue and teeth, as if he wanted to devour him whole, swallowing every gasp and moan with his own mouth.
When they parted, Galahad was panting and his stomach wet with his precum.
"Help me undress," Tristan commanded, voice rough with arousal.
Galahad smiled and indulged his lover. Deft fingers made quick work of the lacing of Tristan's nightshirt and not much later he had pulled the restricting garment off and let it fall to the ground where it joined Galahad's own.
There was no hesitation when Galahad reached out to run his fingers through the coarse hair on Tristan's chest, his nails grazing over the sensitive nipples as if by accident. Tristan knew better than that. Everything Galahad did in bed was a deliberate attempt at driving Tristan into lust-induced madness. He delighted in seeing his usually stoic lover give into him and the pleasure he provided, lovely little minx that he was.
Tristan's breath hitched as Galahad twisted one of his nipples between thumb and index finger, and he could feel himself harden in his slacks, suddenly uncomfortably tight.
"Is that how a virgin should behave?" he asked, his hands finding their way in between Galahad's legs, where they came to rest on the white flesh of his inner thighs.
Galahad was hard, his cock curved against his belly, leaking precum that pooled obscenely in the dip of his stomach.
Even before they shared a bed Galahad hadn't been a virgin. He was young and undeniably beautiful. So beautiful in fact, women and men alike were willing to look past his less desirable traits - mainly a fiery temper that was too easily provoked, coupled with a tongue too sharp to be charming — and let themselves be seduced by the young knight and his fluttering, black lashes. It had come as no surprise to Tristan that, when they first laid together, Galahad showed no signs of chaste restraint.
It wasn't any different now. Galahad spread his legs with a wicked smile, putting himself on display with his hands on the back of his thighs.
"Would you like that?" he asked, his head tilted so a few stray locks of hair fell across his eyes and created a false image of bashfulness.
Tristan huffed, his lips already forming a reply, when a vision of a Galahad flushed pink with embarrassment and wide-eyed with shame made him halter.
"You would!" Galahad accused him, laughing in delight at having caught Tristan so.
In an instant, his whole demeanour changed. He closed his legs and pulled the corners of the bed sheets over his chest, covering the smooth skin and depriving Tristan of the pleasure of his naked body. With a soft whine, Galahad sucked his lower lip in between his teeth, his lashes fluttering as he looked at Tristan with half-lidded eyes, a prominent blush high on his cheeks. The epitome of virginal innocence.
Tristan found himself lost for words. He swallowed hard and his arms hung uselessly at his sides. Was this how a pure, untouched Galahad would have welcomed him in his bed?
"Will you not touch me?" Galahad whispered, his voice soft with feigned insecurity. "Do you not want me, my lord?"
This finally, broke Tristan out of his reverie and he leaned closer, his bigger body covering Galahad's as he pressed kisses against the sensitive spot right behind Galahad's ear, pleased with the genuine shudder it earned him.
"I'm no lord," he grumbled and bit down on soft skin. "But I do want you."
"I've never..." Galahad trailed off, averting his eyes as Tristan looked at him with a raised brow.
Tristan was well aware that this was merely an act, a harmless little fantasy Galahad had decided to act out. It didn't stop his traitorous body from reacting with predatory hunger at these whispered words, just so as if they had been true and the boy before him had not yet felt the touch of another.
"You've never lain with a man?" he asked, playing along and finding himself enjoying it more than he should.
Galahad shook his head, still refusing to meet Tristan's eyes, and swallowed thickly, the pink tip of his tongue darting out to wet his ripe lips. How a simple gesture such as this could be so lewd, so tempting, was beyond Tristan. By now, he was painfully hard, his cock twitching with every shivering breath Galahad took, and Tristan had half a mind to roll him around and take him from behind like an animal.
"I've never lain with anybody..." Galahad whispered and lifted his head to gaze at Tristan looming above him.
His sea-green eyes were shining wet with unshed tears, as if the admittance had cost him great amounts of courage. He was a remarkable actor, Tristan had to admit. His performance striking the perfect balance between pretend inexperience and seductive intent.
Tristan took a deep breath, yet his hand still trembled when he reached out and pried Galahad's fingers away from the blanket he had clutched protectively against his chest.
"Then I will teach you," he promised and Galahad let go of the sheet with just enough hesitation to fool anybody into believing he was an actual virgin.
There was nothing virginal about the way he regarded Tristan though, eyes ablaze with hunger and lust. He recovered quickly enough and one hand moved down between his legs, hiding his shame away from Tristan's prying eyes, while the other stayed curled up at his side.
"Please, don't look," he whispered, but wasn't able to hide the the playful, little smile tugging at his lips.
"Show me," Tristan demanded and grabbed Galahad by his wrist.
He had taken delight in this game and in playing the gentle but insistent lover, keen on teaching the beautiful boy underneath him all there was to know about the art of love. Even though in reality, it had been Galahad who had patiently taught him all these things with gentle hands and even gentler words. Not that Tristan had been without experience, plenty in fact, but before Galahad, he had little mind for the finer pleasures and even less patience to learn them from the few lovers he had. Never had he been rough with any of them, but most of his encounters were short-lived affairs, furtive fucks in dark alleys or scarcely lit backrooms that ended with bilateral satisfaction and the understanding that there would be nothing more.
How different it was then, to be with Galahad.
Tristan looked at him a moment longer, awed at the effortless grace he displayed, laid out before him like an offering.
The blush on Galahad's cheeks intensified and spread from his face down his neck as he slowly lifted his hands, moving them up to his chest where they came to rest right above his stiff nipples.
Tristan allowed his gaze to linger, taking in every detail of Galahad's flushed body as a man might have done who saw his beloved bared for the very first time, with all the silent wonder and astonishment that came with the new and unknown.
Galahad’s legs were still pressed together, but it did little to hide his prominent erection, cock curved proudly upwards, pink at the tip and darker at the base, nestled in between a soft bed of almost black pubic hair.
"Spread your legs," Tristan said, and, after a small pause, "please."
Galahad's movements were slow, deliberate in the way he tried his hardest to appear both eager and hesitant. The sheets rustled as he dug his heels into the mattress, now spread wide for Tristan, and covered his eyes with one arm.
"You're beautiful," Tristan assured him and leaned down to press a kiss to the dip where his neck merged into his collarbone. "Utterly lovely."
He kissed a lazy path down the contours of Galahad's body, his lips and teeth sucking marks into his skin, like landmarks on a map, milestones on his path to his true destination.
Galahad cried out when he licked at the tip of his cock, hips lifting off the bed in an attempt to prolong the exquisite pleasure of Tristan's mouth on him.
"Do you like that, boy?" Tristan asked, his breath ghosting over heated flesh.
"Hold still and I might indulge you a little longer."
Galahad was hardly ever obedient, never submissive and even now it seemed he couldn't quite resist the urge to squirm in Tristan's sure hold, an almost compulsive need to struggle just for struggling’s sake, before he gave in and his body grew pliant beneath Tristan's hands.
"Please..." he whispered once more.
It was not in Tristan's nature to be cruel with his lovers and after Galahad had admitted defeat and laid still, waiting and panting, his cock twitching in anticipation, Tristan swallowed him down properly.
Right up to the base he took Galahad, his throat opening up for his lover's length. Galahad was not small, but neither was he overly long or thick and Tristan had done this too often already to be bothered by the head of Galahad's cock pressing against the back of his throat.
He took a deep breath through his nose, buried inside the dark pubic hair Galahad had neatly trimmed, and started to suck. A lazy, no doubt maddening rhythm that coaxed the sweetest, most depraved sounds out of the younger man, ranging from gasps and pants to broken moans and the occasional outcry of Tristan's own name.
Among all the lovers with which Tristan had shared this particular pleasure, Galahad was unique when it came to his taste. Sweeter than most, the near-clear fluid oozing from the tip not as bitter, not as sharp on the back of his tongue, and Tristan had found himself quite enjoying the sensation of cum washing down his throat as he swallowed every drop of that which Galahad offered whenever he lost himself in a haze of pleasure, coming deep down Tristan's throat.
This time he wouldn't get to taste him though.
Tristan pulled back with an obscene, wet sound that didn't fail to send a shiver coursing down Galahad's spine. He straightened on the bed, looming over Galahad as he regarded the sweat-slick body beneath him.
"You still want me to take you, boy?" he asked once more.
Galahad nodded, his pupils impossibly wide, dark with lust, and he spread his legs just a little more to give Tristan a taste of what awaited him, luring him in.
The movement was slow, casual. As if it wasn't Galahad's conscious decision to do so but a betrayal of his lewd body to his pure mind.
Nothing could've been farther from the truth.
"Then we need something to prepare you with," Tristan concluded and made to move from the bed when a hand on his arm held him back.
"Don't," Galahad whispered. "Don't leave."
He didn't offer any more explanation but his outstretched hand, which he opened ever so slowly to reveal a small jar made from clay.
Tristan lifted one brow in question.
"Where did you get that from?" he asked.
Galahad ducked his head, a perfect display of sheepish embarrassment.
"I got it from the cook," he answered and, when Tristan remained silent: "I told her I wanted to rub it into my skin and hair to keep it shiny and healthy. Like the Romans do. I'm convinced she now thinks me and all Romans insane."
Tristan laughed and took the small jar out of Galahad's hands, putting it aside between the folds and kissed the younger man unhurriedly, lovingly, his lips conveying what his tongue couldn't. That he had missed Galahad, had feared for his life and had been willing to kill every man, every woman, every child standing between him and his lover.
"Don't leave me again," he whispered into the touch, allowing himself a small moment of weakness and vulnerability, confident that Galahad would not abuse the power Tristan gave him with his concession.
Then he pulled back and broke the kiss. His breeches were becoming too tight, the uncomfortable feeling bordering on being painful and he lifted himself off the bed.
His slow undressing was accompanied by soft gasps and little moans slipping passed Galahad's lips whenever Tristan discarded another piece of clothing and when he was fully bared, standing before his lover, Galahad looked at him with wonder, his eyes firmly fixed between Tristan's legs where his cock was standing thick and proud.
The bed squeaked when Tristan joined Galahad on it once more. Galahad kept his legs closed still, despite the hunger in his eyes and the weeping erection that was just begging to be touched. He was nothing if not committed to his role it seemed.
"How is this supposed to fit?" he whispered, struck with awe, one hand inching between his legs to cup his own erection. "It's so big. Will it hurt?"
Tristan rolled his eyes at him, breaking character for a moment before a discreet kick from Galahad reminded him of the game they were supposed to be playing.
"It won't hurt, not if we prepare you properly," he explained and fumbled blindly for the oil, unwilling to take his eyes off Galahad even for a second. "I need you to spread your legs for me."
With a triumphant grunt Tristan produced the jar from between the blankets, opening it up with his teeth and pouring a generous amount on his fingers. Some of it dripped onto the sheets, staining the fabric a golden colour, but Tristan didn't care much for any mess they made.
Neither did Galahad. He watched Tristan with faked, but rather convincing fascination and only opened his legs when Tristan's oily fingers grabbed him by his thighs.
"Don't—" Galahad gasped.
Tristan ignored the protests. If Galahad had truly subjected to this treatment then it would've been easy for him to kick Tristan off. No, he was merely playing the part of the flushing virgin about to be deflowered.
The sight that greeted Tristan when Galahad allowed him to settle between the muscular legs was one to behold indeed. His cock hard and dripping wet onto his stomach, his balls drawn tight to his body, the small hole underneath slightly darker in colour and twitching with every breath he took.
"You're beautiful," Tristan said, truth reverberating in every word.
This time when the blush bloomed on Galahad's cheeks and spread to his neck and chest it was genuine and Tristan couldn't resist the urge to kiss him with bruising force.
Galahad answered with a soft whine that was silenced by Tristan's tongue. He licked along the insides of Galahad's mouth, tasting as much of him as he could, while his fingers moved lower to rub small circles into the puckered skin. Not enough pressure to breach him, but enough to elicit a desperate moan with his touch.
Tristan soothed him with another gentle kiss and, with one last warning, penetrated him with one finger. Just to the first knuckle for the moment, waiting for any signs of discomfort from Galahad.
When none came, he pressed in completely, moving carefully inside him to distribute more of the oil, slickening the younger man up until Galahad signalled him to quit his teasing with an impatient roll of his hips.
"Do you think you can take a second so soon?" Tristan asked, his breath hot against Galahad's skin, his long braids tickling flushed cheeks.
"Y-yes..." Galahad nodded, every muscle in his body drawn tight with urgency and need.
Tristan complied with a tilt of his head and added a second finger to the first, moving in and out of Galahad with pointed leisure. Smug satisfaction spread in his chest as he watched his own fingers sinking into the tight heat and he rewarded every moan that spilled past Galahad’s lips with a tender kiss. Not long and Galahad was writhing and moaning, his cock an angry red colour, steadily leaking from the tip.
"Tristan!" Galahad cried out, his black lashes sticking together with tears he couldn't hold at bay.
"Just a bit more, little pup," he hushed and pressed his free hand down Galahad's stomach to keep him in place while his fingers sought out the spot that he knew would make Galahad scream.
When he found it, Tristan was not above abusing his findings and thrust inside Galahad with strong, sure movements, eager to pull scream after scream from Galahad until he was a sobbing mess.
He pulled his fingers free from Galahad's body - the motion accompanied by a soft whine - and wiped them on the sheets before lining his own cock up with Galahad's dripping hole.
Despite how far he was from being the virgin he played, he was still tight and Tristan had to pause, only the tip of his cock buried inside Galahad, to catch his breath.
"I-it's so big..." Galahad gasped and Tristan noted with smug satisfaction that there was not much playfulness left in his shaking voice. "I feel so full already..."
"Just a bit more," Tristan assured him and thrust carefully forward, burying himself deeper inside his lover.
He'd never tire of the sight of Galahad's stretched hole swallowing his dick like this, the tight ring of muscle clinging to his flesh whenever he pulled back.
"I can't!" Galahad cried out, yet his hips moved to meet Tristan's careful trusts.
They groaned in unison when Tristan buried himself as deeply inside Galahad as possible, his hard cock enveloped by the impossible warmth of the other.
"Please..." Galahad begged, his whole body arching up into Tristan.
Forgotten was his insistence on playing the inexperienced virgin, forgotten his faked hesitation as he grabbed Tristan by his braids and pulled him down for another kiss.
He moaned into Tristan's mouth as the slow, careful pace changed into a vicious pounding, the wet, slapping sounds echoing in the room, drowned out only by the desperate cries Galahad couldn't hold back.
Neither of them would last, Tristan was certain of it. Not when they had been apart for so long. The night they had spent together in the small tent of the Woads, their cries muffled, their movements overly careful to avoid discovery, had been nowhere near enough to quench the raging fire of their desire for each other.
In and out he moved of Galahad, eager to make him succumb to the burning pleasure before Tristan reached his own climax.
When Galahad came he screamed, his eyes squeezed shut, his body convulsing around Tristan's girth. He was beautiful like this, caught up in the intensity his orgasm, his whole world shrinking down to this inn, this room, this bed with Tristan inside him. He came messily, violently, painting his own abdomen and chest a milky white.
Tristan followed suit, not bothering anymore to prolong the inevitable. He emptied himself inside Galahad with a breathless grunt and his nails pressing crescent-shaped mark into slim hips.
Later, when they were both spent, with Tristan's arms curled around Galahad's body and Galahad's locks tickling Tristan underneath his chin where he had rested his head on his broad chest, reality caught up with them once more. Their bodies were sticky with sweat and other fluids, but Tristan pressed his nose against Galahad's neck nonetheless, inhaling the musky scent of his.
"Now, what was that?" he asked, voice still rough and his tongue heavy in his mouth.
Galahad didn't lift his head to face Tristan properly, but his hand sneaked in between their bodies, intertwining their fingers and holding on to him tightly.
"What was that? I'd say it was immensely pleasurable," he chuckled.
"It was," Tristan agreed. "But that's not what I was talking about and you know it. Did you miss me so, or was this sudden neediness just spite?"
The sound of Galahad's breathing was the only answer Tristan got for quite a while, but he was nothing if not a patient man and Galahad hadn't pulled his hand away yet. If he needed time, Tristan would gladly give it to him.
"A bit of both, I think," Galahad admitted finally and tugged at the greying hair on Tristan's chest. "I missed you. I missed the feeling of you inside me, of our bodies conjoined. To hell with what Merlin thinks I have to be."
Tristan chuckled and combed his fingers through Galahad's tangled curls.
"So you wanted to fuck because Merlin believes you a virgin?"
Galahad lifted his head, his nose crunched up in displeasure at Tristan's crude choice of words.
"If you say it like that it sounds really silly," he grumbled.
"Because it is really silly."
Before Galahad could protest - as he was so prone to doing - Tristan silenced him with a quick kiss.
"It's silly, but I understand," he said. "You're alive and you're free. If this is the way you want to celebrate it, who am I to deny you that?"
"Thank you," Galahad said. "It's strange, being here with you and being content, even if it’s just for one fleeting moment, while Arthur and the others are still prisoners. I have no right to feel like I feel, yet I can't help it."
"There is only so much a man can endure. You endured enough and nobody will judge you if you allow yourself some happiness. After all, you're not the only one seeking a little piece of happiness in the face of looming doom. Didn't you say Lancelot was busy with one of the barmaids?"
"Or both of them, I'm not sure."
"See, Lancelot celebrates life in much the same way as we just did. Would you chide him for it?"
"No, of course not!"
The sheets rustled as Tristan moved to pull Galahad into a tight embrace, his heartbeat a soothing constant that reverberated in Galahad's own chest, spreading from there to his limbs, down to his fingertips and toes.
"Then don't chastise yourself for doing just so."
"Lancelot hasn't sworn an oath. Lancelot hasn't been told he was chosen by fate."
He paused, the silence hanging heavy between them, but Tristan didn't try to fill it with empty words.
"I don't know what to do, Tristan…and I'm afraid," Galahad admitted, his voice a whisper so low it was almost swallowed by the shallow sounds of Tristan's own breathing.
"Then we will find out what to do together."
"Do you believe the Grail exists and that we can find it?"
Tristan shook his head.
"I don't believe in myths and fairy tales, but I believe in you, Galahad. If there's a way then you will find it. And if that way leads to our deaths, than I will gladly follow you there too."
For a split second, Galahad's breath ceased, his chest entirely motionless as he stared at Tristan with terror in his eyes.
"Don't say things like that. Nobody will die, not if I can prevent it. I've sworn to bring you all back home. Every single one of you. Arthur and Lancelot, Gawain and Dagonet. You."
"Especially Bors. Vanora would kill me if I returned without him. I don't fear pain, I don't fear death, but by the Gods, do I fear her."
"And you're wise to," Tristan agreed.
He returned Galahad's laugh with one of his rare smiles. They kissed, languidly and without much heat to it, the kind of kiss that lingered long after lips had parted. A silent declaration of love, a comfort for the time being until their lips would meet once more.
"Will you let me stay the night?" Galahad asked, breath hot against the wetness of Tristan's mouth.
"And risk us getting caught together in bed?"
Galahad shrugged, eyes darting back and forth between Tristan's face and his chest.
With a sigh, Tristan made himself comfortable, pulled the sheets over their exhausted bodies and closed his eyes.
"You're abusing the power you have over me," he complained, not meaning a single word.
There were the soft shuffling sounds of somebody settling back into bed and then the comfortable weight of Galahad on his chest returned, his legs sliding in between Tristan's own.
"You wield just as much power," Galahad argued.
Tristan snorted, his hand on Galahad's neck moving down between his shoulder blades and lower still until it settled at the protruding curve of his behind.
"Sleep now, Galahad. Don't think of tomorrow. It will come soon enough. It always does."
Sorry, for the long wait, guys! Lately, I've been very busy with my bachelor thesis, so updates won't be as quick as usual. I still try to update every two weeks but University takes priority. I hope you understand.
Thank you so much for all your continued support, your kudos and your comments. I love you.
Chapter 8: Surprise
Our knights continue their journey - some of them a little less stiff than others in the saddle - and stumble over a little surprise.
Tristan had been right. The beautiful necklace not only bought them four horses and provisions to last them a month, but also warm blankets and cloaks made from heavy wool thick enough to keep off even the most atrocious weather, bedrolls made of the same material, a small axe to split wood with and sundry other useful tools for a journey such as the one lying ahead of them.
The horses were a sturdy, resistant breed that couldn't have been more different from the proud creatures they had left back home and no war horses by any means, but they would serve their purpose.
Heavily loaded and girded with their swords they left the inn, the curious gazes of the guests trailing behind them as they rode along the dusty path at an easy trot.
Lancelot, before kissing the barmaid he had spent the night with goodbye, had somehow convinced one of the travellers at the inn to sell him a map of the surrounding lands. It was crudely drawn and most likely not very accurate, but it was better than nothing. Combined with Tristan's abilities as a scout and Isolde's watchful eye, Galahad was sure they would reach their destination safely.
"I heard something interesting the other night," Lancelot said after they had travelled the road for some miles.
Gawain, riding alongside Lancelot on a spirited little stallion, turned to look at him, his mouth curled into a smile.
"Before or after you made off with the barmaid?" he asked.
"Jealous?" Lancelot grinned and straightened in his saddle, chest swelling with pride. "She was a lovely little thing, witty and charming, and she knew a few things when asked about these lands."
"You talk too much," Tristan grumbled from ahead, head turned to regard Lancelot.
"You wound me, my friend," Lancelot gasped, hand dramatically clutched to his chest. "I didn't give away anything about us or our quest, just asked her to tell me of the many tales and myths of her homeland. And can you believe it, she knew a story of a castle, just a fortnight's journey away, rumoured to be cursed, with seven immortal knights guarding it and its secrets. Sounds familiar, huh?"
"Yet still merely a rumour," Tristan pointed out and pulled at his reins to slow his horse, giving Lancelot the chance to catch up with him.
"Just like everything else we’ve heard about this mysterious fortress," Lancelot countered.
"You don’t think the map we bought and the word of a native are reliable enough?"
Tristan shook his head. "They’re not. Which is why I shall ride and see what lies ahead of us."
"You will leave us?"
It was the first thing Galahad had said since they had left the inn. Up until now he had been content with riding silently at Tristan's side, shifting in his saddle from time to time, which earned him a knowing smirk from Tristan he pointedly ignored.
"Not for long. We’re not familiar with these lands and it would be good to know where this path leads. I’d rather not ride blindly into a marsh."
Galahad scrunched up his nose in obvious displeasure but refrained from arguing any further. Tristan wasn't a scout for nothing and his talents shouldn’t go to waste. It would’ve been selfish of him to insist on Tristan by his side, only because he craved his lover’s closeness and warmth.
"Don't leave the path," Tristan told them with surprising earnestness as he looked at every single one of them, eyes ablaze, before he met Galahad's gaze. "I'll be back."
And with these words, he was gone.
The rest of them plodded along until the sun had settled behind the horizon and the dry and barren land was cast in shadows. Tristan had yet to return when they made camp at the side of the road, underneath some stunted alder-trees and Gawain, being the most clever with his hands now that Tristan was unavailable, tried to light a small fire with a few loose branches and a fire stone.
Neither man nor beast had crossed their path up until now and even the birds - if there were any at all - had fallen silent. It seemed they were truly and utterly alone.
Galahad had been busy rubbing down their sweating horses, while Lancelot fumbled with the clasps of his armour; Gawain's triumphant cry echoing through the night making them twitch in surprise.
"Finally some warmth," Gawain proclaimed gleefully and rubbed his hands together, holding them over the small, crackling fire.
No matter how many years they had lived on this island, it seemed they would never get quite used to its unforgiving climate, and soon Gawain was joined by Galahad and Lancelot, their tasks forgotten for the moment, and together they settled around the fire, curled up in their woollen cloaks, leaning in close to let the crackling flames warm their frozen toes.
"Tristan has been gone for hours now," Galahad mumbled after some time, apprehension reverberating in his voice.
"He'll be back. This land is new to him. It might take a while until he has sated his curiosity. You know what he’s like," Lancelot offered as comfort.
Oh, and how Galahad knew. Among Arthur's knights Tristan was the one whose Sarmatian blood ran hottest through his veins, belying his calm demeanour. He could not sit idly, could not endure the populous settlements of the Romans. At times, he would ride out into the wild and not return for days or weeks. Galahad had never accompanied him and he didn't presume to ask. Much like his hawk, Tristan could not be bound or caged, valuing his freedom above all else, and the only thing Galahad could do was to be patient and trust his lover to return to him.
They didn't eat until late into the night, when the clicking sound of hooves on the hard ground announced Tristan's return at last. He was stiff in his saddle, his hair more tousled than usual and adorned with little leaves and branches, like the crown of the woodland king of legend.
"Have you crawled in the mud, or did your horse throw you off, that you look like this?" Lancelot teased, but stepped close to help Tristan off his mare.
"Crawled in the mud," Tristan offered brusquely and wasted no time removing the saddle to rub his horse dry.
Only after he was done did he join the others around the fire, squeezing himself between Gawain and Galahad with a naturalness that made Galahad chuckle. He rubbed his calf along Tristan's in an affectionate gesture and smiled as the older man turned to look at him with warmth shining in his eyes.
"Welcome back," he whispered.
"Indeed, welcome back," Lancelot agreed as he flopped down across them. "You were gone for quite a while. Found anything worthwhile?”
"I'll tell you as soon as I've had a bite,” Tristan replied.
Their meal was simple, but filling. Salt-cured meat and fresh bread, together with more ale and - thanks to Lancelot who had charmed the cook into parting with these particular delights - a small apple tart for each of them, sweet on their tongues and the juice sticky on their fingers.
"Now," Tristan said, his words somewhat mumbled as he licked the last traces of syrup off his skin. "The path is clear and the land unchanging for as long as my eyes could see. There are hills to the North-West, sometimes rising to a hundred feet, sometimes falling to low clefts, but they do not concern us. We will continue to head North and if we're lucky, then this castle of Lancelot's is not just a myth."
"And should we find it, what then? What will we do?" Gawain asked.
"Then we'll see how much there is to these immortal knights. Aren’t you looking forward to finding out?"
Gawain scrunched up his nose at the suggestion. "Hardly, are you?”
Tristan’s only answer was a grin, revealing his sharp teeth, and a careless shrug. “Everything dies. These knights will be no exception.”
The rest of the evening was spent with companionable chatter and lighthearted laughter. Even Galahad allowed himself a small reprieve from the burden he carried and shared one or two of the many crude jokes he had picked up over the years, much to his friends’ delight.
When nightfall came it was Galahad who drew first watch. With a grumble and a muttered curse he stomped to the edge of the camp, just outside the ring of light from the fire, while the others laid down to rest, curled up in the blankets the necklace had bought them.
They were all soundly asleep by the time Tristan joined him, soft-footed in his approach.
“Come to relieve me already?” Galahad asked has he turned to muster his lover.
Tristan had drawn his cloak tightly around his body to fend off the biting cold, and his hair fell loosely around his face, free from its usual braids for once.
“No,” he replied softly after he had made himself comfortable next to Galahad. “I came to keep you company until it’s Lancelot’s turn and we can retire. Together. My bedroll holds little appeal without you in it.”
Galahad felt himself flush, as if he were a maiden and not one of the Sarmatian knights, glad for the dark veil of the night shrouding his embarrassment.
“It’s unlike you to be so sentimental, Tristan,” he breathed. Not to admonish, never that. It was rare for Tristan though, to share his feelings so freely. He was a man of actions, not of words.
“Almost losing a beloved person puts things into perspective,” Tristan mumbled, his voice barely above a whisper.
“You could lose me every day on the battlefield. Just as I could lose you.”
“”All the more reason then, to enjoy what little time we have left.”
His breath caught in his throat, his heart thumping a painful rhythm against his ribcage and Galahad reached out, fumbling blindly in the dark until he felt the calloused skin of Tristan’s palm underneath his fingertips.
“Tristan—” Galahad wanted to kiss him, wanted to hold him in his arms and be held in return. A dull ache was spreading in his chest, in his body, down his limbs, until his entire being was alight with a desire he couldn’t name.
With determination born from impulsiveness he closed the distance between them and pressed his lips to Tristan’s . As foolish as it was to risk exposure like this, with their companions sleeping just a few feet away from them, Galahad didn’t stop. He swallowed Tristan’s surprised gasp when he shoved his tongue inside the other’s wet mouth and buried his fingers in the unruly hair.
When they parted, both of them gasped for air, their white, mingled breath visible in the moonlight.
Galahad couldn’t suppress a giddy chuckle.
“When did we become so reckless?” he mumbled against Tristan’s curved lip.
“You have always been so. Only now you’ve succeeded in dragging me down the path of recklessness as well.”
Galahad feigned indignation. “Haven’t you heard? I’m Galahad the Pure. Most virtuous of all knights, they say.”
“Is that so?” Tristan nuzzled Galahad’s cheek, his beard tickling his skin. “Clearly, they do not know you as well as I do.”
“And I’m glad they never will.”
Tristan’s lips curled into a lazy smile, parting slowly before he closed his mouth with a snap and his eyes flickered from Galahad’s face to to a point somewhere over his shoulder.
“Tristan?” Galahad asked.
“Someone’s coming,” he replied curtly before pulling back from the tender embrace, reluctance evident in his slow movements.
In an instant, Galahad sobered and perked up. There was little to see in the dark, even less to hear, but Tristan had sharper eyes and ears. If he believed there was imminent danger, Galahad wouldn’t question him.
“Could it be a harmless traveller perhaps?” he asked little hopeful.
Tristan was crouching on the ground, one ear pressed to the dark soil.
“If they are, then they were foolish enough to travel alone and in the middle of the night.”
“Foolish indeed. Should we wake the others?”
With a soft grunt, Tristan got up, not bothering to brush off dirt and grass clinging to his breeches. He gave Galahad a soft smile.
“No, but you can wait with me for this curious traveller to reach us and then we’ll see what business they have riding at this hour.”
They lay in hiding at the side of the road, patiently waiting until the sound of hooves stomping on muddy ground reached them.
“Whoever it is, they don’t know how to control their steed,” Galahad commented with dry humour.
“An inexperienced rider, a lone traveller, a fool tumbling through the night. It gets more interesting with every passing second, doesn’t it?” Tristan hummed.
Galahad didn’t quite share Tristan’s amusement, only his estimation of the approaching stranger. This was no bandit looking for easy prey.
And indeed, when the blurry silhouette of a horse came into view, it’s grey hide shining silver in the moonlight, it was not a seasoned scoundrel sitting on the horse’s back, but a small figure wrapped in a long cloak, a hood obscuring their face.
Galahad huffed in disbelief. Really, who was naive enough to travel the land like that? The tension dominating Galahad’s body and senses dissipated, leaving only frustration — at himself for believing they had been in any real danger — and pity for the sad figure struggling to control their unruly horse.
“My, my…” Tristan voiced tutted next to him. It was obvious he had no such concerns as pity.
Without another word, he stepped forward, careful to stay out of sight as he approached the horse, one of his throwing daggers in his hand.
It was over in a heartbeat. Tristan cutting the girth of the saddle, a soft scream as the rider lost their balance and Tristan grabbed them with a sure hand.
When he wrestled the struggling figure to the ground, pushing them on their back, Tristan stilled. His eyes grew wide with rare surprise and Galahad jumped up, hurrying to come to his lover’s aid.
“Tristan?” he called out and the fear must have reverberated in his voice for Tristan raised a hand in a reassuring gesture even though he did not lift his gaze to look at Galahad.
The reason for Tristan’s surprise became obvious when Galahad was close enough to catch a glimpse at their captive.
A woman, no, a girl. Not older than fourteen or fifteen, her bright eyes blazing with scorching fury as she writhed underneath Tristan’s unrelenting hold. Her intricate braid was messed up, strands of hair sticking out in places, no doubt brought into disarray when Tristan had ripped the hood off her head.
When she caught sight of Galahad an intense blush spread from her neck up to her cheeks and her struggling ceased.
“Bridei?” Galahad gasped in disbelief.
She remained silent.
“You know this child?” Tristan asked.
Galahad nodded, stupefied. “She’s one of the Woads. Of Merlin’s tribe.”
“A spy then?” Tristan’s eyes shifted from Bridei to Galahad, his expression equal parts disbelief and amusement. “And a lousy one at that.”
He straightened himself, pulling the contumacious girl up to her feet in the process.
“It’s only because of this stupid animal!” it suddenly burst out of her. “It doesn’t obey me,” she added with a small whisper and a small nod towards the grazing horse.
“Why would she, if you call her stupid, child?” Tristan asked, not unkindly, and Bridei flushed an even darker shade of red, slowly but surely crumbling under the intensity of the man’s steady gaze.
Only through sheer iron willpower did Galahad manage to refrain from bursting into chortling laughter.
“What will you do now?” she asked, voice quivering and betraying her false bravado. She was fierce and no doubt hardened thanks to the harsh life of the Woads, but she was still a child. A child far away from home, being stared down by one of the deadliest warriors in the whole of Britain. If only she knew that she needn’t fear Tristan.
Galahad had to bite down on his tongue and mask the laughter bubbling up his throat with a cough.
“Well…” Tristan mused, face impassive and carefully neutral. “We won’t decide your fate alone, little one. Let’s see what the others have to say about a spy who tramples through the night like a sounder of wild boars during mating season.”
Neither Lancelot nor Gawain were particularly thrilled when they returned with the young girl in tow. Galahad couldn’t blame them. He had been fond of Bridei in a way, but finding her close on their heels and following their every move wasn’t how he had imagined a possible reunion to go.
“Bridei,” he asked in his most gentle voice. “Why are you here?”
She didn’t answer immediately, no doubt in parts still frightened by the four men looming over her, in parts simply stubborn and hell-bent on being uncooperative.
“Do you really believe Merlin would have just trusted your oath? He’s no fool,” she muttered.
“So he sent a child after a group of seasoned warriors?” Lancelot shot back, disapproval written all over his face.
“He figured we wouldn’t kill a child, even if we caught it spying on us.” Tristan said.
Lancelot huffed and dragged a hand down his face in irritation. “And wasn’t he right about that?” He turned to Bridei. “Was this his plan? Sending you after us in the knowledge that we would spare your life?”
Bridei answered with a shrug, all too defiant now that the first shock of her capture had faded and she was sure no harm would come to her. “Like I said, Merlin is no fool.”
Gawain grumbled, his fingers playing an unsteady rhythm on the hilt of his sword. “I’ll I say we bring her back to the inn, I’m sure they’d be glad to let her work for her stay there. Let her report back to Merlin about the dirty pots and pans in the kitchen for all I care.”
“And lose precious time escorting her?” Lancelot argued. “She’s a spy of the Woads and trained as such. Let her find the way back on her own.”
"She has barely made it here, on that bucking horse of hers. You want to let her ride back all on her own?"
It was the first thing coming from Galahad since he and Tristan had caught the girl. He crossed his arms over his chest, nose scrunched up as his eyes shifted between Bridei and his brothers.
"And what is it to you?" Lancelot asked.
Galahad bristled. "She's a child!"
"She must be fourteen at least," Gawain intervened and shrugged when Galahad glared at him. "Older than us when we were brought to this island."
"And didn't we suffer for it?" Tristan was stroking the silver flank of the mare, calm and collected as usual. "Would you have sent a Sarmatian child away as you want to send her away?"
Affection swelled in Galahad at Tristan's words and he sent him a loving gaze, gratitude etched into every line of his face.
"You cannot possibly suggest taking her with us?" Lancelot groaned in disbelief, dragging a hand down his face in exasperation.
"We can't afford to bring her back to the inn and we can't leave her here. She knows the land, better than us probably, and if she's telling the truth then she's a skilled scout," Tristan argued, winking at Bridei who quickly averted her eyes.
"It's true," Galahad answered for her. "She's one of her tribe's scouts and a decent hunter."
"More than decent!" Bridei chipped in.
"That remains to be seen." There was a small smile tugging on the corners of Tristan's mouth and warmth spread in Galahad's belly at the sight.
"So this is it?” Gawain stared back and forth between Galahad and Tristan. “We're travelling with a Woad now? Sent to keep an eye on us. And we'll just let her?"
Galahad grinned, pleased beyond measure. “That's exactly what we're going to do."
Gawain shook his head in disbelief. Lancelot threw his arms in the air and made his way back to his bedroll, cursing softly underneath his breath and leaving Tristan and Galahad to deal with their new companion.
"Now," Tristan mused as he moved over to Bridei and helped her, just like he had done before, albeit more gentle this time. "Sleep, little girl. Tomorrow I'll demand some answer."
I'm so sorry, guys! I kept you waiting for so long! Damn that bachelor thesis!
Thanks for all your lovely comments, kudos and for sticking with me. You're the best!
Chapter 9: Slayer
Once again, I have to apologise for taking so long to update, but real life has been so busy lately! This chapter took me so long and I struggled quite a lot with it, but now that it's done I don't know why I had such difficulties.
Thank you all for being so patient with me and thank you Supastag for being my beta and generally an awesome friend.
"Mind your posture, child. Sit up straight, hold your head high," Tristan intoned, not for the first time that day.
"I try!" Bridei grumbled, not for the first time either.
Galahad watched as the girl tried her hardest to follow Tristan's instructions, her mare making it unnecessarily difficult by defying Bridei at every opportunity.
"Be a leader to your steed, not a tyrant," Gawain interjected. "Your horse needs to be sure it can trust you and that you know what you’re doing."
He held tighter onto his reigns, animating his horse into a lazy trot with a mere flick of his wrist.
"It's a matter of willpower, not strength,” he explained.
Despite his initial reluctance Gawain had warmed up to Bridei quickly, charmed by her skill with the throwing knives and the feisty temperament that manifested whenever she argued with Tristan.
"At this pace we'll never make it to the castle before winter comes and we'll all freeze to death," Lancelot interjected, riding past Bridei and Tristan, a sour expression on his otherwise handsome face.
Unlike Gawain, Lancelot had remained wary of the young Woad amongst them and watched her with barely concealed animosity.
"Patience, Lancelot, you'll get your hundred maidens soon enough," Tristan replied, mischief tinting his otherwise calm voice. "Without Bridei we wouldn't even know the exact location of the castle; we can waste a bit of time with horse-riding lessons."
"You mean as long as she tells the truth and it’s not all a lie to lure us to our deaths."
"I'm not lying!" Bridei interjected, indignation visible in every line of her body. "And I have a name. You could use it once in a while!"
"Now, now, this is not the time for petty quarrels," Galahad placated her before things could escalate any further.
"Lancelot,” he called after the man, “give Bridei the benefit of the doubt. So far, she has given us no reason to distrust her. And she was kind to me, during my imprisonment, when nobody else would be. Does that not earn her at least your respect?"
Lancelot huffed and eyed Galahad suspiciously. “Don’t look at me like that. You’re not a little boy anymore, Galahad, your pleading eyes won’t sway me any more.”
Galahad glared at him. Lancelot returned the look, unwavering for barely more than a moment, before he sighed, turned away from Galahad and inclined his head towards Bridei.
"I apologise. Galahad is right, you have proven yourself worthy of my respect. My trust, however, you have yet to earn, Bridei."
She smiled, all teeth and delight. "And I will."
“It seems the pleading eyes are still working after all!” Gawain called after Lancelot, head thrown back in laughter as the other knight made his way to the forefront of their group.
More laughter followed when Lancelot didn’t reply, pointedly ignoring Gawain and his teasing. Even Tristan allowed himself a small smile, before he turned to Bridei, signalling for her to follow after him.
Nobody questioned them when they rode ahead and out of sight. Tristan lead them away from the path and into the high grass that surrounded them like a sea, swaying softly in the wind.
"You claimed to be a capable hunter," he said without preamble, eyes firmly fixed on the swaying grass.
He could see Bridei’s hesitant nod out of the corner of his eye, her brow arched up in a question she didn't dare ask. She wasn't afraid of him, not anymore, but she respected Tristan and his silent strength.
Galahad hadn't been wrong when he claimed she had some skill, but Tristan discovered her instincts to be even sharper. Combined with her quick wit and determination, she made an excellent student unlike Galahad, who - especially during their younger years - had tried his hardest to make it difficult for Tristan, who was the oldest and therefore tasked to oversee his brothers' training. The stubbornness though, Bridei and Galahad shared.
"Now, shall I teach you how a Sarmatian scout hunts?"
Her fingers tightening on the reins was all the answer Tristan needed and he turned to give her a soft, reassuring smile.
"There’s no reason to fret. For this, we’ll have the help of an old friend of mine."
Bridei's confusion only deepened, her nose scrunched up and her head tilted. "A friend? One of the others?" she asked.
Tristan's smile widened into a mischievous grin before he pursed his lips and whistled, the sound echoing over the grassy plains.
It faded away without anything happening and Bridei's lips parted, no doubt to ask what had bewitched him, but he raised his hand and she shut her mouth with a resounding click. Indeed, so much more obedient than Galahad.
She waited, incredulity shadowing her face until a sharp cry cut through the air and made the fine hairs on the back of her neck stand up. Tristan’s call had been answered.
Isolde came to them riding on a gust of wind, as beautiful as always, with deadly grace and effortless elegance and greeted her keeper with a sharp cry as she had made herself comfortable on Tristan's forearm. A surprised gasp from Bridei made Isolde turn her head, curious as to who the stranger at the side of her keeper could be.
"This is Isolde," Tristan explained, petting the bird which allowed the contact graciously.
"She’s a far better hunter than me. A far better hunter than you as well and she will make sure we won't go to bed hungry tonight."
Girl and bird eyed each other with open curiosity but without fear, Tristan was pleased to observe.
"I know her!" Bridei said, so excited that, for a moment, she even forgot the constant struggle with her horse and craned her neck to catch another glimpse.
Tristan shot an incredulous glance at her and she was quick to elaborate.
"When Galahad tried to flee, a bird came to his aid after he called it with a whistle. I saw it! It was the same as this one!"
Impressive, Tristan thought. She had keen eyes if she had truly memorised Isolde's features so easily. Most people couldn't differentiate between hawk and falcon, but this girl claimed to have recognised Isolde after seeing her only once.
"It was," Tristan agreed and ran a finger through the bird's soft plumage. "Her talents are not limited to aiding captured knights though. Today, she will hunt for us. Watch and learn, child."
For once, Bridei didn't protest being called a child, too caught up in the sight of Isolde spreading her wings and lifting herself up to the skies. Soon, the falcon was nothing more than a small spot circling high above them.
"Did you have her for very long?" she asked, head still turned heavenwards, even though Isolde had long disappeared from sight.
"You're a noisy child indeed."
"You told me I should learn. So I want to learn about Isolde," she argued and caught up with Tristan.
It was obvious she would not take no for an answer, much like Galahad, and so Tristan relented.
"I found her when she was a mere fledgling, abandoned by her parents and left to die. I took her in and trained her. In return, she lends me her strength and eyes whenever I need them. She's one of my oldest friends."
"Older than Galahad?"
He laughed, a little rough, and the crinkles around his eyes deepened as he looked fondly down at Bridei.
"No, not older than Galahad. We came to this island almost fifteen years ago. He was barely old enough to hold a shield, yet always picked fights with the bigger boys, believing himself invincible."
He paused then, looking at the sky to check for any signs of his returning bird. When he found none, he turned to Bridei once more and was met with the fierce glint of determination shining in her eyes.
"I took you with me to show you how a Sarmatian scout hunts, not to entertain you with tales from my youth," he reminded her with no real heat in his voice.
His youth. His and Galahad’s past. Tristan thought so rarely of it: how they had met as boys, Galahad far younger and more temperamental than him, with defiance etched into his face and his eyes red-rimmed from the tears he shed at night, when he laid on a hay-filled mattress, surrounded by boys who felt just as alone as he did.
It had been a cruel childhood, if any at all, but Tristan wasn't one to waste much thought on a past long gone.
"Then tell me of Galahad's youth! You know him well, don't you?" Bridei asked, too excited at the prospect of learning more about the knight she was clearly infatuated with to fear Tristan anymore.
How quickly forgotten was the horror of their first encounter.
"I know him as someone ought to know a man who fights alongside him in battle. He's my sworn shield brother and I would gladly give my life for him, just as he would give his for me."
It wasn't a lie, but it wasn’t the whole truth either. As much as Tristan liked the bright maiden riding next to him, his relationship with Galahad was no concern of hers. And while he doubted that her display of over-eager curiosity was a ploy to garner information for Merlin and her tribe, he couldn't compromise their safety by betraying their shared secrets to indulge a curious child.
Bridei groaned and shook her head, visibly disappointed with his answer.
"Galahad told better stories," she grumbled, almost too low to hear. Tristan's ears were sharp though and he turned to look at her, eyes narrowed.
"What kind of stories did he tell you?"
"Oh," she shrugged, squirming underneath Tristan’s piercing gaze. "He told me of his mother and the women of his tribe. How they had to kill three men before being allowed to marry."
Tristan snorted. "Are these the kind of stories you like? Tales about shield maidens and warrior queens?"
She nodded, her long hair swaying with the motion.
"Now, those I can tell as well. Would you like to hear them from someone who remembers not only fragments? Galahad may be fond of these tales but he was too young when he first heard them to remember them fully."
There was no malice in his voice, only a deep fondness for Galahad who clung so desperately to half-faded memories of their people, unwilling to let go of what little there was left of home in a land that treated them as servants and slaves.
It hadn’t been unusual for Galahad to sneak out of bed in the middle of the night to pester the other boys, crawling underneath their covers and asking them in a hushed voice to tell about the great deeds of their ancestors. There was not one among them who had been able to resist the doe-eyed youth and so they indulged him, even if it meant risking the wrath of their Roman mentors and possible punishment for staying up past their bedtime.
Galahad hadn’t been picky, listening with an eagerness that would have surprised his Latin teacher, who had often despaired over the future knight and his stubborn refusal to learn anything about the great Romans of the past.
His eyes had been wide, his mouth hanging open in rapt attention whenever Tristan or one of the other older boys told him what they still remembered from old family stories.
Stories proclaiming the glorious deeds of the Sarmatians were plenty and what harm could there be in reciting them for Bridei’s pleasure, just like he had done for Galahad all these years ago?
It was obvious Bridei was thrilled by the prospect, even though she tried her hardest to hide it under the cool facade of indifference. It was a weak attempt at best. The glimmer in her eyes and her shifting in the saddle told Tristan everything he needed to know.
"A long time ago there was a boy," he began, voice a rumbling, deep melody, "whose father would teach him how to hunt with the bow. He was a seasoned marksman, no man or woman could compete with him. Least of all his foolish son, who was much more interested in playing knucklebones and collecting pretty seashells at the shores close by."
"Boys are stupid," Bridei interjected. "Most boys. Not you...or Galahad," she was quick to correct once she realised her mistake.
Tristan chuckled underneath his breath and shook his head in feigned exasperation.
"There's some truth to what you say. Boys can be foolish, this boy especially. He refused to learn how to use the bow properly, acted clumsy on purpose to escape his lessons. He caused his father no little amount of grief. Until one day, when they went out together to hunt again they crossed path with a viper. The boy urged his father to kill the beast with a well-aimed arrow, but the father refused. Can you imagine why?"
Bridei jumped in her saddle, making her mare neigh in annoyance at the over-zealous rider.
"Why?" she asked, no trace of her previous aloofness left.
"The father told the boy it was because the snake and the boy shared the same ancestry. They were siblings so to say," Tristan explained, pleased with the disbelieving gasp that tore itself from Bridei's throat.
"Before the Sarmatians took the land that would become their home, there was a creature called Echidna. Half serpent, half maiden; above the buttocks she was a woman, below them a snake. In exchange for a pair of horses she had taken from the hero Herakles, she demanded he lay with her. Desperate to have his steeds back, Herakles agreed. She had three sons by him: Agathyrsus, Gelonus and Scythes. Asking Herakles what she should do with with his sons, he gave her a bow and a belt, telling her when the boys were grown, whichever could draw the bow and wear the belt, she should keep him and banish the others. The youngest, Scythes, was the only who fulfilled the requirements and went on to become the primordial mother of all Scythes and Sarmatians. However, these three brothers were not her only children. With her mate Typhon she birthed countless monstrous offspring, dragons and serpents and snakes, just like the one that crossed paths with the boy and his father that day. They were the sisters and brothers of Scythes. Even today, many Sarmatian knights have the image of Echidna on their shields, the beautiful maiden with a snake's tail for legs, in hopes that their mother will protect them in battle."
“Does she?” Bridei asked.
“Galahad carries her image on his shield and he has survived being a bloodhound for the Romans for fifteen years. I’d say Echidna is quite fond of him.”
She scrunched up her nose, silent for once as she contemplated Tristan’s words.
“They boy in your story? Was it Galahad?” she asked.
A valid estimation, Tristan thought, but far off the mark.
“No, he was not,” he answered, a knowing smile playing around his lips as Bridei huffed in frustration. “He was a boy even more foolish than Galahad, hard as that may be to believe.”
How young and wilful he had been indeed. It took being wrested away from his friends and family, and being brought to a foreign land with nothing but his father’s bow as comfort, to make Tristan realise what a fool he had been.
He fell silent once more, unwilling to share more stories of the past and luckily, Bridei let him be. She didn’t raise her voice again and so they rode on in silence. Only when the minutes ticked by without a sign of the hawk’s return did she risk a glance at her broody companion.
"Does it always take this long for Isolde to come back?"
Tristan raised his head to the skies, searching for any sign of his trusted companion to no avail.
"Hunting takes time and patience,” he said, “but you're right, it shouldn't take her this long."
Isolde was an intelligent animal, more so than a lot of men Tristan had known. Even without any prey she would have made her way back to him by now.
It was a bad sign.
Pulling his lips in between his teeth, Tristan whistled, the sharp sound cutting through the silence like a blade, and waited. No answer came. Tristan’s call faded away unheard.
With a growl, he tightened his reins and turned about.
"Your lessons will have to wait," he told Bridei. "Let us return to the others, there's something foul in the air."
"What? What does that mean?" she asked, struggling to make her mare follow her command.
"It means that I was careless and forgot for a moment that we're in enemy territory. Now ride, Bridei."
She was frightened, Tristan realised as they rushed over the fields, but there was little he could do to dissipate her fears. He had trouble understanding the sudden dread that had come over him himself, let alone explain it to the fidgeting child at his side.
He burst into the clearing they had erected camp in, expecting to find his companions already engaged in combat with an unknown enemy, their blades clashing and arrows singing.
What greeted him instead was the comical sight of Lancelot swaying his hips in what must be a dance, the others gathered around him and urging him on with good-natured shouts and sharp whistles.
They were unharmed, safe.
His gaze flickered to where Galahad was seated, his mouth parted in a hearty laugh at Lancelot’s antics before Tristan’s noisy return made him turn his head.
“Tristan!” he called out, the wide smile curling his lips vanishing as soon as he noticed his lover’s haunted eyes.
“Tristan,” he repeated. “What has befallen you? You’re pale as ash.”
“Collect your things and mount your horses. We’ve lingered here for too long,” Tristan huffed, offering no more explanation. Even Lancelot’s confused muttering went ignored as he rode up to Galahad’s side.
Galahad made no move, his stormy blue eyes firmly fixed on Tristan.
“Isolde has not returned to me after I sent her to hunt,” Tristan said. “And this forest is quiet. Too quiet. Not a sound of life to be heard, no rustling of leaves, no tapping of a fox’s paws, or the careful clicking of hooves.”
The Sarmatian knights fell silent and there was no further arguing. One was wise to follow a scout’s advice and not take such a warning lightly.
They packed their things with practised ease, quick but without their usual animated chatter and under Tristan’s watchful eyes.
“I don’t like this at all,” Lancelot finally broke the suffocating silence while stuffing a bedroll in his saddleback. “Fleeing from an invisible enemy. Who’d have any reason to try and ambush us?”
“Thieves, bandits. You’re a tempting target with your bejewelled swords and golden armor,” Gawain offered as he swung himself up on his horse.
“Thieves and bandits?” Lancelot echoed. “Show me the fiend who can take on the Sarmatian knights and I’ll surrender my swords and armor without--”
With a surprised outcry, Lancelot tumbled off his horse, an arrow piercing the thick layers of armor.
"Lancelot!" Gawain shouted, frantically looking for the marksman.
The sound of swords being drawn filled the air and Tristan quickly rode up to Lancelot.
"I'm fine!" he wheezed, clutching at his side. "It barely nicked me. I'm fine."
Galahad had already nocked an arrow, his eyes narrowed to slits as he searched for any signs of their attacker.
"Where did that bloody arrow even come from?!" Gawain cussed as he helped Lancelot up on his horse, after breaking off the shaft of the arrow. The tip, still lodged deeply in Lancelot’s armor, had to wait for now.
"Over there," Tristan said, eyes flickering to their left.
A rider had emerged from the darkness of the woods, clad in black armor, the face hidden by the ventail of a winged helmet.
Armed with sword, shield and bow, the knight stood motionless.
Galahad was the first to regain his composure and with a cry, he released his arrow. It cut through the air with a sharp hiss, only to bounce uselessly off the mysterious rider’s raised shield.
"It's of no use," Tristan grunted, drawing his sword from its scabbard.
"What is he waiting for?!" Gawain asked.
"He’s waiting for reinforcement." The moment the words left Tristan's mouth, all hell broke loose.
Like roaring thunder, six more knights emerged from the forest all of them clad in black armor, their faces hidden by helmets.
They charged at the Sarmatian knights wordlessly, no battle cry, no commands shouted across the battlefield.
"Get in position!" Galahad screamed, as if his companions needed to be told.
Soon after, a storm of arrows hailed down on them and Tristan could only keep his wits enough to ride in front of Bridei and lift his shield to protect her from the deadly rain. She wasn't one of his brothers but he wouldn't let her die here. No matter her skills and what she believed herself to be capable of, she was still a child. A child who stared in wide-eyed horror at the enemy galloping towards her.
The riders were skilled it seemed, maneuvering their horses in the midst of battle with an ease Tristan had only seen in his own companions. These were no ordinary bandits, Tristan realised as he evaded another sword thrust aimed at his guts. These were seasoned fighters and this wouldn’t be a battle easily won.
Already, Gawain and Galahad were surrounded, knocked off their horses but still agile on their feet with their weapons drawn and their shields held high, deflecting blow after blow that was hailing down on them.
Gawain felled one of the knights when he charged, breaking the leg of his opponent’s horse with a heavy blow of his hand axe. Even then, the knight remained silent. Not a single grunt, no huff reverberated from inside the helmet.
"Who are these twice forsaken knights?!" Galahad screamed as he warded off another attack with his shield. Not long and it would break under the constant assault. His arm was shaking already, his shield threatening to burst into a thousand sharp splinters with every blow of his opponent’s broadsword.
"Certainly no Woads!" Lancelot shot back.
No, no Woads. Tristan knew how the Woads fought: with bow and axe, rarely on horseback, and only in light leather armor.
He deflected a blow meant to knock him off his horse and another aimed at his sword arm.
The fight wouldn’t last for long. They were too exhausted from the day’s ride and desperately outnumbered. What could four men and a child hope to achieve against seven fully armed knights?
A child. Bridei. Where was Bridei?
When Tristan looked around, the girl was nowhere to be seen. Good. If she was only half as clever as Tristan believed her to be then she would have used the erupting chaos to slip away unseen. With a bit of luck, she could make her way back to her people before their enemies even noticed her disappearance.
Tristan took another swing at his opponent and the man stumbled backwards under the sheer force of Tristan’s attack.
Just when he lifted his sword to bring it down on his opponent’s neck, a shrill scream made him falter.
One of the knights had dragged Bridei from under a hollow tree root and held her by one foot as she writhed and turned in an attempt to break free. She struck at him over and over with her small hunting knife, but it glanced uselessly off the polished black gauntlets. Soon it would be blunt.
And yet, her captor didn’t reach for his sword, nor did he harm the girl in any other way. He merely held her in his iron grip and waited, while Bridei’s desperate struggles slowly but surely died down.
His own adversary forgotten, Tristan spurred his horse and raced to Bridei’s side.
Steel met steel with a thundering clash. The knight let go of Bridei, the girl of no interest to him now that he found himself face to face with a more worthy opponent.
Tristan pulled the reins tighter. His horse was becoming anxious, edging on panic and impossible to control in the midst of battle.
These animals were not bred for war, not like the steeds they had left in Camelot and who were as fearless as their riders in the face of war and death.
The stench of blood and sweat hung heavily in the air already and when another arrow brushed past his cheek, his horse reared.
Not even Tristan could have hoped to keep the terrified animal under control and with a curse on the tip of his tongue, he crashed to the ground.
It was soft enough, all moss and grass, so the impact hardly affected him, but there was not enough time to recover from the fall and stagger into position before his enemy came at him, swinging his sword.
With his shield lying a few feet away, lost when he fell off his horse, Tristan could do little more but parry the strike with the flat of his sword.
He knew he was at a disadvantage: kneeling on the ground, his arms raised high and shaking with the strain. Like this, Tristan made an easy target.
There was movement to his right side, at the edge of his perception, barely more than a blurry shadow but moving in closer and closer. Tristan steeled himself for another blow, ready to let go of his sword and roll out of reach. It would leave him defenseless but alive, the lesser of two evils.
The blow, when it came, wasn’t meant for him and Tristan watched wide-eyed as Gawain’s axe collided with the side of his enemy’s head, the strength of the blow knocking off the black helmet. It landed with a dull thud on the moss-covered ground.
Immediately, all battle ceased and the Sarmatian knights stared in bewilderment.
Lancelot was first to find his voice again.
"A woman..." he gasped.
And a beautiful one at that. Her ebony hair was pulled back into a tight braid, adorned with pearls and golden bands, and slightly dishevelled, no doubt by the sudden loss of her helmet. Her eyes were a stunning shade of blue, framed by long lashes.
"Oiorpata," Galahad whispered in awe.
Chapter 10: Prison
The Sarmatian Knights are given a choice.
I actually wanted to upload this chapter next week, but it's my birthday today so I said, why the hell not, Happy Birthday to me, here's a new chapter!
Sorry for the long wait in between chapters, I'm a horribly slow writer I'm afraid.
I'd like to thank my beta reader Supastag who always makes sure that none of my excessively stupid typos remain in the final draft.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"You're trespassing." Her voice was tinged with steely determination but void of hostility and with a single gesture she bid her companions to lower their weapons. The leader then, Tristan decided.
"We weren't aware this land belonged to anybody," he said, his eyes shifting between her and the knight who held Bridei.
The girl was unscathed, much to Tristan’s relief.
The others hadn't been as lucky: Gawain was bleeding from a gash running across his forehead and his golden hair was tainted with blood. Lancelot was little better off, judging from the way he held his side and the blood seeping through his shaking fingers. And Galahad? He alone was unharmed, eyes wide as he stared at the woman leading the silent knights.
Oiorpata, manslayer, Galahad had called them. A title reserved for the women of their people who had killed at least three men. No doubt this woman had felled many more than that.
"Ignorance is a cheap excuse," she argued but issued no further command, neither to have them killed nor taken prisoners.
Curiosity held her back and kept them alive, Tristan realised. So far beyond the wall it was unlikely she had ever encountered Roman soldiers, let alone a group of Sarmatian knights. No doubt, she desired to know what brought them into their land.
"And what would our punishment be?" Galahad interfered. The look of wonder on his handsome face had disappeared, replaced by grim determination.
"The usual punishment would be death," she answered, eyeing Galahad with sudden intrigue, as if she had just become aware of him.
"Tristan?" Gawain mumbled somewhere to his left, but was silenced with a glare.
"Don't!" Bridei's voice cut through the tension, high-pitched with panic as she struggled against her captor’s hold.
"Don't kill them!" she begged, wide-eyed and desperate. "They're not bad people. They didn't mean any harm!"
Struck speechless by her words Tristan stared, strangely touched that she would beg for their lives on their behalf and after having known them for so little a time.
"And who are you?" the female knight inquired, her voice more tender than when she had addressed either of the men.
Bridei gulped, her skin turning sickly ashen as she realised that all attention rested solely on her now.
When her eyes flickered to Tristan he nodded, urging her to go on.
"My name’s Bridei," she said, straightening as much as her restrained position allowed, her voice low but steady. "I belong to Merlin's tribe. Those men are my friends."
Silence fell, settling heavily in Tristan's gut. Neither Sarmatian nor famed immortal knight moved, waiting for the leader to either proclaim their death or show mercy and spare them.
"Take their weapons and horses," she ordered the knight closest to her and tightened her reins.
Tristan didn't protest when they took his sword and bow, painful as it was to part with them. For now, he'd be content to play the defeated prisoner, grateful it was not death he had been given. A glance in Galahad's direction revealed that he was acting much the same, though his face was sour and his mouth pressed into a thin line as he handed over his bow. Lancelot and Gawain didn't give in as easily. They grumbled and cursed under their breaths, glaring at their captors with powerless fury burning in their eyes.
The immortal knights cared little for their complaints. Mere minutes after their leader had issued the command to disarm them they were stripped bare of all weapons, bound at the wrists by thick ropes and stumbling along after the horses of their captors.
Only Bridei had been allowed to remain on horseback, not conceived as being much of a threat. The mysterious woman leading the party made sure to keep her at her side. Bridei's inexperience with horses was obvious to the trained rider's eye and therefore there was little chance of her attempting to flee.
After some hours—Tristan's muscles already ached with the strain of keeping up with the horses, even if they were only moving at a lazy pace—they reached the edge of the forest. Gnarly trees made way for softly swaying bushes, cracking undergrowth turned to emerald grass and finally the woman, whose name eluded them still, raised her hand.
Their little party came to a halt and Tristan couldn't help but feel grateful for the short reprise. Long walks were hardly a challenge for a seasoned scout such as himself, but being forced to stumble alongside horses with his hands tied behind his back and his body weary from battle was taxing even for him.
Grassy plains stretched before them and out of this green sea emerged a fortress, strong and imposing, like the gleaming head of a spear attempting to penetrate the sky. Similar to Camelot and perched upon a hill, it evoked a feeling of restlessness in Tristan that his companions no doubt shared. Apart from Arthur, who had lived among Romans for most of his life, none of them could endure being restrained to the stone walls of forts and towns for very long.
When they reached the heavy gates they opened with a rumble as deep as thunder and revealed two guards, women both, who inspected them with keen interest and not a little suspicion.
One look from their leader and they let them pass without a word, yet Tristan could feel their curious gazes on his back.
As he took in the sight lying before him they were quickly forgotten. The gates had opened to a wide court, buzzing with people going about their daily work. Tristan spotted several maidens, some of them carrying baskets full of dirty linen, no doubt to wash them in the well dominating the middle of the court. Others passed the time by winding thin strands of wool onto wooden spindles.
At the other end of the courtyard a women with flaxen hair, her body wiry yet delicate, like a flower expertly crafted from Damascus steel, taught a group of young lasses how to swing a sword. The girls were disciplined, their pale faces tense with determination and Tristan couldn't help but be reminded of the women of his own people.
"I see herders, guards and warriors. I see spinners and washerwomen," Lancelot, who had carefully inched closer and closer, whispered next to Tristan. "You know what I don't see? A single man."
Gawain huffed. His humour hadn't abandoned him even in this dire situation, and he threw Lancelot an amused look.
"Now, Lancelot, a castle inhabited only by women and you of all people are complaining?"
Lancelot's face twisted in indignation but his answer got lost in a suddenly erupting clamour. Their party halted and the horses huffed and chomped at the bit as their captors dismounted.
A stable girl, a petite thing not older than twelve with fiery red hair and intelligent eyes, ran up to them. She hesitated for a moment when she spotted the strangers but looked at them with obvious curiosity when she took the reins of two horses.
"They're not used to the sight of men," the dark-haired leader said when she noticed Lancelot's puzzled expression. She offered no further explanation.
"Have them washed and dressed and then bring them before me," she instructed before turning to Bridei.
"You have asked me to spare the lives of these men, claiming they’re your friends, and so far I have heeded your wish, though you have yet to give me a reason why I should. Those men have trespassed into our land without permission, after all. But I'm willing to listen to your reasoning and decide what to do with them afterwards. Are you willing to do that?"
Bridei stilled, her eyes flickering to the side, seeking silent reassurance from Tristan.
"Are we going to put our lives into the hands of Merlin's little spy?" Tristan could hear Lancelot mutter under his breath. "Might as well kill us right here, right now."
Tristan ignored him. He held Bridei's gaze, forcing himself to breathe slowly, evenly, and let the tension seep out of him.
He nodded at Bridei and hoped that his eyes conveyed what his mouth couldn't: she had his trust.
Bridei's straightened her shoulders with renewed resolve and returned the nod.
"I'll do it," she said, eyes not leaving Tristan's until the women separated them. Bridei was taken away, stumbling after the leader who headed for the stables, while Tristan and his brothers were brought to the fort.
As soon as they set foot into the wide arrival hall they were separated, each knight being led away by another guard. Galahad protested loudly and tried to twist out of his guard’s hold but his resistance died quickly when his and Lancelot’s eyes met.
What good would defiance do them now? Better to remain patient and bide their time, until they knew more of this castle and the women inhabiting it.
There was nothing they could do.
He had expected the dungeons to reek of damp earth and be infested by rats, not to be a room warmed by a fire with a bed waiting for him, the mattress stuffed with sweet-smelling hay. In one corner stood a wooden tub, waiting to be filled with steaming water.
"Is this supposed to be my prison cell?" he asked, throwing an amused glance over his shoulder.
His guard was of delicate build, but Tristan was not foolish enough to think her weak because of it. Her eyes, which reminded him of those of the Eastern tribes, shone with a keen intelligence and even though she didn't carry her weapons openly, Tristan had counted at least a dozen daggers hidden on her body, beneath the folds of her clothes. So he had gone with her willingly, a silent, obedient prisoner, yet when he saw the room he couldn’t resist scoffing in mocking disbelief.
She smirked and, with astonishing speed, drew one of her hidden blades to cut him free from his restrains.
"You'll stay here until Lianour sees fit to summon you. I'll send for water," she nodded at the wooden tub, "and for somebody to tend to your wounds."
Tristan didn't move, hands hanging uselessly at his side. He had no intention to fight or flee.
"Don't you fear that I could kill one of your sisters? The maiden that you'll send to bring me water or the herb witch who is supposed to clean my wounds?" he asked.
She laughed. "You can try."
And with these words she was gone, closing the heavy steel-fitted door behind her with a bang.
Tristan was alone.
There was barely any time to inspect the sparsely furnished room. Mere minutes had passed before the door opened once more and a young girl stepped inside, a basket covered with a linen cloth tucked underneath her arm.
She looked at him with unabashed curiosity shining in her grey eyes, her mouth falling open when she noticed the the tattoos etched into his skin, yet there was not a hint of fear to be found in her awed expression.
Tristan endured her staring patiently—the looks that followed the Sarmatian knights wherever they went had already stopped bothering him a long time ago—while his own gaze flickered to the open door.
“You wouldn’t make it far,” she said. “There are guards stationed outside your room, and more patrolling the corridors and courtyard.”
Tristan blinked, torn so suddenly from his thoughts, and watched as she moved past him to place the basket on the only stool in the room and pulled the linen cloth covering it off with a flourish.
Immediately the air was filled with the smell of fresh bread and hearty cheese. Tristan’s stomach grumbled and he became all too aware of how hungry he was. He hadn’t had a bite since their fight with the immortal knights, nor had he had a sip of water since.
The girl was right, weakened as he was he wouldn’t make it very far and he was not so foolish as to try and flee when he didn’t know what had happened to the others. The women had been clever, separating them and bringing them to different parts of the castle, so that none of them knew the whereabouts of the others. Hopefully, they had been brought to a room similar to Tristan’s own that, if still a prison cell, provided some comfort.
“There’s food and water for you,” the girl said with unconcealed exasperation.
“Is that how you treat all your prisoners?” Feed them, bath them and treat their wounds?” Tristan asked.
Her mouth was pressed into a thin line and she had the audacity to roll her eyes at him.
“Eat,” she instructed without answering his question. “Then undress. Sulis is coming to have a look at you and to bring water for a bath. You stink.”
She brushed past him with her head held high and her thick plait bouncing behind her.
Tristan, on the other hand, found himself alone once more and none the wiser.
His stomach growled, reminding him that there were more pressing matters at hand, and he moved over to the basket to inspect its contents.
His sense of smell hadn’t fooled him.
The basket was filled with delicacies fit for the table of a king. There was half a round of cheese, dried fruits and cold meats and biscuits smelling faintly of honey, as well as a loaf of bread and a flask of wine. It was a welcome sight indeed. The bread, golden-brown and baked to perfection, was still warm on the inside when he broke off a piece, not bothering to use the dull blade that came with it.
He held the piece up to his nose, inhaling the delicious smell, before he popped it into his mouth without aplomb.
They wouldn’t poison him, he reasoned with himself as he chewed slowly, savouring the taste, not after they had gone through all the hassle of bringing him to the castle.
His first careful bite was quickly followed by a second and soon he was devouring bread and cheese like a starving wolf, washing it all down with wine.
He was still eating when the door to his room burst open a second time, revealing a woman so tiny, the buckets full of water she was carrying would have been big enough to function as a bathtub for her all on their own.
"Come on, boy!" she huffed, her face as red as an apple. "Help an old woman and take these buckets off me!"
Pulled out of his stupor—albeit still confused—Tristan hurried to do as she had asked.
"Good," she said, rubbing her palms together, "bring them over to the tub, but don't you spill a drop. Was difficult enough to get the water all nice and hot."
Tristan obeyed and dutifully emptied the buckets in the wooden tub. The hot steam hitting his face made the short hairs of his beard curl.
When he turned back the strange little woman had already made herself at home, shoving the basket on the bedside table to the side to make space for the heavy leather pouch she had worn on her hip.
"Now undress and step inside. I don't have much time, so you better get clean quickly. There are still two of your sort waiting to be taken care of."
Tristan raised a brow at her in question.
She momentarily paused rummaging through her pouch to throw him a disbelieving look.
"Surely you know how to bath or is that something they don't do beyond the wall?"
There was little Tristan could do but obey and keep his questions to himself, at least for the moment. So he undressed, quickly and without false modesty—the woman, who still hadn't introduced herself, seemed as disinterested in his naked body as one could be—and stepped into the hot water.
Immediately, his muscles relaxed and the miniscule cuts scattered all over his body began to sting. He was still cautious, his eyes either on the woman or the closed door, but there was no need for paranoia and so he allowed himself a moment of peace as the hot water enveloped him.
"You're the silent type, huh?" the woman quipped as she pulled vial after vial filled with unidentifiable substances out of her pouch, unbothered by his refusal to speak. "The first of you I treated, he was a pretty little thing but with a mouth so foul it almost made me blush. Almost."
"Pretty you say?" Tristan mumbled, interest piqued.
She threw a look over her shoulder, her full mouth parted in a cheeky smile.
"So he can speak after all,” she grinned, then nodded. "Pretty, aye. Not even the beard could hide it. He demanded to be left alone though, no doubt to indulge in his righteous fury and to brood, as men are prone to do."
Galahad, Tristan thought and hid a fond smile by sinking deeper into the water.
"Practically had to drag him into the tub,” she went on. “Stubborn thing he was, but in good health. Barely a scratch on him. A bit skinny though. Don't they feed you where you come from?"
"Should you be telling a prisoner all this?" Tristan asked, carefully watching her every move.
While he couldn't fathom why the woman would tell him all this, he wasn't ungrateful for the bits and pieces of information she shared so willingly. Their situation was still dire but knowing that Galahad was alive and well enough to show his infamous temper calmed his worried heart.
She shrugged. "What does it matter?There is hardly anything you can do with that knowledge."
With her hands on her hips she turned and looked him up and down for a long moment, caring little for his dark glare.
"Out with you now, most of the dirt and grime should have been washed off and I have other duties still waiting for me, so let's have a look at you."
Tristan rose, hair and skin dripping wet as he stood naked before the wench. She didn't even blink but went straight to work, inspecting the bruises and superficial wounds on his body. A few she treated with strong-smelling salves, others she covered with fresh gauze. Tristan endured it silently.
"You're littered with scars and most of them have been treated poorly. It's a proper mess."
Her face darkened with disapproval, as if Tristan's many marks were a personal affront.
"There's not always a healer available in battle," Tristan argued as he watched her nimble hands.
"Which is why it's wise to learn not only to kill but to heal as well," she shot back and slapped him on the arm. "Get dressed, then rest. Lady Lianour will call for you and your friends soon, I'm sure."
She had already gathered her supplies and shouldered her worn bag when Tristan asked the question resting on the tip of his tongue since he had been brought here.
"What will happen to us?"
"You’ll be given a choice," she said after some contemplation, her voice gone soft. "And you should choose wisely."
Tristan didn't know how many hours had passed until another knock at the door roused him from his musings.
He hadn't been idle. While there was little he could have done confined to the comfortable but small room, he was still a scout and a scout's task was it to watch and learn. So he had gazed out of the only window, comfortably perched up on the windowsill, down at the buzzling court. Though what he saw had raised more questions than it had answered.
Lancelot had been right: not a single man was to be seen. The inhabitants of the castle were made up only of women. Women of all ages that went about their daily work, be it cleaning the stables or tutoring the young. Everything was taken care of with practised ease and precision.
What kind of fort was it where only women lived and served?
A second knock made him turn his head and he went to see who was so overly polite to announce themselves to a prisoner before coming in.
"Are you naked?" a faint voice called from the other side of the door.
Tristan scoffed and the door opened. The girl who had brought him food peeked into the room before coming inside when she considered him sufficiently dressed.
"You're clothed. Good." She looked him over, obviously pleased to see him in the simple attire the healer had laid out for him. "Naked men are gross."
"Of course," Tristan said, both bemused and bewildered by her damning estimation.
"I've been sent to retrieve you," she explained, both hands on her hips. "Follow me."
What choice did Tristan have? With a sigh, he followed after her like a loyal lapdog as she led them through the illuminated corridors of the fort. It was quiet, barely a sound from the outside reached through the thick walls, yet the fine hairs on the back of Tristan's neck were raised in alarm.
They were being watched, he was sure. But whenever he let his eyes wander, attempting to pierce through the flickering shadows, there was nobody to be seen.
Fleeing would have been easy. The girl didn't bother to ensure that Tristan stayed behind her when they made their way through endless corridors and past numberless doors. She was entirely unconcerned to be in the presence of a man whose craft was death and murder.
And yet, Tristan didn't make the attempt and soon found himself in front of two massive doors, the dark wood polished with scenes of battle and glory carved into it, and for a moment, he wondered if he had let the only chance of freedom slip through his fingers.
"Here we are," the girl provided unceremoniously and turned, making her linen skirt twirl. "Try not to say anything too foolish."
She turned to leave but Tristan held her back with a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"Allow me one question before you leave."
Her button nose twitched and she threw a disapproving glare at his hand but, in the end, nodded in agreement.
"One question. Just one."
"Of course," Tristan assured, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "What's your name, girl?"
Her eyes widened in surprise and she pulled away to free herself from his grip. Tristan let her.
"Esa," she said and was gone, having disappeared into the shadows.
Any reply Tristan might have had was swallowed by the creaking sound of the doors opening to reveal a brightly lit hall.
The hall was long and wide, its roof upheld by mighty pillars that shone golden in the warm light coming in through the windows. The floor was made of polished stones and carved with runes Tristan could not decipher.
He passed by a fire burning upon a hearth in the midst of the hall. Around it, resting on thick furs, sat a group of women who eyed him curiously while they feasted on roasted meats and golden ale.
At the end of the hall was a dais and in the middle of it was a gilded chair. Upon it sat the leader of the seven knights, her hair framing her face like a dark halo, yet Tristan paid her no mind as he became aware of the three men standing before her.
Relief washed over him at the sight of Galahad, Gawain and Lancelot. All of them were dressed in clothes similar to Tristan's own, wide and flowing, comfortable but offering no protection from blades or arrows. Like him, they had been bathed and their wounds treated. Gawain's long hair had even been braided and pulled to one side so that the wound on his head could be properly bandaged. He wasn't the only one to have been injured in battle. His handsome face didn't betray anything but when Lancelot shifted, his movements were slower than usual and peeking out from underneath his loose shirt was a piece of gauze.
Their faces were grim but their eyes shone with the same relief Tristan had felt when he first recognised his shield brothers waiting at dais.
None of them had been chained or bound. There had been no need for it, Tristan realized as he let his eyes roam over the many women assembled in the hall. From the guards standing watchful at every corner to the serving girls filling up the cups of those huddled around the fire, every single one of them was wearing a weapon, some openly, some hidden underneath the folds of their clothes.
They would be dead before they could so much as raise their hands.
The women's leader—Lianour, Tristan thought she had been called by his overseer—was clad in simple garments, not much different from those of the serving girls. But despite her humble attire she emanated an aura of authority and dignity. Sitting at her side was a woman dressed in a soft leather tunic, her brown hair pulled back in an intricate braid.
"I bid you welcome," Lianour said as they were brought before her. “I say welcome, even though you are intruders and intruders are hardly ever welcome." she continued, eyes roaming over her prisoners before settling on Lancelot. "These are the charges brought against you: you trespassed, you came into this land without permission, you attacked and injured my knights. What do you have to say in your defense?"
Lancelot—ever the leader in Arthur's absence—stepped forward and raised his hands in a placating gesture.
"Lady," a little smile curled the corners of her lips at the address, "it's true we trespassed but we did so unknowingly and without ill intentions. We have heard rumours of a hundred maidens held in a castle against their will by a group of immortal knights and saw it as our duty to liberate these poor souls. Who could have known that this castle is not a prison to them but a home?"
He was a good liar, Tristan had to admit, telling enough of the truth to be convincing without revealing the actual reasons for their being here.
"Nobody is supposed to," Lianour said. "This place is a sanctuary, a refuge for those fleeing men's tyranny and violence."
"Then we were mistaken,"Lancelot replied quickly, "and since there's no one here in need of rescue, we’re happy to leave as soon as our weapons, armor and horses have been returned to us."
Lianour's smile widened. She was amused by Lancelot's charming insolence but charm would hardly be enough to buy them their freedom.
"I fear it's not that easy. No matter your intentions, you have discovered our secret and we can not trust you to keep it that way. For decades we have warded off any intruders threatening our home and safety. For years the fear that the seven knights have instilled in people has kept us safe. It is my duty to protect all those living here. No, I cannot let you go."
"We're men of honour," Lancelot protested. "Your secret would be safe with us."
"Maybe, maybe not. It's a risk I shall not take. The usual punishment for trespassing is death, as you already know,” she said.
Tristan heard Galahad shift next to him and Gawain gasp in disbelief but before either could voice their displeasure, Lianour halted them with a raised hand. “However, I have spoken to the girl that kept you company and she had nothing but praise for you and your knights."
She lifted her hands, waving Bridei, who had stood at the side, half concealed by shadows, over.
Bridei followed the command reluctantly, her face a mask of stubborn defiance.
"Tell them what you have told me," Lianour prompted.
"They saved me," she said, her hands fisted in the coarse fabric of her pants. "They have been kind to me and they're my friends."
Her words were followed by surprised silence and Tristan felt warmth spread in his chest, a tender affection for this brave girl who stood as witness and spoke in their favour, even though her people and the Sarmatian knights had never been at peace with each other. How many of her folk had they killed over the years? And yet, she considered them trustworthy and deserving of being called her friends.
Lianour's clear voice pulled him from his thoughts. "Glowing praise indeed. It did not escape me how you defended her in battle. Neither did it escape me how you have never laid hand on Sulis, who came to treat your wounds, or Esa who brought you food and escorted you here. You did not try to flee even though it was only a child standing between you and your freedom. None of you succumbed to the temptation."
"So it was a test?" Galahad interrupted, his hands balled into fists at his side and his eyes wild with contempt. "A test to see if we would kill an innocent girl to gain our freedom? What if we had made the attempt? Would you have sacrificed one of your own so easily?"
Lianour turned to Galahad, but there was no fury in her eyes when she replied.
"It was a test indeed. But do not believe, Sir Galahad, that you wouldn't have been dead the moment you had so much as thought about laying a hand on her. My warriors are many and skilled in both stealth and assassination. There was never any danger for anybody but you."
Galahad bristled but did not challenge her again, contenting himself with cursing her in the colourful tongue of his people, just low enough for only his friends to hear.
"Be that as it may, you have passed my test and as one of the few who have set foot into this fort uninvited, you will be given a choice. You're seasoned fighters, we have witnessed your prowess in battle, so I offer you, if not your freedom, at least your life in exchange for your skills. You shall live here, amongst us, and teach the youth. Train them with the blade, the bow and arrow. In return you shall receive shelter, food and every comfort our home has to offer. However, you shall remain inside these walls, so that our secret won't be revealed to the outside world. Should you refuse then there is only death waiting for you."
"So our choice is one of death or lifelong imprisonment," Gawain huffed.
"Be glad you have been given a choice at all," Lianour replied, unbothered by Gawain's rising temper.
Tristan could feel the tension in the room thickening, pressing down on his chest and making it hard to breath, like the air before a storm when the crackling of thunder made the hairs on one's arm stand up.
Already, Galahad had stepped forward, his face contorted into a vicious snarl.
He didn't come far. With lightning speed, the guards were upon him. They didn't attack, didn't even touch him, but their raised swords and glinting spears were warning enough.
"Galahad!" Lancelot admonished, his gaze shifting between him and Lianour.
"No," Galahad spat, "I won't be a prisoner any longer. Neither to the Romans nor to these women!"
"So you rather choose death and betray those who have put their faith in you?" Lancelot shouted back.
Galahad closed his mouth with a snap and took a deep breath. When he exhaled, all his anger seemed to have evaporated. When he opened his eyes again he nodded at Lancelot, seeking forgiveness.
They wouldn't die today, Tristan knew. Not if their deaths would mean betraying Arthur, Bors and Dagonet who were prisoners themselves, waiting for them to retrieve the grail and bring it back to buy with it their freedom. Galahad may value freedom more than most, but he would never sacrifice his brothers to ensure his own.
All the while, Lianour and her court had watched their quarrel with keen interest.
"I take it you made your choice?" Lianour’s voice cut through the ensuing silence and all knights turned towards her.
"We did," Lancelot confirmed, not without throwing a last glance at Galahad. "We accept your gracious offer and shall stay here, for you to make use of our abilities as you see fit."
“Then it is decided.”