Actions

Work Header

Seen and Done

Chapter Text

You can get to know someone in battle. The way they move, the way they think, the way they always seem to sense when you need a bow at your back. And you can get to know someone in the quiet moments between; too exhausted to speak, too broken and bloodied not to. You can bond in nights spent dripping frost by the fireside, when you laugh about all the things that matter, make sense of those that don’t.

And then there are those moments, when you lie awake, wishing the fading embers could burn away what sights you have seen… and you realise, there are some people you’ve never really known at all.

Galahad watched him leave. The others were sleeping, of that he was certain. Dagonet and Gawain were closest, shoulders to the faded fire, hands at their swords. Lancelot lay at the outskirts, face to the sky, fingers clasped neatly at his chest. He would’ve looked almost deathlike were it not for the slight curl at his lip, some well-timed jest, even in dream. Bors never left a doubt he was at peace, not to Galahad, the company, nor all the Woads within a hundred-mile radius.

Of Arthur’s whereabouts Galahad was not certain, only that he would return before sunrise and speak not a word of it. He hadn’t gone with Tristan, though. Tristan always walked alone.

It wasn’t the first time he had followed. But it was the first he’d been able to keep sight of him, despite the quickened pace. The moonlight didn’t help Galahad’s cause, though he knew had their positions been reversed, it would have made no difference. Tristan always seemed to find the shadows between the bright; no more visible than legend, Arthur had once quipped.

Well. Legend, ghost, or just his irritatingly elusive compatriot, Galahad was hardly amused when he realised, in barely a breath, Tristan had somehow given him the slip. Torn between maintaining his cover and losing the trail for good, Galahad abandoned his caution, hurrying forward to the spot he saw him last.

Nothing.

Drat.

It would be a longer walk back to camp with the knowledge of it. Exhaling with rather more force than necessary, Galahad turned heel, feeling far more guilty than rash for the whole pursuit after all. Perhaps on the next occasion, he would have more luck simply asking Tristan where he was going, instead of-

Galahad stopped short. Leaning against the pine tree opposite was a familiar silhouette, an even more familiar set of eyes below the upturned fold of his hat.

“If you’re going to track me,” he said, seemingly indifferent to the idea. “Might you consider not inviting half the Woads in the forest as we go?”

Galahad snorted, refusing to believe he hadn’t been every bit as quiet as Tristan. Crossing his arms, he sucked his tongue over his teeth and shifted his weight from one foot to the other, his earlier regrets submerged in the sheer arrogance of the remark.

“If there are any Woads, might you consider not foolishly wandering off in the middle of the night, right into their traps?”

If Tristan gave any acknowledgement he was even listening, Galahad thoroughly missed it. Instead, he watched as Tristan stepped briskly past him, footsteps barely snapping on the snow.

“I’ll be right behind you then!” Galahad called, immediately cursing himself as the shout rang through the still. Tristan turned and creased an eyebrow.

“Just as well,” he agreed. Galahad narrowed his eyes, suspicious. Tristan offered a shrug. “You might get lost.”

Galahad caught up with purpose, holding his jaw that much higher as he stomped to Tristan’s side.

“Happy to spare you the fun of finding me, then,” he retorted, managing to remain indignant for at least a few steps before stumbling on a concealed root. Tristan’s stare never wavered, only a twitch at the corner of his mouth belying he had noticed at all.

“Yes. All two minutes of it.”

As their pace slowed a fraction, Galahad remained determined not to ask where they were going. Though apparently, even his thoughts were loud enough to hear.

“They’re all around us,” Tristan murmured. “Have been for days.”

Galahad found himself nodding, then coming to a halt a second later when the statement actually resonated.

“I beg your pardon?” A glance left and right confirmed what he already knew. If anyone was observing them, they were far better at concealing it than he. “The Woads? I thought you were joking!”

“I was,” Tristan granted, guiding a finger toward a break in the pines ahead. “They don’t need your invitation. They are giving us one.”

Frowning, Galahad made sure to keep close as they drew toward the clearing. For someone so sure Woads were about, Tristan had still chosen to traipse round with little more than a hunting blade, Galahad’s own sword and armour stowed back at camp. Unconsciously gritting his teeth, he peered beyond the fringe of trees.

Empty. Nothing more than a fire pit, ash dusted with ice. Pulse easing off, Galahad wondered if he wasn’t slightly disappointed.

“An invitation to fight?” he tried a chuckle, the chilled air crackling in his lungs. “Should have sent it to Bors.”

“To talk,” Tristan mused, skirting the pit. He looked quite satisfied with the discovery, upper lip snagging back in a wolfish manner, as if tasting leftover smoke on the air.

“Strange way of asking,” Galahad stalked the deserted glade with vigour. Whether through the force of Tristan’s presence or his own tendency to superstition, he could near sense them now too, the echo of flint on stone as they sharpened their arrows, heartbeats and hissing and the unhallowed chanting of their barbarian leader. He stopped. Tristan was staring at him.

“Not half as strange as some.”

Decidedly ignoring him, Galahad kept his eyes fixed on the ground. A mark of the group’s number and strength would difficult enough to decipher without Tristan’s typically unhelpful remarks.

“And what does Arthur think of all this?”

“I’m not sure.” Tristan was crouching by one of the charred branches, digging a knuckle-sized blade into the bark. He grazed a thumb over the sap that leaked from the wood beneath, the log not half as dry as it initially appeared. “But he sleeps less.”

“I noticed,” Galahad muttered, more to himself. Then, with greater inflection as the thought surfaced, “he’s not keeping watch, is he? We can all take our turn at sentry duty!”

“I doubt it,” Tristan sucked the sap from his thumb, all the more curious for it. “Else he’d not be doing a very good job, losing both of us in one night.”

“Unless he was well aware you were on their tail.”

“And you on mine.” Tristan rose to his feet.

Galahad gave an incredulous snort, almost of a mind to suggest the two of them might’ve next time made a picnic of it. Tristan didn’t leave room for any such comment, already turning to retrace their steps back toward camp. Galahad sighed. If he wasn’t quite ready to swallow the strangeness of the evening, he was at least prepared to digest it in what warmth was left in his bedroll, preferably with Tristan still in sight.

“Have you found out much about them?”

Something of a wager, Galahad figured the fire pit wasn’t Tristan’s first encounter, nor likely even his closest. From the minutes they spent walking in silence, it seemed he were right.

“Leader’s name is Merlin,” he said after a time.

Galahad sipped a breath, trying not to choke on it. The name was as foreign to him as all the barbarians stood for, coiling thick and menacing, brutish as the tales their captives never lived to tell.

“You understood their speech?”

“I recognised some,” Tristan allowed. “Far more I did not.”

“But some,” Galahad repeated, the revelation turning corners in his mind. The language of the Woads was no common dialect, nor did it change hands in the company of Roman soldiers. Not for the first time, he found himself wondering in exactly what part of Sarmatia his companion held heritage. Gods knew, he spoke little enough of his past for drinking stories, let alone a family tree.

Tristan gave a grunt of accord, offering no further explanation.

Merlin,” Galahad measured the sound of it over his tongue. Were the stories about him true? Did his own army believe him to wield unnatural power over nature?

Did he?

They didn’t speak again until the company was in sight, still in much the same state as Galahad left them. Tristan’s bedroll waited by the tethered horses, Galahad’s at the far side of the fire. The horizon was a muddied blue, black already leeching down to the mountains beyond.

Galahad had almost convinced himself his eyes were going to close, when he heard the scuff of a footstep beside him. Tristan laid his bedroll beside, shuffled into it, then promptly turned and faced the opposite direction. Galahad blinked, then shivered onto his back. Snow, pine or earth, the ground was still freezing. Tucking his arms around his sides, he exhaled a fog to the sky.

“Do you remember it?”

Another wager? That Tristan had once spent time with the Woads? He’d have been young. But then, Tristan had joined the round table older than most, skilled and fearless when he were still green and reckless. That calm sort of bravery that came from seeing what they’d so far touched only in pledge, the sense to pretend he was scared too.

Tristan was silent. Galahad let his gaze blur on the rise and fall of his shoulder, scruffy hair splayed loose above the weave of his collar. He wanted to apologise. He didn’t.

“Do you miss it?”

As Tristan repositioned himself to face him, Galahad forced himself to hold the man’s gaze. Impartial at best, forgiving at worst. Gently, he tugged free his hunting hat, tossed it onto Galahad’s bedroll, and nudged back into the folds of his own.

“No.”

-

Chapter Text

The downfall of being warm enough to sleep was, occasionally, being warm enough to stay asleep, even with a certain overzealous compatriot banging a pot and griddle-iron above your head.

Well, the first three times, at least.

“Hoi!” Galahad sat up with a start, Bors roaring with laughter as he scrambled for his sword, only to find the weapon had been replaced with the latrine shovel instead. Groaning, Galahad sank back down against the ground, cracking a smile despite himself. “Why the hell didn’t anyone wake me?”

“What do you think I was just doing?” Bors yelled, waving his griddle-iron as he stomped back to the fire. “My morning serenade?”

“We thought you could use your beauty sleep,” Lancelot winked, returning to witling a small piece of quartz with his knife. Likely some gift for whoever he next spent the night, as much one of parting as greeting.

“Did it work?” Galahad croaked, mouth about as dry as his armpits weren’t.

“Depends who you’re after.”

Steadfastly ignoring him, Galahad wrestled his bedroll to a firmly strapped bundle, then wiped his hands on the dewy grass beside. As accustomed as he was to sleeping rough, he wouldn’t be the first to admit he was looking forward to their arrival in Calais that evening. The inn’s flea-ridden bedding was about as famous as the mixed-meat stew, but they had hot water, and that was more than a fair trade.

-

For all the foolery and extra time spent scraping Bors’ rock-hard oatmeal from the cookware, the company was packed and saddled long before Arthur galloped over the crest. Tristan kept pace by his side, and from the foam at the mouths of their horses, they looked to have been riding hard for some miles. For the second time since dawn, Galahad hardly felt refreshed for not having been awake to join them.

Aye’ah,” Dagonet clicked to his mare, the rest of the horses breaking to a canter as they rode to meet them at the edge of the rise.

“Woads,” Arthur breathed, his face gritted in urgency. “At the Saint Agricius outpost. Smoke over the ridge.”

“Agricius is barely manned,” Gawain frowned, repositioning himself for speed all the same.

“Exactly.” Arthur wheeled around to lead them, a practiced gesture of his hand indicating Tristan could fall back to the wings. “And I fear by the time we arrive, not at all.”

“Well, that solves the mystery of the deserted campsite,” Galahad muttered, a glance to Tristan at his left. The man merely cocked his head to one side, thoughtful. His hawk circled above.

-

If Galahad had learnt anything from the summons of warfare, it was that the gods granted favours to whomever showed up on their dice. Breathing the last shards of the Roman outpost on the air, he knew the round was long over, nothing more than a shredded legionary flag to mark their enemy’s visit. If the Woads couldn’t take back Britain, they would make damn sure there wasn’t much left of it.

“Search for survivors,” Arthur muttered, more out of habit than necessity. They all knew what to do. They all knew they’d find none.

Dismounting, Galahad followed their leader round the main garrison. His steps fell heavy, not as much from lack of sleep as weight of thought.

“You’re considering it,” Galahad began. There was no point pretending Arthur didn’t know every detail of their activities the evening previous.

“As I would any proposition,” Arthur agreed, skirting the upturned water trough. The Woads had left nothing that might replenish any rescue parties.

“Yet nothing has changed,” Galahad continued, fired with emotion though he little knew the source. “Merlin wants to treat one day, the next he razes Saint Agricius to the ground. There is no barter between thieves.”

“And yet thieves often band together,” Tristan offered, stepping toward them over the smouldering debris. “Especially in times of need.”

“Well, you would know.” Galahad shot back, not unused to Tristan’s indifference when sense and recklessness came head to head. His gaze travelled purposefully down to the foreign object in Tristan’s hands, a handy pouch of some sort, salvaged from the wreck. Entirely unmoved, Tristan gave a mild shrug.

“You are right,” Arthur murmured. “Nothing has changed between our parties, nor our causes.” Looking firm over the shattered wood and stone, he inhaled, measuring a single nod. “And if we never meet, nothing will.”

Galahad made a poor show of concealing his disagreement of the fact. His annoyance only deepened as Tristan remained completely unaffected by the statement, as if Arthur hadn’t just announced he might engage in hand to hand combat with a pair of breadsticks.

“But we will decide as we always do,” Arthur gave a forgiving smile. “Together.”

Tristan nodded, the conversation already behind him as he stared to the horizon.

“We should take word of the ambush to Calais before sundown.”

“After burying the bodies.” Galahad cleared his throat, the charred air coarse and sticky at his windpipe.

“There’s nothing left of the bodies.” Tristan said flatly.

Arthur signalled the others over, Gawain shaking his head to confirm it.

“Taken by surprise,” Dagonet suggested, wary. “How fifteen watchmen failed to spot the approach, hard to say. But stranger things have happened.”

Galahad felt a shiver travel down his spine.

Not since Merlin joined the war.

-

The inn was crowded, the rooms small, and the ale not near strong enough to wash away the day.

…But plenty strong enough to catch him off-balance on a rogue step.

Brushing himself off as the tavern light faded at his back, Galahad made for the edge of the woods, his bladder feeling a lot fuller by the time they were in reach.

“You tire of fighting them,” came a voice.

Hands dropping from his trousers, Galahad spun into the darkness. Despite the familiar inflection, his thoughts immediately jumped to the bearded Woad leader, the one said to cloak himself in shadow. His heart didn’t beat any slower when he saw it was Tristan who stepped from the black.

“So why not hear what they have to say?”

“I thought you went back to the rooms,” Galahad muttered, not quite ready to discuss peace and politics half-unbuckled and bursting at the seams. Tristan noticed the fact too, and stepped aside accommodatingly.

Do you mind?” Galahad prompted, when the taller man still seemed perfectly content to continue the conversation from only a fractionally wider distance.

Tristan twitched an eyebrow, pacing back toward the horse pen with a manner that suggested Galahad could suit himself. Refastening his belt, Galahad was more than happy to do so. Except that instead of heading back towards Bors’ shouts and Lancelot’s ballads, his steps led him in entirely the opposite direction.

“I didn’t peg you for a diplomat,” Galahad sniffed, his prickliness no more doused as Tristan peered around his horse. He’d never known the man to sleep under a roof where he could help it, and often exchanged more whispers with the animals that carried them than those who rode atop.

“You think the Woads will speak of a truce?”

“I don’t,” Galahad gauged, “I think it nothing but a trap.”

Tristan nodded. For all his insufferable hardness, Galahad couldn’t fault him for dismissing an opinion, unfounded or no. What irked him, was how much warmer he felt for the acknowledgement. Tristan ran a palm along the beast’s neck, receiving a hearty nudge at the shoulder in response.

“I think it an offer of alliance.”

“Against whom?” Galahad piped, his tone raised an octave as his balance gave way a little too far to the left. He grimaced as Tristan raised a palm to steady him, stepping briskly out of reach.

“You didn’t have the mixed-meat stew, did you?” Tristan chuckled, withdrawing his offer of a hand as the swell of dizziness passed.

“Perhaps just too much to drink,” Galahad said reluctantly, already regretting the admission as much as the act that preceded it.

“The lesser of two evils,” Tristan agreed, expression softening as Galahad’s paled. “Let’s walk.”

It was as practical a suggestion as it was a help to his dignity. Strange, given they had both seen the other in far direr straits. Perhaps just his pride then.

“Against whom I’m unsure,” Tristan measured, one eye still trained on Galahad as their steps lengthened into the night. “The tribe could be splitting into factions.”

“Doubtful, given they’re united against a common enemy.”

Tristan grunted, clearly of much the same mindset. Neither needed to give voice to the word.

Rome.

“I’m not tired of fighting them,” Galahad hiccupped, managing to maintain a grave expression nevertheless. “I’m just tired of fighting for a land that isn’t ours to keep.”

“Is any?” Tristan steered a glance to his shoulder as Galahad veered off the path. “If not the Woads, the Romans will have us fighting someone else. Better a rival you respect than despise.”

“I cannot respect one I do not know,” Galahad countered. “They fight from a distance, with paint and smoke. I have not even seen their faces!”

If Tristan was as amused as the flinch at his mouth would suggest, he was working very hard to quell the remainder of it.

“And would you respect them more if they faced us in broad daylight, bare skin to our amour, handshakes offered over the body count? I’d say you’d call them foolish.”

It wasn’t the first time the lines between tactics and chivalry had been drawn, nor the first Galahad found himself confronted with far more than what his vows prepared him. What fuel he had for a rejoinder was quickly doused as his stomach gave an uneasy twist, and he frowned at Tristan in regret.

“Pardon… one moment.”

Veering into the undergrowth, Galahad made it to the trees before needing to be sick, once again finding Tristan not far from his side.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Galahad spluttered, mortified. Then, in a more rousing attempt to make light of it, “just… demonstrating the pillars of knighthood, since you seem to have forgotten.”

This time Tristan did allow himself to laugh, a sound that made Galahad feel a good deal better than losing whatever liquid was left inside him. Getting the hint, Tristan left him to it, tracing back through the bushes with what Galahad imagined was purposeful loudness. Groaning, he took a few deep breaths, collecting his bearings whilst the earth stopped spinning. Finally exhaling toward the treetops, he wiped his mouth on his wrist, grateful that the episode seemed to have cleared his head at least.

“Tristan,” he coughed, swallowed and tried again. “I hope you don’t mind my company for another evening. I don’t think I could step back inside that alehouse if-”

He stopped. On the path where their footsteps had ended lay a small hunting blade, winking up at him in the moonlight. Galahad felt his pulse slide into his throat. It was no jest. Not when so many of the company had departed in a manner just as sudden. Snatching it up from the ground, he gritted his teeth at the smear of blood and blue paint at the handle.

It had not been left by accident.

Turning heel, Galahad stumbled toward the inn, a distant flicker in the dark. He hadn’t taken ten steps before wheeling around, snarling in agony. Too far. The trail would be cold as it was, and his companions far less sober than he.

Whetting the whole of his senses to the space around him, Galahad blocked all from his mind but what didn’t belong. The twigs snapped at the seams. The small pockets of silence, just before insects resumed their pace. He tried to imagine he was Tristan, with Tristan’s eyes and Tristan’s ears; and Tristan’s hawk, that seemed to see all of what was missed between.

It didn’t work.

He set after them anyway.

-

Chapter Text

Fear giving way to anger, he ran. There was no need to have drunk so much, and perhaps if he’d had the bloody sense to eat anything, would have fared better regardless. There was even less need to have sent Tristan packing for the sake of decency, when the man could split a foe from bowel to lung without batting an eyelid. The thought of the Woads made his spit turn cold on his tongue, their idiocy in not simply waiting for Arthur’s decision. The sheer rashness of it. Every few seconds he would pause, catching a whisper on the wind, the crackle of scattered pine needles on the forest floor. What they had done to Tristan to make sure he didn’t struggle, Galahad couldn’t bring himself to consider. Tears pricked the seams of his eyelids, then traced thin lines down his cheeks. It was Tristan. Things like this didn’t happen when Tristan was around. Things like this didn’t happen to Tristan. And nothing of the sort would ever have happened, had it not been for-

Galahad came to a sharp halt, breath strangling in his windpipe. Stopped in a snow-specked clearing were three figures, huddled in conversation. The two Woads were unmistakable, their skin shining blue and garish despite the dark. With them; unharmed, unbound and utterly goddamn nonchalant…

Tristan.

Seized by whatever emotion he’d managed to keep in check throughout his pursuit, Galahad stormed out of the trees, no effort spared in divulging his feelings on the matter. His entrance was marked by a piercing snarl from the smaller of the Woads, a woman armed to the teeth. From Tristan, an exasperatingly insignificant blink, as if to imply that Galahad was merely arriving slightly later than anticipated. And lastly the stare of the bearded Woad, piercing enough to near stop him in his tracks.

If the arrow hadn’t stopped him first.

By a split second, Galahad saw it before he felt it. It was almost confusing, seeing the shaft jutting through his middle, the fletching fluttering in the breeze. And then came the sting, a sensation so raw that it ripped the shout from his lungs, consuming him hollow and whole. His mouth fell ajar, knees caving on the ice. He thought he heard Tristan’s voice, sharp and coarse over the wavering silence. But it couldn’t have been, really. Tristan never sounded frightened.

-

Galahad awoke to the collision of several sensations. His feet and lower legs felt very hot, as if someone had lain him too close to a fire. His face and neck were, by contrast, not only cold but soaking wet. At first Galahad assumed this was perspiration, until his vision cleared enough to catch a glimpse of the rag being wiped over his brow, tattooed cheekbones peering over him.

“I think…” Galahad croaked, hitching the corner of his mouth to a weakened grin, “I’ve got to stop joining you on these midnight strolls.”

Tristan’s eyes twitched above, upside down and nebulous as ever.

“I don’t know about that,” he murmured, fingers rough as he squeezed Galahad’s shoulder. “Might leave a chance for one going to plan.”

Trying to wrestle himself upright, Galahad realised his head had been resting in Tristan’s lap, a makeshift campfire as close to his boots as he suspected. Gritting his teeth against a fresh swell of pain, he sank back down.

“I’m not sure my getting shot has improved your sense of humour.”

“It hasn’t.” Tristan shrugged. “I don’t have a sense of humour.”

Wishing very much that he could at least gather enough energy to punch him, Galahad settled for an indignant snort instead. He regretted the exertion almost just as quickly, the band of muscle below his ribcage shuddering in protest. Trying to hold back a wince, the sight of Tristan frowning was as disconcerting as it was unfamiliar. He was conscious. The arrow hadn’t punctured his lungs. They’d both seen and done far worse.

“I’m sorry.” Tristan said, palm brushed across Galahad’s chest.

It was about the last thing Galahad expected to hear, much less knew how to respond. Tristan offered no further explanation, dipping his head toward the fire as a second shadow flickered into view.

“No.” Galahad spat, the realisation of what was about to happen speeding his pulse. “Not a Woad. I’ll do it myself. Not them.”

The figure held a branch, one end glowing hot and bright where it had rested in the embers. She offered no greeting, eyes unblinking as she knelt by Galahad’s torso. Tristan secured his arms behind his back.

“No!” Galahad writhed against the hold, jaw clenched in undisguised fury. Surprised, Tristan let go.

“You know that-”

“I know,” Galahad snapped. “You do it.”

Tristan stared down at him, tongue tracing over his canines as they fought unspoken. Then he held out his hand for the branch. The Woad spoke low, motioning to Galahad’s arms. Tristan shook his head.

Snatching each breath through his teeth, Galahad felt what remained of his tunic being peeled aside, the wound oozing cold against the air. Clenching his fists, he refused to close his eyes as Tristan leant over him. He made no sound as the smouldering wood pressed against his flesh, agony welling beyond his control. But he didn’t move.

“Not bad,” Galahad rasped after a moment, pinpoints of light draining from his vision as he wiped beneath his nose. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say it wasn’t your first time.”

Tristan paused in the middle of doubling a line of cloth round his waist, narrowing his eyes.

“If I didn’t know better,” he said slowly, “I’d say getting shot definitely improved your sense of humour.”

-

The sun was near ready to rise by the time the talks had concluded. Galahad had slipped in and out of consciousness, the foreign tongue both lulling and unsettling each time he was on the cusp of waking. He wasn’t sure his dreams had ever been so vivid nor feverish, occasionally halting the discussions when he cried out, little recalling the cause almost as soon. Tristan occasionally held a skin of water to his lips, which he refused on almost every instance, except those where he felt he could drink the whole thing, and protested when Tristan pulled it away. Most terrifying was the sight of the Woad leader, finally kneeling next to him, pressing a palm over his aching abdomen. For all his wild appearance, an intelligence clawed within his eyes that Galahad scarcely recognised. It reminded him of the day he was knighted. Or the day he first saw Arthur.

The Woads gave them a horse, one they had stolen from the recent raids, likely as not. Tristan made ready to walk beside, until it became clear that Galahad was close to slipping off, even at a gentle pace. Bringing them to a standstill with a low noise in his throat, Tristan walked round the beast’s flank, swinging up behind him in a single swift movement.

“There aren’t any reins,” Galahad mumbled, realising for the first time that there was no saddle either.

“No need,” Tristan murmured, shifting his weight to guide the horse forward, an arm wrapped lightly around Galahad’s middle. His hold tightened whenever Galahad’s balance seemed to waver, loosening each time it recovered.

“How did,” Galahad started, his words slippery as his bearings, “you get to be so good with animals?”

Tristan chuckled, the soft hum of movement echoing at Galahad’s spine.

“You come face to face with Merlin. See me converse with our enemy all night. And the first question you ask-” he grazed a thumb over Galahad’s ribcage, well clear of the injury, “-is why I am good with animals?”

“Mm,” Galahad pulled his mouth to a smile, trying not to lean too heavily into Tristan’s chest. “Thing is. You’re most certainly going to have to explain the rest of that later. But…” He tucked an arm over Tristan’s as his waist gave an uncomfortable twinge, holding on until the throbbing subsided. “…Now seems an opportune time to ask you something you might not normally speak of.”

Tristan made a growl as he exhaled, which Galahad took as some kind of mulling over the idea.

“Or,” Galahad coughed, unable to ride with ease no matter how he held himself. “We could start with something lighter. Like, whether or not Merlin has magic powers.”

Magic powers.” Tristan laughed again, then shook his head. “Who knows. That was not the subject he sought to share with me.”

They rode a few beats more in silence, until Galahad was sure that would be all that passed between them. And then Tristan took a breath.

“I can’t say for sure. But they understand freedom. And I understand freedom.”

“I understand freedom,” Galahad interjected, a reflex near as swift as if he’d been stung.

“You understand what Rome taught you about freedom.”

There was no malice to the words, and Galahad wasn’t quite sure why they were so difficult to hear. He knew them to be untrue. But, somehow, even more difficult to dispute. Gently, Tristan rested his chin on Galahad’s shoulder, nudging him to look at the sun swelling over the horizon. It almost made everything worth it.

“When we were younger,” Galahad cleared his throat, well prepared to regret what he was going to say next. “In training, I mean. There used to be a rumour that you could scout through the eyes of your hawk.”

While Galahad couldn’t see him, he was almost certain Tristan was smiling.

“…and that you were the one who managed to disarm Lancelot on your first try at the joust. Despite the fact each of you has steadfastly refused to account for it since.”

“I see. Well,” Tristan measured, tone as husky as it was unreadable. He eased his jaw from Galahad’s shoulder as they neared the inn, still far too early for the stableboys it seemed. “I can confirm that at least one of those rumours is true.”

“The hawk. I knew it.” Galahad grinned, giddy from exhaustion or delayed shock he wasn’t sure. He could still feel the lingering weight above his collarbone. Somehow, it wasn’t helping.

Tristan swept down from the horse, unfastening the wooden post that served as a gate and letting the animal follow him inside in pen. He held a hand out to Galahad, who managed to dismount unaided, bracing himself for the jolt of his feet touching ground.

It didn’t come.

Frowning, he glanced at his bloodied clothing, tentatively poking at the bandage.

Nothing.

“I need to take this off,” he choked, fingers suddenly shivering as they fumbled with the knots, more shaky with each failed attempt. Unspeaking, Tristan brought his own to still him, soundlessly pulling the loops apart.

They both stared.

“Perhaps an answer to your question,” Tristan said after a while.

Galahad tried his best to breathe.

“If only,” he whispered.

-

Chapter Text

It was clear by breakfast that news of the encounter had been split and shared amongst the company, digested with greater solemnity than even Galahad was accustomed. Arthur paced brooding by the fireplace, finally discharging himself via the back door on realising it was doing nought to help. Bors had brought the table a flagon of spiced wine, forgot it remained untouched, and moments later brought another. Gawain and Dagonet alternated between shooting Galahad enquiring and sympathetic looks in turn, till he glared them both into pouring out cups of the liquor, stares drowned in their flasks instead.

When Lancelot excused himself on some pretence of tending the supplies, Galahad stood abruptly from the table, not a word to the others. He caught Lancelot at the cellar perimeter, where he waited as if having no doubt Galahad would follow. It chagrined the younger man to no end.

“Alright,” Galahad started, crossing his arms and uncrossing them just as swiftly. “What is it that I don’t know?”

Lancelot paid little heed to the question, nodding toward Galahad’s abdomen instead.

“Show me.”

Galahad glanced across at him. Lancelot arched an eyebrow. He was the first to ask, though judging from the reaction of the others, none doubted the truth of it. Still confronted by the very notion, Galahad grimaced as he pulled the fresh undershirt aside, revealing a scar that looked months old, rather than hours.

“As if it was no more than a scratch,” he muttered, holding still whilst Lancelot took stock of it.

“Indeed. Quite the party trick.”

“Not one I would place my trust in.” Galahad thrust his shirt back into his britches with greater force than necessary.

“Ah,” Lancelot mused, eyes creasing at the corners. “There’s the surprise.”

Halfway through a rather pertinent inhale, Galahad stopped, frowning whilst Lancelot made a poor attempt of hiding some sort of smile.

“What’s that supposed to-”

He trailed off as Lancelot clapped a hand on his shoulder, as reassuring as the rest of the morning hadn’t been.

“The only thing you don’t know,” he answered softly, “is perhaps what you haven’t wished to see. And that’s a conversation better had with Tristan.”

“Yes. Because he’s so forthcoming with that sort of thing,” Galahad retorted, immediately regretting it as Lancelot brimmed with interest.

“Well. How many times have you asked him?”

Galahad sucked a breath, swallowed, then dipped his mouth to a scowl as Lancelot chuckled.

“My friend,” Lancelot shook his head, “there are enough things we don’t know in this life without making strangers of our allies. Or shadows of those who would stand by our side.”

“The Woads are hardly our allies.” Galahad shifted his stance against the wall, uneasy.

“And I’m hardly speaking of the Woads,” Lancelot finished.

Galahad hooked his thumbs in his belt, gaze falling somewhere close to his boots. It was as close to an acknowledgement as he could manage, still closer than he would admit to himself. Finally, he squinted an eye, mouth hooked at the corner.

“So. When are you going to finish this book of poems I keep hearing about?”

Lancelot spurted a laugh, pacing a few steps backward as he apparently decided the supplies needed restocking after all.

“It would be finished a lot sooner if I didn’t keep gifting them at every passing Roman village.” Darting Galahad a well-practiced wink, he followed with a far cagier grin. “Why? Have you need of one?”

“What? No!” Galahad tried to temper his volume as the exclamation bounced from the cellar walls. Lancelot merely looked all the more amused.

“Are you certain? I’ve given verse to almost every dilemma- unrequited love, unforeseen love, unspoken love-”

“No, no, no,” Galahad hurried, snorting and rolling his eyes with such vigour that he felt lightheaded. “Thank you for the offer. But I might go try and catch Tristan now after all.”

“Insatiable love, insufferable love-”

“No, no need!” Galahad waved, setting off in whatever direction his steps took him first. “Cheers! Good day!”

Lancelot raised a hand in return, smiling with all the ease in the world.

“Best of luck for the chat,” he called.

“You too!” Galahad yelled over his shoulder, sighing as he too late heard him.

Can’t be any more painful than that one.

-

As it happened, fate would hardly have been so lenient. Despite several laps around the town marketplace, stables, even the local aqueduct, the only familiar face he ran into was Arthur, who looked about as lost in his thoughts as Galahad was full of them. Despite everything, he felt more than a little guilty for the fact, nor did Galahad think he would be the one Arthur would consult on such matters.

“Galahad-”

Mid-way through a tentative step toward one of the alleyways, Galahad paused, feeling no less silly than when the man used to catch him out of bounds at their training barracks. When he met the glint in Arthur’s eye, Galahad had a feeling the recollection wasn’t lost on him either.

“Are you feeling better?”

“No harm done,” Galahad cleared his throat. He knew the question was voiced in friendship as well as practicality. He also knew, had it not been for the haste of his ambush, there would have been no need to ask it in the first place.

If that same thought had crossed Arthur’s mind, he had the tact not to mention it.

“I’m glad. We ride for Rome tomorrow.”

For whatever toll his body had or hadn’t paid, Galahad felt an unexpected prickle at his gut on hearing the news. Strange, given that had been their intended course all along.

“So the words of Merlin…”

Arthur waited patiently, the sentence slipping through Galahad’s fingers the longer he stared. What on earth was he trying to ask? Didn’t change anything? Had he actually started believing they might?

“…did they mean anything?”

Arthur blinked back at him, surprised.

“Of course they meant something. They meant a great deal.” The sincerity in his tone weighing heavy in the silence, Arthur somehow looked lighter for the admission. “They meant, at least, that the Woads believe in something beyond a fight to the death. Even whilst their ranks are failing, they hold hope.”

Without straight sense or reason, Galahad felt a swell at his chest in spite of himself. Grimacing toward the street sellers, he could only be glad the conversation had taken place without Tristan present after all.

“Hope that Rome will withdraw from these lands?”

A wish as futile as it was moving.

Arthur shook his head.

“That a new leader will rise to bring peace to them.”

Galahad swallowed, uncertain. Arthur warmed to a wry smile.

“I’m waiting for you to tell me of the senselessness of prophecies.”

Their steps had near traced the whole perimeter of the trading quarter before Galahad frowned helpless in response.

“So am I.”

-

It had started raining long before nightfall, and if only for the fact that Galahad wished to remain outside, would continue long after. Galahad knew the weather would be of no consequence to his more elusory companion, and it was at almost the precise moment that he decided to break off the search when he spotted him. Though he could’ve sworn he’d passed that log several times before.

Trudging ungracefully through a slick of mud en-route, Galahad raised a hand in greeting, dropping it as he noted the ridiculousness of such a gesture. Tristan nodded in return regardless. His own hand rested on his knee, shoulder supporting the winged creature he could ever be seen travelling with, as intimidating at rest as in flight.

“For once she finds me a good place to sleep,” Tristan murmured, eyes unblinking beneath the drip of his hair. “And I feel too guilty to say otherwise.”

“You do make a fairly reasonable pillow,” Galahad allowed, nodding to the lap he had spent the evening previous in. “Though I may be biased.”

Tristan twitched a corner of his mouth, seemingly happy to take a compliment, intended or not. The hawk looked less than pleased with either of them, untucking her head where it had curled into the feathers at her back. Tristan made a low click beneath his tongue, to which the bird stretched her wings. Galahad took an involuntary step backward as the shape swept above him, glittered black in the moonlight, then sailed between the stars. He shivered. Tristan’s chuckle sounded closer to a snarl, but he dipped his chin to the space on the log beside him ever the same.

Rain dripping down the brim of his tunic, Galahad sat down, elbows dug stiffly against his thighs. Tristan had tilted his face toward the clouds, eyes closed and mouth slightly ajar as the sky splattered over them. Galahad let out a breath, not realising he had been holding it.

“Arthur told me of this… idea, the Woads have.”

“Not an idea,” Tristan spoke to the treetops. “Their legend.”

“Yes. Well.” Galahad shifted his seat on the bark, trying to squint in the same general direction. Then, slowly turned to face the taller man, eyes widening with recognition. “Last night was not the first you heard it.”

Tristan’s stare never flickered as he answered.

“No.”

“Then why now? Why have you never spoken of it before?”

If Galahad had attempted to keep what wonder and accusation he could from his tone, he failed miserably on both counts.

“Because,” Tristan said, moderate enough that Galahad winced in regret. “It was not my story to tell. Nor did I know whom it concerned.”

They sat unmoving, the crackle of water colliding with pine needles rising to a roar. Galahad blinked into the distance.

“Do you now?”

Tristan didn’t answer. It was answer enough.

“And does he?”

This time Tristan did look at him, lip curled ever so slightly back in defiance.

“Bloody hell, Tristan!” Galahad breathed, stung to his feet. “You have no right to presume such things! Kings are made by birth! What freedoms do you think we would all have, should such an outlandish notion reach Roman ears?”

“Less than this thing you call freedom now, certainly,” Tristan growled, accent curling rough. “Hence I share it with you alone.”

Galahad stood still, his heart pounding in his chest.

“But what good is that, if you believe it to be true?”

Tristan’s stare bit through him, posture coiled to spring.

“If it is true, it will happen,” he licked his tongue over a canine, eyes flashing in the dark. “Whether you speak of it, I speak or it, or either of us believes it to be true at all.”

Galahad gritted his teeth against the thunder, his oilskin leathers long surrendered to the damp. Tristan had worn no such layers at all, his tunic drenched taut against his chest. He looked wild enough that Galahad might scarce have disagreed if the man announced he was Merlin himself, all else a clever ruse. Galahad had never felt so alone.

“Do you really care for nothing?” Was what he found himself whispering, the words tight at his throat.

Tristan flinched an eyebrow, surprised at the question or the display of emotion, Galahad couldn’t say.

“What,” Tristan moved to his feet, the movement as fluid as it was gentle, “in my behaviour, would suggest that?”

“You are a Woad!” Galahad hissed, unable to reign in the feeling behind it. “Were a Woad. And yet you have trained and travelled with our company without protest, opposing those who would have called you kin.”

“I was a child,” Tristan answered, something less composed stirring beneath his tone. “The kin that you speak of long slain by another tribe. If such a thing were indeed possible…” He spat at the ground, fresh water leaking back into his mouth immediately after. “I would say I hold more idealistic notions about trust, unity, and what is right, than even you.”

Galahad had never heard Tristan speak so vehemently, nor with so many words at once. It left him winded for a response. Tristan didn’t wait for one. Without so much as a glare in parting, he set toward the lighted inn, only his shadow stretching back within Galahad’s reach. And even that was too quick to catch.

-

Chapter Text

Galahad wedged himself against the window in his chamber, the panelled glass shuddering against his spine. The pelting rain hardly soothed his nerves nor bearings, the drumming doing nothing more than keeping him from thinking straight. As it happened, he didn’t have to not-think for very long. Galahad barely heard the scuff of the door over the floor boards, nor the click of the brass as it closed. But as soon as he looked up to see Tristan dripping by his fireplace, all other sound seemed suffocated to still.

“Breathe,” Tristan said gently, Galahad still strangled with remorse. “I told the rest of the Woads to wait next door.”

Galahad choked back a laugh, not meeting Tristan’s eye for fear of losing his composure all together. Instead he glared at the flames behind him, his face near as hot as the kindling.

“Shouldn’t it be I visiting your bedchamber to apologise?”

Tristan bent a smile, halfway between consoling and haunting in the lowlight. He held out his hand.

“I’m not here to apologise.”

Galahad narrowed his eyes at the gesture, getting to his feet all the same. Tristan withdrew his palm as he approached, lowering himself to kneel by the fire. Galahad crossed his arms, standing uncomfortably above.

“No. Well. I am though. I owe you an apology.”

“Galahad.” Tristan’s eyes seared up at him, the word no more than a curl at his lips. He seemed entirely at ease whether the younger man loomed over him or not, and that was unnerving enough to make Galahad sit abruptly down. “You don’t owe me anything.”

The phrase was near as upsetting as it was confusing, and Galahad bit his tongue on the flood of explanations vying to prove him wrong.

“You don’t owe Rome anything,” Tristan continued, rainwater tracing from his knees to the floorboards. “You don’t owe your bond of servitude anything. You care and you fight because it means something to you. As it does to me.”

“What does it mean to you?” Galahad swallowed, the question breaking at his throat.

“You already know.” Tristan moved the inside of his thumb to brush at the tear that slipped down Galahad’s cheek, his touch unpractised as it was coarse.

“You think me so naive,” Galahad whispered, wincing in anguish at his lapse of restraint. “You came here to lecture me. To show me for a fool.  To-”

“No.” Tristan moved his hand to cup below Galahad’s jaw, softer than Galahad thought him capable. “I came here for the same reason I do anything. Because it is my choice. And because I wanted to.”

Galahad froze, caught between viciously pulling back and thrusting him off. To have felt so much for so long, only to be mocked by the suggestion… the suggestion that... no. It was more of a humiliation than he could bear. Pulse throbbing at his ears, Galahad could barely hear the words that followed, hissed between his teeth without mercy.

“Get out.”

Tristan’s mouth flinched down at the corners, his hand pulled back as if wounded somehow.

“Get out, get out!” Galahad roared, grabbing the front of Tristan’s tunic with both fists and wrenching him to his feet. Ploughing his weight against the taller man’s chest, he managed to make Tristan stumble back at least a few steps, before finding himself seized by his shirt with just as much vigour. Upper lip snagged back over his teeth, Tristan hoisted him from the ground, marching him across the room and slamming him against the window with such force that Galahad was sure it were within an inch of shattering.

“Believe me, I will. But know in all truth that I-”

The rest of Tristan’s words were pulled from beneath him as Galahad wrestled furiously in his grip, snatching at the man’s braids and ripping wildly enough that Tristan snarled in surprise. The sound was enough to make Galahad release his hold, cursing a second later when Tristan snapped on instinct with the speed of a wolf, teeth closing over his wrist. Galahad yelped, spat a promise, then jerked his forehead forward before he’d considered it, the peak of his brow colliding with the bridge of Tristan’s nose. Tristan made an inhuman hiss, mouth falling ajar as a thin trickle of red leaked from one nostril, the other flaring as he took a sharp inhale.

“Oh gods,” Galahad panted, sweat beading at his upper lip despite the cool. “Oh gods, oh gods. I didn’t mean to… I… Tristan, forgive me. I’m so-” he raised a shaky knuckle to wipe below Tristan’s nose, the gesture possibly creating more mess than it mended. “Are you-”

Tristan gave a growl, cluttered words drowned to quiet as he reached for Galahad’s hand. Unravelling the bloodstained fingers, he brought the centre of Galahad’s palm to press against his mouth. Eyes closed, Tristan almost seemed to be taking in the scent of his skin as he kissed, jaw scraping rough where his teeth had gritted not moments before.

“Yes.” His exhale came warm and guttural against Galahad’s veins. “Though by my oath of the round table, Galahad, if you do not stop mistaking me…”

Galahad froze, his fingertips shivering over the line of Tristan’s cheekbones, his own washed with tears. Tristan kissed his palm again, his larger hand held gentle over his knuckles, fingers laced between. It took every thread of Galahad’s poise to raise his thoughts to a whisper.

“Mistaking you…”

Slowly, Tristan met his eyes, chest heaving and falling as he licked over the words. Then, softly guiding Galahad’s palm from his mouth, he pinned it above the younger man’s head, posture caving as he leant down to reach him. The kiss pulled Galahad from the wall, painful in all its vulnerability. There was nothing careful about Tristan’s manner, his mouth stinging as it was tender. He tasted like salt and air, teeth traced across his lower lip, untamed, unbound, and utterly whole in feeling as it was in weakness.

I’m dead or dreaming, was what all instinct urged him to admit.

“Don’t stop,” was what escaped his throat.

Tristan didn’t listen. He never listened. But nor did he stop.

Arms pulled over his head, Galahad found his tunic broken at the seams, a low ripping noise giving voice to the claw of frost at his skin. He shuddered as his spine hit the web of glass behind, shoulders slipping on the water than had seeped through the wooden frame. His own hands reached for the knots at Tristan’s tunic, fumbling and useless. Fingers entwined, Tristan kissed Galahad’s knuckles as they trembled, the carve of his lips spiking a rent of desire below his gut. Tipping his head backward, Galahad felt the heat of Tristan’s mouth at his neck, teeth and tongue gouging where the sinew of his muscle met with his ribcage. Galahad let out a halting gasp, quickly clenching his jaw at the unforgiving abandon of it.

A smile offered between kisses, Tristan proceeded to bite him again, savage enough to quell the blush at Galahad’s cheeks, make him nod when Tristan’s eyes sought between the shivers and sips of air. Drawing the weave of their hands to his lips, Galahad mumbled as many profanities as affections along the length of his fingers, hitching with laughter as Tristan eventually cupped his palm over Galahad’s mouth entirely. His grip was soft as his skin was calloused, and Galahad nudged a kiss against the fault lines made hard by his bow. His groan soon came husky as Galahad felt his belt undone, cock bouncing taut and weeping against his stomach. Tristan’s breath seared warm against the beading liquid, tantalising a proposal that had so far only darted unbidden in Galahad’s mind.

“In the name…! Oh, oh-”

Coiling a bemused glance over the length of his cock, Tristan moved his hand to graze over Galahad’s earlobe, fingers caged behind the nape of his neck. Eyelids squeezed shut, Galahad dampened a shout in the crook of Tristan’s arm, moaning thick and suffering. There was no point pretending he’d felt anything of the sort before. With an inhale that came close to a sob, the longing he had so long stifled threatened to unravel with the rest of him. He had never wanted to, if it were not with Tristan.

Blinking and watery, Galahad brushed a thumb over the markings at Tristan’s cheekbones, unable to stop his legs from twitching and buckling as he saw himself taken whole. Wetness sliding over him in unbroken rhythm, Galahad gripped Tristan’s shoulder in anguish, far too sensitive for decorum. The Woad curled a smile, easing his pace to a deliberate massage, then letting his tongue circle the rim of Galahad’s head.

With his fore and middle fingers, Tristan measured a question at Galahad’s lips. Mouth opening, Galahad sucked until Tristan drew them away, glistening with spit. Slowly, Tristan took the hand to Galahad’s entrance, gently tracing the coil of muscle. It was a sensation as intangible as it was unfamiliar, the lightest of strokes spiking tendrils down his calves, his toes scrunching and splaying in accord.

Slick and swelling, Galahad felt himself relax enough that Tristan could ease a finger inside him, the second following when Galahad quivered in want. He could feel Tristan’s knuckles pressed at his opening, the smallest throbbing motions echoing against the tightness within. As Tristan stroked to the limit of his reach, Galahad pitched forward, a convulsion taking him to the very edge of his control, receding just as quickly.

Glancing up, Tristan let Galahad’s cock spring from his mouth with a slippery pop. He arched above Galahad’s torso, eyes darting affectionate upon the scar of their evening previous. Then, as if in afterthought, he pressed his mouth to the bruise in a chaste kiss, murmuring nothing close to the common tongue. Galahad drew him into a warmer embrace, Tristan’s nose crumpling against his own.

“Speak to me,” Galahad whispered, clouding with uncertainty almost as soon as he had uttered it.

Tristan stared back at him, eyes wide and heavy with feeling. For a second, Galahad felt wholly terrified that he had opened some wound, if not between them than to what shadows lay in Tristan’s years before the company. But then, fondly, Tristan leaned toward him, the words Galahad had so long heard screamed out in battle now tender against his ear. He held back his agony as Tristan continued, the phrases as foreign to him as the afterlife, as beautiful as everything that was now.

With both arms wrapped around Tristan’s neck, Galahad hoisted himself up on the windowsill. The taller man dipped his head to rest their brows together, murmuring soft against Galahad’s lips. As Galahad trembled and tensed in turn, Tristan knelt until Galahad’s knees were over his shoulders, gently standing as Galahad braced himself against the glass. Keeping his eyes trained to Galahad’s movements, Tristan slid between his cheeks, breath catching in his throat. For once he looked near overwhelmed, rough words growled low as he kissed a path down Galahad’s inner thigh.

Catching the smaller knight against his chest, Tristan thrust their bodies together, breath sucked savage through the grit of his teeth. Galahad gave a harsh moan, nodding fiercely as words failed him. He bucked his hips as the pressure of Tristan’s cock roused him with the heat of a pyre, the smooth rolling motion prickling pleasure at his core. Galahad made a godless shout as Tristan snarled against his abdomen, hot seams of his essence painted white against their skins.

What words he had were crushed against Tristan’s lips as the man sank against him, panting and shuddering in waves, arms wrapped firm around his back. As his gasps waned to shivers, Tristan scooped Galahad from the ledge, carrying him effortlessly to the bedding. Galahad tried not to laugh as he was deposited rather roughly upon the blankets, Tristan flopping equally unceremoniously on top of him.

“You never sleep under a roof,” Galahad mumbled against Tristan’s collarbone, the silliness of those being the first words to blurt from his lips causing him to flush in despair.

Peeking up from beneath the tangle of his hair, Tristan’s eyes creased at the corners before he nuzzled back into Galahad’s chest.

“Mm,” he growled. “I never do a lot of things, when it comes to you.”

Galahad squeezed into him until Tristan grinned from the sheer tightness of it, shuffling upward to peer over him with curiosity.

“You are not going to ask what words I spoke,” Tristan murmured after a while, a kiss grazed below each of Galahad’s eyes. “I do not think you understood me.”

Galahad managed a crooked smile.

“For once,” he whispered, falling free in the wake of all that was past, all that might come to be. “I did.”

-