They grow closer together as the desperation sets in. The land is starving but their instincts are united. In hard times, they fall seamlessly together. Picts and Knights have not been separate for some time. At night, when they sit together in a circle, they are the same. Their children are the same. Indecipherable.
It's easier to forget the divide even in his memories when they are all gathered around the fire, listening. Tristan eats his meager meal and watches the dry brush culled from the fields burn. The heat is welcome, it's another cold night.
"Where's the sun gone, Gilly?" a child's voice demands from the other side of the circle where their storyteller is holding court.
A fire in the darkness calls for stories like a lost child calls out for its mother. A story is a place that answers can live, when the real ones do not satisfy.
Merlin is dead three long years past, but Bors' oldest has a spellbinding gift of his own.
"Well, that's quite a question," Gilly answers, merry and ribald. "It's the night time. Everyone knows that the in the night, the Sun puts on his best dress and pretends to be his own sister the Moon so that all of the adoring stars can't find him."
A chorus of giggles answers. Beside him, Tristan can hear Guinevere ask Arthur, "do they really believe that?"
"No," Arthur chuckles.
Gilly has discarded the gods of the Romans, the magic of the Picts. He ignores the solemnity of history, too, in favor of a ridiculous and generally reassuring view of life.
"No, Gilly," a strident voice corrects. A youngster - one of Gawain's perhaps, or Arthur's youngest. "Why is the sun gone during the day?"
"Ah," Gilly says, a perfect mime of just understanding, his youthful features a younger image of his father at the same age. Expressive. "That."
With the air of a wise master, sitting down to impart wisdom to eager students. Gilly winds up for some serious story fabrication. The younger children, even Dunndubhan and Harviu, play their student's part with equal enthusiasm.
"Well," Gilly begins, pausing in his off-the-cuff composition to best effect, lifting his mug to his mouth to drink.
In the near firelight, Guinevere passes one hand comfortingly over the well-rounded curve of her belly, soothing the child within or perhaps as a protective gesture.
"The sun has put on a thousand veils," Gilly says. "Hiding his face."
"But why? It's too cold without the sun."
"Our comings and goings are of little concern," Gilly says. "He can hardly hear us all the way up there. The sun only talks to giants."
"Is he hiding from a giant?"
"Oh no, of course not, " Gilly says. "He's trying to be mysterious. To woo a suitor. Every day, when his advances go unnoticed, the sun pulls on another veil. Maybe this one will be fancy enough - or that one. That's why it took so long for us to realize what was wrong."
The children absorb this in thoughtful silence.
Tristan knows that more and more fantastic and elaborate details will grow from this seed. Fantasy has been the only fruitful crop this year. The sun is veiled, and a heavy grey dust covers everything as if by magic.
He lifts himself away from the fire, finishing his thin broth and walking through the rows of stone huts with empty gardens, sitting heavily on the frozen ground.
They had cut into the frozen earth like the belly of an enemy to sew seeds in early May, surviving the back-breaking work only because it was an effort of hope.
This is not an enemy like the Saxons, who have come again and again to Britannia like a tide against the shore. They take footholds where they can, and spread over the land south of the wall, taking bites from the land with small raids and then settling. Arthur cannot get there before the act is done, cannot undo the lost lives by killing.
There is enough to worry about otherwise.
There is a helmet outside the cottage, inverted and made into a flower pot. Inside are tenderly planted blue flowers, coddled through the harsh weather. A single white island sits against the dark soil, the bleached bone bone of a hawk skull.
Tristan blows a kiss as he passes it.
Light comes into the morning wanly, the whole of existence dim and cold. The sky is otherwise empty, the world otherwise calm.
One of their old men is dead, and the world refuses to take his body into her embrace, freezes her arms solid closed, starving her children. He'd coughed until something inside him failed, and now the smoke of his pyre joins the grey sky, two shades of the same color.
There is a hollow at the center of Tristan's chest that aches and aches and pulls at his attention.
Once, a Viking Saxon had cut the wind out of him. He'd seen the edges of the world while he lay unconscious, a gap in his mind where he knows that time passed. Galahad tells him a month, nearer to two while his body healed. Blood makes whole, if it still beats.
The wonder was that they waited for him. Once, when they were younger knights, Arthur had made the decision that one fallen brother would never heal. Tristan knows he still carries the knife.
All of their armor is gone to rot and rust, their bodies are as changed by age.
Yet, the weapons they keep. Tristan cannot bury his headstone or let it fall to rust. He polishes it instead, hones it. It may never find purchase in anything but grave dirt again, but it will bite deep at that.
Tristan looks up at the sunless sky, the grey on grey and weary world and no black shadow dares there, no wings ward away the clouds from the exhausted sunlight. It is a heavy sight.
How far would he have to go for blue skies? North or South? His instincts call out to discover the answer, his compass is as confused as the wind. He'll give it two days.
Dry, dead grass crackles underfoot as Tristan crosses the horse pasture, the animals moving listlessly in the fields - they have yet to shed the shaggy winter coats, even at the height of summer. Tristan knows the horses are in for a lean winter as well. The grain supplies will go to feed their masters, leaving only hay for them; the aged and dusty remains of more prosperous years.
His old stallion greets him with curious, hopeful nudges, unable to understand any better than his master why times are so lean.
Inside, the stables are warm and smell like horse. Musty hay an animal sweat. He can hear the mare sighing and pacing in the back. The big stall.
She pokes her nose over the stall door when she hears Tristan coming. It is a restless motion, accompanied by an explosive sigh. A blast of air that conveys her ragged impatience. Once gray, her coat has changed to white save for the remaining dark circles around her eyes, edging her ears.
Tristan reaches out and presses his palm to her soft nose. It only steadies her for a moment before she returns to her anxious pacing.
Tristan peers over the door into the next stall. There, in the hay, Galahad is curled. Sleeping. Waiting. Exhausted from a previous fruitless night of patience. His face is still young, though the lines of care have started appearing at the corners of his eyes, the first threads of grey appearing amidst dark curls. The long, soft looking curls of his eyelashes rest against his cheeks, easy and untroubled.
Tristan is reluctant to wake him from dreams that are surely sweeter than the waking world.
But he has an old promise to keep.
"Galahad," Tristan calls.
His eyes open, sharp and blue. Deepening from sweet gladness to see Tristan - always like that at first - to real worry as he remembers the world
"Still pacing," Tristan assures him. "I still say you're too early."
"She's old for this," Galahad says, rubbing a slow, loose fist against one eye. "I don't want to miss it."
Tristan offers no further input. Galahad was right, but his presence is unlikely to change the less than ideal situation surrounding it. It's late in the year. Food is low. It's cold.
But Galahad's mare is a good mother, with a half-dozen foals now bolstering the herd of animals that serve as plow-pullers and goods transport.
With pride, he knows that each of them was sired by his own aging stallion, carrying on a line of proud Roman warhorses here in a different world. A last faction to match the knights that exist now, as much Picts as Sarmatians.
"What do you need?" Galahad asks into Tristan's thoughtful silence. He is never intimidated by it.
It is a question beyond answer to Tristan's mind. He needs wind and blue skies and the sensation of land passing beneath his feet. He needs freedom and ferocity and Galahad at his side but not too close. Not always. Just enough.
"I wanted to see you," Tristan says, telling the truth. "And make sure you were alright."
"I'm not the one with the hard job," Galahad says, telling the truth.
There is a smile on his features anyway. Small and grateful and almost sad. It slips around Tristan's heart and pulls like an anchor. Hurts. Pain and stillness have always gone together for Tristan. Something calls him away from Galahad as strongly as all the things that pull them together.
"It'll be nightfall," Tristan tells him. "You're right to say she's old. We should keep her from foaling again."
Galahad lifts himself from his makeshift cushion of straw and stiffly to his feet with a chuckle.
Tristan waits for what the source of his amusement is, looking expectantly at Galahad while his partner brushes hay from his woolen trousers.
"You sound like a farmer," Galahad tells him.
He leans over the stall door and up onto his toes to kiss Tristan then, in one of those gestures that Tirstan doesn't understand but welcomes every time. His lips are soft and unreserved against Tristan's own. For a moment, the whole world is right here, condensed like Arthur's angels onto the head of a pin.
He sounds like a farmer at last after ten years of learning the trade - on he never enjoyed learning but loved doing, with Galahad af his side.
Yet the firms are failing and winter makes a promise of long and unending cold. The fields in their hearts will have to sustain them. Elysium.
Two days later, there is no break in the cold. The time of Augustus is running out. It will snow in the Sept month. Early.
Tristan watches the shivering, unsteady colt stand close enough to its mother to try and shelter from the chill. The tiny body isn't meant to take it. He puts the saddle blanket on his charger, and the gone-grey muzzle swings toward him with tired eyes and resignation to a journey.
Their young apple trees have not fruited. Perhaps some of the stalwart and venerable orchard at the wall could offer fruit.
In the evening prior, he said goodbye, hands and mouths and twined fingers. All of it had been slow, an almost hibernal coupling as they made allowances for their stiff bodies. For half-frozen blood.
It seemed an apt summation of their time together, a long bitter fight to climax.
"Where are you going, uncle?" Harviu asks as Tristan leads his burdened horse out of the fields.
The youth is huddled and dark beneath the eyes, serious and mindful of his duty. He looks like Lancelot when Tristan first met him, before he wore muscles and grew a beard.
"Were there wolves last night?" Tristan asks him, diverting the subject.
"Howling, but unseen," Harviu answers. "Its' been a year for wolves."
"It's not a year for anyone," Tristan tells the ghost of his past.
Harviu nods, worried. He looks toward the center of the village where Arthur and his mother live. Tristan follows his gaze.
"Your brother will come soon to take the watch," Tristan assures him.
"It's Gilly today," Harviu corrects him. "He can shoo wolves with his silly tales."
Tristan doesn't argue. He leads his horse on and closes the gate behind him. Free.
At the edge of their village he looks back only once at the aging baffle that sets his chimney apart from the others and then kicks his horse into a gallop.
Tristan has never fully understood what he gets the urge to run from. Is it that? Running from memories, running to others. Or is it just the illusion of freedom created between the sound of pounding hooves on hard ground and the sight of nothing but unsettled land ahead of him? Maybe all of these things.
Tristan doesn't think too hard about it. For the first hour the wide swath of scar tissue on his chest aches and pulls. Tight. Then, slowly, it loosens and stretches. He can breathe again.
Ahead, he looks at the mountains where he had once led them through in dark times. Now the Saxons would find poor value for the risk of crossing the temperamental ocean. There is nothing to steal but frozen land and diminishing stores.
A year for wolves, if they were daring. Tristan rides south in the brown, dead grass under the pale gray sky. The color has faded from the world.
Tristan guides his horse up into the main pass. It is a calculated risk that the river ford is still frozen. He has never gone back, but he remember the way, how to navigate it.
As he climbs, it gets colder still.