“When I was young, my father gave me some advice,” Tristan said, so close that Galahad could feel his breath on the back of his neck, warmer than the cool spring air around them.
Tristan reached around Galahad’s chest and adjusted him; he moved his left arm up a bit and pushed to tuck his elbow in more, and when he stopped he left his palm flat on Galahad’s chest.
“He said a man cannot cut you down with his sword if you shoot him with your arrow first. Now breathe in slowly…”
Galahad did as he was told and behind him he could feel Tristan taking the same breath, drawing in the green scent of new-grown grass and trees.
“And let it out…”
He exhaled along with Tristan.
Galahad drew back, fired, and watched the arrow miss its mark. Ah well, at least this time he didn’t miss the tree. Although from this distance it looked more like a plant.
“You moved just a touch when you let go of the drawstring,” Tristan said, and tapped him on the chest. “Try again, in between your breaths again and this time, think about my hand. Keep your chest steady against it.” He reached down and curled his other hand around Galahad’s thigh. “This foot back just a touch...there...now get your breathing steady and try again.”
He breathed in. He could feel the warmth of Tristan’s hand through his shirt and it was that he concentrated on as he placed his arrow.
“Get forward, you’re doing it again,” Tristan’s hand was on his backside, pushing it into place.
“You could just tell me,” Galahad said, twisting around to frown at him.
Tristan was unruffled and unrepentant. “I told you the last three times. Get your pelvis forward.” He smacked Galahad on the rump, but he stepped back.
“Where’s your foot? Yes, that’s it, move it up. Watch that left arm please…”
This time he had to imagine Tristan’s hand on his chest, but the warmth still seemed to be there. He breathed, nocked his arrow, raised the bow, breathed out, and fired.
The arrow smacked straight into the little red piece of cloth that Tristan had pinned to the tree. He walked forward to check the hit. It wasn’t centred but it was in the cloth and he couldn’t help turning to grin at Tristan, flushed with delight at finally hitting his mark, to find he was smiling too. Tristan nodded, pleased. “Good! Now this time if you hit your mark I want you to stay still and keep going. Remember, small adjustments only…”
By the time Tristan let him stop, Galahad was the proud owner of a rag with multiple arrow holes in it. When they walked back to the fireside in the early afternoon, Bors pointed to his hand.
“Did you hit it this time?”
Galahad held up the cloth, shaking it open proudly, and Bors laughed.
“Well that’s dead! Make it a hare next time though, would you?”
Galahad grinned, enjoying his newfound success.
“He’ll be feeding us every night before you know it,” Tristan said from behind him, and he thought he could hear a little pride in his teacher’s voice. It felt good.
When Arthur chose him, Galahad had wondered why. He was competent with a sword but there were other young knights his age who could beat him; and with a lance, too. He rode well, but who couldn’t? And he had thought himself good with a bow but compared with Tristan he was dismal, hence the need for lessons every day.
He had heard the other lads talk about him as he packed his things, probably because they wanted him to. They said - loudly - that the men had likely chosen him because they wanted a pretty boy to keep them warm at night. But neither Arthur nor his company had ever tried anything like that, probably because of Arthur’s belief in equality; he did not judge those men who lived as pagans but he believed in freedom and would not have tolerated anyone forcing Galahad into their bed. There were twenty men following Arthur back then and not one of them had done anything to dishonour him.
He walked over to the fireside and accepted a bowl of stew from Dagonet which he took, politely, to Tristan. Tristan gave him a nod of thanks and sat down to eat. Galahad went back for his own bowl and sat beside him.
“So your father wanted you to learn archery?”
“He gave me my first bow,” Tristan said, a small smile flickering before he took another mouthful of stew. “I had six older brothers and by the time I got anything - clothes, a knife - it was old and broken in. I was used to that, but by the time they were done with a bow it was wrecked so my father took a piece of yew and made me my bow. It was the first thing I ever owned that no-one else had used before me.”
“And you were good with it,” Galahad guessed.
“When I was eight I split a stake as cleanly as my eldest brother and from the same distance. My father was pleased and he gave me a prize: a little sparrowhawk all of my own. I thought she was the finest thing in the world. He taught me how to care for her and how to hunt and the first day I whistled her back and she came to my arm, I was so proud.” Tristan smiled at the memory, amused by himself.
“I used to walk through the woods as lightly as I could so I wouldn’t scare off her prey. I was looking, all the time, for the slightest movement on the land or in a tree so I knew when to start her into the air. And I never once realised my father was training me for something else.”
“Scouting,” Galahad realised, “you were learning how to scout.”
“Yes.” Tristan put his bowl down and stretched his legs. “My brothers weren’t too happy when they realised he had singled me out. They thought to keep me in my place, sending me off to chop wood or carry pails, but that didn’t work out well for them.”
Tristan grinned at him and flexed one sinewy arm. “It gave me muscles. And that gave me a stronger draw on the bow. Talking of which…” He stood up, held out a hand to Galahad and pulled him to his feet. “You have some more work to do.”
He found he didn’t mind. It wasn’t too bad, this learning thing.
The next year was a bad one. Five knights died at the hands of the Woads; the knights decided on extra time spent honing their skill and making sure the younger men were as good as they could be.
They did sword practice on the hill outside the fortress so they could fight on level ground, with the advantage of height, with the disadvantage of standing below their attacker. The younger knights and their teachers used blunted swords for these riskier sessions but they still had edges and Galahad had bruises everywhere to show for it.
Lancelot swung his sword down hard from the shoulder letting its weight add to its speed. Galahad, standing below him, had to use all the muscle he had built to push his sword up fast enough to counter-strike. He didn’t manage to throw Lancelot off balance but he did at least stop him mid-action.
“Try getting a hit in, Galahad!”
The moment he lost concentration, Lancelot pressed his advantage; before he could react his sword was out of his hands and there was a blade against his neck.
Lancelot drew back, shaking his head in disgust.
“What did I say about focus?”
There was laughter behind them. Galahad turned to see Gawain and Bors grinning and waving at him.
And then suddenly he got hit hard in the back of his knees, dropped helplessly onto his back and lay in the grass, winded.
“WHAT DID I SAY ABOUT FOCUS?”
Lancelot was standing over him, furious.
“Get up before your opponent runs you through! Gods, if you carry on like this I might do it anyway!”
He reached for his sword and stood, trying to suck in breath.
“I’m sick of them taunting me! They’ve been doing it all week!”
“And still you haven’t learned your lesson,” Lancelot pointed his sword at him as if he were shaking his finger. “When we fight the Woads do they never try to distract you? You think in future they will put on their blue paint and shriek as they charge us and then fight you politely with not a word or gesture out of place? You think they will never yell from one direction so their friends can attack you from another?”
His face was hot and he wanted to look away but he knew if he did he would be getting another bruise.
“I’m sorry,” he said but Lancelot was too annoyed to give him any quarter.
“Go and fight with Percival, I’ve had enough of you. Remember to think about your reach and try to keep your mind on fighting. Well go on! Off you go!”
Galahad was wary enough to take several steps backwards before he turned his back and he listened carefully as he went which was why he heard Lancelot coming. He pivoted around, saw the flat of Lancelot’s blade aimed at his backside, and deflected it neatly with the greater pushing power of his sword’s edge.
Lancelot laughed. “It seems you’ve improved just in time to avoid your punishment. About bloody time!”
He sheathed his blade, walked down to join Galahad and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Do me a favour and push Percival as hard as you can. He’s still defending when he should be attacking, see if you can deceive him into it.”
Galahad nodded and wondered how many times Lancelot had encouraged the knights to rile him up this week so that he would learn his weakness. How could he be so blind that he had not understood what they were doing until Lancelot pointed it out? He wondered again why he had been chosen when his skill was so poor.
He worked with Percival until the other young knight was too tired to go on, then sought out Dagonet to ask for help with his feint. Dagonet was so convincing as he appeared to attack one way then twisted into an unexpected move, and Galahad wanted to know his tricks. By the time he was done for the day he was exhausted. He staggered into the fortress behind Dagonet and headed straight for the tavern for a drink. He found the other knights already eating and looked around for somewhere to sit, politely shaking his head at a young woman looking for her first customer of the night.
“Well if it isn’t Galahad the Pure!” Gawain teased.
He kept his eyes on his bottle and said nothing.
“It seems he’s learned to ignore you,” Tristan said. “A wise choice.”
Galahad looked up at the sound of his voice to find Tristan seated on a bench, pointing to the empty space next to him. He almost fell onto the seat and Tristan put a hand to his shoulder to steady him. Galahad tried not to wince and turned his head but something must have shown because Tristan leaned forward to look at him.
“Are you hurt?”
“Just bruises, it’s nothing.”
“You don’t sound too good.”
“It’s nothing,” he lied, “I’m just tired.”
“As well you might be. You were first out to train this morning and the last to come back in.”
Galahad shrugged. “I have the most to learn.”
He finished his beer in a long swallow and went to get some meat. He didn’t feel like eating but there would be more practice tomorrow and he needed his strength.
By his fifth year with the knights, Galahad was glad just to have survived. They had lost so many men but this was the year they hoped their freedom would be granted and they talked about it all the time. He pretended to be as cheerful as the others but he had no real idea of what “home” would be like now and he wondered how he would manage in a strange land if his friends chose to go their own way. Secretly he wondered whether he might persuade Tristan to stick together: they got on well and he often found reassurance in his friend’s quiet companionship. He hoped Percival might stick with them too and maybe between them they could persuade Tristan to give up fighting for a more peaceful life.
It was raining as usual, and the horses were tired. They trudged along the edge of a muddy field with fat raindrops dripping off the trees and onto their necks.
“When we get home I want more sunshine and less stinging nettles,” he grumbled.
“...and a dozen women!” Lancelot added, and everyone laughed.
“And you, Tristan?” Gawain asked.
“It’s not just my love life I have to think about.” The scout pointed up at his hawk high above them, “I think Iruk needs a nice eagle to keep her company. I’d like to try training one up from a chick.”
“An eagle? I can’t wait to see that!” Galahad said, and then realised what he had said. “I mean...if we were in the same place...or I visited…”
“That will depend on the weather, I assume,” Tristan smiled “there are worse things than rain, you know. I’ve heard in the mountains they get icicles so big…”
A movement in the trees and Galahad was raising his bow and he and Tristan shot together just as the Woads came rushing out from the treeline.
They shot their second arrows just as the others caught up and fired, then before the Woads had even reached them, half their number were on the ground with arrows through their necks. As they charged the rest, Galahad felt it: a fierceness in his blood that sang through him. It had un-nerved him when he was younger, but he had learned to use it as energy and focus combined; it put him in some strange space where time moved more slowly, flowing around him like a stream, and he felt absolutely in command of himself. The feeling took a while to die away even after a fight and he knew it was so for the other knights by the way they were after; louder and more boisterous, as though they were a little drunk on it.
He kept firing arrows until the Woads got close and then switched to his lance. He gored three men through that way but he could see they were getting rushed by too many attackers so he jumped from his horse with his weapon already drawn and sliced into a Woad’s neck.
He was aware of the sounds around him: the shrieking of their enemies, the grunts of men as they countered blows, the sharp ringing of blades but it was simply background to the singing sensation as he checked around him for danger. He was aware of himself, of the nearest knights, of the Woads running in his direction: he thrust his sword into the woman in front of him and turned sharply to face the man coming in from his left.
He ran across to help Arthur who had too many fighters coming at him at once: Percival came in from the other side and they slashed through the weaker fighters until each of them found a tougher opponent. A Woad came charging forward, axe raised, and Galahad swung his sword as he stepped forward. To the Woad it looked like Galahad meant to catch him on his left side and missed, but he kept the momentum of his sword going and threw himself forward to stab the man square in the chest. A dangerous move since it put his neck in reach of the axe, but executed with speed and confidence it could work perfectly, as it did now, and without hesitation he pulled his blade free and went to Arthur’s side.
Another quick check around him, who was coming, where was Percival? There was no time to think, the Woads were swarming like bees. He turned his back to Arthur and kept going, attacking hard over and over, never the same feint twice lest anyone catch on to his next move. And before he knew it, Gawain was with them, and then Lancelot and Tristan, and then the last Woads were falling at the feet of Bors and Dagonet, and still he could not see…
“Where’s Percival?” he asked Gawain, and they looked around to see Tristan kneeling on the ground with his hand on a man’s neck. He looked up and silently shook his head.
It was still raining when they buried Percival and trudged back to the fortress with the earth from his grave mixed to mud on their boots. Arthur went off to talk with his god, Bors disappeared with Vanora and Galahad found he couldn’t face talking to anyone; neither could he bear to sit in his room and think about how he had planned to talk with Percival about the future, a future his friend would never have. His chest felt tight and he wanted to hide in the dark, and maybe that was why he found himself walking to the tack room, past the saddles and bridles to the small partitioned area at the back where Iruk was kept. He found Tristan sitting on a straw bale stroking her feathers and making affectionate little sounds to her as he fed her. He looked up when Galahad came in, saw the misery on his face and silently jerked his head towards the spot next to him, currently occupied by a small bowl of chopped meat. Galahad took his gloves off and picked it up, Iruk giving a screech as she saw it in his hand. He picked out a piece and held it out, and Tristan moved the hawk to his right arm so she could reach.
“She may not take food from you,” he said quietly just as Iruk snatched the meat from Galahad’s fingers.
“Faithless thing,” Tristan crooned and petted Iruk, but she was already looking for more. He held her steady and let Galahad keep feeding her. It was an odd way to find comfort, but it was better than talking or sitting alone, so they kept it going for a few more minutes before Tristan stopped him.
“Let’s see if she’ll sit on your hand. Put your glove back on…” Tristan released the knot tying Iruk’s jesses to his glove, and held the strings at the end between thumb and forefinger to give Iruk a long lead. “Move your hand up nice and slowly and put it against mine but slightly higher so she can step up.”
The hawk looked at Galahad’s hand for a second but stayed where she was.
“Offer her some food,” Tristan suggested and Galahad held up a little chunk with his other hand.
“Come on Iruk.” He kept his voice soft and pitched it low like Tristan’s, “look what I have.”
The hawk chirped hungrily and stepped onto Galahad’s glove. Galahad couldn’t help but smile, wretched as he felt. They all trusted each other with their horses but Tristan guarded his hawk like a jealous lover.
“Have you ever let anyone else hold her before?” he asked, and Tristan shook his head, a little sheepish.
“If I want her to stay bonded to me, I can’t let everyone treat her like a pet.”
“Do you remember, two winters ago? You were so sick you looked like Death had already taken you…” Galahad stopped himself too late. “Sorry, sorry, damn…” He could feel his face flush and he turned away quickly, picking more meat from the bowl for the hawk. He fed her until it was gone and then gave her a little stroke, one soft fingertip on her shoulder.
She looked down sharply but he made a soft little noise that was his best attempt to copy Tristan; it calmed her and she allowed his touch. It gave him somewhere to look, at least.
“I think we are past the need for apologies,” Tristan rubbed the back of his finger gently against Iruk’s chest. “Percival was a good man, and we will all miss him.”
“He was so close to his freedom,” Galahad couldn’t say any more: he scrubbed at his face with his ungloved hand to keep from embarrassing himself. “You’d better take Iruk back.”
Tristan reclaimed his bird, stood, and carried her over to her perch. Galahad watched him hood her, his hands gentle but quick from years of practice. He tied her jesses loosely, checked the knot, and returned to his place next to Galahad.
“What were you saying before? About when I was ill two winters ago?” Tristan kindly left out the Death part.
“You...you were ill and you couldn’t walk on your own but you wouldn’t let anyone care for Iruk. You made Gawain and Bors carry you out here on an old door and then carry you back to your room with Iruk beside you because you wouldn’t even trust us to bring her to you.”
“She is my responsibility. Her trust is given to me.” Tristan looked up at Galahad, his face serious, “I have never let anyone else feed her, either.”
“Thank you,” Galahad said and felt a warmth in his chest. “You know, I had this stupid idea that...oh, it’s nothing…”
Tristan had been so kind, and trusted him with Iruk, and it gave him the courage to say it at last.
“I thought maybe we would stick together; you, me and Percival. That when we got back home maybe we could stay in the same place and give up killing and just be at peace. I know, it’s stupid, right? But I wish I had asked him, I wish he had known I liked him enough to want that even if he had said no…” He could hear his voice cracking and there were tears now, and he was mortified. He grabbed his other glove from the straw and stood shakily, stumbling for the door until he felt Tristan’s hand grip his shoulder.
“Hey…” Tristan’s hands were on him, coaxing him into turning back then pulling him to his chest. He held Galahad tightly, one hand wrapped in the curls at the back of his neck. Galahad stood with his face against Tristan’s warm solid shoulder and breathed hard, trying to get himself back under control. Tristan gave him a minute and then leaned back a little to look at him, his hand warm on Galahad’s nape, holding tight, grounding him.
“Sorry...I’m sorry…” He was one of King Arthur’s knights and he was snivelling on Tristan’s shoulder like a child. He tried to pull away, but Tristan still had an arm around his waist and would not let him move.
“Shh,” he murmured. His hand felt good; Galahad couldn’t remember when anyone ever holding him tight like this and for the first time in a long while he felt safe and cared for. “You want to stick together? Me and you?” Tristan’s voice was as gentle as if he were soothing Iruk.
“Yeah,” Galahad admitted bravely to a line of stitching on Tristan’s collarblade.
“Me too,” Tristan said, putting his hand on Galahad’s face and pressing lightly under his jaw to tilt his head up. And then he leaned in, open-mouthed, and kissed him. His lips were gentle on Galahad’s and yet this was Tristan, who acted so coolly, who kept his emotions on a lead tighter than Iruk’s jesses. It was Tristan, spanning fingers over his jaw with a careful touch and warming him through with a tenderness he would never have expected, and Galahad’s mouth fell open simply, instinctively, because it felt so good.
Tristan took it as an invitation; Galahad felt the softest press of his tongue between his lips and he stood, stunned as Tristan’s tongue stroked against his. He could barely respond but then he needed to; he let himself stroke back, and Tristan made a soft breathy sound and kissed him deeper. His hand moved from Galahad’s waist to slide down to his bare thigh, and he pushed him back against the partition wall. Galahad felt Tristan’s hips move forward, and Tristan felt hard against his groin as his hand moved up.
He shoved at him blindly, panicked, jerking away like a frightened colt, gasping in shock.
“What...what the hell are you doing?” he yelled, and stumbled sideways, almost tripping in his haste to get away.
It was the first time he had ever seen Tristan look unsure of himself. He had a cut on his lip that was already bloody, and he looked as stunned as a fresh-caught fish.
“Galahad…” He had a hand up in front of him, placating.
“Is that what you think I am? Just some stupid pretty boy you can use to save money on whores?” Galahad could hear how shaky he sounded and it made him even angrier.
“I thought we were friends! Equals! And you think I’m just a cheap lay? Gods, I’m a fool! I took myself in, didn’t I? Thinking you would want anything to do with me once we were free. Well don’t worry Tristan, you won’t have to put up with me for long. We’ll be done with this island soon enough and I’ll go back to my family and you can go on killing people for sport and sleeping with anyone stupid enough to do it for free!”
He turned to go but Tristan rushed forward to clutch at his arm and stop him.
“Galahad…” His face looked pale against the black of his curved tattoos.
“Don’t you dare touch me!,” Galahad hissed. “You might not think much of me, but I swear I’m fast enough to slit your throat if you dishonour me that way again.” He shook his arm free, shoved Tristan hard in the chest, and rushed from the room.
He spent the next day in his room, staring at the stone walls and wishing himself dead. He had lost Percival and now it seemed he had lost Tristan too...or never had him to begin with. He had known Tristan liked men of course; it was hard to keep secrets in a group whose number grew smaller with every year. But it was the same for all of them; they did not take wives for fear of leaving widows and as far as they knew, only Bors had fathered children. Gawain had told him he thought perhaps Tristan slept with men to avoid that problem and it had seemed likely enough.
Galahad had tried a little fumbling around with other boys when he was training with the Romans, nothing more than using their hands on each other and getting it done as fast as possible before anyone caught them. Eventually some other young men had persuaded him to try a woman: it had been a brief experience and she had been brusque and efficient in a way he found less than comfortable. It was much the same here: the girls who did it for coin wanted things over with quickly. The ones who didn’t charge were far sweeter and he enjoyed the attention and the kissing as much as the sex but those girls didn’t stay around once they realised he had no intention of marrying. He soon learned to avoid the girls who wanted a knight for a husband and when he absolutely had to, he would spend his coin but it never did much to help him. Tristan seemed alright with whoever wanted him, as at ease with that as he seemed to be with every other part of his life. Well, good for bloody Tristan.
He missed Percival so much his chest ached. As the two youngest knights they had stuck together and shared their troubles, and now when he could have used his friend’s counsel, he was gone. He needed to talk about Tristan and his lost future with his friends, and the only friend he could have talked to was buried under a sword.
In the evening there was a knock on the door. He ignored it; the last thing he wanted was for anyone to see his swollen face and know he had been crying like a boy all day.
Oh no, it was Tristan. His heart thumped hard in his chest and he tried to stay still for fear of making a noise and giving away his presence.
The handle turned and he was glad he had had the sense to lock and bolt the door.
“Galahad, I’m sorry, please can we talk?”
He felt sick. No, he really did not want to talk.
Tristan knocked again and suddenly his fear turned to anger. He grabbed the cup of water next to his bed and hurled it at the door. It made a satisfying crash and shattered everywhere. He wondered if he had made Tristan jump, and the thought gave him grim satisfaction.
Tristan didn’t knock again after that.
Late in the night when he knew everyone would be asleep he went out to the well, got himself a pail of water and slunk back to his room. He washed his face to soothe the swelling and crawled into his bed where he tried and failed to sleep until well after sunrise.
Someone was knocking on the door again. They could go to hell. He went back to sleep.
A couple more times that day he ignored knocking and then, somewhere in the afternoon, Lancelot’s muffled voice was yelling through the wood.
“Either you open this thing or I take my axe to it! I mean it, Galahad!”
He sounded like he was serious so Galahad dragged himself over, kicked the largest shards of cup away from the door, drew the bolt, turned the key, then hastened over to the pail to put water on his face.
He hadn’t been crying today - he felt too empty for that now - but he could tell he didn’t look right because his eyes were itchy and hot. He reached blindly for his towel, only to find Lancelot handing it to him. He took it wordlessly, dried his face, then slumped into a chair by a fire that had turned to ash and cooled long before. Lancelot took the other chair and sat quietly for a minute. Galahad kept his head down and waited for a lecture on behaving like a man and a knight.
“I brought some wine,” Lancelot said, “but you seem to be umm, short a cup so uh, I’ll use this one and you can take the jug.”
Galahad heard him pour out some wine, and looked up in time for him to hand the jug over and stand up.
“Thanks,” he said and was embarrassed by how scratchy his voice sounded.
“To Percival,” Lancelot said quietly from above him, and Galahad stood for a moment.
They sat and drank for a while.
“Lancelot, if you’ve come to tell me off, I wish you would just say your piece,” he said.
“Tell you...why would I tell you off?” Lancelot sounded genuinely puzzled. “We’ve been concerned about you. Everyone’s taking it hard. Tristan’s gone off with his hawk, Bors has been in a foul temper and you’ve been holed up in here. I thought someone should see how you are. Gawain wanted to come but Gringolet has colic and keeps trying to lie down, and you know how that horse is. Gawain’s the only one who can get him to do anything, so he has to be there to keep him up and walking.”
There was a pause, and Galahad supposed he was meant to say something but he couldn’t summon up the energy. He could hear Lancelot tapping his fingers on the table while he tried to work out what to say next. It wouldn’t take long. It never did with Lancelot.
“Anyway, you don’t want to hear about the horse...look, we’ve all had times when we’ve had enough of death. All of us.”
“All those empty spaces at the Round Table,” Galahad drank again.
“Yes, all those empty spaces. And this is worse because we were close to freedom and he was young..”
“Is this you cheering me up?” Galahad asked, and Lancelot gave a little mirthless laugh.
“Yes, can’t you tell?”
And then, he wasn’t sure why, it just came out of him:
“Why was I chosen?”
“Chosen?” Lancelot sounded lost again.
“To be one of Arthur’s knights. Percival was a head taller than me and twice as good at fighting.”
“It didn’t stay that way though, did it?” Lancelot asked. “The height maybe, but not the fighting.”
“Only because I worked my arse off trying to keep up with him.”
“Then I suppose you have just answered your own question. That’s one of the reasons Tristan said we should take you…”
“Tristan?” He put the jug down and looked at Lancelot for the first time, “Tristan made the choice?”
“No, Arthur always makes the choice of course, but he listens to us. Tristan noticed you saw us riding up to the camp long before anyone else and he said…”
“So I was chosen because Tristan liked me?”
“It was the only time he’d ever argued for someone so Arthur gave it a lot of weight,” Lancelot smiled. And…”
Galahad wanted to be sick and he wanted Lancelot gone, right now.
He stood up abruptly.
“Thank you for coming. And thank you for the wine, it was very kind of you.”
It was bordering on rude to dismiss Lancelot, but he got away with it. A hand rested on his shoulder for a moment, and Lancelot said, “Try not to brood, Galahad. Get some fresh air. There’s no shame in grief but don’t let it fester in the dark.”
Galahad nodded, eyes on the floor. He heard Lancelot sigh and then little scraping noises from pottery shards as he walked to the door and let himself out.
So it had all been a lie from the very start. The other knights had known he wasn’t good enough, but Tristan had never asked before so Arthur let him keep his little pet. The other men at his camp had been right; he had been chosen for his looks and nothing more. Maybe if they had chosen a better man, someone who had kept a better eye on what was happening around him, Percival would be alive now.
He finished the wine in the jug, then the dregs from Lancelot’s cup. He then wrapped himself in a cloak and went to a house where he could buy something stronger.
He was cold, his face felt wet, and someone was shaking him. He opened his eyes; everything was blurry and Bors was saying something while pulling him up, and he repaid the favour by vomiting all over him. Bors dropped him hard onto...oh, it was muddy ground...He continued to be sick and in between each heave he could hear Bors swearing.
“Now look what you made me do!” Bors sounded furious. “Cursing right by the graves! Get up you bloody idiot, move your fucking arse.”
He wanted to stand up, he really did, but the ground wasn’t straight or the sky wasn’t or something, and his head was pounding and his throat was burning. He coughed and retched and shivered.
“Bloody hell, you’re a mess,” Bors growled, hauling him to his feet. That was worse, way worse, and he wanted to say so but he was afraid he would throw up on Bors again, so he groaned and endured the headache as best he could as they slogged down the hill, Bors half carrying him and grumbling all the way.
It seemed to be dawn; there was lots of pink light in the sky and that made him squint because it was painfully bright. He had no idea how he had got to the graves or how Bors had found him, and he was having problems just getting one foot in front of the other. When they got back to his room he collapsed onto the bed while Bors took off his cloak, swearing some more at the state of it.
“You,” Bors pointed an accusing finger at him, “are lucky I heard about you buying that rotgut and came looking for you. If I had had to drag you through town in this state once everyone was up, there’d have been hell to pay. It’s one thing getting a bit drunk at night but if Arthur heard one of his knights had been staggering through the fortress…”
“Yeah. One of his knights,” Galahad croaked bitterly, “one of his slaves you mean. How are we any different than the whores in the town?”
And Bors didn’t like that, because suddenly his finger was right in Galahad’s face, his voice was loud and it hurt .
“We’re not whores you piece of shit! Are you saying Percival was a whore? Is that what you think, because…”
Oh god. He had, hadn’t he? He had called them all whores, every man who was buried in that graveyard, Percival with them. He had taken his most ugly thought about himself and used it to insult every brave man buried on the hillside.
One minute Bors was shouting, then he stopped and Galahad didn’t know why - not until he realised he was sobbing loudly and Bors was sitting on the bed next to him, patting his shoulder awkwardly.
“I’m sorry, Bors, I shouldn’t have said that and I don’t remember going up there and...and I threw up on you…”
“Yeah well, it was mostly booze. When did you last eat anything?”
He couldn’t remember.
“I’m thirsty,” he said, and his voice sounded weak and he felt ashamed again.
Bors got off the bed and came back with a cup of stale water from the pail. He moved the pail by the bed and said, “Here. Now if you’re going to puke, do it over the other side of the bed, then you’ve still got your water.”
Voice of experience, Galahad supposed, but he couldn’t say it because he was still crying, brave and noble knight that he was.
“You going to be alright?” Bors asked in the voice of a man who was knee-deep in vomit stains and awkwardness.
“Uhuh,” Galahad nodded, then wished he had kept his head still.
“Alright, see you later then,” Bors was already escaping out of the door.
He spent the day trying to sleep, dozing a little and then waking again, sick and distressed, hating himself for drinking, and Tristan for making him feel like this. Damn Tristan, why couldn’t he have left him to be some lowly Roman guard and not dragged him into this hell just because he wanted a fuck? Stupid bastard, always looking at him with those dark eyes, making him feel like he should work hard to be worthy of his admiration when all this time he was just a stupid pretty boy with delusions of adequacy.
Some time in the afternoon his bladder was too full to ignore and he dragged himself to the nearest privy; he hated using the pot under the bed and besides, he was sure he was going to be sick again. Unfortunately, he was right.
Back in his room he rinsed his mouth and wondered what he would do when he was free. He wondered if his family would recognise him if he went to see them. Would they accept him if he wanted to stay or would he be an unwelcome visitor tolerated until they politely encouraged him to leave?
Someone was stroking his hair. He reached up and grabbed Tristan’s wrist hard; Tristan squealed loudly and pulled her hand away.
He opened his gummy eyes and Vanora was standing back, mouth wide open, holding her wrist in pain.
“Damn! Vanora, I’m sorry, I thought you were someone else, are you alright?”
She nodded, looking a little calmer.
“Bors gets bad dreams after a battle too, I should have thought. I brought you some food.”
She pointed to the table next to the bed: there was a tray with a hunk of bread and some kind of soup. He shook his head.
“No thanks. Umm, there’s some coin on the table over there though.”
“I didn’t bring it for money!”
Oh great, now he had offended her as well.
“I’m sorry, I just...I’m not thinking very well right now.”
“I know dear, Bors said I should come and see to you.”
“Like a child?” Agh, could he not keep his stupid mouth shut?
“What? Oh no, he just said that Tristan was off somewhere shagging and Lancelot tried to talk to you but you sent him away with a flea in his ear and well, he told me where he found you this morning. Now sit up, will you?”
He wanted to say no, but he still felt bad about hurting her wrist so he sat up, groaning a little at how sore his back felt. He was aching all over, probably from lying on the wet ground. Another great choice he had made, to drink rotgut and run around outside the walls at night. He was lucky some Woad hadn’t slit his throat where he lay. And Tristan was “shagging”? That wasn’t what Lancelot had said to him, the bloody liar.
Vanora passed him the tray, picked up the spoon and pushed it into his hand.
“So he said men are useless at this stuff - he’s right about that - and it’s time a woman tried. And then he offered to run the bar while I talk to you, so do me a favour and eat something so I can stay for a bit?”
“He offered to run the bar? The knights are going to run him ragged!” Galahad couldn’t help but be a little amused at the thought of Bors losing his temper as the others ordered him around.
“It’s time the boot was on the other foot,” Vanora grinned, “but he’s not a very attractive barmaid.”
“Not even slightly,” Galahad gave her a little smile, the best he could manage.
“How’s the soup?” she asked pointedly and he took a spoonful just to please her.
Chicken and vegetables. It tasted good and it got that godawful sour vomit taste out of his mouth.
“It’s good,” he said, and bit off a mouthful of bread.
“Do you think Lancelot has asked him to sing yet?”
“Several times, I would think. That will backfire if he actually does.”
It was nonsense, just banter, and he hadn’t much heart for jokes, but he was comforted that she cared enough to try; it was better than thinking about the lonely future ahead of him.
He ate some more soup then reached for his cup, only to find it empty. Vanora took it and dipped it into the pail, then handed it back.
“Thanks, he said, and then remembered the mess he had made of Bors’s cloak and cringed. He didn’t want to ask if she had been the one to wash it; she had so much work to do already with all those children.
He realised she was looking at him and tried to look normal, but he felt close to tears again. He took a long drink of water, set the cup on the tray, and put it back on the table.
“You’ve hardly eaten anything,” she protested.
“I’ll finish it later,” he promised. “I’m sorry, I haven’t slept much.”
It seemed easier to agree than talk about everything else, so he nodded.
“I wonder if my family will want to see me when I go back home. I mean, my mother might, I think, but my father never seemed to like me much. He would tell her there was no point fussing over me because I would be taken by the Romans anyway.”
Vanora looked sad, and reached to stroke a lock of hair back from his face.
“I’m sure your mother loved you dear, how could she not? A handsome boy like you.”
It seemed all anyone thought of him was that he was tolerable to look at.
She must have noticed something in his expression.
“I’m sure they both loved you, but it would be hard for any parent knowing they would have to give up their child. It sounds as though he feared it would hurt more if he let himself love you too much, and he was trying to protect her from the same thing.”
Galahad considered. He had never thought of his father’s words as anything but rejection, but he thought about how fondly Bors talked to little Gilly and he could see what she might mean.
She ran her fingers through his hair again and frowned as they snagged in a tangle.
“Where do you keep your comb?”
He pointed at a little chest by the window. She went to fetch it, bringing back the basin he washed his face in. He expected her to hand them to him with motherly instructions to clean himself up but instead she filled the basin halfway from his pail, dipped the comb in it, and began to comb his hair.
He wanted to protest but she was being kinder than he deserved, so he let her do it. Every so often she touched his jaw or chin with feather touches to make him move his head, and he let her guide him gently. Once she had the worst tangles out, the comb began to feel soothing. She was careful with him and she smiled sweetly to reward him for his obedience. He began to feel sleep pulling at him and he shut his eyes as she dipped the comb in the water again.
It had been since anyone had cared for him like this, had touched him so gently; not because they wanted something from him, but because they had something to give. For a moment he had hoped that Tristan...but no, that was stupid. But he couldn’t feel as angry as he wanted to because his eyes were closing, and Vanora was still combing his hair, and it felt so nice.
He really needed to start locking his door again. He had barely woken up and crawled out of bed when Gawain came barging in.
“I’ve come to drag you out for some food,” he announced.
“You look terrible,” Galahad told him and Gaiwan cocked an eyebrow at him.
“You should see yourself! And you should smell yourself. I’m not sitting next to you until you’ve had a wash.”
“I didn’t say I was going anywhere,” he started, then realised why Gawain looked so bad. “How’s Gringolet?”
“Much better, thank you. We had to walk him around for a long time but he’s turned a corner. He’s obviously in less pain so I decided I could leave him with the stable hands while I got some breakfast. But don’t keep me waiting too long, I need to get back.”
“I should have come and helped you,” Galahad realised. “You must be exhausted.”
“If you’re volunteering, I could do with someone to stay with him while I get some sleep.” Gawain emphasised the point by yawning widely.
“Of course.” It was about time he stopped being a bother to everyone and made himself useful.
“I’ll meet you at the tavern tables in ten minutes then,” Gawain said, “I’ll just check on Gringolet,” and he was gone.
Breakfast was largely silent; Gawain was all but falling asleep in his plate and Galahad found himself starving hungry. When they were done he took their plates over to Vanora.
“Umm, Vanora, thanks for the soup and stuff.”
She gave him a sweet smile and touched him lightly on the arm.
“Good to see you get some fresh air and food, dear.”
“Hey Galahad! When I said you should get a woman, I didn’t mean mine!” Bors yelled three inches from his ear.
He turned to Vanora in mock surprise. “Are your barmaids always this cheeky?” He teased, then walked away to the stables with her laughter behind him.
He checked on his own horse, then stayed with Gringolet. The horse seemed fine now, but he understood Gawain’s concern. Their horses were their partners in battle as much as any knight, and the understanding between horse and rider took time and effort to build. You could ride any horse to the next town, but if you wanted them to ride into a field of screaming Woads they needed to trust you absolutely and that took love and care. It wasn’t just sentimental; their horses were their most valuable possessions, a vast investment of money and training and to lose one so close to freedom would be a serious setback.
Galahad took his own horse from her stall and exercised her, turning neat circles and figures in the small covered ring, stopping every so often to check Gringolet for signs of distress. When he was done he groomed both horses. It wasn’t strictly necessary since the stable hands normally took care of them, but grooming was an opportunity to check a horse over as well as a sign that he had and, sure enough, when Gawain came into the stables that afternoon he spotted it immediately.
“He let you brush him all over?”
“Yes, he’s doing well, no soreness, no rolling.” Galahad was sitting on the straw bales by the stalls polishing bits and stirrups while the stable hands took the other horses out. The tack should have been perfect already but he suspected Gawain had been keeping the men busy with other tasks.
He patted the straw bale next to his. “You’d better come and sit down before you fall down.”
Gawain slumped down next to him.
“What about you? How are you you feeling?”
Galahad concentrated on a stubborn smudge and wondered how to answer.
“A bit less pathetic, thank you.”
Gawain laughed a little at that.
“Well you still look quite pathetic. You’d better try to look a bit nicer tonight.”
“Oh sorry, yes, I’m meant to tell you. Arthur wants us to gather at the Round Table for dinner. Bors thinks it might be about the Bishop.”
“Our papers? Already? I thought he wasn’t bringing them yet?”
“You’ve heard the rumours,” Gawain shrugged. “Perhaps he wants to get here now so he can get his holy arse gone again before the Saxons come. If he’s on his way we’ll have to ride out soon to escort him here safely.”
“Can’t we just meet him at the harbour?”
Gawain laughed. “That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Get our papers and bugger off on the next ship? But we have to defend this place until reinforcements arrive. We owe these people that.”
“Of course. I didn’t mean anything by that. You know I’d want them all safe.”
“As would we all. Now, when you’ve finished with these do you think you could do my armour? I have a feeling I’m going to need it nice and shiny.”
Galahad flicked his cloth expertly and gave Gawain a neat sting on the arm.
“How about you kiss my arse?”
Gawain laughed, and got to his feet.
“Sorry, but I’m busy with Gringolet. Maybe you could ask Tristan.”
Galahad was on his feet in a moment and whatever was on his face it made Gawain take a step back.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Hey, steady on! It was just a joke! You brought up the arse kissing, not me!”
Oh. So he had.
“Umm, sorry,” he said and wondered how many times he could say it in one week. “You know me, always too quick tempered.”
“Should I not have told you about Tristan liking men?” Gawain looked entirely disapproving.
“Uh no, it’s not that. It’s...look, Gawain can I tell you something? But you have to swear you won’t repeat it to a soul.”
“On my honour. Come and look over Gringolet with me. You can tell me while we check him.”
“Actually, I’d rather stay here where I can be sure no-one overhears.”
“Very well.” Gawain’s face was intrigued. “What’s it about then?”
It was hard to say it, but a relief to get it off his chest. When he was done, Gawain looked thoughtful.
“Galahad, are you sure you have this right? It doesn’t seem like Tristan at all.”
“Are you calling me a liar? You just said yourself he likes men.”
“Oh sure, that, but this whole thing of him treating you like a whore and thinking you’re worthless…”
“He had his hand up my tunic! He was...you know... interested.”
Gawain gave a snort of laughter and Galahad scowled at him fiercely.
“Interested! Oh gods Galahad, how long have you been with this company? All the things Bors says and you still can’t say he was…”
“Shh! Someone’s here!”
The stable hands were back with the horses.
Gawain gave them a long list of instructions for the care of Gringolet and by the look on their faces, not for the first time. They looked decidedly grateful when Galahad reminded Gawain that they needed to clean themselves up before they went to meet with Arthur and walked him out of the stable.
It was as they had expected: Bishop Germanius was on his way. The men were elated and for all his sadness Galahad couldn’t help but be glad for them. They had waited far longer than him, after all. And truth be told, whatever the future might bring, at least he would have some choice in what he did with his life.
Arthur sent for Tristan, and Galahad made sure to eat early the next day and retreat to his room to avoid him. They rode out the day after, planning to make a leisurely trip towards the meeting point and then rest to keep the horses fresh for the journey back. The Bishop wanted to avoid undue attention and so he had told Arthur he would follow the course of a river near the harbour and meet them at the first large bend in its course. They kept quiet on the journey over, watching for Woads, and it was easy to avoid talking to Tristan beyond the occasional practicality. Tristan tried to be pleasant at first - the arrogance of him, acting as though nothing had changed! - but he soon got the message Galahad wanted nothing to do with him; after that he left him alone. The others were too busy dreaming of freedom to notice much, although Galahad saw Gawain look at him a couple of times when he sat away from Tristran, or made sure to take the same time for watch duty so they could be at opposite sides of the camp.
The Bishop’s carriage arrived on the appointed day and they saw it just as a large crowd of Woads ambushed it from the trees; it seemed their meeting point had been a little too obvious. Then again, the Woads had scouts too, and any fool could see a Roman ship coming. They raced their horses down to join the fight and by the time they were done the grass around was covered in blue bodies and scarlet cloaks. The Bishop appeared entirely unconcerned by the fate of his guards and the poor sod he’d picked as a decoy. Galahad could feel his temper rising; they were all just toys to the Romans and the sooner they got out of their power the better. He had the definite sense they did not know everything that was going on, but that was nothing new. Tristan scouted ahead on the ride home until they got nearer to the safety of the fortress, then they settled into a comfortable group at the head of the line.
“That was a close thing,” Bors said. “I thought that was the Bishop with an arrow in his head.”
“Who cares as long as we get our papers?” Tristan chipped in from behind them.
“I doubt the man with the arrow in his head was too thrilled,” Galahad snapped back, “or the other men who lost their lives.”
“A few less Woads to fight next time we head down that road.” Tristan seemed unworried.
“Ah yes, so we can kill them as free men instead of pawns of Rome. Won’t that be fun?”
“I always think so.” Tristan wasn’t giving an inch and it was getting on his nerves.
“I don’t like him, that Roman. If he’s here to discharge us, why doesn’t he just give us our papers?”
“Is this your happy face?” Gawain enquired mildly. Bors chuckled and he had to smile at the sweetness of the rebuke. “Galahad, do you still not know the Romans? They won’t scratch their arses without holding a ceremony.”
“Why don’t you just kill him and then discharge yourself after?” Bors teased.
“I don’t kill for pleasure. Unlike some.” He couldn’t resist getting a shot in on Tristan.
“Well you should try it someday. You might get a taste for it,” Tristan said mildly and Galahad scowled at him. He was sick of it now; he just wanted to get his papers and be done with it all.
“It’s a part of you, it’s in your blood,” Bors told him, but he shook his head in annoyance.
“No, no, no. No,” he laughed bitterly, “As of tomorrow, this was all just a bad memory.”
“Ohh,” Bors said in a low voice, and he realised he had done it again; insulted them all right to their faces. He hadn’t meant to, he was just tired, and sad and damn, why couldn’t he stop saying these things? He rode in front of them, face burning and left them to talk. Gawain covered the awkwardness well, getting Bors to talk about his plans. He seemed to have decided to stay on the island: that wasn’t much of a surprise. Paying for thirteen people to travel across the sea would probably wipe out any savings he had.
Galahad kept his mouth shut for the rest of the ride while the rest of the men joked. Typically, as soon as he wasn’t joining in, Tristan shut up except to call his hawk in.
It was a shame he couldn’t have done that earlier.
“We fought for nothing! All that blood spilled and the Romans are going to leave this place to the Woads anyway. This is what Percival died for? And then that bloody Bishop dismisses us like servants so he can talk to Arthur.”
“I know it stings,” Gawain said, laying a comforting hand on his shoulder. “But please Galahad, let it go for now and drink with us. It’s our last night.”
He wanted to stay angry, but he looked at Gawain’s kind expression and found he couldn’t say no. He had been a good friend the last few days and kept Galahad’s secret as if it were his own. Vanora had mothered him, Bors hadn’t said a word about his cloak and even Lancelot had tried to comfort him in his clumsy way. He owed them better than to hide away sulking. He would try to be better tonight and for their sake he resolved to even be patient with Tristan. He nodded, and followed behind Gawain.
He couldn’t resist a little temptation; some woman with an exaggeratedly low-cut bodice made a beeline for the knights hoping they were in the mood to celebrate their freedom by being generous with their coin; instead of waving her away he bought her a drink, let her perch on his lap and laughed at her nonsense as if he were loving every minute. Let Tristan look at that .
Of course, she stuck to him like a leech and Gawain had to rescue him by “insisting” he try to beat him at knife-throwing. Which they both knew he would because...well, because Tristan had taught him. And just as he was thinking kindly of the damned idiot, a knife went straight into the end of his, point splitting the handle open. As jokes went, it was less than subtle. He turned to bark at him but Gawain was already asking Tristan how he did it, and Galahad realised he was covering for him again, like...like Tristan used to. Hmm. Perhaps he was drinking too much wine again, getting sentimental this way.
Bors dragged Vanora way from her work to sing and Galahad was happy to lead the shouts for her. She stood, cradling the baby, and sang to them of home; Galahad looked on affectionately and mouthed the words along with her. Everything might not be as he had hoped, but freedom still seemed good when his friends were smiling at the song and imagining a new beginning.
Arthur came to join them and he stepped forward, smiling.
“Arthur! You’re not completely Roman yet, right?”
The other knights joined them, happy to have a farewell drink with the man who had led them.
And that was when Arthur told them.
He really thought Arthur was joking, that at any minute he would laugh and hand them their papers.
Their duty to Rome was done. They were slaves who had bought their freedom with their blood and the blood of good knights and, yes, with the blood of the Woads.
Bors was shouting with tears in his eyes.
“You think more of Roman blood than you do of ours?”
Galahad had to look at the floor to stop his own tears, because it seemed Arthur really did. Even their own leader didn’t care about them. First Tristan, now Arthur. He had never felt so worthless and betrayed.
“I am a free man!” Bors was yelling, “I will choose my own fate!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Tristan taunted in that insufferable voice of his. “We’re all going to die some day. If it’s a death from a Saxon hand that frightens you, stay home.”
Anger swept through him like a tide, unstoppable in its force.
“Listen, if you’re so eager to die, you can die right now!”
Lancelot was trying to stop him, but why did it matter now?
“I’ve got something to live for!”
It was the cheapest of shots, and the second he said it he wished it back. Tristan stalked off with Dagonet and Bors and he stood, shocked, furious with himself and Arthur and this whole stinking life.
“I’m with you,” Gawain told Arthur, “Galahad as well.”
And then he could only laugh because if he didn’t he would have screamed right in Arthur’s pompous Roman face. He spilled the last of his wine like blood on the flagstones, smashed the jug at Arthur’s feet and hurried away before he lost it completely.
“Gawain, please just go ,” he spat, not for the first time, but his friend shook his head.
“You’re not alright and I’m not leaving you.”
Given that he was laughing and crying at the same time he couldn’t really argue.
There was a knock at the door. He ignored it; all the practice had made him good at that. Gawain sighed and went to open it but curiously, he didn’t let anyone in, just stood at the door and said, “Probably not a good idea. He’s not too happy right now.”
He couldn’t hear what was said back, but he knew whose voice it was. Gawain stepped outside and he couldn’t hear any words then, just the tone of their voices, and then Gawain came back in.
“Yeah, you do that. If he doesn’t want it, I’ll have it,” Gawain said, and to Galahad’s surprise he shut the door again, presumably right in Tristan’s face.
He came back to his chair and pulled it right up in front of Galahad and then sat, almost face to face with him.
“Galahad,” he began, “I’ve known you a long time now. You have a temper, and right now you have a lot of reasons to be angry, but you’re a good man. This thing tomorrow - rescuing this family - it’s going to be dangerous and we all know it. Tristan wants to talk to you, he says he wants to make his peace with you and I didn’t want to let him in here until I talked to you first because you’re in the mood to throw something at his head.”
Galahad gave him a wry look but let him go on.
“The way you felt about Percival dying - you said you told Tristan you had regrets about not letting Percival know how much you valued his friendship. I know you’re angry at Tristan for what he did but if either of you dies tomorrow…”
“Is this your happy face Gawain?”
Gawain gave him a rueful smile to acknowledge the hit, but he kept talking.
“Galahad, we’re all upset and we all feel betrayed. But tonight might be our last chance to talk to each other. Whatever you may feel I honestly believe Tristan respects you and and I wish you would at least give him a chance to apologise because he cared enough to come to your door and try.”
“I’m surprised he doesn’t have better things to do.”
“Before we went to meet the Bishop, Bors said he was off shagging someone…”
Gawain looked at him in surprise. “I don’t think that’s going to happen, the man’s been dead for years. He goes to see the family this time of year, takes Iruk, hunts them some meat before Winter sets in.”
“The... the man?”
“You know about Tristan.”
“I just thought it was men in general, not, you know, “the man.”
Gawain sighed. “Ah well, maybe I shouldn’t say too much.”
“Yes, you should. You told me the main bits already, come on.”
“Alright, but don’t say anything to anyone. The Christians fuss about this sort of thing, so let’s not give the Bishop any more reasons to screw us over, alright?”
”A few years back, before you joined us, we stayed in a little place on our way back from…” Gawain scrunched his face up, “oh, I don’t remember, but anyway, Tristan wanted a hood for Iruk and went to a local leather worker who was supposed to be good. When we came back here he stayed around, supposedly to wait for the hood to be finished, but after that he was gone every chance he got. We thought there must be a girl but then one day we happened to go back that way and it became very obvious that it wasn’t a girl, it was the craftsman.”
“What did everyone say?”
“Oh not much, you know, Arthur pretended not to notice and we all went along. Tristan seemed happy and we didn’t really care. And then after a while he started talking about how we could do with a leather worker right here in the fortress, and Arthur agreed it would be useful so he went off to the town but he came back alone. There was a nasty sickness going around that year and when he came back he was...well, he didn’t say much, just that we would have to find somewhere else to get the saddles and we all knew what that meant. He was pretty bad that whole winter. Since then, he’s been the same as most of us, beds someone when he needs to, doesn’t get attached. You wouldn’t know anything ever happened except that every year he finds an excuse to go over there. One time Bors went with him and that’s how we found out he was still helping the man’s family; the craftsman had been supporting his mother and the younger children, and I suppose Tristan feels some kind of duty to them. I think he gives them some coin as well as hunting for them.”
Galahad was quiet then. He knew how it felt to miss his friend; he couldn’t imagine how much worse it would be to miss a lover. For all that he was angry with Tristan it hurt to think of him coming home defeated and alone.
“You disapprove?” Gawain asked, frowning at his silence.
“No, of course not, I just...I’m glad he helps the family.”
“He’s a good man. Not one to make a fuss about things; you have to look pretty far under the surface with that one. Galahad, will you give him a chance to explain himself? If you won’t do it for him, think of the rest of us. There are so few of us now, we can’t afford to be divided and whatever happens, I’d like our last time together to be good.”
“So, umm, what exactly did you tell Tristan you’d have if I didn’t want it?” Galahad asked, and Gawain started laughing.
“Oh, you heard that? That must have sounded so bad!”
Galahad couldn’t help laughing too “You know if you like him, I’d be happy to put a word in for you…”
“Oh shut up! It’s not that, he’s…”
There was a knock on the door, and Gawain looked at him.
Gawain went to the door, let Tristan in and walked out behind him, shutting the door rather firmly as he went.
Tristan stood awkwardly by the door and held out a jug.
“Gawain said you spilled your wine.”
“Actually, I poured it all over the floor and smashed the bottle right in front of Arthur,” Galahad said, “I think I may have stained his boots.”
“Should go nicely with Bors’s cloak then,” Tristan said, and Galahad groaned.
“You heard about that?”
“This is a small place for a man with a voice as big as his. May I come in?”
“Oh, yes, alright,” Galahad said. He gestured to the chair in front of him and then realised Gawain had left it right by his. He got up hurriedly and moved it back, then blushed heavily.
Tristan did a good job of pretending not to notice and went in search of cups.
“You only seem to have one cup here?”
“Oh, I...the other one got broken. Hang on, there’s this one…” He walked across to the little chest, got out the golden goblet he had taken from the Bishop earlier and brought it to Tristan.
“I think I had better have the pottery one,” Tristan said lightly. “You seem to be clumsy this week.”
Galahad glared at him.
“Did you come here to make jokes Tristan?”
Tristan put the goblet down and looked at him silently for a moment.
“No, I did not,” he answered quietly “I came here to apologise. I treated you poorly at a time when you needed my friendship. I failed to honour that, I showed you disrespect as a man and a knight and when you were rightly angered, I ran like a coward and left you to deal with your grief alone. I am truly sorry for my errors and I had hoped to atone for them, and now it seems I have little time in which to do it. I do not hope to earn your forgiveness but if there is anything I can do to make up for my actions you have only to ask.”
Tristan’s dark eyes were fixed on him; he could see the truth in them and hear it in the low tone of his voice as he spoke. This was the same man who had heard Arthur’s announcement and carried on eating his apple as if having their freedom stolen meant nothing at all, yet now he was looking at Galahad as though nothing mattered more than the next words he would say.
Except he couldn’t say anything. His throat was closed tight and he was clenching his fists because he would not cry in front of Tristan, he would not do that…
He moved over to the table to pour them some wine and buy himself a little time to calm down, but when he went to open the jug he found his hands were shaking too much to do it.
“The cork is in wrong I think, may I?” Tristan took the jug and opened it easily.
“You always do that. Why do you do that?” Galahad asked, and Tristan looked thrown.
“I always…?” He poured the wine and handed Galahad the golden goblet.
“Cover for me. If I’m saying the wrong thing or I’m messing something up, you jump in and make me look better or you distract everyone. Are you afraid they will see the mistake you made?”
“Me,” Galahad said bitterly. “You chose me, even though I wasn’t good enough. You argued for me when no-one else wanted me because...well, you know why.”
He looked at Tristan and almost dropped his cup. He had never seen him look so angry.
“Who has told you these lies?” Tristan spat, “Tell me!”
“Nobody told me, I worked it out myself. Lancelot said you never argued for any other knight but me and that’s why Arthur listened.”
“Did he tell you I was not the only one to speak for you? He spoke for you himself! And besides, Arthur liked your character. Why has Lancelot deceived you? I will speak to him right now!”
Tristan rose to his feet and Galahad hurried to stop him.
“Wait, hang on Tristan, it might not be his fault. Please, sit and have your wine and let me explain?”
“He had no right to speak falsehoods to you!”
“Tristan. You said you would do anything I asked of you. I’m asking you to sit back down.”
It took him a moment before he could calm himself, but Tristan sat and took a long drink of wine.
Galahad sighed. “This is...when Lancelot told me you argued for me he was going to say more, but I stopped him. When I was chosen to join Arthur’s knights, the other men in my company said it was because...” he blushed hotly, “...they umm, they said I wasn’t chosen for my skills. There were others there who could beat me with a lance or a sword and we both know how much you all had to teach me. So when Lancelot said it was you who fought for me I thought…”
“Huh. You thought I chose you for your looks and then waited for five years to do something about it. You think I kill for sport and bed anyone who will not charge me, and yet you credit me with great patience. Well, that’s something, I suppose.”
Now that he heard it out loud, it did seem a little unlikely.
“Yes,” Tristan continued, “there were men who were better with a sword or a lance but you were strong with both. You rode well and when you were done, you always took care of your horse before yourself. Most of the men there were talking to us all the time, boasting of their skill and demanding to be chosen. You waited for your turn and then while you were speaking to us, you saw a man thrown from his horse and noticed he did not get up. You were the first of the men to see it and you were the only one willing to leave us and go to help him. When Gawain told Arthur that, he liked it.”
“I got chosen for being good ?”
“You weren’t chosen for listening, it seems,” Tristan said wryly and shook his head. “Do you not hear me, Galahad? You know how we are. Every man must fight for his brother knights as well as himself. Loyalty is not something we can teach like a better aim with a bow; for some men it comes too easily and for others it never comes at all. We saw the right kind in you. Besides, it was not just that you cared, it was that you were watching your surroundings when others were distracted. You know how much that skill is needed every time we ride out. From what I have heard you blame yourself for Percival’s death but when the Woads attacked, you were the only man who saw them as fast as I did and fired at the same time as me, and I am our scout. I trained myself to watch, but you do it naturally because you feel responsibility for everyone around you.”
“I did not feel much responsibility for Arthur tonight. You were the first to say we should go with him.”
“Ah, that little jibe about death by a Saxon hand? Everyone was angry, I thought it better that you should all be angry with me.”
“Did you see Arthur’s face? He was ashamed. He knew what he was asking and how cheated we would feel, and he had no choice but to ask us anyway. He’s been our leader all this time. I can take you yelling at me; I’ve had a little practice lately.” Tristan grinned at him and Galahad dropped his head.
“When you treated me like that, I thought you believed me unworthy to be a knight.”
Tristan leaned forward and put his hand under Galahad’s chin and forced him to look up.
“I have never thought that at any time, and it grieves me greatly that I gave you cause to think so. You said you wanted us to stay together after our freedom and you seemed to like me kissing you and then, well, I made an assumption I should not have made.”
His voice was low and he looked so sincere, and Galahad couldn’t help thinking about that kiss. If he was honest with himself, he had been thinking about it a lot, about how good he had felt in Tristan’s arms feeling valued and loved, about how he had opened his mouth and Tristan had sucked his lip tenderly before their mouths had fit together.
“I did.” He leaned forward, careful not to break Tristan’s hold on his jaw. “I did like it.”
Their faces were so close he could feel their breath combine. He waited a moment before he realised Tristan was being careful not to offend him again, so he leaned in, carefully, and touched their lips together.
It was like their first kiss all over again, except this time it was Tristan who was trying to catch up with what was happening, whose mouth opened under his, and he was the one taking the lead, angling his face and caressing Tristan’s tongue with his own as he grasped his nape to hold him just here; right where he wanted him because he did not want this to stop.
When he finally drew back for breath, Tristan was looking at him so intensely that it made him self-conscious; it must have shown because he smiled and rubbed one thumb softly against Galahad’s beard, and that gave him the courage to lean forward again. Tristan made a soft sound of welcome and took him in again eagerly, a little pushy now that he was sure it was wanted, and Galahad let him take over because the way Tristan was sucking at his tongue was sending shivers through him. This time when he pulled away he did not know what to do next; he had been so angry with Tristan for what he did and now he was feeling like doing the same himself.
He leaned back in his chair, breathing hard, and took a swallow of wine to give himself time to think.
He had hoped Tristan might say something to cover for his awkwardness like he usually did but he just looked at him with those dark unreadable eyes until Galahad broke first.
“We have some long days ahead of us. I think we... I need to sleep.”
“Of course,” Tristan said, and got his feet. If he was disappointed, he was too polite to show it. “Goodnight Galahad. Sleep well.”
“You too. And Tristan...thanks.”
It surprised him that Tristan’s departing smile was as shy as his own.
“Hasn’t it been a lovely day?” Lancelot was roasting rabbit on a stick over the bonfire where they had camped in the woods. “First the Bishop sends Horace to keep us company, then the Woads take up basket weaving with us inside the basket, and then we find a room full of dead people and get two more Woads to carry along with us.”
“More like one and a half, really,” Gawain said, “but Dagonet seems to like the boy.”
“If he starts adopting Woads he’ll catch Bors up in no time!” Galahad laughed. For a bad day, he felt remarkably light-hearted. The firelight was flickering over Tristan’s face, highlighting its sharp angles and lighting up the sharp curve of the tattoos over his cheekbones. He wanted to touch them.
His eyes met Tristan’s across the fire and he looked away quickly before his expression gave them away to the others.
“Speaking of catching up, I told Arthur we should be much further ahead of the Saxons.” Lancelot took a piece of rabbit off the stick and blew on it to cool it down.
“Yes, we should,” Gawain answered, “but the Roman insisted his family needed rest and Arthur is trying to keep him happy for now. Besides, the Woad boy is sick and we all need some sleep.”
“I’ll go out scouting as soon as it’s light, see if they are catching up with us,” Tristan said, stretching his legs and yawning.
“Galahad should go out in front and look for any problems ahead,” Lancelot suggested.
Galahad nodded and found himself yawning too.
“See you at dawn then,” he said, and stumbled off to the nearest carriage in search of a blanket and some shelter in case of more snow and rain.
Tristan appeared shortly after and went to put a deerskin on the ground at the other end of the carriage. Galahad caught him by the wrist and Tristan looked up, then let Galahad pull him towards him. He moved a braid away from Tristan’s ear and whispered “Since it’s cold...want to share our blankets?”
“Yeah,” Tristan said, as eloquent as ever, and let Galahad put his deerskin by his own, then pull him down to lie face to face with him, before covering them in thick wool.
Galahad had put Tristan on the side closest to the fire and he could see one high cheekbone silhouetted against the distant firelight. He reached out and stroked his fingers over it trying to see if he could feel the tattoo there, but the skin was smooth over the bone. He leaned in and kissed there, one hand sliding into his hair. Tristan indulged him, lying still for a minute, and he could feel crinkles form by his eyes that suggested a smile. He kissed down the smooth line where beard gave way to skin and then turned to seek Tristan’s mouth, making a little pleasured sound when it was granted without hesitation.
Tristan reached for his nape and stroked curls and skin with an affectionate hand. It was strange, he had not thought of himself as missing anything, but now that Tristan was rubbing little circles into his skin he realised how good it was to be held this way by someone who wanted him to feel the care in each touch. Tristan’s hands were rough with calluses from bow and sword; they were the hands of a man who had fought and won for years, and yet they were so gentle on his neck as though he were a small hawk in need of taming. They kissed for a long time until Tristan was sucking on his tongue and he realised with a shiver what that might imply, and he moaned a little louder than he meant to. He drew back, mortified, and wondered who might have heard. There was a soft chuckle from Tristan and a low voice whispered in his ear.
“Don’t let Iruk hear now, she’s too young for that.”
He had to stifle a laugh, could feel Tristan bury his face in the blanket to muffle his own amusement, and then he felt a hand on his neck, not so much pulling him down as politely suggesting a direction. Tristan was on his back and he brought Galahad’s head to his shoulder, rubbing warm circles into his hair and nape again. If it was a little possessive, he found he could live very well with that; even knowing how close the Saxons were, he felt safe between Tristan and the carriage, between his warm shoulder and the thick wool above them. He could feel him breathing slowly, and it drew him in, the soft breaths, the slow circles and little pops as wood cracked in the fire. He breathed in the smell of smoke and Tristan, closed his eyes and slept.
They returned with the Romans and Dagonet’s corpse, and the Bishop handed them their freedom as if they were children who had earned a treat.
Galahad put the scroll carefully in his chest. His freedom, and yet bought with the blood of another friend. He didn’t feel much like celebrating. He washed, put on fresh light clothes and went to see Tristan.
Tristan answered the door shirtless and barefoot, a new fire lit behind him and just starting to catch. Galahad had seen him barechested before, but now he found himself looking in a new way; one which involved thoughts of touching him and maybe seeing those muscles work as Tristan held him down and kissed him. He felt a shiver of arousal go through him and realised this might not be the best time, not when Tristan was standing silent with a look on his face that Galahad knew very well from wearing it himself after Percival died.
He stepped forward and wrapped his arms around him, resting his face against Tristan’s neck. They stood like that for a long moment, and he couldn’t resist brushing back a stray braid to kiss his throat. It started as comfort, but it didn’t take long before he got greedy for the taste of Tristan’s skin and he mouthed at him, still gentle but less than chaste.
Tristan took hold of his arms and gently pushed him away.
“I’m sorry,” Galahad reddened. “It’s a bad time, I shouldn’t have…”
“It’s not that,” Tristan said in a low voice. “I promised I would not offend you again. If you keep doing that, I’m not sure I will be able to stop myself.”
Oh. The way Tristan had let him start their kisses every time, his restraint by the fire last night; it made sense now. He felt guilty. Here he was doing exactly what he had blamed Tristan for doing; seeking something which felt good when he felt bad. And what had he said to Tristan? Every unkind word he could think of.
“I’m sorry,” he blurted out, “I’m so sorry Tristan. I felt unworthy of you and I acted as though you felt the same way without ever asking if you did. I was upset about Percival and I just got overwhelmed and I should never have lashed out at you that way. I shouldn’t have said those things. About the way you kill, and...and sleeping with people…I liked it when you kissed me, I just got the wrong idea when you wanted more. I thought you just wanted sex but now…”
And then he realised he couldn’t say what he had started to say and he fell silent, blushing.
“And now you know that I love you.”
Tristan held his head high and looked almost defiant, but he was shaking, and Galahad couldn’t bear it; he flung himself on Tristan and held him tightly, pressing their faces together. Tristan held on in return, still shivering a little and while they were this close together, Galahad found the courage to ask what he needed to know.
“We’re free now. It’s over. Are we...are we together?”
Tristan took his face in his hands and held it so he was looking up into his dark eyes. He could see the light from the fire flickering in them.
“Always,” he said, as if it were a vow.
“Then I’m yours,” Galahad promised. “No more holding back, Tristan, I’m yours .”
A moment for Tristan to find the truth in his face and then he was kissing him wildly, arms wrapped around him, and when he stopped his face was full of a fierce joy. He caught Galahad’s hand in his and led him over to his bed, then hesitated a moment, still trying to be a gentleman. Galahad sat on the bed unceremoniously, pulled off boots and socks, then stood up to give Tristan another kiss. It was the first time he had seen Tristan lose his careful air of control; his face was flushed and he was looking at Galahad like he wanted to eat him alive, but he was still waiting for permission, even now, so Galahad took his hand, put it against his chest, and said “push.”
Tristan’s eyebrows went up and he looked amused, but he gave Galahad a small shove. Galahad went with it, exaggeratedly falling as though he were taking some great blow and then laughed and held out his arms. Tristan fell into them and Galahad took some time running his hands over his muscular back, tracing Tristan’s shoulder blades as he kissed him again and again. He could feel Tristan trying to lose himself, the sadness still raw in them both. He wanted to lose himself too, to take his comfort in Tristan and then give it back to him with every touch. Tristan put his hands on his shoulders and guided him up until he was sitting, then took hold of his shirt, his face asking an unvoiced question. Galahad raised his arms and let Tristan slide his shirt over his head. When they lay down again, Tristan lined them up, then gave a little grunt at feeling him half hard against him. He gave a small questing push of his hips and Galahad gasped out loud at the tingling heat it sent through him. He got a lot harder embarrassingly fast and Tristan rocked into it, keeping a steady pace that set them both panting a little in between long kisses.
Tristan leaned over him and started to kiss his chest, tasting skin as he went. He paused to mouth at a nipple and Galahad gasped again at just how good he was with his mouth. It was a pleasure in itself and a hint at more, and he couldn’t stop thinking about how much he wanted Tristan’s mouth on other parts of him. Luckily, Tristan seemed to have the same idea because he was headed slowly downwards although he was having fun taking scenic detours, his tongue exploring ridges of muscle, his hands stroking firmly over Galahad’s sides.
He was making little breathy sounds now, and Tristan was doing everything he could think of to provoke more. And it seemed Tristan could think of a lot because his tongue was licking hot lines along the top of Galahad’s waistband in an obvious plea for more access. He reached down to loosen the drawstring and then lifted his hips to allow Tristan to get the rest of his clothes off. Tristan looked him over hungrily and smiled at him, all pointed teeth like a predator. He reached for him, but Galahad grabbed him by the wrist and he stopped at once.
“You too,” he said, his voice low with desire.
Tristan made quick work of complying, stripping himself bare with lustful efficiency then lying down to face him, and now it was Galahad’s turn to look. Tristan was as lean and muscular as he had expected; old and new scars made strange paths that led the eye across flesh and sinew. He couldn’t help but look at Tristan’s cock, hard and already wet with promise at the top. It was darker and longer than his own - trust Tristan to go one better as always - but even here he was a little leaner than Galahad. He reached out, half afraid to touch, and ran his fingertips over the freckled shaft. Tristan moaned, low in his throat, and reached for Galahad and this time he allowed it. A strong callused hand wrapped around him and rubbed upwards, and pleasure made him close his eyes for a moment. When he opened them Tristan was looking at him with an unguarded look of love and lust, biting the corner of his own lip with one sharp canine. He had never seen Tristan so open before; it made him look younger somehow, and he wanted to see him lose himself a little more, so he reached for him and started echoing his movements. He wrapped his hand around him and imitated the tight hold, the rubbing; he tried to judge what Tristan wanted from what was happening to him but it was hard to concentrate because Tristan was making little “uh” noises and breathing hard, and it sounded amazing. Tristan had a firm grip on him, and he was rubbing his thumb under the head of Galahad’s cock and he wanted to do it back but instead of making Tristan lose it, he was lost himself.
“Oh...oh...Tristan...please…” A little piece of him was embarrassed but it was thoroughly outvoted by the part of him which needed more, right now.
“What would you like?” Tristan growled, right by his ear, breath hot on his neck.
He couldn’t speak and he couldn’t seem to co-ordinate his movements any more. He slid his hand up Tristan’s cock and rubbed his palm across the slick head, moaning at how wet it felt, the skin stretched taut over the heated flush of blood.
And finally Tristan took over, pushing him back onto the bed so he could kiss and suck a hot wet trail down the line of hair from navel to groin. Just when Galahad was trying to form the words to beg he felt Tristan’s mouth on him and he moaned, raw and desperate, his hips bucking reflexively.
Tristan pulled back slightly and he thought for one awful second he was going to stop but instead he heard a muffled growl as he pushed back down again, even further this time, and he started to echo Tristan’s sound back at him because this was beyond good. He dug his fingernails into his palm trying not to do anything that could possibly make him stop, ever, and then one of his hands found a shoulder and he held on to it tightly. He could feel the muscles working under Tristan’s skin as he sucked him better, and way more enthusiastically, than anyone had ever done in his life.
He knew he couldn’t possibly last but just as he could feel himself getting close, Tristan pulled off him in a hot wet slide that almost sent him over; he started licking him delicately, little flickering touches of his tongue slipping over the slit of Galahad’s cock and savouring the taste of what he found there.
If he meant to give him time to calm down it really wasn’t working; the sight of his wet, pink tongue lapping hungrily was just too much and he tried to tell him but all he could manage was a strangled whimper. He felt the shoulder shift under his hand and let go of it, realising Tristan had got up on his knees and was touching himself now, frantically jerking as he sucked Galahad back into his mouth. He wanted to hold on long enough to let Tristan catch up, but he was beyond the point of control, the feeling was too intense now and he started trying to say something, but it ended in him gasping half-formed words. Tristan took it as encouragement not warning, and rubbed his tongue against him in a way that was more than he could stand. He whimpered again, loud and shocked, and came hard into Tristan’s mouth, the feeling sparking through him over and over. He was dimly aware that he was making a lot of noise but he couldn’t stop. He could feel his cock jerking against Tristan’s tongue, and every time it happened it was pleasure all over again. Tristan wouldn’t stop until he finally put a hand down to his face to make him stop, and when he crawled up the bed he was clearly on the brink himself. He settled on top of Galahad and kissed him deeply, rubbing against his thigh, demanding. Galahad got hold of his shoulders, pushed him backwards and got a hand in between them. He went back to echoing Tristan’s tight hot grip and whispered to him,
“Next time you’re going to show me how to do that to you.”
That was all it took for Tristan to come all over his hand, and he kept working him until it was Tristan’s turn to put a hand over his and stop him, groaning softly as he fell onto Galahad’s chest. He put his arms around him, stunned and happy, and pressed a kiss to his hair. He received an answering kiss to his collarbone and couldn’t believe the love that swelled through him. He took inspiration from the night before and slid his clean hand under Tristan’s hair to rub slow lazy circles on the back of his neck. He heard a soft hum and felt the tickle of it against his chest.
They lay peacefully for a few minutes until Galahad realised he would really have to wash at least one hand. He was about to do just that when there was a loud knocking at the door.
“What?” Tristan yelled from right where he was.
“Open the door!” Gawain yelled back and Tristan sighed, got out of bed and wrapped a nearby towel around his waist. He unlocked the door and Gawain charged in without asking.
“The Saxons have come! They are camping right outside our walls and they...oh hello Galahad...they’ve made bonfires. You need to come and see. Seriously! Get dressed and...oh. Well, I’m glad you’re getting on better. Galahad, get dressed! You need to see this!”
And he was gone.
Galahad got out of bed and headed for the bowl of water Tristan was currently using to wash. Tristan stepped back to let him use it and said mildly,
“He took that well then.”
Galahad cleaned up and splashed water on his face in the hope of cooling his blush.
“He’s glad we’re getting on better . Uh, yes.”
Two strong hands turned him around and Tristan regarded him carefully, his angular head tilted like a curious bird.
“Yeah, I just would have liked a bit more time before I had to deal with that, you know? So much has been going on. Percival and Dagonet, us…”
“Us,” Tristan said with evident satisfaction, and stroked Galahad’s beard with the back of his hand. Galahad gave him a little smile.
“And now the Saxons are here. Thanks to the Bishop we lost Dagonet when we were supposed to be safe and heading home, and now we have to worry about the Saxons. I don’t want to lose anyone else.”
There it was, his fear voiced out loud, but not his worst fear. He wouldn’t name that one, it seemed too much like tempting the gods, but he could see from Tristan’s expression that he knew.
He could feel the panic rising.
“What are we going to do?”
Tristan pulled him close, chest to chest.
“We’re going to go and see what is happening and then we are going to decide together. Right?”
He stood breathing in the smell of Tristan, leather and sweat, and wondered at how much better he felt now he wasn’t so alone.
“Right,” he said, and meant it.
He was relieved when they finally rode out through the gates. He had spent the morning seeing people scurrying back and forth with straw and pitch, preparing whatever weapons they had while he and the other knights packed up the carriages ready to leave. He knew Lancelot was right, and this was no longer their home or their fight, but all the same he felt guilty and sick and he could tell the other knights did too.
Arthur had said his goodbyes early in the morning; for once he had not made a speech but had simply embraced them all then walked away to continue his preparations for the battle ahead.
Despite all the noise, everyone could hear the Saxons and everyone was listening for the moment when they decided to move, but when the carriages were ready and the Roman escort eventually lined up, nothing had happened. They rode along the road into thick black smoke that stung his eyes and burned in his throat, Gawain beside him and Tristan behind; there was little need for a scout to ride ahead when they knew the Woads were preparing to fight their new enemy.
High up on the ridge of the hill they saw it: a lone figure on a horse in full battle dress, standard raised. There was only one Roman who was staying behind; Arthur had ridden out to salute them. He heard the ring of metal as Bors drew his sword and watched as he rode out of line, raised his weapon and roared up at the skyline:
Arthur called it back, a long drawn out cry:
Galahad had to turn away for a moment to control his expression and looking at the other knights he could see he was not the only one.He thought then how unfair he had been to say they were his slaves: yes, their service had been forced by Rome, but Arthur had treated them with respect and kindness. He thought of his insistence that they sit as equals at the Round Table. He thought of Gawain’s story and how Arthur would have let Tristan bring his lover to the fortress.
Bors came back to the line and they rode on, subdued, nobody saying a word. The next time he looked up, Arthur’s standard remained on the hill, but their former leader was gone.
From the other side of the wall they heard the Saxon war drums begin to beat.
Lancelot’s horse neighed shrilly, throwing his head back, and the other horses reacted immediately, skittish and confused; long training had taught them to go fearlessly towards such sound. They too, it seemed, felt the singing in their blood.
He fought to turn his horse and in that moment he knew what was going to happen. It was Tristan, out of all of them, who had been first to say he would go to rescue the Roman family, who had covered for Arthur out of loyalty and love.
Their horses had turned to face each other and he looked up expecting to see determination, but instead he saw a question. Tristan was looking at him, his face pleading.
“We are going to decide together…”
He knew how badly his lover wanted to go back and he knew that all the same, Tristan was not deciding or demanding, but asking him as an equal.
They looked at each other and made their choice.
Lancelot looked at each knight in turn and Galahad watched as one by one they all reached the same decision.
Tristan raised his hand and looked at Iruk, making little clicking noises to her.
“Hey.” he said. “You’re free.” He launched her out into the smoke-darkened sky. They watched her as she flew up, then Bors looked back to Vanora. Her face was sad, but they could see the acceptance on it.
Lancelot gave a little resigned grin, and that set Gawain off too, the relief suddenly spreading among them, and Galahad laughed because this thing they were going to do was stupid, really, but for the first time in years it was their free choice.
The Romans did not look too happy to lose them, but they were in too much of a hurry to get away from the Saxons to kick up much of a fuss.
They went back behind the wall, changed quickly into armour and rode back out along the road to find Arthur.
“So Lancelot, have you told Arthur you’re sleeping with Guinevere yet?” Bors asked, always one to lighten the mood. “You said you’d steal Gaiwan’s wife and you’re always after Vanora, why should Arthur get away with it?”
“Think I’ll wait til she’s got the warpaint off,” Lancelot grinned, “bit of a giveaway if I’m walking around with blue skin.”
Gawain laughed “Well, you can always go after Tristan’s.”
“Tristan’s?” Lancelot enquired with one perfectly arched eyebrow.
“Let’s just say Galahad isn’t as pure as he was.”
Tristan joined in the laughter, the traitor.
“Oh, I don’t think Lancelot’s coming for Galahad,” he said cheerfully. “After all, I’m a much better fighter than any of you.”
Galahad had never been so embarrassed or so touched.
“At least you won’t have to worry if your children are Lancelot’s,” Gawain told Tristan. “At least three of Vanora’s have curly hair.”
“I’m suspicious when they have hair at all” Tristan shot back, and this time Galahad couldn’t help laughing too.
“There he is!” Lancelot said as Arthur appeared at the crest of the hill, and he turned his horse to gallop up the grassy slope toward him.
Tristan looked over at Galahad, his face tender.
“Ready?” he asked quietly, and Galahad knew he was asking more than that.
Galahad smiled at him and turned his horse. They followed the others up towards the skyline.
It felt like joining his family.
What Galahad remembered of the battle later came in small pieces.
The whistle of hundreds of Woad arrows in the sky and the pattering hailstone sound as they hit shields and helms.
The acrid smell of burning pitch and the spraying of blood as they rode full tilt through the Saxons, hacking at heads and limbs as they went.
The vast, roaring war chant when the full Saxon army approached and the whinnying of their horses as they watched the enemy fan out, holding back to wait for the right time to attack.
The creaking of catapults and the rain of burning arrows as if the sky were full of burning stars; the fire setting light to pitch to draw lines of flame through the Saxon ranks until the Woads charged, screaming towards them in a line of blue fury.
And, at last, the fierceness in his blood as they galloped hard towards smoke and fire.
He fell from his mount and grabbed the buckler strapped on his back before his feet had hit the ground; the first attacker leaned forward to cut into his knees and got Galahad’s sword through his foolish skull as a reward.
There was no thought, only instinct born of long practice: if he was facing a man he was the first to attack and when an attacker came from the side he reacted to the line of their body without conscious thought, perfectly anticipating the weakness in each man’s chosen move, claiming for himself the advantage of longer reach or greater force, pivot, feint and leverage all in play, and never the same trick twice in a row.
The Saxons seemed unprepared for him using his shield as a weapon and he exploited that weakness ruthlessly, smashing men in the face and thrusting his sword into their side as they lost their balance, working his way to the wall to defend the steps where Jols was fighting alone.
The twist of the wrist as he slashed into men’s necks to widen the cut and make sure they bled out; that was one Tristan had made him practice over and over until his wrist ached and his shoulder burned, but now he could do it repeatedly and not even notice.
Tristan...where was Tristan…
Two Saxons came tumbling down the steps of the wall to his feet. He stabbed one and Jols landed on top of the other and finished him off.
Galahad ran up the steps and had a moment’s grace to scan the battlefield below.
Tristan’s long braids, the bright metal plates on his shoulders and his strange curved scimitar; a blond Saxon head. They were in a space fighting hand to hand and he couldn’t understand why no-one else was jumping in until he realised with a sinking heart that the man Tristan was fighting was the Saxon commander and the Saxons would not disrespect their leader by acting as if he needed help.
And from here, it looked very much like he didn’t.
They were stood blade to blade, each waiting for the other to make a false move.
Galahad ran down the stairs and started to fight his way through to Tristan. He ducked a sword coming for his head, spun around fast and put all his force into a blow that dropped his opponent where he stood. He looked up, saw a gap in the fighting, and ran as hard as he could toward Tristan.
And as he ran, he saw Tristan falling to the ground.
He ducked around fallen bodies, slamming his buckler up to deflect a passing blow and yelling as he rushed toward the Saxon, desperate to distract him from Tristan.
It worked: the Saxon wheeled round, his long blond braids flying, and came at Galahad without hesitation, powerful and intimidating.
Tristan was alive; he could see him crawling along the ground but he wasn’t getting up and that was bad, that was really bad.
After that he couldn’t look again because the Saxon was swinging at him with devastating force, sword in one hand and a dagger in the other. He knew without even having to acknowledge the thought: a man who fought with two weapons was relying on strength and speed. This was not a man who intended to block, but one who aimed to tire you out and strike you down, and the dagger said if he got inside your reach he would be lightning quick to stab you.
Knowing his strategy was one thing, but exploiting it was another; it was all Galahad could do to ward off the blows coming his way. The man was broad shouldered and a head taller and he was forcing Galahad into defence with every vicious stroke.
He wasn’t sure how long he could keep going, then suddenly the Saxon yelped and gave an awkward hop sideways: Tristan had stuck a dagger in his calf. Galahad reacted in one fluid motion, thrusting his sword hard into the Saxon’s side and yanking it back out.
He went for another strike but the Saxon was already on his feet and coming at him with full force. This time he got his sword up too late and felt a blade slice into his shoulder.
It should have hurt, but all he could feel was the fury rising in him. He would not allow Tristan to die; this man would not take his life.
The Saxon was standing back, playing with him like a cat taunting a mouse. So he was arrogant...that was a weakness.
Galahad allowed himself to stumble forward a little and as the Saxon came in for the kill he left himself undefended. Galahad got a second hit, still not the killing blow he sought but a glancing over hew to the man’s forehead that was enough to send him staggering back, bleeding.
He needed to press his advantage but the Saxon raised his blade again instantly and Galahad knew he would not fall for that ruse again.
The Saxon charged him, looking to overpower him with pure strength, and he threw his arm up to block the blow but the force of it sent him to the ground. The Saxon switched his grip, both hands under his crossguard, ready to drive his sword into Galahad’s heart. He rolled aside but the Saxon was over him now and he had no way out.
Blood spattered onto his face and he thought for a second it was his own, that he had somehow not felt the blade going into him, until he looked up and saw the point of a sword protruding from the Saxon’s chest. The point disappeared and he rolled again, this time to avoid having the man fall on him.
He staggered to his feet and looked around just in time to see Arthur deliver a deep gash into the man’s neck. Blood spurted out in pulsing arcs, and the Saxon did not get up.
Galahad did not wait to see Arthur finish him; he was already scrambling over to Tristan.
There was blood soaking through Tristan’s hair and running down his face; his eyes were closed and he was still on the ground. Galahad stood over him ready to attack any man who dared to come near.
A moment later he heard a strange shout behind him and he risked a look back.
Arthur was holding the Saxon commander’s head up for the last of his troops to see, impaled on the end of his sword.
The battle was over.
Galahad dropped to his knees by Tristan, and wept.
Gaiwan spoke before he came to him, aware of the danger of startling him so soon after the fight.
He ignored him, uncaring.
“BORS!” Gawain was yelling now, his voice hoarse from exhaustion and the dark smoke, “WE NEED HELP!”
He grabbed Galahad’s hand and put it against Tristan’s bloody neck.
“He’s alive, Galahad! Come on, we have to get him inside the walls!”
He could feel it under his hand, weak but definite: a tiny movement. A pulse.
Bors arrived, his face dripping with blood, and hauled Galahad to his feet before bending down and hoisting Tristan over his shoulder.
They staggered back to the walls, too tired to speak and the moment they were inside, Bors dropped Tristan to the ground, unable to carry him further. Galahad rushed to catch Tristan and ease him to the ground.
After that, time seemed to stretch and ripple.
Gawain was there with an old door and they were carrying Tristan inside.
He was taking off Tristan’s armor with care and gasping at the long gash and huge purple bruise that ran up his side while someone kept fussing because he was bleeding too.
Vanora was there with a bowl and strips of hot wet cloth and he could smell willow bark; he was holding Tristan’s head up so she could wash and bind it and then someone was taking his tunic off and binding his arm and he let them do whatever they wanted because he could not stop looking at how pale Tristan’s face was behind his dark beard.
He was sitting at Tristan’s bedside and Bors was gripping his shoulder much too hard, telling him that Lancelot was dead.
He was standing on the hill surrounded by graves looking at dark bundles of kindling sticks being piled over Lancelot’s shrouded body and handing Arthur a flaming torch.
Tristan was awake but not talking, and Galahad was lifting his head and helping him to take sips of bitter willow bark tea.
Vanora was stroking his face with one finger and smiling at him kindly: “Look at that cut! You’ll have to have a tattoo like Tristan’s to cover it up!”
He hated to leave Tristan, even in the good care of Vanora’s helpers, but there were not enough healthy stable hands to care for their horses and Iruk had returned; he took her out at dawn each day and came home with badly needed meat to feed the wounded.
The first time he launched her into the sky he had been afraid she would not come back to him, but he whistled like Tristan and she came to his glove. He thought of Tristan’s story about his little sparrowhawk and wondered if he would ever see this and be proud.
On the third day, when he came to Tristan’s bedside and told him he was back, Tristan opened his eyes and croaked at him.
He gave him water, and Tristan said, “You should sleep, you look terrible.” Galahad leaned over and kissed him carefully.
“I look better than you,” he said, and Tristan gave a little grunt.
“You sure about that? Because I’m really handsome.”
Laughing at Tristan’s joke was the sweetest moment he could have asked for, but later that day he brought Iruk in to show him.
“I’ve been taking her out to get you rabbits,” he told him. “She comes back to me.”
When he saw the adoring way Tristan looked at him then, he almost lost his breath.
It turned out Bors should not have been carrying anyone after the battle; he had taken a spear to his back and was bedridden for days.
Gawain and Arthur recovered well from their injuries and persuaded Galahad to ride with them to the harbour to fetch supplies. He wanted to say no but winter was setting in and they had people to feed and no Roman goods to come. He checked Tristan’s wounds for infection, changed his bandages, and was happy to be be pulled close for a goodbye kiss before he went.
When the cut to his shoulder was healed over enough, he was able to take a bow with him when he took Iruk out. He rewarded her for her kills, but when she was due to be fed he always took her to Tristan: it was a small highlight in his day and it helped him to keep the bond with his hawk. Tristan could sit in a chair now that his cuts were knitted, and the bruising on his ribs was fading to a sickly shade of green.
One night as Tristan was feeding the last chunks of meat to Iruk, Arthur came to see them and Galahad winced inwardly; he had carefully avoided thinking about the future, since Tristan was too sick to move in the cold weather anyway.
“Here,” Arthur said, handing Galahad two jugs of wine. “I heard you had run out. That’s the last of mine.”
Their remaining Roman wine had been set aside for the invalids, but the last Galahad could get had gone last night; it helped Tristan to fall asleep and Galahad was grateful to have more. He smiled at Arthur and gave him his chair while he fetched another, putting Iruk on the bedpost knowing she would be quiet for after food.
Arthur enquired politely after Tristan’s health, then got straight to the usual Roman speech-giving.
“The Woads did well with the catapults and they fought bravely, but Guinevere has lost even more people than we did,” he said. “Cerdic expected defenceless peasants but the next Saxons to come are less likely to underestimate us. If we hope to survive any more attacks we have to share our knowledge with the Woads. Merlin agrees they need to fight as a disciplined unit, and sees we have fighting techniques we can share with them.
Which is why I’m hoping you’ll choose to stay.”
He looked at them with earnest green eyes and when no protest came, he continued.
“You are free men now and I will understand if you want to leave, but the two of you would be of great help, should you choose to stay. And if you go, you know I will miss you greatly.”
“If this doesn’t heal well I may be more of a burden than a help,” Tristan said, pointing at his side.
Arthur looked surprised.
“Tristan, we have a whole army to train and you are the best of us all with a bow. Whether you can fight or not, you have knowledge to offer and the proven ability to teach it well.”
“I can see why you want Tristan, but why me?” Galahad challenged him. “He taught me almost everything I know.”
“ Almost everything?” Tristan enquired in pretend affront, and Galahad scowled at him to shut him up but Tristan just looked amused and gave him a little pat on the knee.
Arthur smiled, but would not be distracted from making his appeal.
“When you spoke to the Bishop, you said the Woads were men who want their country back. Marcus Honorius wanted to kill Guinevere and the boy for being pagans and you were the one to speak up in their defence, to point out all my knights - sorry, all of you - were pagans too. When I think of how angry you were to have your freedom denied, I believe you know very well what it means to the Woads.”
Galahad blushed to think of how he had smashed the jug at Arthur’s feet but he remembered the despair he had felt when he did it.
“It is not just your skill we need Galahad, although that is certainly worth having. It is your character. You have always worked hard and I know if you believe in this cause, your help will be worth that of ten men because of what is in your heart.”
Ever the skilled tactician, Arthur knew better than to press when he had won his point.
“It’s too late for you to leave this winter so you have some time to think. I hope you will do me the honour of choosing to stay.”
Gawain was next to visit. He, too, had received a visit from Arthur and he had a thought of his own.
“These papers of ours. They let us travel the Roman Empire as free men. But the Empire is fighting on many fronts so what if we get where we’re going and there is another battle?”
Galahad noticed he was no longer using the word “home.”
“Will we find ourselves dragged into fighting? Whose side would we fight on? What if some commander burns our papers and claims we still owe service? We have seen for ourselves we cannot trust a Roman promise.”
“You’ve decided to stay,” Tristan said, and Gawain nodded.
“Bors too. He can’t take his whole family across the Roman Empire to an uncertain future and he agrees with me that our freedom is only really guaranteed if we stay here.”
The next day Galahad rode home from hunting with some fat pigeons and a rabbit.
Iruk flapped her wings on his arm and he stopped, and brought her up to his face.
“Well, little hawk,” he said, “Tristan set you free and you flew right back home. Is that what I’m supposed to do?” He clicked his tongue to soothe her, and she chirped at him and settled down on his hand.
“I know what Tristan wants. I just need to be sure I want it myself.”
She sat patiently on his arm and he realised he would be a little jealous when Tristan took her back.
“I don’t think we’re getting you an eagle,” he told her, “but maybe another hawk would be nice.”
When he got back, he headed to the tavern to give Vanora the meat. To his pleasure he saw Bors, sitting at one of the tables. He went over to greet him, but before he could speak Bors yelled, “Gilly! Leave that chicken alone!”
Galahad looked over to where Bors was yelling, to see the boy pull a face and stop his game.
“Bors!” he said. “Great to see you up and about!”
“Ah, Vanora said I was the worst invalid she had to deal with. You know she made me name all the kids? She said I needed something to do. I’ll tell you Galahad, the Woads will be nothing after dealing with these little bastards. I can’t remember which is called what! Gilly’s the only one I can tell off, and they’re running me ragged.”
Galahad shook his head in mock sympathy.
“I think Tristan could join you for a bit tomorrow, if you’d like some company. Maybe he can help you work it out.”
“Sounds good,” Bors said, “GILLY! GET AWAY FROM THAT BLOODY CHICKEN!”
Galahad left him to yell and took the meat to Vanora, who was cradling her youngest while shaking her head at the racket. She took his game bag with a smile of thanks, sighing at the sound of her man complaining to anyone who would listen.
“I’ve told him three times he needs to be quiet. We’ve got people resting and they need their sleep. Do me a favour dear,” she handed him the baby, “look after Percival for a minute.”
And then she was off to scold Bors, leaving Galahad to hold the sleeping child with tears in his eyes.
When he got back to Tristan’s room he found him sitting up on the bed, washed and dressed in a soft wool undershirt and trousers, looking decidedly pleased with himself. He was barefoot but cosy with a new fire lit in the hearth. There were no bandages on his head any more and he had re-braided his hair and trimmed his beard.
He looked good, alive and keen, and Galahad couldn’t keep from smiling as he walked over to him.
“You got up by yourself? Were you careful about your wounds?” He went to check Tristan over and two arms snaked around his waist to trap him close.
“Yes, my love,” Tristan grinned at him, “so you owe me a kiss for being good.”
Every time Tristan said something like that he felt that rush of happiness all over again.
He freed himself, kicked off his boots and socks and sat next to Tristan on top of the covers. Then he gave him his kiss, a soft ghosting of lips at first until he got rougher and greedier than he meant to because he had been without this for so long and the heat was spreading through him from finally getting to do it again.
Concern for Tristan made him drag himself away: he looked at him carefully to see how he was doing.
He found himself transfixed: he had been so busy looking after Tristan he had forgotten how handsome he really was. His face had got thinner and it made his cheekbones stand out even more than usual; the firelight threw dark shadows into his cheeks and it made Galahad think of Tristan’s hollowed cheeks when he had been sucking him and lust spiked through him.
Tristan’s lips were full and dark from the kiss which really didn’t help, and colour had returned to his cheeks. He seemed more present than he had been as if he had woken up fully at last and his eyes must have been just as sharp as Iruk’s, because he spotted the change in Galahad straight away.
“You’ve made a decision.”
“It’s not mine to make alone.” Galahad twined their hands together, liking the way Tristan’s fingers curled around his reflexively. “But I think we want the same thing.”
Tristan smiled widely and his eyes went soft.
“You want to stay?”
“It was never really about going back,” Galahad said, “I wanted to be free and to be with people who loved me and now I know I have that here. This is my homeland now. And Tristan…” He stumbled on the words, suddenly shy.
Tristan specialised in treading softly. He kept silent, but put his other hand over Galahad’s while he waited.
“I love you too,” Galahad said, and caught hold of his face for another kiss.
The kiss went on for some time, until he felt desire building inside him, remembering his promise to Tristan the night before the battle. He sucked on Tristan’s tongue just a little, to see how it went. When he stopped, Tristan made a little sound in the back of his throat, and leaned over, open-mouthed, to invite Galahad back in.
It was good to kiss him again, not just a soft touch of the lips brushed carefully over his forehead, but deeply, with love and lust mingling. All the same, he was careful in every touch; the last thing he wanted was to cause any pain, or re-open a wound. Tristan stopped and looked at him, frustrated, and when he looked down he could see why.
He thought for a moment.
“Do you think you’re well enough to do more than kiss?”
“I am,” Tristan said, keen to get to the point.
“We could do something.” Galahad rubbed his palm across the relevant area and Tristan gasped and bit his lip. “But you’re going to have to umm, follow some rules. Would that be alright?”
Tristan looked positively intrigued. He swallowed and nodded.
“Can you take off your shirt please?”
Galahad frowned at the lack of care Tristan showed as he shucked his shirt off, as though he had no injuries at all.
“Oh, your wound is uncovered!”
“It needs some air,” Tristan said, then took him by the chin in a desperate bid to get him back on the subject. “You had orders for me?” he purred.
“Oh, yes. So we need to be careful of this,” Galahad said, waving a hand at the new scar down Tristan’s side, “and your head. So you can’t, ah, you can’t do what you did last time, right? And you mustn’t move in any way which might hurt you.”
Tristan looked disappointed for some reason.
“Those are your orders?”
“Yes. You have to sit back and let me do all the work, okay?”
“I can do that.” Tristan looked more cheerful; he seemed to be changing moods a lot. Maybe it was the head injury, perhaps they should check it for infection again.
Tristan grabbed his face with both hands.
“ Galahad. I have been in this bed for a long while now and I have not been having fun in it. Your care and kindness have been unceasing,” he paused to kiss him with tender affection, “but you have not stopped looking after other people since the battle. I would like you to stop worrying now, have some fun with me, and, in your words, do something .”
“You really are better today,” Galahad caught himself. “Oh, sorry...alright. Umm.”
He knew what he wanted to do but found himself suddenly at a loss for where to start.
“Stop thinking and kiss me,” Tristan suggested helpfully, and he decided that was a good line of attack.
He leaned in and traced one long cheekbone, first with fingertips and then with lips, small soft kisses until Tristan turned his head to ask for more.
Galahad pulled away immediately and raised an eyebrow at him.
“Are you going to keep still?”
Tristan looked as if were about to protest, saw the look Galahad was giving him, and shrugged.
“Fine, but you have to…”
Galahad leaned in and gave him a nip on his perfect bow of a lip. Tristan murmured in approval and stopped talking.
Emboldened by his successful skirmish, Galahad took as long as he wanted to kiss Tristan, meeting with no further resistance; he pulled gently on a braid to angle Tristan’s face just the way he wanted it, and received only obedience.
He sucked on his tongue again, and got the same enthusiastic response as before, so he decided to add to the tease and rubbed Tristan firmly with his palm through soft leather.
Tristan moaned in his ear and swelled under his touch. He felt himself get hard in response and decided to be lenient when Tristan grazed a hand up the side of his neck, his thumb brushing behind Galahad’s ear in a way that gave him the shivers.
Tristan exploited his advantage, spreading his hand across the back of his skull to stroke and scratch lightly through curls. Galahad tried to distract him by relocating his lips to the curve where shoulder met neck, and Tristan tilted his head just a fraction to grant him access. That got him a second warning nip, but he was more enthused than chastened judging by the way he was breathing more deeply and shifting under Galahad’s hand.
He advanced his way up Tristan’s neck, mouthing and sucking, then followed his own path back down until he reached his collarbone. It was as sharp as his cheekbones and when Galahad licked along the hollow there, it made Tristan move again, a subtle thrust up into his palm.
Galahad sat back for a moment and took his shirt off. Tristan watched him, and he could see how much he wanted to pounce on his prey. It was crazy the way Tristan looked over him as if he was some beautiful thing; it made him a little giddy to be so desired.
He made a decision and shed the rest of his clothes as well, feeling a little shy after this much time.
Tristan looked at him with open admiration, and reached a hand out in spite of himself to draw Galahad close.
“Look at you,” he crooned, “so perfect.”
“Not entirely.” Galahad ran a finger along the livid scar on his shoulder.
“Come here.” Tristan demanded, and since he was being good about not moving, Galahad gave in. Tristan guided him to sit astride him and kissed along the scar in a way that made Galahad wonder if he was being sweet, or if he just really liked scars.
He might have asked, but he was distracted by a hand wrapped tightly around his cock. He couldn’t resist allowing it for a minute because the way Tristan was stroking him was making him pant already, but he somehow found the strength of will to reach out and stop his hand.
Tristan growled in discontent.
“Am I allowed to do anything?”
“Yes,” Galahad said. “You can take these off, please.” He pulled at the fastenings on Tristan’s trousers, and Tristan was happy to help Galahad strip him bare.
“And you can tell me what to do.” He leaned down and kissed along a hipbone.
“Left a bit,” Tristan said, and Galahad looked up at him laughing.
“I’m going to regret saying that, aren’t I?”
“You asked me to tell you,” Tristan grinned at him, “so...go left a bit.”
It was his turn to be obedient and he found he liked the idea. Tristan would keep him safe, he knew that.
He took hold of Tristan and licked experimentally at the head of his cock, tasting the first hint of Tristan’s arousal. It earned him the low sound in Tristan’s throat so he licked again, a firmer, broader stroke. He carried on exploring, testing reactions and enjoying the sounds Tristan was making. Then he licked and mouthed firmly downwards from one freckle to the next; Tristan had a lot of freckles to taste and he made appreciative noises every time Galahad did.
He found himself at Tristan’s balls, licking stripes and shapes that made him moan continually. He ran his nails softly under them just the way Tristan had touched his scalp. The skin crinkled under his fingers so he licked it smooth again.
“Please. I want to be in your mouth,” Tristan said, and his voice was a hoarse growl that made Galahad’s cock twitch.
He looked up again.
“Keep talking,” he said, and his voice was almost as deep as Tristan’s.
He took the head into his mouth and licked at the underside. Tristan jerked just a little but then held himself still, putting a hand on Galahad’s head; no pressure behind it, just resting on him like a reassurance.
He tested to see what worked; taking more flesh in his mouth got an approving grunt, and pulling back up to lick at the tip got him a sharp intake of breath. He began to relax because it seemed whatever he did, Tristan liked it. He kept going, cradling Tristan’s balls in one hot hand and loving the scent of him, the sweat and leather he remembered from before. When he needed a break to catch his breath, he put his hand on Tristan and rubbed him the way he had the last time; then he added his mouth as well and Tristan started to talk.
“Oh fuck, you are doing so well. Keep doing that, keep doing all of it. Gods, your mouth is stretched around me, you look amazing, you feel, uh, yeah, that’s it.”
Galahad could feel him shaking and he was shaking himself. It felt good to have Tristan at the point where he was fighting to control himself, talking in that low growl that he had never heard him use outside this room. He wanted to hear more, so he took more heated flesh into his mouth and Tristan trembled under him. He thought about everything Tristan had done which felt good to him, and he tried to keep the same rhythm, the same tight wet suction of lips and tongue.
Tristan groaned, but managed to keep speaking.
“The things I want to do to you, love, I want you so much. I want to fuck you and make you come over and over all night, and show you how to do that to me. Would you like that? You want to be inside me? I can make it so good for you.”
Galahad really wanted to touch himself then, but he was determined to concentrate on what he was doing. He pushed his mouth further down the shaft until it bumped up against his hand. Tristan gave a low throaty moan.
“Please Galahad, tell me you’ll let me fuck you,” he begged, apparently too far gone to forget why that might be a problem right now.
Galahad went for the only available option and hummed in affirmation. Tristan swore and his fingers tightened on a handful of curls. The taste Galahad had vaguely registered became stronger in his mouth.
“Uh, fuck Galahad, that’s right, just keep doing that, you’re doing so well, I’m going to fuck you so deep, I want you, Galahad.”
After that Tristan was just making deep involuntary sounds and Galahad worked hard to earn more of them. Tristan bent over him suddenly, grabbed his shoulder and pushed against it in a clear warning of what was to come, namely him.
Galahad tried to keep going, but Tristan managed an agonised “stop!” and another push at his shoulder and he reluctantly raised his head, just in time for Tristan to lose it and come all over his face in hot pulses.
Tristan looked at him, made a sound that was halfway between a whimper and a howl and kept coming and Galahad was torn between horror and pride at how loud his man was being. He could smell Tristan’s come, and feel it dripping hotly down his chin, and he reached for himself urgently.
“Lie down on your back,” Tristan gasped and the moment he did, Tristan got him in his mouth and kept pushing down until Galahad was impossibly deep, and he thought he might be in Tristan’s throat but before he could wonder how the hell that was even possible, he came violently, keening.
When he had recovered enough to speak he looked at Tristan in shock.
“How did you...you didn’t do that before.”
“Didn’t need to,” Tristan said, insufferably smug.
“You mean you didn’t want to scare me off.” Tristan dipped his head and smiled in acknowledgement, and Galahad loved him so much for being his stupid protective self.
“You were supposed to be careful of your wound.” He had meant to chide, but even to himself, he sounded far too sweet to be convincing.
Tristan waved a hand at his side.
“It’s all good. Oh, and love...you, err, have a little something in your beard.”
“Want a kiss now?” Galahad laughed, and got up to wash.
He brought a bowl of water and a towel back with him, carefully cleaning and drying Tristan. They kept looking at each other, exchanging smiles, until he was done and could lie down. Tristan settled next to him, Galahad turning to his side to look at him.
“Those things you said about next time. Is that what you want?”
“Too much?” Tristan stroked a hand along his face, concerned.
“I want that too.” Galahad smiled at Tristan, and got a wolfish grin in return.
“But you’ll need to heal up first.”
Tristan gave an exaggerated sigh and tried to look put-upon, but he couldn’t quite stop his smile.
“Then I suppose we’ll have to keep working on this for now,” he said.
“I can do that,” Galahad said, and snuggled up next to him.
The Woad dropped at Galahad’s feet and found a lance at his throat instantly.
“You’re dead.” Galahad scowled. “Tell me what you did wrong.”
The boy couldn’t get a word out, still winded from the fall. He gestured in the general direction of his knees, then horse cantering cheerfully away from them.
“If you know what you’re doing wrong, stop doing it!” Galahad extended a hand and hauled him to his feet. “Catch your horse, and join Gawain.”
The boy nodded miserably and turned to go but Galahad touched his arm to stop him and speak.
“There’s a reason Arthur chose you for training. You’re one of the best archers we have, and you’re getting pretty good with your sword too. Riding will get easier and once you can ride well, you have every chance of becoming a knight.”
The boy smiled shyly, newly encouraged, and limped off to find his mount.
It had been months, yet every time he heard that voice, his heart beat faster.
“Got a new one for you.”
Tristan walked up with a young Woad woman. When she saw Galahad looking, she proudly held up a piece of red cloth with an arrow hole dead in the middle.
“Where are the other two cloths? You have to get three shots in the centre before we will teach you to ride.”
The woman smirked and gestured at the cloth.
Galahad looked more closely, and realised the hole was too big; it was not one hit but three, almost on top of each other.
“Nice shots! Alright, go and join Gawain. Tell him I’m going back with Tristan, please.”
He pointed across the hill to where a group of young Woads were attempting to master the art of putting a halter on a reluctant horse, and she took off running to join them.
He smiled at Tristan, and tugged gently on a braid to say hello. Tristan smiled too, and brushed the curls back from Galahad’s face.
“My scouts are back.” Tristan said. “Still no sign of Saxon ships anywhere along the coast.”
“Arthur and Guinevere will be happy to hear it; we still have plenty more training to do.”
They started to walk back across the hill to the gate. It was a pleasant Spring day, and they took their time strolling, watching a Woad parrying Bors’s blows on the slope above them.
“Ah, that reminds me.” Tristan grabbed Galahad abruptly and pulled him in for a long and passionate kiss. Galahad was confused; it wasn’t like Tristan to go this far in public, but it was good to kiss in the sunshine so he let him get away with it until he was startled by a string of curses from the hill above.
He looked up to see the Woad scrambling back to his feet while Bors continued to tell him off. Bors saw them looking and waved his thanks to Tristan who waved back cheerfully and laughed.
“Did Bors ask you to kiss me?” Galahad asked, confused.
“He asked me to distract his student.” Tristan shrugged. “I simply chose the most pleasant way to do it.”
“They’re still falling for that old trick?”
“I’m afraid so. Well then, shall we carry on now?”
“Yeah,” said Galahad, and they walked on together. “Let’s go home.”