Just as the bright winter sun begins to crest the horizon, Galahad hears the familiar shouting along the southern stretch of the wall. The great bellowing call of riders approaching the garrison sends a cold shock of fear skipping along the length of his spine, anxious hope churning his stomach. Without a second thought, he bolts up, abandoning his half-finished breakfast.
“Galahad!” Gawain calls after him, righting the fallen bench.
Galahad scrambles for the long steps. He tries taking them two at a time; short legs stumbling, huffing small clouds of mist by the time he reaches the rampart. The freezing stone grates against his palms as he peers out through the first empty crenel he finds. A long caravan, lead by Arthur’s scouting party, escort a fresh century of soldiers protecting some high-ranking Roman citizen and his family traveling north, slowly snakes its way across the open field. The cadre of familiar faces returning appears far fewer than those who set out not five days ago.
Frantically, he squints against the sun, searching the faces of each man in the pack of Sarmatians riding with Arthur. One dark, bobbing head in particular catches his attention. The easy tilt of his shoulders and jut of hips, the cocky nonchalance Galahad once disastrously tried to emulate, giving him away.
His heart soars at the sight.
“Tristan!” Galahad shouts the moment he spots the older boy.
A solemn face tilts up at the sound, scanning along the crenellation for its source. Galahad holds up a hand, nearly bouncing on the balls of his feet to draw the other’s eye. A slow upturn at the corner of Tristan’s lips and a shallow nod are the only answering sign of recognition. One of the other Sarmatian soldiers, perhaps Dagonet, judging by his broad bulk, nudges Tristan in the shoulder, shaking with laughter. Galahad drops his hand, a hot flush rising up his neck to stain his cheeks. Still, it warms Galahad greatly to see the gesture from Tristan, as blatant as any show of affection from the reserved warrior.
From his vantage point on the battlement, Galahad watches the procession make their way to the main gate until Tristan disappears from sight. Rushing back down the steps, eHHehehe stops short to hail Bors and Dagonet with a broad grin, receiving a perfunctory ruffle to his curls as they pass by on their way to the stables. Behind them, Tristan dismounts, leading the dappled mare toward Galahad. The dour expression remains fixed upon his features despite the young boy beaming up at him. He claps the boy on the shoulder, punctuating the touch with a firm squeeze in silent greeting before steering them in the direction of the stables.
Mirroring Tristan’s reserve, Galahad takes the opportunity to closely examine the tall boy walking beside him. His eyes linger on the tangle of disheveled braids hanging limp and greasy just above Tristan’s shoulders. Layers of grime cling to the edges of his face and neck, as if hastily washed as an afterthought that morning. Mud and other dark stains liter his rumpled braccae and tunic. Even the scruff he started growing months ago appears to have filled out more in the days since Galahad last saw him.
He seems older.
“You look a mess,” Galahad states in blunt Latin, his lilting accent far more naturalized than anything Tristan could hope to achieve. The roguish glint in his bright eyes tempers the brusque words. Tristan huffs a laugh at the lad’s welcome as he brushes past him to lead his horse to her stall.
“I do not have the skill to retie them,” Tristan explains, gingerly removing his mare’s leather bridle, soothing a few fingers through her forelock before turning to focus entirely on Galahad.
The boy blushes when he realizes Tristan must have caught him staring earlier at the unkempt plaits.
A rare smile, strangely soft and wistful around the edges, flickers across Tristan’s face. The boy nearly buckles under the steady gaze. It feels like a heavy weight encircling his neck, dragging him inexorably closer to the warm body of his companion. The urge to embrace, to touch, to search him out for any hidden wound and know he has returned whole, overwhelms him. He nearly takes a halting step toward the other. Instead, he glances away, wrapping his arms tight around his own chest and shifting his feet to throw out a bony hip.
“You are a poor pupil then,” he teases, seeking solace in their easy banter rather than delving into the depths of soft words and strange emotions burning beneath the dead calm in Tristan’s eyes. After all, Galahad knows he has shown the other boy how to put the plaits in his hair countless times.
“Perhaps the teacher should bear the blame,” Tristan tosses over his shoulder as he finishes untacking his horse.
Galahad allows the taunt to slide; entranced by the way Tristan’s horse stretches her neck to nuzzle against the boy’s side. He begins rubbing her down with careful, measured sweeps of his arm. The mare lets out a soft nickering as he pampers her.
“I’m surprised the others could stand the sight of you.” Galahad makes a show of pulling at Tristan’s mud-caked sleeve before wrinkling his nose in disgust. “Let alone the stench.” A spirited grin tugs at the corners of his lips. “Or, is this how mighty Tristan shall slay his many enemies?”
“Galahad,” Tristan’s voice dips low, head bowed.
The pleasant pull between them shifts, plummeting to settle like a stone in the pit of his stomach.
“You—” Galahad comes up short, looking at Tristan anew.
Tristan felled his first foe.
With a sharp nod, he blindly follows Tristan back to their barracks, mind racing with the promise he made months ago when Tristan was deemed ready to accompany the older soldiers on missions beyond the garrison walls.