hope: Art of a woman writing from tour poster (merlin - gwaine & lancelot)
puddingsmith ([personal profile] hope) wrote2011-06-06 09:16 pm

Along a Wandering Wind (2/6)

See the Masterpost for header information or read the whole thing on the AO3.

◊   ◊   ◊

Part Two

As spare as their party is—and with more soldiers than civilians in attendance—it still takes more than twice as long to reach Cenred’s castle than if they were merely a few on horseback.

The time for Gwaine seems to pass oddly anyway—even a year ago he wouldn’t have thought that being on the road again would feel like anything less than home, but the vibrant spring growth that decorates their passage contrasts starkly the bleakness in his heart. It feels as if years have passed since they left Camelot, but the city seems so close at Gwaine’s back that he’s half-convinced he could simply turn and see it on the horizon. He tries not to think of Merlin too much, lest his hands turn the reins of their own volition.

Lancelot seems to match his sombreness in mood, though he spends more time conversing with the soldiers and servants of an evening, while Gwaine sits by the fire and drinks from his wineskin.

The skin only lasts the first night and a half. The first night he’s too heartsick to properly eat, let alone keep down the thick, bloodied taste of travelling wine. The second night he finishes it, and acquires a fresh skin from Sir—or should that be Lord—Ector’s supply cart.

On the third morning Gareth wakes him up with an excessively loud clanging of weaponry in his tent; Gwaine’s feelings towards the boy—which have barely formed beyond denial of his existence, at this point—take on some grudging respect when he responds to Gwaine’s murderous glare with a look that’s more mulish than startled rabbit.

The third evening his new wineskin is mysteriously missing, so he acquires another, and makes Gareth sleep outside. Both of which may or may not have something to do with the dignified but unmistakable dressing-down Kay gives him the next morning.

Absorbed in his own misery and hangover as they ride, it takes Gwaine a while to realise that Lancelot’s riding at his side, instead of his usual haunt at the back of their party. Gwaine meets his eyes blearily, and Lancelot’s mouth twists in sympathy.

“You can’t avoid him forever, you know,” Lancelot says, and Gwaine is struck dumb for long moments until he realises exactly who Lancelot is speaking of (and of whom he most certainly isn’t).

“He’s my squire,” Gwaine says, petulant. “I can do what I want with him.”

“Fortunately, that’s not true,” Lancelot says drily. “Take pity on the boy.” He nudges his horse closer, close enough that his knee bumps into Gwaine’s thigh as they ride. “He probably just wants to fight and have adventures, can you fault him that?”

Gwaine frowns at him. “What’s he doing polishing my chain mail, then?”

Lancelot gives him a look like he expects better. Gwaine can’t find it in himself to care. Much.

“That’s how you go about it.” Lancelot’s voice takes on a dreamy warmth that he probably learned from Merlin talking about the future king of Camelot. “Knighthood, I mean.”

Gwaine eyes Lancelot up and down pointedly. “Clearly.”

Lancelot purses his lips. “If nothing else, don’t get on the wrong side of the person who’s making sure your balls are protected in a sword fight,” he says stiffly, and spurs his horse ahead without further comment.

Gwaine blinks after him, shocked enough by the uncharacteristic vulgarity that he almost laughs. Maybe, maybe Lancelot has a point. Though Gwaine’s balls have survived many years without a squire on hand, thank you very much.

The fourth night he nurses his wineskin rather than emptying it as fast as possible, and the slow draining of it leaves him soaked in melancholy. Merlin’s scarf, carefully folded now, is still tucked away against his skin, and he teeters between the desire to take it out and muse on it—while it still holds the scent of Merlin’s throat, at the very least—and knowing that doing so openly would be folly.

Gareth sits nearby in silence, but for the soft shwick, shwick of him sharpening Gwaine’s sword. Gwaine doesn’t notice when it stops, until Gareth says, “Are you all right, Sir?”

Gwaine turns to him and blinks in bleary confusion.

“Are you in pain?” Gareth gestures with his whetstone, and Gwaine looks down at his own chest: he’s clutching at Merlin’s scarf through his clothing.

“What?” Gwaine says, flattening his hand and smoothing it down his chest.  

Gareth offers him a wary, tight-lipped smile, and Gwaine offers him the wineskin.

Gareth looks at it. “No, thank you,” he says, and lowers his head to his work again, expression troubled.

Gwaine contemplates him in silence for long moments. The fire crackles, someone in a tent nearby snores loudly, and Gareth doesn’t acknowledge his scrutiny.

“Why are you a squire, then?” Gwaine drawls at length.

“My father,” Gareth begins, and Gwaine doesn’t even really realise he’s rolled his eyes and taken another pull on the wineskin until Gareth begins again, more determinedly. “My father was a knight of Camelot, many years ago. He had retired by the time I was born.” Shwick, shwick goes the whetstone. “He died when I was a child, and my mother pledged my services to Camelot, to commence when I came of age.”

“You had no choice in it, then,” Gwaine says flatly.

“No, no, I want to be here,” Gareth stresses, the steady motion of his sharpening ceasing. He bites his lip, staring into the fire. “I am happy to serve my king.”

“Lancelot says you just want to fight and have adventures.”

Gareth doesn’t respond, though he’s clearly listening, his face intent in the flickering firelight. When he still doesn’t speak, Gwaine looks away.

“Why are you a knight, then?” Gareth says abruptly, parroting Gwaine’s words back at him with a bit more acidity than flippancy. “Sir,” he belatedly adds on the end.

Unsurprisingly, Gwaine feels himself softening towards the boy at the edging-toward-blatant back-talk, and he can’t help but smirk. “Fighting,” he says shortly, taking another mouthful of wine. “Adventure.”

Gareth looks at him again, and his smile this time—while still hesitant—exhibits some genuine camaraderie. Gwaine offers him the wineskin again.

“No,” Gareth sighs. “Though I will help you to bed.”

Clearly the days of riding are catching up with him: as soon as Gwaine stands up he stumbles, his body expecting the rhythmic lilt of being on horseback, and Gareth ducks to tuck his shoulders under one of Gwaine’s flailing arms.

Their positions as they stumble towards Gwaine’s tent recall another time, but Gareth is not Merlin by a long stretch—not lean enough, not tall enough, not laughing and certainly not squeezing Gwaine’s waist or unloading him into his own bed. Not that Gwaine wants that of Gareth.

“I don’t need a caretaker,” he mumbles as Gareth ducks them into the tent. Speaking of which, Gwaine doesn’t need a tent either, or half the things that seem to have turned up in it.

“Of course not, Sir,” Gareth says, huffing as he lowers Gwaine to his bedroll.

As Gareth rises again, Gwaine grabs for him, and the boy stumbles, catching himself on his braced hand as Gwaine nearly pulls him to the ground. His eyes are wide and startled, arm tense in Gwaine’s grip.

“Don’t take my wine,” Gwaine orders.

Gareth shakes him off and straightens. “I’m not,” he says. “Just holding on to it, for safekeeping.” He leaves the tent.

Gwaine grumbles in response, and wriggles his toes in his boots, which are most decidedly still on. Useless bloody squires.

◊   ◊   ◊

They cross over into Escetia without challenge or fanfare, but it’s not until they reach the first village within its borders that Gwaine begins to feel a distinct sense of unease. The few farms they’d passed on its outskirts were eerily deserted—lacking not just people, but livestock also—and Kay stops them when the village itself comes into sight. He arranges their soldiers to guard the rest of the party and leaves Lancelot to wait with them; Gwaine accompanies Kay onward on horseback, one hand on the reins and one on the pommel of his sword.

There are no signs of life in the village, though it can’t have been unoccupied for very long. They ride through the main road, keeping a keen eye out for any suggestion of a threat, but the houses just gape at them emptily, most of the doors knocked open, the debris of neglect creeping within. One of the big houses towards the centre of town has a charred, blackened roof, and axe marks around the door frame.

Kay reins his horse in near it, and casts an uneasy glance around before meeting Gwaine’s gaze. “We should keep moving,” he says soberly.

They lead the party around the village rather than through it, and before they reach the main road again they pass a circle of oaks amidst an outlying field. Through the trees Gwaine can see the distinctive mounds of fresh graves, and counts at least eight before urging Cabrion onward.

It’s as they’re due to stop for their mid-afternoon meal that they finally see someone else on the road; in the distance a figure walking towards them stops, then turns and pelts back in the opposite direction, tiny puffs of dust drifting sluggishly in the golden sunlight. At the next bend in the road they see smoke rising, a column small enough that it’s probably coming from a chimney, but its source is obscured by another copse of trees.

Kay calls them to a halt again. “Lancelot, Gwaine,” he beckons, and draws them aside. “The town of Achelon lies ahead. Judging from what we’ve seen of Escetia so far, they may not take well to an armed contingent marching through their streets. And,” he lowers his voice, and they step in closer to hear him, “we are not here to invade, but to bring them under Camelot’s protection. I will remain here with the rest of the party, you two are to go ahead and make peace.” He gives Gwaine a particularly stern look, and Gwaine automatically feels affronted. “Don’t make trouble. And take Gareth with you.”

Gwaine opens his mouth to protest, and then shuts it as Kay turns the look on him again. “He’s still a boy,” Kay says firmly. “It would do well for them to see that we do not intend to threaten them.”

Gareth looks mildly terrified when Gwaine fetches him, lips white and knees clenching tightly to his saddle as the three of them begin to ride onward toward the town.

“Have you been in a fight before?” Gwaine asks, keeping his tone deliberately relaxed.

Gareth shakes his head shortly.

Lancelot looks back at him. “Gwaine and I have fought many times; I don’t think today will be your turn.”

Gareth nods back, but doesn’t seem to relax a whit.

“Just stay behind me,” Gwaine reassures, and can’t help but add, “You can watch how it’s done.”

Gareth snorts shortly, and Gwaine turns forward again and grins.

When the town comes into view so too do more people; more than a dozen peasants standing in the road some distance ahead of them, brandishing farming tools adapted as weaponry. Gwaine resists the urge to rest his hand on his own weapon, exchanging a concerned glance with Lancelot as they continue their steady pace onward.

When they’re close enough to dismount and continue on foot, Gwaine can make out more of the guards; to his surprise at least half of them are women, unmistakable despite their shirts and trousers, hair bound tightly and expressions stony. There are a few boys amongst them too, but they’re barely older than Gareth, if that. When they pass some invisible boundary with several paces left between them, one of the women steps forward, brandishing an axe impressively, muscles corded under the tanned skin of her bare forearms.

“Halt,” she calls out. “What business do knights of Camelot have with Achelon?”

They stop as ordered, and Lancelot sketches a half-bow before he responds. “I am Lancelot of Camelot, and these are my travelling companions, Gwaine of Caerleon and Gareth, also of Camelot. We accompany a party sent by King Uther and Prince Arthur to make peace with Escetia.”

While Gwaine understands why Lancelot names his birth kingdom and not his allegiance, it still makes his jaw clench; he pushes down bitterness to focus on the task at hand.

The axe woman doesn’t lower her weapon. “Why should we believe you, when so many others have crossed into our borders to rob and despoil us?”

Gwaine steps forward. “Madam,” he begins, unsure of how else to address her and deciding to go with the most respectful he can get away with without seeming facetious, “I have travelled far within Escetia, and always found her people to be strong-hearted and welcoming, if at times neglected by a distant king.” He feels Lancelot tense beside him, and his own heart races at the precipice he’s teetering on. “I have no other wish than to see Achelon and its neighbours brought under the just protection of Camelot.”

The woman scrutinises them for long, tense moments. “And how comes it that Gwaine of Caerleon, well-travelled in Escetia, now rides as a knight of Camelot?”

Gwaine dips his head in acknowledgement of her point. “It is as you say; I am indeed well-travelled in lands even beyond Escetia. But it was not until I came to know the lords of Camelot that I chose to give my fealty. When I travel now, it is to share what Camelot affords me with the people whose lands have welcomed me in the past.”

She squints at him for a moment longer, then nods shortly in satisfaction with his answer, finally lowering her axe a little. “You will relinquish your weapons should you wish to enter our town,” she says.

“We are most grateful for your hospitality,” Lancelot says, bowing again. “If you will allow me a moment to confer with my companions…”

He turns a little away from their observers, gesturing Gwaine and Gareth to move in closer to him. “I should go back to Kay, let him know we haven’t been skewered by pitchforks, before he sends an army in.”

Personally, Gwaine doubts that Kay would do any such thing, but now’s not the time to gossip with Lancelot about it, especially not with Gareth still wide-eyed and tense beside him.

Lancelot looks at Gwaine’s sword pointedly. “You should take that off.”

“What! Me?” Gwaine hisses reflexively.  

Gareth looks uneasily over his shoulder at the townsfolk—weapons lowered, but still definitely held at the ready—and reaches for Gwaine’s buckles.

Gwaine slaps his hands away. “I can do this myself,” he mutters sullenly, smiling tightly and nodding at the axe woman as he catches her eye again.

“I won’t be long,” Lancelot says, clapping him on the shoulder. “Madam,” he says louder, turning back to the woman. “With your leave, I will return to the rest of our party and inform them of our parley.”

She nods curtly, and Gwaine doesn’t miss that Gareth stares after Lancelot as he rides at a neat clip back in the direction they came, cloak flowing behind him.

“I am Amelia,” the woman says once Gwaine has handed over his sword—and Gareth a dagger from his boot, which Gwaine is definitely going to have to talk to him about later. Amelia’s grasp on Gwaine’s wrist is fierce. “If you attempt to harm my people, I will behead you.”

Gwaine shrugs, returning her grip just as strongly. “Very well,” he says, easy tone not giving away his tightly-held tension.

Amelia leads them into town with an escort of her guards. The town itself is not so different from the one they passed through earlier; a collection of well-lived-in buildings that grow in size and sturdiness the closer they get to the centre. It’s also large enough to have a tavern, standing proudly on the town’s single, bisecting road. They have to pick through deep cuts of wheel ruts as they make their way towards it, scored into the road when it was winter mud and now dried into hard ridges.

The ground throughout the town seems too hard-packed to grow anything, though some of the thatching on the roofs sprouts growth that Gwaine is surprised hasn’t been culled. Though by whom, is his next thought—Achelon’s inhabitants are absent, or at least keeping indoors: he gets only an occasional glimpse of a particularly bold observer, peering through a cracked-open door or window. As with the guards around him, most of them seem to be women and children, though he does see an old man standing in the open, watching them with an expression of distaste as they pass.

“We’re the easternmost town on the travellers’ route into Escetia,” Amelia explains when they stop beneath the tavern’s hanging sign, proclaiming it The Golden Rooster. Amelia speaks lowly to her guards, and then most of them peel off—some to take Gareth and Gwaine’s horses to the tavern’s stables—leaving just a few women to accompany them inside.

The interior is identical to any number of taverns Gwaine has visited: the sweet rankness of hops and half-rotten straw hangs in the air, and the light is murky with the torches unlit, walls black with soot above them. Still, Gwaine can see that every surface is stained dark and rubbed smooth through countless patrons spilling their drink and slouching drunkenly; he’s sure that even with the early hour, this tavern ought to be bustling with activity. But the front room lacks the expected crowd of brash men getting noisily into their cups. Only a few old men huddle around a table off to the side—they look over as their party enters, and one stands abruptly and barks, “Amelia!”

“Marian will get you something to wet your throat,” Amelia says to Gwaine, nodding towards the bar and the woman behind it, before walking over to confer in low tones with the group of men.

The barmaid is somewhat more amiable than any of the women they’ve encountered so far, and Gwaine’s grin becomes a little more natural as her gaze drifts down before returning to his eyes. She matches his smirk with one of her own. “You’ve travelled far, Sir Knight,” she observes, leaning forward to pour two tankards.

Gwaine rests his foot on the runner bar, knee crooked up, and braces an elbow on the bar top. “Yet I cannot say it hasn’t been worth it,” he returns, and takes a swig of the ale. Beside him, Gareth is frowning into his cup, and Gwaine nudges his side surreptitiously. Gareth takes a wary sip, then pulls a face.

Gwaine shares an amused glance with the barmaid—Marian. His gaze drifts over her as hers had done to him; the neck of her dress sweeps low, a leather cord strung round her neck cutting a deep vee pointing downward. She smirks again when his appreciative gaze returns to her face, and her skirt swishes when she turns away to see to something at the other end of the bar.

“Sir, it may be wise not to indulge…” Gareth suggests lowly when she’s out of hearing, eyes flitting away from Marian and back to Gwaine’s cup.

Gwaine washes back his scowl with another, longer draught, sighing with deep satisfaction after swallowing.

“We are proud of our local brew.”

Gwaine turns from the bar; Amelia is behind them, hefting a tankard of her own. She leads them to an empty table—far from the group of suspiciously-glaring men, Gwaine notes—and the three of them settle around it. The guardswomen stand by the door, observing silently.

“Tell me of the rest of your party,” Amelia instructs without preamble.

Gwaine lifts his cup again, considering as he drinks. “I propose an exchange,” he says boldly instead of answering directly. “I will tell you of my people, if you tell me of yours.”

Amelia’s eyes narrow, and Gwaine prays he hasn’t gone too far as she stares at him for long moments.

“Very well,” she says, “within reason. Tell me of the rest of your party.”

Well, that decides who’s going first, then. Aware of Gareth’s suppressed fidgeting beside him, Gwaine begins. “As well as Lancelot and myself, we travel with another knight of Camelot, and a Lord and his retinue. We have a small contingent of guardsmen to protect the party.”

Amelia nods; Gwaine suspects he’s not telling her much more than she already knows.

“What is your purpose in Escetia?”

Gwaine smiles wryly. “I’m afraid it’s my turn. How did you come to lead this village?”

Amelia has the stony gaze perfected; for a moment Gwaine frivolously imagines what might occur should her unimpressed visage come face to face with Arthur’s.

“Our previous leader went to war and never returned. What is your purpose in Escetia?”

“To establish peace.”

“And you plan on doing so with twenty soldiers, three knights and a gaggle of servants?”

The conversation is going a little less smoothly than Gwaine had hoped, the rapport he’d fancied they’d warily established outside the village proving an unsteady foundation.

“Tell us about your husband.” It’s Gareth who speaks up, voice soft amidst their growing antagonism, and Gwaine and Amelia both turn to him in surprise.

Amelia’s hardened expression shifts into an overt frown, and Gareth’s mouth twists in quiet sympathy. Amelia breathes deeply, as if fortifying herself, and turns back to Gwaine, her stare combative.

“He was a traveller from Mercia who stopped here eight years ago on his way to the city. Though he never felt any more loyalty to the king than any of us here in the border towns, he took up the offer of the king’s men to fight under the protection of his sorceress.” Her hands grip tightly around the tankard, but she doesn’t take another drink. “They were promised immunity from all harm, and a share in the wealth of the new kingdom to be formed.” Her gaze shifts to Gareth, and becomes less aggressive only through its growing distance. “Those who refused the offer were not given such generous options.”

Gwaine had suspected—within a few moments of realising who they were facing as they approached the village—but now his understanding coalesces. He recalls, not for the first time, the teeming mass of Escetian soldiers that had overrun Camelot, and while his thoughts had lingered on the horrific nature of their enchantment, the memory of their obliteration now settles like a cold stone at the pit of his chest.

“You fought in that war,” Amelia says, not a question, her voice tight. “What is your purpose here in Escetia?”

“I did fight,” Gwaine admits. “Defending Camelot from destruction at the hands of an army forged by sorcery.”

“And did you destroy them?” Amelia asks, the tightness twisted up now, her voice strained and fierce. “Why do you come here to speak of peace, unless your peace means destroying the rest of us as well?”

She draws back and swallows hard, but doesn’t look away; Gwaine breaks her stare first, looking down at the murky surface of his ale. He almost wishes for Gareth to speak again, to pick at the knot of Amelia’s grief and anger as he had her aggression.

“You granted us entry to your village,” Gwaine says carefully at length. “Why?”

Amelia gives a choked laugh and shakes her head. “Because I do wish for peace,” she says. “And those now governing my kingdom have sent no one to reassure us of their protection, or to tell us tales of the slaughter of our men at the hands of the Pendragon king.” She breathes deeply. “Instead, we have been visited by scavengers and bandits, from outside the borders and within, seeking to exploit the weakness of our people. There is no all-powerful sorceress to give us immunity from harm, even if she had been able to grant it to our husbands and sons.”

“I’m sorry, Amelia,” Gwaine begins, but Amelia cuts him off with another harsh bark of laughter.

“Do not pity me, Sir Gwaine. This town is the remnants of five other surrounding, women and children who have had to abandon their homes, whose families have been maimed by this war. We don’t care for your kind words. All I want from you is an assurance of peace, and, bar a disgruntled few—” Her head tips toward the group of men on the other side of the room. “—this is true of all my people.”

“You have my word,” Gwaine says solemnly; he wants to rest his hand on his sword, or on her shoulder, but instead places them both palm-down on the table. “I swear to you, your people will find peace under Camelot’s rule.”

Even as he speaks the words they grit in his mouth. Though his belief in Arthur’s worthiness is profound, Gwaine’s distrust of Uther goes as far in the opposite direction. He wants to believe that by the time Amelia feels the effects of Camelot’s rule, it’ll be all due to Arthur—the Prince was practically ruling before they had even set out, after all—but Gwaine is only lately of Camelot. The knowledge in Amelia’s eyes reflects the same stories he’s heard over and over. Of course, living in a town on a travelling route, she would be well aware of the picture painted of Camelot: a prosperous land, but a blessed existence only for those fortunate enough to escape the ruthlessness of its king.

Even in The Golden Rooster there are charms nailed above the door; Marian wears a talisman tucked into her bosom. The taverns of Camelot instead held the tension of suspicion—of strangers in particular—and a sick kind of anticipation. On the rare occasions he’d travelled through Camelot, Gwaine had dealt with the animosity as he best dealt with anything—with heavy drinking.

“I accept your word, Sir Gwaine,” Amelia says, though she shares the look of sad hopefulness that Gwaine fears is on his own face. “Though I warn you; if you break it, I will be forced to behead you.”

Gwaine shrugs widely, grateful for the break in mood. “Seems perfectly reasonable. Don’t you think, Gareth?”

Gareth looks particularly miserable at the prospect, or perhaps at the conversation—both spoken and unspoken—in general. “Yes, Sir,” he says bleakly, and grimaces as he takes another mouthful of ale.

◊   ◊   ◊

The villages and towns they journey through beyond Achelon have similar stories to tell—either in their abandoned, sometimes destroyed emptiness; or in the small bastions of women, boys and old men that still occupy them. In one town, the barmaid recognises Gwaine, and after laughing herself silly at the sight of his sweeping red cloak and gold dragon insignia, makes him pay his tab before she’ll share any information.

The dominant tale is of men lost and a country bereft of leadership. Once, a party of women and boys runs them off before they can enter a village, but otherwise they encounter little aggression. Gwaine suspects that the much spoken-of marauders are more opportunistic than anything else, and towns lacking male protection are easier targets than a squad of armed soldiers and three knights on horseback.

It bodes well for their task in the city, though: it shows the people of Escetia the value of Camelot’s presence, and suggests a court too disorganised to counter what would have been taken as an invasion a few months before, small though their party is.

The closer to the city they get, the more unsettling the absence of challenge becomes. After a day on horseback with his eyes scanning each hillock and tree for ambush, hand on his sword, Gwaine is too weary to drink but too tense to sleep.

Instead he makes Gareth spar with him. The boy is clumsy at first, and his muscles still youthful and underdeveloped—which Gwaine boggles at, if he’s honest, given how Gareth hoists armour about. But once they switch out Lancelot’s borrowed sword for a short sword from the guardsmen’s armoury, he adapts to Gwaine’s tuition rapidly.

Lancelot himself looks on, speaking only to point out every so often to Gareth when Gwaine is demonstrating a technique not generally taught as part of the knight’s fighting code. It grates a little—they are tricks that have kept Gwaine alive, more often than not, which is more than he can say for courtly language and blind submission in the name of manners.

The irritation lingers—the more so from the way Gareth had seemed to hang on Lancelot’s every word. It simmers on the surface of Gwaine’s mind even as he settles down to sleep that night.

Gareth is quiet in the tent with him—perhaps as exhausted, or sensing Gwaine’s moodiness—and ignores Gwaine’s dour stare as he removes his boots and makes sure their weapons are at hand.

“Why didn’t you learn any swordsmanship before you came to the city?” Gwaine asks at length, watching the bowed back of Gareth’s head—tousle of fine brown hair and the corded nape of his neck below—the delicateness painting a picture of boyish vulnerability.

“My father was dead,” Gareth says shortly, and before Gwaine can open his mouth to further question why that should make a difference, Gareth continues—“Did your father teach you?”

Gwaine scowls, the itching resentment of Lancelot’s blithe, shrouded criticism mingling with the recollections that rise at Gareth’s question.

“He did not. My mother’s brother gave me my first sword.” Gwaine makes himself sprawl out where he’s lying on his back, tucking his hands behind his head and forcing a projection of nonchalance. “I learned all those other useful tricks when I was on the road.”

On the road is perhaps the most romantic way to describe his nomadic lifestyle once he left his uncle’s house; drifting would be more accurate.

“That dagger you keep in your boot,” Gwaine says, “do you know how to use that?”

Gareth tenses, his movements stiff as he finishes setting his pack to rights and lies down, as far from Gwaine as he can get in the tent. “If it comes to it,” he says shortly.

Gwaine rolls over to look at him, not letting him escape the conversation. “You should not give it away so freely. It usually comes to it when you’ve no other way to escape, that’s why you keep it in your damn boot instead of decorating your belt.”

Gareth seems startled by Gwaine’s vehemency, darting a look at Gwaine before turning quickly back to stare at the roof of the tent. “We had come to an agreement with those people. It would have been going against our word to withhold it from them.”

“You would rather die when they break their word, then? And breathe your last peacefully, knowing your death is a noble one?”

Gareth frowns and doesn’t answer.

“Keeping it hidden would have left them none the wiser, when they meant us no harm. Your word is in choosing not to use it, not in blindly following the rules as if you’ve no free will of your own.” Gwaine lies back and pulls his cloak up over his shoulders. “And if you do truly wish to serve your king, then you’d best live long enough to be of use to him. Better an impure knight, than one dead and purely noble.”

Gareth draws in a breath as if to speak, but his silence lasts long enough that Gwaine’s given up waiting for him when he finally voices his question. “Why are you a knight, then?”

It’s less caustic than the first time Gareth had asked him; he sounds genuinely curious this time, as if he can’t reconcile Gwaine’s scorn of nobility with his determination to occupy the role he’s been given.

To be honest, Gwaine’s struggling to reconcile it himself. But, more than Arthur’s crest on his cloak is Merlin’s scarf against his breast. Come home safely, Arthur had said, and Merlin had kissed his hand; Gwaine rolls away and turns his back to Gareth, rustling his bedding about to mask the reaching up under his clothing to find the scarf by touch. It’s soft and warm, its weave thin between the rub of his thumb and forefinger.

Belatedly, he realises he hasn’t given Gareth an answer, but by then he’s too close to sleep to care.

◊   ◊   ◊

They’re less than a day’s ride away from the city when they finally see another man on the road—more than one, actually; a group of five of them, riding very definitely towards them, bright cloaks flashing amidst the craggy landscape.

“Very well,” Kay mutters to himself, then shouts orders to get the soldiers in position around the civilians of their party. The men riding towards them are armed with swords at their belts and shields on their arms, the cloaks flowing behind them dyed a vibrant, burnt ochre. Lancelot and Gwaine flank Kay as they three ride down to meet them, hooves kicking up shale, their swords drawn.

Both parties slow as they approach, the ochre knights reining in their horses strongly enough that the steeds jerk at their bits, prancing sideways.

“Knights of Camelot,” the one in the lead calls to them—the oldest of the lot, it seems; there’s a pair who barely seem older than Gareth. They all share the same length of face and delicate brows. Brothers, Gwaine surmises, led by their father. “I beg you, put away your weapons. We seek only to speak with you.”

Gwaine represses a snort of disbelief and doesn’t sheathe his sword; neither do Kay or Lancelot.

“You will forgive us our reluctance,” Kay calls in return, “when you come to us fully armed, and at considerable speed.”

The other knight bows his head in acknowledgement, and when he speaks, his voice continues to hold a note of anxiousness. “Forgive me, Sir, but you may have noticed travelling through Escetia that sons have become something of a rarity. I fear that preparing for the worst has become an unfortunate necessity.”

“The lives of sons have always been precious in Camelot,” Kay says cuttingly.

The knight bows his head lower. “Please,” he says, “let us start afresh. I am Lord Maris of Escetia, and these are my sons. We have ridden hence to welcome you.” Lord Maris dismounts, and subsequently unbuckles his sword belt, affixing it to his saddle before taking a few hesitant paces forward.

Kay sheathes his blade, and Gwaine exchanges a wary glance with Lancelot behind his back before doing the same.

“I am Sir Kay, and these are Sir Gwaine and Sir Lancelot.” Kay dismounts as well, though he doesn’t remove his sword belt. He steps a few paces forward to grasp Maris’ wrist in brief, but firm greeting.

Maris glances toward Gwaine and Lancelot before looking back at Kay. “We have heard of your progress through Escetia.”

“Then you know our purpose,” Kay says bluntly.

Maris nods. “And ride forth to assure you that much of the court welcomes it. We only wish to prevent more bloodshed.”

Kay dips his head in acknowledgement. “If you are speaking honestly, then it’s best you continue this conversation with Lord Ector.” He eyes the still-mounted men behind Maris. “I must ask for your weapons. I assure you that no harm will come to your sons, so long as they continue to present no threat to those of our party.”

Though Maris does not seem particularly pleased with these conditions—his mouth and brow tighten with worry—he acquiesces, and his sons dismount and unbuckle their belts. The brisk clop of hooves behind them makes Gwaine tense and Maris look up in alarm; but it’s only Gareth reining in to a halt beside Gwaine, eyes wide and jaw tense with determination.

Gwaine gives him a sharp look that Gareth ignores, instead dismounting to claim the ochre knights’ weapons. He doesn’t seem to have the courage to look the men in the eye as he does so, despite being ballsy enough to disregard Gwaine’s instruction to stay with the soldiers.

The Escetians remain on their feet as Kay leads them back to the waiting party, Lancelot, Gwaine and Gareth bringing up the rear on horseback, keeping a watch over the men in front of them.

“You disobeyed me,” Gwaine says to Gareth in a low tone, not turning away from the ochre cloaks and the movement of hidden hands below.

“They were removing their weapons,” Gareth returns, just as quietly. “I could see there was no danger. Besides, who else was going to take them? You need your hands free for fighting.”

Gwaine grinds his teeth. “Growing up in your mother’s household taught you well to disregard authority, I see,” he grits out, and hears Gareth’s sharp intake of breath.

“Gwaine—” Lancelot begins, and Gwaine can’t interpret his pacifying tone as anything but condescension. It feels like proof of Lancelot’s disappointment when Gwaine looks away from the potential threat ahead to shoot him a venomous look, but he can’t stop himself.

They ride on in silence, and even at a walking pace it doesn’t take long to reach the rest of their party. Kay speaks to Ector and within a few moments, servants have set out a pair of travelling chairs facing each other on one of the few patches of even ground. Maris seats himself gratefully, Ector with a more guarded demeanour opposite, and the respective knights stand guard behind their lords. Gareth retreats out of sight, at least having the sense to take the other knights’ weapons out of immediate reach.

“My Lord,” Maris begins, “it is with great sincerity that I welcome you to Escetia, and hope you can forgive the abrupt nature of our meeting in this crude setting.”

Gwaine doubts that Ector—veteran of Uther’s campaigns and imbued with a pragmatic, salt-of-the-earth personality through and through—is overly bothered by the crudeness of the setting. In fact he’s probably as glad as Gwaine is that their first encounter with Escetia’s court is occurring on a well-trod road cut roughly through the sparse, hilly landscape; at least there are no more nobles loitering with daggers in their sleeves on the sidelines.

“I gratefully accept your welcome, but would hear the meaning behind this unanticipated meeting,” Ector says bluntly.

Lord Maris nods in acknowledgment. “As you know, King Cenred is dead, killed by the sorceress Morgause not two months past. That altercation was the conclusion to a long influence she held over him, which, from the beginning, cast our court into chaos.” Maris pauses, watching for Ector’s response closely as he continues. “As it has been proven time and again, sorcery is an evil influence; although many of us tried to warn the King of the danger he was courting, at the witch’s behest he instead cast us out.”

Ector nods briefly in acceptance of the blatant pandering to Uther’s cruellest—and most fear-inducing—ruling, and Gwaine feels a little ill.

“Though some of us stayed in the city in an attempt to uphold the stable rule of Escetia, upon the call for soldiers to fight in the King’s enchanted army, most fled to our estates to preserve our own people, their sons and fathers.”

“Judging from the dearth of young men in your kingdom, few of you seem to have succeeded,” Ector says drily, looking pointedly up at Maris’ sons.

“We had little time to prepare, my Lord,” Maris says regretfully, “and have been since occupied with ensuring the throne has not been taken by those opportunistic enough to seize it by force, with no heir apparent.”

“Cenred had a son, did he not?” Ector asks, as if news of the child’s first breath had not been delivered via Uther’s spy, months ago.

“Just an infant, my Lord,” Maris says. “A bastard. Murdered.”

“And I suppose those such as yourself took no part in this fight for the throne.”

Maris is silent for a moment; Gwaine can see his throat move as he swallows. “We are in agreement that King Uther is the rightful claimant of Escetia’s throne, given his defeat of our army,” he hedges. “But there remain a few members of the former king’s court that do not recognise such victories. Thus our riding out to speak with you—to assure you of our loyalty, and avoid any rush into combat that does not discriminate between those of us that seek to support you, and those that seek to supplant.”

Ector scrutinises Maris for long moments. “Very well,” he says at length. “To prove your loyalty, you and your sons will accompany us to the castle, unarmed.”

Maris’ lips press tightly. “My Lord, I also seek to warn you that your entry in the city may not go unchallenged. Should my sons be unable to protect themselves—”

Ector’s sharp gaze shifts to Maris’ sons. “Your two youngest. They will remain unarmed, and walk with our soldiers. We are outnumbered in a foreign land. I’m sure you understand the need to ensure our own safety as well.”

Maris’ reluctance is clear in the downturn of his mouth and unsteady gaze, but after a moments’ pause, he accedes. “Of course, it is as my Lord wishes,” he murmurs.

◊   ◊   ◊

The city rises out of the rock amidst a grey, choppy sea, the low tide widening the spit of land that prevents it from being an island. Its stone is dim and damp in the wet sea air, and the silhouette of its towers uneven, as if the top half of the castle has been snapped off and left craggy—a forceful contrast to Camelot’s rounded stone and pale glow. Maris and Ector ride at the head of the party as they make their way through the sparse lower town between the outer wall of the citadel and the castle. The only noise once they’re out of the deafening bluster of the sea wind is the creak of their wagon wheels, the clip of hooves and steady tromp of the soldier’s march. The town has more signs of habitation than many they’ve passed through—horse shit in the road ahead of them, laundered clothes drying on twine strung out of windows, plump cats feeding on food scraps—but all doors they pass are closed tight, curtains drawn.

As they reach the gates of the inner wall, signs of conflict become apparent—patches of sand scattered across cobblestones to soak up blood, cleaner wood showing through in recent gouges on the solid grill of the gate. Gwaine watches as it’s hoisted slowly open at Maris’ command, and he winces when he sees scraps of clothing clinging to the stained, pointed teeth of its base.

“Remind me why we’re here, again?” Gwaine mutters to Lancelot in a low tone, the remark hidden under the clattering of hooves on the cobblestones. Lancelot just gives him a grim glance in return.

The square reminds Gwaine more than anything else of Jarl’s slave-pit: high walls on each side, and no easy escape. There are a few more men—lords, from their garb—waiting on the steps to the entry of the castle, and they walk down to greet Maris and Ector when the party comes to a halt.

“Have the servants sent to the servants’ quarters,” Ector commands after they’ve conferred for long moments. “Half the guardsmen will remain here at the door. We will hold court in the great hall immediately; the rest of our men will accompany us there.”

Inside the castle, at last, they glimpse groups of inhabitants—the city is not deserted, after all. But most scuttle away as the red-garbed column marches through the halls, until only empty suits of armour watch their progress. Kay posts the guardsmen at the doors when they reach the hall, and Ector stands before the empty throne. Lancelot, Kay and Gwaine—Gareth nearby, for Gwaine is not letting him out of sight—stand just behind his left shoulder. To his right, Maris takes up his stance with a group of well-dressed men, plainly more lords keen to accept Uther’s rule. All around stand more empty, imposing suits of armour, reminding Gwaine unnervingly of the uncanny soldiers they’d fought and destroyed not so long ago.

Gradually, the hall fills—though ‘fills’ is perhaps too strong a word. The turnout of lords and ladies is even sparser than Camelot’s after the overthrow of Morgana’s rule; they enter hesitantly, and stand in nervous groups some distance from the throne, eyeing the red-cloaked interlopers with trepidation. After seeing few men on their journey, Gwaine is somewhat surprised by the large proportion of them filling the hall—but at length a few women enter, taking a less powerful position toward the back of a hall, a group of four of them in lustrous gowns, fans held before their faces. One of them stands ahead of the others with her fan closed in her hand and her jaw firmed, dark skin complemented by the crushed red-wine velvet of her gown. Despite her proud bearing, the court’s menfolk pointedly ignore her and the others.

“Courtesans,” Lancelot murmurs under his breath, noticing Gwaine’s curious gaze slanted towards them. “Percival told me of them. Apparently Cenred kept many.”

“Why aren’t there more heirs, then?” Gwaine mutters back.

“Perhaps the answer to that is why there are only four women remaining,” Lancelot returns, and before Gwaine can respond to that morbid thought, Ector clears his throat and begins.

◊   ◊   ◊

Part Three