Disclaimer: The characters as they appear belong to Touchstone Pictures. The legend is the legend. I make no money off any of this. :-D
SUMMARY: Lancelot tells the tale of how he got his swords. But he doesn't tell it all.
RATING: PG-13, perhaps heavy PG-13 towards the end
This story is a response to a challenge on the KingArthurFanfiction group. The challenge question was: "How did Lancelot get his swords?" Here's my humble answer! This fic takes place PRIOR to the movie.
ADDITIONAL: No offense is meant to men in general by the title of this fic. LOL! It just happens to tie in with the story, and I couldn't think of anything better. It just fit so perfectly! No harm intended! :-D
He'd told the story so many times, he'd come to regard it as truth.
"Lancelot! Lancelot! Tell us again! Tell us the story!"
Always it was Gilly who asked. Gilly, the only one of Bors' children who Lancelot knew for certain had a voice. Oh, he was sure the others could speak as well; just not to him. They saved their breath for their father.
"What story would that be, Gilly?" Lancelot would ask as the boy clambered up into his lap. It was no secret what the boy wanted to hear; but playing dumb was all part of the game.
"How you got your swords, of course," Gilly would remind him, as the other children clustered around the knight's feet like daisies in a spring meadow, wide eyes staring up at him with rapt attention.
"Oh, that old chestnut again?" He'd snort. "Don't you want to hear something more interesting? Like the one about that wily lady who stole Gawain's heart for a while, until her husband stole her back? He was rather… green with jealousy, as I recall." This always earned a growl from his red-haired friend, and a roar of laughter from the rest of the knights.
Gilly, of course, would have none of it. "Not THAT story, Lancelot," he'd say, in such an affronted voice that Lancelot could never help but laugh. "Not a GIRLY story. We want to hear about the woads and the legionnaire!" A ripple of nodding heads around his feet invariably followed.
Always that story. How many thousands had he killed in battle, and always they wanted to hear THAT story? "I can't tempt you with another?" he'd offer, to a chorus of righteous NO's! "Well all right then."
But the story wouldn't begin right away. First, everyone had to get comfortable, which usually involved a great deal of pushing and shoving, since each little child wanted to be closest as Lancelot told the story. He never spoke very loudly, keeping his voice low and mysterious, as though he were imparting something very secret. The children ate it up, leaning in close and watching his lips move as if they hadn't heard the tale a hundred times before.
Once everyone was settled, he'd begin.
"It was a summer night," he'd start, shifting Gilly to a more comfortable position and leaning forward to address the children more closely. "Though you wouldn't have known it from the weather. Cold and wet, like late October. The trees were dripping with misty rain, and the forest tracks were nothing but mud. A man could get lost in mud like that; thick as tar, and deep as a spear is a tall…"
There was no moon, and the stars were nothing but smears of white in the fog. The drumming rain of earlier in the night had given way to the pattering of collected droplets rolling off leaves and falling to the forest floor. Insects chittered and chirped at each other through the mist, and owls swooped on silent wings to capture hapless voles who'd ventured too far from their burrows in the haze.
I was fifteen. I'd been in Britannia for almost a year, but I'd never quite got a handle on the weather. Nor the trees. I'd never believed so many trees could exist in one place; I'd thought they were fairytales my father made up to put me to sleep at night. I was always getting hopelessly lost. In the grasslands of my home, hills look more or less the same from one rise to the next; but it's easy enough to remember a pattern of bumps on the horizon when the bumps never change. Trees look different from every angle, and there's no telling them apart at night.
I'd been sent out with our division commander to patrol the edge of the forest to the east of our fortress. Merlin, it was said, had begun sending out parties of woads to sack Roman soldiers for their weapons. Apparently they'd discovered that while their archers were deadly from a distance, in close combat, nothing beats a good Roman-smelted sword. Literally.
Now this commander was not Arthur. Arthur had left to see to the defenses to the west of the fort, and had assigned Dominicus Octavio the duty of temporary general. Dominicus was a great hairy man, and though the country was suffering through a poor harvest and meager rations that year, he had fists like ham hocks and a face as red as the crest on his helmet. He once had been a gladiator in the great rings of Rome, but when that ended and he hadn't died, he turned to the Legions to quench his taste for blood. Always he carried with him a pair of matched swords strapped across his back; booty he'd won off a fallen comrade in the ring. Not one for sentimentality was Dominicus.
I did not like Dominicus, and he did not like me. But perhaps he saw in me something he didn't see in the others, because whenever he went out on patrol, always he chose me to go with him. This night was no different. "Mount up," he barked to me at dinner. Most of what Dominicus said was said in a grunt or a growl. He was a bit like a pig in that respect. If you looked at him in the right light, the resemblance was uncanny.
This you should know about the Romans: most are terrified of the woads. Oh, they fight brave enough, and some of them - like Arthur - are truly unafraid of the painted people north of the Wall. But most Romans are petrified by the Picts. They tell tales of dark magic woven by the blue people in the darkest parts of the forest, when the moon is painted black and the screech owls scream for blood. They steal babies, the Romans say. Oh yes, little children; don't go out alone at night. The woads will take you and make you their supper. Or so the Romans say.
Riding with Dominicus that dank, moonless night, I knew he was afraid, and with good reason. I couldn't see my horse's ears; the air was black as pitch. There was no way of knowing what was stirring the branches along the forest's edge. Was that an eye glinting at us from that thicket? Was that a face peering at us through the mist?
What was that?
A rustle in the trees. A night bird, disturbed from its nest, shot out of the forest directly ahead of us, black wings fanning the air like a thunderstorm. My horse spooked and threw me, and galloped off into the night. Dominicus managed to keep his seat; probably because his fat arse was too heavy to dislodge.
"What was that?" he snapped at me. As though I could tell him
"A bird, General." A wise comeback, I thought.
"Go see what it was."
"It was a bird, General." Perhaps not so wise.
"I know that!" Dominicus grunted. "Go see what shook it loose! And don't come back less you've got a woad's head on your spear!"
"I haven't got a spear, General."
"Think you're funny, do you? Think you're a smart one? GO!"
So I went. I cannot say that I was sorry to leave the piggy bastard behind me, at least for a while, even though it meant venturing into the forest on my own. I could hear his horse stamping and huffing in the blackness behind me, and I decided to go a little deeper into the woods to try and get away from the noise. Besides, Dominicus had told me to come back with a woad's head, and much as I didn't like the man, I didn't want to cross him. My jaw had smarted more than once from the swing of his meaty fists, and I wasn't in the mood to tramp back to the fort on foot in the middle of the night with a pounding headache and an aching face.
So I walked, and I searched. I peered behind bushes and up trees; around boulders and into ponds. Nothing stirred but myself and the ever-present pattering of rain. You'd have thought I was the only living creature bigger than a cricket in all the world.
Have you ever heard a horse scream? It's a terrible sound. It sounds like a woman being torn to pieces. That was the sound that ripped through the forest and nearly stopped my heart as I stood in a clearing half an hour into my search. It was a long scream; inhumanly long. A truly animal bellow. I could tell from the direction that it must have been Dominicus' horse, and I turned around immediately, sword drawn, ready to lend aid.
And found I was utterly, irrevocably lost.
Had I come between that pair of trees? Or that pair? Hadn't I stepped over a large rock upon entering the glade? If so, where was it? The scream still echoed through the forest and rang in my ears, but the sound was bouncing back and forth off trees and boulders and forest debris, and I'd lost all sense of where it originated. I stood there spinning for a good minute and a half, trying to pinpoint some sound of a struggle. But the wood had fallen silent, and I was truly alone.
It's a terrible thing, being alone in the forest at night. Especially when you're a boy living in a new country who can't tell direction worth a damn in the fog. If I'd even had the stars, perhaps I would have had a chance. But they were smudgy and dim; barely enough to call "light" in that baleful dark. So I did the only thing I could think of.
It didn't matter where I was running, only that I ran faster than I'd ever run before. I crashed through bracken and trampled underbrush like a wild beast. A tree branch caught me square in the face and split my lip, but I barely noticed. I picked myself up and bolted even faster into the night. I could hear voices behind me - chanting voices singing magic songs, pouring fear and desperation into my veins. I ran faster. It seemed the shape of the forest changed before my very eyes; trees seemed to sprout from the ground immediately in front of me, while other's wilted and disappeared, replaced by boggy patches of clear ground. My feet flew over roots and I dodged between trees like a dancer in the Emperor's court. I have never run that far nor that fast since that night in the forest. It seemed I would never stop running. I didn't want to stop. I wanted to keep going, knees pumping, breath rattling like a caged falcon in my chest, until I reached the sea. And then I wanted to run through the sea, to Gaul or Sarmatia, or even Rome! So long as I was far away and safe from those horrible Pictish voices chanting their death curse.
Then, like clouds parting to reveal the new-risen sun, I burst out of the forest and found myself again on the muddy road. I came up short and stared in breathless disbelief at the clear ground in front of me. The voices in the forest stopped singing. I wonder if they were ever there at all, or if the song I heard was nothing more than the frantic drumming of my own heart.
My knees were shaking, and I crumpled like a wet blanket to the ground. For a long time I didn't move except to gasp for breath and shiver with cold. The mist wrapped itself around me and soaked my clothes through to the skin. Somewhere in my mad dash through the forest I had lost my sword, and now I hugged my arms around my body and squeezed my eyes shut and tried not to think about the yawning black expanse of trees a mere stone's throw from my back.
At long last I mustered enough courage to open an eye. Only one. I swiveled it up, then I swiveled it down, then right, then left, then I stopped and opened the other eye. And I stared.
Sticking up from the mud some twenty feet down the road to my left were Dominicus' twin swords; hilts up, blades shoved nearly half their length into the mud. I honestly cannot say if they had been there the whole time I knelt shivering on the road, or if something had come along while I quailed in the rain and left them there for me to find. I prayed to every god I knew at the time - and I've added a fair number since - that the former was true.
I managed to stand after a minute, my legs wobbly as rope. I hobbled down the road to the swords and stared at them for a minute. There was no sign of Dominicus, nor his horse. The mud surrounding the swords was perfectly smooth; not so much as a dent to hint at a horseshoe or the sole of a man's foot. It was as if the air had swallowed Dominicus whole, and left his swords to mark the spot for posterity.
Something was watching me from the forest.
I could feel eyes burning into my skull. I don't know who, or what, it was, for I didn't stay long enough to find out. I wrapped both hands around the hilts of those swords, and PULLED. They came free easily enough, half due to the slimey mud, half to my terrified desperation. As soon as they were free I turned and fled, running full bore in the direction of the fortress. Now that I was out in the open I could find my way without so much as a star to guide me, and I ran with all the strength left in my body.
Whatever hovered at the forest's edge didn't pursue. At least, not that I know of. I ran so fast, I don't think even the demons of Arthur's Hell could have caught me.
Everyone wanted to know what had happened, when I came sprinting back into the keep as if my arse was on fire, carrying Dominicus' swords with no Dominicus attached to them. But I couldn't tell them a thing, except what I saw; or rather, what I didn't see. A search party was dispatched immediately, but I knew they wouldn't find anything. When Dominicus' horse came cantering back into the fortress - riderless - several days later, Arthur called off the search. The woads may have sacked other soldiers for weapons, but they didn't want Dominicus for his swords.
It had been a lean and meager harvest, and all of Britannia was smarting for food. I think that night the woads had a feast; of mushrooms, fresh greens, and unsalted pork.
It was the cannibalism that always made the children squeal with horrified delight. All the best ghost stories, in their opinion, had to end with someone being eaten by something else. If that something else happened to be Picts, then all the better, because they could dream of growing up and finding a woad and slitting him open from belly to chin and searching his innards for finger bones.
Invariably the younger children would scurry away when Lancelot finished the story, and go hide behind their mother's skirts, or bury themselves in their father's arms. Bors would laugh and tell them not to be such cowards; but he wouldn't let them go until they'd all settled down and stopped crying.
"That's the best story ever," Gilly had said on more than one occasion.
"I'm glad you like it."
"Someday I'm gonna find the woad that ate Dominicus, and I'm going to ask him if he really tasted like pig."
"If looks and demeanor count for anything in terms of taste, then yes, I think we can say he probably tasted like a particularly ornery hog."
Then Gilly would scramble down off Lancelot's lap and grab up his wooden sword and challenge Tristan to a duel, which Tristan would accept. And Lancelot would sit there and watch his brother knight pretend to lose while Gilly slashed at him mercilessly with his useless wooden blade, until Tristan collapsed to the floor in defeat. Then Gilly would tower over the man and shake his blade in triumph, and the crowd would cheer.
Except Lancelot. Lancelot would stay quiet, and not twitch a limb.
There hadn't been a woad.
There had been misty rain, and viscous mud, and an all-consuming darkness that turned the world to black canvas. There had been a mission, and there had been Dominicus. And history had repeated itself one too many times for Lancelot.
Worse things can happen to young boys in Britannia than being kidnapped by woads. And one of those things was Dominicus Octavio.
Heavy objects sink; it is the nature of things. That night, the mud was thick as tar and deep as a spear is tall. A man can get lost in mud like that.
One man had.
Straight to the bottom, down near the bedrock, with a young boy's sword stuck through his heart to mark the spot for posterity. Here lies the bastard who proves the adage: Men, my lads, are pigs.