AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thankee for the reviews! I'm glad you're enjoying this. There are some things I want to clarify before I continue with this chapter. Firstly, I realize it may seem like Lancelot and Isolde are forming some sort of bond. This bond, however, isn't going to become romantic. Isolde is for Tristan, after all. Lancelot is, however, a knight with a personality that I enjoy, and hence I shall be making good use of it
Secondly, this chapter contains dialogue taken straight from the movie. Why did I include it? Because I like the witty repartee the knights exchange, and I wanted to use it to lighten the mood.
So, here's the third chapter. I hope you enjoy!
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Travel that day was the same as it had been the afternoon previous –tedious and slow. Sidonius had not returned to the wagon and was instead riding one of the spare horses the knights kept with them. I sat across from Lucilla, who was determined to keep up a steady flow of conversation lest we lapse into our more sombre, brooding thoughts. Gracchus from time to time would join our discussions, half turning in his seat with the reins held tight in his hands. After several hours, however, we had exhausted all topics, and Lucilla succumbed to sleep. I moved out from under the canopy then, and took a seat on the edge of the wagon, behind and to the side of Gracchus. I let hang my legs over the edge, and for a long while I simply stared at the ground passing beneath my feet. When Lancelot appeared before me, his pale horse pacing alongside the lumbering wagon, I was actually marginally glad to see him. Perhaps he was aware of my incredible boredom, for he took it upon himself to point out each and every one of his comrades to me and describe them in great detail as they rode a considerable distance ahead.
The very tall man with a head of dark stubble and a scarred face I learned was Dagonet. He was, Lancelot informed me, a quiet observer; a traditionalist with an overwhelming sense of honor who on the battlefield was a ferocious opponent. The large, also bald man riding next to Dagonet who spoke both loudly and brashly was Bors, and he was the veteran of the knights as well as father to eleven bastard children. He as well was a fierce fighter, and lived life with a joyous exuberance that, I was told, some found offensive.
Riding at the front of our company was the knight I had encountered earlier that morning –Tristan. Despite having the most distinctive of battle skills among them, explained Lancelot, Tristan was an extremely adept scout; his scouting was aided in part by his companion hawk. He, like Dagonet, was a man who spoke seldom, and when he did, did not mince words. He lived for the kill, I was informed, and to him killing was an art.
Riding to the left and the front of the carriage where the last two knights. Galahad, a slender man with thick dark hair and a short beard, was the youngest of them all -a fine warrior, somewhat impetuous, and affable. The man at his side was Gawain; he possessed a tangled mane of tawny hair that was long enough to put my own to shame, and possessed a close cropped beard very similar to those his comrades bore. Gawain was, Lancelot enlightened me, easy going, amiable, and to be feared in the field of battle.
"And that leaves Arthur and myself, and of the former I'm sure you've heard sung tales of his formidable fortitude and noble demeanour." Lancelot concluded with a wry grin. "And of my humble persona –is there anything you wish to know?"
I couldn't help but smile at this; he had added to his question a note of plaintive hopelessness that was completely out of character. I thought on his inquiry for a moment, and then asked, "Why do you wield two swords?"
His expression was momentarily startled; of all the questions I could have asked, this was not what he had anticipated. Swiftly the supercilious smile I was fast becoming familiar with spread across his face, and he asked in turn, "Why do you wear only one glove?"
I glanced down, flushing; where it rested in my lap my right hand was clearly visible encased in its leather. My initial urge was to hide it from view, but instead I let it lie and raised my eyes again. "You still have not answered my question."
His insufferable smile widened. "I haven't, nor will I until you answer mine."
I made a rude noise and shook my head, which incited him to a bout of laughter. At the sound several of the knights looked back to see the cause of the commotion. Ignoring them, he said, "You are not what I pictured of a proper lady of Rome. You are impatient."
"And you," I replied, "are not at all what I pictured of a knight."
"Indeed. But most likely you pictured a soldier of Rome, which I, thankfully, am not." He did not pause to let me dwell on the sour note that shadowed his words, and instead continued, "What is your name, lady?"
There was a slight pause before he said, as I knew he would, "That is not a Roman name."
I sighed; I could not suppress it, for I had been told this a thousand times over during the course of my life. "No, it is not."
"Something you are well aware of, I would guess, by your tone. I apologize for stating the obvious."
He had done it again, spoken with his cynical humor that elicited my own smile. As though he found this encouraging, he said, "Then tell me, Isolde, where your name hails from."
My smile died, for here was a question I pondered every day I lived to draw breath. I had no other answer, and so I said simply, "I do not know."
A silence fell between us, broken only by the soft conversation of those who rode ahead of us and the rattling of the wagon. I had looked away from Lancelot and was studying the ground, aware of his scrutiny and cursing the answers I did not have. Finally he said, "You are an unusual one, Isolde of Rome."
And with that last, vague statement, he clucked quietly to his horse, urging it ahead to join his brethren in arms.
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I have stated before that I thought it plain the fates toyed with me, and as if to provide me with further proof they bestowed upon me that afternoon yet another tangle to the dire web they wove continuously around me. Not long after I had conversed with Lancelot our small party left the rolling hills we had been negotiating and entered again a wooded realm; the wide road we travelled on was bordered now on both sides by thick forest. A slight tension seemed to fall over the knights as we fell under the shadow of the ancient, rustling trees, and they broke ranks so that they rode surrounding the wagon. I crawled back under the canopy to sit by my pack; pulling my knees to my chest I watched the four knights I could see- Galahad, Gawain, Bors and Tristan riding side by side- and listened with avid interest to their banter.
"I don't like him – that Roman," Galahad was saying, and I realized he spoke of Sidonius. "Why does he ride amongst us as though he belongs? As though he is of some importance?"
Gawain asked dryly, "Is this your happy face?" Bors began to chuckle, and a reluctant smile creased the youngest knight's face. Gawain continued, "Galahad, do you still not know the Romans? They won't scratch their asses without holding a ceremony."
"Why don't you just kill him?" Bors suggested.
Galahad shook his head. "I don't kill for pleasure. Unlike some."
This he directed to Tristan who rode silently at his side. The scout glanced at him, lips quirking slightly in faint amusement. "Well, you should try it someday. You might get a taste for it."
Gawain laughed at this, but Galahad merely looked disgruntled at the flippant reply. Bors said, "It's part of you. It's in your blood."
"No, no, no. No." Galahad said, shaking his head once more. "As of next year, this was all just a bad memory."
Bors made a dismissive noise as the young knight urged his horse ahead, breaking ranks with them. Tristan had fallen back and was riding almost even with the wagon; I watched with detached interest as he raised his head to the sky and produced a high pitched, wavering whistle. It was only a few seconds before a large brown hawk descended and alit upon his outthrust arm. As the bird ruffled its feathers, I heard him say softly, "Where you been, now? Where you been?"
As though sensing my regard, the scout turned his head. Swiftly I ducked my own, not wanting to again be on the receiving end of those unnerving, impassive eyes. When I looked up again he was gone, having fallen back to ride the rear of our party. My attention was drawn again to Gawain and Bors and their continued discussion.
"-besides, I have, I think, a dozen children." The large knight was saying.
"Eleven." Gawain corrected.
"You listen here," Bors said, pointing a finger at this comrade, "When the Romans leave the outpost we'll have the run of all that place. I'll be governor of my own village and Dagonet will be my personal guard and royal ass-kisser. Won't you, Dag?" He shouted the last; Dagonet rode at the head of our group with Arthur and made no inclination of having heard Bors' proposal.
"The first thing I will do when I get home is find myself beautiful Sarmatian woman to wed." Gawain stated.
"A beautiful Sarmatian woman? Why do you think we left in the first place?" Bors made a low sound that was unmistakably the bellow of a cow; Gawain snorted and Lancelot, riding up beside them both, chuckled.
"What about you, Lancelot?" Bors questioned. "What are your plans for home?"
"Well, if this woman of Gawain's is as beautiful as he claims, I intend to be spending a lot of time at Gawain's house. His wife will welcome the company."
"I see," Gawain said shortly. "And what will I be doing?"
I could not see the grin on Lancelot's face, but I was certain it was there. "Wondering at your good fortune that all your children look like me."
This remark roused Bors into hearty laughter, and Lancelot's horse broke past theirs in a brisk trot. Gawain called after him, "Is that before or after I hit you with my axe?"
Lancelot's reply, tossed casually over his shoulder, was lost in a sudden shrieking wail which rose around us in horrifying crescendo in the seconds before all hell broke loose.
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It was as if time had slowed in the face of our alarm; I watched from where I knelt as from either sides of the road blue paintedBritons swarmed our group. The noise had awoken Lucilla, who was staring with wide eyes all around and crying questions at me. Gracchus had leapt from the wagon; the horses pulling us had halted and instead moved about nervously. To stay in the wagon meant certain death, I was sure, and so I gripped Lucilla firmly by the arm and hauled her to her feet.
"We need to get out of here!" I shouted, but she shook her head frantically, having seen the battle being waged outside. She pulled away from me, breaking my grip and falling into a whimpering huddle on the floor. I debated only for a second before whirling and leaving her there. I stooped and fumbled quickly with my pack a moment before wrenching free my small and slender sword. Fates knew if I had sufficient skill to defend myself against these wild creatures, but I would not go out unarmed. Lucilla screamed suddenly; I whipped about to find a Woad standing on the buckboard. His expression was savage, feral, and as he advanced I almost dropped my weapon for the sheer intensity of my terror. He lunged; I darted to the side, trying to make the most of the confined space I found myself trapped in. He brought his sword up then down in a swift, blurred arc; it took me a moment to realize that the reason I wasn't dead was because I had parried his blow with my own blade. Confusion clouded his dark eyes as they met my own, and a split second later he was attacking again.
It was as though I could hear the tutelage of my sword instructor back in Rome –"Parry for parry, and then the thrust"- for even though my entire body trembled I met each of his strikes with my own, and my ears reverberated with the harsh clang of steel against steel. The Woad was infuriated; he snarled at me in his brutish tongue and lunged again – all pretences were forgotten. I cried out, but my training, the training I never thought I would use, prevailed. His own forward momentum had driven him onto my blade, and as I pulled it free he collapsed with a strangled sound, his blood falling to pool about my feet. Lucilla stared at me, aghast; in an effort to get away from the vacant, condemning eyes of the first man I had ever killed by sword blade I stumbled out from under the canopy and managed somehow to get to the ground.
Chaos reigned everywhere I looked; some knights fought still mounted, some fought on the ground. I had only one second to interpret the violence I found myself confronted with before a shriek of such rage as to freeze my blood in my veins jerked me around. Another Woad, a woman this time, was approaching me with an animalistic, predatory gate, and her expression was one of eager bloodlust. I back-pedalled as she began to run towards me; I brought my own blade up to bear almost too late. She was relentless, shouting at me in her own language while striking at me with her sword. My world had narrowed; only she and I existed, and as we parried back and forth I felt a sort of detached calm flow through me. I was in Rome again, sparring with my instructor, and all was well …
The Woad had stumbled over a corpse –Gracchus- that lay with arms outreached on the ground near the wagon. There –my chance to strike, my chance to survive-
The blood that sprayed from her neck as my sword completed its arc splattered my face, my arms, my chest, and I staggered back as she fell, clutching at me. Something solid fell against my back, and with a scream I whirled about, blade raised.
"Not me." It was the scout, Tristan, and he caught hold of my arm before I could complete the blow. The sword dropped from my nerveless fingers, and he released me. Something had changed, and it took me a long moment to realize that the fighting was over. Beyond us, all around us, the only ones standing were the members of our group.
"You use a sword." The scout said without inflection, tearing my attention away from counting those that had survived to the corpse of the Woad lying behind me. I nodded, suddenly very numb. His eyes moved from me to the dead woman, and then to the corpse that lay still in the wagon. I could see nothing behind that fathomless gaze, but knew he was weighing all he had seen. It was then that Lancelot appeared, blood covered, sheathing his two swords. He took one look at me and asked, "You are hurt?"
"Not her blood." Tristan said. He pointed at the sword lying by my feet, and then gestured with a nod of his head at the dead Woad woman.
"You killed her?"
Lancelot's blatant disbelief gave me back a piece of myself. Defiant, still very terrified, I met his eyes and nodded. "Yes."
"That one there, too." The scout said, indicating the body in the wagon. He left then without further comment. I knelt on shaking legs to grasp again my sword; it took me several attempts to lift it as I was trembling so badly.
Lancelot's voice, careful and calm, raised my gaze. He said, "You truly did this?"
He pursed his lips, regarding me, measuring. I rose to my feet slowly only to drop the sword again. I left it lie, and focused instead on the blood that covered my hands, still glistening but slowly drying, and I began to rub at it fiercely. As I did so I recalled the sounds the Woad woman had made; the look on the face of the Woad male as he fell, gasping-
"Isolde." Lancelot had gripped my shoulder, and it took me a moment to focus on his face. "You're in shock. You have never killed a man before. It's understandable."
This statement made me laugh bitterly; it was either that or burst into uncontrollable tears. Never killed a man? I'd killed more than most would ever dream a woman capable of doing, but not in this manner, not like this …
And I had never, before today, killed a woman.
"Do you see that tree over there?" Lancelot asked me, pointing to a large elm on the edge of the road. I nodded, struggling to calm this horrified turmoil within me that was threatening to boil over. "Go sit beneath it. Sit there, and don't move, and I'll come for you when we're ready to leave."
He was giving me a chance to compose myself, I realized, and so I nodded again, hastily, before turning and slowly picking my way through the occasional dead Woad with an arrow protruding from its carcass to the tree. I did not sit when I reached it; instead I leaned against it heavily. I watched as the knights roamed the field, killing any enemies that were merely wounded. I watched as Galahad and Dagonet pulled Gracchus' corpse away from the wagon and wrapped it respectfully in a cloak. I watched as a hysterical Lucilla was led down from the wagon by a grim and bloodied Sidonius.
And all the while, I could feel within me something slowly dying.
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