Gwaine had made it clear in his mind before that he didn't understand cage fighters. He was all for fighting against the odds but that was taking the law of averages to the damn-near extremes. In the world that Gwaine inhabited, a barroom brawl meant freedom of movement and plenty of drink to keep the adrenalin pumping. A man could achieve great things when he was under the influence of the mighty mead.
The Mercian cage-fighting practise was in an entirely different league.
The men who fought in the cages didn't exactly have the abilities that blew women's skirts up but they had more ability than to pity it against another man in a fifty-fifty situation. Gwaine imagined a good few young men died in those fights. It was a pity but he also knew that for a man to throw himself in a self-inflicted prison probably didn't have much life to waste.
It was a sad thing and an aspect of Mercian culture Gwaine wasn't sorry to be leaving behind.
Gwaine was due to spend one last night in the downtown of the Mercian capital before he would head off again. He planned to travel east but he told his landlord he was going north; best way to ensure no one followed him.
Before he left though Gwaine decided that he would take advantage of the cheap ale going in the lower-quarters of town. It was a rough area but he had always managed to stay out of trouble on previous visits. Always better to keep your head down and stay out of trouble in Mercia. He imagined his pluck wouldn't be considered funny in this area where bandits and outlaws thrived.
The tavern in question was called 'The Hobgoblin' and was a meeting ground for many of the bandits, thugs and cage-fighters who entertained them to drink and exchange money through gabling or 'private battles'. There were many noblemen and gang leaders who sent their men down to this place to pick up jaded warriors just looking for a free ticket to Avalon.
Gwaine looked around him as he walked it. He generally went unnoticed. All knew him to be a traveller passing through. He had caught a few eyes when he first entered, some wondering whether he was a new cage-warrior. However his cheer disposition as he cheerfully addressed the tavern keeper proved he was not. He was far too all-together to be one of them.
He sat at the bar and asked for a cup of ale, paying the keeper immediately.
Glancing to one side he noticed a long string of miserable looking men, all cage-fighters worn out after a hard day's 'work'. Some of them were just teenagers, probably the eldest son who the family couldn't afford to feed and so he had to support himself.
There was one man who Gwaine kept seeing though. He was always in the same seat at the bar with his head propped against his right hand as he leaned on his elbow, not touching his cup of mead. He was about Gwaine's age, maybe a bit older but no more than a year so. He had scars littered over his hands and one fresh scratch across his face.
He was probably quite good-looking when these scars were healed, but he looked like nothing but damaged goods now.
Gwaine had often been tempted to go up to this peer and offer him a drink (Despite the fact he already had that full flagon of mead) just to try and find out his name. The chap looked jaded but he didn't seem an unfriendly or bad-tempered. Even if he was Gwaine would have no trouble dispersing any of the cage-fighters in a one-to-one battle. They were good enough against each other but Gwaine always found their battle moves clumsy and improper.
If they all took him on at once, though, he knew that would be too much. However this man didn't have any friends. Gwaine had noticed the way the other cage-fighters treated him; with utter contempt.
Gwaine knew this would be his last night in town. If he didn't talk to this man now, he would never get a chance to again. After tonight it was highly unlikely they would ever see each other again.
He waited until the man's eye-line drifted slightly into his and nodded politely.
"Are you alright there?" Gwaine asked, taking a swig of his drink.
The man looked around as if not believing Gwaine could possibly be talking to him. No one ever talked to him.
"Um, y-yes I'm fine..." he finally replied.
"Need to be filled up there?"
Gwaine indicated the man's mug.
The man looked at it in confusion, almost forgetting that he even had it. Every night he would come in and get it and make it last all night. Nearly every night he left the tavern with the mug half empty. It was always half empty.
"I'm fine, thank you," the man nodded politely. He even gave Gwaine a small smile, the first crack in the father dull and dower facial expression Gwaine had become so accustomed to on this man's face. "I can usually make my drinks go a long way."
"Maybe you should get a smaller mug and save money?" Gwaine suggested with a grin. "I can't imagine you get a lot of money in your line of work."
"I do alright," the man said distantly.
He shook himself out of a daze and turned around to address Gwaine directly. It had been such a long time since he'd had a proper conversation with a real human being. Usually it was just ordering a drink and paying his landlord for his room every night.
He had almost forgotten he could talk.
"What do you do for a living?" the man asked.
He had seen Gwaine come into the tavern for the last week or so and always wondered whether he was just passing through or staying in the area. The way he clutched his bag so keenly on his shoulder suggested he was a traveller.
Gwaine grinned, "I do all sorts of things. Sometimes I hunt, sometimes I gamble and sometimes I'm lucky enough to find money just... lying around."
The man's eyes widened. "You..."
He stopped himself from saying the words directly, knowing how touchy men in the bars could be when they heard the words 'stealing' and 'thief'. He nudged over a few stools to sit right next to Gwaine.
Gwaine grinned; he was proud to have beckoned this melancholy stone to break his stillness.
"You mean you... steal?" the man finally whispered carefully into Gwaine's ear. He didn't seem shocked or surprised but he had the manner of a little boy who had caught his friend stealing cake.
Gwaine's eyes widened, "That's a bit strong! I'd never steal from an innocent person... only con nobility and gentry out of money they stole from the likes of us. I'm not proud of it... but a man has to eat."
"I suppose so..." the man replied. Nothing in this world shocked him anymore.
"Most of the time," Gwaine went on, "I live off the land. I catch my dinner, I drink from lakes and I sleep in the outdoors. Sometimes I have a bit of money and I might gamble a portion of it to pay for a bed for the night."
"Do you have someone to stay right now?" the man asked comically. "Or are you currently resting your head in a gutter?"
Gwaine laughed, "I didn't think you had a sense of humour! I have somewhere to stay, yes. I had a bit of gambling luck on my way here to Mercia. I actually made a nice sum. I think I'll save it for now. You never know when there'll be a rainy day..."
The man chuckled; he couldn't remember the last time he had laughed. His throat croaked he was so unused to doing it. "You never know," the man agreed.
Gwaine nodded and held out his hand to shake the other man's.
"I'm Gwaine," he said with his trademark grin.
The man smiled and reached to take the hand, "I'm L—"
The moment he attempted to exchange his name with Gwaine, a group of men stepped into the tavern and rendered the entire place silent as the bellowed the name of the man they sought for. It did the exchanging of names for him:
"Lancelot!" the largest and brawniest of three shouted across the bar, noticing the man Gwaine was sitting next to immediately. He grinned dangerously and slowly made his way towards him, "Lancelot..."
The man swung his sword in his hands before sheaving it loudly.
Lancelot turned but didn't stand to address the man, "Gorman..."
He said it without even attempting to hide his discontent.
Gorman stood between Lancelot and Gwaine while his two associates, Haden and Gamel, stood either side of them, showing the muscles and displaying the tops of their swords. They were clearly there to do some 'business' with Lancelot and their offer was one he couldn't refuse.
"I thought I'd find you here," Gorman said to his 'friend' with a yellow and black grin. It actually made Gwaine's nose wrinkle. Surely even bandits had oral hygiene? The oaf picked up Lancelot's mug and placed it down with a loud clutter, spilling some of the mead inside. "Here, not getting drunk..."
"You know me so well," Lancelot said dully.
"Don't I just?" Gorman said gruffly. "I have a job for you, Lance."
"I thought you would."
"You'll like this one," Gorman told him, knowing that in truth he wouldn't. "This fight will be hosted at Lord Bayard's palace. He is entertaining Lord Cerdic of Wessex and has demanded I collect up a few straw men and a few good fighters..."
"And which one am I to be?" Lancelot asked.
Gorman laughed cynically, "That all depends on your mood, doesn't it Lance?"
Gwaine watched the exchange with interest. He sensed from the moment this thug walked into the room that Lancelot despised the sight of him. Gwaine had known that a majority of the men who fought in the cages were managed by an 'Overlord'.
"You've built up quite a reputation in the circuit," Gorman conceded. "But it will make for good viewing to see you get filleted by one of these new comers..." and his associate Haden slapped the shoulder of a young man about eighteen-years-old. "I might put you in with one of them..."
Lancelot looked up, clearly disturbed by this.
"You've never put me in with a rookie before," he said quietly. "It's always been heavy-fighters."
Gorman slapped Lancelot on the shoulder and leaned his face in close to his.
"I'm running a business here," he grunted cynically. "The Lords and Ladies tell me what they want and I get it for them. You're good, Lance, but your shifting moods in personality is starting to get annoying. You're more trouble than you're worth."
"In that case I quit," Lancelot said bluntly, no resolve or passion in his voice. He was just a matter-of-fact; as if once he had quite he planned to throw himself off a bridge or something. "I don't want to cause you any trouble."
Gorman's tone deepened threateningly, "You can't quit. We can't allow you to quit – you will do as we tell you too."
Gwaine had had enough of this.
"Why should he?" the young man finally spoke up.
Lancelot and Gorman's heads snapped around to look at him. Gamel, who had been standing at Gwaine's side, leant over a little in a bid to silence him. However Gwaine took no notice of the thug hovering over him and looked directly into the boss's eyes.
"Is this man trying to threaten me," Gwaine asked, pointing at Gamel.
Gorman grinned frighteningly.
"What do you mean 'why should he'?"
"You know what I meant."
Lancelot stared wide-eyed at Gwaine. Only a traveller could be stupid enough to talk back to Gorman. He wasn't just a petty crook but a well-established manager of fighters. He had an unofficial official freedom to get rid of anyone who so much glanced at him in a way he didn't like.
Still, he seemed impressed by Gwaine's clearly unshaken nerve. Gorman saw quickly that it came from having balls, not from naivety.
"Because he has nothing else worth doing," Gorman told Gwaine simply.
Gwaine chuckled, "What kind of moron agrees to take orders from someone like you?"
Before Gorman could decide whether or not that was a proper insult, Gwaine turned to Lancelot and slapped him on the back in a friendly gesture and said, "Goodness me, you're thick, aren't you Lance?"
Lancelot stared at him, not knowing what to say.
Gorman looked between them. "Who are you?"
Lancelot opened and closed his mouth like a fish in water as Gwaine jumped in to answer the question, deciding to take charge of the situation.
"I'm Gwaine," he explained, getting to his feet to grab and shake Gorman's hand. It was awfully tempting to punch this very large man in the nose but he had a policy of never picking fights. "I'm a friend of Lancelot's."
Gorman's two goons both looked at each other and laughed. It prompted Gorman to make an amused grin of his own, as if Gwaine had made some sort of brilliant joke.
"You can't be," Gamel snorted.
"Lancelot doesn't have any friends," Haden chortled.
"Sure he does!" he announced proudly and hit Lancelot on the back again. "I may only be one man but I'm still very much a friend."
Lancelot gave Gwaine a perplexed look; why was he behaving like this? They barely knew each other.
It quickly dawned on Gwaine that Lancelot didn't understand the art of 'pulling the wool over people's eyes'. He decided to go on nonetheless.
"Now, I know what Lancelot is like," Gwaine suddenly said, keeping his arm firmly around Lancelot's shoulders. "He's a morose bloke who you think is easy pickings. It's all a lie. He's only been like that because I haven't been here. He always misses me when I'm not in town, don't you Lance?"
Gwaine's eyes glimmered beautifully, beckoning Lancelot to play along with this farce. He didn't know why he did go along with it... but lying came so easily to Lance. He just hoped he didn't go over the top.
Lancelot nodded, "Well, it gets so... boring when you're not here."
"You can say that again!" Gwaine said, patting Lancelot's shoulder again. He then turned to Gorman, "I'm telling you – you'll be lucky to see him at all tomorrow. He'll probably drink so much that he won't be up before noon. He won't be able to help himself, will you Lance?"
"No, I suppose not," Lancelot said, shaking his head. He thought for a second before adding 'wittily', "You'll probably have to carry me home."
"We'll carry each other home," Gwaine corrected him. "I intend to get good and drunk too, you know."
"We'll probably wake up tomorrow in a gutter."
"That's usually how the night ends," Gwaine nodded, before whispering to Haden, 'Unless of course one of us gets lucky!' and winking. "Remember that time when we woke up with those dogs licking our faces..."
"See, that's how out of it you were!"
Gwaine and Lancelot burst out laughing at their deception. It was almost as though they truly believed the thread of a past history they were painting. A part of Lancelot wished it was true; he had never had a chance to let his hair down with a good friend. Imagining such a scenario felt so easy with Gwaine. It was as if he had known him for years.
Gorman and his goons stood and watched the exchange between the men in disbelief. They wondered how a man like him managed to maintain a friendship with a man like Gwaine but they didn't question it. They were utterly convinced by their story, especially when Lancelot turned around and took a huge gulp from his mug of mead.
He damn-well finished the whole thing off with long deep glugs that nearly caused him to fall off his stool.
Gwaine threw his head back with laughter.
"Looks like you finally need that re-fill."
Lancelot cleared his throat and nodded, "Looks like I do!"
Gorman grunted to stop the two men from chattering. They both looked at him, almost forgetting for a moment that he was there.
"Nonetheless I still have a task for you," Gorman shouted over them, determined to get Lancelot back into place. Even if he had to take out this quirky buddy of his, he would see Lance at that fight tomorrow. "If you won't fight one of the rookies, I'll have to put you up against Duncan. He's coming out of retirement for one last fight."
Lancelot seemed surprised.
Gwaine lifted his mug for another drink, "I'm guessing this Duncan is quite something, is he?"
"He's a cage-fighter who retired just a few months ago," Lancelot explained to his 'friend'. "He's supposed to be the best. No one has ever beaten him..."
"Never been defeated?" Gwaine muttered into his mug. "I like the look of those odds..."
The other three men could tell whether he was joking or serious. After just an evening of knowing Gwaine none of them dared to guess what was going through his mind.
On the other hand Gwaine felt he had the situation summed up pretty well. This Lancelot was clearly a bipolar warrior who couldn't decide whether he wanted to live or die and that pissed off his fellow cage-fighters and masters to no end. He was a very straight-forward, boring and messed-up man...
Yet Gwaine liked him. He didn't know why – but he did.
Gorman was even easier for Gwaine to sum up; he was a lout. He was looking to launch a few younger warriors off the back of killing-off the men who got on his nerves, like Lancelot clearly did. His depressive moods and wispy utterances probably did get annoying after a while.
It was amazing what Gwaine could work out in the space of one meeting. Sizing up situations was his gift.
"Pity you won't get the chance to fight him, then," Gwaine said after his long contemplation. "Seeing as you just quit."
To his annoyance, Lancelot seemed to ignore him and turned reluctantly to look at Gorman.
"You want me to fight Duncan..." he said slowly.
Gorman's lips curled into a smile. It was more sinister than the one before. It was almost evil. "You know me so well, Lancelot."
Gwaine watched the exchange with a narrow-eye, his former cheerful disposition faded away. He wasn't sure how to react to this. He felt strangely pissed off. After all that effort he had gone to being the man in Lancelot's corner, and he was still doing as he was told. The moron!
His displeasure went unnoticed.
Gorman threw Lancelot a small bag of money. Lancelot caught it clumsily.
"A quarter now," he told him. "You'll get the rest if you manage to defeat him."
"Thank you," Lancelot said slowly.
He then noticed the look on Gwaine's face and saw a clear lack of respect in his eyes. That cut through him like a blade. He didn't know why this near-stranger's approval meant something to him but, for reasons unknown, he handed the money back to Gorman.
"But I said I quit," he said quietly, still uncertain of himself.
Immediately Gwaine's face picked up. He looked to Gorman who still stood there, thinking Lancelot was having him on. He knew he had considered quitting before but had never managed to do it. He was clearly just acting up to the peer-pressure of this Gwaine.
"You don't quit," Gorman said simply. "I'll see you at Bayard's castle tomorrow."
"I said I quit," Lancelot said again. He was now speaking with some degree of firmness but he didn't know what else to say. So he said it again, "I quit."
Gorman rested his hands on his hips while Gamel and Haden closed in on both Gwaine and Lancelot, outnumbering them with critical stares and threats of much worse damage if there was no compliance. By now their stand-off began to attract attention from every man in the tavern. Lancelot had never received so much attention. Gwaine on the other hand was used to it. He damn-well relished in it!
"No one quits on a fight," Gorman barked in Lancelot's face. He looked to Gwaine with a dark stare, "No matter what happens."
Gwaine had really had enough now.
These men were asking for it...
He got up from his chair to stand up against Gorman. Haden tried to shove him back in his chair but shrugged the man off. He had dealt with much more dangerous and bigger thugs than these three. Lancelot was still glued to his seat though, watching Gwaine as if he were witnessing two horses crashing into each other at a joust.
"You heard what he said," Gwaine said huskily. "He quits, so get on your horses and find some other mug to pester."
The entire room fell silent.
No one had ever spoken to Gorman like that in a long time.
The large and burly man tensed up, glowing redder and redder with fury at this man's insolence. That he was a traveller and probably didn't know the city well didn't matter to him anymore. He would pay for the insult.
"You dare to challenge my authority?" Gorman threatened.
Gwaine nodded, "You're not the king – and even if you were I'd still tell you to shove your threats up your arse."
A few chairs fell over as the weedy among the men drinking made their way towards the door, knowing a fight was imminent. Others got to their feet, fully prepared to get stuck into this fight. There were some men looking to buddy up to Gorman while there were others looking for a good excuse to take him out. He wasn't the only cage-fighter manager in the tavern tonight.
Lancelot also leapt from his chair and whispered frantically in Gwaine's ear while Gorman slowly began to reach boiling point.
"What the hell are you doing?" he cried, hurting Gwaine's ear with it. "You're going to get us both killed!"
"Come on, Lance," Gwaine said with eerily coolness. "You've got more balls than this. I'll bet you've fought much more terrifying foes than this. He's a potato on legs and we are young spring chickens."
He glanced at his new found friends.
"Just give it your all," Gwaine said with a side smile. "I'm giving you the chance to fight for your freedom."
And Lancelot put his faith in Gwaine from then on.
They both picked up their drinks and gulped them down in unison, knowing they would need a little more courage before starting this fight off.
Then Gwaine kicked it off by smashing the mug over Gorman's head, and the fight was on.
Tables overturned as immediately the men who remained in the tavern rushed forward to get stuck in one way or the other. A couple of men who fought for Gorman went for Gwaine, wanting to win that favour with their master. However these were all young and inexperienced fighters. He defeated them easily but was careful not to injure them. They probably had little else but their life to cling onto, and Gwaine wasn't disturbing that over this bozo.
Lancelot was thrown against the bar by Gamel for a brief punch up, hoping that Haden (who was occupied with a couple of anti-Gorman fighters) and the big boss himself (who was stalking about the tavern looking for Gwaine and crashing in the skulls of any man who got in his way) would soon come to help him.
Gamel had a personal dislike of Lancelot and wanted to finish him off without any official fights.
Still, just as Gwaine had encouraged him, Lancelot decided not to take the attacks lying down and struggled to try and get Gamel off him. He was heavy though and difficult to push off. Fortunately, Gwaine hopped over at that moment and smashed a wine vase over the thug's head. As anyone could expect, the oversized and graceless lung went down like a sack of spuds.
Lancelot got to his feet and stood beside Gwaine as Gorman and Haden, freed from other pursuits, looked across the bar and noticed the two of them.
Gwaine looked around, trying to find his bag. He immediately threw it over his shoulder and pointed to the door behind the two men charging towards them. "Once they're down get ready to run," Gwaine ordered him and Lancelot knew that was the best course of action.
Haden went for Lancelot while Gorman took the pleasure of fighting Gwaine. He wanted to properly gut this jumped up boy...
Just as Gamel before him Haden was no better on his feet, clumsy and too big to keep up with Lancelot's swift steps. His strength relied entirely on his muscle; so he picked up a chair and hurled it towards him. Lancelot hit the ground with a heavy thud to his back; it knocked the wind clean out of him for a second. He only regained his awareness in time to catch Haden charging towards him with a dagger like a bull seeing red.
Quickly Lancelot made his move. Just as Haden reached him, with all his body weight, he used his leg to sling Haden head over heels and into the wall behind him. He landed with a clatter just beside Lancelot.
The young man quickly grabbed the dagger from the unconscious Haden's hands and got to his feet to seek out Gwaine.
While Lancelot had been dealing with Haden, Gwaine had been making easy work of Gorman. The thug hadn't quite banked on Gwaine being the expert fighter that he was. Still, Gorman had picked Gwaine up by his collar and thrown him in the direction of the fireplace. That was to be the over-sized brute's undoing. The young man seemed to land in an easy position and immediately noticed the fire-pokers. It was like a gift from God.
Gwaine got to his feet and grabbed a poker as Gorman trudged towards him. He gestured towards the other pokers.
"Go ahead," Gwaine invited him. "I don't like it when fights aren't fair."
Gorman grabbed one of the pokers a grinned as he smug it heavily at Gwaine. Each time the secret knight managed to block the hits with his own poker, causing loud metallic clangs to fill the air. Everyone watched the two men anxiously, wondering what would happen. If Gwaine lost then Gorman would make everyone in the tavern pay; if Gwaine won then at least they'd all have a chance to escape before he came to again.
Clang after clang, Gwaine's energy was matched up against Gorman's overpowering strength. It nearly knocked him over at one point... but then Gwaine sensed an opportunity as the ends of their pokers became locked. Quickly, as Gorman tried to free it Gwaine circled it around and around until...
Lancelot just got on his feet in time to notice Gwaine's expert sword trick – applied to fire implements. He had never seen someone pull it off so successfully let alone with the level of confidence and dexterity that Gwaine did. He was enchanted by the display.
Gwaine caught the poker in his left hand and wasted no more time. He whacked Gorman with the left poker, and he fell to the floor like a dead horse. To finish him off Gwaine threw down both pokers onto Gorman's unconscious body and took a deep breath.
He looked across the bar and noticed Lancelot staring with an almost dreamy expression. The sound of Gamel groaning as he came to filled the air.
Gwaine pointed towards the door, "Everyone – run!"
On the young stranger's order, everyone in the Mercian tavern followed Gwaine and Lancelot as they flooded out the doors of the tavern and down the evening streets in no particular direction. Eventually the crowds calmed down and dispersed towards their homes to tell their wives about the fights but Gwaine kept running and laughing, and Lancelot followed him though they were headed in the opposite direction of the lodgings.
Not that he could go back there. Gorman would be certain to check there first. He would have to leave what little stuff he had there. Thank goodness he had his sword and chainmail with him.
Gwaine pointed down a narrow street, "This way!"
Lancelot continued to follow him until they reached a small lodging house where Gwaine ducked in swiftly, dragging his new found from with him. Then everything went calm. They stood catching their breaths in the door way for a second and listening to the sound of dogs barking and people coughing. There was no sign of them being pursued... yet.
Gwaine laughed again, "We have to get going. Those thugs will find out where I'm staying eventually so it's a good job I'm leaving tonight."
He opened the door to the small box-roomed lodge.
"If you were like me, you'd do the same," he told Lancelot wisely. "Come in and get your breath back. I need to go and pay my landlord."
He left the door open for Lancelot to walk in and walked off to find the landlord. He was willing to just let this stranger walk into his lodgings. This level of trust was compelling to Lancelot. He felt as though he was no stuck to Gwaine although common sense told him he couldn't latch onto him for too much longer.
Yet he wanted to deep down.
Lancelot went into the tiny box room and in a chair sat with his hands on his knees, silently waiting Gwaine to return. What did he intend to do once he'd pay the lodger? Run for it? Where would he go... and more importantly, where would Lancelot go? He didn't think he should tag along with Gwaine because he got the impression he would be a liability. That is that Lancelot would be a liability to Gwaine; he was so cheerful and full of life, all Lancelot was ever told was how he brought people down.
It seemed a shame to run the risk of dragging someone like Gwaine down to his level.
The door opened again and Gwaine calmly stepped into the room with a soft smile on his face. "I paid the lodger; I told him I'd leave in the morning but I'm going to leave right now in case those bastards come looking for me."
He tightened his grip on his shoulder sling.
"Come with me, if you want," Gwaine offered politely. "We can travel together until morning and they you can go your own way if you want... or you can stay here. Either way, I'm off now."
Lancelot knew he could just leave in the opposite direction right now. Yet he didn't.
"Let's leave now," Lancelot said in approval. "Gorman knows every landlord in the city; he'll find us if we don't leave immediately."
"Well then, let's be off then!"
By dawn break Tamworth was no longer in sight.
Gwaine and Lancelot had grabbed some horses and managed to take off into the dead of night, unnoticed by any of the locals. Gwaine had made sure to tell his landlord that he was going further north, although in reality he was headed eastward again. He suspected that he and Lancelot would part ways once the day was fully lit and he could make sure that he went in any direction but north.
Lancelot kept glancing behind him.
"Don't worry," Gwaine told him with a smile. "If they even manage to pick up our trail, we'll be long gone. Those three might have been big in Mercia but once we cross over the border into Powys, they won't be able to track us."
The other man turned to face him and nodded, "Yes, I'm sure you're right. I'm just not used to being on the run from people... I've been stuck in Mercia for nearly three years, you see."
Gwaine sighed, "I'm sorry if I've caused you trouble."
Lancelot glanced over at him, "No, not really..."
He paused and shook his head.
"No, actually you haven't caused me trouble at all," Lancelot replied firmly, as if trying to convince himself of that more than he was Gwaine. He had lived alone for so long and had become used to the empty life he had found himself trapped in Mercia. "It was time I left. I should have done so years ago but..."
"Didn't have the motivation?" Gwaine finished.
Lancelot nodded slowly.
"I have met a couple of cage-fighters in my time," Gwaine told Lancelot after a moment's thought. He felt that now they were travelling together (albeit only until dawn) he should help Lancelot in more ways than one. "Each one of them did what they did for one of three reasons; they enjoy it, need the money or don't have enough imagination to do something better."
He paused to give Lancelot a knowing head-tilt.
"And you my friend fall into the third category," he finished simply.
Lancelot felt a pang in his chest; he actually could feel himself getting annoyed. It had been a long time since someone had made him switch between emotions just by the power of their words. In fact no one had ever managed to do it. Gwaine was the first.
He finally snapped, "You're saying I lack imagination?"
Lancelot opened his mouth but nothing came out. He didn't know what to say until he saw the look on Gwaine's face. He seemed mildly proud at how quickly he had managed to wind Lancelot up. It could only do him good.
"I'm just saying it as it is," Gwaine went on.
"You don't even know me!"
"Maybe not but it doesn't take a lot to figure out that you're the sad bugger who no one wants to talk to because you think all the time but never put your thoughts to good use."
Lancelot's eyes widened, "If that's the attitude you're going to take then... maybe I won't wait until dawn. Maybe I'll leave right now..."
"Fine," Gwaine shrugged with a grin. He knew Lancelot was going nowhere. "But riding off with a cloud over your head won't make what I said any less true."
Lancelot stared across at him for a moment before looking ahead. He felt angry at being belittled but at the same time could think of no argument to counter Gwaine with. He could have pointed out Gwaine's faults; that he was a troublemaker, a mixer, a flake... but he could just imagine Gwaine's reaction. He wouldn't be offended; he'd just shrug and say, "So? At least I'm not a miserable bugger..."
It was the thought of Gwaine saying those words that finally made Lancelot relent and smile. It made his new found ally smile too and he nodded in approval.
"Something tells me you've been on your own for too long," Gwaine finally said knowingly.
"I've always been on my own," Lancelot replied, finding himself opening up more and more. "I've been alone ever since my parents died."
Gwaine nodded, "I know how that feels."
"Your parents are dead too?"
"My father died when I was a newborn," Gwaine explained. "My mother died a few years back; she raised me alone. We never had much money. We only really had each other."
There was a pause as Gwaine remembered those younger days. His beautiful mother Anna would take him all over the country, showing him the battlefields and victory stands of his father. Eventually her health began to fail her and he decided to travel alone. Then she died, and he really was alone.
"Anna," he finished with a smile. "That was her name."
"My mother was called Elen," Lancelot said, trying to keep the conversation going.
"Oh," Gwaine said with interest. "Where did your family live?"
"In one of the outline villages surrounding the kingdom of Camelot," Lancelot said distantly.
"Ah, everyone's favourite King Uther!" Gwaine said with irony. "I envy you."
Lancelot grumbled with the same tone of discontent. The very name of Uther Pendragon made Lancelot feel bitter to his very core. He couldn't help hating the man – he was the only man he had ever hated.
The sun was high above their heads when they finally reached the border. Gwaine sighed in relief and licked his finger to test the wind while looking up at the sun, trying to determine the direction of east. Once he had, he pointed towards in and grinned.
"Well, this is my stop," Gwaine told Lancelot. "I'm heading on east... and then I might go southward towards the ruins of Caerleon. It's been a long time since I've been there. Where do you think you will go?"
He then pointed in every direction possible.
"If you go southwards you'll eventually reach Dumnonia, where Tor and the Blessed Isles lie," he explained, and noted Lancelot's not-to-keen expression. "I can see you don't want to trespass too close to Camelonian ground, then. Fine, if you go south-west you'll eventually hit Gwent. There's a nice kingdom there, very quiet and peaceful with a few nice taverns. There's a beautiful princess too..."
Gwaine chuckled to himself as he remembered his own meeting with her.
"She's pretty, sweet and very keen to swap stories with travelling wanders," Gwaine explained, not wanting Lancelot to get the wrong idea of how he knew her. "She's mad as a box of frogs, but don't give her a box of frogs – she'll eat them right up."
Gwaine pointed north.
"Keep going that way and I'll eventually reach Gwynedd and go towards north-west you'll eventually end up in the Hen Ogledd. Very tough country, lots of terrifying monsters... and the price of ale is a joke!"
Lancelot chuckled and shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know where I'll go... maybe I'll go somewhere quiet, like you said. It's been a long time since I've been to a new place and I'll probably be better off somewhere like that for now."
Gwaine nodded, "You need to get your head together."
They both exchanged a look; it was like they were secretly asking each other to come and join with the other. Yet neither of them said this out loud. They wanted to go the same way but it felt as if fate had decreed they should split up... for now, at least.
Gwaine sighed and turned his horse eastward, "Good luck, Lancelot."
Lancelot nodded with respect, "You too, Gwaine."
The former knight watched reluctantly as Gwaine began to slowly trot off in the direction of east, which led to harsh lands. After all there were the Perilous Lands in that direction... but surely even Gwaine wouldn't be foolish enough to go there?
Lancelot slowly turned his horse to ride south-eastward when he heard Gwaine suddenly manoeuvre his horse around again to address his new ally.
"Just remember this," Gwaine called to him over his shoulder. "There is nothing and no one in this world worth throwing your life away for. You only get one shot at this life, Lance. Too many people these days die before their time. To willingly seek your destruction the way you seem to... well, I think it's discourteous."
These words almost came like a bolt from the blue. Gwaine seemed to run around attracting trouble, bloody well asking for it most of the time so it seemed rich coming from him. However Lancelot also knew that Gwaine was right; while he had for a long time sought out destruction, Gwaine on the other hand just lived his life to the full. He loved life and found any excuse he could to make it more interesting.
Lancelot wished he could do that... but admittedly he doubted it. Nonetheless he no longer felt sad or lonely. He was due to travel the next leg of his journey alone again but the memory of Gwaine would keep him company for a while yet.
He smiled and nodded in gratitude, "Thank you, Gwaine."
Gwaine grinned and finally rode off in the direction he had planned. He kept riding until he reached the edge of the forest. He looked back behind him, expecting to see Lancelot gone too. He was surprised to still see him standing in the same spot, clearly waiting until he was out of sight before he went on his way. It had been a long time since someone had watched after him like that.
He waved to Lancelot one more time and disappeared into the forest.