Usual disclaimers apply. Please review. And here it is. The final chapter. Thanks to everyone for reading. If you liked it, keep a lookout for my new story "Now we are home". First chapter should be up soon.
The battle was over, the Saxon invasion stopped. While the hours leading up to it had seemed to drag on forever, the time after the fight was over whirled past like hammer strokes. How could it not, though, with so much to do. The dead had to be buried, the wounded cared for, the survivors provided with shelter and nourishment. Since the Roman troops had left, their barracks stood empty and had swiftly been seized as additional quarters for the injured men and women.
The commoners at the Wall accepted the sudden presence of picts among them with quiet acquiescence and just hints of unease. But the strong hands of Merlin and Arthur kept order among their men and no problems arose.
As the moon stood high in the sky, Arthur stood in the doorway of the healing rooms and gazed at his knights, a slight, fond smile on his lips. Galahad, Lancelot and Bors had gathered around the beds of Gawain and Tristan, their voices animated but quiet, so as not do wake the scout.
Tristan was badly hurt, but, so the surgeon Antonius had assured him, he would recover, as would Gawain, who had received a crossbow bolt in the shoulder.
Arthur's heart swelled with relief and bliss as he looked at his brothers in arms, who had chosen to stand by him in such an hour of need and had not had to pay for it with their lives.
He felt an arm slip around his waist and looked down into the lovely face of Guinevere, who returned his calm smile. She had cleaned herself up hours ago, washed the blood and the woad off her face and had her various cuts and bruises taken care of. To him, she could not be more beautiful. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and held her close, while his gaze once more wandered over to the knights.
"How is he?" Guinevere asked quietly, her concerned eyes on Tristan telling him who she spoke of.
"He hasn't woken yet," Arthur answered, "but if he doesn't catch a fever, he should be fine. How is your friend?"
Guinevere stopped smiling and shook her head slightly. "She is weak and she has already caught a fever. We will know more on the morrow." Her smile returned lightly and she squeezed him a little around the waist, relishing the fact that he had changed his battered armor for a clean tunic and she could feel his body heat seeping into her. "For now, you should be glad that your brothers live. All of them."
Tristan felt warm and comfortable. He had been awake for a while now, but he did not feel like opening his eyes. The air was rich with the scent of herbs and the homely smell of a log fire. He could hear the crackling of flames in a hearth, calm, pacing footsteps and the low voices of his brothers. Lancelot and Bors were teasing each other, Galahad spoke quietly with Gawain. They had survived, then.
He lifted his eyelids a fraction to see that Gawain lay in a bed a few feet away from him, a bandage around his shoulder and his back elevated by a few cushions. Galahad sat on the corner of his bedstead, Bors and Lancelot sat on a bench near the foot of Tristan's own bed and the dark Sarmatian chuckled as Bors shoved him playfully, almost pitching him off his seat.
Even Arthur was there, standing in the doorway with his arm around Guinevere. No one was looking directly at him. Therefore, he settled for doing what he liked to do best: silently observing the others and basking in the knowledge that his family was with him.
Something was nagging him, however, a thought teetering on the edge of awareness that would not let him rest. He shifted on his pallet and the movement made the pain, which had been but a dull, diffuse ache in his body, flare with sudden fire and wrung a groan from him.
Conversations abruptly ceased and all eyes turned to him. It took Arthur only a heartbeat to descend on him like a mother hen, the woman following close behind.
He grasped Tristan's hand and looked at him, a happy smile erasing the worry lines on his face for the moment.
"How are you, old friend?" he asked, his deep voice low and careful.
The scout shifted again and bit back another groan. Then he shot the bandages covering his body a resentful look.
"I have been better," he answered gruffly. His head had started spinning and he felt slightly sick. Arthur, noticing the greenish hue his face had turned, sent Galahad for Antonius the surgeon and bade Bors let in some air.
The window shutters were opened to reveal cool, misty darkness outside. Sound fragments floated on the light air current, low voices, footsteps, occasional laughter and even the soft sound of singing in the distance.
The surgeon, a short, squat monk with hair like the bristles of a brush, came bustling in, felt Tristan's forehead, his pulse and then changed his bandages more efficiently than gentle. The knight said not a word during the procedure, simply allowed his eyes to drift shut again and listened to the movements of the people around him.
Antonius left again a short while later and Tristan heard Arthur get up and walk over to Gawain to whom he started speaking quietly. The movement of the mattress signaled him that someone else had taken a seat on the edge of his bed, however, and he peered from one eye up at Lancelot.
The dark haired knight smiled down at him and something in his expression jogged Tristan's memory. He remembered the last time they had spoken before the battle and he remembered whom they had been talking about. His teeth worried his bottom lip for a moment.
"Is she alive?" he asked abruptly, his tone unnecessarily gruff. Lancelot hesitated, although he clearly understood who he meant, then he nodded slightly.
"Good," Tristan interrupted him, closed his eyes again and turned his head away. He did not want to hear more, not yet, anyway. He was tired, his head throbbed painfully and his injuries ached. It was too early to contemplate a future he had not even been sure he'd have, much less think about some woman in said future.
But, still... the thought had been there before. He had asked her to go away with him, he had been able to picture her as the mother of his sons, he had wanted that life, even if he had not taken a long time to plan it... And the thoughts were already there, irreversible.
He groaned, opened his eyes again and met Lancelot's gaze. "But what?"
"But she is not well. They do not yet know if she will survive."
The little chamber was almost dark, safe for the light of the flames crackling in the little fireplace. It had been a meeting room of some sort, the table and chairs had been cleared out and a makeshift bed of hay and cushions had been set up.
There, amid a tangle of blankets, lay Caillean, her skin sallow, beads of sweat on her forehead and her clothes sticking to her damp skin. Her eyes moved wildly underneath her lids, she twitched in her sleep and now and again a moan escaped her parched looking lips.
At the foot of the narrow bed, her brother Caedmon sat, his head in his hands, the fire gone from his usually vibrant blue eyes. He looked tired and dejected as he stared at the dusty floor, but whenever he dozed off for a moment, something jerked him right awake again.
Eivlin shot him concerned looks from her perch on Caillean's bedside, where she had been sitting for hours, cooling her sister's feverish skin with wet rags, changing her bandages when necessary and dribbling mouthfuls of water down her parched throat whenever possible.
"I wish you would lie down for a while," she told him quietly. "You haven't really slept since before the battle."
Her worry for her younger sister could not entirely quell the happiness she felt at having her brother back, having him speak to her for the first time in years, and without any malice.
Caedmon shook his head and did not look up.
"I can't," he answered, his voice scratchy from overuse and exhaustion, "I want to be here, if..." He let his voice trail off and Eivlin nodded slightly. She knew that more than one possibility could follow that "if". ...if she should wake up... if she should die... if she should ask for me.
It seemed cruel that Caillean should be the one so badly hurt, the one possibly dying for this cause. It had been her fondest wish to see her sibling reunited once more and have a functioning family again, in a Britain free from Rome's rule. And now that those things came to pass, she might not be there to see them.
And then there was him, of course. Since the fever had her in its grip, she had been muttering incoherent words and fragments of sentences, but one word had cropped up again and again. Tristan.
Caedmon's scowl deepened whenever he heard it, yet Eivlin couldn't help but smile faintly. Still, it had been Caedmon who had taken it upon himself to inquire after the health of the scout and it had been he who had told the unconscious Caillean that Tristan lived. Not that it had helped much.
He sighed and stretched, several joints popping in his back, and then rubbed his tired eyes.
"Is there nothing further we can do?" he asked.
"Nothing," Eivlin said softly, "but wait."
And the night passed, dawn broke and the day took its course. Night fell again and was again expelled by day. And still they waited.
Caillean's first clue that she was not dead was the pain. She was not certain what might await her after death, but surely, it would not feel quite so wretched. Her head seemed as heavy as waterlogged linen, her limbs felt as though they were being weighed down with millstones. She ran her tongue across her lips tentatively and felt the dry, cracked skin, sucked the air down her parched throat and made an attempt to open her eyes. Her lids felt gummed together and it took her several tries to force them open.
The light pricked her eyes and made them water, but after squinting a little, she could make out more than just blurry shadows. What she saw made her smile.
Her brother sat hunched in a chair, his head lolling to the side, fast asleep. Next to him, with her head leaning against his knees, was her sister, also sleeping.
The room she was in was unfamiliar to her, but from the small heap of bandages on the table and the characteristic smell of herbs, old blood and something she could not quite name, she could tell that she was in some sort of infirmary. The door to the little chamber stood ajar and there were people in the corridor, their voices animated and laughing.
A sense of peace washed over her, momentarily even drowning out the pain. It had been worth it, after all. As she tugged a little on the blankets covering her, her fingers brushed something thin and wooden. She picked it up and held it in front of her. Her mind, still lagging behind a little after the fever, took a moment to process what it meant, but then a smile of sheer utter happiness appeared on her face.
It was an arrow, a very familiar one, telling her of a special visitor. She sighed deeply and let her eyes drift shut again, still clutching the arrow tightly. Now she would really have to hurry up and get better.
It was days before Antonius the surgeon even allowed her to sit up, let alone try to stand on her own. Caillean took it in stride. Her siblings, delighted that she had overcome the fever, came by every day, helped her with anything she might require and brought her not only fresh clothes, food and other little knickknacks, but also news of what happened outside the house of healing.
Through them, she heard about the alliance Merlin and Arthur had forged and how it would continue on, making Arthur King of all Britain, in hopes of uniting the land under one banner, with Guinevere as his queen. They told her how life at the fortress had already changed, how former enemies now regarded each other with respect, sometimes even kindness already. Some of the knights were already training again, she heard, eager to be prepared for any further rogue Saxon raiding parties or whatever else might come their way.
And every once in a while, she would find something in her room that let her know that Tristan had been to see her, a hawk feather, for instance, yet he never came when she was awake.
During the past few days, she'd had a lot of time to consider him and her feelings for him. In truth, they hardly knew each other and what little they knew had been learned during times of war. Neither of them had ever experienced peace and thus knew nothing about how life might go on during it. But in her heart she knew that she wanted to learn it together with him, and that was enough.
Tristan disliked soul-searching. He felt that it served no purpose and generally did not help in any way. He was who he was, there was no changing or denying it, and whoever did not like it could go to hell, for all he cared.
Still, with the changes that were rapidly occurring around him, he had to concede to at least a small amount of contemplation about what he wanted in the future and how and where that future should take place.
Arthur asking him and the other knights to stay, now that he had truly found his calling here, had come as little surprise. He had been somewhat astonished to see how readily even Galahad and Gawain had agreed to remain here, those who had always seemed most eager to return to Sarmatia, no matter what that might entail.
But then, there was a certain joy in the air, a sense of bliss, like the coming of spring, with its promise of blossoming trees and a warmer sun. People had a spring in their step and a smile on their faces without any apparent cause, other than the fact that now there was Arthur and his vision of the future.
Tristan regarded all that merriment with a certain detached amusement. A skeptic by nature, he nonetheless believed in his commander and knew, if any man could unite this strange land and make it a country worth fighting for, it would be Arthur. He had accepted his invitation to stay therefore with little hesitation and knew that he would have a place at the court of the king-to-be.
And then, of course, there was Caillean. So far, he had put talking to her because he did not know what to say. He disliked emotional displays and could never woo a woman as Lancelot did, with words like honey, as sweet and as sticky. He knew what he wanted, and it was plain and simple. He wanted her. What he felt was not what young fools like Galahad might expect of love, certainly. He did not lie awake every night and thought of her, nor did he feel the urge to liken her skin to silk or her eyes to... whatever.
But he did want this woman by his side, he wanted her to be his. Only the words escaped him. Then again, they had never needed many words before.
Caillean took a deep breath of fresh air, closed her eyes and turned her face to the sun. It felt heavenly after her long confinement in the healing rooms
She stood in the courtyard of the former Roman compound, braced against a low stone wall and had a warm cloak slung tightly around her shoulders. The wound in her abdomen twinged when she moved, but otherwise she felt fine. The weakness, brought on by lying prone for days and by the fever, was now her greatest annoyance.
A fresh breeze picked up a few strands of her hair and toyed with them idly, tugged at her cloak and at the hemline of her skirt. She sighed, utterly content for the moment, and opened her eyes again.
There were children playing in the street, a few of them brandishing swords made of twigs and branches, and they were laughing and yelling about who among them would make the greatest knight someday.
It was a very cheerful sight and it made her smile. She did not even turn as footsteps approached her, limping slightly, and a familiar scent enveloped her. Leather, horses, and something uniquely him. Her smile widened into a grin.
"You know, for a scout, you make an awful lot of noise," she observed and laughed.
He did not even dignify this with a response, but simply put his arm around her shoulder and, mindful of her injury, pulled her against him. They observed the children together for a while, in companionable silence.
Caillean glanced at him and something about seeing him again took an ache from her heart that she hadn't even been aware of. It felt strange, as if iron bands had been choking it and were now, finally, gone. She took in his face, ruggedly handsome, composed and serious as usual. Only in his hazel eyes that now moved to look back at her did she see that he, too, was glad to see her.
They looked into each others eyes for a long moment, before turning back to look out over the street. Tristan tightened his arm around her and nodded towards the children.
"What do you think?" he asked and the sound of his dear, gruff voice sent another chill down Caillean's spine. "Will our children be like that someday?"
Our children. It was a simple question, laden with so many much more difficult ones, and it made her breath catch in her throat and her eyes tear up at once.
Caillean's heart leapt with joy that he wanted to be with her, that finally that insane fantasy of a future with him would indeed be a reality. She felt as if she might scream, or cry, or dance with giddiness. Instead, she slipped her arm around his waist and pressed a kiss to his cheek.
"Sure they will."