THROUGH THE GATE OF MEMORY: PART TWO
THE BATTLE HE MISSED
A/N: This story takes place during the battle of Camlann, and is meant to embellish the brief glimpse we see of Percival charging with Gwaine and the rest of their contingent.
It's the second in my series of short pieces following Gwaine's story in the Diamond of the Day. (See the note at the end of the first story for a more detailed explanation.) They won't be in any particular order. Not all of them will be sad (I promise!). As for timing, they will probably pop up at very random moments, thanks to my impulsive muse.
"A warrior fears the battle he missed. More than any fight he can make his own, he fears the fight that's gone, that ended without him, that no feat of arms can change."
"Why would he expect an ambush? No one's here. It's a waste of men – we should be down there with him. He needs us."
"It's called strategy, Gwaine. You might want to try it some time."
"Is that so? Well, it's a wonder you can see what's going on at all, your thick head is so far away from the ground."
The two knights glared at each other; Percival stony; Gwaine dark and twitchy. Around them, in the jagged niches of the pass, their fellow soldiers looked away politely. For once in their time-honoured pre-battle game of insults, meant to get them riled and set their blood pumping, it was Percival who relented, shaking his head in disbelief at his friend's ridiculous wit.
"You're saying I'm tall. That's it? That's all you've got?"
"Worked though, didn't it?" Gwaine pretended to fiddle with his glove, hiding his smugness poorly. "You broke first. I'm the winner." He shivered in the cold air. "Feeling warmer yet?"
"Not really. Time for another round? Keep 'em coming, Gwaine. Don't hold back…"
A sound, out of place, made both men freeze. The narrow world around them clarified, each tiny detail sharpened by their fear.
The heaving of their ragged breath. The coldness of the stone. The narrow vein of darkness overhead.
The rattle of pebbles.
Gwaine gave a roar and sprang to his feet. "They're above us! Look out!"
A shower of dirt trickled down his neck; another early warning of the Saxons' sneak attack. "Ugh! Nice strategy," he grumbled, shoving Percival to one side as he leapt the other way. A boulder landed, smack, between them. Gwaine's heart was racing and he revelled in the temporary rush as he jeered at his stony foe. "Not good enough!"
"You're talking… to a rock, now." Percival was breathing heavily. Though the knight was lost in shadow and his words were mild, Gwaine could sense his gratitude.
"And that's the thanks I get," he grinned, flattening himself against the far wall of the pass. More rocks and pebbles showered down around them. In between the sickening thumps, he could hear cries of pain and fury from the rest of the men.
"This is a rat trap," Percival muttered. "We have to get out of here. Back to the open path – we can fight them there."
"Squeak," said Gwaine, with feeling. "C'mon then; let's get this over with. My gut is churning, Percival. We're in the wrong place; I know it. We should be with Arthur, fighting by his side."
Percival shook his head. "Your gut is always churning. You eat too much, my friend. And, near or far, we are by Arthur's side. He knows that, Gwaine." The knight raised his hand and called the men to follow him, retreating to the open pathway, halfway down the hill, where they could make their stand. Stealth was no longer an option. Both armies had staked their hopes upon a ruse. Now the hiding was over and all were in plain sight. Now the battle was honest.
Arthur was right, Gwaine thought to himself, as they dodged the falling rubble and left the claustrophobic passageway behind them. I wonder how he knew…
Already, their number had dwindled. Three good men still lay in the deep pass; the first to fall in this, the final battle. More like its offshoot, Gwaine sighed, still unhappy. He was a man of instinct, and right now his instinct was screaming at him like the spirits of the dead – but Percival was forming the small group of knights back into hasty ranks, preparing for the onslaught. How could he leave his friend, dashing off with some ridiculous hare-brained notion that only he was brave enough to keep the king from harm? "You're a fool," he muttered.
"Thanks," whispered Percival, grinning a warrior's grin; the last show of bright hope before a hopeless battle.
"No; not you. I mean…" Gwaine tried to say, but the tramp of feet was growing louder and the time for words was over. No more thinking; only action.
No more speeches, only screams.
The Saxons were an ugly lot, he mused in passing, as the horde approached them.
Swallowing thickly, he clenched his sword, risking one last glance at the friend who stood beside him.
"On me!" cried Percival – and the little band of knights charged together, howling death and defiance to all foes of Camelot.
Blade fell on blade; axe met shield with dark ferocity. Gwaine's arm was numb within minutes and his skin was awash with a river of sweat and blood. He clung to his weapon with grim desperation, not daring to reckon the number of men he felled, nor even to call them men, for in that direction lay madness. He was a creature of impulse; a devil of war. Swinging his sword with dire effect, he carved his way right through to the rear of the Saxon ranks, dispatching his opponents utterly, sending them tumbling one by one down the sharp grey hill. It wasn't brave work, but it was necessary. None could remain. They had to finish this now, without question or fear of reprisal.
They had to get back to Arthur before it was too late.
Time was a whirpool, sucking them in. Had it been minutes or hours? Gwaine's head was bleeding; his arms were covered in deep gashes and he hobbled on an ankle that was stiff and swollen. But the stragglers were thinning, and all at once he found himself beside his friend.
"You look terrible," Percival panted.
"Fresh as a daisy," Gwaine said between clenched teeth. "You?"
"I'll live." Together they paused and surveyed the ugly scene that lay before them. Bodies littered the narrow path, and more were scattered up and down the shadowy ravine, like lumpen rocks, except that these were the bodies of men, broken and discarded. Gwaine saw Percival swallow deeply. His own throat was far too tight. Instead, he felt like weeping and covered his mouth with a trembling hand, holding back the shameful impulse. Few souls remained to share their sorrow. None of them were Saxons.
Lightning rent the sky - so many flashes - and a voice roared out like thunder. The air felt thick and heavy. Rain would be a blessing. Maybe it could wash their dreadful deeds away.
"Now?" said Gwaine, though he knew his strength was almost spent.
"Now," said Percival quietly.
Together, they limped back down the long path, heading towards the field of Arthur's battle. As they reached level ground, the lightning ceased. The battle staggered, slowing to a halt, one wicked skirmish at a time.
With a cry of despair, Gwaine sank to his knees, almost dragging Percival with him.
"I feel it," he choked. "I knew it." The moment had passed. The chance was lost. The king was beyond his aid. How he knew it, he could not say, but the ache he felt was dreadful.
"Come on, Gwaine," his friend insisted, hoisting him back to his feet. "It's over now. You're tired, that's all. Perhaps we've won. You know Arthur; his luck is golden."
"Yes. Perhaps," Gwaine repeated woodenly, as the old mask fell back into place. For the awful pain had reached his heart by now, replacing hope and twisting like a tiny creature as it made its home there; grief for his king and regret for the battle he missed.