The first time Harlan let him out of his room, Vin almost exploded out of it. For a week, Miere had let him walk around the close confines of the space, and almost heartbroken at seeing Vin stand next to the window and stare into the countryside, pleaded with the doctor to let him out earlier than planned.
If Vin had known what lay in store for him on the outside, he would have done anything to stay in bed, even though he'd been reduced to being a post office for Lancelot and Guievere- he hated that, he really did. Something in him recoiled at the thought of aiding and abetting the deception of a woman's husband, and just thinking about that made him feel like a hypocrite. He didn't like the feeling, and when the opportunity came to escape, he took it gladly, as much for its value as a distraction from those thoughts and the hope that he wouldn't have to pass letters back and forth.
At least he had his own clothes- mended and laundered, but most definitely his own clothes- and his own weapons. It had taken a considerable effort to not sigh with relief as he strapped on his gun belt and checked the chamber of his mare's leg.
"Are you ready, Sir Vincent?" asked Miere from the other side of the bed. She stood behind the drapes, her back turned, while Vin had gotten dressed. He had begged her to at least wait outside the door, but she informed him calmly that she was charged with watching him at all times- 'all times' including the times he got dressed. Or undressed.
He shrugged into his coat, reveling in the familiar weight across his shoulders, and said, "Yeah. So, where to?"
"As the sworn companion of Sir Lancelot, it is your duty to attend the tournament today," Miere informed him. "We've missed the morning jousts already, but I believe he won both of his handily. He should be fighting this afternoon- there's a Challenge a knight wishes to settle with him, and you need to be there."
"That's nice to know..." Vin swore inwardly, and asked himself: what the hell was a tournament? Why the hell did he need to be there? He then asked the questions out loud, and drew a curious look from Miere. She opened her mouth, about to start her explanation, before closing it and shaking her head.
"I think I'll let you see for yourself. Come on, now."
Vin obediently followed her through the maze-like halls of the castle, trying to gawk without being obvious about it, disliking the closeness of the cold stone walls that rose above him. The ceilings disappeared into darkness, unbroken by the fitful beams of torches kept in brackets along the wall. Tapestries of more hunt and battle scenes hung between the torches, but dust clung to them and made Vin sneeze.
"God bless you," Miere said serenely, continuing on.
At last, they emerged from a tiny side door into a great, echoing hall. Vin craned his head up and back, staring into the bannered upper galleries and thinking uneasily about the excellent position they would afford a sniper. He reflexively dropped his hand to his mare's leg. Miere saw this and hastened to reassure him.
"The galleries are heavily guarded," she said, "and only unarmed individuals are allowed up."
Her words didn't do much to reassure him, but he gave her his best smile along with a thank-you, and followed her out into the courtyard where- God save him- a coach waited. A private coach with gilding that would make Ezra swoon in delight, not a stagecoach, and pulled by immaculately-kept horses in glittering harness. Miere's lips thinned at seeing him hesitate yet again, and she hustled him through the door the footman held open.
"One would think you'd never seen a coach before," she told him irritably, rearranging her skirts.
"We ain't this fancy in Four Corners," he replied, frowning at her. The frown slid off her like water on oilcloth.
The ride passed silently, Vin spending most of it staring out the window. The great Keep (as Miere called it) loomed behind them, a mass of turrets, walls, and stone- but the surrounding buildings appeared alarmingly like the dusty adobe constructs of any border town. Roughly-painted signs hanging from each building designated the building's purpose- barber, ironworks, farrier... People bustled about the street, the women in dresses much like Miere's and the men in clothes much like those of frontiersmen, or maybe the farmers when they came to town at Four Corners.
At length, they pulled into a line of carriages formed along the length of a collonnaded building. Bright banners worked with different devices flapped in the breeze, and white tents were pitched here and there along the ground. Armored men rode past on huge horses, or walked next to younger men in tunics, or sat loading weapons. Vin watched in curious silence, not realizing the carriage had stopped until an impatient jerk on his arm brought him back.
"We need to make our way to the lists now," Miere informed him. He followed obediently, trailing her through the crowd, underneath the terrace, and up a set of stairs to what Miere had called the lists- and to a seat next to Guinevere. Arthur was conspicuously absent.
Oh, God. Vin desperately wished he could wake up.
Guinevere, resplendent in green and gold silk, glanced at the new arrivals. "Sir Vincent," she greeted him, nodding her head politely.
A nudge in Vin's ribs triggered the bow Miere had informed him would be necessary. "My Lady," he returned.
"Please," she said, indicating the chair next to her. "Sit."
Vin did, and Miere faded into the background with the rest of the ladies. He looked up and down the length of a grassy causeway, noting the packed ranks of people sitting along either side of it. The causeway terminated in two iron gates, and Vin coulds see men standing in front of them. In the corners formed by the ends of the terrace and the gates, young men stood, holding the reins of tremendous war horses.
A sharp burst of trumpets cut through the air. Vin jumped, and Guinevere slanted him an amused look. Before he or she could say anything, a man's voice boomed.
"Gallant gentlemen and ladies fair!" The man's words rolled over the gathering, a deep and sonorous tide, "We have gathered here today in a celebration- a celebration of great feats of arms and the glories that attend them!" A roar threatened to drown him out; the man paused, let the applause die down, and continued on:
"A fortnight ago, at the hour of complines, down in the southern districts of our great Camelot, a man, Sir Tirvald by name, challenged Sir Lancelot du Lac, and the honor of his lady fair. The King's Champion, being not of a mind to accept this slight without an answer in arms, has accepted this challenge, and both men now stand before you, prepared to give witness to their worth before your eyes." The crowd responded with more approving cheers.
Vin shot a glance at Guinevere and whispered, "I'm guessin' you'd be the lady in question?"
She returned the look with a flat expression. "Do not presume to judge, Sir Vincent, until you know the whole truth of it. You do not know our customs, you do not know Arthur, you do not know Sir Lancelot, and you do not know me."
"I see a husband, a wife, an' another man who don't seem to care much for whether or not the first two are married. Don't know of any 'custom' that makes all this right." Vin responded, trying to ignore the prickling of guilt working its way up his spine.
"Remind me to tell you the Lai of the Wagon Train- otherwise known as the Lai of Vincent and Charlotte- come vespers," she whispered fiercely. "For now, your Queen commands you to be silent. I will explain the actions here, if you wish, but I will not explain my own."
He nodded, but couldn't abandon the fight without a parting shot, hiding the fear he felt at hearing mention that wagon train. "Look forward to it," he returned, "but I realized what I was doin' wasn't right... Ginny." Vin mentally added that Charlotte didn't seem to have a problem with the whole situation as long as she had someone to... to do things with and take advantage of... but he didn't say it.
Guinevere frowned but didn't rejoin as he expected; instead, she began to explain the proceedings. "As the Master of the Lists said, Sir Tirvald issued a challenge to La- Sir Lancelot," she said. "The one who receives the challenge may either be called out or take up the challenge at a tournament. Tirvald challenged him for the tournament, as it is the more honorable of the two- to call out for a fight on the street is considered base and ignoble."
Vin wondered what Chris would have to say to that.
"The challenged one selects the weapons; I believe they're going to joust with rifles, today. Meaning," she said, seeing the look on his face, "they are afforded three chances to strike the target located on the other's left shoulder- the steel is very thick and there's hide padding underneath, so the bullet will not penetrate the skin. Whoever sustains the fewest hits is declared the victor; if they tie, they fight with swords. Sometimes, the joust is done with lances and horses, but most of the times these days, they fight with rifles and smaller sidearms."
It made precious little sense to Vin, but one towering question ended his attempts to sort it all out. "If'm I'm s'poseta protect Lancelot, how'm I supposed to do it up here? Shouldn't I be down there? With him?" What the hell kind of place was this?
"Challenges don't allow seconds to fight, although if it is just a calling-out, the second may take the first fighter's place," Guinevere said, as if that explained everything. In a way, Vin realized, it did- it sounded like a glorified version of a long-distance gunfight. Everything here sounded like the glorified version of real life- even the relationship between Guinevere and Lancelot.
"Laissez aller!" bellowed the Master of the Lists.
Two shots rang out into the charged silence.
"A hit!" Two voices cried immediately.
The crowd burst into both applause and jeers.
After two more repetitions, Lancelot was declared the victor, two hits to one. Vin felt vaguely disappointed, having expected something more impressive. He turned to tell that to Guinevere when he saw the starry expression in her eyes, the barely-restrained smile as she leaned forward to look down the lists; Vin followed her gaze and saw Lancelot astride his charger, riding toward them. He had his rifle in a saddle holster, his sword in his right hand, the visor of his helmet tipped up to reveal his face. The tails of his duster flapped behind him.
Lancelot came to a halt before Guinevere and bowed low in his saddle, touching his hand to his forehead. "My Lady Queen," he said. "Most glorious flower on the prairie, did the action please you?"
"It did indeed," Guinevere- Ginny- said, blushing.
Vin watched silently, unable to believe any of this, and decided to have a few words with Lancelot. He knew how the story would conclude- or at least, he knew how his ended, and figured that theirs could hardly end any different, and honor be damned.
It took a few well-placed inquiries and some feats of distraction to get Miere off his back and find his way to Vin guessed would be the staging area for Lancelot. He wound his way between tents and running pages, ghosting past racks of weapons and hitching posts where the huge chargers lounged somnolently in the heat. A few questions later, he found Lancelot, who was busy shaving.
For all his composure and awesome presence in the tournament, Lancelot looked little like the commanding champion as he sat in the dim confines of his tent. His armor piled itself in a corner to await the ministrations of his squire, and the duster trailed on the floor from where it hung on the back of Lancelot's chair. Vin studied the man in silence, observing the multitude of thin scars criss-crossing their ways up his arms that jarred with the almost annoying paleness of his skin. Lancelot, stripped to the waist and obviously not concerned about it in the least, slumped casually in his chair, competently wielding the lathering brush in one hand and the razor in another.
The flap of the tent prohibited knocking, and not wishing to startle the man- or be caught staring- Vin ended up coughing softly.
Lancelot spun around, dropping the razor and reaching for his sidearm, but upon seeing Vin, he relaxed. A smile broke out from behind the obscuring screen of shaving soap.
"Vin! Mighty nice t'see you. What'd you think?"
"Of the tournament, or whatever the hell it was you did right after?" Vin asked, more sourly than he would have liked. Unbidden, he stepped inside the tent and took up a position in the corner, wishing he could find something to lean against. The only thing to lean against, though, was the pole in the center of the tent, and Vin didn't feel like hovering over the knight. Instead, he hooked his fingers through his gun belt and directed all his weight into his right hip, and waited for a reply.
The other man's eyes flickered blankly for a moment. "Right after?" he repeated, before his face lit up with realization. "Oh! You're talkin' about what I said to Ginny after beatin' Sir Tirvald, right?"
"Right," returned Vin, rolling his eyes. "For God's sake, uh... Sir Lancelot-"
"Just call me Lance," interjected Lancelot.
"Okay, Lance..." Vin blinked and continued, "Anyways, whatever the hell's goin' on between you two, it ain't right."
"And this from the man who has the central role in the Lai of the Wagon Train? I'm mighty impressed," Lancelot returned, just as sharply as Guinevere had. "Arthur's due back from a trip tonight- there's gonna be singin', feastin', an' an exchange of prisoners, I think. We'll get the minstrel to sing the thing, since you ain't heard it yet. Though it's kinda weird that you haven't, seein' as it's pretty damn popular, from what I hear."
"I sure as hell would like to hear it," muttered Vin. "Y'all seem to've gotten a whole lotta things screwed up about me an' the others. Wouldn't surprise me to see that you got me an' Charlotte pegged wrong, too." He couldn't keep the defensive note from his voice, but figured that it was entirely deserved. They had to have gotten the story wrong.
"Damn, who sat on a cactus this mornin'?" Lancelot's eyebrow quirked sardonically, and he turned back to the mirror to resume shaving. "I should probably be remindin' ya that you're here to watch my back, not make any comments on my love life. Got it?"
"Don't seem right to me, to stick to my honor to help a man who ain't stickin' to his."
"We got different versions of honor, friend," Lancelot said slowly as he guided the razor across a high-boned cheek. "But at least we're agreein' on the point that returnin' the favor settles all debts."
"Man might like to know when that favor might be returned, how he knows it's returned..."
Shrugging, Lancelot splashed water on his face and, squinting in the mirror, nodded with satisfaction. "Honor tells ya when," he said at length.
"Mine or yours?" Vin asked.
"Have to say yours, seein' as you're still stayin'."
Vin had to admit the point- he still felt like he owed the man something for pulling him off the road that day. For all his disapproval, Vin conceded that at least Lancelot seemed honorable in this regard, so he nodded reluctantly, but Lancelot reacted as if Vin had broken into joyous song.
"Excellent, my friend! Damn, Vin, it's good to know there're men like you still around. I don't know what all you've heard about the guys here, but let me tell ya... they ain't all the stories make them out to be. Sagremore, for example... what a pain in the ass he can be. Brian de Bois-Gilbert- he'll bitch at you all day and night, if you let him. Sir Kay- ha! What a dolt. An' don't even get me started on Erec."
Vin listened to the diatribe in silence, and when it had finished, quietly asked, "If'n you say all the men here've been misunderstood, why're you so quick to judge me?"
Lancelot shrugged. "Fellow feelin', I guess." He glanced up at Vin, who shifted uncomfortably. "Some songs've been sung about me... Guess I've been lucky that they all sound good. Yours do, too... I'll get the minstrel to sing that Lai tonight, an' maybe you'll understand a bit of what I'm talkin' about."
"I don't need to hear some stupid song to git me to understand!" shouted Vin. He fiercely reined in his temper before it threatened to get the best of him, but the frustration of the past few weeks and the uncertainty that had dogged him quickly added fuel to the fire. "I knew what I did with Charlotte was wrong, an' what she did with me was wrong. Yeah, I did it anyway, but when all was said an' done, I decided I couldn't much live with myself, couldn't live with the other guys, knowin' I kept doin' somethin' even after knowin' that somethin' was against everythin' I believe is right."
He didn't add the part about the horrible, stomach-hollowing feeling he'd gotten as he lay injured, watching Charlotte bending over the body of her husband and utterly ignoring him- he didn't need to, as the disbelieving expression on Lancelot's face did it for him.
"'Oh, faithless lady! La belle dame sans merci, why do you torment your lover so? Yea, as his blood flows from his body, so does the love from his heart.'" It sounded like a quotation, however sarcastically it came from Lancelot's lips. "Straight from that song, you know. Lookin' at your face, I'm guessin' that, at least, is right." "Yeah, that part's right- she went right back to her husband. But don't tell me you ain't never thought of Guinevere- Ginny, whatever- doin' the same thing. You don't think a woman who cheats on her husband ain't liable to go back to him, or maybe find some other poor idiot, 'stead of you?" Pale anger flashed across Lancelot's face. "I'm hopin' you don't mean that." The mild tone contrasted sharply with the fury that rapidly gathered in those dark eyes. "I love Ginny- an' I know that she loves me."
"Ain't it funny how that works out?" Vin wondered out loud. "That's what I said 'bout me n' Charlotte."
Only a thread separated Lancelot from outright violence, Vin could see; he resisted the temptation to goad the other man over it, express some of his own anger in giving the man a good ass-kicking. Just before that thin line got broken, Miere materialized in the doorway.
"Sir Vincent!" she said loudly, glaring at her charge and then curtseying to Lancelot, who returned the homage with an indifferent nod. Miere seemed to sense the charged atmosphere between the two men, and quickly sought to diffuse it. "Master Harlan wishes your presence back at the castle," she told Vin, wincing at the bad lie, but not wishing to see either man get hurt. "If it please you, my Lord, come with me."
A soft tug on Vin's coatsleeve served as emphasis, and he shook himself back from the cold distance of combat. Nodding, he ducked out of the tent with Miere, who directed a scathing look at him.
"I almost found myself on the receiving end of quite a nasty lecture from Lady Guinevere, thanks to you," she muttered. "What was that about?"
Vin almost laughed at her lapse into familiarity. "Just a diff'rence of opinion, I guess." "Over the Queen?"
"You could say that," he replied, frowning. The girl was too damn quick. "An' I would appreciate it if'n you'd keep that conversation to yourself. "
"You have my word," she assured him. "If I may say so, Sir Vincent, you are quite adamant in your opinion that the relationship between Sir Lancelot and the Queen is wrongful."
"I am," he assented. "I'm pretty sure it's in the Bible somewheres- Josiah could tell you chapter an'verse, if you want, an' even if you didn't. But I been through this before, an' there ain't nothin' more to it but a bad endin'. Reckon I'm just stayin' on to watch his back, although I don't really want to."
"Sir Lancelot isn't a bad man, Sir Vincent," Miere said quietly. She saw 'I never said he was' start to form on his lips and pressed on before he could actually say it. "And he's following custom; every lady is entitled to a knight to do service to her... he's well within his rights, and she is well within hers."
"They said somethin' about 'tonight', when Lancelot rode up to her after shootin' that other guy," Vin told her. "Can't think of anything that makes what they have in mind right, to me... An' I can't help but think that this is all gonna end badly."
As it happened, any hope of peace before Vin's anticipated 'bad ending' found itself shattered when Vin and Miere returned to the Keep and found Arthur arriving at the same time. The great procession swallowed up their own small coach and deposited it just outside the castle gates to wait for the rest of the entourage to enter. Vin spent hours fidgeting in his seat, wanting to get out of the coach, but Miere kept him there with a firm hand. Seeing Lancelot ride by on the heels of the King's coach didn't help much, either.
By the time they finally made it in and got to the main hall, Arthur had bathed, changed, and was waiting for them, along with Lancelot and Guinevere. Vin's stomach dropped out and he suddenly wished he and Miere could be back outside at the gates.
He felt her presence by his left arm, and found it reassuring. He wondered that he would find it so- she seemed to be on Lancelot's side, if anything, and when he'd told her his suspicions, she had merely shrugged and kept on about 'custom.' Well, maybe he had an unexpected ally, or at least a person who would keep her mouth shut and just be there.
Like Chris. Vin winced, trying not to think of Chris, and how he'd be leaving Larabee and the rest of Four Corners behind as soon as he got back from Camelot; you, he'd get back, get his stuff, and get gone with no explanations and no questions asked. For a moment, thoughts of just leaving encompassed him. Thoughts of how a man who went back on his own honor couldn't be trusted to watch the back of others who stayed by their own honor. He'd had to leave- he'd been so all-fired sure of that.
The notion circled in his head over and over. Should leave... should leave... gotta leave... ain't good enough... go back on your honor, you gotta leave... we're going by your honor in this... He wondered why he had to give up some of his honor to keep a promise. Wasn't he going back on what he owed himself?
But it's custom, Miere's voice intruded.
If'n it was custom, I wouldn't 've had to play mailman. Those two wouldn't be sneakin' around like horsethieves in a corral at full moon.
That is the nature of the obligation, Guinevere informed him from the recesses of his memory.
What's Lancelot's obligation to his friend? Friendship's trust... hell, I don't know much about 'em, but friendships've gotta have trust, else they really ain't friendships, just somethin' someone's usin' to get a handle on another person... If Lancelot's a friend, his obligation is to not do this, but he's not holdin' to it... Why'm I bein' held to mine, but he ain't to his?
You're bein' used, Tanner.
Like Charlotte used him, like Eli Joe used him... like every person in the past who'd thought to use him for their own ends.
The thought felt filthy, and Vin fought the impulse to make a face, or physically lash out. Gradually, he became aware of the three people staring at him, and he shifted uncomfortably. Arthur had a kindly expression, filled with concern and solicitation; Guinevere looked vaguely worried, her hands clutching her cloak close around her shoulders; Lancelot glared from over Arthur's shoulder, dark eyes threatening.
Vin met those eyes squarely, straightening his shoulders and preparing for battle. He opened his mouth, the full story on the verge of spilling out with all his conviction behind it, when he caught sight of the pleading look in Guinevere's eyes and remembered the words they had exchanged at the tournament.
"You do not know me," she'd said. And she was right, of course- he didn't.
He couldn't tell Arthur- that realization swept over him like cold water. Vin would gladly have confessed the whole affair to the King if just Lancelot had been involved- his opinion of the man sank lower by the minute- but Guinevere? He couldn't bring himself to say something about her, however richly it may have been deserved.
Time to find another way out of this.
"Your Majesty," Vin said slowly, "Thanks for keepin' me here, makin' sure I got over them injures, but I reckon it's time for me to move on, not impose on ya any longer." Anxiety and embarrassment worked their ways up his spine.
Arthur's brow raised in surprise, but he nodded and didn't ask the obvious question. "I would be sorry to see you go, Sir Vincent. I thought you had been happy here."
"Well, it's a fine place, Camelot," Vin told him, "But I got responsibilities of my own, obligations..." He stressed the last word, flinging a scathing glare at Lancelot, whose eyes darkened. It hit Vin that his conversation- hell, argument- with Chris went along the same lines, and he had a sense of how Chris must've felt, trying to talk sense into someone that didn't want to see it, and feeling helpless because that someone would end up seeing sense only after he got hurt.
And Chris was right. Big-time.
"Your duties to me have not been discharged yet, Sir Vincent," Lancelot said after a long pause.
The sticking point. Vin took a breath and tried desperately to compose the words in his head.
"Where I come from, man picks those his honor agrees with. I reckon yours don't much agree with mine," Vin retorted, praying Arthur wouldn't interfere and ask exactly how Lancelot's didn't agree with Vin's. He silently commanded Arthur to stand and watch in silence.
In direct defiance of Vin's wishes, Arthur opened his mouth to speak.
And Guinevere stepped in, murmuring in his ear. The King nodded as she stopped speaking and stepped back, patting her on the hand. Lancelot, too, remained quiet, although the murderous stare remained. Deciding to take advantage of the halt in the proceedings, Vin sought for escape.
"I'm gone," he said simply, spinning on his heels and heading out the great doors. He heard the sound of a weapon being unholstered but didn't turn around.
Vin's body jerked, and he felt the bullet pierce his skin, muscle, and bone with an almost obscene clarity, as if time had slowed enough to give him opportunity to chart the bullet's course through his body. It took a century for him to fall, and his vision distorted the same way time did, the ceiling twisting and turning above him, the figures congregating around his body stretching like wet clay.
Ghostly voices whirled, and he found he had a hard time placing them.
"Mother of mercy, Lance! You shot him?" Arthur?
"You shot him in the back! Why?"
"Lance, what happened?"
A firm hand shook his left shoulder, and Vin reflexively jerked away from it, hand coming up to cover the wound. His eyes snapped open when his fingers touched whole, uninjured skin, and he had to stare at unbloodied fingers for a moment, until he could believe that he hadn't gotten shot.
Josiah stood over him, book underneath his arm, and stared at the tracker consideringly. "You feelin' okay, Vin?"
The words took a second to register; for a moment, Vin still saw the ceiling of the great hall, with Josiah's face superimposed atop it. He tried to blink the image away, and after a few tries, it worked. Rubbing absently at his shoulder and still trying to shake off the voices, Vin nodded.
"Yeah, Josiah, I'm okay."
"Must've been a hell of a dream," Josiah commented, sitting down next to the younger man. "Want to talk about it?"
"Not really, Josiah..." Vin pondered whether or not it would ever be safe for him to take his problems to Josiah again- what would happen if Josiah read to him from something else?
Josiah shrugged, knowing his friend's predilection for uncommunicativeness, but at least had to get one answer out of the man. "You thinkin' on stayin' a spell?"
"Reckon I will," Vin said slowly, but Josiah could hear firm decision in his voice, and breathed a soft sigh of relief he hoped the other didn't notice. If Vin did, though, he gave no sign of it, but instead continued unexpectedly, "You think once a man goes back on his honor, there ain't no gettin' it back? I mean, say a fella does somethin' he knows is wrong, an' after a while he realizes it an' stops... Does that still mean he can't be trusted?"
"Honor ain't glass, Vin. It don't make up a whole man, either... Good thing, 'cause if honor were glass, we'd be shattered by the time we got outta the cradle. It's a question of where you place your honor an' your trust, I reckon- make sure you give it to the right people, an' make sure you're deserving of that which others give to you."
Vin accepted that in silence.
"You mind if I see that book?"
Curious but not objecting, Josiah handed it over. The tracker took it and stood up, gazing at the book thoughtfully and nodding his head.
"You plannin' on readin' it?" Josiah asked.
"Hell, no," Vin snorted. "I'm gonna burn the damn thing."
With that, he turned on his heel and strode out the door, Josiah in hot pursuit.
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