Once they were legion, but time and warfare had performed its attrition on their numbers. Once they were divided by tribe, but here on the border of the known world, it didn't seem so important.
All Sarmatians might look alike to the Roman eye, but Tristan still knew Iazyges from Urgi from Roxolani, and When Arthur recruited the last twenty-four argaragantes alive in country to his cohort, no one refused to sit at the round table together. They were all Sarmatians, part of a depleted auxiliary force, and the differences between them no longer mattered.
A sign of changing times, Tristan thought, drinking sour red wine and watching the others from behind his cup. The cohort was drunk on victory after routing the Picts at Glein River, and no one was thinking about tribe or rank.
At the center of the laughter, Lancelot, Royal Scythian born, was teasing the Roxolani Bors about the swelling belly of his doxy. Bors was blushing, and the men were stomping their feet in appreciation of the lewd exchange.
"If it's a boy, we'll name it--"
"Lancelot, after his da?" Lancelot suggested. The men clapped and whistled.
Bors stood, irate but guffawing. "I'm going to take a piss," he announced, looking around at the company. "And then I'm going to go and--"
His general crudity was lost in the uproar of laughter and jeers, but the pelvic thrusts were visible to all.
"My poor babe is going to be born with a dent in his head," Lancelot said. Bors bowed mockingly to Lancelot, and left.
Tristan tossed back his wine and stood.
"You have a warm woman waiting, too?" Lancelot called.
"Absolutely," Tristan said smoothly.
"I envy you," Lance said, but his eyes slid away, towards Arthur; too drunk to see watchful Tristan's eyes, he raised his cup thoughtfully to his lips.
Tristan escaped outside.
It was chilly, but a fine mist made the air soft on his face. It was natural to bemoan the climate, and they all did it--but truthfully, Tristan didn't remember warm sun, just dry, cold winters spent in drafty wagons. And the Roman hypocaust was a wondrous invention, though he'd never admit it aloud.
As much as he didn't mind the climate, however, the winter solstice was near, and the air was colder than he found pleasant. Tristan slipped into the stables and found his mare, Komosaris, in her stall, sleeping with one eye open. She woke and shook herself when Tristan approached, and whickered a welcome.
He greeted her with a curry comb, and set to work. She relaxed beneath his hands, drowsing, while he murmured sweet nothings in Sarmatian to her.
The pleasant, warm stable lulled him, and Tristan worked in a half-dreaming state, thinking of nothing in particular. He jumped when he heard the clatter of booted feet behind him, and Komosaris jumped, too.
"Ho, there," a voice said, and Tristan turned to peer through the half-darkness. It was one of the Urgi brothers--Gawain or Agravaine--and Tristan wasn't very good at telling them apart. "Didn't mean to startle you."
"Komo and I were half-asleep," Tristan said. "I didn't expect anyone else from the cohort."
"No?" the speaker drew closer, and Tristan squinted in the dim light. It was probably Gawain. Agravaine did something slightly different with his hair. "I didn't expect anyone here, either. Thought you had a warm woman waiting for you."
"There are none warmer than Komosaris," Tristan said.
Gawain guffawed. "I knew you Iazyges were half in love with your horses, but..."
Tristan smiled, but his heart wasn't in it.
Gawain sobered. "Come to think of it, Tristan, have I ever seen you with a woman?"
Tristan didn't often answer this question head on. He liked to deflect such inquiries, to turn them aside with a joke. But in the spirit of Arthur's company of equals, Tristan wanted to tell the truth.
"Before I left, my grandfather made me swear not to make myself unclean with Roman women," he said.
Gawain's jaw dropped. "Made you swear?"
Amused by Gawain's reaction, Tristan smiled. "I had only twelve summers. And I was a late bloomer. Had no idea what I was really swearing to."
"You haven't... you haven't stuck to it, have you? I mean, an oath is an oath, but that..."
"I've kept the oath," Tristan said. "How could I not?"
"The oaths of the Iazyges..." Gawain shook his head. "I'd heard stories, but I'd never... I'm... well."
Tristan shrugged, and continued currying Komo.
Gawain stood there a moment longer, before bursting out in laughter. "I can't believe there's one in our company who's a virgin!"
Tristan raised an eyebrow. "Who's a virgin?"
"Why--" Gawain paused, staring at Tristan. Realization slowly dawned.
Tristan looked away before he could see condemnation in Gawain's eyes. As a rule, Sarmatians did not look fondly on what they saw as another sign of Roman decadence.
He shouldn't have said anything. The entire cohort would know by sunrise. Maybe it wouldn't be any worse than how they teased Bors for taking up with a Briton. But very possibly it could be worse. It was hard to know. They were fighting men first, and adhered to Roman discipline because it kept them alive. But Rome's civilizing influence was just a veneer, covering illiterate childhoods spent in wagons and drinking mare's milk...
An oath to his grandfather, though. They would respect that, if nothing else.
He hoped Gawain would tell them that part, at least.
He expected to hear Gawain's footsteps retreating, heading back in to the cohort's victory celebration, but instead he heard the shuffle of feet moving closer. Then Gawain's hand was on his shoulder.
Tristan turned. And then Gawain's hand was on the back of his neck, cupping it with strong, lean fingers and drawing him forward. Then Gawain's mouth came against his, and Tristan dropped Komo's comb and reached around Gawain's wide shoulders, bringing them together.
The kiss was uncoordinated and messy, but Gawain's mouth was hot and pliant. Once Gawain figured out where his nose went, Tristan prayed he would never stop.
At some point, Gawain's fingers came up and knotted in Tristan's hair--then, just as suddenly, Gawain was pushing him back, turning away and staring at the ground. Tristan looked from Gawain's downcast face to Komo, who was watching them with placid, equine interest.
Tristan picked up the curry comb and turned back to his mare, trying to give Gawain a chance to recover. From the edge of his eye, he saw Gawain raise the back of his hand, trembling, to the corner of his mouth.
Tristan said nothing.
Gawain turned and left the stable.
Tristan spent the night curled under Komo's nose, unwilling to go back to his bed where the others could find him altogether too easily. He woke to someone gently kicking his ribs, and looked up to see Gawain looming over him.
"It's full light, and time for breakfast. Our commander awaits."
Tristan scrambled to his feet. Gawain wasn't looking at him... but he wasn't looking away, either.
"Right then," Tristan said.
"We aren't late," Gawain said. "Agravaine's got no voice, and Bors hasn't reappeared yet."
"No?" Tristan said, and stopped walking.
Gawain was four steps ahead before he realized Tristan wasn't beside him. He turned and looked back, meeting Tristan's eyes for the first time since--
"Aren't you coming?" Gawain said. "Arthur's waiting for us."
"Right. I'm coming. Arthur's waiting. For us."
Gawain nodded, and together they walked on.
They sat down in their accustomed spots, a quarter of the table apart. Tristan watched Gawain through Arthur's prayer. Gawain's eyes became distant, and the back of his hand went again to the corner of his mouth.
When he noticed Tristan watching, Gawain lowered his hand slowly, and smiled.
Komosaris - 'Scythian/Sarmatian komo 'horse', sarya 'dawn', cf. http://public.kubsu.ru/~usr02898/sl30.htm