Half a hundred miles inland and all Esclados could taste was the sea. A bitter scent of crisp breakers shrouded in fog.
Esclados sipped from his wineskin, swallowing the memory of the ocean into the back of his throat. They were good memories—of the rocky shore and stiff wind, Laudine’s hand in his, the reflection of the Channel in her eyes—but those times were far gone. 
His next inhalation brought only the verdance of the forest, the head of fresh water in the Storm Well, his charge. The scent was calming, but not in the way that he liked—the calm before swords are drawn or horses charge. Perhaps, he thought, it was more akin to the second of stillness before an arrow leaves the bow, inevitably to draw blood. 
A slight buzz tickled the air, and Esclados gripped the hilt of his sword. Moments later, a sliver of gold light appeared beneath oak boughs, and a figure stepped forth. 
For a brief second, Esclados’ breath caught in his throat as he glimpsed the figure’s hair shimmer umber in the light of the portal, but then he smelled a waft of cured, oiled leather and knew that Laudine was still far, far away. 
Salene trudged through the undergrowth, waving away the droopy ferns and jumping over the moss-covered trunks. Her step was light despite the pounds of leather armor she insisted on wearing. It fit her well, nevertheless. 
“Where’s Kay?”
“You and that damned dog.”
The squire shrugged. “She likes me a little more than you do.”
Esclados raised a brow. “Hunting rabbits, I reckon.”
Salene dropped her knapsack on the lichen-encrusted rock reserved only for the vigil over the sacred well—the Waiting Stone, as she called it. She had an affinity for naming things.
The leaves wavered on their branches as Salene cupped her hands and called for the dog. Esclados sighed, lowering himself to the Waiting Stone—it really was a good name. Sitting relieved the weight from his knees, but his plate and maille still bore heavily on his shoulders. 
“There you are, old fool.” Salene knelt as the ferns parted for Kay’s spotted snout. Her pelt was covered in burrs and thistledown, remnants of her morning escapade. 
Salene rubbed down the slavering faerie dog, with each pass of her gloved hands she muttered, “Who’s my bitch? Who’s my bitch?” It was a cruel joke at Sir Kay’s expense, who Salene insisted she had beaten at a county faire wrestle. One of Salene’s less clever jests, if Esclados had been asked. 
But he hadn’t been and didn’t really care one way or another. He took another drink from his wineskin and squinted up at the canopy. The sun was absent today, and the subtlest gray light framed the leaves like auras. 
Salene dropped beside him on the Stone, her maille clinking as it touched his. “She is well, distracted by the allures of the sea, but well.”
Esclados swallowed the last of his wine. After a moment of quietude, he nodded. 
“You don’t have to do this to yourself,” Salene said without making eye contact. “It’s as simple as expression, as a letter, a visit.”
“That’s not how it works.” 
Unsheathing her seax, Salene tested the thick blade with her thumb. “Act as if she was me, say ‘Laudine, I’ve discovered something about myself, discovered your comely figure and womanly charm no longer attract...”
“That’s enough, Salene.” Esclados pinched the bridge of his nose. 
“What, then?” She ran a small whetstone across the marbled steel. Hissss, hisss. “End the marriage?”
“No!” Esclados raised the wineskin halfway to his mouth before remembering he had emptied it. “I still love her,” he said softly. 
“But you loved him too.” Salene blew dust from the whetstone, “Well, made love.”
“I don’t know what I felt.”
Hisss, hisss, hisssss. “Your indecision is killing everything you had. Take action, be Esclados the Red with her as you are with the Storm Well—action first.” 
The knight opened his mouth to reply but could not find the words. He found that deep down, he knew Salene was right, right about everything, as she often was. 
Kay’s ears perked up and her hackles rose as if lifted by a breeze, a growl formulating in her throat. Far out, Esclados heard the snort of a horse among the underbrush. 
Hisss, hisss. 
“I’ll take this one.” Esclados tossed aside his spent wineskin, exchanging it for his shield. 
The figure that came through the trees was massive. He stood nearly as high as his horse, wearing armor and flat-soled boots. The hilt of a vicious longsword poked above his beaten, steely shoulders; a weapon far more weight than Esclados could ever handle with any semblance of skill. 
And his armor was painted the darkest of blacks, edged in a glimmer of silver. 
“Fucking dramatic,” Salene said. 
Esclados ignored her, but silently cursed as the knight proceeded further into the clearing. The insignia engraved upon his breastplate was old—from the monarchs of Albany, filled with chivalric intent and powerful lineage—and delicately chiseled with complex scrollwork. 
For a moment, the newcomer halted at the end of the underbrush, as if he was a houseguest, waiting for permission to cross the threshold. Yet, without answer from Esclados, he let down the lead of his steed, and stepped into the breach. 
“Turn back,” the Red Knight commanded, “For this is the only mercy you will be shown.”
The black-clad knight scoffed. It was not the action that disturbed Esclados, because he had certainly been scoffed at before; it was the harshness, the guttural, stomach-bred sound that shuddered leaves and sent a second set of ripples careening across the Storm Well. The arrogance conveyed. The nobility. 
“Shall I tether your horse, milord?” Salene hooked her thumbs in her belt. “Perhaps fetch you a drink?”
The knight scowled but had no reply. His face was somber, chiseled in a contemplative way. 
Esclados narrowed his eyes. “Have the stories not been clear, errant? The Storm Well holds nothing for you, neither power nor honor. All you will find here are filed blades and blood.”
The newcomer smiled. “My honor does not concern me.”
“That’s a first,” Salene muttered. 
The knight worked at the buckles on his gauntlets. “You, Red, have shamed my family’s name, driven my cousin to exile, and brought into question the validity of his manhood.”
Esclados felt a keen chill slide down his back. 
“Who the fuck are you?” Salene was seldom very subtle. 
The knight glared her way. “Sir Ywain, the Lion of Albany, and I am here on behalf of Sir Calogrenat, to redeem his honor and kill his offender.” In a fell movement, he tossed down his gauntlets at Esclados’ feet. 
The Red Knight remained harrowingly still, taking in the double-gauntlet challenge, the name. It burrowed in his ears like an insect, spiny legs scratched the insides of his skull and prodded his mind, whispered the name lovingly. Calogrenat.
The figure that came through the trees was massive. He stood nearly as high as his horse, wearing armor and flat-soled boots. The hilt of a vicious longsword poked above his beaten, steely shoulders; a weapon far more weight than Esclados could ever handle with any semblance of skill. 
The sight of him came to Esclados unbidden, stark and brazen. His heart jumped, and he struggled to catch it. The memory of swords crossed, the defiance in that young knight’s eyes, piercing green, filled with fire and confusion. 
Esclados shook his head, as if such an action could will away these memories. Nothing would ever disperse them, they would only lay dormant, gathering dust until the moment was inopportune. 
He felt Ywain’s gaze upon him, Salene’s, but the rush of recollection was willful. 
Oh, Calogrenat
So lost, so innocent, not yet beaten or bloody. Esclados did not recall how that felt, to be innocent. All he felt was Calogrenat’s firm, eager lips, and the budding shame that tightened around Esclados’ throat as the stars had emerged above the clearing, silhouetting Calogrenat upon a speckled cloak. 
Salene placed a hand on his shoulder, jerking him from the reverie. “I can take this fight. He’s a prod. I bet five minutes.”
Esclados needed the distraction of violence, the sweet release of brutality. Laudine, Calogrenat, he pushed them to the far recesses of his mind, wanting only to think of he and Ywain, the steps toward victory, the rush of swords. 
Ywain shrugged his massive sword from his back, drawing the blade to let the hilt rest loosely in his hands. He handled the weight like a child handles a candlestick—effortless. 
“If this runs foul,” Esclados said, “tell her the Storm Well was endangered.”
Salene frowned. 
But before he could give her time to respond, he withdrew his steel and set to work. 
Ywain was formidable, despite the fact his sword was nearly as tall as he was. Whenever Esclados was unfortunate enough to take a blow to the shield, his entire arm shuddered, threatening at any moment to give out on him. 
At first, it was slow-going, an in-and-out game. Esclados would dart under cover of his shield for a low strike, but it ended in either a parry or the chunk! of sword hitting armor. Ywain’s blows almost always ended with Esclados dancing back or sliding it off his shield to the ground. 
But then, as they settled into a rhythm and knew the flow of things, Esclados began to think. How he had failed Laudine as a husband was forefront in his mind as he dodged Ywain’s sword edge. How he had taken a vow to always love and protect her, and he loved her, but could not protect her from himself. 
From his disloyalty. 
But it had felt so natural with Calogrenat.
Esclados watched as Ywain shifted his weight back for an attack, saw the miniscule opening at his torso, and his instincts took over. 
Time slowed as Esclados lunged, he witnessed the smile tugging at Ywain’s lips, he felt the dread in his chest as the black-clad knight stepped back and swung his longsword. 
Esclados immediately dropped to his knees, rolling to the left. He’d been baited.
Ywain’s blade whistled past Esclados’ ear, nicking his sword arm. But before he could jump to his feet, the Lion of Albany was upon him. Esclados had fallen on his shield arm and was defenseless as the longsword drove downward in rapid strikes. The first he knocked aside with his sword, the second caught his right leg just below the maille shirt, drawing a cold slash on the backside of his lower thigh. 
Esclados hollered, both in pain and outrage. Such tactics did not befit a knight, let alone one of Pendragon’s brood. Where was Salene?
Ywain’s eyes glinted but his sword came down again, this time Esclados had rolled onto his back, and managed to bring up his shield. It caught the blow, but the strength of the strike punctured the hide and dug through the oaken planks. 
“Respite, you bastard!” Esclados aimed a frantic kick behind Ywain’s knee, and it took him down immediately. A moment later, Salene launched herself upon him, seax drawn and poised for slaughter. 
“No! Salene, you know the rules of engagement.” Esclados struggled to pull his arm from the straps of his shield, for the first time realizing how tightly he had been gripping them, his hand cramped and claw-like. 
“As does he,” she hissed, yanking back with a gloveful of Ywain’s curled, sweaty locks. A terrified look danced across his face, eyes panicked and wide. 
“Let him go. He fights for honor, so we must show him our respects.”
Salene bore her teeth in rage but pushed Ywain away from her. He rose, spat her way, and stalked across the clearing, muttering.
Esclados tossed aside his ruined shield and laid flat on the earth, eyes closed. His leg burned, and he already felt his pants and boot soaked through with blood. 
“Are you trying to get killed?” Salene crouched down by his wound, using her knife to cut away the ruined cloth. 
Esclados silently admitted that the thought had crossed his mind.
“That was the oldest bait in the book, and you latched on to it like it was your mother’s teat.”
She uncorked a flask of liquor sloshed the alcohol on his wound. Esclados’ leg burned. 
“Leave it,” he said, “This won’t last much longer.”
Salene grunted, satisfying her ministrations by tying a loose bandage on the gash. She offered her hand, but Esclados waved her away. Thankfully, Salene understood; she often did. 
Esclados felt the ground beneath him, solid and familiar. It reminded him of that fated night weeks ago. When he opened his eyes, the sky above him was fading to purple, and the first of the stars was peeking its way through the clouds. The same star that had rested above Calogrenat’s sweet-smelling ears. 
Why did Calogrenat feel shame? Shame enough to send the Lion of Albany with a death warrant. Did he regret those brief hours with Esclados? Perhaps the pressure was too great, and much like how Esclados repressed his pain, Calogrenat had repressed his nature. 
Had he done that to him? 
“Time wears thin, Red,” Ywain called. “Get up! Let us finish this.”
Esclados rolled to his feet, already feeling how trunk-like his right leg was becoming. The grip of his sword was soaked in sweat and it was his only protection against Ywain’s ungodly weapon. 
He glanced toward Salene, who stood near the Well, seax at the ready. She winked at him
“Remember the code,” Esclados said before sinking into his stance. 
Ywain sneered. “I bet you told Calogrenat the same thing.” And then he lunged. 
The fight was very different now, as each had taken blows and knew the stakes of the matter. 
Esclados knew that his only chance at survival was an offensive strategy, but the last time hadn’t really ended well for him. He stayed back, guard up—well, as much as it could be without a shield—and waited. 
Ywain wasted no time at all in accepting this and charged immediately. Esclados barely slipped aside, and had even less chance to duck the vicious backswing. While crouched, he jabbed Ywain near the kidney, but the blade never punctured maille. 
They proceeded this way until Esclados could no longer feel his leg. He was once again at the point of attack when Ywain jumped at him, two hands upon his sword in a downward stroke. 
Esclados stumbled back, out of the path. Upon hitting the ground, he threw up his sword in a feeble attempt at a block. Ywain’s blade crashed down, driving Eslcados’ much smaller sword into his breastplate, sunken halfway through the leather, hairs above his heart. 
“It suits you to be on your back, Red,” Ywain said, the mockery too sweet for his ugly countenance. Esclados spit his way, working to pry the sword from his armor. To no avail. 
Ywain planted the point of his blade at Esclados’ exposed throat, and for a moment, Esclados felt the cold steel and didn’t recoil. He knew that ever since the Storm Well had been placed under his care, one day this would be his fate. Just not with such circumstances. 
Esclados stared past Ywain and into the sky, where the stars had come into full glory. So beautiful. They reminded him of Laudine this time, and of the nights they had spent picking apples under the cover of night so they might better witness the deer. 
It hurt—it hurt Esclados to his very core that he would not be able to tell her that he still loved her. Tell her that even though she was still his home, his heart was venturing elsewhere. He had been so foolish. 
“I expected more,” Ywain said. He raised the sword back, ready for the killing stroke. 
Esclados smiled. 
The sword descended. 
And Esclados sat up, ducking beneath the blade so that it impaled the earth behind him instead of his chest. In the same movement, Esclados dug his shoulder into Ywain’s gut, using the knight’s own momentum against him, tossing him up and over, and then watching him fall. 
Esclados moved out of the way as Ywain’s legs flailed, and he yanked his blade free from his armor. 
When Ywain belted a frustrated roar and hurried to return to his feet, he met Esclados’ fist in his mouth. Ywain gurgled as his lip split, filling his mouth with blood. 
Esclados struck again, snapping the knight’s proud nose, and once again to rim his vision with black. The rage that came out in his blows was freeing, was weeks of pent up emotion. 
The sword in his hand felt weightless as he angled it toward Ywain’s throat. The Lion of Albany looked up at him amongst blooming bruises and blood pouring from his nose and lips. A dark hatred pulsed in his eyes, but he did not move any further.
Esclados hesitated. 
It would be so simple to sink his blade into Ywain’s flesh, end his thundering heartbeat, kill his pride and honor. But something deep inside him didn’t want to. Esclados felt a connection with Ywain’s vulnerability, knew what it felt like. 
“Next you see your cousin, tell him that I thank him,” Esclados said. 
Ywain squinted amongst the blood. “Coward.” 
Esclados shook his head, sheathing his sword. “Not anymore.”
At that moment, Salene ran forward and pulled the longsword from the ground, hefting it with two hands. “Keep your fucking horse.” 
The knight growled but he knew the rules—nowhere did it explicitly state that an engagement had to end with death, it was the victor’s choice. He dragged himself to his waiting steed, blood still streaming from his nose and mouth. For a moment, he hesitated, reins in hand. 
Voice low, deepened by the blood sliding down his throat, he said, “Calogrenat has a great deal of respect for you.”
The Red Knight paused.
“Don’t fault him. He gave up much when he revealed he lost to you.”
“He never lost,” Esclados said softly.
Ywain wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “He still speaks of you, of how your prowess with the sword is beyond that of which he’s yet seen.”
Esclados did not reply. 
Ywain sighed. “I came for my family, not for him. For our honor. He couldn’t care less.”
When it was clear that Esclados had nothing left to say, the Lion of Albany cast one last loathsome stare and disappeared into the trees. 
 “And what is the truth, Esclados?”
“I love her, but it’s no longer the same. I am no longer confined.” He let the quietude wash over them for a long time. “I know I can always return to her. But I need to accept myself.”
Esclados sighed. He was aware of Salene’s eyes on him. 
He felt as if a yoke had been lifted from his shoulders, the weight of Calogrenat’s shame. His honor had not been stronger than his loyalty, and Esclados’ second-hand shame—shame at Calogrenat’s shame—dissipated like an unpleasant smell before a breeze. 
For a moment, he just listened to the crickets and the squeals of bats overhead. The starlight was just enough for Esclados to see mosquitos dance on the sparse grass around the Storm Well.
“What are you going to say to her?”
Esclados studied Salene, her face in profile; so young, yet so aware
“I don’t know.”
“The truth is always good,” she noted before she took a swig of liquor. “And what is the truth, Esclados?”
“I love her, but it’s no longer the same. I am no longer confined.” He let the quietude wash over them for a long time. “I know I can always return to her. But I need to accept myself.”
“I know,” Salene said quietly.
Esclados nodded. After a moment, he began to move his armor, running a finger across the deep gash across his breastplate. Salene reached around and unclasped the buckles at the neck and waist. 
“The Storm Well is yours.” He set his ruined breastplate at his feet and began to pull off the maille coif. 
“Kay is mine too.” The faerie dog perked her ears at that. 
Esclados laughed, but it hurt his chest a little too much. “Thank you,” he murmured. 
Salene nodded. “Go.”
The ocean was not as Esclados remembered it to be. White-tipped waves smashed up against the jagged rocks that poked from the shoreline, sending sprays of cold foam into the air. The breeze smelled of brine and sea but also of dead fish and seaweed. 
Esclados pulled his cloak closer around him. He wasn’t used to his shoulders being so weightless, without his armor he felt vulnerable and exposed, especially before the vastness of the ocean. 
He turned his back on the water and trudged up the scarp, winding his way to the small cliff that overlooked the sea. Laudine’s small estate was perched upon the promontory, surrounded by low scrub and a few twisted trees that were young ages ago. 
Esclados hesitated at the gate, knowing full well that once he knocked, he could not back down, could not give up. But why? he asked himself, why am I nervous? Laudine was his best of friends—friends so long he couldn’t even recall a time without her—and to tremble at her door, scared to admit his nature to her? Esclados shuddered. 
He knew exactly what to say, had planned everything out along the journey. Abandoning all reticence, he would stand tall and say ‘There is a man, and he makes me feel like I’ve never felt before. I wouldn’t exchange our relationship for anything, and you’ve done more for me than anyone. I love you, and I love him too.’
Esclados knew she would understand—Laudine always understood; she was wholly accepting of Salene and her wife, so why should this be any different?
It was fear, Esclados thought, fear to bare himself, even to someone he loved. 
But he swallowed hard. He’d told himself that the day he felt fear in his heart, he would not hesitate to draw his sword and cut through it. 
This was different. 
Yet the same. He sighed. 
The wind-scathed door was rough under his knuckles, but the relief was instantaneous. He could no longer linger upon a decision, and only had to face it, head on, like the Red Knight. 
When the door opened, Laudine stood there, clothed in plain green just as the last time he’d seen her. She smiled faintly.
“Laudine,” Esclados opened his arms to embrace her. “There is something I need you to know.”