TITLE: Banking Coals
WORD COUNT: 1860
SUMMARY: WWI AU. She saved him once on the battlefield. Now, he needs her again.
NOTES: We were given five prompts to choose from for a story. I chose marble and embers. When I learned the British government began commissioning a hunting knife in 1916 from the American company Marble for its soldiers, I knew which direction I wanted to go.
DISCLAIMER: The characters depicted herein belong to Shine and BBC. I make no profit from this endeavor.
Though sweat had dampened the curls at her temples through most of her double shift, the evening breeze dried it quickly as Gwen pulled her hair free of her cap and rolled her stiff neck. The stifling heat of the operating theatre didn’t extend to the grounds behind the Abbaye, thank God. She could breathe here, without the thick scent of blood sticking in the back of her throat. No pained groans to try and block out, either.
Those often crept back into her dreams. As much as she believed in what she was doing, leaving Britain behind to help their brave soldiers, the reality was harder than she’d ever imagined. It had been from the start. When she’d arrived at the Abbaye de Royaumont in 1915, men had been packed shoulder to shoulder in any cranny to be found, afflicted with every possible injury that could happen to a soldier at war. Two years on, things were better, the hospital cleaner, more efficiently organized, but that didn’t stop her from volunteering to help retrieve the wounded from the front as often as she could.
She needed to escape the suffocation.
Inhaling the crisp night air was a treat. Word was, the end of the war was nigh. She would soon be able to go home, along with all the soldiers who’d managed to survive, knowing she’d done her share to help. But as happy as she’d be back in the bosom of her family and friends, she would spend the rest of her life offering prayers for all those men who weren’t quite so lucky.
Gwen sighed. The only place she was going to tonight, however, was her small room, where she’d rinse away the worst of the day, slip into her narrow bed, and disappear from the world until dawn.
The scent of sulfur drifted along the wind. Not an unfamiliar smell, not here, but this was fresh, sharp enough to turn her head, eyes narrowing in search of its source. She scanned a mere moment before spotting the hunched figure near the pond, the soft glow of amber creeping around its edges.
A man. One of the patients. Nobody should be out at this hour.
Striding forward, she caught more details as she got closer. One arm was tucked tight into his body, the sling it rested in tied around his neck. Broad shoulders hadn’t been wasted by injury or illness, while his blond hair caught what little light emanated in front of him.
Recognition dawned when she reached him, and her heart skipped a couple beats.
“Captain Pendragon?” she said softly.
He didn’t look up. His gaze was locked on the knife he held, its thin blade held in the embers of the fire he’d lit. A handful of matches scattered at its side. With only the use of one hand, it had obviously taken multiple attempts to light one.
“Captain?” she tried again, this time gently touching his shoulder. “You should be in bed.”
A slight shake of his head. “Shouldn’t be here at all,” he muttered.
His despondent tone made her ache. This was hardly the first time she’d seen a traumatized soldier. The horrors they witnessed had her wondering on a constant basis how anyone could withstand them half as long as they did. But the ones she’d helped bring back were the hardest to bear, perhaps because she needed to believe that she could personally save them, or maybe because she needed to know they’d go on to live the lives they deserved.
She crouched down, her skirts pooling around her, over his bent leg, almost nearing the edge of the fire that wouldn’t quite catch. “Why did you get up?” Sometimes it helped to ignore the rules and focus on the man instead. “Couldn’t you sleep?”
He flipped the knife expertly, laying the other side of the blade against the heat. What was he doing? The weapon was one she’d seen more and more often amongst the men, but they were stripped of anything dangerous as soon as they were brought in. Somehow, he’d found his, as well as some matches. A man who’d go to such lengths, especially without getting caught, wasn’t as harmless as she might hope.
Common sense told her to go fetch help. But if she left the captain alone in this state, she wasn’t sure she’d come back and find him alive. A physical match was out of the question, too. Even with his broken arm, he was a powerfully built man. She couldn’t even begin to hope to wrestle the knife away.
Though it was probably a mistake, Gwen settled against the grass, eyes now level with his though he had yet to look in her direction. “I work extra shifts to avoid mine,” she confessed. “But that doesn’t mean when I do go to bed, they aren’t there anyway.”
“It’s not the same.”
“You don’t know that. Unless you’ve managed to get into my head somehow,” she tried to tease.
He didn’t rise to the bait. “You haven’t watched your men die right in front of you.”
“Maybe not mine, but I’ve been here for over two years, Captain. I can’t save them all, no matter how hard I try.”
“But have any of your patients ever deliberately thrown themselves onto a mine to protect you?” He finally lifted his gaze, and dark eyes locked on hers. She’d seen them by the light of day. She knew how clear and blue they were. But here, now, daring her to lie to him, they were as unfathomable as the English Channel at night. He waited for her to respond, but when she held her tongue, he snorted and turned away again. “Yeah, I didn’t think so.”
She didn’t know the whole story. They’d brought him into the Abbaye five days ago, during which time he’d hardly spoken a word. Once, she’d heard him murmur thanks after being served dinner, but other than that, he’d been distant from everyone.
“He must’ve had a reason,” she said.
“Not he. They.”
Her eyes widened. “What?”
Lifting the knife away, he bent down and blew across the dying embers, trying to coax more life from them. They flared bright and sizzling for a second, during which time he hastily returned the blade back to the heat. “Percy did it first,” he said. “Snuck out and charged the men looking for us from the other side to try and keep us safe.”
Oh. Now she understood. His example had been a solitary man, but others had made similar sacrifices.
“The thing of it was,” he continued, lost in his own world again, “it didn’t even make a difference in the long run. They still found us. We were outnumbered, outgunned, out everything. They wanted the message we had, and they weren’t going to take no for an answer.”
“But you delivered it.” As soon as she’d reported the name of the man she’d found, word had come back to keep him as alert as possible. A lieutenant-colonel had intercepted their truck on its way back to the Abbaye, banishing her and Mary McGonall to the side of the road while he spoke to Captain Pendragon alone. “Your mission was successful.”
“Not because of me. When it was just me and Merlin left, he pinned my jacket sleeve to the ground with his Marble and did a runner. Before I could pull out the knife, it all exploded.”
Her gaze dropped to the blade. When she’d found him, he’d been unconscious, his left arm twisted at a painful angle, shrapnel peppering the entire left side of his body and face. His right hand clutched the knife, but she hadn’t realized then he must’ve pulled it out after the mine went off. With his arm stuck like that, it was no wonder the blast had wrenched him hard enough to break it. He was lucky it hadn’t been torn clean out of the socket.
Holding her breath, she reached forward, slowly, carefully, until her fingertips touched the side of his tense wrist. “Because of all of you,” she said. “His sacrifice might have made it possible, but it still took you to see that it got into the right hands.”
“My life isn’t worth more than theirs.”
“But is it worth less?” She tilted her head down, forcing him to at least see her out of the corner of his eye. “They gave you a chance they knew they didn’t have. A future. Would you really dishonor their memory by throwing away their gift like this?”
His hand trembled beneath her touch. The tip of the knife dug into the ground, drawing the handle—and his knuckles—dangerously close to the burning embers.
Without further thought, Gwen molded her hand over the back of his. Though his fingers dwarfed hers, the way she fit felt natural. Easy.
Not so easy was feeling the heat searing in its proximity.
“This isn’t what Merlin would’ve wanted you to do with his Marble.” She took a risk using his words for her own gain, but she had no other choice. “Please, Captain.”
A deeper shudder wracked through him, and the breath he expelled was ragged. His muscles eased. “Arthur.”
“My name. Please. Call me Arthur.”
She would’ve done almost anything he asked to get him to relinquish the weapon, but this was a grace she welcomed. “Only if you call me Gwen.” While the other nurses would scold her for becoming so intimate with one of the patients, she didn’t care. Arthur was different than the rest. She was beginning to suspect he had been all along.
He let her guide his hand away, then gave the knife over completely, watching her steadily as she found the leather sheath in the grass. “Merlin would want me to thank you.” His voice was grave, his regard reflective. “In spite of how you must see me as a coward, you have my gratitude.”
Gwen shook her head. “That’s not what I see.”
“I don’t know how.”
Setting the weapon aside, she reached out to skim her fingertips along his brow, down the bandages on the side of his face. “Because I see a soldier who loved and respected his men. Who would’ve died for them if the situation had been reversed. Living is not a punishment, Arthur. It’s a gift.”
The corner of his mouth tipped, almost a smile, and he caught her hand in his when she moved to pull away. She waited for more words, but instead, he tipped her palm up and pressed a kiss to its center.
Her heart ran away inside her chest, but she maintained a calm facade as they rose to their feet. Slipping the sheath into her apron’s wide pocket, she stamped out the last of the embers and led him back to the ward. Neither spoke.
Not until after he was in his bed again, his features cloaked in shadows.
“Thank you, Gwen,” he whispered.
She smiled, even though she wasn’t even sure he could see her. “It was my pleasure, Arthur.”
And it was.