Tangible Schizophrenia



Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: R.
Pairing: Arthur/Lancelot, Arthur/Guinevere, Guinevere/Tristan
Feedback: Good lines, mistakes, etc.
Disclaimer: Versions from the movie.
Notes: Post-movie ghostfic. Thank you to alethialia for the help. Sources of header quotes at end of the fic.
Summary: Death is not moving on.


I. and then there is the silence of the dead1

He haunts the boneyards. Whether they be tidy and neat on the edges of the towns or bloody and ripped earth rejecting the battle fought on it, he’s there.

Death has—had—never frightened him, not when he’d looked it in the eye and watched it bloom over the dimming light so many times, but the first time he walked over a field and saw his feet passing through the bodies and the arrows, he shivered. So many years spent trying to learn to move like the mist, and now he could run and scream if he wished to, but it wouldn’t make him any less soft and silent and unnoticeable. If he were still able to see his chest lifting with breath, he would have been proud.

But since he is not, and since he does not understand—since he cannot read—this movement of no signs, no trails, Tristan does the only thing that remains with him. He watches. He watches and waits for a trace, any trace, and he follows behind the others like a dog too old to run with the pack, too proud to let his weaknesses into the clear light, and too stubborn to lie down and die.

He remembers that. Remembers crawling, mouth full of clotting blood and body a bonfire of pain, pride and skill and plain desperation crushing together into a blind scramble that ripped nails from his fingertips and grass into his mouth. The wheel of a free bird in a free sky, black on blue high above him where he’d never go, and the uplift of his own cherished silver edge, coming down to send him to this.

And now he paces on the edges as if it mattered that he lurked in the shadows, when not two days hence he stood before Gawain and watched his old friend, bruised and tired and bloody, stumble from the aftermath of a skirmish. The dying throes of an old land, burning away into a new one.

Tristan flames as well. Sometimes he sits amidst the gore and fractures and scrabbles till he knows that his fingers should be bloodied to the bone, but when he raises his hand he finds that they are whole and he wants to—

Sometimes he stalks through the stables. His horse survived the battle, crippled where he died, but the stallion has been tenderly nursed until it is whole enough for peace. It knows when he comes, and so do the other horses; they stamp impatiently in their stalls and whinny, snuffling the air and searching for a scent that’s no longer there. For their eyes roll and roll and never come to land upon him, and even when his hands are sunk to the knuckles in their muzzles, they toss their heads at something beyond his shoulder. Then their shrill cries rasp shavings off his bones—if he still has bones--and he wants to—

Once he went back to Badon Hill and tracked the scars of the earth till he came to a high mound of dirt: a mass grave. The damp air raises disease fast in corpses, so even the hottest revenge had to be put aside in favor of expediency, and so the Briton ones were carried away and the Saxon ones were burnt and piled into a ditch there. Roman habits have not yet loosened their grip from the land, but they had never blinded Tristan before and they did not do so then. He pushed down deep to where the dirt should have stifled full his throat and he found his killer. He found the Saxon and he thrust his thumbs into the eye-sockets and he wanted to—

--but he can’t cry out if no one can hear him. He never did so in life. He never made a sound louder than a low laugh, and he thought it an improvement on the raucousness of the others, but now he understands that sometimes all one wants is noise. Before Tristan created silence in the midst of sound, but now silence is foisted upon him and he cannot reverse it.

* * *

II. unable to speak a word1

All of them, he’s tested all of them. Gawain on the field—him first because near the end he saw Tristan the clearest, but the man had walked through Tristan as if he were less than nothing. Bors next, not by plan but because when Tristan arrived at his own grave, the man was sitting beside Dagonet’s. But the wind stirred Bors more than Tristan’s leg shoved to the knee in his back. The memory of the dead man who had stayed dead, or at least somewhere that Tristan was not, stirred Bors more, and Dagonet was far beyond either of them.

“We’re getting around to naming the brats now,” Bors said, eyes downcast and cup uplifted. The wine inside was dark and rich, and on a whim and a frustration, Tristan dipped to push his whole face into it.

He tasted and smelled nothing.

“One’s for you, Dag. Two…maybe him.” A laughing nod to Lancelot’s unpaired sword, sticking up from a flat rectangle of bare earth. Then Bors sobered. “No, I still don’t believe they’re anyone’s bastards but mine. But maybe he deserves an honorary one.”

Tristan walked away before Bors got around to providing a reply to his own joke, but when he came back later, there were three patches of moisture soaking into three graves. He sat down by his and thought about what it would be like to go down and see his body, rotting. If the shock would be enough to collapse him into dust as well, or if it would just throb like the ache pervading his not-bones, or if he would merely stare at it as he’d stared at so many decayed corpses before.

Days, weeks, months later Galahad came—time is among the nothing that does not touch Tristan, and he cannot track something that leaves no faint print for him to sense—to reminisce and to curse and to laugh and to inform. And to say goodbye to Britain and to all it held while Tristan’s fingers curled fruitlessly around his ankle, tightening too much again and again so the illusion of encirclement was destroyed long before Galahad stepped through Tristan’s fingers.

He took Gawain with him. Tristan went with them to the docks and walked right into the river when he tried to follow them up the gangplank. By the time he dragged himself from the unruffled waters, the ship was already halfway around the bend.

On the long walk back to his grave, Tristan worked and worked until he learned how to keep himself from sinking when he does not wish to, how to fall into anything when he does wish it. It kept him from the steep drop he could feel gaping all around him. For a little while.

When he knew that inside and outside, he thought of something else to do. And something else and something else until finally he sits down and thinks, This is death. This is me.

* * *

III. thought clings round dead limbs2

Dagonet is dead. Gawain and Galahad are gone, crossing wide oceans to the broad grasslands of Sarmatia, and Bors is immersed in his family with all the single-minded joy of the man who finally trades soldier for father.

And Arthur is king, and Guinevere his queen.

Tristan sits in the stable with his lamed horse and thinks about the coronation he missed a few hours earlier and the celebrations going on late into the night that he is missing now. There are fewer and fewer boneyards, and they grow farther and farther away as Arthur welds Britain like he could never weld himself. The battles are won and it only remains for the nation to be built.

One of the grooms is a Christian, and he hangs a small cross above the wide doors, each of which bears a horseshoe and strange slanted cuts running around the edges. The other, pagan, grooms sometimes draw their fingers over parts of the scripts and murmur the meaning, so that now Tristan has learned to read the secret lettering of the Britons. He never had time to do so when he was alive; writing did not govern the Woads’ warfare and so he could spare none of his attention for it. Would that he had some advantage, or even some use for it now.

In the first days of understanding that he was lost and that he had to make his own way, Tristan had made the mistake of trying to relearn the world. He trailed councilors and druids, soldiers and maids, men and women. He accompanied them to eat and sleep and fuck and argue and dance. He listened and watched and gathered many secrets. And the more he gathered, the more he wanted to touch his fingertip to the dust gathering in the corners, or to dip it into the inkwell on Arthur’s desk, and write and write and write until he had emptied everything to where someone else could see. That was the mistake; he relearned the world from the condition of others, and not from the condition of himself.

Now he keeps to his own corners and turns away when others approach, suppressing the hunger to know in order to avoid the hunger to tell. He can still be full and he can still feel pain, and he can still hate both.

It has occurred to Tristan that perhaps he has given up, and is merely waiting to fade. But then he always wonders why he feels anticipation, slow and creeping beneath his skin—and it is skin to him, even if it no longer is to the rest of the world. He has his thoughts and his memories and his dreams still; death has not taken them and the world has not, and he holds them ever dearer.

The shadows change and the horses stir, but not because of him. Something dark slips from the stall of Arthur’s new stallion and along the wall. It is outside before Tristan has done more than get to his feet, and at first he is inclined to sit back because he shouldn’t be able to do anything. But he has his habits and instincts as well, and they drop him down to run startled, shocked fingertips over something: the indent of a heel in the floor, where his eyes can see none.

* * *

IV. recalling things that other people have desired4

The queen is pale and smiling, a beautiful cool symbol of all that Britain was and is and will be. Tristan felt nothing about her when he was alive and he feels little more than a slight exasperation for her now. He ignores her when she comes for a morning ride, when she comes for a hunting party, when she comes for low whispered discussions in the corners with her grim-faced countrymen.

Once Arthur commanded him, and willingly: even the lone seeker needs someone to show what needs seeking. And Arthur did more than that, and so Tristan respected and listened to and perhaps even loved him, in a way. He had grown to like coming back to a man that looked at him as if he were there and not as if he were nothing but the report, and he had grown comfortable knowing that he had a place to which he could return.

Now he starts to look up when Arthur comes by, even paler than the queen, mind and words fixed on what lies before him but eyes on something behind, or within. And when Tristan reaches out, prompted by perhaps curiosity and perhaps a sense of something else, his fingers move through thickened chilly air.

The king is everywhere in his new kingdom, sparing no effort and no moment in his rebuilding. He asks people for their miseries and tries to excise them whenever he can. He draws old enemies together to break bread at the same table, and he watches with gaunt-eyed satisfaction when of all the guests, he is the only one whose hand remains curled about his knife. He rides out every dawn and rides in every dusk, and in between his work never ceases.

But Arthur does not love it. Not the way he did working for his Rome, his faith, and not the way he did when that Rome and that faith were broken, dream fractured by truth, and all he had was the saving of everything. What he does now is not saving, but shoring up and connecting and fixing. The pieces all lie in his hand, none dare slip out, and he puts them together with saintly patience and numbed gaze.

His eyes glow, sometimes, when they alight on Guinevere. Tristan believes Arthur does love her, in what ways he can. But when Arthur met his queen he was already a whisper around the Briton campfires and the stories had claimed their parts of him; when Arthur met Guinevere he had already been Rome’s and the Church’s and…

…she goes to the graveyard often. Frequently angry, seething frustrated jealousy coiling beneath the light faint tic in her jaw. Rarely sad and acknowledging. She goes and she keeps company with the one sword while in their bedroom, Tristan perches on the windowsill and watches Arthur unwrap the other and quietly smooth a few tears down its shining blade.

If Tristan is careful, the corner of his eye will catch a flicker in the great mirror that hangs behind Arthur. He rubs his fingers together, remembering the warmed honey-thick air that clung to Arthur, and he drops his head.

The flicker is stronger, and it reaches out for Arthur.

* * *

V. midnight shakes the memory5

Guinevere goes out less often now, and when she does it is easy to stay far back because so many gather round her, fearing for the slight rounding of her belly.

They do lie together, she and Arthur, and not with distaste and not with disinterest. Whatever it is that holds Arthur’s attention elsewhere, it does not keep him from drinking in simple touch as if it were water and he a desert.

Tristan can understand that.

The queen cracks open when she can to let the woman roam free, and Tristan has to admit that he is surprised at how young the woman truly is. She snarls and smiles and fights and lies curled around the sheets with the passion of a wolf in the springtime, and she means all of it. That, he thinks, makes her beautiful, and not the white smooth thighs and the high rounded breasts. That is what keeps him from hating her for being what grounds Arthur here, for if Tristan can see anything, he can see when a man is trapped in the wrong world.

Sometimes Arthur takes Guinevere up against the wall, his face buried in her neck and his hands dark on her hips. He did so a few days before, coming in still flushed from the stables and streaking her with the scent of horse and leather and sweat, and he was sorry for the roughness later, but she kissed his cheek to tell him she wanted it so. Which is true—Tristan has seen her take him just as roughly, her hair thrown back and her neck bared to a wild cry while she rode astride him—but nevertheless, he does wonder why so long and not the mouth. Because Guinevere is fervent and loving and spirit-full. Because sometimes from his place in the curtains, lying beneath the table, standing in the middle of a pillar, he can see her eyes in the moment after and he knows that she had forgotten what land in which they were.

She stays inside, so it is Arthur that leaves. He slips out late at night to the stables while Guinevere lies abed with her arm flung careless over her head and her eye gleaming darkly from beneath it. She has skill.

Tonight Arthur pauses, a gray shadow of the old light in his face as he looks down on her. He stoops and draws a finger down her face, side, around the gradual rise of her belly, and the look he wear almost recalls wonder. But then the windowpanes rattle soft as bells and he straightens, throws his cloak over himself. His boot-heel leaves a graceful swoop in the dust on the floor from his turning to the door.

Tristan pauses longer, because he was looking not at Arthur but at the window, judging the time from the height of the risen moon, and he saw five stripes of black run across the glass. Like fingers.

After the door has closed on Arthur, Guinevere sits up and snatches her comb from the table, raking it through her hair with fierce fast strokes. She begins to braid the long locks, but then her shoulders slump and the ivory comb drops from her hand. Slowly, she wraps her arms around her waist, and she lies back down. When Tristan finally steps out from behind the book-stacked desk, she is on her side with her spine towards him, a long sinuous curve rising from the sheets.

His fingertips itch and he curls them inward until his body recalls that it is dead and that he cannot feel.

* * *

VI. the lengthened shadow of man is history3

As the moon waxes and wanes, Guinevere’s belly grows round and Arthur shortens the circle of his day so it tightens about her. He smiles when he presses his palm to her stomach, eyes lighter than they have been in months, and he laughs with her. It grates on Tristan.

So he withdraws to the stables to think on this intangible mystery. He sprawls on the ground, not noticing now when his horse steps in him, and he turns over glimpses and half-glances and unspoken understandings in his head.

One night he goes riding with Arthur, in a fashion. Formerly he had respected whatever need the man had for going alone, but now Tristan is more than curious about that eerie invisible veil that enfolds Arthur, that creep of darkness around him. That hand on the window.

Arthur rides aimlessly, unusual for a man of his habits. Once beyond the main part of the settlements, he closes his eyes and lets his horse have its head, lets it go where it pleases while he tilts his head back and whispers breath into the night. And Tristan rides on the stallion’s neck facing Arthur, untroubled by the improbability of his balance because he is improbable. All of it is. Him, Arthur, Guinevere—

--the pitch-black that seeps about Arthur’s waist and then flows swiftly to wrap down Arthur’s shoulders. It is the new moon and even Tristan can see little beyond the shift and flicker of shadows caused by their movement, but he can sense a deliberateness in this that is different. He leans back and drops into the horse, and he stays there until they stop and Arthur dismounts. Then Tristan drops farther and lands on a grave.

He can see now how the blackness comes from the stallion, how the flecks of the horse’s eyes and the tenor of its breathing change when the shape slips all the way out to fall softly over Arthur, as close-wrapping as Arthur’s cloak that he gathers about as he kneels to Lancelot’s sword.

When Tristan ducks his head to look, he sees Arthur’s lips moving. And the words are not prayers, and the way the black weaves tendrils of itself into Arthur’s hair is not a trick of the light. Or innocent.

* * *

VII. much possessed by death2

Inevitably, Tristan accompanies Arthur back to the stables. There he stands, face turned away, and he listens as Arthur returns his stallion to its stall, as Arthur quietly collapses in a corner and as the shadow, growing ever thicker and more defined, slips into his embrace. Arthur’s fingers are able to curl around the outline of a wrist.

Tristan cannot watch this. Not when the emotion bulging in his throat is not sympathy, but envy that crawls into his veins to burn there.

He walks outside while the noises grow ever more frantic and he expects the rest of the world to show him its familiar indifference, which at this moment is more desirable than anything else, and instead he sees Guinevere.

Her robes are in disarray from hasty dressing and there are broken strands of hair in her fingers, which are helping to support her burgeoning belly. Blood dots her lip while savagery and desolation war on her face, and she is standing so she can see in the half-open doors without being seen from the inside. But she is no longer watching that.

She sees him.

Her eyes widen and her hand flutters toward the silhouette of a dagger tucked beneath her dress. Tristan takes a quick step back and falls through the stable doors. But then he can hear again, and—

--he spends the rest of the night on the roof. Eventually they all leave and he could sink back into the stables if he wished, but he does not.

* * *

VIII. the giving famishes the craving1

The next few weeks Tristan stays well clear of anyone. The mysteries of the living are none of his concern now, and he thinks he would do better to not involve himself in them. After all, something similar had caused his death.

He finds himself spending long periods of time on the roof, searching the sky. For what hasn’t yet revealed itself to him, but if it is understanding, it would be gladly accepted.

Somehow he cannot fault Arthur. The man does not like leaving things behind—this everyone knows, this Guinevere knew the moment she met him—and if it is this difficult for Tristan to release himself into true death, then it must be even worse for Arthur to move from life to life. Death, after all, would be a relief in some ways, whereas life offers only more breaking. Perhaps Guinevere had the claim of her belly, but…but Lancelot had the claim of his blood and breath spilt for Arthur. And Lancelot had had more of Arthur than Rome and the Church.

Little left for Guinevere, and she still fights for every inch. For a moment, Tristan admires her. But then he remembers that he should be ignoring such things.

He wants to because he wants to get death over and done with and because he is sick of this lingering, this do-nothing touch-nothing disjoint from a world that he should have been able to reject long ago. Lancelot stayed because he had something to which he could and wanted and maybe needed to hold. Tristan stayed because of some mistake he’d made, some mistake someone had made, and he wants it set to rights. He does not want to sit and sit and sit and watch and see all of eternity ignore him.

High above a call sang out, and Tristan glances upward to see a small circling dot. His lungs swell and his chest aches, but whatever sound is straining to be released would not be heard. So he swallows it. And in doing so, he envies.

Lancelot can touch. Because he…because he wants it so badly, because he had found something that could bring out a ferocity in him so strong that he makes things happen, even now when his body is nothing but ashes in the air. But Tristan had never had that, and so he has nothing to drive him into provoking such a reaction.

Does he want to live, or does he want to die? He is no longer sure. That is why he is sitting on the roof and listening to the hawk; he is wavering, stuck so long in-between that either side is an unknown without any familiar signs to guide the way. He is becoming a nothing afraid of recollecting what it is to be a something.

Tristan snarls to himself and turns too quickly from the hawk. A flash and a slip, and he drops through to the stable floor. For a moment, he is startled enough to think he should hurt.

Then he stands up, slowly, and looks one way: the graveyard. He looks the other way: the homes of the living. The place where Guinevere had stood and seen him, and where he had seen her and had discovered that when a want has festered unfulfilled for too long, it begins to numb. And then the offering of its satisfaction is a shock almost as painful as the original starvation.

With eyes closed, Tristan puts out his foot.

* * *

IX. after such knowledge, what forgiveness1

It is a healthy boy, a good omen for Arthur’s rule. He has his father’s uncommon eyes, but without their weariness, and he has his mother’s face.

There are footsteps behind Tristan, but he ignores them and watches the baby coo at nothing.

“He’s mine,” Guinevere says.

“I can see that.” Tristan twists slightly to look at the bed, where Arthur is still lying deep in slumber. Then he straightens to meet Guinevere’s eyes.

She is better under control of herself now, but the accusation is still a flare backing the heat of her gaze. “He’s mine.”

It is only a little slide in tone, but Tristan has been watching her long enough to know what it means. He nods and steps away so Guinevere can lift her son and slip a nipple beading with milk into his mouth. Her child is a shield, a fantastic talisman of brightness and simple joy cradled beneath the dark strands of her hair and the dark shades of her downturned face.

“If you take him from me, I will find ways to curse you that you’ve never dreamed of.” Her fingers fist in the swaddling clothes, finding a fold where they can dig in nails without injuring the child.

And Tristan has to laugh at that, though he can now feel the grief beating from behind her anger. “I’m dead, lady. Dead and here and only you can see or hear me. Can you really do anything to me?”

“I could—” But she stops there, quick glance at him melting into a long, close look at his scars. It had not been a neat death or an easy life, after all, and one did not have to be dead to know about all the different shades of pain.

Guinevere is intelligent and understands as soon as their eyes met; her lips part about a word that falls unformed to the floor when she abruptly walks away. She paces a few yards with her son, bobbing him as he drinks, and then she gives Tristan a fierce stare. “You saw it.”

“I did.” The moon is almost at its apex. Tristan’s gaze wanders to the window, but he also pays attention to the edges of his sight and so he catches the flash of acid resignation eating its way across Guinevere’s face.

“And only I…”

He nods. “Only you. Not anyone else. Not even the horses.”

Her mouth twists as she tenderly lays her son back in his bed. Then she confronts him with nothing but herself, flayed bare in her eyes. “I can’t see him. I know he comes and calls and I can’t see him. Where is the right in that?”

On the bed, Arthur begins to stir, and Guinevere instantly gives her attention to him. She stands frozen, unsure as to what to do, and while she does Tristan walks into the next room, where he won’t be able to hear the light rapping.

He does hear Arthur leave. By the timing of the bright moon, Arthur takes the longest he ever has this time, and Tristan waits for all of it before he softly steals into the bedroom. Guinevere raises her head, then buries her face in the sheets and turns her back to him. It is still a beautiful curve.

Tristan bends over the cradle to whisper in the boy’s ear: “Your father never learned how to be happy. Remember that.”

Then he leaves to sit by his grave till morning.

* * *

X. but weave, weave the sunlight in your hair6

When she finds him, Tristan is sitting on a low hill overlooking the town, from which he can see the whole sweep of the land. Guinevere has ridden there, and she pauses to hobble her horse before she walks up to him.

“The dead can’t own anything,” she tells him, challenging. “He’s mine.”

“For what?” It is a fair question, Tristan thinks.

So does she, because she drops her hands in her lap and stares hard at them before she pushes up her chin. Her eyes are flat and hard, and the surface of them is so thin he can see the murky swirling behind. “For everything. For Britain, for my son—for myself. He loves me. He stayed—”

“—did he stay, or simply not leave?” His voice sounds raspy, uneven, and Tristan suddenly feels a pang of thirst. Then he laughs at his own ridiculousness, momentarily forgetting that now there is someone to hear it.

It seems to mean something different to Guinevere, for her defiance abruptly, unexpectedly collapses into bitter comprehension. “Yes, laugh, dead man that you are. You can afford the luxury. Now.”

Tristan can’t feel the wind or the warmth of the sun, but from the way Guinevere tucks back the loose strands of her hair and smoothes the drapes of her clothes over herself, he can pretend. Her belly is already flat again, a little less than a month after, and she has resumed her former level of activity. In exchange, Arthur stays out less often during the day; they have nurses and caretakers for the boy, but Arthur and Guinevere both insist on spending more time with the child than their positions truly allow them. There are corresponding dark rings beneath Guinevere’s eyes, and a slight tired sag to the skin of her face.

A long time later, Guinevere remembers what she had wanted to say. “I only have a little while, a little bit that’s not much compared to the time after death. And there is the country, and all that has to be done. Can’t I have someone to live with, just for that while?”


“Arthur loves and helps me. But he doesn’t live with me. You’ve seen that.” Her fingers dig deep into her thighs, so deep that Tristan thinks she might be drawing blood.

Tristan looks at her and lets her read his answer from his face. She repays him with a half-smile, ironic and grudging, and the memory of the feel of sunshine rises in him, so sudden and sharp that he almost thinks that that sensation has returned.

* * *

XI. i feel your silence touch my words as i talk8

No one, not even Merlin, could have drawn where the lines between lives and lives crossed and blurred and disappeared with Guinevere and Arthur. And they are not false faces worn before the people, Tristan believes; when the two of them are together, they live one way as sincerely as the individual ways they live when apart. Or when there is a third whispering along the glass.

“I fucked him over there this morning,” Guinevere murmurs to Tristan, sweetly and softly. She runs a warm-wet towel over her son’s chest and smiles at his gurgling response. “This morning, and this evening I talk to a dead man while Arthur goes riding along the wall.”

She could ride with him, and she could dog his shadow so closely that there would be no room for another one. She could do that, and the knowledge clenches her fingers on the rag till the water squeezes a stream at the floor and the baby cries at the splash of hard droplets. Then Guinevere remembers herself and drops the rag, takes up the baby. Rocking in her arms swings the joy back into the child, as if his new life has stolen all the light from those of his parents.

“If it were someone else that could see you, would you follow them as closely?” In the dark or no, Guinevere does not lose her edge.

And in truth, Tristan supposes he makes a fine whetstone. The habit of talking he thought withered as the fields in winter, but a few conversations and now it comes roaring into his head like a fever-wind. The habit of listening he never lost, but there is a difference between listening to listen and listening to form a response, and it is as great as the space between sky and earth.

He wonders as well. Why, with all her determination, does Guinevere turn her face to the wall for that?

“Am I a voice and a pair of eyes to you?” Guinevere goes on, tone soft so as not to frighten the infant, but words cutting like that last living memory of the Saxon blade.

“Is Arthur your king?” Tristan returns. He drifts to the window and puts his hand through the glass, watching the change of sunset colors through his flesh.

Behind him is nothing but the sighs of the child as his mother tucks him into sleep. The light green of his eyes has stayed and seems fixed into place, almost shocking in the midst of his peaceful face. When Arthur holds his son, he spends hours gazing into those eyes, as if asking his offspring from which parent such a look sprang. For it is never seen in the father or the mother; Arthur rides at night and Guinevere remains unsatisfied with her victories.

“He should be,” she admits. Her feet pace her to Tristan’s side, a measured stride vibrating with longing for the simpler, freer days of the unrestrained race. The windowsill is of dark grey-blue stone and her hand is of creamy warm flesh on it, fingers curling and uncurling. She watches the rider outside, and Tristan watches the way the reds and oranges of dusk paint fire into her skin. “I want him whole. And I want to be what makes him that way. What scale should one use to measure that?”

Tristan drops his eyes to the sill and the hand and how the fingers splay out like the spread wing of a hawk, preparing to take flight. He makes a fist with his own hand and feels that wish spread like rot through him, as if he were finally in sympathy with his corpse. “I thought I could beat him.”

Guinevere shifts, surprised, and looks at him.

He nods out the window, past the low roofs to that broad field, still scabbed with burnt patches. “I never wanted to die. But now I want to go. What death can one give to a dead man?”

She continues to stare at him, confused and irritated and thoughtful about it. The sun buries itself in the horizon and the world goes gradually black. Soon Arthur will come in from his rounds, and then Guinevere will have him for the short space of evening and she will claim every moment she can before night takes him. And then Tristan will go to the south wall, or perhaps the old chapel where the silence is not painful, and he will walk till he and she come to share words again. Perhaps she will go to him, perhaps he will go to her, perhaps they will pass by and she and he will turn their heads when no one else does.

Perhaps he would like to know a truer answer than perhaps, but he knows he never will.

“There’s no sense in this.” Slow, flinching, Guinevere lifts her hand to Tristan’s shoulder.

He lets her because he believes he knows how it will happen. But it doesn’t. He does not.

He can feel her fingers. And her hand does not show him how full of nothing he is.

* * *

XII. who found no substitute for sense2

Tristan forgets sometimes, in his separation, that others besides him do watch. And Arthur does not listen to gossip, but he does look for himself.

“He wanted to know if I was unhappy. If I wished to be free, as if that way was still open to us.” Guinevere leans against the other side of the stall door, back to Tristan. She is taking her hair down and so it falls lock by lock, richer in color and scent than the fragrant wood on which it lies. “I asked him if he wanted to. If he didn’t want to see his child grown before he threw himself into the grave’s embrace.”

Her voice breaks on its own bravado and her fingers suddenly wind tight, pulling strands loose so they drop in loose circles on the golden hay.

“That was cruel for you.” The door wants to push all the way through Tristan and he has to balance himself delicate as dew on a spiderweb to keep leaning, looking the other way. But the smell of Guinevere’s hair is a newly-reacquired sensation and he thinks he is getting drunk on it, so drunk that he keeps glancing back at it. There are knots in her hair, half-done rough tangles where she yanked and did not have the will to keep yanking till she was through.

“With what he’s—” Then she stops and hears what he said, and not what she wants him to say. “Sometimes I want to be even crueler. Sometimes I have dreams about his blood on my hands and I enjoy it. And then I wake, and I can’t understand how I could ever dream that.”

Tristan presses his hand against the wood, stretches his finger out till it grazes one knot. He runs his nail over it, once because he can and once because he is tracing the way it ties in on itself. After a moment, he slips his nail beneath one loop and pulls, and then the lock spills loose and heavy over his palm.

“He wanted to apologize. I…” Guinevere shakes her head and the movement catches Tristan’s fingers in her hair, draws his hand up to where she can take it in her own. “We never talked about love, when we talked of marrying and ruling. I didn’t love him then. And we made our son for Britain—the words stuck in my mouth and then he had my tongue. Afterwards there was no time for it, and then there was him calling.”

“What are you going to do?” If she were someone else, Tristan suddenly knows, he would have stayed away. Before death and after are not so different after all, and before, he knew no one he would have wanted to go to. Before, he hadn’t known her—she had been the girl in the prison and the woman in Arthur’s bed dividing him against himself and then the queen.

Now she is Guinevere.

Her eyes are steady on him as she shrugs, something settling in the restlessness of the smile moving over her lips. She lays a hand on the door and opens it just enough to slip inside the stall, empty of anything except for him, and he fills only it for her. “Live with it. There’s no sense here—if there were, I would have known how to change this. I changed the land, but I can’t change this.” A flicker of humor lands in her eyes. “He’s still mine, and I am his. As much as we can be to each other.”

There are layers and layers, old and young and middling, and Tristan touches some of them as they lie down in the hay. He strips them from her long legs that twine him down to her, pulls them from her belly and breasts and arms while she flays them from him, fingers and nails unhesitating as they run over the scars of his death and the ones left from his life. And then they are down to the layers that cannot be touched lest they crumble, and they are not living or dead but moving, hands stroking over each other and mouths meeting around breath and no breath and Tristan starts to shake when he cups her face and can taste again, so badly that she has to cradle him like she does her son. But then it sinks in and burns through his coldness that he hadn’t realized was cold, and his mouth is traveling again, wanting everything.

It follows the curves of her breasts, the slight rise of the ribs beneath them. It lifts and falls with the softness and firmness of her stomach that changes so unpredictably when she breathes. It takes in the warmth and the salt of sweat and the earthiness of the hay and when she pulls him back to meet her mouth, the hot sweetness of her tongue. He drinks it all and he is still drinking, still thirsting when he slides inside her. Still half-believing it will all fall through because that would make sense with everything had come before, only she is right and there is no sense. There is her stretching beneath him, eyes open and fixed on him, and her nails raking at his hips, and her body wrapping round him as they somehow touch past everything to each other.

He does not listen to what she says, if she says anything when her head flings back and her mouth widens and her leanness shakes against him. It no longer matters who or what or how; not when things bleed into each other and harden till they build up into the man or the woman or the ghost.

Her cheeks stay flushed as they curl around each other, Tristan’s face in her hair and her breath on his chest. “We’re too old, all of us,” she laughs. She sounds tired, and ironic, and not happy, but not unhappy, either. “It’s the young who can keep changing without falling apart.”

“It’s the dead who have to wait.” His knuckles are dark against the skin of her face. He lays the back of his hand against her cheek and memorizes how warm she is. “The living don’t, not for us. No matter how it might seem.”

“Are you waiting for someone?” Guinevere asks, smiling. Then she raises her head and sees his eyes and her smile goes to the winds. “You were mourned.”

Tristan looks at her again, and steals a strand from her head.

“I didn’t.” She does not apologize for that, but when she sits up, her hand lingers on him. Guinevere turns her back to him once more, exposing how fragile that long curve is. He runs a wondering finger down it and he knows that he will not again. Not in this life, or this death.

“I will now,” she murmurs, so softly the whisper of her clothes leaving the hay almost covers it.

He waits until she leaves the stables.

* * *

XIII. neither fear nor courage saves us1

When she steps into the bedroom, the book in Arthur’s hands nearly drops to the floor, so quickly does he look up. Guinevere pauses, one hand on the doorway, wariness in her eye.

“You stayed in,” she says.

“I stayed in to wait for you,” Arthur replies, setting the book aside. He is lesser now, parts of him scraped away from the inside, but he is present and he is looking at Guinevere with a kind of expectancy he has lacked before.

He is not the man Tristan followed, and he is not the man Guinevere wanted as king, but he is the king now and he is the man that mourns his knights and he is the father of her son. And he is the man that loves her.

“You can’t live forever in between. I was a fool to do so. A fool and a poor excuse for a man.” Arthur stands and crosses half the distance, lifting his hands towards her.

After a moment, she slowly, deliberately walks to him and puts her hands in his. “This is only for now.”

It hurts both ways, Tristan sees. The flinch in Arthur’s face is reflected in the trembling of Guinevere’s hands, in the hard angry glitter of the mirror hanging on the wall opposite them. But if they are hollowed, they are also leaning towards each other.

“I can do no better,” Arthur finally tells her, voice thick and eyes downcast. “But I can and will give you everything that is in my power to give.”

“And I loved you before you did, and I’ll love you after. Till we die.” When Guinevere lifts her fingers to Arthur’s face, she does so with the other hand.

That will fade in time, once they become accustomed to having nothing but themselves. It will fade, but it will not disappear, and when time and the world and they finally all match each other, it will awaken again. This Tristan has seen, and this knowledge he carries with him.

* * *

XIV. prepared for all the things to be said, or left unsaid4

His sight grows darker with every step, and his step grows ever heavier and shorter. But Tristan will not crawl this time, and so he holds himself up until he reaches the graveyard.

It takes him longer to find his mound, since now Lancelot has two swords marking where he would have laid, and that tiny change confuses Tristan’s failing mind. He summons up enough strength to laugh a last time at it all, and then he sinks to the earth.

Then he sleeps.

* * *

1. Silence, Edgar Lee Masters

2. Gerontion, T. S. Eliot

3. Whispers of Immortality, T. S. Eliot

4. Sweeney Erect, T. S. Eliot

5. Portrait of a Lady, T. S. Eliot

6. Rhapsody on a Windy Night, T. S. Eliot

7. La Figlia che Piange, T. S. Eliot

8. Listening, D. H. Lawrence.



Fic Cover

Fic Cover 2