Tangible Schizophrenia


A Priori

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: NC-17
Pairing: Arthur/Lancelot
Feedback: Spelling errors to character discussions.
Disclaimer: Versions from the movie.
Notes: Dabbles with reincarnation and metamorphosis. AU: takes place about two hundred years before the movie. I vaguely have Marcus Aurelius’ reign in mind, but the history isn’t meant to be exact. The Romans usually hired their cavalry from foreign tribes, and the Sarmatians had a strong mercenary record. Title is Latin for ‘from what comes before,’ name of Arthur’s wife courtesy of arafel7’s post on Sarmatian warrior-queens.
Summary: Be careful what you pray for.


To whatever spirits and gods may be listening:

I thank you for my continuing good health, and for the lack of any more tragedy in my life, and in return I invite you to partake of my usual offering with the understanding that if you’d like more, you need only to ask. May you continue to favor me as you’ve done…as you have before the past few months. Though I am not in any way blaming you for the death of my wife, of course.

But I do miss her. I always missed her—I didn’t love her, but I would have liked the time to try. I fear for my son whom I’ve never even seen, though I will admit that I don’t know if I could stand looking upon him that caused her death while I was far from her side. Her relatives will care for him far better than I, but I still regret that he may never know father or mother. I don’t ask you to bring her back, for what you do is what you do, and I do not ask to die, for that would be undeservedly fleeing my obligations here, but please preserve his life in case I never make it back to Sarmatia. And…if you could somehow find it to be generous to me, I’d appreciate…help.

Your loyal servant, called Artorius by the Romans and Arthur by the Sarmatians, currently stationed on the German border.

* * *

As Arthur rode into the fort, the breeze kicked up playful heels that scuffled his hair and lashed out straight the vexillations and various flags flying atop the gate. He looked up when one snapped in the wind and saw the dragon of his troop clawing at the red streaks of dawn, as if it were chasing fire into the horizon.

“Good omen,” said Cei, walking up to him.

If one believed in such things, Arthur supposed. He had been raised believing implicitly in the charms and superstitions of his tribe, but the longer he stayed in foreign lands, the less truth he saw in it. Perhaps the age of heroes and half-gods had gone, and that was why, or perhaps it had never been. Either way, he was beginning to think he was only wasting the eighth portion of his kills that he set aside. “How are the men?”

“Wondering where their wandering commander’s gotten off to again.” The other man grinned cheerfully and slapped the neck of Arthur’s horse. A veteran of more battles than Arthur, the beast didn’t even flinch. “You were down here with us only a few weeks ago—forgotten where you came from already?”

“I’m sorry, I—” And Arthur stopped and laughed at himself, and laughed at the irritated look on Cei’s face. He swung himself out of the saddle and clucked at his horse, hoping it wouldn’t fly into a temper. Some sweetened with the years, but his horse wasn’t one of them.

Today it apparently felt like behaving, for it only snapped at his ear once or twice before docilely trotting after him. When Cei came up on Arthur’s other side, the horse rolled a rheumy malicious eye at him and he rolled one right back. Then he grinned again, and took Arthur by the shoulder. “Oh, I’m joking. Really, we’re just upset that you’d make us wait so long to surprise you.”

“Surprise me? Whatever I did to deserve that, I assure you I’m very sorry for,” Arthur said. He kept his face perfectly serious until Cei truly began to look worried, then broke into a smile. “I’m joking.”

“Of course, now I can’t hit you for making such a bad one since you’re an officer,” Cei muttered. Then he shrugged. “At least you’re feeling better.”

Which of course reminded Arthur of why he’d gone hunting by himself in the first place. He was better—the distance between Germania and Sarmatia and the strange countryside helped lessen the force of memory and guilt—but sometimes he would still wake in the night curled around a gnawing, agonizing hollowness. Last night he had.

He must have grown quiet, for Cei cursed and roughly cuffed himself as if in reprimand. Then he tugged Arthur towards the stables, his cheer now ever-so-slightly forced. “Come on. They’re—”

Arthur’s horse made a mock-lunge at Cei that nearly sprawled him in the dirt. He danced back and stayed well away, though the way he stood told Arthur the other man wasn’t going to let him sneak off. “Well, we’re going to fix that part of your life, anyway. Damned nag.”

While Arthur wasn’t given to premonitions, he suddenly felt his stomach twist. It wasn’t exactly a painful feeling, but it also wasn’t one he cared to repeat. But before he could figure out what it meant, Cei had pulled him into the stables. Ranged inside were the men that had accompanied him from training ground to battlefield, and they were all excitement and uncomplicated anticipation, bouncing on their heels like young children.

And for good reason, he had to admit. Arthur looked on the finest Sarmatian stock he’d ever seen and simply whistled, low and impressed.

The stallion tossed his mane about as if to agree, then lifted his head to look at Arthur. He stared for such a long time that Arthur grew nervous and tentatively put out a hand, palm-side up so the horse could sniff it.

After another long look, the stallion daintily lowered his magnificent head and licked Arthur’s hand so enthusiastically that his spit splattered Cei, who stood at Arthur’s elbow. And the horse didn’t stop there but went on to thoroughly nuzzle Arthur’s face. When he tried to shove his nose down Arthur’s collar, Arthur decided a retreat would be in order. But even then, the stallion followed him till he had been backed up against a post and could only flail his hands while his men snickered.

“Do I know how to choose horseflesh or do I know how to choose horseflesh?” Cei smirked.

* * *

To the spirits and gods of my homeland, and to those of this land that may be disposed to listen to me:

Thank you very much for caring and thoughtful friends, though it really wasn’t needed. Not that I’m ungrateful—I’m—I shall try to use my windfall wisely and in service to others. And to appreciate the many good points of my new horse over the…handful of odd ones.

* * *

Arthur wasn’t in the habit of spending much time in naming his horses—before he’d just named them after the month in which he received them—but the sheer quality of this one seemed to demand a little extra consideration.

The build was faultless. Long supple neck flowing gracefully into the smoothly dipping back and the powerful hindquarters. Elegant legs that looked far too slender but when a hand was run down them, the muscles were like steel. The shape of the head would have inspired poetry if Arthur had had any talent for that, and the eyes set in it were highly intelligent—though they also had something of an imp in them. Coat black as night and unmarred by anything except for one small patch of scarring on the left shoulder, as if the horse had once been scratched by a great cat. His paces were flawless and his instincts for tolerating the battlefield, as far as Arthur could judge, promised to be just as superb.

The behavior, on the other hand…Arthur felt a little ridiculous about dragging a stool into a neighboring empty stall and staring over the top of the wall at his own horse, but he knew by now that if he got any closer, he’d be deluged in nuzzling. Even now, the stallion had turned around to stare straight up at Arthur. Occasionally he would whinny pathetically and paw at the wall, as if calling Arthur over, but the look in the horse’s eyes was far from beaten. Rather more like a flirt’s coyness.

“Lamorack?” Arthur suggested.

Derisive whuff that blew hot breath in Arthur’s face.

By dint of careful guessing, Arthur had narrowed down his choices to something Sarmatian, starting with a ‘la’ sound, and he was fast exhausting all such names that he knew. He rubbed the side of his face and suppressed the urge to sigh. “Ah…what on earth’s left…Lancelot?”

And the horse promptly reared up as far as the narrow stall would allow. If his gleeful whinny hadn’t done the trick, the sudden appearance of hooves flying up towards Arthur would’ve been startling enough. Arthur lost his balance, scrabbled for a handhold and only managed to fall on his hands and knees instead of on his back. He rolled onto his feet and rubbed at his newly-bruised joints, reminding himself firmly that…Lancelot…had been a very expensive gift from his men, whose purses were rather too slim to bear the cost.

An inquiring noise made him look up: Lancelot had stuck his head around the corner and was doing his best to peer at Arthur. Then the signal for evening meal rang out and they both turned their heads towards it. When Arthur started to get up, Lancelot lowered his head and looked forlorn.

Arthur tried hard but couldn’t stop himself from rolling his eyes. “I can’t take you to the messhall, and I’ll be back in two hours to…what am I doing? I’m talking to you like you actually understand.”

Lancelot made a little depressed sound.

“Stop that,” Arthur muttered. He started to walk away, then stopped. With a sigh, he turned around and gave the demanding beast one last pat. “I’m spending the night in the loft anyway. Honestly, I never should have put Bedivere in charge of smoking the fleas out of the barracks…excellent lancer but he can’t even manage a cooking fire…”

It might have been Arthur’s imagination, but Lancelot seemed to perk up an unusual amount upon hearing that.

* * *

To the gods and spirits of this land:

I am here to do a duty, no more. I respect what there is in your peoples that is worthy of it, and I do find some things that are. I fight and kill them, but they would do the same to me. Though I am an interloper, I believe it’s in the name of a good cause, and I hope you understand this. If not, I pray that you respect honor and dedication, as I believe any god should.

Please, stop sending these nightmares. I do not rejoice in the men of your people that I’ve killed.

* * *

At least it hadn’t been one about his wife whom he hadn’t seen in nearly a year and who had died alone, without her husband and because of her husband. Arthur draped his arms over his knees and stared into the darkness of the loft. Below him, he could hear the nighttime stirring of a few horses; the steady slow breathing of the rest helped relax him, and slowly the tension in his shoulders began to melt away.

But there was some strange sound…as if in the distance, someone was sharpening an ax against a grindstone late at night. It seemed to be coming from a small window, so Arthur got up and looked out it, only to catch a faint yell. Cei in the next stable—for the small fire had temporarily tossed more than Arthur into the stables for the night—railing at another knight for his snoring. Smiling, Arthur retraced his steps and soon was deep asleep.

He had another dream. A very strange one, for it involved no faces at all. At first he thought he’d woken in some kind of cave, for all was still dark and somehow the space was smaller. And there was something else in it with him, something warm and smooth that wrapped pleasantly around his legs like an old blanket that had been worn comfortable. It stroked over his knees and seemed to settle at his left hip so he murmured to himself and relaxed, but that was only for a moment. Then it was moving upward and higher and between his legs so he stiffened, but his muscles were too slow, as if he were immersed in water, and he couldn’t stop it. Arthur opened his mouth to shout, but then the breath was stolen from him.

In its place came fire. Fire so hot and thick that now he thought he was trapped in the barracks, trying to fight Bedivere’s accidental flames only this time everything was going wrong. He twisted and struggled, but it only clutched him closer and he could feel it eating at his nerves, turning them to cinders while it ravaged higher and higher and he started to yield to it because it was so hot--

--Arthur jerked upright, then fell back on his elbows. His entire body was trembling except for that damned mischief-maker between his legs, which was contentedly going limp. He stared up at the ceiling. “That’s a new one.”

“What, no one’s ever done that to you before?”

After a mad scramble of a shock, everything settled down—Arthur was hunched up at one corner of his bedroll, wishing the night hadn’t been warm enough to make him take off his trousers earlier and staring at the man who perched insouciantly before him. He tightened his grip on his sword. “Who are you?”

The man grinned. His teeth caught a moonbeam between them and glowed eerie white, while the silver light touched on crisp curly black hair, dancing eyes and long lean body that was casually crawling towards Arthur. A smear of something at the side of his mouth brought the blood flooding into Arthur’s face; the man noticed and nonchalantly wiped it off, then put his hand on Arthur’s foot. Whereupon Arthur had his sword-edge up against the other man’s throat.

Raised eyebrow. “If this is how you greet your lovers, no wonder you don’t seem to have any.”

“That would be because I don’t,” Arthur grated. He had to pause because of how thick the words were in his throat. “I had a wife, but the last post brought news that she’d died giving birth to my son.”

“Oh.” It was dark, but nevertheless Arthur thought he saw disappointment crush something in the other man’s eyes. “Did you love her much?”

He was…completely undressed, Arthur noted. So it was doubtful he meant harm; Arthur lowered his sword and put it down to the side. “I liked her a good deal—I wasn’t with her long enough to know about loving—and why are you asking? Who are you and what are you doing here?”

The man shrugged, scooting his knees under him. That unbalanced him and he grabbed for Arthur, but even after he’d steadied himself his hands remained on Arthur’s shoulder and knee. “I thought I’d enjoy the air up here. So would you consider it betraying her memory if I offered you some consolation? I am sorry to hear about that.”

As his hand showed by suddenly wrapping around Arthur’s prick. Arthur reflexively jerked back, but of course couldn’t go far. By the time he got hold of himself and tried to do the sensible thing, the other man had wormed all the way into his lap and was twining what felt like very strong legs around his waist. He grabbed at an ankle and a wrist, trying to pull off the man. “For the last time, who are—”

Which was when he noticed the scar on the man’s shoulder. Identical to…Arthur swallowed hard. Then he looked at the other man. “You’re my horse,” he blurted.

Grin. Fingers busily convincing Arthur’s prick to betray his commonsense. “Hello. I’d like a little more grain in my feed if you can, please. Oh, and if you could sneak some ale into the water trough—oof!”

Arthur pried the—his—he rolled them over and pinned those damned hands to the ground. “What—you’re my horse?”

“Yes, as you’ve already pointed out, and yes, my name really is Lancelot.” Who promptly flexed himself upwards and proved that he didn’t necessarily need hands to make Arthur’s mind temporarily cease to work. “Now would you let go? Believe me, you’ll like this. You already like riding me, don’t you?”

Arthur sputtered.

That was a tactical error on his part, for it allowed Lancelot to shove his tongue into Arthur’s mouth, and from tongues somehow there were hands, and then there was the heel of a foot jabbing repeatedly at the base of his spine while he sank deep into a greedy clutching body and at that point he really couldn’t stop. Even though he still had no idea what was going on.

* * *

To the gods and spirits:


--all right. I think the rankers put it best, however crude their language is: what the fuck are you doing?

Your loyal if highly confused servant, Arthur.

* * *

The next day, Arthur woke up very alone in the loft and very, very disoriented. He shakily gathered his things and climbed down, then walked as quickly as he could to Lancelot’s stall.

His horse was there, placidly munching away at his hay. When Arthur put out a twitching hand, Lancelot came up and noisily nuzzled it as he always did. Pure fantasy that there was a devilish glint in Lancelot’s eye, Arthur told himself.

“And how was your night? Pleasant dreams?” Cei called, walking up to Arthur.

Arthur nearly jumped the stall door. He forced himself to calm down and present a face that at least approached normal.

“…damned son of a whore snores like a…well. Pleasant, all right.” Cei smirked and slowly looked over Arthur. His gaze seemed to linger particularly about Arthur’s neck, and too late the various tender spots made their presence known. “You look like you had a nice attack.”

“What—I didn’t—I slept with my horse,” Arthur stuttered. He backed up against the stall and pulled frantically at his collar.

His friend rolled his eyes, then clapped Arthur on the shoulder. “Whatever you say, sir. And I’m sure the horse had a fine time of it, too. I’ll go roust the men, give you…say, a quarter-hour to wash up without anyone seeing?”

“Ah…yes. Yes. That—thank you very much,” Arthur replied, tone as lame as his still-sprained mind. He slumped against the wall and watched the other man walk away.

Someone put a chin on his shoulder. “Quite a fine time of it—ow!”

When Arthur had finished whirling around, he caught himself against a post opposite the stall—which now held a man instead of a horse. Without the least self-consciousness, Lancelot rested his arms on the top of the stall door and leaned slightly sideways on it so a tiny voice in Arthur’s head could comment that he was probably naked behind the door.

“Would you stop doing that? I’m a man that turns into a horse, and last night I crawled into your bedroll and you gave me a very nice welcome. Twice.” Lancelot lifted and dropped one shoulder, eyes looking guilelessly into Arthur’s. “See? Simple.”

The first time Arthur tried to say something, all that came out of his mouth was a pitiful croak. He licked his lips and tried again. “No.”

Frowning, Lancelot straightened his arms and pressed down on the stall door. “To what? Me turning into a horse? Or you coming once in my mouth and once in my—”

“I…need to think. I’m going to take a walk.” Arthur unsteadily pushed away from the post and started to head for the door.

“Well, I’m not going anywhere,” came a mutter from behind him. And it sounded so unexpectedly bitter and…vulnerable…that Arthur turned around.

He just glimpsed some fear sliding off of Lancelot’s face. “What?”

“I’m stuck here, you know. When I’m a horse I’m yours, and when I’m not, I’m some strange man that’s been dumped in the middle of a…where are we, anyway?” Lancelot raised his eyebrow again at whatever expression was on Arthur’s face. “It’s not like they tell the horses where they’re being sold, and I couldn’t change—you aren’t taking this as well as I’d hoped, but you’re doing better than most.”

Arthur could imagine. A few weeks ago, he’d watched as some Christians had gotten into a brawl with other Christians over an incomprehensible point of religion. If men could be so intolerant of something that wasn’t even concrete…not to mention their tendency to savagely mock those who appeared different, witness the treatment the Sarmatians got from everyone for being not as Romanized. “I’m—I wouldn’t consider myself as being your owner now. I’ll get another horse—I don’t keep slaves.”

Lancelot grimaced and shook his head. “I don’t mind you, else I’d never have climbed up there. Anyway, what else am I supposed to do? I can’t be a man all the time.”

“You can’t? Why not?” Arthur asked. He came back towards the stall.

“It’s a long story.” Then Lancelot shrugged as if to say it wasn’t of any importance. “I don’t want to tell it now. I barely know you.”

He started to back away, but Arthur grabbed his wrist and held him by the door. “But you can attack me in my sleep anyway.”

“I wouldn’t call it attacking…” Lancelot said, tugging at his wrist. He flashed a wicked look at Arthur, then looked down at himself. “You know, it’s a bit breezy in here.”

Arthur resolutely didn’t look. “I can get you some clothes.”

The expression on Lancelot’s face said he didn’t know whether to smack himself or smack Arthur. Then he abruptly stepped up so they were almost touching and looked hard at Arthur. From this distance, a faint hint of anxiety could be seen in his eyes. “You didn’t enjoy it?”

Of course, the problem was that Arthur had. In fact, he’d liked it so much that he had actually forgotten about his wife. And he was of two minds about that, and it certainly didn’t help that he suspected he was beginning to like Lancelot himself.

In the end, he couldn’t lie. “I did,” he said softly, running his thumb over the inside of Lancelot’s wrist.

Lancelot lowered his eyelashes and shivered, then pressed out the last small sliver of space from between them. And Arthur lost track of what he was doing again.

He never actually managed to wash up before the morning parade-drill.

* * *

To the gods and spirits who happen to be involved in this matter:

I apologize for my rudeness earlier. I was shocked and bewildered—not that I’m trying to excuse myself, but merely to explain, if you’re in the mood for explanations. It’s only…this was not what I was expecting.

I thought you would send me a…a confirmation of faith. Or company—like a pet. A dog, perhaps. I…

…I’m not sure if I should thank you yet.

* * *

“Arthur? Arthur?”

Arthur gripped his camp-stool as if on it depended the fate of the world. After a Herculean effort, he forced his voice to sound normal. Casual, even. “Cei?”

“Your damned horse has broken loose again.” Disgruntlement perfectly characterized Cei’s voice. His shadow soon appeared against the tent canvas. “I’ve got men out looking for it, but—”

“Don’t come in!” Arthur squeaked. He pried one hand from the stool and yanked at Lancelot’s curls, but the man only laughed at him. While Arthur’s prick was still in his hot sucking mouth. One knee nearly collapsed out from under Arthur. “I—some chainlinks broke off my armor and they’ve rolled all over. I’m still trying to pick them up.”

It was an incredibly stupid excuse, but…Cei took it. The shadow backed away. “And it’s like trying to stop shit coming out to get the armorers to cough up new ones. I’ll leave you to it, but your horse—”

Was weaving the flat of his tongue across the underside of Arthur’s cock so Arthur was shortly about to break his knees. “I’m sure he’s fine,” Arthur gritted out. “Didn’t have time to exercise him during the march yesterday, so he’s probably running around for a bit of air. He always comes back. Probably caught scent of a mare.”

Cei laughed, agreed, and wandered off. Thanking him profusely, Arthur hunched over the stool and let himself come.

“Mare, indeed,” Lancelot snorted, crawling out from between Arthur and the stool. He splashed some water on his face, then retreated to cozy down in Arthur’s bed. “You enjoy insulting yourself, don’t you?”

“Better that than needlessly risking my neck.” But one look told Arthur that his warning wouldn’t do any good, so he refrained from elaborating. Instead he took up the maps from their case and sat down on the bed, spreading the parchment over his knees. “If you want, you can come in here tomorrow during the battle. There’ll be little enough people left to see you—we’re outnumbered almost three to one…”

The mattress jolted as Lancelot sat up. He started to say something, then cut himself off. When he finally did speak, he’d composed himself enough to make his words cold and sharp as icicles. “So that’s why you brought that old nag.”

“The general’s idea is to use the cavalry to punch through the middle, then roll the legionaries after us and fall on the flanks. Sound strategy, but it’ll mean high casualties for us. And the Germans aren’t strangers to cavalry—they pike horses like professionals.” Arthur studied the maps for a little longer, but he couldn’t help but notice the deadly silence behind him. He sighed and looked up. “Don’t tell me you want to fight. No sane man enjoys a charge—and anyway, I’m not risking you.”

“But it’s fine if your old warhorse gets cut down from under you,” Lancelot snapped. He pushed away from Arthur and flopped on the bed, curling so his back was to Arthur. “Of course. It’s only a horse, not—”

“—a man. Unfortunately for it, but yes. Why are you—”

Lancelot rolled over fast as lightning and cracked out his words as accompanying thunder. “Because if you die, I get sold again! No, I’m not a horse—I’m a man and I can think on a battlefield.”

“And if you die out there, that as good as makes me a murderer.” A last stare at the maps told Arthur he wasn’t going to be able to concentrate on them anymore, so he put them aside. Then he pulled off his boots and put his hand on Lancelot’s shoulder, but the other man shook him off. He scrunched down in one of Arthur’s spare shirts and Arthur’s sheets. “Couldn’t you turn into a man and sneak off? It wouldn’t take long, or be very difficult, what with the way camp is after a battle…”

“No.” One word, iron-hard and sharp as a sword. It cut off any further questions.

But Lancelot must have heard them anyway, for he turned over and looked at Arthur for a long time, his face hard and his eyes regretful. Finally he muttered to himself and rolled to lay his head on Arthur’s thigh. “Was your wife’s name Zarina?”

Arthur started to ask why and then realized what had to be the reason behind the question. He stared at the ground. “I still say her name in my sleep, don’t I?”

“Sometimes. And you talk more like a Roman than the others.” Lancelot lifted himself on an arm and fiddled with the folds of Arthur’s shirt. His face was studiously devoid of emotion.

“I spend more time trying to learn about them, I suppose. They’ve conquered so much of the world—there must be a reason for that.” After a moment, Arthur tried putting his hand on Lancelot’s back again. This time, it was allowed. He let it rest there for several breaths, then smoothed it down the length of Lancelot’s spine. “Knowing it might come in handy sometime. They’re already clashing with the Iazyges that’ve settled near Dacia. They pay me better than I could ever get in Sarmatia, but that doesn’t mean I want to go home to a Roman province.”

Lancelot looked up, and his eyes were so clear Arthur thought he could see everything. But the other man ducked his head before Arthur could understand what he was seeing. “You want to go home to how things were before you left.”

“I want,” Arthur started to say. Then he stopped to put a hand beneath Lancelot’s chin and force the other man to look at him. “I want to get through this campaign. I want to earn enough money so that I can go home and see my son and raise him myself instead of having to drop him on relatives, like my father did me. I want to find a way for you to be free.” He took a long breath, remembered the smell of his wife’s hair, and then bent down to bury his nose in Lancelot’s. “I wish she hadn’t died. But there’s a difference between wanting and wishing. Which I’ve painfully found out.”

Knuckles drew lightly down Arthur’s neck. Then Lancelot threw his arm over Arthur’s shoulders and pulled him to the bed.

* * *

To the gods of my homeland and the spirits that haunt me:

I hope you—I believe that you know what you are doing. That reassures me, because I certainly haven’t the faintest idea.

But I think I’m coming to like it. Please grant that fortune continues to smile on me.

* * *

They curled together, sweaty and sticky and neither one of them wanting to move. Though he knew he’d taken Lancelot less than gently, Arthur couldn’t work up the energy to pull out of him, and as for his part, Lancelot seemed content to lie with the nape of his neck beneath Arthur’s mouth and his arm over the one Arthur had wrapped around his waist.

“Told you you’d like it,” Lancelot mumbled. He stretched, moaned as his stretching moved them together. His hips started to roll back into Arthur.

It took rather longer than a moment for Arthur to remember what Lancelot was talking about. Then he muffled a laugh at the man’s hopeless conceit. Leisurely rose and pulled Lancelot with him, reveling in the slow pleasure of growing hard while already in a willing body. His free hand roamed about Lancelot’s belly and chest, drawing soft sounds from the other man. He delicately mouthed at Lancelot’s ear while his fingers traced their way onto Lancelot’s prick. Paused so the other man could make a half-hearted attempt at bracing himself, then began to rock in and out of Lancelot.

“I like better having a moment to know I’m liking it,” Arthur murmured, licking the sweat that pooled between Lancelot’s shoulderblades. He pressed a kiss to the back of Lancelot’s neck. “I wish you didn’t have to sneak about so much.”

“Would it be much different if I weren’t a horse half the time?” Lancelot threw a look over his shoulder that showed a rare crack in his breezy, demanding manner. But then he lowered his head and arched hard so Arthur felt the heat swarm from the join of their bodies into his head.

His mind swum from the blistering sting and he dropped the thought from his attention, knowing only the slippery muscle and the strained cries of the man beneath him, and how much he needed it.

He needed it. That was new, Arthur thought.

And even as his body burned from inside-out, he felt a small pit of ice begin to develop in his gut.

* * *

To the gods and spirits that seem to be taking such an interest in me:

I don’t pretend to know your intentions or to judge the merit of them, but please--consider well what you plan. I beg this of you, as one who’s been faithful to you in practice all his life, and who has striven to be just as faithful in spirit for as long.

* * *

“What do you say to the gods, when you throw away such nice pieces of meat for their sake?” As Arthur approached, Lancelot rolled off his feet and sat up. Of course he was naked and of course Arthur couldn’t help but notice, which resulted in Lancelot preening for a few moments. But, unusually, Lancelot ignored the chance to tease Arthur in favor of seriousness. “Are you praying for your wi—”

“Arthur!” A hail from a man on horseback.

The ground was nearly level here, with only a few sparse bushes clustering near Arthur. And Bedivere might already be close enough to see—Arthur reacted. He raised his hand as if to acknowledge the hail and unclipped his cloak so it billowed, flew before him so he had to lunge for it. And so it hid Lancelot from view. When he had snatched it back, the other man was gone.

By the time the other man rode up, Arthur was struggling with his bulky cloak while his horse calmly cropped grass, body half-hidden by the bushes. Bedivere pulled short before him and gazed curiously about before speaking. “I hate the mist here. Makes you see things…I could’ve sworn I saw someone with you.”

At the moment, Arthur was praying his face gave nothing away. “No, I’m alone. What brings you out here?”

“New orders.” Generally a cheerful man, Bedivere looked grim and hard. He jerked his head towards the fort. “The Germans called a general muster beneath our noses and have an army within a day’s march. They outnumber us four to one. We’re going out now.”

“Why aren’t we sending to Decimus Meridius for reinforcements?” Arthur asked. He more sensed than heard Lancelot’s head shooting up behind him.

Bedivere hawked and spat in defiance, but his hands were trembling on his reins. “Because he’s already met the Germans and got cut to pieces.”

“And we’re the only other army in the area…” When Arthur looked again into Bedivere’s face, he saw that they both understood what that meant.

He looked at the sky, so blue and merry. But such a different shade from the sky in Sarmatia where his son was growing up parentless, where the body of his wife that he had almost loved and therefore felt even more guilt over than if he’d truly loved her was buried. Where his future, he’d once thought, eventually lay. Then he looked down at the half-gutted deer, and at the cuts he’d set aside for the gods in hopes.

They could have the whole thing, if only they heard him now.

Arthur squared his shoulders and swung himself up onto Lancelot. He wove the fingers of one hand into Lancelot’s mane and kept them clenched there all the way back to the fort.

* * *

To any god, any spirit:

Not him. For all that you can take from me, not him. Not him, or I swear on the earth and the sky and on the death that I know is coming to me that I will find a way to revenge myself on you.

You’re not worth him.

I’m not worth him.

Not him.

* * *

“There’s far too many Germans and we have to fight because we’re the last thing standing between them and the capital city. If they take that, this land will never be recovered. If we can stall them here…”

Lancelot seized Arthur’s arm, jerked it away from the armor he’d been about to don and pulled it up so Arthur looked into wild, desperate eyes. “Why we? Why not leave? This isn’t your empire—pack your things and get on my back and I can carry you out of here. I can get us into the next country before the battle starts.”

“I can’t. And it’s not only that I have to honor my contract.” Arthur twisted his hand, turned Lancelot’s grip around so it was Arthur’s fingers around the other man’s wrist. He pulled Lancelot to him, feverishly memorized the press of his body. “You can’t, Lancelot. The Germans have surrounded this whole place, and Sarmatians have been fighting here for the Romans for so long that they’ll be cut down on the spot. I have to fight whether I want to or not. But you can run.”

Snarling, Lancelot yanked himself away and collapsed on the bed. He dropped his head into his hands, shoulders shaking. “No, I can’t.”

“If it’s because you’d have to do so as a horse, the Germans won’t mistreat you. They value horses as highly as we do.” The weight of Arthur’s armor compressed his lungs. It’d always done so, but this time it seemed to choke him so hard he couldn’t breathe. Nevertheless he forced himself to buckle the last strap and then to reach for his sword.

“That’s not it,” Lancelot muttered. He sucked in a ragged breath, then looked up so Arthur could see what hollows his eyes had become. “Look, what happened…I fucked the wrong girl and…had a curse laid on me, if you can believe that. That scar on my shoulder, that’s what it is. She—I mean her grandmother—said since I wouldn’t let anything, even prudence, master me, I’d be a horse till I found a…a master I’d die for. You understand? I couldn’t even change before I came to you. And I can’t if I leave you.”

Arthur stared. On top of everything else, this was too much for him to comprehend. The words went into his ears and sat there, stagnating while his sword trembled in nerveless hands.

He finally croaked the one thought he could form. “You are not dying for me.”

“You think so?” Lancelot jerkily lifted himself off the bed and came over to look Arthur in the eye. Then he let his head fall against Arthur’s shoulder, making the cuirass ring dully and the chainmail clink. His laugh was broken at the edges and his hands when they rose to clutch at Arthur’s wrists were like steel. “Arthur, you aren’t listening. You don’t get a choice. I don’t get a choice. Because you really are someone I’d—I’m not leaving you. Even if I didn’t have this damned curse, I wouldn’t. Because of who you are.”

For a long, long time, they stood like that. Outside, the camp was filled with cries, shouts that bordered on hysteria, but inside, Arthur felt as if time had slowed to a crawl.

“There’s something else,” Lancelot whispered. He lifted his head just enough to push it hard against Arthur’s neck. “She said…and she was laughing like a jackal when she said this…if I was, somehow, so lucky, I’d be stuck forever. So maybe you can make it up to me in my—our—next lives.”

Arthur put his hand on the back of Lancelot’s neck, remembered how his fingers curved around it, and then pulled up the other man. “I don’t dream about my wife anymore. I don’t even remember what color her eyes were. All I see is you.”

Then he kissed Lancelot, and in that kiss was everything they’d been and wouldn’t have time to be. It was all wrapped up there, so when Arthur stepped back he could do so with a steady tread. He couldn’t lose anything now; he’d already had it all. “All right,” he said. “I’ll ride you.”

“You always leave things to the last moment,” Lancelot said. His fingers slipped one by one from Arthur, and he backed out of the tent without taking his eyes from Arthur. A moment later, Arthur heard the whinny of his horse.

And after another moment, Arthur went out and climbed on Lancelot’s back. He’d try as hard as he could to keep them both alive, but if that couldn’t be, he wouldn’t let them be separated.

* * *

To the gods and spirits:

Thank you.

It was too short. Yes, I’m ungrateful. And I’m more grateful than even you might be able to appreciate.

Thank you.