Tangible Schizophrenia


Casus Belli

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: NC-17. Sex and violence.
Pairing: Arthur/Lancelot
Feedback: Much appreciated.
Disclaimer: Versions didn’t originate with me.
Notes: : AU. Arthur is part of the Roman invasion of Sarmatia, which has been moved up two hundred years. Title is Latin for ‘an act used to justify a declaration of war.’ Thank you, alethialia
Summary: Arthur comes to know himself.


The dirt here is hard. The stone is harder still, but it is the men’s souls that are hardest of all. I can feel my own petrify within me as the winter does the soil upon which I kneel.

Sometimes it seems as if the only way to stay warm is to make war. Yesterday I fought with the Gallic cavalry till my fight-maddened blood seeped out as a steaming red haze that fogged over everything in a confusion of anger and hatred and violence, which I confess was an intoxicating feeling while it lasted. When the fighting was over, the scarlet receded to limp soaking cloth draggling from the standards and sticky pools that stained the world with grim misery. I’m still sick from it. I’m sick of myself.

I pray right now not out of reverence or indeed, any kind of honor, but out of sheer self-interest, God. I, Artorius Castus, son of the Briton Igraine and the Sarmatian Uther, ask that I don’t see a familiar face. Because where I am going now, anyone that I recognize will be someone that I have hurt or have done my best to hurt in the battle that preceded these negotiations.

Negotiation is a false term, borne of a false language of conquerors and conquered. I learned diplomacy because I thought through it, I could help bring about the idealized world of the philosophers, but the military men that taught it to me were solely interested in the fact that I am one of the few Romans that is fluent in the Sarmatian dialects. More and more often, I think that I should have asked for a post in my mother’s land, instead of my father’s. Britain has its share of nightmares for me, but at least they are horrors that have accompanied me from childhood. They’re known in a way that might breed some shields for my raw nerves; I hesitate to say contempt because I still wish, somehow, to be that rare man who accomplishes something good through evil. I am breaking, but I have not yet blinded myself to that, like my fellow officers.

One of them is calling me now, lip faintly curled because he’s caught me praying. Official religion of the Empire or not, Christianity here’s little more than a veneer of foul oaths and the hasty mealtime grace. The steppes burn away everything soft and blister what remains, so the men with whom I share bread and travail are hollow-laughing, bitter, calloused veterans that see nothing beyond the tip of their sword. For all of that, they are brave and true to themselves—I only wish that that was something more than faith in the danger of the night and the savagery of the enemy.

God, if you listen to voices from this wasteland of humanity, then please make my tongue able and discerning in translation. And forgive me for the purposes in which it is employed.

* * *

It’s becoming easier and easier to detach myself from the many gut-churning, sordid episodes like this current farce at surrender. I come in, I see the defeat snarling from the bloodied leadership of whatever tribe over whom we’ve just triumphed, and my mind retreats from responsibility. Later I will hate myself for it, and want desperately to throw up on the commander’s boots when he compliments what he presumes is my skillful way of modulating his harsh demands in something that the Sarmatians won’t reject. If I were truly the kind of man I should be, I’d tell him that they know everything I’m going to say before I say it. The early years of a war breed heroism, but the later years proliferate only with despair and the kind of stubborn defiance that is apt to suddenly crack into dull-eyed, spiritless loathing.

My lips move, and the sounds pass through my throat, but I honestly have no idea what I’m saying. It would serve us all justly if I were to utter one demand too many and cause a last uprising right here, in this stinking tent with half the army’s high command squeezed together too tightly for fighting. Slaughter almost seems preferable to this vicious cycle of apathy and furious disgust that now makes up my life.

One side stops speaking, and so do I, thus giving my reason a chance to assert itself. No matter if we live or die here, because the army is just a few hundred feet away, and another one is within a day’s ride. Efficiency is the hallmark of the Roman army, and I can remember a time when I was proud of that.

“Been a pleasure, I’m sure,” drawls the man next to me, whom I belatedly recall is one, the officer currently handling the distribution of supplies, and two, is Lucius Marcius Phillipus. The Sarmatians haven’t been an easy conquest by any means, and nowadays, we’re all saddled with at least two positions. Rumor says that we’re due for a relief, and I suspect we all clutch that hope with the last of our particles of civilization. “My assistants are right outside, so we’ll get started on the division immediately. Wouldn’t want to prolong the pain for you.”

He wasn’t a considerate man even before war ate up his humanity, and so his words jar me back to awareness of what I’m interpreting. For a moment, I almost want to kill him for doing so, because the last thing I need to remember is one of the most besetting sins of the Empire.

There is—or there was, because it’s less common now, a loophole by which a slave may earn his freedom. History tells me that Rome used to encourage the manumission of slaves. As I walk out of the tent, avoiding any sights but what is directly before me, my conscience sternly reminds me that history is past, and does not return. Even most devout Christians see nothing wrong in slavery, and they certainly don’t understand why a hostile people should be accorded the same rights and liberties as one of them has.

It’s bright outside, but the light is a cold, lucid white that frosts everything with distance: the trampled and bloody hills in the background, the masses of frightened, wary faces held under guard in the foreground. The air doesn’t stifle, but flays instead.

Brave, saintly men would do more than argue over a meal of rotten rations for their beliefs. They’d defy their commanders, break all law and order, and follow their own righteousness. And they would transform the world.

I came here as a soldier, swearing fealty to the Church, the Emperor and the Empire. I came here as someone who could speak the language. I came here as a Roman. And I was only ordered onto the field when they ran out of every other officer that has experience with cavalry; Roman policy discourages men from fighting in their homelands, so I suppose they classify me more as a Sarmatian than a Briton. At any rate, it’s clever. By the time I took command, the cavalrymen under me had already welded themselves into a shell of professionalism that holds tight against Sarmatian and ideological onslaughts. They’ll listen when I lead them into a fight, but no more than that.

Yell, my conscience says. Destroy that which opposes you in order to be heard.

And my pragmatism says, that is how they were trained. And it says, some kind of order is necessary, and the order of the Romans has brought peace to other lands.

And I think on the long lines of captured men and women and children I pass, face shamefully averted, and I wonder which of us is the one losing their freedom. Because they still carry themselves with stiff pride, and their eyes are the hottest things I have seen all year. It’s plain that they’re biding their time, ready to wait for the next generation if necessary. Whereas I have nearly stopped believing that I have anything to wait for.

* * *

When they come in, I’m bent over a basin of clouded water flecked with clumps of dirt, like a pool of blood just beginning to clot, and I’m trying to scrub away the filth from too many layers.

The commotion that interrupts my morbid ritual is the sounds of thrashing and grunting and sharp blows to human flesh. I’m probably moving faster than I have in days when I turn around and snap, “What’s going on?”

Phillipus freezes, then slowly unwinds from his half-bending position over a prone figure curled on the ground. With a tired grimace, he rolls his shoulders back and nudges the body with his boot-tip, while his accompanying detail edges out of my tent. “Your share. I suppose Aurelius must have felt sorry for making you stay on duty for two days running, so you got the pick of the crop.”

He has a man at his feet. By now, I should be less shocked. As it is, I think I can feel blood welling up where my hands grip the sides of the metal basin. “What?”

“Artorius, you’re not an idiot. Weren’t you even paying attention to what you were translating? All able-bodied between fifteen and fifty taken into captivity, and distributed among the soldiers as slaves, to keep or sell as they wish.” One hand flicks a derisive gesture at the Sarmatian, who rolls over and impressively, manages enough of a snarl through his gag to make Phillipus hastily retreat. “This one killed two centurions, so he was up for execution, but Aurelius decided to hand him over to you instead. On second thought, maybe he’s angry at you; the women are ugly harpies, but at least they’ve a hole you can poke.”

“As always, conversation with you is quite enlightening,” I mutter, seeking refuge in sarcasm. Part of the reason my hold is so white-knuckled on the basin is that his explanation has kicked the wind out of my gut and is threatening to knock my knees out from under me. Another part is that Phillipus has always rubbed me the wrong way, but until now I’ve never had good cause to strangle him. Normally he’s no better and no worse than the rest of us.

Perhaps it’s the sudden shift to keeping the army’s accounts and having to personally deal with the shortages of virtually everything. At any rate, Phillipus is no more tolerant than I am now. “Look, do you want him or not? We’ve only got two days to clean up the battlefield, dispose of all the captives, and if I’ve got to arrange another execution—”

The man goes very still and stares directly at me. His gaze isn’t pleading so much as challenging a response from me.

“Yes, I’ll take him.” As soon as the words whip from my mouth, my mind formulates a plan for care-taking and then secret release, but not quick enough for me to miss that the rationalization comes after the decision. The bile rises in my throat, and I briefly contemplate spoiling Phillipus’ day—and boots--that way. He still carries traces of the dandy he’d been upon arrival in the polished gleam of the metal pieces against his worn leather cuirass…and I carry traces of the idealist I was in the disillusioned, petty bitterness that threatens to rule me now.

My face must show something, because Phillipus squints at me instead of hurrying off to his next stop. “Tie the bastard to the pole and get some sleep, Artorius. You look as if you’re about to drop dead.” And then he reminds me of his true colors. “We’ve got to pry some grain from someone soon, and I’ll be needing you by tomorrow afternoon at the latest.”

“I’ll remember that,” I say as neutrally as I can. And I wait till his footsteps have faded away before I move.

The Sarmatian has closely-cropped black hair that is nevertheless a hopeless tangle of curls and grass and half-dried bits of flesh. He’s a little taller than the norm, and is built unusually lean and long in a way that vaguely recalls the only time I’d ever seen a gazelle, back in Rome. As I come up, his head drops back in exhaustion to confront me with eyes that flame in an elegantly handsome face. Taken in parts, he looks as if he should be as out-of-place as myself, only for different reasons: I am from a wetter climate here, he seems as if he should hail from a hotter one. Taken in whole, however, he’s undeniably Sarmatian from his restless flickering gaze to his eerie stillness, like the mountain cats waiting to spring upon their prey.

I’m already beginning to regret my decision, but my stomach informs me that I cannot be the cause of one more death tonight. Again, my rationality deigns to inform that the world goes beyond this tent and this man, that there’s dying going on outside as I think, but I am tired. Fatigue and lingering frustration combine to temporarily make me acquiesce to blind selfishness. Later I will remember, but right now I don’t want to think any more on the wider scope of the world. I want to focus on the present and mundane, like my colleagues, and seek out some of the peace they find behind their indifference.

Practically speaking, the first thing I should do is drag the man over to the bathwater I was heating up for myself. Instead, my hand reaches for his gag and pulls away the filthy cloth. There’s not even a blur to mark his movement as his teeth sink into the curve between my thumb and forefinger. I reflexively yank my arm back and curse, but he hangs on and only lets loose when he collides with my knee. Then he falls down, bound hands futilely trying to hold himself up, and glowers up with blatant satisfaction at the blood dripping from my hand.

“Damn it.” I’ve long since past caring about minor blasphemies. It almost looks as if I’m past caring about Christian forgiveness as well, because my other palm jerks up as if to strike, and the man flinches. My gut twists itself around my backbone and wrings out acid while I curse some more and drop my hands to the man’s waist.

Perhaps the bite was some last outpouring of rage before the depression sank in, because he doesn’t resist as I haul him to the hot water. When the first drops hit his skin, he does try to scramble back, but his bonds and his injuries hamper him. “Fucking Romans and their fucking filthy habits,” he mutters in his tongue, which is actually nearly identical to the one my father spoke.

“This one’s about being clean. Unless you’d like to get infections in your wounds and suffer gangrene?” I retort in the same language. By now I’m used to the surprised looks, and I take advantage of his momentary distraction to cut off the rags that swathe his upper body. They once made up a shirt, but the only remaining sign of that is about a fingerslength of seam. I toss the bits onto the nearest lighted brazier and bend myself to sluicing off the layers of dirt and blood that cake the other man.

Very pale, but I can hardly tell that for all the bruises and cuts that reveal themselves to me. I’m as gentle as I can be, but he still hisses and winces and swears. Occasionally he takes a swipe at my side, which never manages to span half the space separating us because his muscles start to fail, and he forces them even harder, which in turn speeds the feebleness through them. He finally slumps on his side and digs his fingers into the threadbare rug, clumping up the dirt beneath it so some sifts through, while I grimly work out the gravel ground into one long, shallow slash that stretches across his left ribs.

“I thought you were Roman,” he mutters, disgusted.

“I am.” It’s a mark of my mental state that I find his assumption that I’m a native collaborator blackly amusing instead of damning. And then I take out my dagger and put my fingers on the waist of his trousers, and he freezes in an entirely different sort of fear. As Phillipus said, the women here don’t appeal to Romans, and moreover, don’t hesitate to kill themselves. Frustration is a regrettably large factor in our warping. “I’d like to wash off the rest of you. That’s all.”

“Then why don’t you let me do it myself?” He edges back and tries to sit up, but ends up collapsing even nearer to me. The blood starts to well past the scabs crisscrossing his torso. “Fucking bastard.”

I don’t reply as I move to deal with the other half of him, mindful as I am of men’s pride. It’s the least I can do to leave him that.

His back slopes in smooth, beautiful curves, a far cry from the angularity of cliffs and armor to which I’m accustomed. It’s almost calming to stroke water down it and watch the crusted dirt fall away, as if it were really that easy. The simple, straightforward motion seems to reassure him as well, and I can feel his body relaxing by inches, though his eyes remain wary as a wild beast before the hunter’s spear.

“You have an interesting idea of slavery.” He twists his mouth around the irony as he watches me pick up the crude tools of the surgeon that I’ve scavenged from here and there. It’s easier to see to such things myself; the man who probes the damaged parts of the body often finds something of the soul in there as well, and I know very well what the others would think if they knew my true feelings.

The man’s surprisingly well-off for someone that killed two centurions: a mass of minor cuts and bruises, what looks like badly wrenched but unbroken ankles, and fierce black swelling splayed over one temple. His worst injury is the laceration over his ribs, and so it’s that that I tackle first. “I have no intention of taking you as a slave.”

“Then you’re going to sell me? Is that why you’re so eager to see to my health?” He squeezes the words out of gritted teeth, but nevertheless holds himself still for the stitching.

“No.” Odd as it is, it’s become easier to do this task on myself. I do my best to make the sutures neat and small, but he’ll still have to wear the handiwork of a hamhanded Roman for the rest of his days.

His gaze whips hot suspicion over me, but he remains quiet after that, and lets me work. By the time I finish, we’re both trembling with exhaustion, and he can barely hold up his head. I stumble over to my spare things and rummage around for something that would fit him, coming up with only trousers; my shirts and tunics have a habit of coming back from a battle too ruined to bother salvaging.

When it comes time to cut loose his ankles, my hand hesitates. As heavy as the guilt is within me, the desire for survival is still strong enough to fuel my caution.

“So I’m not a slave…in here. What about out there?”

The knife goes through the ropes with little effort, and I have him dressed as quickly as I can. My eyelids feel like weighted nets trying to ensnare my sight with blackness, and I want this over with soon so I can chase whatever rest I’m still capable of finding.

Sardonic, soft laugh. “I see. Prisoner, then?”

An unexpected lashing of annoyance drives me to cut his wrists free as well, then rock back on my heels and watch him weakly attempt to move. He eventually makes it to the soiled, now-tepid water and with shaking fingers, splashes the scabbed swelling around his wrists, ankles, and on the side of his face. Then he folds over on the rug and lets me take him to the bed. When the strips of cloth start sliding around his wrists, he glances up to note me tethering him to the bedframe. “And for all that, you don’t think gratefulness alone would make me trust you?”

“No.” I loop rope over the cloth as well.

“Good.” He closes his eyes and lies back, but as I finally see to the remainder of my evening rituals, I still feel his gaze tracking my movements.

Prayer won’t come tonight, I know, and so I slump into my only chair to read Pelagius again in hopes that I’ll find something new and fresh and untried in the words. When sleep sinks its fangs into me, I’m still searching the parchment.

* * *

I didn’t notice till the morning after that how incredibly thin the man is; years of fighting a war against a people that strike and fade into the mountains have left the armies in no mood for conventions of any kind. The official strategy is that we’re using Fabian tactics of field-burning and massacring domesticated herds to starve out the enemy.

The truth is that we simply don’t care what happens to this land any more. It’s beaten us with hail and storm winds and heavy snows, it’s fostered tribes that gleefully pounce upon any Roman that straggles even for a second, and it mocks every effort we make with its impenetrability. As gory and sickening as the battlefield nearby is now, I know from experience that all traces will disappear by the end of the month, if not sooner.

No infection has yet developed in my hand, but it still throbs whenever I look at the Sarmatian. Fortunately, he’s slow to recover and so he stays quiet most of the time.

When he does speak, it’s to perceptively drive deeper whatever thought is currently needling its way into my flesh. I had believed that I was better than my fellows in not underestimating the Sarmatians as ignorant savages, but his intelligence and intuition puts my previous assumptions to shame.

Neither does it do much to soothe my nerves. I used to make every excuse to stay in my tent, where I could at least find a minor kind of silence in the midst of the camp’s bustle, but now I try to stay out of it. And so I am forced to see again what the Empire has wrought here, and how far from the teachings of the Scriptures it is.

We are retreating back to one of the few cities in this land for reinforcements, but on the heels of that celebratory news comes word that the Sarmatians are gathering for one last campaign. This time, the tribes feel threatened enough to lay down their individual quarrels and join together, and this time, the high command is determined to put Sarmatia to rest once and for all. When I look at the gray sky of winter, I can almost see the shimmering edge of the sword hanging above this land.

Sometimes I dream, and see the hand that’s holding it. And it’s mine, and I wake with ashes clotting in my mouth and an ache that stretches from my cricked neck to my sore feet. I haven’t managed to sleep for more than two or three hours at a time for weeks now.

* * *

Shifting camp, unsurprisingly, doesn’t arrive with the relief its anticipation promised. It means that I have to brace myself for the inevitable overwhelming jostle of human contact at the very time in which I’m doubting my ability to stand the presence of my fellow officers.

It means that I have to take out the Sarmatian, tie him to my spare horse, and acknowledge that whatever secondary agendas I may have planned, for the moment he still is a slave in the eyes of the world. And the world thinks he belongs to me.

“I see I’m not the only one mistrusted,” he murmurs, grinning with vicarious pride at the other Sarmatians, surly-faced and recalcitrant, that are restrained in various ways. Then we pass the piked heads of the most rebellious Sarmatians, which have been set up along the first few miles of our designated route, and the smile wrenches off his face.

I can’t help staring myself, and every twist of decaying flesh imprints itself on my memory. I didn’t even bother with breakfast because I knew my stomach wouldn’t hold it; the camp surgeon gives me a curious glance every time we run into each other, and I think he suspects an ulcer of some kind. That most likely is the accurate explanation, but it’s not the right or the full one.

“Artorius!” It’s one of the few other cavalry officers that remain. Aulus Hirtius never pretended to be anything more than what he is--a professional soldier, ready to fight whenever and wherever he can--and so he’s somewhat more tolerable than the rest. Gallic-born, so a touch of wild grace hangs about him, and smart enough to have picked up some of the native language. “Good God, Phillipus wasn’t exaggerating for once. You look worse than when we had dysentery running through the camp.”

“I’ve been kept rather busy.” My stallion whickers and moves restlessly beneath me, trying to angle for the mare Hirtius uses off the battlefield. For a brief moment, we forget about the dead faces leering down on the marching column, the ambushes and hardships that lie ahead. I think I even smile for a moment as we maneuver the horses apart. “Good thing we’re traveling light. At this rate, you’ll have half the cavalry mounts chasing you within the week.”

He grins and tightly reins in his horse. “Hell, I’ll ask for point duty and get this damned parade going a little. If you ask me, we should’ve been relieved—hey!”

And I’ve forgotten about the Sarmatian as well, and only remember in time to see Aulus lean out of the saddle and seize the reins of the Sarmatian’s horse, jerking the animal out of its slow retreat. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?” Aulus snaps, back to the harsh soldier in the blink of an eye.

Before he’s half-done speaking, I’ve snatched the reins from his fingers, and my lips are pulling back in a snarl. It hurts because I rarely do it. “Leave it, Hirtius.”

He stares at me for a long, confused moment, while the Sarmatian bows his head in an air of contrition that jars with the way his hands are clenched around the saddle horn to which they’re tied.

Aulus finally eases away and rounds us to come up on my other side, while I uneasily wrap the reins around my hand to prevent such future…it’d be prudent to call it a misunderstanding, if I were inclined that way. “I never thought that you would…” Aulus starts, then cuts himself off with an uncomfortable cough. “Once the 9th’s taken over the camp and we’re on our way, Aurelius wants you to handle the cavalry vanguard.”

“But that’s your command.” The surprise nearly dislocates me from reality, and I come within a hair of missing the flash of movement before us. I jerk back to awareness and rein us in just in time to avoid the child running loose across the path. His dark eyes, huge in his emaciated face, flash up at me a heartbeat before his screaming mother scoops him up and clutches him to her breasts.

A breath later, her master arrives and drags them both off into the mass of milling people before I can even catch sight of the man’s rank. Fingers tapping on my arm turn me back toward Aulus, who’s again staring at me as if we’ve just met. “Artorius, I freely admit that you’re the best cavalry leader I’ve ever seen. You’d be a brilliant commander if you stopped thinking and stood back to look at yourself.”

“Oddly enough, I find that it’s brains that distinguish the good tacticians from the bad.” It takes more than a moment to settle myself back in the saddle, and by that time, we’ve exited the camp and are trotting along the first set of supply wagons.

“And if you had any, you’d stop making trouble,” Aulus snorts, resignation already swallowing up his admonition. “Staring at other Romans like you want to kill them just for—and that child shouldn’t even still be alive. He’s only going to be another burden we don’t need, slowing us down, but that ranker probably figures he can get more money for the brat whenever we find some slavers.”

I close my eyes so I will only have to feel another part of my life disappear into the sticky, dark morass of war.

Aulus sighs and draws his horse back. “Never mind. I should know better by now than to try and change you—anyway, I’ll keep an eye on your things if you want.”

Practicality is a necessity that all men in difficult times have to develop if they wish to survive. Besides, Aulus is what he is. He’s content that way. I respect him for that, even though I dislike what it means. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. And you should be thankful,” he chuckles, good humor restored. “The only other officer even remotely free is Phillipus. I’ve got to pass on some more messages, but I’ll be back in a bit.”

Once he’s left, I open my eyes to see the Sarmatian carefully scrutinizing my face. It’s clear that though he hasn’t spoken a word of Latin so far, he understands it perfectly. “So this is Christianity and the Roman Empire. By the time you finish with this land, there won’t be anything left. What kind of victory is that?”

“It isn’t one. And this isn’t Christianity—this is war. True Christians…it’s not a religion that advocates war, but peace. And it says that all men are equal before God.” I have plenty of quotes that I could cite in confirmation of my words, but it’s not confirmation that’s needed so much as support. Riding here in the middle of cursing soldiers and bitter-eyed slaves, I can’t bring myself to mouth words that clearly don’t hold in this place.

“Pretty thing to say. That’s the key, isn’t it? I’m a thing, not a man, so all that doesn’t apply to me.” His head is still down, but he turns just enough to cast a condemning look on me. It bites like acid. “You say and you don’t act. Is that how conversion works? Is that how we’re to be enlightened?”

Over his shoulder, I can see Aulus returning, and like the coward I’ve become, I’m grateful for the impending interruption. As much as I hate how easily I take refuge in my duties now, I can’t seem to find an alternative, and I don’t have the strength to buck one set of responsibilities in favor of another. “No, it’s how we die,” I mutter to myself.

I don’t wait to find out if he’s overheard or not, but instead throw the reins of his horse to Aulus as soon as I can and leave for the cavalry detachments. It’s shameful how eager I am to leave, yet I urge my horse faster and faster.

* * *

I set the evening meal in front of the Sarmatian and he apparently takes that as a signal to go on the offensive. “So if you’re Roman, then how can you speak our tongues so well? You sound like a native.”

“My father was a Sarmatian. He left the country, wandered around as a mercenary and finally enlisted in the Roman army with some friends.” It’s a doomed hope to think that facts will satisfy the man, but I give them up anyway. For some reason, his antagonism makes me want to explain myself, to reflexively justify everything despite my own reservations towards it.

Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt so much as dependence, I decide. I can’t imagine what could possibly take the place of the Empire, for it does so much over such a great span of territory. Even if its actions are wrong, its scope is so large that correcting it would take something so great I can’t even imagine it.

Then I recall God, and I wonder how far till I lapse completely from grace. “Rome posted him to Britain, where he eventually married a Briton and retired. There’s actually a sizable settlement of Sarmatians in that country.”

“Why? Beautiful women, pleasant climate?” The man has a smile that he wields like a razor, its sarcastic gleam cutting through the thick Bible I’m using to block out my view of him. He takes the small, lightning-quick bites of someone who never knows when the food will come again, even though he’s had nearly two weeks of regular meals. Distrust has solidified into the standard of our strange relationship.

“No. Actually, the weather is worse than here. And the Britons don’t like Romans any more than your people do, so the land is never at peace.” I turn the page and silently mouth the words to myself, trying to sink into their weighty syllables. Latin is the language of the learned, so it should have some power of its own. Knowledge should make a difference.

It does. It means I can’t ignore what the others don’t even see.

The cot creaks as the man leans down as far as his wrist tether allows to put down the plate and pick up the cup of watered wine, but that’s the only sound made. He’s filling out, and now looks much more like the skilled warrior he is. “With your parents, I would’ve thought that the last thing on earth you’d be is a Roman.”

“My parents were each disowned by their own people,” I retort, fingers tightening on the Bible. “What they had, Rome gave them. And when they died, Rome saw to my upbringing.”

Dark eyes consider me over the rim of the cup. “So that’s why you watch everything that your army does with such disgust in your eyes. Sometimes I wonder which of us is more of a Sarmatian.”

My thumb slips and the page rips. I curse and smooth down the break as if I could wipe it whole again, but I have no such saintly powers. Over the course of my term of service here, my library, never large, has dwindled by attrition, and I guard the remaining texts with great care. A good deal of the time, it seems as if they’re my last link to civilization.


I look up, startled, and the other man digs his smile into me again. “That’s how we would say it. Arthur. I’m Lancelot, if you were wondering.”

“Lancelot,” I repeat.

“So, Arthur. Is there any reason why you spend every night buried in those?” He flicks his fingers at the Bible, and then at the few other texts I still have. It’s difficult to say exactly what motivates his sudden interest, but I doubt that it has anything to do with goodwill. It was only a few hours ago that I came back from the day’s work chasing off Sarmatian ambushes, and he lapsed into wordless snarling at the blood coating my hands and face. “What are they, anyway?”

The gilt is flecking off the edges of the Bible’s pages, the parchment is yellowing and subtly rippling from the pressure of so much perusing, but the ink remains as clear and readable as ever. If only the content were the same. “This is the holy book of Christianity, and those are some essays by philosophers I follow.”

“What, you can’t think for yourself, so you have to borrow some other man’s thoughts?” His teeth show in a wolf’s grin, and he drops all pretense of friendliness. “You hate what you do, but you do it so well. How many Sarmatians have you killed today?”

“As many that tried to kill me.” As dead as I think I am these days, the anger that still boils up from time to time always manages to shock me. Sooner or later, it’s going to rise so fast that I’ll lose my grip on myself and move past regret into what can’t be forgiven.

I drop the Bible with a lack of ceremony that no longer makes me wince and reach for my cloak. “If you hate Romans so much, then why would you expect me to be better?”

“Perhaps I think you’re not so much of a Roman as you think,” Lancelot hisses, flopping over the furs to strain like a hungry hound at a wounded deer. “You sympathize with us, don’t you? Why do you still cleave to Rome?”

“Because I know more of it than I do of Sarmatia. Because it’s treated me well in the past, whereas I’ve seen nothing but hatred since I stepped foot in this land.” At this time of night, I can’t even go for a long, hard ride. The best I can hope for is an angry walk around the camp, and many questions from concerned, clueless corners during that, which won’t do anything to calm me down. “Rome is more than what you see here.”

He rolls back and regards me with a slit-eyed stare that’s reminiscent of a wolf studying the lie of the herd. Then he shrugs off enough of the blankets for his still-healing wounds to be visible. “Possibly, but what I see is what matters. The beautiful words you speak don’t have any presence in this land that I can tell. And why do you keep running, Arthur?”

I almost turn around to reply as I leave, but the truth in what he says quenches the furious reply that is jerking my head around. Instead, I go and I stare at the stars, searching for evidence of a divine power in their splendor, but all I find is the distance between them and me.

Someone walks from yellow-outlined silhouette fully into the light of the few torches around. Phillipus looks drawn and old, and almost sorry. “Artorius. A scout just rode in; there’s a group of Sarmatians massing nearby for a night attack.”

* * *

It wasn’t that she was a woman, because I’ve seen women fighting alongside the men since childhood, and I don’t share the belief of the other Romans that they’re weaker. Death is death, whether it comes from a woman’s hand or a man’s, and in Sarmatia as in Britain, the one is as likely as the other. It wasn’t that she was Sarmatian either; in the moment before sword meets flesh, distinctions like that cease to matter.

It was that she was bending over, and my blade took her in the back. I know that her hand was reaching for a pike, but what I see is silver scraping the skin from her spine and raising a great gout of blood that still clogs my nostrils. I’ve done that before and seen nothing wrong with it, too taken by the heat of battle, but that grim euphoria had somehow vanished and I had had to fight on while seeing and understanding with complete clarity what I was doing.

First light is just slipping over the horizon, and it’s dull red. The entire world is colored in slaughter, shaded in blackness, and I can’t find a trace of whiteness anywhere. I’ve never heard God, and rarely felt His presence as a personal experience, but up till now I’ve always been able to find evidence of Him in his handiwork. But I only see the handiwork of Rome as I stagger to my tent, fighting fatigue and nausea, and what Rome has wrought here is not what the Rome of my heart and mind would have done.

If the part has wronged, must the whole be destroyed? Once I thought that good can outweigh bad, but the measure of that is not so simple, I now understand. History rewrites itself, layers interpretation over interpretation to obscure the old. Philosophy deals with the abstracts a concrete world exiles, and religion is the false comfort of those who cannot stand on their own.

Memory lasts and lasts, a jumble of life against death, happiness against suffering, and those all glare out with equal strength. It becomes a matter of majority against minority, and here the majority is dropping me to my knees and pulling up the contents of my stomach into an empty bowl. I retch until my throat feels as raw as my soul, and then I retch until nothing comes up but the old, inadequate ideals that had brought me here.

My fingers tremble-wipe my mouth clean, then swipe themselves off on my cloak. I leave that heaped on the floor like the rag it now is and stumble in the dark for the cot. My hand hits warm flesh, and then the progression of the world begins again for me. “Sorry—I forgot you were here.”

“What…” It’s too dark to make out Lancelot’s face, or determine how long he’s been up. Disembodied hands cautiously press against my chest, then drag their tether up my side. They stop when pain suddenly blooms into a hiss on my part. I can feel two of his fingers dab up something, then rub their tips against each other. “Is this your blood?”

I want to sleep and sleep and never wake into the bed I’ve made for myself again. I don’t want to put up with the recriminations I know are forthcoming from him; already I have enough in which to drown. “Does it matter to you? Most of it’s from your countrymen.”

He sucks in a breath. “I guessed that for myself. So you won.”

“No, I didn’t. I don’t win anything. Now move. Please.” The chair’s taken enough of my weight over the past few weeks—no, that’s a lie. Honesty is that I’m an amalgam of too many things to hold together any longer, that I’m too weak to be the champion of Pelagius’ utopia and that I’m too pathetic to abandon the superstructure around which I’ve built my entire life. I wish I could simply be one or the other, idealist or soldier, but I can’t.

Truth is that I’m tired of trying to give when I see no return, that I’m horrified at myself for demanding a return for benevolence. I want to sleep in my bed, and I’m too tired to care whether Lancelot decides to strangle me or not.

As I crawl over him and collapse in the free space, my armor probably bruises him. It certainly will leave Sarmatian blood smeared over us both, and the furs will reek for days afterward as a reminder, but for the moment, none of those considerations are enough to penetrate the haze that passes for my mind.

I’ve slept in armor before, when I wasn’t wounded and exhausted, and it hurt. Now my side burns, my muscles seem to melt into each other, and in the end, I feel nothing.

The hands come back and touch my face, then drift down to my ribs. As I drift off into an aching, ill rest, I can feel furs being pulled over me and another body sliding down beside me. Rope scratches the base of my throat as fingers press against it, then curl into relaxation.

* * *

We never actually enter the city. Camp is made a mile away, and reinforcements and fresh supplies are brought out to us to plump our starved selves back to something resembling a proud Roman army. It only takes two days to accomplish that, and then another two to settle all the newcomers. In that time, the number of Sarmatian slaves in the camp decrease by a third as a few brave slavers work their way through the camp.

I haven’t returned to dozing in the chair, but now share the bed with Lancelot. He moves when he dreams, like a sleeping dog, and burrows into my neck whenever he can. When he’s awake, he’s very careful not to touch me, and his words are sharper than ever.

One day over the morning meal, Lancelot looks up at me with startlingly transparent eyes and says, “I hate everything you stand for.”

And I reply, “I know.”

He’s quiet after that for the rest of the day, and I’m too deeply absorbed into the unexpected reprieve to question why. It’s peaceful enough for me to try and pray again, and when I find that I still can’t, I keep myself under control mainly because I don’t want to wreck whatever fragile truce we’ve made.

That afternoon, Aurelius calls all the officers in and tells us that there will be no extended rest. We’re to join up with the other armies and deal the combined Sarmatian tribes one last blow that will decide everything.

That’s all I wait for now, I realize.

* * *

Three hours before the start of the battle, I drop a pair of packed saddlebags at Lancelot’s feet as he sits on the cot. “When we deploy, there’ll hardly be anyone left in camp. My second spare will be hobbled outside, with tack on as if I forgot to take him out with me. You can ride him wherever you wish, though if you’re going to join the fighting, I don’t want to know.”

He stops picking at the rope around his wrists and stares at me.

I look away and stare at my Bible, which I haven’t opened since the night I crawled back into my own bed. Most of its corners are lopped off, and its binding is almost thin enough to see through in places; I remember when it was new that I thought it was the most perfect, lavish book I’d ever seen.

“You’re really letting me go.” Lancelot kicks at my ankle and forces me to turn back to his fierce scrutiny.

“You’re a grown man,” I tell him as I sit on the bed and begin to put on my boots. “You’ve been free from birth to do whatever you wish. Now that you’re strong enough, I’ve no claims or responsibilities to you.”

Just as when I first saw him, the heat of his eyes flays the skin from me. He leans in, hesitates, and then kisses me.

I suppose that after finding out that I’m not a true Christian, Roman or even a true man, it shouldn’t be surprising that my preferences in regards to this no longer lie where I thought they did. It’s certainly an anticlimax; so much of me has already been stripped raw to the elements that this last tearing barely registers.

What does register is the way everything breaks at once. When my vision clears, Lancelot is pinned under me and my rage is flexing my entire body in violent shudders. “For God’s sake, you’re free! You don’t owe me anything! Not debt, not gratitude—”

“I’m not grateful,” he snarls back, throwing his legs over so we’re dragged further onto the cot. “Not in the least, you damned—whatever you are. I should hate you, but I don’t. Instead, I want—damn it, fuck me and let me go and get out of my country!”

“I’ve every intention of doing that.” My hissed words should apply only to the last part of his cry, but I’m tasting blood leaking from his lips and my fingers are losing themselves in his twisting, struggling flesh, and I cannot put anything together any more.

I have no idea what I’m doing. I think he does, but between his curses and moans, he isn’t capable of providing too much guidance. At any rate, my head is too clouded and my mouth too full of sweet bitterness for me to listen. I don’t even remember to untie him, and he doesn’t remember to tell me.

He scratches me with his bindings as his palms press my sides and hips and thighs into shivering, as his tongue shoves aside mine and rakes itself on my teeth. None of our clothes completely make it off our bodies, and the furs rumple up around us to tangle us even more tightly together, until even licking can’t determine which limb belongs to whom, because we both groan. Nails flick over my nipples, carve fire out of my ribs and tease my prick into hanging heavy over his stomach, which curves in and out to rub against the tip of my cock.

Lancelot ends up on his elbows and knees because his wrists are still tied to the side of the bed, and I can’t seem to persuade my mouth to release his shoulder as I grope for something. Detailed denunciations of deviant acts by street preachers and the inevitable lack of privacy in army life have given me a vague knowledge of what’s necessary, but trying to grasp the application of it to myself is like trying to hold sand. Or trying to hold onto Lancelot, who bucks and writhes and grinds his ass into me as if he can sense whenever I’m attempting to put rational thoughts together.

It’s a haze how exactly my fingers end up in him, and I mostly know only how he moves on them, the way his back curves like the graceful bows his people use. His head drops into the blankets to muffle the harsh rattling whines coming from his throat, and his fingers twist themselves around the rope. “Fuck me. Please, please…fuck me, damn it.”

It’s fragmentary and staccato and disjointed, and the bits of garbled speech don’t connect until my prick is in him and my fist is blocking my own gasps. Then it’s too late to think on the wrongness of his pleading, on the rope that is strained tight across the sheets. I can only move with him, and think that this feels like dying and living and falling upwards.

Afterward, there’s a moment that hangs in the air like a single shimmering note plucked from a lyre.

Then we’re pulling apart, wiping at ourselves. I redress myself as best as I can and start strapping on my armor, then reach for my sword. Lancelot speaks before my fingers touch it. “Can I ask you not to use that?”

“Can I ask you not to join the Sarmatian army?” Excalibur swings loose and liquid in my hand before nestling against my back, a reminder of my father’s legacy. “One way or another, I’m going to leave Sarmatia after today. So you’ll have all your wishes.”

And then I cut his bonds, and I walk into the sunlight with the taste of him still coating my tongue.

* * *

Fighting is blur and react, cutting and thrusting while all around groans deafen the screams and blood wipes the sky scarlet. When the signal comes, I lead my assigned men into our charge. As I block the first blow and turn my sword into the first Sarmatian, the violence seeps into my mind and overtakes my reason. I become nothing more than another puppet of war, waiting for chance to strike me down and doing nothing to avert that.

It doesn’t happen. My blade grows gored and sticky, my arms and legs fill with leaden exhaustion, and I slowly recede back into myself to see that we’ve won. The Sarmatians have been trapped in a tight mob in the midst of us, and despite repeated attempts, they can’t break free. They’ve no choice but to surrender, and in fact, that’s what they’re in the process of doing.

It wasn’t an easy battle, I begin to remember. Several times the outcome began to tip away from the Romans, and I’m surprised to recall that I had a hand in shoving the balance back. That is my duty and debt discharged in full to Rome.

“Finally we get to give those fucking sons of bitches what they deserve!” shouts someone down the line, and a mass of soldiers starts surging toward the surrendering Sarmatians. None of the officers make a move to stop them.

A moment later, I realize that I know that because I’m galloping to cut off the mob, and I have no company. When I rein in, my stallion rears and nearly kicks off the head of the lead man. “Get back to your positions,” I yell. “You’ve received no orders to do otherwise.”

“And since when did we need orders for making up for all the shit they’ve done to us?”

“We’ve earned this!”

“You’ve earned nothing. You’re soldiers of Rome, not barbarians.” The slow press of the men is forcing my horse back, and it’s all I can do to keep the excited animal from killing someone. “You stand for law and order, and you’ll go back and wait because that’s what I’m ordering you to do.”

One of the front men steps out, face truculent. “And what if we don’t like your order?”

“Then you can take on the consequences for not only disobeying a superior officer, but killing him as well.” I have Excaliber beneath the man’s throat before he can blink, or before I can fully understand what I’m doing. In truth, I seem to be detached from the situation, floating up above while someone else with far more courage and strength of conviction than myself does what needs to be done. “On pain of death, I’m ordering you back. You’ll have plenty of time to celebrate later—aren’t your wounds crying out right now? Go back and rest.”

“What are you waiting for?” snarls a second voice. Phillipus canters up and wheels his horse sharply to put it next to mine; his face is white with fury. “Goddamn it, get back before I have the lot of you flogged!”

Aulus is just behind him, and in the face of three officers, the soldiers’ indoctrinated discipline reasserts itself. Grumbling, dragging their feet a little, they turn back. And Phillipus turns on me. “You goddamned idiot! What the hell were you—what, you survived the battle so you thought you’d try and get killed?”

“I was keeping order,” I reply, terse as I can be and still retain a modicum of politeness. When we turn to leave, he quickly peels off and heads for the general.

“Artorius, sometimes I really wonder about you,” Aulus sighs. “This doesn’t have anything to do with that slave you got, does it?”

I look at him, and he flinches into defensive. As we return to the Roman lines, I swallow enough of my irritation and secret alarm to ask. “Why’d you two come after me?”

“Because you made us, you jackass. Letting the soldiers rampage is part of war, but letting them kill an officer as high-ranking as you? And especially after you saved everyone’s asses twice during the battle.” Shaking his head, he directs his horse back to his men. “You know, I always wanted to call us friends, but I don’t think I’ll ever understand you enough.”

That surprises me enough to make me look twice, and I add another regret to my count for overlooking Aulus. “I’m sorry.”

“I doubt that.” The other man grins a little, and raises a hand. After a moment, so I do. “God go with you, whatever you’re doing, Artorius.”

“And you,” I murmur, watching him go.

* * *

Aurelius is an old man now, greyheaded and greybearded. Every passing season sees his back bent a little more under the collective burdens life has brought him, but his eyes and mind are still keener than those of most young men. “Artorius, I really don’t know what to do with you.”

I sit with my back straight, and wait for a moment that I can interrupt with my request to leave.

He abruptly spins on his heel and stares at the back of the tent, as if he has some speech written there. “I purposely had that Sarmatian given to you. Would you like to guess why?”

“I don’t believe I’d come up with the correct answer.” Which is true. I still don’t understand how it all began—and it did begin then.

“Fair enough. I don’t want to guess why he went missing.” The general twists just enough to shoot a piercing gaze over his shoulder. “I did that because I wanted you to understand Rome. The Republic, the Empire—everything that was ever Rome was built on the backs of slaves. On the base of conquest. If you want to truly uphold Rome, you have to accept that.”

Before the words can leave my opening mouth, he raises a hand and lowers his head. In that instant, I recognize the same shade of exhaustion of the spirit within him as is within me.

“And you can’t, can you?” Aurelius draws in a deep breath, and then, surprisingly enough, he laughs. “You’ve a great future ahead of you somewhere—best damned cavalry commander I ever had. But it’s not in the Roman mold. Ah, well…I do like you, Artorius. I respect the way you’ve always stood up for what you believed.”

Embarrassment mingles with shame to burn my cheeks, and I don’t attempt to speak.

“Rome’s not everywhere. She’s been shifting her attention away from the west for a long time, looking towards the new threats of Germania and of the east.” He taps his fingers on the top of the desk, then twists to peer at me in as kindly a manner as he can manage. “With your performance in the Sarmatian campaigns, you’ll be welcome anywhere in the Empire, and I think you’ve earned the right to choose. You can even retire if you like; your term of service is nearly over. So the question is where?”

For a long time, I sit and stare at my hands. One of them is faintly scarred in the webbing between the index and the thumb, and if I tilt my hand toward the light, I can make out the individual teeth marks.

I miss him.

But I’ll never be comfortable in Sarmatia. What I’ve learned here is what I need to find, and that is somewhere that I know, truly and without any illusions to the better or worse of it.

“I’d like to go back to Britain,” I finally say.

Aurelius’ eyes darken with hard-earned understanding, and he bends down to start inscribing words on paper.

* * *

I am straddling the land and sea when he shoves his way through the busy crowd on the gangplank and catches my arm. With a curse, I regain my balance at the last possible moment and stand up, only to have my knees melt with shock.

Lancelot’s still too thin, and there are bruises I don’t remember peeking from his collar. But the saddlebags slung over his shoulder are instantly recognizable, and so is the horse he’s leading.

“Arthur. You look much better than the last time I saw you.” His Latin is accented, but otherwise perfect. He nervously shuffles on the planking, then elbows aside one of the men hauling cargo into the ship.

“How on earth did you get here?” is my intelligent reply.

This is the first time I ever see his smile when it’s not hard and sharp with mockery, but soft and floating on pride. “Oh, I have ways. Just because I ended up captured doesn’t mean that I’m helpless.”

“No, I can see that.” My fingers are itching, and I have the feeling that I’m watching him entirely too closely for such a public place. The corners of my mouth are hurting, but I don’t realize it’s because I’m smiling until a few moments later.

“So…I hear you’re going to Britain. Land of nasty weather and nastier women.” His eyes flick over my shoulder, tracking the men loading my stallion onto the ship, and the separate signs start forming a theory in my head. Lancelot must have sensed that, because he pushes a little nearer and drops the boastful act. “I have no idea what you did to me, but I’m never going to let you forget it.”

It hurts, low dull throb in my gut, but I step back. And he steps forward, even when I raise a hand to stop him. “You’re not coming with me. Sarmatia—”

“Isn’t just a piece of land to me. I can carry it around inside if I happen to have a desire to see the world.” He takes another step, which puts him on the ship proper. “Besides, you’re not responsible for me in any way now, remember?”

Looking at him burns my eyes, the way trying to look at the sun does. I stumble back a little further, and by the time I’ve wiped my eyes clear, he’s already paid the shipmaster and had himself listed as my manservant. It’s doubtful whether that will last past the first port of call.

Then he turns around, hesitating for the first time, and I slowly cross to his side. We’ve much between us, good and bad, and I find that I’m looking forward to sorting that out.


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