Author: Guede Mazaka
Once, one late night when the fog was rising warm instead of its usual clammy cold, Arthur stared into the fire and told Lancelot about Nero. About the early days of Christianity, when Christians were as or more likely to be taken as living torches than taken seriously. And as the other manís lips moved, shaping the rough story into oratorical vowels and grating consonants, his eyes flickered light and dark with a second tale.
That is Arthur, in essence: layers and layers of words. In any other man, that would be taken as hypocrisy, or as vacillation, but with Arthur, every single refraction is a truth in and of itself. And the whole sometimes seems a broken crystal, with edges that razor Lancelotís fingertips into scarlet and pain whenever he tries to pry too deeply. He still has not heard whatever other story underlies the hurt and lingering fear with which Arthur speaks of fire.
And in turn that hurts him, makes him turn on Arthur like the mad dog that savages the hand that feeds it, caresses it, gentles it. Someday Lancelot will go too far and take off a finger, perhaps even a thumb, and Arthur will still reach out. The man is a lunatic as much as he is sun-dazed by the remembered lights of Rome.
Someday, heíll run out of fingers.
But while Lancelot can see the pointóChristians too know the horrors of persecution, the masters were once slaves, excess of any kind is detrimental to the wholeóhe still cannot see the change. Yes, things were thus then, and they may be in the future, but are they so now? Not from where he sits, muscles between his shoulders and in his thighs knotted tight with fatigue, blood crusted beneath his nails and, so he thinks, under his tongue. He is no crusader, but he is a fighter. And he has no book-learning comfort, no false light in the night from the candles of the churchówhere he is, the dark falls and things are black till the sun deigns to come, brief and distant and uncaring of those below.
Arthur would give him such if Lancelot asked, but it has been nearly thirty years and he has seen nothing happen without sword and flame and iron hooves to precipitate it. So he cannot see how it would alter what there is now. Words, words, wordsótheyíre nothing but pieces of slashed air, suitable only for wounding Arthur in the only way Lancelot can without sickening himself. And then Lancelot watches the glow in Arthurís eyes diminish and fade, leaving only the hollow reflection of the campfire flames to color them, and he does suffer that quick sharp pain in the gut that comes whenever he sees a wound on the other man. No, he does not grow ill then. Merely a little thinner, as if a chisel has been taken to him and used to scrape down another strip.
But the thinner Lancelot grows, the more likely the words are to get away from him. It recoils again and again, the snap of an arrow breaking backwards into the eye. Sometimes he storms away, hoping time will cool anger into black humoróforgetfulness takes away too much else to be usefulóand sometimes he stays till he succeeds in driving away Arthur.
Sometimes, but less often now, he catches himself. His tongue slams up and presses the words against the roof of his mouth, trapping him. The sounds are dangerous, sharp, struggling things that try to burn themselves free, and the effort makes his lungs sear. Then Arthur stares down at him with a different look, something half-divining and half-sacrificing, and reaches for him.
Arthurís blood does not taste the same as the blood of the men Lancelot has killed. However hot the blood of the enemy may be when its droplets flick into Lancelotís raging cry, Arthurís is always hotter. It seems sweeter, too, but that is only an illusion. A deeper taste brings nothing but bitterness.
Better bitter than dead, though, and even bitter Arthur threatens to overwhelm Lancelot. So he fights. Obviously. Idiot that he is, he always thinks that he can keep up. Match hand with hand, stroke with stroke, bend the throat to the mouth but sink nails into the back. Give-take, brace against each other and rake away the boundaries. Crucifixes Lancelot has never been able to stand, always tangling his earth-stained fingers around the too-polished beads and tearing them down, ripping bit by bit at the temple of the one true God. Their passing left inflamed red marks, little and rectangular like bricks in the skin of Arthurís neck and sometimes the underside of his jaw. So Lancelot would have to cover those as well, fit his teeth into their convenient shapes and drag his jaw till the red became distorted and patchy, a wild burn over Arthurís skin.
Arthur eventually gave up wearing them, though he still prays. True faith lies within, and not without in objects, he says. But his fingers ring Lancelotís arms with blue and black, and his tongue and lips leave purple raining from Lancelotís ear to his thigh, and he lingers on those spots the way Tristan will linger over a particularly strong track. Itís proof. Itís reminder. Itís what triggers Lancelotís first shudder and brings his arms around Arthurís neck so he can gouge elbows into Arthurís back.
The eyes are not the mirrors to the soul. Thatís sentimental blindness. The only way for one person to look inside another is to cut the other person open.
And when Arthurís hands write their angry, sad, wanting dedication into Lancelotís flesh, when those long fingers open him as easily as they do tomes of dusty dried-out wisdom, then Lancelot is being eviscerated. He tries as hard as he can, gnawing and clawing so there in the morning will be his proof, sucking through the sweet so the bitter will sting the inside of his mouth for days and days, but his fingers slip. His knees he brings up to clasp Arthur, but the other man sips the air from Lancelotís bruising mouth and licks the sear into Lancelotís cheek, throat, shoulder, and everything wisps from Lancelotís hands like so much smoke.
Every scar his nails catch on, every twisted ridge of flesh and ragged healed-over incision that rasp his lips is another sign Lancelot cannot erase from the earth. Here Arthur performed this miracle, here he reversed this destiny, and here are the prices exacted that he laid at the feet of the cross. No book is needed to understand the binding of blood-payment.
And here Lancelot is, split open into a falling-down incoherent clinging supplicant, raw side of him winding itself round Arthur, and the other man cannot see.
To be fair, Lancelot cannot see, either. He can only grope his way through the hot fog, forcing his limbs past the thickened space to try and read plain skin and muscle-shift and guttural whine as if he were lettered in that. He can only press his mouth again and again to the dull beat beneath Arthurís ribs, feeling for the crack where he might grow in. But his hands spell out nothing but hurry and desperation and mindless frenzy. But he nurses at Arthurís nipple till it is swollen and hard, every touch making the other man flinch, and yet no nourishment of any kind comes. But his head goes back and his gaze flies past Arthurís with only a grazing of burn. However intense the flame in the manís eyes is, Lancelot still does not know what the tinder for it is.
He guesses at that and he hates it, because there is fire that is cruel and consuming, and there is fire that is steady and warming. Lancelot would like to be the second. Heíd like to. He wants to.
Arthurís breath comes jagged because parts of it catch on his teeth, on Lancelotís teeth, and between them, they shred apart what sustains them. There is barely time to try, barely room to hold onto, but Lancelot still cannot do anything but fight. He grasps what he can, takes in as much as he can and hopes that perhaps that will work instead, if the other way around does out.
It hurts. Sears. Strips the top layer off of the roof of his mouth so every exhale makes him muffle a scream. As much as Lancelot thinks he knows of Arthur, there is always more, and his body doesnít think it can hold it. But it has to. He makes it. He is falling and he is still trying to tear down Arthur with him, and he hopes he does. Because it is black where Lancelot goes, but Arthur burns white.
The sunrise is a revelation in changelessness; Lancelot still cannot keep his mouth quiet long enough to accept Arthurís slow waking press of breath to breath. Arthurís eyes are no clearer, and his fingers draw themselves over the relics of the night with an air of terrified wonder instead of an air of familiar possession. It feels as if they lie together on a bed of ashes.
Some few sparks remain carefully cradled inside. They are tiny red pinpricks in the haze of gray, and they are all the light Lancelot has to see the way. He folds around them because he cannot do otherwise.