|Reversals Prologue: Invasion
Author: Guede Mazaka
"And how is the great commander?" The voice was low and strangely rough, and the body that swung into the room was exceptionally slender even for a Briton soldier.
Arthur leaned back and rolled his shoulders, wincing whenever he strained a cramped muscles, before he turned about to face the rather insolent..."Someday, they're going to notice how remarkably you fill out those clothes and we'll all be in trouble."
From the look of her grin, Guinevere didn't particularly care. She doffed her clumsy-looking helmet and dropped into the nearest chair, lounging about as well as anyone could in light armor. In truth, only the tight bun at the back of her head would've given her away; thanks to tight bindings, her front was flat beneath the heavy cloak and light armor, and the line of her jaw was uncommonly hard for a woman, though her features were quite beautiful. "It's worked this long. Besides, our...superior Roman authorities barely show up often enough to keep us paid, let alone to notice me. Or to restock or reinforce the garrison. Honestly, Arthur, if the women didn't fight, you'd be in very desperate straits."
"I know." Her comment pointedly reminded Arthur of the laborious accounting he'd been doing when she had come in. He turned back to his desk and distastefully eyed the calculations emerging on his sheets. "Though I have a feeling that even if I didn't need the soldiers, you'd still manage to show up on the battlefield."
"Of course." Guinevere could stay so still that even insects didn't detect her presence, but apparently, she didn't feel like doing so at the moment. She rolled back onto her feet and crossed to Arthur's desk, where she put her hands on his shoulders and leaned over him. "What's wrong?"
He glanced up at her, smiling a little when he saw how the dying light silvered her white throat. Her fingers were casually massaging his sore muscles, deftly working out the knots and aches, and he was seriously tempted to simply pillow his head on her bound breasts and go to sleep. Given that he hadn't had a full night's rest in days, he certainly could use it.
"Arthur." She flicked a questioning glance at him, and the arch of her eyebrow indicated that she wouldn't suffer any dissembling.
Well, Guinevere hadn't earned her position simply because she was good in bed-though she was-and after Merlin, she was the best officer Arthur had. She did have a right to know what was going on.
Nevertheless, Arthur was reluctant to retrieve the newly-arrived dispatches and select the pertinent one for her viewing. He handed over the slender scroll and forced himself to stay while she slowly absorbed the contents of the terse, compressed Latin script. Though Guinevere didn't share Arthur's love of scholarly pursuits, she did have an excellent command of multiple languages. In that context, she took an unusually long time to read through a few short paragraphs.
When she finished, she snapped shut the scroll with a sharp, angry gesture. "Goths."
"We've known for years that they were angling for Sarmatia and the lands south of here." Arthur spoke in his mildest tone in hopes that it might temper the outburst he knew was coming.
"Of course we have. And of course, Rome has done little to prepare for the advance, trusting that the native peoples and the famous Briton garrison will be sufficient to hold them back." Guinevere flung the scroll at the desk as if it were a dagger and stomped to the far end of the tent, where she stood with her back to Arthur and her fists clenched to her sides.
Three breaths went by without a movement from either of them. Then Guinevere spun around and stared at Arthur, wrapping her arms around herself. Surprisingly enough, her eyes were not full of righteous indignation, but of resigned sorrow. "This land isn't what we're suited for, you know. We've been here long enough to learn to fight in legions-even on horseback--but we're not meant for the steppes. And I'm the first generation that will be allowed to return to Britain after discharge-that wouldn't have been for another nine years, but I was looking forward to it."
"You still should be. You will live to get those discharges. I swear it." Alarmed by the dullness of her tone, Arthur got up and started to move toward her, but she waved him off.
"No, no. It's not that hard to understand, anyway-my forebears rebelled, but they fought so well that the Romans thought exile to Sarmatia would yield more than a massacre. And really, it was an excellent idea. If I'd been the Roman in charge, I probably would've done the same." She returned to her chair and spun it around so she could straddle it. Long years of practice at deception meant that her stance was loose and masculine, but with a refreshing unconsciousness that Arthur found quite appealing. "It's only-Visigoths? As if the Sarmatians themselves weren't bad enough."
Arthur also resumed his seat and started pulling maps toward himself, taking refuge in planning. If they could work on defenses and possible strategies, then perhaps everything else would start falling in place. If not, then they at least would have the luxury of falling apart behind strong walls.
That was an uncommonly cynical thought for him, and he paused for a moment before rejecting it.
"I think we've figured out how to beat the Sarmatian heavy cavalry with our infantry, and your light horse is just about par with their raiding parties. The Goths, on the other hand, are unknown quantities." With swift, precise motions, Arthur started marking out relative positions with a bit of chalk. That chore took far less time than it should have, due to the scantiness of the provided intelligence. They'd have to start implementing measures to make up that shortfall.
As she never could resist a military discussion, Guinevere was soon back by the desk, pointing out weak points that needed shoring up and vigorously arguing with Arthur about priorities. She'd been right in that they'd been sorely neglected, and as stretched thin as they already were, it was going to be difficult to cover their entire sphere of responsibility.
"Look, all the villages this side of the river are-well, about as friendly as you can get in Sarmatia, but these? Arthur, we just had a raiding party from that direction last week!" Snarling more than pouting, she derisively flicked her fingers at the patch of map under discussion.
"Exactly. They're already ramped up for warfare, and you and I both know that there's no love lost between the Sarmatians and the Goths." Arthur glanced up to see the stubbornness still lingering her eyes, then bowed his head and raked fingers through his hair. It'd been newly cropped, and the barber hadn't been particularly gentle so tender spots were plentiful along his hairline. He hissed at the sting.
Concerned, Guinevere reached for him, but he intercepted her hand and used that hold to draw her to him, so close their noses were touching. "Guinevere. If I had another choice, I would take it. But-" he closed his eyes, not wanting to see the disappointment in her face "-but there isn't. We need more soldiers."
"I know. I just hate it," she finally replied, soft and slow. Their foreheads bumped for a few more seconds, and then she tilted her head so their lips met.
A moment later they were throwing themselves apart and whipping around to face the raucous chaos outside the window. Arthur was through the hallway and at the commotion in the space of two breaths, where he found several soldiers using pikes to hold two rearing, panicking stallions at bay. On the horses' backs were bloody bundles of leather and metal that lurched and groaned with every buck. A particularly high kick by one of the horses nearly sent one flying off. It also revealed a pale, sweating face and a cool bright eye.
"Hold them! Damn it, get them calm!" While he was yelling orders, Arthur was also following them. He timed the nearest horse's plunging and, when it was coming down, swiftly slipped in to seize its bridle.
The horse tossed him about as if his weight were no more than that of a butterfly's. A hoof whistled past his head, a hairsbreadth from cracking his skull open. Then everything skewed as someone else grabbed onto the other side; the stallion went down and Arthur rushed to soothe the animal into staying that way. Over its nose, he could see other soldiers doing the same to the second horse-and Guinevere's face, pale with outrage. "You are the stupidest man on earth," she hissed.
"I thought the Romans didn't use women in the army," interrupted a thready voice. It was the rider, a young Sarmatian man, and his strained amusement seemed to be the only thing holding him together.
"I'm Briton, not Roman," Guinevere snapped back. "And I hear you let your women fight as well."
Racking coughs from the other rider caught their attention, but only Arthur turned. Since they didn't yet know the affiliation of these Sarmatians, it wasn't wise to deem them harmless no matter how injured they appeared to be. Again the cynicism made Arthur wince, but he'd been too long in the country to not appreciate its sense. "Where did you come from and what happened?"
"We do let our women fight," answered the other man. Curly hair matted down with drying blood, a resentful expression and a posture that bespoke at least severe bruising of the ribs, and more likely a few cracked ones. "Not that it did any good. Those fucking Goths-raped them with pricks and swords, and-and-damn it, it's so awful we have to come to you."
"Where?" Arthur could hear Guinevere already shouting orders, getting the garrison mobilized. Goths...a scouting party, perhaps. But already? The Empire's intelligence wasn't that weak, and he was in a position to know since he spent most of his time trying to milk information out of his contrary colleagues, who saw little reason to help a garrison staffed with known malcontents.
The man he was facing was taken by another fit of coughing and started to tumble off. Both Arthur and the other Sarmatian lunged for him, which consequently found Arthur in the unenviable position of trying to catch two men at once. He somehow managed it, then gratefully handed off the curly-haired one to Merlin, who'd finally arrived. Being more skilled in medicinal arts than most surgeons, Merlin carried his burden to a clear spot, pinned the man down, and promptly started treating him.
Arthur followed with the other Sarmatian, who was rasping details with a mouth that looked as if it'd been broken with a club. No doubt it was only a few lost teeth that was responsible for all the blood, but it still looked terrible.
"Not...not any of the villages. There was a meeting of tribal leaders...twenty miles from here. North." The bright eye warily watched Arthur, and with good reason, since the named location was squarely within hostile territory.
"A meeting," Guinevere repeated, coming up from behind. She was carrying Arthur's armor and weapons, which he took after carefully helping the Sarmatian lie down.
The man closed his eyes, then opened them. He suddenly grabbed Arthur's wrist and, ignoring the dagger Guinevere instantly had at his throat, pulled Arthur down. "Yes, we were negotiating. Some of the older ones wanted peace...Rome already bleeds us dry. But the Goths broke the truce."
"Fucking bast-" Merlin wrenched something back into its socket and the second Sarmatian keened "-fucking bastards. I'll slaughter them for that."
"We'll make them scream," his comrade agreed. Then he turned back to Arthur, his gaze still disturbingly lucid. "But only if you go now, and save what remains of us."
Guinevere withdrew her dagger, but the look she gave Arthur was far from blunted. She clearly didn't trust the men, and when Arthur glanced at Merlin, neither did the other man. But they were waiting for him to answer, believing in him to give the right one.
"We would've gone anyway," Arthur replied as he strapped on his sword. "You're under Roman rule, and you have the right to demand our protection. Guinevere-"
"-your horse will be here in a minute." She threw one last glare at the Sarmatians, who met it with equanimity. "And of course, we expect you to support the Empire in return," she muttered.
Merlin said nothing and continued to treat the Sarmatians as he would any other men, though the look in his eyes told Arthur that the next war council was going to be uncomfortable. The curly-haired Sarmatian flopped back and gritted his teeth against Merlin's ministrations; now that Arthur was close enough to see past the filth on the man's face, he could see that the Sarmatian was actually little more than a youth.
The other one was older and calmer, and from the looks of things, had come from one of the eastern tribes. He rolled over on what was apparently the less pained side and patiently waited his turn, eyes fixed on the younger one. "He's going to help," he whispered, dialect strangely guttural to Arthur's ears but just understandable.
"All right, I was wrong. But mark my words, it's still going to cost us," the curly-haired one shot back. Also in a Sarmatian tongue.
Arthur briefly weighed the wisdom of revealing this particular advantage so early on, then decided that he needed mutual confidence more than he needed secrecy. "It'll cost us more," he said in the same dialect that the curly-haired one had used. "We have to heal you, arm you and feed you in addition to the vexillations stationed here."
Both Sarmatians jerked to stare at him, pure astonishment in their eyes. The younger one was nearly slack-jawed in his incredulity. "But you're a Roman!" he gasped.
"My father was a Sarmatian knight-I'm descended from the group that was exiled to Britain. My...Roman name is Artorius Castus, but the Britons call me Arthur." The last piece of armor clamped its weight to Arthur's body just as he spotted his horse being led up. With a nod to the Sarmatians, he made for it.
A soft cough made him pause and turn, whereupon the older Sarmatian, expression considerably more respectful, nodded back. "I am Tristan, and this is Galahad."
"Welcome to the Roman army," Arthur said, managing a small smile. He knew it would come out ironic, but he had neither the time nor the desire to compose himself into a more deceptively cheerful tone. Darkness and the ravages of war were waiting, and it was all he could do to try and pretend that he could prepare himself for it.
As was usual with them, the Goths had struck and gone back north to rejoin their brethren, apparently content with the havoc they had wrecked. That was both good and bad: good because that meant Arthur wouldn't have to waste soldiers engaging them, bad because every single man and woman of the exploratory detachment was in the mood for blood now that they had seen the aftermath. Though Guinevere hated the Sarmatians with the detached implacability that constant fighting against an utterly alien people bred, she wouldn't have ever wished this on them.
It was hard to differentiate human corpses from those of horses, so hacked up were the majority, and sometimes it was just difficult to tell whether something was an especially gory piece of wood or an arm flayed of every inch of its skin. Toes nestled in entrails that were draped over a sword planted in the ground, as if in claim of the land. A headless woman, sword still in hand, was skewered against a collapsed tent. Another one was still twitching despite a missing right leg and mutilated breasts; it took only a moment for Guinevere to see that it was too late, but it took three for her to slash through the woman's throat. The Britons were by no means soft in their ideas of war or religion, but this mindless gore was just past too much, even for Guinevere.
Arthur had blanched as soon as they had crested the hill and seen the horror, but he had closed up before she could say anything. In a toneless voice, he had directed the cavalry to dismount and then had organized a systematic search of the mess for survivors while Guinevere saw to the perimeter guard and the trackers. And he hadn't spared himself afterward, but had gotten down and started wading through the mess himself.
Survivors were pitifully few, and included none of the elders. The Goths must have started during the meeting, so only the younger, less-important delegation members that had been banished to wait outside the main tent had had the time to defend themselves. Clever, the objective part of Guinevere's mind said.
The subjective part was preoccupied with not gagging as she levered up a large bit of planking, which had probably been part of a wagon bottom, and thus was blasted with a billow of reeking air. But-fresh blood. And movement.
"You found one?" Arthur didn't wait for an answer, but instead put his shoulder to the planking and shoved it completely free of the surrounding debris to reveal a small hiding space crammed with bodies.
At first, Guinevere thought there was had to be at least five, but then she and Arthur were untangling the limbs and dodging sprays of blood, and she saw that there were at the most two live ones. It seemed as if the two men had crawled beneath when they were too hurt to fight, then jammed the entrance with hacked-off limbs from other bodies. She absently wondered whether it'd been the stench or the blood loss that had made them faint.
Even through gloves, the squish of injured flesh was disgusting. But it provoked a groan that was reassuringly loud, and in the sudden rise of hope that followed, Guinevere forgot her revulsion. She squeezed her arm further inside and carefully maneuvered a leg out of the way, then pulled the man free.
He screamed and spasmed, then fell still, his long sticky hair lashing across her knees. She thought it might be brown once it was clean, but right now it was just a hindrance as she tried to detect a breath. Guinevere leaned over and put her ear beside where she thought his mouth was, then straightened up with a sigh of relief. "I think this one'll live to see the garrison."
"Good," Arthur grunted, still wrestling with the other one. He finally got his arm under the limp form and was dragging it out when the man abruptly woke, wide dark eyes flashing fear and fury at Guinevere over Arthur's shoulder.
Quick as lightning, Arthur had the other man pinned to him, but gently so none of the visible wounds were stressed. "Shh. We're not Goths. We're here to help," he whispered.
Sarmatian rolled off Arthur's tongue like silken thunder in a way that never happened when he spoke Latin or even Briton. It was possibly the one aspect of Sarmatia in him that Guinevere enjoyed without reservation.
"You're Roman," the other man croaked. Dazed recognition dimly lit his eyes. "Arthur of the Britons...heard of you..."
"Try not to move. We have to move too quick for stretchers, and if you're going to ride I have to bind your wounds." Arthur hesitated, then added the inevitable afterthought. "It's going to hurt."
The Sarmatian grinned, amusement somehow managing to rise through the bruises and the blood. He half-closed his eyes and laid black curls against Arthur's shoulder, docile as a young child with a mother. "It usually does."
Guinevere was busy attending to the one she'd pulled out, but the unusual spark in Arthur's Sarmatian caught her attention and she kept an eye on him. He was a little older than her, leanly built in a way that must have been embarrassing lankiness until recently. Sword calluses could be made out on both his hands, and the sharp gleam under those long girl's lashes hinted at much experience.
She was careful to keep him from seeing her watching, but in truth he didn't even seem to notice that she was there. His gaze slanted on Arthur and stayed on Arthur, even when pain was wracking his entire body.
Once Arthur and she were both done, Arthur waved over a soldier to take charge of Guinevere's Sarmatian, though he himself carried the man he'd recovered. "I need you in the rearguard," he said by way of terse explanation.
Guinevere looked at her gory hands and shifted her shoulders to feel the amount of strain that had settled there. "No rest for the wicked. See you back in the garrison, virtuous man."
"Don't be ridiculous." But Arthur smiled for a moment, a little of his stone mask falling away. As he walked away, she could hear him diffidently asking the Sarmatian, "What's your name?"
"Lancelot," the breeze blew back to Guinevere.