|Reversals I: Treachery and Trust
Author: Guede Mazaka
The closer Lancelot crept towards waking up, the less he wanted to. He could feel the blood rolling off of him, clogging up his mouth and nose, and it was foul-thick-choking--
"Stop that. Stop!" Female. Annoyed. Shoving down his feeble struggling.
He froze in place, then relaxed, seizing hold of the familiarity of the situation. "My apologies, lady. Do I have the honor of messing up your bed?"
A snort from across the room saw him tense again, but that tweaked a small pool of agony in his right ribs and he bit down on the pillow as he half-curled around himself. His fingers were just feeling out the tight bandages wrapped around himself when the new voice spoke. "You never stop, do you? They're all fucking dead and you've still got enough energy to flirt."
"Galahad. Last surviving son of your family or not, if you move the cot again I will break your neck." Tristan sounded as if he was talking through a mouth stuffed with grass, but his irritation came through clearly enough. It swiftly quieted the grumblings from Galahad's corner.
Though he'd only met Tristan a few days before and had never particularly liked Galahad, Lancelot nevertheless felt a surprisingly strong surge of relief at knowing they were still alive. He remembered-it hurt to go back and think of the chaotic raging massacre-he remembered Gawain had been beside him till the end, and he hadn't seen Dagonet fall, either. He remembered fighting until he could only crawl, and then crawling over crimson mud that had smelled-the foul scent still seemed to cling to him.
But they were alive. Some of them. And...Arthur. The Roman garrison, of all people, saving them. It was so unbelievable that Lancelot suddenly suspected he was only dreaming, still trapped under that broken wagon with someone's severed hand pressing against his cheek. He twisted around, but the pain wasn't convincing enough, so he tried to sit up and look around.
The hands were back, and not gentle at all as they pushed him back down. "Stop moving or you'll rip the stitches."
"And since Merlin's out with the scouts, you'd have to put up with her stitching," commented a voice like a storm rumble. Lancelot found himself going limp, asked himself why, and only then did he recognize the voice as Arthur's. So he hadn't dreamed that.
"I'm not that bad," the woman growled. The mattress bounced a little as she got off, yanking Lancelot into another pained half-curl.
Chuckling, Arthur slid a hand beneath Lancelot's chin and lifted it. It was anyone's guess what he was staring at; Lancelot's eyes were mostly glued shut by crusts of something, but he knew perfectly well that all that throbbing pain in his face couldn't equal a pretty picture.
Water dripping. Then a cool wet cloth, gingerly wiping over his eyes and brushing tantalizing moisture against his parched lips. He eagerly sucked in as much cloth as he could, using both tongue and teeth to squeeze as much water as he could from it.
"Guinevere, pour me some water, please." Arthur waited till Lancelot was done with his noisy slurping, then redipped the cloth and finished cleaning off his face.
Thankfully, the room was dark so Lancelot didn't have to worry about getting himself blinded. It still ached a little to see again, but the shadows and dull colors softly glided over his eyes, so adjustment only took a few seconds. Then he could have a proper look at everything.
Large stone room, so they must have been within the heart of the garrison. It was sparsely furnished, but what was there was of the best materials, both imported and local. A half-drawn curtain divided it into two parts, and the end they were in was crammed rather closely with cots containing the few wounded: Tristan and Galahad, Gawain slumped in the bed next to him, and Dagonet beneath the shuttered window. There might have been more elsewhere, but somehow Lancelot had a feeling that he was looking at all that was left of the Sarmatian leadership.
Guinevere turned out to be the intense, beautiful woman that was famous for being able to raid just as well as any Sarmatian. Up close, she turned out to be rather younger than was commonly assumed, but her looks certainly hadn't been exaggerated. Even with the flattening effect of her light armor, he could detect the faintest promise of some very nice curves. Probably more important, however, was the hint of dissatisfaction behind her calm mask of a face. It disappeared whenever she looked at Arthur, but flared up whenever she glanced at the Sarmatians.
Arthur was tall and much swarthier than the few other Romans Lancelot had met, so it was easy to believe that he was, as rumor had had it, half-Sarmatian himself. It was actually rather easy to look on him, period; he certainly wasn't anything like the demonic, maliciously intelligent monster of the campfire stories. In fact, as he gazed into the cup Guinevere had handed him, he resembled more an amused elder watching a skylarking boy come to grief than the most successful military commander ever sent to Sarmatia. Though of course he was far more appealing than the elders Lancelot had met. "This isn't water."
"No, it's herbs in water. Merlin fed you the same thing when you caught that fever." Guinevere folded her arms over her chest and silently matched gazes with Arthur. Something almost visibly trembled the air between them.
Then Arthur turned back to Lancelot, finally removing his hand from Lancelot's chin. A pity, because it was warm and had provided some support for Lancelot's heavy head. The cup that was pushed against his lips wasn't much of a substitute, given the sour smell of its contents. "Hold your breath and drink quickly," Arthur advised.
As it looked like the man was prepared to stand there and wait till the world crumbled, Lancelot reluctantly did as he was told. A moment later, he enthusiastically tried to cough the awful stuff back onto Arthur and nearly tumbled himself off the bed. His head banged into Arthur's shoulder, setting his mind into a nauseatingly crazy spin, and his bandaged hands wildly groped for handholds. "What the fuck was in that?"
"You don't want to know." Arthur calmly grabbed him by the waist, cradled him, and levered him back onto the bed. The other man started to let go, but Lancelot's balance was by no means recovered and he hurriedly pulled Arthur back.
The slight smile on Guinevere's face wasn't pleasant in the least as she regarded the other knights. Then she casually retrieved the mug from Arthur and poured out another dose. "You'll all have to drink it. Except for...what was his name?"
"Bors." With a sigh, Arthur sat down on the edge of the bed and let Lancelot lean against him. "The luckiest one of you. He was knocked out early and covered by so many bodies that they took him for dead. As soon as we got him back here, he was up and about, yelling for wine."
Gawain snickered and slowly rolled over, hissing a little whenever he jarred something. The corners of his smile were strained, but the humor in it was genuine enough. "Figures."
"So are we the only ones you found?" Lancelot asked, desperately hoping that his guess was wrong.
Arthur looked down at him, the laughter in those eyes slowly tarnishing to what appeared to be real sympathy. With the wisdom of the soldier, the other man didn't attempt to add false softness to his words. "All of you and Bors...yes. You're the only ones we could save."
"Better drink up," Guinevere said as she moved toward a wary Tristan. "You're not going to have much time to heal."
"No. We've got tribes to inherit." That wasn't strictly true in Lancelot's case, but it was close enough. He closed his eyes and tried to pretend that the feeling of leaden responsibility veining his shoulders wasn't unwelcome. "And parents to grieve."
He wouldn't weep. He swore that he wouldn't weep. The most any warrior could ask for was to die fighting, and while it'd been a bitter, hateful ambush, at least the family members that had fallen in it had done so with their faces to the enemy.
No one said anything in reply-like him, the other knights were now parentless as well-but Arthur quietly slid a hand down the length of Lancelot's back and the gesture provided a strangely satisfying comfort.
"When you're up to it, we need to know what the Goths were planning," Arthur eventually murmured, gently setting Lancelot back on the bed. He sounded apologetic about mentioning it, but his voice was also too firm to be put off.
"We can tell you that now," Tristan said. Galahad twisted around to glare at him, but they both knew the Romans were desperately needed allies now. "Though it's not going to be much."
Sputtering down his cup of medicine, Gawain nodded. "We're all younger sons. They kept us outside."
"Whatever you know is something I don't, but might need to. It'll be at least a month before any of the other garrisons could make it here." Arthur leaned back and favored them all with a smile that was as full of self-deprecation as of sardonic knowledge. "Unfortunately, I'm all you have to work with."
Tristan and Gawain both looked an inquiry at Lancelot, who shrugged in resignation and tried to get himself into a comfortable position. It was going to be a long recounting.
The bed sagged in the middle, Galahad hurt more than he ever had in his life, and he needed to piss. All of that was simply the unfairness of life, but the presence of Tristan on the side of the cot that was facing the room made Galahad think that someone somewhere was making fun of him.
Behind that ragged tangle of hair, one eye snapped open. "What?"
Galahad told himself that it was a perfectly good reason for disturbing the annoying, eerily aware bastard, but he still blushed as he whispered. "I need to piss."
Tristan closed his eye, a flash of aggravation passing over his face, and then he raked the hair out of his face so he could glare out of both eyes. It took a lot of painful, awkward, elbow-jabbing cooperation, but they managed to sit up. "They should have put you with Gawain."
"What about me?" The named man was crumpled up in one corner of his mattress, back braced against the wall as he tried to slowly stretch one leg.
"What are you two doing?" Lancelot hissed, so rumpled into the blankets that only his nose was visible.
Too busy trying to find some kind of usable container, Galahad didn't answer. Apparently, Tristan took that as a sign that he should. "Making sure Galahad doesn't wet the bed. Gawain should be doing it; he helped raise the most siblings."
If Galahad hadn't been in such a hurry, he would've crammed the blanket down the other man's throat. "You fucking son of a bitch, that isn't funny."
Lancelot just burrowed deeper into the blankets, while Dagonet groaned and flopped over, still unconscious. The change in position revealed the lip of what looked to be an empty jar at the head of Dagonet's cot, so Galahad tried to swing his legs over the side of the bed and walk over to it.
His knees didn't like the idea, and neither did his back or arm when he banged them on the way down. "Ow! Fuck!"
Tristan sighed, then carefully eased himself off the bed and slung Galahad's arm over his shoulder. "All right, stand-no, weight against the cot frames. You lean against me, you'll knock us both-"
His lips clamped down and went white. Confused, Galahad leaned in for a closer look, absently putting a hand on Tristan's side for balance. He felt warm wetness and promptly stumbled back, panic rising in his throat. "Oh, shit. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-"
"It's fine. You didn't tear anything." Calm again, Tristan was poking about the linen strips swaddling his chest. "Just a little bleeding."
Galahad blew out a breath he hadn't known he was holding and slumped against Dagonet's cot. Then he winced and abruptly sat down, holding his howling arm. The jar was right next to his leg, so he desultorily wrestled it over with his feet and got things over with. "This is such a mess," he muttered. "Goths, Romans, Britons, Arthur...and I can't even piss without collapsing."
"Be happy that Bors isn't here to comment on that." With none of his characteristic grace, Tristan swayed them back onto their cot, then fell still. He didn't even try to get their limbs untangled, and usually he was shy of touching anyone. "Do you think it would've been better to die?"
Startled, Galahad stared at the other man's face, searching the bruises and the liquid darkness of Tristan's eyes for the source of the bizarre question. He touched the double marks, distorted now by swollen flesh, that stretched across the man's cheekbones. "Why are you asking that?"
Tristan lifted and dropped his shoulder, attempting and failing to regain the composure he'd abruptly tossed away. In the end, he ducked his head and buried it in the pillow, leaving Galahad to wallow in confusion. The bastard. As if there wasn't enough to worry about.
"If this is about having to bend down to the Romans for help-it's almost worse than watching my father get an ax in his skull. But-" Galahad tried not to strangle the words too much "-what else can we do?"
"We're going to show the Goths that they can't spill Sarmatian blood without losing ten times as much of their own," Lancelot said, voice harder than Galahad had ever heard it. A slight tremble of suppressed rage was detectable, but by the time he spoke again, it'd been completely submerged. "If it takes the Romans, then it takes the Romans. Rome's thousands of miles away and wouldn't give a shit if we weren't sitting near some of their wealthiest provinces, but the Goths are just over the horizon."
And as much as it clawed at Galahad to admit it, the other man was right. It was better to tackle the near enemy before the far one. "Anyway, Arthur's not really Roman. So it's not quite as bad."
At first, Galahad thought that Tristan was choking, but then the other man lifted his head to show that he was laughing. Quietly, but still laughing. He ran a hand over Galahad's head, rocking it backwards, then returned his face to the pillow. "You're...you're..."
"I think he's trying to compliment you," Gawain said.
"I don't care what he's trying do. I just wish he'd shut up again," Galahad snapped, wrapping his annoyance around him and turning over.
The room soon fell silent again, leaving Galahad with no distraction from the fact that he was in an excruciating amount of pain and that he needed to roll back. Except that meant dealing with Tristan again, and...Galahad set his jaw and shoved himself onto his other side. He was determined to keep his eyes squeezed shut until he fell asleep, but a fingertip grazing his cheek sent them flying open.
That strange sad light was back in Tristan's eyes, and it seemed to be asking Galahad something he didn't know how to answer. That he probably couldn't have answered even if he was confused and...frightened, because they'd all collapsed in one landscape and woken in a completely different one where even Tristan wasn't the same.
Of course he wasn't, Galahad snorted at himself. His entire family had come up to the meeting and he was the only one left. And it suddenly hit Galahad, low and brutal in his belly so all the air swept from his lungs-they were all alone. Gawain's brothers and sisters, his own sisters-and the Goths had been exceptionally cruel to the women who'd fought them.
"All dead." The whisper was so soft that it took Galahad a moment to realize that it wasn't a thought in his head, but Tristan speaking to him.
"They are." But Galahad could twist and feel pain, as real as the breath hitting his face, and he could look inside and feel the vengeful hate burning hot, and he could reach out and feel the cuts on Tristan's hand. "But we're not."
Tristan simply looked at him for a long time, unblinking and solemn and somehow...warm? At any rate, it made Galahad flush again, which reminded him of something else. "This still doesn't mean I like you."
"I know." Then the other man closed his eyes and let his head sink into the pillow-but he was smiling a little. And he didn't let go of Galahad's hand.
After a moment, Galahad decided that that wasn't so bad. He wouldn't have ever done it before, but then again, it wasn't before. It was after, and they still had to live.
"They didn't tell us anything we didn't know."
Arthur kept his head bent to the maps and his fingers busy replotting positions.
"They're all from conspicuously hostile tribes."
Fortunately, it was still early enough in the spring so that the rivers were too high with newly-melted snow for any large-scale crossings. There had been a few nearby bridges that might still have been usable, but Merlin was seeing to those. Due to the shortage of manpower, Arthur couldn't spare enough soldiers for a decent guard on them, so they might as well burn them and rebuild later. Of course, given the general scrubbiness of the steppes' few trees, that would take a while.
"They're not even anyone with reputations! All younger sons, probably barely known within their own tribes-how much influence do you think they have?"
It would be about three weeks before the Goths could mount a full-scale invasion. Arthur started to relax, then remembered that he was thinking in terms of a Roman army, which was the most efficient fighting force on earth. He tried to put himself in a Goth mindset.
Five weeks, then. Thirty days to scale up defenses, integrate the Sarmatian cavalry into the rest of the garrison's forces, and to try and raise the other garrisons. Messengers had gone out at first light, but Arthur had the displeasure of knowing very well what his fellow garrison commandants were like. He hoped that the threat of the Goths would outweigh any personal considerations-or at least make the petty delays shorter than usual.
"Arthur! I'm speaking to you!"
"And I hear you perfectly well, Guinevere." He also saw the maps and styluses rattle all over the desk as his fists slammed into it. "For God's sake, what do you suggest we do? Throw them out, wounded as they are, and face an unfriendly land as well as invaders? What, Guinevere?"
His words fell into a chasm of silence, and their echoes rang hollow in his ears. Arthur clenched his hands around the edge of the desk and struggled to get himself under control, while beside him Guinevere seemed turned to ice. She was so still that it wasn't long before Arthur started to think he'd imagined her presence, but he didn't glance to check. If he looked at her face, and at what he knew it would hold, he wasn't sure how he would react.
"That one. The one you put in your own bed. Lancelot." Her voice was brittle as frostbitten grass, and every word seemed to splinter as it fell between them. "He seems to be the leader."
"Does he." Understandably. Even grieving and angry, too weak to sit up by himself, the man had a palpable charm.
Six inches from Arthur's ever-whitening knuckles, Guinevere's fingers slowly curled back into claws. Then they stretched out, but didn't relax. "He was watching you."
"He doesn't trust me to keep my promises without some kind of incentive. It's an old game, and none of us are unfamiliar with it." It was an unkind jab, but at the moment, Arthur was feeling too thin and breaking to care. "Besides-"
"I've always known you liked men as well as women. It doesn't matter to me; unlike your Church, we don't think that's a sin. But I thought I was more to you than just a woman." She ground out the words in the tone she normally saved for soldiers caught deserting.
"Guinevere..." Arthur finally looked at her, and only then did he see the tears. He swallowed against the lump of guilt settling in his throat and took her hand, pulling her to him. She came so fast she nearly tripped over his feet and nestled beneath his chin, filling his nose with the scents of leather and steel, sweat and sweet hay that were trapped in her hair.
It only took a moment to take the pins from her bun, and then he could luxuriate in her long wealth of silk hair, running it through his fingers like water. She shivered against his, pushing closer so their armor clinked and jarred, almost catching for a second. Grinning, Arthur swiftly set about eliminating that problem, and in between kisses Guinevere did the same. They stole lip-presses and breath while they stripped each other; long years of hurried trysts had taught them exactly how much needed to fall to the floor before they could stumble into the wall, Arthur hungrily sucking at her delicate collarbone. He always marveled at how such a fine thing could support a cuirass or a chainmail shirt.
Her hands were anything but frail as they clawed past his clothes to skim and scratch and stroke over skin. She was the one that shoved him into the wall, pushing her knee between his as brazen as anything. He groaned and clutched at her shoulders, then turned them about so he could pin her to the desk.
"Bed's other way." Guinevere nibbled at his lips, teasing them before kissing him so deeply he could taste her all the way through himself. "You don't want to ruin the maps."
"Only ones we have," he agreed, walking them towards her cot. As isolated as they were, there was no one to care whether or not they shared a bed out of wedlock, but Guinevere had wanted space and he'd seen no good reason not to give it to her. The request had stung a little, but Arthur could understand. Sometimes the wide emptiness of the steppes wasn't big enough to distance one from cruel reality.
And sometimes even locking legs around backs of knees, rolling breasts free of their bindings, wrapping tongues messily around each other-sometimes even that wasn't close enough. Arthur wished he could slow down and savor the wild-eyed glory in his arms, but the frenzy wouldn't abate and he could only ride it as best he could.
Guinevere ripped her nails down his back, drawing hot pain through his clothes, then twisted free of her trousers and spread her knees. He was already down on her, moving his mouth over her neck and breasts, tasting the sweet flesh that was so rarely free like this, rounding in his hands and plumping rosy nipples against his mouth.
Fingers grazed his hard cock, making him jump and swear. Giggling, Guinevere took exquisitely firm hold of him and urged him in. Her head lolled back when he started rocking their hips together, but her eyes remained unblinkingly on him, smoldering dark with a top sheen of odd moisture.
She gasped once, and he not at all, the old habits of caution too deeply ingrained in them to give way even to this. But a few moments later, having recovered a little, they murmured musical nothings to each other.
"Marry me," he eventually whispered.
Guinevere buried her face in his neck and wrapped her arms around him so tightly that he could hardly breathe. "No."
Every time the hurt doubled itself, but he couldn't help asking any more than she could help answering. "Why not?"
"Because I'll never convert to Christianity. Because I won't force that division on any children." She pressed a kiss to his forehead, then rolled out from under him and started to dress herself with shaking hands. "Because I'm going back to Britain. Are you?"
Arthur watched how the sinuous line of her spine curved and straightened as she moved. He wanted to run his knuckle, and then his tongue, down it. Instead, he sat up and began to retrieve the various pieces of clothing that he'd lost along the way to the bed. "Both my parents died there, ostracized to the last by their own people for loving each other. There's nothing for me in that land."
"There'd be me." Guinevere's voice was short, and by the looks of her expression, her temper was even shorter.
Well, so was Arthur. They'd had this argument so many times that he'd gone through resentment to numb acceptance and was now returning to resentment. "You were born here-you've never even seen Britain. How can you go back to a land you never left?"
"How can you find a home you never let yourself have to begin with?" she hissed back, snatching up her swordbelt. Before he could grab her arm, she was whirling out the door.
"Ah...excuse me," said a startled male voice from the hallway.
Guinevere's footsteps halted. When she replied, her voice lashed venom all the way back to Arthur. "What are you doing up-oh. Men. Always being pigheaded."
A moment later, a bemused Lancelot staggered into the doorway and slumped against the frame. "Marital troubles?"
"We're not married." Arthur tried to remember that killing a guest-and a seriously injured one at that-was not good hospitality. "You should be resting."
"Probably." Lancelot shifted his weight and went even paler, his lips so tightly pressed together that Arthur almost thought that he could see the outline of the man's teeth. "It would be difficult to explain my being here to your soldiers. Better that we all stay out of sight."
A flutter caught Arthur's eye, and he turned around to cover up the maps, then to shuffle the scrolls and various other things on his desk to one side. His jaws seemed to have glued themselves together, forcing him to squeeze out the words. "You are not prisoners or hostages, therefore you are free to walk about as you wish. Within reason, given that this is a military outpost. If I thought that you could make it without collapsing, I would suggest you go visit your friend Bors, who is currently housed in the residence of a generous lady named Vanora."
Even though Arthur had assembled the soldiers at dawn and explained the situation to them, Guinevere had still thought it better to keep all the Sarmatians bundled together. Merlin had agreed with Arthur that softening them up separately was more likely to ensure them some help, but the resulting argument had still been hot and furious. It was nearing dusk now, and she still hadn't seemed to have fully come round.
"Is he?" Though he was obviously in great pain, Lancelot managed to sound arch. "You are determined to win us over, aren't you?"
Arthur dragged his breathing out and counted to ten, then exhaled. When two repetitions didn't see him any calmer, he simply gave up. "I think I should take you back before you faint on me."
When he reached for the other man, Lancelot flinched away and hastily stumbled backwards; the effort cost too much and Lancelot's knees gave out. Arthur barely caught him in time, but even then the other man refused to go quietly and continued to struggle, grunting every time some injury was jarred or strained. "I'll be damned if I let you carry me again like a puling girl-"
"You'll rip your stitches and bleed to death if you don't stop," Arthur snapped. He wrestled Lancelot against the door, then pinned the man's hands to his chest and glared down the stubborn indignation in those eyes. "Be sensible. You're badly hurt. You'll have to fight soon, and to do that you need to rest and recover. Either you sacrifice a little of your pride or you ruin your health."
Lancelot thumped his head once in accident against the door, twice in frustration. Then he snarled and slumped into Arthur's arms, still stiff with umbrage. "I hate this," he muttered into Arthur's neck. "Only a-what, a day since the massacre?-and those Goths are going around thinking Sarmatia's spread-legged for the taking, while I have to lie down for a little nap."
Youth and its drama, Arthur snorted to himself. But he hadn't grown too far from that kind of restlessness himself, and so he didn't comment. Instead, he simply bent down, slid his arm behind Lancelot's knees and had the other man up before Lancelot was even done gasping in surprise.
They were halfway back to Arthur's rooms when Lancelot finally surrendered to the inevitable and relaxed. He even managed a bit of a grin; apparently, his nature was one of those that took refuge in sarcasm. "Well done, Arthur. You have the reflexes of a fighter, anyway."
And the same backhanded way of delivering compliments as Guinevere did. No wonder she didn't like him, considering how...irritating she could be on occasion. Still, Arthur needed her, both in the field and in his life. He resigned himself to a long session of placating her later in the evening and started planning out what he was going to say. "I've been around cavalrymen and other soldiers since I was born."
"Right, your father." Lancelot rubbed his nose along Arthur's cheek, startling Arthur into jerking, but upon second look he only seemed to be settling his head on Arthur's shoulder. "I suppose he had a name?"
"Uther." The objections Guinevere had to the new alliance with the Sarmatians were going to be a sticking-point no matter how Arthur tackled them, but she was a fine strategist and politician herself and she had to have seen that neither side had any choice now. In that respect, they were secure. In other respects...her worries about the trustworthiness of their new allies did have merit. The presence of the Goths may have outweighed that of Rome, but the Sarmatians had spent far longer hating the legions.
Soft whuffle of breath against Arthur's ear, ghosting a chuckle past. "And does he have a last name that isn't Roman?"
"Why the sudden interest?" Arthur glanced at the other man and just glimpsed a curious spark of speculation in Lancelot's eyes.
It vanished as soon as he saw it, and Lancelot shifted his head so Arthur could only see the black stubble of cheek and jaw. "I'm merely wondering what kind of Sarmatian would settle down and raise a son in a foreign land. You probably have relatives here still."
"I doubt that. My line was already dying out when my great-grandfather was conscripted and sent off to Britain." Interestingly enough, Arthur thought he saw a trace of disappointment flicker across Lancelot's face. He considered the matter a little more, trying to see what possible ramifications revealing this bit of information might have, and ultimately decided that it wasn't significant enough to affect the current situation. "Uther Pendragon."
"I'm sorry-say that again?" Lancelot roused, blinking in surprise. "Pendragon? I've only heard of that one in old tales by the fires."
As he stepped into his rooms, Arthur smiled a little to cover up the whisper of loneliness that went through him at Lancelot's words. He'd always suspected as much, and he had thought that he'd grown used to being without blood-relations. Sometimes, when Guinevere was sleeping with her head pillowed on his arm, he'd thought that he'd even managed to find himself something better. "I did tell you. Now, I'd greatly appreciate it if you stayed in bed."
Lancelot slid out of Arthur's arms with considerably more reluctance than he'd gone into them, and Arthur belatedly remembered the earlier exchange with Guinevere. Then he dismissed her warning; the man was spectacularly good-looking beneath the bruises and rather appealing in an insolent way, but he didn't come near to touching anything beneath the surface. After so long living with no roots, Arthur was desperate for something steady and lasting.
After Arthur had left, Tristan carefully untangled himself from the sleeping Galahad and worked himself to where he could see Lancelot's face, which was full of emotions as he stared at the door. Confusion and consideration were most predominant, but there was a good helping of wistfulness and, unsurprisingly given Lancelot's reputation, lust.
Gawain also was watching Lancelot, though he was mostly preoccupied with finishing off the meal they'd been brought while Lancelot had gone staggering around. "You know, there's food."
"Hmm?" Lancelot finally looked away from the door and thus spotted his share of bread, meat and wine. It didn't take long for him to recall his bodily needs and he fell upon the food with gusto. "So, Dagonet up yet?"
"For a moment. Then he went back to sleep once he heard Bors was all right." A last bit of bread popped into Gawain's mouth and was vigorously chewed before he gulped it down with some wine. "Speaking of, did you see Bors?"
Shaking his head, Lancelot wiped at his mouth and then licked off the bits of bread. "No. But Arthur's apparently put him with a nice lady named Vanora, so he shouldn't be too hard to find. Just follow the sound of a grown man being whipped by a bitchy woman."
Gawain was unwisely taking a sip just then and the joke immediately sent him into wild sputtering. He nearly spilled the rest of his wine before recovering his breath.
"And you believe him?" Tristan asked, deeming it time they turned toward serious discussion.
Lancelot gave him a sharp glance, then a minute nod in agreement. "I've no reason not to. He doesn't strike me as that kind of man. Still...odd. Cross on his wall, so he's one of those Christians, yet he lives in unmarried sin with Guinevere."
"She's one to watch, and not only for her medicine," Gawain muttered, tossing back the rest of his wine. He set the cup by the side of the bed, then straightened up, hands instantly clutching at his sides as he winced. "Damn. We couldn't defend ourselves against a...Tristan? What's that noise?"
It was a strange, high cry that whistled at the end, something like the affection-call of the hawk Tristan had had. The hawk that had been slashed from his arm as he'd tried to free her-he shook away the memory and concentrated on the present. "Galahad...has an interesting snore."
As he spoke, the other man rolled over onto his back, head thudding against Tristan's hip. Eyes fluttered open to disclose their customary irritation, then squeezed shut. "What now? I was in the middle of a good dream."
"Having your balls crushed and singing like a bird?" Lancelot offered. Snickering, he mock-cringed at the glower Galahad threw his way, but he soon sobered up and returned to Arthur. "So I think it's safe to say that while the Goths are here, the truce will hold. As long as we manage to hold up our end. I have a feeling that while Arthur wouldn't renege on a promise even if he was only left with us, Guinevere would be more than happy to toss us to the wolves."
"And it's too late for you to get on her good side," Tristan observed, remembering the way she had eyed Lancelot when she'd left. He'd seen mother bears look less fierce when their cubs were threatened. "How much influence do you think she has with Arthur?"
Lancelot grimaced and jabbed a finger through a piece of bread, then held up his hand. He looked at it, then at Tristan and Gawain. "Enough. I don't think she rules him, or he her, but they've got...something formidable."
His face momentarily darkened and hardened, betraying the flourishing sprouts of antagonism, and he tore at the bread like a ravenous wolf at a carcass. "But Arthur's vulnerable, and I'd bet my horse she knows it."
Tristan wondered to what kind of weakness Lancelot was referring, and exactly what kind of interest the other man had in it, because Lancelot didn't strike him as the kind of man that would do something purely for survival. Too much pride, and some cherished honor in there. And that trace of wistfulness when he looked at Arthur had nothing in common with the trading of favors of any kind.
"You don't have a horse now," Galahad muttered. "Fuck. We need to send messages soon to the tribes."
"Messages, yes, but...I don't think we should tell them everything until they get here." Lancelot's brow furrowed as he thought, and the rate of his speech slowed. "For one, we'd have to borrow messengers from Arthur, and he's still Roman-trained, whatever else he is. Two...it might be hard to swing people around to us. They'll want to fight the Goths, no doubt about that, but if we get bogged down in succession disputes, we might as well cut our own throats."
About what Tristan had expected, but both Gawain and Galahad bolted upright and stared at Lancelot. The latter's movement brutally shook the bed and nearly caused Tristan to black out; disoriented by the sudden fading of vision, he teetered forward and then flailed for a touchstone, taken by a shockingly strong sense of panic. It was too dark, and he couldn't see again, just like during the ambush. He couldn't see, and he depended on his eyes to tell him so much--
--"Tristan! Tristan!" Fingers slapped around his wrists and pulled them together, forcing him to fall against a warm body. A pale, worried face swam into view at an excruciatingly slow pace, and then the rest of the world followed. Galahad sighed, attempting to look exasperated. "Would you stop turning white like that? I keep thinking you're about to die, and some day that'll be true and I'll figure it's just you fainting again."
"I need to get outside," Tristan muttered, ignoring the sally. His stomach was still queasy from the abrupt plunge back into the nightmare, so he grabbed Galahad's hands and remained leaning against the other man's solidity. "I need to get outside and track some of those Goths so I can kill them."
He bit his lip, uncomfortably aware that Galahad was probably the wrong person to be telling this, but not being able to move away for fear that his head would start to spin again. Everything around them was so uncertain, and he could barely even begin to figure out the meanings of all the new signs and traces that surrounded him. In fact, it was so different that they all seemed to have been taken out of the world and suspended in some in-between space where Lancelot was finally going past brief infatuations and Romans were saviors and Galahad was strangely kind. "I can't believe I didn't notice anything."
"The...them betraying us at the meeting?" Galahad tentatively guessed. "No one had a clue, Tristan. No one."
"But I should have." Tristan closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath, feeling his way back to calmness. The hand that coasted over his back helped a little to ground him; he pressed into it, and it did another pass down his spine, applying a little more pressure.
Galahad strangled a laugh in his nervousness. "You should have a wagging tail."
"You should be muzzled and leashed. Then you wouldn't get yourself into so much trouble." When an inch of space between them didn't lead to anything untoward, Tristan let go of Galahad's hands and shuffled the rest of the way back. He pretended he didn't see Gawain grinning behind a hand, or Lancelot not even bothering to hide his amusement. "Bors, Dagonet and I should be fine."
"And I shouldn't have trouble, either. The one sister that stayed home likes me; she'll help." Hunching his shoulders, Galahad scowled and dared anyone to make a comment on that.
Smile fading away, Gawain sighed and laid back on his cot. "I might have a problem. If I'm well by the time they make it up here, it should be easy enough to handle."
"I..." Lancelot had long since finished eating, and now he fiddled with his plate and cup before abruptly rattling them onto a nearby shelf. Then he looked away, presenting a perfect profile to Tristan, which came complete with working jaw muscle. "Arthur's a Pendragon."
Tristan blinked. "Does he have Excalibur?"
"I don't know. But if he does..." The other man scrunched his knees to his chest, tapping his fingers against his lips. His expression closed in on itself, revealing nothing except the fact that Lancelot was seriously unsettled. "If he does, it's going to be messy."
"Well, that fits in with the way everything else has been going," Galahad snarled, flopping down and curling up. Then he lifted his head, sullenly apologetic. "Sorry."
The occasional flash of insight aside, he was still an inconsiderate, hot-tempered brat, so Tristan felt fully justified in cuffing him. "Stop. Moving. The. Bed."
"I said I was sorry!" Injured air firmly in place, Galahad burrowed away from Tristan and sulked in a little heap of blankets.
"Look, we can't do anything about Arthur until we know for sure," Gawain interrupted, grim but thinking. "First things first. We've got to figure out what those messages are going to say."
And that was a business none of them were looking forward to tackling, but he was right. With a collective sigh, they got to work.
"We look secure enough for the moment, but some of the tribes are beginning to stir. Soon they'll be riding out to the meeting-place, and you and I both know how little it would take to uncover the massacre remains." Merlin winced ever-so-slightly as he dismounted, probably from a combination of age and spending the entire day on horseback. As he commanded the infantry, and preferred to walk whenever possible, he wasn't as accustomed to long hours in the saddle as Guinevere.
She nodded and helped him deal with his horse's tack. "I know. The knights asked an hour ago for some messengers, and I've already sent those off on the fastest horses we have."
"So we can expect a Sarmatian invasion to begin within the week." Though his tone was joking, Merlin's face was not. He swung his saddlebags over a convenient pole and started attending to his exhausted horse. "Given the distance, the last of them will be arriving barely before the Goths do. It's fortunate that the Roman army makes it a practice to scavenge weapons and armor from the dead and thus our armories and full to bulging, because I doubt we can assume the Sarmatians are all equally well-equipped."
He went on for some time in that vein, discussing how to most effectively combine their forces with the fierce but undisciplined Sarmatian cavalry. Or he at least tried to discuss those details, but Guinevere was still preoccupied with her and Arthur's fight, and so she barely heard Merlin.
"...and then we'll call in the Parthian cataphracts."
"What? The nearest cataphracts are thousands of miles-" Guinevere ruefully cut herself off and gave Merlin her best apologetic smile. "I'm a little distracted."
He regarded her for a long, silent moment, his gaze seeming to peel her layer by layer. Then he led his horse into its stall and retrieved the staff that he carried everywhere with him from a corner. "This is not about the Sarmatians."
"No. I agree that we need them. I don't like it, but nevertheless, I agree with it. And I'm going to make this plan work if I have to whore for it." She lifted her chin and fixed him with her own stare, doing her best to emulate that disquieting sense of knowledge that he always seemed to have.
"This is about Arthur." Merlin cast Guinevere a last, almost sympathetic look before striding out of the stables.
She hurried after him, inanely noting how his usual flowing grace had been bent considerably by the day's riding. It would have been funny if she had felt confident enough to laugh around Merlin, whose self-possession was so quietly complete in itself that it was more intimidating than a broadsword swinging at her head. After all, she could always duck a sword. She could never duck Merlin's comments.
"He asked me to marry him again." Guinevere twisted her hands together, feeling her knuckles lock, strain and then slide free only to lock again. "And I told him no. Then...what we said to each other...I don't think he'll ask again."
"The first time we had this discussion, you never gave me a satisfactory answer for why you said no. And you've never corrected that." Merlin's tone wasn't judging, merely curious. That was possibly worse, because that meant he already knew things were decided and thus wasn't going to expend energy on trying to alter the inevitable.
Well, she didn't yet know what she was going to do, so there was still chance, if not hope. "His church would want him to convert me."
"You know he's long since broken free of strict dogma." As they walked, Merlin tapped the end of his staff on the ground, sometimes beside them and sometimes crossing their legs to mark out the path ahead of them. It was several minutes before Guinevere noticed that he was subtly using his stick to direct their meanderings.
"He...it's that Pelagius writer, and those essays he'd written that Arthur treasures so much." Even as she spat out her words, she knew that Merlin wasn't going to believe that, either. She sucked in her breath and clenched her fists, struggling to come to terms with the truth she'd found in Arthur. "No, it's not that. Though I don't think Pelagius' ideas about everyone being born completely free helped."
They were roughly heading for Arthur's rooms, but Merlin occasionally sent them on a detour to stretch out their walk. He did so quietly and surreptitiously, which was just one facet of his superb judgment that Guinevere had always admired. Merlin could be as bullheaded as Arthur on certain points, but in all the years she had known him, he had never lost his temper or said anything in haste. Whatever words passed his lips did so only after careful consideration.
Which was a talent that she didn't yet have, she mused to herself. Arthur was better at it than her, but even he sometimes lost control of himself and revealed that after so much time together, they still had secrets from each other. "I've never seen Britain's green forests, but I still feel them deep inside. So deep that I can't imagine being without it. And he was born there, and he just-it's like there's an entire part of me that he doesn't love and doesn't want to love."
"Sarmatia is in his blood as well, yet you don't seem to care for it." Merlin was speaking as politely as he could, but his words still rankled.
"There's no need," she mumbled. It chilled fast here, and evening was well underway. Shivering, Guinevere bundled her cloak more closely around herself. "He doesn't care for Sarmatia any more than he does Britain. He's free of any such attachments."
A dying beam of light glanced off Merlin's eye as he turned to look at her, briefly filling it with gold. For a moment, Guinevere saw a vision of a one-eyed god, watching the world through the lenses of false value and true. "He left Britain. He came here."
"And he's for Rome once he's allowed to finish his term of service." Guinevere asked, awkwardly changing the subject. "They've already extended it once because he's so good and because they can't get anyone else to stay here, but they can't keep him here forever. When he speaks of Rome, he looks almost content. But he still doesn't feel for it the way I feel for Britain, heart-deep inside. So why not consider our country instead?"
"That is a question you should ask Arthur." Merlin made no apologies for his unhelpfulness, which she resented even though it was one, fair payback for her dodging him, and two, a sensible attitude.
The staff suddenly flicked up before her, bringing them to an abrupt halt. They were still a few hundred yards from the outside wall of Arthur's rooms, atop a slight incline, and so they had a perfect view of Arthur rounding the corner of the building. And of one shutter slowly swinging open to reveal Lancelot, who was also watching Arthur walk stoop-shouldered with exhaustion through the thickening dark. He'd probably been straining his eyes through the shutter cracks, waiting for the right moment; Guinevere had done that, once upon a distant time.
"I've loved Arthur since I was twelve," she suddenly said, confessions welling up in her throat like a newly-tapped spring roaring out. "It took till I was sixteen before he finally thought of me as a woman. We've only had two years."
"And he loves you," Merlin agreed. "But people can hate each other and live side by side, and they can love without ever being able to bear each other's presence."
Guinevere spun on her heel and glowered at him, furious at his continuing calmness. She wondered whether the old bastard had ever felt a moment of passion in his life, or if he'd always been so untouchable. She thought about whether she was jealous of that. "So what are you saying? I should leave him because I love him?"
"I am saying that you should make up your mind what your love can take, and soon." Unfazed by her snarled accusations, Merlin tucked his staff beneath his arm and brushed an insect off his cloak. "If what you have isn't enough, then no amount of wishing will make it so. And-Guinevere, you know how difficult things are going to be soon. If this is going to drive you and Arthur further apart, you need to deal with it now, while we have time."
"Guinevere? Merlin?" Arthur had spotted them, and was already halfway to them. He was smiling, but the corners of his mouth kept drawing down and then jerking back up, showing better than anything else how uncertain he was of his welcome.
In her peripheral vision, she could see the shutter swinging shut. Arrogant son of a whore-barely a day, and he thought he had a shot. Guinevere was almost tempted to stay with Arthur just to spite the bastard.
That thought, properly assimilated, made her heart sink and her belly turn to ice. So. She had decided, after all.
"Merlin-" Arthur began, but the other man raised a hand.
"Everything went as planned. The nearest tribes are stirring a little, but Guinevere says she's already sent messengers on behalf of our guest knights. Otherwise, nothing of note to report." Merlin nodded once, then glanced at Guinevere.
Her knees were threatening to give way and her mouth was dry as a desert, but Guinevere had never run from a confrontation before, and she didn't intend to start now, no matter how much she wished to. "Arthur, if you don't have anything urgent to say to Merlin, I'd like to speak to you for a moment."
"If he doesn't say that he has anything remarkable to mention, then I suppose a full report can wait till morning," Arthur replied, tone as mild as his gaze on Guinevere was intense. "Go on and rest, Merlin."
"Gladly. I still prefer to leave the horses to you two." The other man gave them both another nod, then swiftly walked away.
In the end, Guinevere couldn't look at Arthur and speak; she dropped her head and stared at his boots. "I'm never going to marry you."
Arthur sucked in a breath, then turned so still that she thought he had petrified. A quick peek told her differently, for if his eyes were any kind of guide, fire was the closest element.
"All right," he finally said.
"I...just listen to me, and don't interrupt. I see you risk your life almost every day, throwing yourself at warriors, politicians-panicking horses, even. And you do it for...for principles. Because you think it's your duty, but-but damn it, Arthur. I can't vow myself to you, under any religion, and know that you're still going to leave me no matter what."
Guinevere waited for him to speak, but he must have thought that she still wanted him silent. Or maybe he was simply trying to control himself, not wanting to hurt her. It would've been easier if he hadn't.
"In seven years, I'm going to Britain," she continued. "I'm going. Would you go with me?"
He was quiet for a long, long time. When he finally spoke, his voice sounded as if it'd aged a thousand years. "I hate that land. It took both my parents from me-my father in warfare, and my mother during a raid on our estate. They burned her alive."
"Some of them might be my kin." Her hands itched to touch him, but she held herself back, determined to not make it any harder than it already was for them. "Is Rome so much better?"
"For me it is. Guinevere, why now? Why not wait until you've at least seen Rome, or at least till we're past this campaign? There's so much going on--"
She lifted her hand and he fell silent. Then she could feel heat radiating in the same shape: he was holding his hand a hairsbreadth from hers, curling his fingers so they almost touched the tops of hers.
"Because I've waited for you for eight years, but I've waited for Britain for my entire life. This isn't something we can put off, and we both know it," Guinevere whispered.
The heat-shadow snatched itself away. Arthur stalked off a few paces, shoulders heaving with suppressed frustration, and then he whipped back. "If this is because of that damned Sarmatian-my God, Guinevere. I thought you knew me better than that. I thought you knew me."
"It's not about him unless you make it about him." Before she knew quite what she was doing, she had grabbed him by the face and yanked him down. "Arthur, I love you. But I can't be your Roman wife. I'm a Briton, and I always will be. I'll go to you for almost anything, but with this-with this you have to come to me. I'm sorry. I-it's part of me."
He tore away from her, raising his hand to his cheek as if her touch had burned him. The feel of his skin certainly had scorched her palms, and it hurt so much that she knew she'd carry the scars to the end of her days.
Arthur's voice was low, flat, and as punishing as the mountains that surrounded. "In Britain I was the half-breed that never fit anywhere. Here, I'm the Roman in the wilderness. Only in Rome did anyone look past what I was to who I was. If you want me to set you free, Guinevere, I'll gladly do it. I'd be a sorry hypocrite if I did otherwise. But if you want me to pretend to be what I cannot, then I have to refuse."
"Then we don't have anything else to say to each other, do we?" Guinevere hugged herself, curling away from the cold. She was so chilled that anger was beginning to boil in her veins in self-defense. "Have I ever asked you for much, Arthur? Did I criticize your religion? Did I ever break with you in public? Did I ever blame you for upholding the very Empire that ripped my people from their homeland? Did I?"
"No." Now Arthur was staring at her with desperately sad eyes, all his earlier fury swiftly draining away. "No. But I could have understood you doing that. I could have lived with it. What you're asking now is for me to turn my back on everything that I am, and I cannot."
The night wind bit like a thousand tiny rats, leaving every inch of Guinevere raw. "Then good evening. And..." she swallowed against the contrary surge of tenderness, but let the sincerity pass on "...and a good life, wherever you end up."
Before he could reply, she swung herself down the hill and walked quickly to her rooms. She managed to prepare for sleep and climb into bed without feeling much more than a certain numbness, but in the morning, her pillow was damp.