|Reversals II: Identity
Author: Guede Mazaka
Bors absently picked at his teeth, then wiped the spit-soaked fragment on the rail. "Nice one, all right. Vanora's got spirit and sense."
"And she leaves marks." Galahad carefully rolled onto his belly and rested his chin on his less injured arm. True to his words to Lancelot, Arthur had allowed them to go almost anywhere they pleased within the garrison once the healers had decided they were fit enough. Consequently, they were now soaking up the weak sunshine in a field overlooking the paddocks where their promised horses were gamboling about, reveling in a freedom of movement that the knights didn't yet have. "Neck, Bors."
The other man frowned and reached up, then winced when he found the bite mark. But like a moonstruck fool, he was still grinning. "Spirit, did I say?"
"What do your people think?" Tristan was on his back beside Galahad, eyes mostly closed against the light. For the past few days, he'd been winding more and more tightly in on himself, almost to the point of talking entirely in annoyingly significant looks, and so it was a relief to see him acting more like himself.
"I've just met them coming in this morning!" Bors protested. When they all turned to look at him, he dropped his chin and mumbled something at his knees.
Propped up on his elbow, Lancelot stretched out and smacked Bors on the shoulder, then swore as he flapped his hand. "You've got stones in your damned...never mind. Bors. This is important. Do you or do you not have them with us?"
"They're with us. They're with us-there were a few grumbles, but it all went away when Arthur came down to speak with them." Bors shrugged and resumed picking at his teeth, only this time he used a large knife.
As the entire point of coming outside was to finally breathe fresh air and see attractive things, Galahad rolled over so he instead faced Tristan, who was far better-looking even if that went hand-in-hand with far more exasperating. The other man was staring at Bors' knife with an odd kind of intensity, but when he noticed Galahad, he switched his gaze to the sky.
"Better man than I thought, Arthur," Bors said in a pensive tone. "Offered hay and food and lodging, even though we'd brought our own."
"He would have to," Lancelot muttered, fiddling with the grass about six inches from Tristan's head. He would pluck out the blades and then arrange them in lines that he constantly shifted about for no immediately discernable reason, yet his expression was of utmost concentration as he moved them. "Politics, politics-tcah! At least we don't have to worry about your people. But then, you lot were always more about the fight than the sides."
Something rumbled loudly enough to make them all glance at the clear sky. Then a slightly embarrassed Bors clapped a hand to his stomach and offered them an affable smile in lieu of apology. "Gotten used to some good cooking. Lancelot, someday someone's going to whip you proper for your sarcasm, but-well, you're right. Give us a battle and we're happy. Besides, it's not like the Britons are all that bad, once you get to know them."
"Maybe I should stop round Vanora's, then. Get to know yours." Lasciviousness was inadequate to describe the kind of grin that bloomed on Lancelot's face. He quickly ducked the cuff Bors sent his way, then pushed himself into a sitting position. "Anyway, I suppose you're going to be sleeping with your tribe, now that they're here."
"Ah, well, my gear'll be there. Sleeping, now..." Bors spread his hands, trying and failing to look innocent. "We'll just see how the wind blows."
An elbow nudged at Galahad's ribs, calling his attention back to Tristan, who nodded at the paddocks. "Guinevere and Arthur are back."
And they were, their horses sandwiching Dagonet, whose people had arrived just an hour before. He looked well enough, given how he'd been a mere week ago; livid half-healed cuts streaked his shaved head and his face was still unhealthily pale beneath its tan, but his seat in the saddle was loose and relaxed, and he didn't flinch whenever his horse rocked him. Envy flared up in Galahad's breast, so hot the corners of his eyes stung for a moment. "More good news, it looks like."
Tristan gave him an odd look, but it was Gawain, just waking up, that commented. "What, you and Dagonet fall out over something? Sounds like you'd rather we were all in trouble."
"No. I-" It was stupid and unfair, but even though Galahad knew it, he still couldn't help but taste sourness. "I just want to get on a horse again."
"Another week and you will." Lancelot swung his legs around and used his elbows to crawl past Tristan's other side, gaze intent on the figures below. "You will. Just in time to get wounded again, probably."
Gawain rolled his eyes and threw a handful of grass at Lancelot. "I didn't drag myself out here to listen to this. If you're going to be like that, go inside and do it."
Of course, everyone else was perfectly all right and it was only Galahad that wasn't ever patient enough, or strong enough, or enough of anything else. He knew that he was only really good for fighting with sword and shield, and usually he was fine with that. Being good at anything else only seemed to bring trouble, else why would Bors find it so easy to be satisfied wherever he was, and Lancelot so hard?
Unfortunately, only being a fighter meant that when they were bed-bound like they were, forced to rely on the help of others for even the simplest of tasks, Galahad couldn't distract himself with planning this or that. His hands itched for his sword, and he often woke dreaming of galloping over the steppes only to find himself imprisoned in a tangle of aches and ills.
"If this were easy for any of us, we'd spend our whole lives in bed." Tristan spoke too quietly to be heard by any of the others, and when Galahad started in surprise, he grabbed Galahad's shoulder and forced him to be still. "You can either heal well or heal fast; you can't do both."
"I know. Just...what am I supposed to do? Play with grass?" Galahad derisively flicked his fingers at Lancelot's little designs. Then he blinked and took a second look.
The sun must have shifted, or maybe it was the distraction of Tristan jarring Galahad's mind out of its black rut. At any rate, the patterns suddenly made sense.
"Not exactly playing. Though that maneuver with the left wing would take more cavalry than we probably will have." Tristan wasn't quite smirking, but the light in his eyes was definitely amused. He squeezed Galahad's shoulder, then twisted around to watch Arthur, Guinevere and Dagonet discuss something as they dismounted by the stables.
Lancelot absentmindedly poked Tristan. "Don't criticize my battle strategy unless you've got a better alternative."
"I'm looking at it." Though his voice was inflectionless and his words were innocent enough, Tristan nevertheless managed to convey quite a lot in his statement. Most of that went past Galahad and left him only with the sense that something had been there, but he understood enough to tense up and glance at Lancelot's hands, which were suddenly clenched in the dirt.
Bors uncomfortably coughed. "Believe I'd best be going. Need to go see Dag, make sure the idiot's not been straining himself."
He walked off rather quicker than he strictly had to, leaving Lancelot staring fixedly at Arthur, Tristan calmly regarding Lancelot, and Gawain and Galahad silently asking each other who was going to pry Lancelot's hands from Tristan's throat.
In the end, Lancelot kept his temper and merely rolled his shoulders as if to relieve some strain there. He glanced at Tristan, face closed and hard, then returned his eyes to Arthur. The muscle in his cheek twitched twice-and then he abruptly slumped down, laughing a little. "No, I can't see Arthur letting anyone but himself dictate the tactics for any battle involving his soldiers."
"He and Guinevere don't seem to be quite as close." Tristan sounded as if he was discussing the best way to repair a bridle. "If you're looking for that."
And once Galahad started to, he could see that while those two seemed to be friendly enough, there was a certain strain in the way they acted around each other. Guinevere would stare at Arthur when he was turned away from her, and sometimes she would half-lift a hand to him, as if she wanted to say something. Meanwhile, Arthur stiffened ever-so-slightly whenever he had to face Guinevere as if bracing himself for a blow.
"Fascinating." Lancelot drawled the word like the very sound of it bored him. He abruptly jerked himself onto his side and curled up, apparently asleep.
Galahad seized Tristan's arm and dragged the other man away, almost irritated enough to dare shaking him. "Are you a complete idiot?" he hissed. "What the fuck are you trying to do?"
Gawain was staring, but he might as well. It was simple commonsense that they'd be stronger if they all stayed together and weaker if they divided themselves. And Lancelot was going to get the largest and most prominent tribe of them all; without any of the others, it'd be hard going, but without his people, it'd be a failure.
Of course, Tristan didn't even react. "I'm pointing out an important fact. Arthur and Guinevere are drifting apart."
"You're saying it to Lancelot, and if he's being stupid enough to think about what I think he's thinking about..." Galahad stopped and tried to remember how the sentence had gone in his mind, where it'd made perfect sense. After a few moments of fruitless trying, he snarled and dropped his hold. "Oh, who cares what I think? You obviously don't-Tristan, you could at least do that kind of thing when you're where he can't get at you."
One thin eyebrow arched over a confused eye. "I'm capable of defending myself."
"Not without at least a dagger, and I don't see any of those on you." And Galahad wanted to point out a few other things, like Lancelot being less injured, but he had a feeling Tristan already knew. The man was just...annoying. He knew exactly what he was doing and thus ended up being deliberately careless. Though why Galahad cared about that was slightly beyond him at the moment.
"If you two are done having your moment, I think I hear them coming to bring us in." Amusement turning him lazy and slow, Lancelot rolled over and favored Galahad with a faint half-smile. "And I wouldn't kill him, you know. Unlike you, he knows when to be quiet."
The snarl was ready and willing in Galahad's throat, but he was utterly torn as to which man deserved it more. In the end, he simply hid his head in his arms and growled at the grass.
"Lancelot. Shut up." Tristan's hand fluttered over Galahad's shoulder, then settled around his elbow. It stayed there for a moment, fingers loosely wrapped around the joint, before tugging. "Come on."
Guinevere was unbuckling her armor when she sensed him in the doorway. Her fingers stilled, then hurriedly started up again. The resulting snaps and clicks seemed to echo for far too long, cracking the silence that stained the air, but she couldn't bring herself to do anything to interrupt them.
He could. He always could. If there was one accusation that could never be laid at Arthur's feet, it was that of cowardice in speech. Even if the words he had to say were visibly shaving years off his life, he would still give them voice.
"So that's two tribes with us."
The sheer normality of the statement almost brought tears to her eyes, but she was too old for that now. She'd made her choice, and she'd done so with a clear head, so there was absolutely nothing she should regret. Besides, if she and he were going to continue winning battles, they had to put aside their private lives and act like the military officers they were. "Yes. I have to say, it's been much easier than I thought it would be."
"You trust them now?" He shifted his weight, making his cuirass creak and his cloak rustle.
Guinevere laid down the last piece of ceremonial armor, glad to have the useless stuff out of the way. Her body was sore and stiff from straining under its weight for half the day, but another half still remained and so she made herself start strapping on her everyday armor. "Again, not beyond this temporary truce. But then, they only ever promised to help us fight the Goths. I believe that. I don't think they'll change their minds."
"Good. I'm going to the stables, and then I'll be walking around the rest of the evening, seeing that everyone settles in." Arthur hesitated, then took two steps away from her.
"When are you going to eat dinner?" she called, finally turning around. Their eyes met and the air in between shivered.
He was asking her again, even though she'd already given him her final answer. Asking with the dark softness of his eyes and the slight out-turning of his palms, as if they were waiting for the curves of her shoulders. "I'll snatch a bite here and there," Arthur replied, tone neutral.
"Where-" Guinevere had to lower her voice because the stress had tuned it to a near-shriek "-where are you sleeping now?"
The question had been nagging at her for days, but she hadn't yet known where the new lines of their relationship fell. For the most part, she still didn't know.
"In my rooms. I've had that small antechamber off the side cleared out, and a cot and desk moved in." Arthur seemed as if he'd expected something else. That might have accounted for the wariness in his voice. Possibly.
On the other hand, by now even a fool would've noticed the way Lancelot always stared at Arthur. The thought of that-that Sarmatian already trying to take over put steel in Guinevere's voice and bile in her throat. "The knights in the next room...they don't disturb you?"
"No. They're as cautious around me as I am around them." Now Arthur was looking at her like he would a nervous horse, expecting to dodge any moment. "Guinevere...if you want me to wait, I will."
"Waiting would imply that I'd change my mind, or that you would. I don't think that that'll happen with this." She rushed the rest of her dressing, then slapped on her sword-belt and yanked the straps tight. "Don't wait for me, Arthur. I'm not your Church. I don't have the slightest bit of respect for martyrs."
He nodded and stepped back to let her through, fists glued to his thighs as his eyes turned opaque. "I see that more than one thing has changed."
"What, because now I'm saying what I think about your religion? I've always, always wanted to," Guinevere snapped back, increasing her pace so she could stay abreast of her anger and not fall behind into regret.
"Then why didn't you?" Arthur was still following her, and considering how close his voice was to a roar, his frustration was beginning to overcome his misery. Good, she thought. It was easier to ignore that than it was the silent sadness. "Has everything we've have been false? Did I ever love you, or am I in love in some fake you made up to please me?"
At that, she whirled about and slammed the heel of her hand into his shoulder, jarring him to a halt. "If you would fall in love with an illusion like that, then it's me who should be asking that question! I've never pretended to be anything I wasn't, Arthur. I've never known a single doubt about who I was, or where I came from. Can you say the same?"
When she fell silent, he didn't take up the thread of accusation. Instead, his eyes turned from hot to cold to wintry, and the lines of his face deepened, all his fatigue coming to the forefront. "You're lucky, Guinevere. You are and I-I envy you for that."
"Don't wait for what I can't give," she whispered. His hands were drifting near hers and she desperately wanted to feel them, callus-hardened and scar-ridged, against her own, but her fear kept back. It was so hard to be around Arthur and still remember that she was Guinevere, to remember that being sucked into him with only a lifeless shadow left behind was not what she wanted. "Don't lay your guilt on my shoulders."
He swallowed hard, his whole body leaning forward in readiness. So close she could smell nothing but him-and then he was stepping back and half-turning to let the chilling air pass. "It's a hard thing to reach twenty-eight and still not know where you truly belong. I thought-for a while I thought it was with you. But I do know this: wherever I need to be, it's not in Britain."
"Arthur, I'll never stop loving you-but I can't help you with that."
This time, Guinevere let him leave first.
Lancelot was almost convinced that pursuing Arthur was a bad idea. First of all, there were the complications of allegiances, and not just the wartime ones. Arthur had a Briton mother, a Sarmatian father, and a Roman name; he slept-or had slept, anyway-with a Briton woman, had lived in Sarmatia for the past ten years, and camp rumor had it that he was angling for retirement to Rome. Secondly, he was a Christian, albeit a very tolerant one. Thirdly, Guinevere had made her reputation in blood and graves, and to judge from the few exchanges Lancelot had had from her, she wasn't oblivious to undercurrents in the least. Fourthly, Lancelot had only known the man for a week. He had bedded women and the occasional man that he'd met only moments before, but for some reason, Arthur was different.
When Lancelot looked at Arthur, he didn't see hot twisting flesh, sweet sweaty burn and rumpled sheets-not first, anyway. First, he saw the long roll of years, spanning the horizons.
"Of course I do," he muttered, rippling his fingers through a moonbeam that strayed past his bed. Arthur's bed. "The Pendragons are a very, very old line."
Fifth problem. Depending on how things turned out, he might end up having to go back to fighting Arthur or to swear eternal allegiance to the man. About a month ago, Lancelot would've slaughtered anyone that suggested the latter choice. Now, trying to think of Arthur as a possible enemy gave him nausea, which grew steadily worse as time went on.
It might have helped if Lancelot understood the why behind it, but he didn't. Yes, Arthur appeared to be genuinely honorable and generous and good, and yes, he was uncommonly handsome, and yes, even the most vindictive of the Rome-haters among the Sarmatians admitted that he was a worthy opponent on the battlefield. However, all of that should have inspired respect alone. It should not have led to this...this incredible need just to watch him, as if seeing were the same as eating and Lancelot was a starving man.
Maybe it was the shock of the massacre, which certainly hadn't left any of them unscathed. Dagonet hadn't talked much before it, but now he was practically a mute. Previously almost as great a philanderer as Lancelot, Bors now spoke about Vanora like he had an eye to settling down. Gawain had nightmares, Galahad's restlessness had turned bitter, and Tristan had those odd attacks where he would freeze for a moment, staring at nothing. So perhaps Lancelot's sudden fascination with Arthur was the invisible scar that had been dealt to him.
Laughing softly to himself, Lancelot dismissed that thought as soon as it sprang to mind. No, if anything Arthur was the antidote. The salve or balm or what-have-you, because whenever Lancelot saw him, all the many pressing worries and gnawing remembered horrors simply fell away. For a moment or two.
Well, he wasn't going to get any sleep like this. A quick glance around the room confirmed that the others were soundly slumbering-Tristan might be faking, but Lancelot had long since given up on trying to slip past him-so he swung himself off the bed, taking care both not to make any noise and not to overexert himself. The last thing he wanted was to have to be carried around again.
Then again, the crook of Arthur's neck had smelled pleasantly of horseflesh, leather and salt...and at this rate, Lancelot was going to be forced down one particular path far earlier than he wanted. Shaking his head to dislodge the fancies from him, he ducked past the curtain partitioning the room and then staggered to a halt.
Blinking, Arthur looked back, a scroll dangling from his fingers and several thick books on the table before him. His eyes were bloodshot and ringed with the purplish bruising of fatigue, and his shoulders had the set of a far more beaten man. "Did you need something?"
"Ah...no, not really. I'm just having a problem sleeping, and I thought I would...sit up for a bit, or something." Despite the presence of braziers, the coldness of the air nipped straight through the thin fabric of Lancelot's shirt and made him shiver.
Arthur's eyes darted to that, producing a brief burning sensation on Lancelot's left side, and then the other man stood up to offer a fur. "You're free to take the chair there, though if you're looking for good company, I wouldn't be the one to ask."
Lancelot gratefully took the fur and used it to bundle himself into the chair beside Arthur. "Bad news? The Goths are early?"
The other man regarded him for a cool moment, apparently trying to divine what Lancelot's motives were. For all Arthur's uncommon integrity, he clearly had learned that most men didn't have the same high internal morality. "No. But I think you're intelligent enough to appreciate the complexities of running a garrison of this size."
"And with the added difficulties of handling guests that were only lately enemies?" Though he wanted to provoke Arthur enough to get an unreserved answer, Lancelot didn't want to start a serious quarrel. Consequently, he kept his tone light and his nuances delicate enough to be ignored, if Arthur wanted to take that path.
Arthur didn't. He switched his scroll for the thickest of the books before and cracked open the tome, flipping rapidly through the pages with one hand while he absently fanned away dust with the other. "It is tricky, but as I don't yet hear anything burning, I think things are going well."
His expression didn't change at all, which left Lancelot uncertain as to whether he'd just received an honest opinion or a joke. Or a test, if Arthur had also decided to probe.
In that case, Lancelot might as well treat it as a jest. He chuckled. "Oh, we don't burn. We merely riddle with arrows, then ride in for the kill. No point in burning a perfectly good store of supplies."
A few more pages flipped and Lancelot started to feel worry nibbling at him, but then he noticed the smile that was creeping onto Arthur's face. The other man glanced at him, eyes sparking with good humor, and Lancelot nearly betrayed himself by sighing in relief. "Right. I forgot that this isn't Britain."
"That's how they fight there? Destroying the loot that's the whole reason behind most fighting? Rome doesn't care how many soldiers she loses, but she counts every coin in her treasury." The fur wasn't long enough to stretch past Lancelot's knee, so as a result, the lower half of his legs were slowly turning to ice. He thought for a moment about the childishness of the solution, then shrugged and slowly maneuvered himself till he could curl his legs on the chair. Even if that position probably made him look as if he were twelve, it did cover his legs. And put his head closer to Arthur's shoulder so he had a decent view of the book. "Is that Latin?"
Arthur's jaw clenched, then relaxed. He slid one fingertip up and down the well-worn margin, then stopped it by one phrase, which he underlined with his nail. Then he browsed on, searching for the next. "In Britain, enemies of Rome don't raid for profit. They raid out of hatred."
Sore spot, obviously. And 'enemies of Rome' was a curious way to put it. "You mean the Britons who don't agree to Roman rule?"
"They're called Woads. My soldiers are descended from a group of Woads that were exiled here after their rebellion was crushed." Long eyelashes drooped down, almost as if Arthur was starting to doze off, but then they snapped up and a sharp gaze swept over Lancelot. "And yes, this is Latin. You...can you read it?"
"A couple words. It's hard to avoid the language, even in the mountains. You Romans are persistent." Lancelot ducked his head beneath Arthur's look, feeling heat prickle in his cheeks. The red light from the braziers and the yellow from the sole candle Arthur was using painted everything in rich warm shades, so hopefully that would cover up the flush. "Though you tend to forget that other peoples can be just as determined."
A laugh that was more of a sigh. Arthur considerately tilted the book so Lancelot could have a better view. "This is the Vulgate. The Latin translation of the Bible, which is-"
"-the holy book of the Christians, I know. Barbarism isn't the same as ignorance."
Again, Arthur seemed about to take offense, but at the last moment, he restrained himself. "You don't waste any time in making your opinion known, do you?"
"I try not to. It's much easier to keep up with the truth than with lies." Lancelot tossed Arthur an arch look, still waiting for the outburst that continued to disappoint by its absence. Honestly, no man could fight as fiercely as Arthur did and still have such impenetrable patience. "Besides, I think the sooner a dispute is out in the open, the better."
"Do you." Something about the Bible seemed to frustrate Arthur, making him turn the pages faster and faster until he finally clapped the thing shut and put it back on the table. Then he leaned back, letting his head fall till he was staring at the ceiling. "Well, then. If we're to work together, then what are your opinions on Rome, Christianity and myself?"
Taken aback by the sudden turn in the conversation, Lancelot took a few moments to mull over the questions. He scrutinized Arthur for any sign of trickery, but the other man merely continued to watch the shadows twist across the ceiling, his face showing nothing.
In the end, Lancelot decided to risk an unvarnished answer. When in doubt, attack. "Rome should leave. It's a hypocritical Empire that thinks pretending to civilize savages is a good excuse for ruining entire peoples that sprang up without any outside help, and it's only here because it thinks that this way it can keep us from invading its neighboring provinces. As for Christianity, a man can believe whatever he wants as long as he doesn't try to tell me he knows how I should think."
"And me?" Almost perfect in his unwitting imitation of Tristan, Arthur spoke as if they were merely discussing the weather. Which they were, in a way, but his calm was still suspicious.
"And-and-" Warmth was rising in Lancelot's face again, and he bit down on his lip, futilely trying to will away his blush. "And I wonder that you can be part of both of those, because in the week that I've actually known you, you've shown yourself to be better than them."
Arthur winced and straightened up only to stare at his linked hands. The shadows in his neck and face seemed to deepen, turning him disturbingly gaunt. "Then you've only met the worst of Rome and Christianity, if you can say that. Rome is a great city, full of art and ideas and learning, and Christianity encompasses...the widest spectrum of humanity. There's a man, both Roman and Christian like me. Pelagius. He preaches that all men are born free."
"Are you sure he's really a Roman?" Lancelot skeptically asked.
"A Roman citizen. He also hails from Britain, but I met him in Rome." Sighing, Arthur raised a hand and rubbed at the bridge of his nose, then at his temples. "I know that there is injustice after injustice in Roman rule, but for the most part, I think it does more good than bad."
Snorting, Lancelot slouched down and rested his head on the top of the chair. "The rule itself, or the men who enforce it? Ideas are all fine and well, but their true effect's in the execution, and that comes down to individuals."
"You remind me of...no, not really. Tone, yes, but not content." The slip from Latin to Sarmatian indicated that Arthur was muttering to himself. He rubbed his hands over and over his face, trying to wipe the tiredness off it, then clapped his palm over a yawn that seemed to unhinge his jaw.
To his surprise, Lancelot found himself also yawning. He reluctantly rolled himself onto his feet, but grinned stupidly wide when he saw a hint of disappointment in Arthur's eyes. "The conversation was very stimulating, but the flesh is weak. I should probably get back to your bed."
"You're swaying." Arthur stood up as well and slung an arm beneath Lancelot's, helping him walk the few paces back.
It should have been humiliating, but either Lancelot was too tired to care, or he was too busy enjoying the opportunity to feel Arthur's muscles shifting against his side. Or both. He simply stopped thinking about all the little nagging details and let Arthur get him to bed.
When the other man was straightening up, Lancelot's head cleared enough for him to catch Arthur by the arm. "You asked three questions; I've only got one. Do you hate Sarmatia?"
By some trick of the dim light, Arthur's eyes were a vivid glowing green, like a night-beast's gaze. "No. I fight the people that fight me, not the land itself."
In order to know that the meeting wasn't going to go well, Merlin didn't need to peek outside and divine by flights of birds, or to watch the dying spasms of a man. He needed only to see the dark shadows beneath Arthur's eyes, and the red rims of Guinevere's. Both of them looked as if they'd already fought half the coming war.
The gathered Sarmatians seemed to pick up on the unease in the Roman high command; the knights Arthur had saved from the massacre glanced at each other with as much worry as Merlin felt, but the other Sarmatian representatives traded looks of sly delight. They were meeting in a broad open space before the garrison walls, equidistant from both camps so neither party would have an advantage, but Merlin still didn't feel reassured. The only reason he didn't double-check the archers he had secreted about the field was that he knew that would only make things worse. There were too many eyes just waiting to spot a misstep.
Fortunately for everyone, Arthur and Guinevere were not fools nor blind. They conducted the formal negotiations with Dagonet and Bors' tribes with exemplary behavior, gracefully proposing and retreating in a way that yielded the best terms possible, in an agreement worded with perfect clarity. Of course, that still didn't mean that they were all safe, but it did get everything out into the open where it couldn't later be denied except by outright recantation.
Consequently, the explosion was delayed until they were safely back in the garrison and some fool of a courier shoved a dispatch in Arthur's hand just as Lancelot was limping up to speak to Bors. As was her habit, Guinevere absently moved to read over Arthur's shoulder, then froze halfway when Arthur turned to stare. Her expression turned momentarily stricken, then hardened when she noticed that Lancelot was watching. "Which garrison is that from?" she asked, voice the perfect example of cool professionalism.
Arthur frowned and dug into the saddle-bag, then produced an unusually large packet of letters. He casually glanced about the stables, gaze noting each interested face. "It's a little too windy here. I think I'll go inside and read them."
Guinevere curled her nails into her palms. "With respect, sir, if it's at all possible, I'd like to-"
"There are some confidential letters here; I think it'd be best if I read through them first by myself," Arthur whispered, so low that Merlin, who was nearest to the pair, could barely hear it.
The request wasn't unusual and Guinevere generally acquiesced, trusting in Arthur to tell her everything later. Today, however, she grabbed him by the arm. "I'm your officer-"
Merlin stepped in and took her by the wrist, dragging her away. He glanced over his shoulder to see Arthur standing there, expression torn between gratitude and anger at having to be rescued. Then he turned back and said loudly, "Guinevere. There's a problem at the armory and I'd like your advice."
"You never need my advice," she hissed.
A short glare silenced her, and after a few minutes of fast, silent walking, she started to come to her senses. "Oh-damn it. Lancelot must be gloating."
Sadly, she was now too old for him to take her over his knee and apply a few whacks of his staff, so he had to rely on words. "Whether or not he's gloating is irrelevant."
"What! How the fuck-how can you say that?" Her anger was making her jumble her Latin and her Briton together, but she thankfully kept her voice down. "I thought you respected Arthur enough to care about whether he decides to destroy himself."
"I don't only respect him. I like him. Which is a serious thing, since I once took a vow never to like any Roman, and now it's broken." Nearby, two buildings jutted together to form a small alcove that would provide a little privacy. Merlin accordingly directed them that way. "But Guinevere, this is not simply about you and Arthur. This is war. Lancelot is an ally. Arthur is your commander. There are certain standards of behavior that have to be kept up. You need to at least remember that."
When they reached the recess, she threw herself into it and shoved her back against the wall like a cornered animal. "You were the one that told me to end it with him."
"I did no such thing. I told you to decide quickly. And when I said that, I meant decide. Lingering isn't good when it's pus in wounds, and it's worse here." In all truth, Merlin would have preferred to see Guinevere and Arthur together, and Arthur come to Britain, but he'd fought beside Arthur long enough to know that certain things about the man were set in stone. And unless Arthur himself wielded the hammer, those would never change.
The truly sad part, Merlin thought, was that Guinevere might have been able to hand Arthur that hammer but for her own firm beliefs. Perhaps it was due to the inevitable difficulties of being a stranger in a foreign land, a woman in what was supposed to be a male occupation-and even if the Britons didn't mind, she still had to play the man whenever they'd combined forces with one of the other garrisons-but she simply couldn't surrender all of herself. Whereas Arthur probably could, given the right combination of circumstances; he already threw too much of himself into righting the myriad little wrongs that everyone else simply took for part of life, and since he got precious little return for it, it had to be dedication to principles that motivated him. Deep down, Guinevere still didn't trust anyone enough to let them wholly into her. Arthur would have had to force his way in, and he would never do that.
"No." Guinevere let out a deep breath, then lifted her chin to reveal eyes dulled by resignation. "No, you didn't say that. I apologize."
"You only need to do that if I take offense, and I didn't. I understand." Merlin held out his arms.
After a moment's hesitation, she came to him and let him enfold her in a tight embrace. "Foster-father, and better at that than most real ones. Is there anything you don't understand?"
"A good deal, but I know that and so I don't interfere with it. But I do know something about this." He stroked her hair till her breathing grew less ragged, and then he readied himself to go on. "What are you to each other now?"
"Commander and officer. And friends still, I hope." She nestled against his shoulder, fingers twining in the hem of his cloak.
Nodding, Merlin planted the end of his staff in the ground and braced himself in case her anger rose again. "Then you should tell him that. And Guinevere-you cannot dictate his life. If he chooses Rome...if he chooses Sarmatia..."
"He can do better than that clever ass," she muttered, still recalcitrant about that point. But before Merlin could reply, Guinevere was wrapping her arm around his neck and shaking her head. "No, no-you're right. Though I then have the right to make my disapproval clear."
"Disapproval, yes. Intervention, no." Merlin thought a moment. "And you know Arthur better than anyone. That should tell you what chances Lancelot has."
She simply lifted her head and gave him a wan, bitter smile. "But it does."
While the utter stupidity and short-sightedness of his fellow commandants wasn't unexpected or unfamiliar-Sarmatia wasn't a desirable post by any means, and so its assignment was usually seen as a punishment; Arthur was deemed eccentric for actually requesting it-this last instance was by far the grossest piece of...of...
"Shit!" Arthur slammed his fists into the stone wall and felt his knuckles burst. The pain, however, was completely subsumed by the rage that pervaded every particle of him. All his private vows of compassion and patience and tolerance flared up and burned to ashes in its wake, and he was hard put to just remember that he couldn't kill the other Romans. For one, it would mean leaving the garrison, and that he now couldn't do.
He could write. He had written, using every trick of rhetoric and underhanded implication that he'd had to learn during his time in the Roman army, and it had all been to no avail. Still...he whirled back to his desk and tore out a fresh piece of parchment, then seized the nearest reed pen and scribbled down the words as fast as he could.
The creaking of the door barely penetrated his consciousness, but the gasp did. "You're writing with your own blood?"
"No..." Arthur dashed off the last word, then jerked himself around to face the intruder.
Lancelot stood there, but his eyes were fixed on the desk. Confused, Arthur looked back and only then saw the poor letter, blotted and stained from the blood that was still running from his knuckles. Towards the end, the words were more crimson than black, though when the blood dried they'd all be about the same color.
That struck Arthur as funny, and he allowed a few derelict chuckles to drop from his lips as he tossed the pen aside. It skittered over the far end of the desk and would have fallen, except a quick hand caught it and gently replaced it with the others. Lancelot leaned over Arthur, worried and fearful. Understandably so, since he'd have to work with Guinevere if Arthur were indisposed with madness.
The thought sobered Arthur, and he felt his smile collapse under its own strain. "Is there something you wanted to discuss?"
"The messenger from Gawain's tribe just returned-they'll be here by the end of next week. I..." Fingers drifted to Arthur's hands, floating over the raw patches. "What happened?"
It probably would have been the discreet approach to fob Lancelot off with some lie, but Arthur wasn't terribly enamored of that method at the moment. "The other garrisons aren't coming at all. In fact, they're withdrawing to safer territory, and they advise me to do the same."
Lancelot went very still. "And what is your answer?"
"I gave my word that I would fight here, beside you. I won't break it." Arthur suddenly felt as if he were a thousand years old, and that each year was weighing him down. He slumped back in his chair and looked up at Lancelot, watching the disbelief play over the other man's face. "You thought I'd leave."
"You...you have no support and you're in...neutral to unfriendly territory. It's suicide to stay. In fact, it's suicide to tell me this even before your officers," the other man stammered. He started forward, then suddenly grabbed for the edge of the desk and half-collapsed over it, face going white as bone. "Then again..."
With a sigh, Arthur stood and made Lancelot sit on the desk, then ran his palms over the other man's bandages. "It wouldn't have taken long for you to find out anyway. As you said, it's better to be honest right away. There's a reason why a garrison was put here: you and I both know that this area commands the gateway to all of Sarmatia from the north. If the Goths get a foothold here, nothing will be able to dislodge them."
When Arthur touched Lancelot's left hip, the other man hissed and flinched, then grabbed for Arthur's hands before he could do a closer inspection. Lancelot pushed himself off the desk and thus put them flush against each other, so close that Arthur could see the man's pupils expanding. "But if you're all killed here, there will be no one to hold the land against the next wave of Visigoths that decide to winter in the south."
"There'll be your people; I know you aren't bringing all that you can up here. There'll be time for someone else to come." At the least, Arthur would die knowing that he had fulfilled his responsibilities. Now that Guinevere had distanced herself from him, that was all he had. Rome was so far away, and even Christianity seemed to have grown too cold in the harshness of the steppes. He'd found more life in a short conversation with Lancelot than he had with hours and hours of rereading his texts.
Speaking of, Lancelot's expression seemed to be struggling against that very fact as various emotions fought for the right of predominance. His face seemed about to burst with all the energy that was animating it, and his eyes were brighter than the sun.
"You are the most incomprehensible man I've ever met," he blurted. Then he ducked his head and fervently kissed Arthur's hands.
It was frantic at first, teeth nicking the scrapes as much as tongue soothed away the blood. The shock, however, kept Arthur from reacting and so Lancelot had time to make it pleasurable, gently pressing his lips to the flayed knuckles and slipping his tongue-tip in between each finger to tease the delicate skin there. He sucked in Arthur's thumb, then let it audibly pop out as he glanced up, oddly demure in his ravishing.
The room was so hot that everything shimmered and wavered, distorting so much that it had to be a dream. Arthur felt himself swell out of his skin and rise to the ceiling, where he watched himself cup Lancelot's face and tip it up so their mouths were nearly touching. His thumbs were rolling along those lovely cheekbones, then stroking down to pet the lips while Lancelot sighed and pressed himself to Arthur, languid as an errant sunbeam.
Then Arthur saw Guinevere appear in the doorway and halt, eyes and mouth both wide open, and he crashed back into himself. It was impossible to say which burned more-the loss of Lancelot's warmth as Arthur pushed him aside, or the agonized pain in Guinevere's eyes.
"What-" Lancelot turned around and saw her as well; his lips thinned and his stance hardened. "I see I should remember to close the door."
"I see that you require more than a man's word, even when that man is Arthur. You would do better to remember that a mere fuck means little in the long run." She stepped aside and made a grandly sarcastic gesture that invited him to leave.
For some reason, he looked at Arthur, and Arthur felt himself nod. Back stiff, Lancelot awkwardly limped out of the room. As he passed Guinevere, they turned to give each other a long look that promised many dark things. Arthur sat back down and grimly added yet another item to his list of matters gone awry under his watch.
"I don't want to talk about it," Guinevere said in a flat, expressionless voice. She quietly closed and locked the door, then came over to the desk. Her long, elegant fingers expertly sorted out the letters and reports that littered the top; Arthur remembered that he'd last tasted them just eight days ago.
Eight days, and he was already being faithless to her. If that was the kind of man he was, no wonder she'd wanted a separation.
"We're...there's business to attend to. What do the dispatches say?" There was the slightest tremble in Guinevere's voice, and she had to press her hands against the desk in order to keep them from shaking.
Arthur wished he could do something, say something, but he'd already done quite enough. The least he could do now was honor her wish to keep up pretenses.
Slowly, he sat up and forced himself to look at her, but that was so painful that, like the coward he was, he dropped his gaze to the dispatches. And he told her, and they calmly discussed the appropriate reactions to take, and she read through his reply letter and even suggested some additions for the fair copy that would actually be sent out.
And during all that time, Arthur felt himself growing blacker and fouler till he wondered that he didn't fall apart into a pile of rot.
Ten minutes lying in an increasingly stuffy and dark room had convinced Tristan that he hadn't yet had his fill of sunlight for the day. Dagonet had moved out to stay with his tribe and thus Tristan and Galahad had separate beds, but even that new space wasn't enough to alleviate the sense of squeezing pressure he felt whenever he was inside.
It wasn't the bed, or the treatment, because both of those were quite fine. It was probably remembering the feeling of blood pulsing out of himself, rocks stumbling his staggering feet, and darkness drunkenly fractured by torchlight glinting off steel. And snarling feral faces driving him beneath an upturned wagon, then trying to skewer him to it. They'd missed, but sometimes he thought he saw their shadows coming back to correct that.
"Oh, fuck. Not again." A finger none-too-gently prodding his face.
Tristan grabbed that wrist and flipped the other man beneath himself, then came back to the present to find an exceedingly irritated Galahad squirming in the hay. The other man shoved him off and went back out of the stall. "Bastard. Now I'm thinking I should take these back."
He reappeared with two misshapen bundles, one of which unrolled to display a full selection of blades. The other turned out to be a caged hawk.
"Where did you get her? The Britons don't keep these as pets." As Tristan got down on his belly to better meet the bird's stare, he could feel an odd warmth wriggling through him. Right next to the suspicion at Galahad's behavior. "Why did you get her?"
Galahad was busy picking out a sword from the assorted weapons and testing its balance. He was making it a point to avoid looking at Tristan. "She's already trained. Lucky for you, since you can't ride for at least another week."
"Maybe I can't ride, but I can beat you if you even think about taking that one." Out of the corner of his eye, Tristan watched Galahad's hand suddenly detour to a different dagger. He allowed himself a quick grin that mostly hid in the hay and crept closer to the cage, slowly walking his fingers to the latch. The hawk ruffled and he froze, then softly hummed to her. She clicked her beak and settled, but didn't stop eying him.
Rasping sounds, clear and even. It seemed Galahad had remembered to bring a proper whetstone as well; he usually scavenged one from the ground, or snitched one from the nearest careless knight.
"Were you given those, or did you...appropriate them?" Hawk in hand, Tristan carefully lifted her out and sat up.
"Given." Galahad snorted as he checked the newly-sharpened edge of one. "There's a lot more than the standard Roman issue; makes me wonder just what Arthur's been up to. He didn't get them all from fighting us, either."
Tristan shrugged and petted his hawk till her eyes closed, a signal both of pleasure and of acceptance. Then he transferred her to a nearby rail and turned himself to the weapons, which were indeed a curious selection. Galahad had even managed to find a saber that fit Tristan's hand as if it'd been made for him. "I have a feeling that Arthur is much more than anyone knows."
"Watch your mouth," Galahad laughed. "Lancelot's going to start thinking he has even more competition."
"If I wanted a Pendragon, I wouldn't be taking gifts from you. Lancelot's a snob, but he can't help it." The weight of a dagger was a welcome familiarity, even if Tristan's wrist did tremble a little after he'd set it down with the rest. He'd lost strength and speed during convalescence, and he'd have to work on that.
Galahad was oddly silent. Then a hand fell on Tristan's shoulder and spun him around into a hot, angry mouth. "I can never tell whether you're insulting or complimenting me," Galahad gasped in between nipping and licking.
He was messy. Messy and frantic and for some reason, Tristan found himself rolling into it, trying to fumble past the hands that were sliding all over him, not really having a rhyme or reason but nevertheless doing a good job of making his entire body shiver. His side twisted out a twinge of pain, but Galahad sucked out his gasp and stroked one palm repeatedly over it.
Hay rustled and crushed, filling the air with a sweet mustiness. Yellow fragments drifted through Galahad's hair to scratch against Tristan's face; he turned to rub them away and then almost swallowed a mouthful when their knees slid past each other to fit certain things together. For someone who regularly resembled a sullen puppy, Galahad was surprisingly good at this. Still completely without any kind of discipline so Tristan had to dig his fingers into the other man's hips, but the fervor and the vigor was overwhelming.
And even when spasming, Galahad wouldn't stop mouthing at Tristan's neck, which felt amazingly good and bone-melting and..."You're...you're very lucky you didn't get us stabbed. Should've wrapped up the blades first."
Galahad grunted into Tristan's throat and stayed slumped on top, nibbling at Tristan's pulse. "Picky bastard. I always thought you were supposed to do this with someone you liked. Clearly, I was wrong."
Tristan smiled and roughly ran his fingers through Galahad's hair, drawing out as many yelps as sighs. "So what was the hawk for?"
"Oh, I figure that if you've got to look after that, you'll stop having fits, or whatever earlier was." The other man propped himself up on his elbows, solemn-faced as he regarded Tristan. "You know...when you do that, your eyes die. It's-terrifying."
No matter how Tristan looked, he only saw genuine fear and honesty in Galahad's face. Eventually he stopped searching and simply took it in, setting up the memory against that of the killing dark.
Fast footsteps in the aisle. More than one pair-Galahad, the idiot, started to sit up. Tristan smacked a hand over the other man's mouth and rolled them into the far end of the stall. He was about to go back for his hawk when the first set of feet stopped and Lancelot said, acidly sweet, "Guinevere, was there something you wanted to say?"
"There's quite a bit, but since there's a war on, I'll restrain myself to the essential." Although Tristan had no idea what had precipitated this conversation, he could hear clearly enough the implication of frivolity her words laid on Lancelot. "Arthur is Roman. Moreover, he's a man of his word, and nothing can break or influence that."
"I didn't think that this had much to do with speaking." The insolence flowed off Lancelot, turning his voice slick and smoky with sarcasm. "At least, it didn't seem that way from where I was."
Galahad squeezed Tristan's arm, then nodded to the swords lying at the side, wanting to know if they should intervene. Tristan shook his head; the words that were flying back and forth were bitter, but not yet fatal.
"You damned arrogant son of a bitch," Guinevere growled. "This involves more than a little fun in bed. You've both got responsibilities."
"And I'm fulfilling them far better than you. By now every single man, woman and child in the Sarmatian camps outside knows that you and Arthur are having problems, and moreover, that it's your fault." Lancelot paced to the end of the stable and then came back, rattling a loose rail as he leaned against it. "If you want to talk duty, then consider that Arthur would be far more trusted if he were seen to favor the Sarmatians. He's spent enough time scourging this land for us to be wary."
She hissed something in a language that Tristan assumed was Briton, then hit a post with something. "That's your sole motivation, is it? Somehow I see you as thinking too highly of yourself to make such a noble sacrifice."
Pause. Then, considering: "So you two are separated. You don't deny my accusation."
"It doesn't matter whether or not we share a bed. Arthur and I won't be divided by just a pretty face. You can tell that to your people, once the Goths are dead and you're turning your eyes back to this garrison." With that, Guinevere stalked out of the stables.
When Lancelot didn't make a sound after several long moments, Tristan cautiously stood up. The other man's back was rigid, and the fists Lancelot had wrapped about the railing were almost completely white with the force of their hold.
"I've taken to just assuming you're around," Lancelot said, still not turning. "Can't blame you for listening in when it's so interesting."
"It does affect more than you, her and Arthur." Tristan reached behind him and grabbed Galahad's hair, making the other man stay out of sight.
Lancelot nodded, an acknowledging smile harshly twisting his mouth. "She's right about more than that, damn the bitch. I'm beginning to think this all started before I found out Arthur's lineage."
"Well, if he ends up accepting what that means-"
"I'd want him to accept it because of me, and not accept me because of it!" Lancelot snapped, pivoting to reveal a face that was struggling to contain far too many emotions for any one man. He turned back and bowed his head, then faced Tristan again with a composed mask haphazardly shoved on. "By the way, there's bad news. Round up everyone; we'll meet in Arthur's rooms since it doesn't look like he'll want to be near me for a while."
Before Tristan could answer, the other man had walked out of the stables, limp almost gone in his fury. Galahad shook off Tristan's hand and peered after Lancelot, frowning. "Bad news isn't nearly saying it."
"Leave it alone. We don't know enough about Arthur or Guinevere to do anything." Tristan petted his hawk, whispering a thanks for its serenity, then stooped down and began gathering up the blades.
Surprisingly enough, Galahad squatted down without any more protests and helped. "I'm starting to think that I don't even know Lancelot. At least you don't really change."
"I'll take that as a compliment." Tristan hesitated, then craned across the swords and kissed Galahad. "Thank you."