|Reversals IV: Resolution
Author: Guede Mazaka
Five days ago, the river waters had finally fallen enough to permit a crossing. Three days ago, the first Goths on this side of the mountains had been reported. Two days ago, the last Sarmatian tribe, Tristan's, had arrived.
Lancelot rolled over and watched the weak dawn light shiver over the bed, humping over ripples and stroking down the length of Arthur's body. They'd both been up all night, discussing strategy, but after that Arthur had spent an additional few hours feverishly studying the maps. He'd told Lancelot to go to bed, and the redness cobwebbing his eyes had looked so ominous that Lancelot had decided not to argue. He had meant to stay awake till Arthur had come to bed, but sleep had had a treacherously soft touch and had taken over him before he'd realized.
Arthur's hand pressed against his side, then moved up over his chest. It stayed there for a few tingling, bitter-tasting moments before drifting onto his back. Arthur opened his eyes to reveal them little better than they'd been the previous evening and essayed a fatigued, damnably distant smile. "So you did sleep."
"No thanks to you. I wanted..." Shaking his head, Lancelot buried his face in the pillow and attempted not to react to the gentle petting. The fingers on his back splayed out and moved in slow circles, rubbing in slow-burning heat that soon spread into his bones, making them soft and bendable to Arthur. So it'd been ever since the night Arthur had accepted his father's heritage-it'd been that and no more. "If you don't want me here, you can say so."
The hand stilled and became a heavy weight on Lancelot's spine, urging him to sit up and look at the beautiful shell he'd helped hollow out. "What do you think this is?" Arthur asked, tone slightly more strained.
Well, that was better than whatever false calm Arthur had been projecting for the past couple of weeks. When Lancelot had gone to the man and been allowed into Arthur's bed, the relief and the gratitude had threatened to burst open his skin like water freezing in a too-full skin. He hadn't expected even that, and so he hadn't cared that Arthur had showed nothing of his former desperate passion, but only a sad kind of acceptance. But now, after two weeks of Arthur only clinging to him as if to leach the warmth from him, Lancelot needed to know what he'd done. He needed to know whether he'd a chance of keeping Arthur among the living, or whether it was already too late.
Since he'd thought he'd lost Arthur once already, risking that again shouldn't be so difficult. Still, it was almost beyond Lancelot to force out the words he knew might send Arthur raging away from him, even if it did end the suffocation of their current limbo. "I think it's you feeling for Guinevere's breasts. I think it's you confusing this with some twisted sense of duty you have. I think it doesn't matter now who lies in your bed, as long as they're warm enough to remind you that you aren't dead yet. I think-Arthur, damn it, I'll live with her ghost, but I won't live with yours!"
Lancelot snapped off the last word as quickly as he could and then mashed himself further into the mattress, trying to believe that he could withstand whatever he'd just wrought. The corners of his eyes stung, so he twisted the sheets around his fingers till he started to cut off the blood flow, making them hurt more.
He could hear his own heavy breathing, but he couldn't hear Arthur's. Just to make sure, Lancelot strained his hearing as far as he could, but when he still didn't find any sign of life, he lifted his head to look. And he met a gaze that was violent, boiling green, that threatened to strip the flesh from his bones.
Still on his back, Arthur's hand curled into a fist, but the other man's lips seemed to barely move as they delivered a reply seething with half-restrained emotions. "I love Guinevere. If you think I'd betray her lightly, then--damn you."
Then Lancelot was flipped over and gasping as a mouth devoured his every breath, as hands clawed up and down his body to rake him into a helpless shaking. Palms rasping the skin off of him, dancing sparks down every nerve. Teeth against his, hot tongue sweeping out his moans, and then it was down on his throat and he was reaching for Arthur, only his hands were snatched back down to the bed. As he twisted in an iron grip, a knee pushed past his own and mercilessly ground down on his cock, which was springing to life with a speed that blistered.
"Do you know what it's like to-" nipping the underside of his chin "-like to just listen to you breathe? To hear your heart beating and think-" licking down his chest, brutal pleasure of the knee-pressure suddenly gone "-to think I could take you and take you and you'd cry for more? And to know that I can't?"
Lancelot pulled and wrenched at his trapped wrists, futilely trying to keep up with the mouth that was incinerating a dividing line down his body. He could feel himself attempting to fall apart according to it, but he whined and whimpered till he managed to yank those errant pieces back. Arthur-such a fast change, and something was wrong with it, and Lancelot needed to know why. He was trying to remember clues and to slot them together, but then Arthur would take a sharp bite, or nuzzle a shiver, and they would all drop away. "Why-why not?"
"Because I don't know!" As suddenly as he'd begun, Arthur stopped and stared up at Lancelot, face stricken with guilt and confusion and...fear. "I don't know who I am anymore, or what I'll do. I thought I did with Guinevere, but I didn't and so she left. And I can't..."
It was nearly impossible, but Lancelot managed to ignore the pleading of his prick and recall how to think rationally. He squeezed his eyes shut and threw back his head, but the pillow was too soft to provide the necessary force to knock his thoughts together. "Let go," he finally muttered.
Arthur did, resignation settling like a shroud over his face. When Lancelot grabbed him and rolled the other man beneath himself, that shroud ripped wide open. That was fortunate, because that spared Lancelot the trouble of punching Arthur. Instead, he clamped his fingers on those broad shoulders, fitting his left thumb around some old scar, and put as much of himself into his eyes as he could. "Arthur. This may surprise you, but I don't care. Whatever you are, that's what I follow. Even-even to Rome, if that is where your path goes."
For a moment, Arthur only stared. His face was frozen and white like the thousand-year snows on the mountain-tops that never melted, and so Lancelot was taken completely unawares by the abrupt shift.
He ended up beneath again, but on his stomach with his hands pinned to the sides again and his legs clumsily sprawling. Arthur, however, was applying his mouth to Lancelot's nape with such skill that it hardly mattered. One rasp of teeth and shudders fled down Lancelot's spine; one soft lick and his moan melted his muscles.
It was slower this time, not nearly so frantic, and it felt like Arthur was actually focusing on the flesh writhing beneath him instead of on the turmoil inside him that Lancelot had briefly seen boil over. Lancelot groaned and twisted his head to momentarily catch Arthur's mouth with his own, but the other man was moving downwards again, nuzzling and kissing his way along Lancelot's back. He ran across a spear scar that arced over one side of Lancelot's ribs and spent an inordinate time bringing that ridged, ugly spot to prickling anticipation before tickling the small of Lancelot's back with featherlight touches of his tongue. Lancelot felt his legs go limp and wide, his wrists surrender to Arthur's hold and his fingers uncurl to spread over the rumpled blankets.
"You barely know me. A month," Arthur whispered to the shivering skin of Lancelot's inner thigh. He tentatively nipped at Lancelot's right buttock and the light graze stabbed down hurt-edged heat that sent Lancelot's head lolling on the pillow. Arthur licked over the injured spot, then took a whole mouthful and bit down.
Screaming was hard to do when it seemed like half a pillow had somehow gotten sucked into the mouth. Nevertheless, Lancelot gave it his best shot. He hoped Arthur took that as encouragement, and when the other man demonstrated that he had, it was almost enough for Lancelot to forget himself.
But it was Arthur, after all, and around that man Lancelot never could miss a meaning. Not when every little whisper on the wind seemed to hit Arthur in some way, tipping the balance of his moods toward dark or light. The man thought too much, and what was worse, he made it so Lancelot couldn't help but think. "I know...I know that you don't love me."
Arthur went very still, but his warm breath continued to ghost between Lancelot's legs. "I don't know," he eventually said, voice thick as newly-thawed tree sap.
"It doesn't matter." Lancelot struggled with his contrary body until he'd made his hips push back to the point where he could feel Arthur's lips again, slowly working their way deeper between Lancelot's thighs. At the first dart of tongue inside, enough of his mind liquefied into hazy drunkenness for him to sink away from the repercussions and fall fully into the simple twist and slide of flesh against flesh. "It doesn't matter," he murmured, seeing the first glimmers of blinding white come racing toward him.
And he almost believed himself.
"I just have to wonder-if I hadn't forced the issue, would it have been any easier? Would I at least have been spared seeing that son of a whore Sarmatian get him?" Guinevere twiddled her reed-pen in between her fingers and watched the way it blurred from solid stick to little fan-shaped cloud. One side was cracked, and she was getting ink all over her hand, but she didn't know why she should care. It wasn't as if her hands were going to stay clean no matter how often she washed them; a trait of her profession, she supposed.
Maybe if she'd been a little more feminine, Arthur would have stopped noticing men-all right, now she was being ridiculous. Even if she was feeling like she'd been walking around for days with her guts cut out, there were limits. She had pride, and knowledge, and skill, none of which had deserted her. In fact, nothing had deserted her except what she had already released, and if she could only remember that...
Merlin was standing up to go. Startled, Guinevere rocked onto her feet and grabbed his arm. "We're not done yet."
"And we'll get no work done while you're like this. I need to speak with the Sarmatian leaders anyway, so I can come back when you can focus again." His words would've been easy enough to take as cruelty, but his concern-tinged, factual tone made that impossible.
And he was right as well, and Guinevere was disgusting herself with her self-pity. She sat down again and rested her elbows on the table, then rubbed her face with her hands until she thought she'd peeled away some of the dross that had accumulated on her. As a warrior and as a soldier in a hostile land, she should know better than most the dangers of neglecting herself.
As a regretful, angry, frustrated woman who had willingly given up the most honorable, handsome and loving man she'd ever met to a selfish stuck-up bastard, she should know that good swordplay and a large army couldn't fix everything in the world. People weren't meant to be alone, witness Arthur. The moment he'd thought he had no one left to stand with him, he'd started to die. And to judge by what Arthur had looked like last night, Lancelot was failing at changing that.
On the one hand, Guinevere wanted Lancelot to be unsuccessful because then she could kill him. On the other...if Lancelot didn't succeed, then Arthur was gone. Because she'd put herself where she couldn't help him any more. Not like that, and the realization of that fact made her heart bleed bile.
Oddly enough, Merlin still hadn't left. Instead, he had come closer and laid his hands on her shoulders, simply waiting for her to look up and see him. When she did, he cupped her cheek as he'd done all through her childhood. "If you had had eight more years and at the end, he had still decided for Sarmatia and Lancelot while you insisted on Britain, would it have hurt less?"
Guinevere wanted to close her eyes, but the calm intensity of Merlin's gaze wouldn't permit any such evasions. "No. Maybe more, maybe the same, but not less."
So she hated crying because it reminded her of all that was dark and wrong and lost in the wrong, but when the hot salt rose in her throat and into her eyes, she couldn't ever fight it. She clutched at Merlin's arms and buried her face in his shoulder. "I love him. I love him and I gave him up, and-and he still loves me. I could take him from Lancelot."
"Would you?" Hands that had carved toy swords for little girls that dreamed of battlefields and that had wrenched real ones from entrails stroked her hair.
"No. I can't kill him. But I-Merlin, how am I supposed to live with this? How?" Her tears were vicious things and always did their best to claw their way out of her eyes, leaving burning scratches on the insides of her eyelids. Guinevere bit down on her lip against the pain and tasted blood mixing into her sobs.
Merlin ran his palm over her hair one last time, then kissed her on the forehead and stepped back, leaving her to sway under her own power. He unrolled the maps and spread them across the table, then switched the broken reed-pen she had still been holding for a fresh one. "It's been almost five weeks since you told him. Are you dead yet?"
"Is this living?" she asked, squinting up at him.
He simply nodded. "Death is the absence of all feeling. Life is feeling, whether that be good or bad. And Guinevere? I would see the both of you live, or else I would have killed Lancelot myself by now."
That steadied her enough to lift her head from her hands without feeling as if she were simply retreating into herself and leaving someone else to play Guinevere. She didn't think she believed his words yet, but she could feel the long years of experience behind them, and she could taste both the acid of despair and the sweetness of hope in that. She...trusted him.
They were simply facts of life, immutable and indestructible. Guinevere was a warrior and a woman and a Briton. Merlin was trustworthy and wise. And Arthur was the man she loved. She'd lived with those pieces of knowledge long enough, and she knew she could do it for longer. If she wanted to be happy, she needed to know that he was, and if he was to be happy...then they had to make a cleaner end of it.
Tristan had just finished an exhausting, often irritating and especially nasty discussion with what elders were left among his people, and he would have very much liked a warm drink and a soft bed. Unfortunately, Galahad wasn't around to provide an excuse for seeking that out, and Lancelot looked as if he needed a verbal target. While Tristan wasn't in the habit of casually sacrificing himself, he was acutely aware of the delicacy of their various positions, and the importance that said positions be maintained.
He did take the time to let his hawk go for a short flight before he dropped himself on the grass besides Lancelot. "If you sharpen that any more, it'll fall apart."
"Fuck!" In his surprise, the other man snapped the dagger to which he'd been attending past Tristan's nose. "Don't do that!"
A freshly-cut hair fell into Tristan's lap and he carefully plucked it off his leg before replying. "Throwing it into a wall probably isn't good for the edge, either."
Lancelot produced a narrow-eyed glare that wouldn't have looked out of place on a particularly cranky goat. "I don't know how Galahad puts up with you. You make an ill-matched pair."
The peculiarity about Lancelot was that he was capable of such spectacular stupidity that it was easy to forget he was also intelligent, quick-witted and an excellent judge of character, even if he usually chose to disregard his own judgments. Here he hadn't, and so the remark made Tristan flinch.
The other man ceased glaring and instead, merely scrutinized every inch of Tristan's face. "How did that happen, anyway? I always thought Galahad would find some girl with good breasts and a better punch."
"Like his sisters?" Though Tristan hadn't seen much of the ones that had come with Galahad for the meeting with the Goths, he had had the privilege of seeing one deck Bors for flirting with her.
"Well, upbringing tells." When Lancelot got up, he was wearing an insolent grin, but by the time he'd retrieved his dagger and come back, the smile was gone. "Does it," he sighed. "Is excessive fear of oneself part of the Christian doctrine?"
Tristan shrugged and laid back, folding his arms under his head. The sky was a beautiful blue, dotted with fluffy white clouds that were perfectly innocent and a tiny smear of gray that wasn't-it was the smoke column from the Goth campfires, only a day away. Time was running out, and they still weren't ready. "I wouldn't know. Shouldn't you ask Arthur?"
Instead of answering, the other man looked away and consequently presented Tristan with a tense profile. He worked his jaw, chewing on some unpleasant memory. "You first."
"I don't know why Galahad wants me; I only know that he does." Years of tracking had taught Tristan to look for the signs that others missed, but years of riding through the rolling strife that was life in Sarmatia had also taught him not to question the results he saw. If the trail led to a living or a dead body, then that was what it did, and all the wishing in the world couldn't change that. If someone else decided for good to do what they pleased, then Tristan could do nothing there, either.
And if some pretty, short-tempered, stubborn horseman with a surprising gift for unconscious practicality decided he wouldn't mind snoring into Tristan's ear, then...then he was glad. "And I know that I want him. That slaughter was in the dark; I remember that blackness sometimes, but when the light comes back Galahad's always there. I don't understand it, but I know it."
"You remember he's an ass, right? Been like that ever since he was seven, so I don't think he'll change." The expression on Lancelot's face was composed of a little surprise laced through a lot of grudging understanding, and his eyes were mostly looking through Tristan. Or looking inside himself. Either way, the conversation was beginning to double up on itself.
"He says the same about you." Tristan waited till Lancelot had directed his glare elsewhere, then sat up and grinned at his hands. "I know. He's annoying. But after the battle I'm still leaving my tribe for his-and that probably is why he isn't around right now. He thinks that means he owes me something."
Lancelot snorted and began picking at the grass, quickly staining his fingers with green. He noticed and started to wipe hands on his knees, then stopped and stared at the smudges. At first, Tristan didn't see it, but then he remembered the odd shade of Arthur's eyes, very unlike the brown that predominated in Sarmatia, and compared it to the color of the grass stains. Identical. "It's not easy."
"You make it look that way," the other man muttered with sudden savagery. "Sometimes I've got to wonder if you actually feel anything. You're like the stone icicles in the caves."
Normally that wouldn't have offended Tristan because he'd always known he didn't react in quite the same way as most other people, and he'd grown old enough to not care because that was just one of those things that was beyond his control. But as it was Lancelot, Tristan did feel his hackles begin to rise. "If it were simple to suddenly give up everything I've ever known for something that I've barely begun to know, I might not have waited so long to do that. But if I hadn't waited, then it wouldn't have been something worth waiting for."
"But that doesn't make-" The sense visibly hit Lancelot, somewhere low in the stomach so his mouth opened in a silent gasp. He gave Tristan another sharp look. "I hate waiting."
"Everyone knows that." Someone was coming up the hill; Tristan closed his eyes and listened for the peculiarities of the person's gait. "Does Arthur?"
It took even less time for Lancelot to understand the point of that. Although Tristan was expecting another angry retort, the other man surprised him by only sighing. "At least you trust who you're going to. I don't think Arthur sees me as anything but the last wedge between him and Guinevere."
"No, Tristan doesn't. Not enough to tell me what he's doing," Galahad snapped from behind them. He thumped down in front of Tristan and folded his arms across Tristan's knees. "You stupid bastard."
"I did tell you." Up in the sky, a tiny dot was whirling into view, dropping down till it resolved into a pair of upswept wings.
While Lancelot tried and failed to hide his snickering, Galahad glowered like an upset pregnant mare. "And I told you to wait!"
"Till when? Till we knew whether we were going to live past the battle?" Tristan raised his eyebrow, then abruptly parted his knees so Galahad lost his support and promptly fell forward, jabbing his nose into Tristan's stomach. Before the other man could get his mouth unblocked and therefore could speak, Tristan put his hand on top of Galahad's head and held him there. "Which battle? Because there'll always be one."
Muffled grunting and fists smacking into Tristan's hips.
"Because I wanted to," Tristan replied. "Why'd you invite me to share your tent while we were waiting for my tribe? And don't say it's because I was less likely to have attacks there, or that it's easier to have privacy there than in Arthur's room. Those are truths, but not reasons."
When he let the other man up, Galahad slowly slouched his way to facing Tristan, annoyed and reluctantly pleased with just a trace of tenderness. "All right, maybe I like you. Sometimes."
And then Galahad toppled Tristan back into a fierce kiss that knocked the wind out of Tristan before feeding it back to him, warmed and spiced. Somewhere on the side, Lancelot was getting up and leaving, dropping a last insult behind him as a farewell. A moment later, a soft flutter and an even softer cry signaled the return of Tristan's hawk. He squirmed out his arm and groped for her. "Galahad-get off."
"Fine, but hurry up. You took forever in that damned meeting." The other man did as he was told, but only until he could try to drag Tristan along. "Come on."
"We've a day and a night," Tristan observed, picking up his pace a little. He lightly scratched his hawk on the head, then glanced back up at the smoke-column. It had thickened ever-so-slightly; the Goths were making camp for the night and building up their fires. For the scouts, finding the camp wasn't going to be difficult at all.
Galahad squeezed Tristan's arm, then let go and determinedly looked straight ahead. "No, we've got an afternoon. You're going out tonight, aren't you?"
Tristan felt the need for an answer, but he didn't have one he thought Galahad would accept.
"Just try not to get yourself killed. Considering you've gone through so much trouble and..." The muscle in Galahad's cheek twitched, and he curled his hands into fists. "...hurry up."
Though they all behaved reasonably well when duties necessitated that they be in the same room, it was still a relief for Arthur when Lancelot stepped out for a moment. Not much of one, given that the man gave him a glance that was full of resigned, bitter longing and gave Guinevere one that was brimming with hostility, but Arthur was thankful for any slackening of tension that he had.
It was only a brief let-up, for as soon as Lancelot was gone there was Guinevere, shoulders shaking a little as she checked over the plans one last time. "So the garrison will look as if we've abandoned it to the Sarmatians, who'll draw up outside to lure the Goths close to the walls. Then our cavalry and our infantry will fall on the rear. Entire effect being to surround the Goths."
"Do you see any possible flaws?" Of course there were, but both of them knew that with their limited numbers, nothing could be done about those. When the moment came, it'd be as much luck and sheer leadership on the part of the officers as strategy. Arthur hoped he'd be able to reverse the current trends in those, but he wasn't certain of it.
Instead of directly answering him, she came around the side of the table and lifted his chin with her hand. He caught his breath, then savored the missed touch.
Guinevere, however, remained still as stone. "Do you love him?"
Arthur's eyes had drifted shut, and when he opened them now, it was to find a strange kind of grief in her face: pain, but aged so that it had become a part of her instead of overwhelming all of her. She put her other hand to his cheek and smiled a little, sad crescent shining in the failing twilight that filtered through the shutters. "Arthur, we won't wait for each other. Whether that was hurried by the decisions we both made-it doesn't matter. It still remains a fact."
"He says that it doesn't matter about many things, but I can see that it does. I...bruise him, I think." As slowly as he could, Arthur reached up and pulled Guinevere's hands down. He looked at them, remembering the feeling of her knuckles beneath his lips, the making of each tiny scar. "I would rather not, but...old habits are hard to break. Just listening to him breathe...but doing more feels like I'm betraying you. And that in turn betrays him."
Guinevere drew a shuddering sigh and wrapped her fingers around Arthur's. "I can't forgive you because there's nothing to forgive. I wish there were-I wish I could hate, but I can't. I can still give you that much."
Then she bent down and whispered to his lips, "Love me."
That kiss was full of sweetness and beauty, flavor sharpened by the recollection of shared troubles. Drawing apart tore at something deep inside Arthur, snapping loose strings and destroying every remaining particle. He dragged in air and felt it burn his lungs.
"And leave me." She kissed him a second time, and he tasted earth and ashes with just a trace of brightness. But lives couldn't be built on traces, so Arthur let her go.
He couldn't yet look at her with equanimity, so he turned away and stared at the maps. They were nothing more than a collection of lines and dots, arbitrarily assigned meanings, but they were still capable of leading men out of the wilderness as long as they stayed fixed. Where he was, the lines had shifted, or the meanings had changed, and so all the knowledge was lost to him. But people depended on him, and so he had to start again, seek a third life in Sarmatia. Perhaps it would fail, like Britain and Rome had, but perhaps steppes were broad enough to encompass everything, and black curls twined in his fingers tight enough to hold him together.
"You were right," Arthur said, staring at the lamp flame in the corner. "Lancelot was someone to worry about from the moment I pulled him out of that horror."
"It was your face." Guinevere leaned against the table, moving it a little with her shrug. "You looked at that massacre as if every speck of it had been branded on you. That's what I feel about Britain, and that's what you feel about Sarmatia."
A breeze fingered Arthur's hair, and then she was slipping out the door while Lancelot, expression guarded, came in. His footsteps came up to Arthur's side and the warmth of a palm held a hairsbreadth away hovered over Arthur's shoulder.
He hissed a little when Arthur grabbed that hand, but seemed to stop breathing when Arthur pulled him towards the chair, making their knees bump. "The...the others see no problems," Lancelot muttered, teeth grinding on the tail-end of each word. "They want to know where you'll be."
"With the Sarmatian cavalry. That's what I grew up in." Arthur allowed a laugh to trickle out as he caught Lancelot's other wrist and stroked the soft skin of its inside with his thumb. He pressed down on the resulting shiver, searching for and finding the pulse. "I should have seen this coming, but men aren't so far-sighted as we'd like to think..."
"Arthur?" The other man sounded worried; he tried to tug his hands toward Arthur's face.
And love, Arthur thought, was not the greatest certainty after all, but the greatest uncertainty. He might die tomorrow, he might not, but in any case, what he left behind him would live on. That was a better argument against doing regrettable things than any promise of eternal punishment that would only affect him.
He looked up, caught Lancelot's confused gaze with his own, and pulled the other man on top of him. The chair creaked a bit, but it had sustained such things before and it would continue to do so. "It may not matter to you, but it does to me. When I look at you, I don't see Guinevere. And to be honest, that frightens me because I haven't lived like that in a long time. But..."
"But?" Lancelot looked dazed, pupils huge enough to swallow the encroaching darkness.
"But it seems that I can let her leave. And I don't think I can do that with you." Arthur spread the fingers of Lancelot's hand with his own, memorizing the way they flexed and bent, the length and the breadth of them. He licked at the hollow of the palm, then followed the taste of salt up the middle finger. "I have no idea what this says about either of you. I only know that if you ever try to leave--"
He was interrupted by a hard, fierce kiss that slowly segued into a surprising tenderness. Lips trailed down the side of Arthur's face to press against his jaw, then against the spot beneath his ear. "I won't leave. I won't."
The fingers slipped out of Arthur's hands and fell to his shoulders, lifting only for the few seconds it took for Arthur to rid Lancelot of his clothing. Thumbs brushed his neck, dragged over his collarbone and dug down when Arthur ran a nail down Lancelot's spine. Beautiful bending flesh, chin lifting to offer throat, and of course Arthur bent forward to nibble down that. His hands rippled sweat up and down the lean back, occasionally stopping to count ribs that were beginning to heave under quick, shallow breaths.
Soft kiss to his temple, and then a face pressed into the side of his neck, like when they'd first met. No blood, though-not on the outside. "You still don't love me," Lancelot whispered.
Arthur feathered his fingers over the other man's hips, drawing out shiver after shiver, then cupped one and lifted Lancelot so he could get off his clothes. "Not like I do Guinevere."
"That's not a no." Startled, Lancelot straightened up and stared down at Arthur. His hands slipped inside Arthur's loosened clothing and pressed flat against Arthur's chest, though whether that was to keep distance or to obtain more contact was impossible to tell.
There was an unlighted lamp on the windowsill that yielded enough oil, though Arthur had to break it open. Lancelot didn't even flinch at the noise, or give any sign that he'd noticed.
"I want to watch you live and breathe and laugh. I want to always know where you are, to taste you in my mouth and myself on your skin-no one else." Very carefully, Arthur slid his oiled hand between Lancelot's buttocks and slipped just the tip of his finger into the other man. When Lancelot twitched and whimpered, Arthur swept his other hand up Lancelot's chest, quieting him. "I want to know that you're first mine and second anything else. That's...I don't know what that is, because I've never felt it before."
"That doesn't matter, and when I say that this time, I mean it." Lancelot suddenly shoved himself down. His nails ripped into Arthur and his mouth opened as wide as his eyes already were. Air went in and out of him in ragged pants, but a moment later he was rolling his hips, tentatively starting to fuck himself on the finger. It was obscene and beautiful and irresistible, and when Arthur slid in two more, Lancelot whined and tried to spread his knees in the cramped space. "That's what I wanted. Anything else-anything else I'll have time to get."
Confident, maybe a touch arrogant, but when Arthur only stroked a knuckle down Lancelot's cheek, the other man pressed into the caress with such eagerness that it almost hurt to watch. "You're sounding more like yourself. And you've done this before."
"Not in a chair. And not-" Lancelot groaned as Arthur twisted the fingers inside "-I can't even look at anyone besides you now. I don't dare-you're barely here as it is-and if I blink, I think I'll miss something-"
Hands petted their way down Arthur, frequently seizing up and clenching as he continued to work out where Lancelot's sensitive spots were. Eventually they reached his cock and fumbled it out; Lancelot shuffled forward and raked an open-mouthed kiss over Arthur's lips, then grabbed the back of the chair and hauled himself up. His legs were badly trembling, so Arthur took him by the waist and helped.
For a moment, they were both beyond aid, simply pressed together and trading heated breath and trying to remember how to move. Lancelot's head dropped to Arthur's shoulder again, and his hands seemed frozen to the chair. "If you die tomorrow, I won't see sunset. And don't try to tell me not to do it."
Arthur couldn't answer that with anything but lips and tongue and hands. He licked the curve of Lancelot's neck and shoulder clean while his hands splayed out over Lancelot's thighs and started to move them. After a moment, the other man jerked in the hold and took over, so Arthur dragged his fingers around to wrap around Lancelot's prick, stroking from tip to base with an occasional straying beyond. He remembered the morning and lightly scratched at the bite marks from that.
Lancelot whimpered, soft little strangled cries in his throat, and increased the pace till Arthur thought they should be burning off skin. When Arthur was thinking at all, because that ability was fast slipping away. And then Lancelot plunged himself down one last time and stiffened. He came with a long, low moan and tensed so tightly around Arthur that it was impossible not to follow suit.
"We never know what happens tomorrow," Arthur muttered, watching the black spots clear from his vision. He wrapped his arms around Lancelot and buried his face in the other man's hair.
"Then whatever this was, I'm grateful it happened tonight." After a few scattered kisses, Lancelot nuzzled the side of Arthur's face and slowly eased himself off. He collapsed back on Arthur and stayed that way, even when they eventually shifted to the bed in the next room. The last thing Arthur remembered before sleep took him was the slowing of Lancelot's breathing as the other man chased dreams.
This was the first time Galahad had worn full armor since before the massacre, and he'd forgotten how damned heavy it was. His shoulders were already hurting, and his horse fidgeted whenever he took an eye off it. "Stupid son of a bitch."
Beside him, Dagonet sat as still and solid as a mountain. "He'll come."
"I was talking to my horse, who's right here." Annoyed as he was, Galahad kept his voice down so Lancelot wouldn't hear and start teasing. In point of fact, the other man didn't really look as if he were in the mood for teasing, but since Galahad couldn't identify what mood would make him shift his weight, wince-smile and then go deadly serious, it was easier just to assume he'd be bitchy as usual.
Dagonet's face remained set in its non-expression, though he did unbend enough to point. "There's the scouts."
One rider separated from the approaching group to loop over to Tristan's tribe, and then it detoured to trot up to Galahad while the other scouts went to report to Arthur. Bors hailed the errant rider first: "How many did you kill?"
Uncaring shrug. "Four," Tristan answered, casually flicking at some dried blood on his arm.
"Good start to the day," Bors grinned, dropping back.
Now that Tristan was near enough to be recognized, Galahad could see that the man was strangely relaxed for someone that'd spent the whole night skulking around an enemy camp and now had a full-scale battle to look forward to. Then again, four Goths. And it was Tristan, who was improbable and contradictory and who liked curling up to Galahad's left side.
Galahad shuffled through his confused thoughts for a moment, then gave up. "You're back," he said, inane as a drooling baby, as Tristan turned his horse to come up beside Galahad. "Any...problems?"
"No. It doesn't happen when I'm tracking." Tristan was murmuring to his hawk, petting it one last time before he set it aloft. His eyes were rimmed with dark circles, but he looked more than awake enough for a long battle.
"Well, you did say all you needed was to get out again." The Goths had spotted the Sarmatian forces outside an apparently abandoned garrison, and they were now pouring down into the other side of the field, eager to deal with what they assumed were leaderless horsemen. Arthur had had rumors spread among them to the effect that the Romans were too terrified to fight and were withdrawing, so they wouldn't bother detaching an army to go look for the missing Briton vexillations. They'd just try to crush the Sarmatians.
To judge by the numbers that were forming up before them, they'd believed the lies. Galahad tried to make an estimate and couldn't due to the amount of dust that was being kicked up, so he glanced at the cavalry arrayed behind and went over those numbers. Which was a bad idea that didn't reassure him at all.
"That wasn't all I needed," Tristan admitted, very soft and oddly shy. He threw his hawk up in the air, and as it rose, the shouts of his people seemed to blow it even higher. Against that uproar, his voice was like a single white hair in a black horse's coat, but Galahad nevertheless had no trouble hearing it. "In their language, the Britons call the river Cam, and this field Camlann."
"So?" Galahad asked, a little more gently than he usually would. His horse nervously tossed its head and neighed, pawing at the ground, but when Tristan reached over and stroked its neck, it calmed. Watching his long fingers move in rhythmic motions over the horse was soothing to Galahad as well, and he relaxed a bit.
The other man shrugged. "Might be a good thing to remember for...afterward."
"They will tell stories of this day," Dagonet suddenly said, the depth of his voice making them all jump.
Recovering, Bors elbowed the man, a grin trying desperately to stay in place on his face. "And what story would you want them to tell of you?"
"That I fought well. That I remembered myself to my forefathers. I need little else." The man clammed up again, with only a glint of some close-held memory in his eyes.
Galahad wondered who had died to make Dagonet so, and then he shook off the thought. Deaths did what they would to men's lives, but the living went on in spite of themselves. Grass grew on graves. Days passed. "Tristan? If I fall, my sister will still take you. If you want."
The hand caressing Galahad's horse stilled. "You didn't mention this before."
"So we're even." Smirking strained the tense muscles in Galahad's face, but only for a moment. Then, shaking his head, Tristan smacked Galahad in the side of the head and sat back in the saddle, grinning a little himself. "What?"
"You're hopeless." Tristan rolled his shoulders, working out the kinks, and then straightened up. Arthur was coming.
Arthur was, curiously enough, not wearing the armor of a Roman officer. At least, not all of it: the majority was the finest Sarmatian armor Galahad had ever seen. The red cloak Arthur had kept, and some trick of the light made it shimmer around the edges as he stood up in his stirrups. "Knights!"
He was speaking Sarmatian as well, which Galahad had heard him do only a handful of times; even with them, he'd tended to use the rough, messy Latin that had been adopted by the higher-ranking Sarmatians as a trading language. "I am wearing my father's armor," Arthur continued. "Because he was a Sarmatian knight-born in Britain, but his spirit was always here. My road to this place was not as clear as his was to him, but I have found it, and followed it, and I will not abandon it. Briton, Roman, Sarmatian-it doesn't matter. We all face one enemy today. Remember that! Fight for your land, for yourselves, for your children. Fight!"
The roar of approval that greeted his words was loud enough to make Galahad cringe. He dimly heard Gawain commenting to Lancelot: "If he speaks like that in bed, then I can understand why you ended up there."
Lancelot's reply was terse and deliberate. "Gawain, if you survive the battle, I'm going to string your guts from the nearest standard."
Before the conversation could go any further, Arthur was wheeling about to edge his horse in between the two of them. He glanced at Lancelot, and though Galahad only caught the edge of that, its sheer intensity still managed to make him feel as if he'd been burned. Rubbing at the side of his face, he turned his horse away and made for his contingent. A flicker of the periphery of his vision was Tristan raising a hand; Galahad briefly lifted his own, then kicked his horse into a trot. The battle was starting.
High up in the rocky hills surrounding the field, Guinevere kept her hands firmly pressed to her saddle so she wouldn't bite her nails. The cavalry she led was lightly armored and so it was somewhat easier to hide it in the scrubby foliage, both natural and hastily-constructed artificial, than it would have been to hide the Sarmatians. Still, the infantry secreted into turf-covered ditches below probably was having the easiest time of it. If any of this could be called easy.
She watched the two armies draw up, Goths already shrilling their haunting warcries, Sarmatians ringing the far end of the field in a vast but thin line. That was a studied effect: the Sarmatians were supposed to break the Goth infantry line anyway, so there was no point in stacking them too close together. Tight formations weren't possible with cavalry the way they were with infantry, as a horse needed at least three feet on either side to run free.
It was a matter of timing. If the Sarmatians did as they should, then they could join with the Britons and fall on the Goth rear at their leisure, trapping the enemy up against the walls of the garrison. If they didn't, then Arthur had a divided army and disaster became imminent.
"Sir, they're starting," quietly called the look-out.
Guinevere nodded and peered at the Goth lines, watching the archers step out front. She didn't need to hear the sounds to know that they were stringing their bows, fitting arrows to strings-
From the Sarmatian lines came a scattered volley of arrows that zipped over the archers to decimate the waiting infantry and cavalry, which had thought themselves safely out of range. A faint howl of outrage could be heard, which made Guinevere grin as she patted her own Sarmatian bow, and then the archers were hurrying to avenge their comrades. Which was when the artillery Merlin had so patiently dragged into the hills proved its worth. Huge rocks, plentiful in Sarmatia, and gigantic iron arrows rained down on the Goths.
When the Goth volley was finally released, it was enormous but ill-aimed; the majority of the arrows went askew and missed the Sarmatians, who by then were charging forward. Some of them still hit home because Guinevere could see bodies littering the wake of the galloping horses, but thankfully that number was low.
Having no choice but to go forward, the Goths advanced at a run. No doubt they were hoping to break through the Sarmatian lines quickly enough to fall on the rear en masse, or at least force the knights into a space too small for maneuvering. Guinevere found herself anxiously scanning the field for one particular cloak, and once she'd spotted it, she found herself muttering a childhood prayer.
"If the gods of Britain even know where this is," she snorted. Arthur would be fine. He'd survived dozens of battles, and even if she-even if she wasn't by his side now, he wasn't a cripple. Lancelot was, if nothing else, an excellent fighter that she had to admit probably would've won their fight if the other knights hadn't intervened, and she couldn't doubt the depth of his attachment to Arthur.
The Sarmatian line resisted the first Goth onslaught, and then it fragmented into smaller groups that systematically slashed their way through the Goth lines. It sounded like the wind was mortally wounded and screaming in agony.
"Sir, they're through!"
"Then we go." Guinevere grabbed the reins with one hand, her bow with the other, and sent her horse skittering down the hillside.
They came at the dusty, bloodsoaked mess from the sides, diving in to pepper the Goths with spears and arrows, then wheeling back before their opponents' futile lunges. Guinevere pulled arrows from her quiver, balanced against the movement of the horse and shot in one continuous motion, doing that till her arms ached with the strain. She watched most of her arrows disappear into the dirt clouds, having to trust in her gut feeling that they were striking home in Goth bodies.
Occasionally the dust would clear a little, and she would catch a glimpse of the close fighting. A knight being piked out of the saddle. Two Goths going under a rampaging charger, its red-painted hooves clawing the air. The silent one-Dagonet-grabbing some young Briton, barely of age to fight, onto his horse moments before a battleaxe would've cleaved his head. Arthur going head-to-head with a Goth cavalryman and cutting the man nearly in two with Excalibur, and then Lancelot coming up from behind so his horse trampled the fallen corpse.
Eerie shrieks signaled that the Briton infantry had joined the fighting. As she came in for another pass, Guinevere could see that they were forcing the Goths back, pinning them against the garrison, but it was too slow. The first panic engendered by the surprise flank and rear attacks was wearing off quicker than they'd anticipated, and the Goths were rallying. There were still too many damned Germans on their feet, and the Sarmatians were getting stuck in them; if they mounted a counterattack now, then Arthur would have difficulty in pulling together a defense.
Guinevere sent her soldiers back to harry the Goths and keep them penned in, then rode in as close as she dared, searching for the Goth leaders. Standard rule of warfare: strike the head and the body will perish. While it hadn't worked when the Goths had slaughtered the Sarmatian chiefs, Guinevere doubted that the other side had any equivalent of Arthur that could wield together the remaining fragments.
As was to be expected, the apparent Goth commander was the tallest hulk of furs and armor in the fighting, his axe and sword sweeping blood and brains in a wide circle around him. Guinevere ducked a stray spear and drew her bow, sighting his left eye.
Something cannonaded into her horse, sending it thrashing over with a scream. Cursing, Guinevere felt her arrow go askew and miss, but there wasn't time for another try. She kicked her feet loose of the stirrups and leaped free just as two more pikes found their way into her poor horse. "Fucking bastards."
The Goths had no idea what she was saying. It didn't matter; a moment later, her daggers were in their throats and her sword was out, blocking an overhand slice while she lashed out with her boot. Balls crunched, her new attacker screamed and fell over, and she backhanded her sword into his skull to put him out of his misery. Then she looked for her bow, but it had been snapped in two. The hard way, then.
By now, most of the Sarmatians had had to dismount and were fighting alongside the Briton infantry. All of the Goth cavalry had been taken care of, so the battle had been reduced to who could kill the fastest.
An eddy in the fighting near her let Guinevere pass almost to the center before someone challenged her again. The Goth feinted with his sword, then cut at her right thigh. She twisted aside and caught her left ribs on some idiot's spear-only sliced through the buckles there and caught on her armor, but it still pinned her for a moment. With a heave, she wrenched herself free of her trapped corselet and grabbed the spear haft, diverting it into the first Goth's face. While the spearman gaped at his screaming, staggering comrade, she drove her sword into the side of his neck. Yanking it free and swinging around blocked another attacker, and she was getting ready to engage with him when he seemed to split down the middle in a welter of blood.
Dagonet stepped through the cleaved body and went past without even a word to her, charging a Goth with distinctive red hair. He shouted something and whirled his ax above his head.
"What the fuck are you doing here? And where's your armor?" Lancelot suddenly dove in and dealt with a man behind her in two strokes.
"Armor's too restraining when you're not on a horse," she flung back as she whipped out the garrote she always kept. Some Goth lunged at Lancelot's from the side and she leaped onto the German's back, threw the loop around his neck and used his choking struggles to break his neck. Guinevere agilely slid free of his death throes and retrieved her sword. "Where's Arthur?"
Before Lancelot could answer, Dagonet howled again. The sea of bloody hacking parted just long enough for them to see him, spears and at least one sword sticking out from his body, bury his ax in some Goth and collapse over the handle. Lancelot swore, then ducked a sword and slashed so hard that his opponent's head nearly fell off. "He just said he'd avenged his father and mother."
"Kill now, grieve later." She darted past him and cut down another Goth, twisting and stabbing till she caught sight of the Goth leader again. He was being baited by Galahad and Tristan, but the latter was too slow in dodging a thrust and fell back. Likewise, Galahad moved to cover him and left the ground free for-"Arthur!"
"Damn it, duck!" Lancelot shoved her aside just in time for them to both miss the edge of a huge blade, wielded by an even bigger Goth. "Fuck. They do breed them large."
Guinevere shrugged and dropped her garrote to take her sword with both hands. "That's only an advantage in bed."
She feinted and drove in low, then whirled back to see a long red streak seep through the man's furs. Laughing, Lancelot danced around the other side and blocked the blade, then swept his other sword around to slash the Goth's arm. "You know, sometimes I think I might've liked you. Under different circumstances."
"Maybe. But I wasn't saying mere words when I said I'd kill you. If you made him unhappy." Someone crashed into her and she stabbed him off, but that sent her too close to the Goth's sword and she came away with a burning cut across her abdomen that suddenly made her wish she'd manage to keep her armor. But wishes were nothing in war; she let her anger rise and rushed in to press him against Lancelot's swords. The Goth clawed the air as he went down, gurgling all the way.
"I don't make him unhappy," Lancelot hissed, fierce and wounded all at once. Not hurt because of her, but because of-it was both pleasing and upsetting to hear that Arthur wasn't yet free of her. "Not that."
Guinevere swallowed hard and remembered that Arthur might be dying right now, spitted on some worthless Goth's sword. Dying in his ancestors' land, in the land that he'd at last taken for his own, in the land that wasn't hers. She bowed her head so Lancelot wouldn't see her tears.
Something thudded into her unprotected side and she lurched away with a gasp, then reflexively cut down with her sword. The Goth, finally dead, fell away. So did his blade, freshly-coated with blood.
A hand grabbed her elbow and held her up when the pain hit, so hard that she nearly stopped breathing. "Guinevere?"
She shoved Lancelot away and forced back the threatening haze. The fighting around them was dying down as the Goths turned horrified faces to the body at their feet; their opponent must have been an important man. Not yet, she pleaded. Not till Britain. Not till the fresh, moist, leafy green she saw on the horizon was nearer. "Make him happy. He's...he's too good to lose. You hear me? Make him happy."
"Guinevere-fuck. Fuck!" Hands pushed aside hers and brushed against the wound, then flew away as Lancelot turned to deal with someone. Without his support, she stumbled, then fell to her knees.
Guinevere wanted to keep fighting. She wanted to, but the sword was so heavy and her vision was clouding with so much green that she could hardly see the fighting. There were tree trunks, their girth and height like nothing she'd ever seen in Sarmatia, and the whisper of coolness settling into her bones.
But-but no Arthur. She felt that absence like a reopened scar, new and old hurt mingling into agony, and she fought it, trying to stay away a little longer.
Made wary by the massacre, the Sarmatians had been ferociously protective of their new leaders, and so nearly all of the knights that Arthur had saved had survived the battle. Dagonet hadn't, but he had cut down two Goth chiefs before he had died. Gawain and Galahad were still capable of riding; Tristan could barely stand, but to Merlin's eye, the man would survive. Bors would certainly go on to father more children besides the one growing in Vanora's belly, and Lancelot...
Merlin had lost track of that one during the fighting when he'd turned to check that Guinevere's cavalry, being too lightly armored, was staying well clear of the main fighting and had found that she was nowhere to be seen. The girl never could stay away from the thick of it. Usually she came out with honors, but something in Merlin's gut made him hurry through the field of dead and dying.
He came across Arthur first: the man was kneeling beside the enormous corpse of what Merlin presumed had been the Goth commander-in-chief. Arthur had his hand to his side, which was slowly trickling blood, but no red coated his lips and so Merlin judged that the man wasn't fatally wounded. "Sir."
"We won," Arthur breathed, neither triumphant nor dejected. He seemed in shock, which guess was further borne out by his lack of flinching when Merlin helped him up. "Where's...oh, God."
Fear animated Arthur's face, flushing it full of life and just as quickly draining it away. Then he was rushing through the maze of groaning and still bodies, desperate worry giving him speed and nimbleness that Merlin, far less wounded, couldn't match.
Merlin saw Lancelot's head first as the other man half-rose to meet Arthur, who ignored him and dropped down beside the body. And then Merlin saw that body's face, and he felt his heart swell against his ribs, trying to break them with grief. Too much blood...
Arthur bent down and took Guinevere's head in his hands, pressing their foreheads together. Her fingers, already white as bone, limply grazed against his cheek. "Burn me," she whispered as Merlin fell to his knees on her other side. "I want to be taken to Britain, and the body won't last..."
"Your people-they think burning's not-not right-" Arthur could barely speak.
"Did I ever care? I took up with you, after all. Roman." She choked and coughed, spitting blood into Arthur's face, but he didn't even flinch. Her hand slid back to the ground, and her voice grew so weak that Merlin could just make out the words. "I wanted to marry you. I wanted to see Britain. I'm sorry the one meant more than the other to me."
Shaking his head, Arthur mumbled something about it not mattering. Then he drew away enough to see the life drain from her eyes, and a shudder ripped through him. Probably thinking Arthur was about to collapse, Lancelot reached for him, but Arthur threw back his head and keened.
It was a high, soaring, lingering cry that shivered the spirit and raked it raw to the cold winds. Merlin bowed his head beneath its sorrow and closed his girl's eyes with a trembling hand, suddenly feeling every year of his life.
"So he's still got enough Briton in him to do that," muttered a passing soldier.
Snarling, Lancelot whipped around and reached for the nearest crossbow, but Merlin got to it first. He held the other man back and glared at the fool Briton until he was sure he'd planted the nightmare too deep in that man to be rooted out. "If I ever hear you speak about Arthur again, my curse will eat you alive and shrivel the bones of all your children and your children's children."
Behind them, Arthur continued to mourn.