Tangible Schizophrenia

Email
LiveJournal
DeadJournal

The Rising I: Recollections

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: NC-17
Pairing: Arthur/Guinevere, Arthur/Lancelot
Feedback: Good lines, bad ones, etc.
Disclaimer: These versions aren't mine.
Notes: Mostly making up the magic parts out of various bits of Celtic legends and out of the phoenix myths of Russia/Middle East, whose cultures both probably had extended contact with the Sarmatians.
Summary: Spells have a tendency to twist around their original intent.

***

"What have you been doing to him? I didn't throw myself at that Saxon so you could turn Arthur into a living skeleton!"

"I haven't been doing anything to him. It took Gawain and Bors two hours of arguing for him to even let the healers touch him yesterday." Angry inhale, gentle touch on Arthur's brow. "And I'm going to strangle them myself for their shoddy work."

Equally furious seething breath by Arthur's ear. Something long and leanly muscled curved against him, and fingers wrapped themselves around his arm. "What about what Merlin was doing?"

"I don't know." Guinevere. The name blazed in Arthur's mind, trailing fractured remembrances of courage and deviousness and odd vulnerability in the smoothness of secretively wondering eyes. She was curt with uncertainty. "But he's already paying for it, if that makes you feel better. Started coughing up blood just after we found you, and it doesn't look as if he'll last out the year."

"No, it doesn't. Seeing as he's the only one who knows exactly what's happened here."

Lancelot. That was the other one, and as soon as Arthur felt the recognition strike home, he also felt crushing guilt that he hadn't immediately known. There was something else he should know, something to do with why he was wishing both for Merlin's throat breaking in his hands and for Merlin's eternal good health. Something to do with-

--fire. Arthur shoved himself up and wildly stared about the room, searching for the source of the heat that had momentarily surged through him, but he found nothing except a woman white as a ghost and a shock to his soul.

For a long time, they simply stared at each other. At last Arthur's reason reasserted itself and forced him to put the vision to the test. He slowly lifted a hand, which a detached part of himself noted was badly trembling, and grazed his fingertips against Lancelot's forehead, feeling the fine hairs of one eyebrow tickle him. Almost sleepily, Lancelot's eyelids fluttered shut and Arthur was encouraged to press his hand more firmly to the side of Lancelot's face. His thumb just touched lips that parted ever-so-slightly for it, but Arthur continued stroking downward until he'd reached the spot where the arrow had ripped in death. His memory insisted on a ragged hole, lopsided because Guinevere had pulled out the bolt at an angle, but all his fingers found was a small ring of pale scar tissue, barely distinguishable from the rest of the white, white skin.

"You were darker than this before." Inane words, but if Arthur even tried to put words to all the thoughts that were flinging themselves about his rattled mind, he would pass out again. As it was, he could still feel fever easing around his aching joints, softly calling for them to give way.

Lancelot winced and took Arthur by the shoulders, intently gazing into his eyes as if trying to will some kind of communication. "Arthur, it's me. As I was. I swear by the sword of your father, whatever Merlin's done to me, it hasn't affected that."

"I know." The words were thick with grief abruptly relieved by confusion, and Arthur made no effort to disguise that because he simply couldn't. Not when faced with this sudden reversal of fate-whether it was gift or curse, Arthur suddenly couldn't care because it was Lancelot whose heart beat against his palm, whose nails gouged at his shoulders, whose worry shone out of dark intense eyes like it had for fifteen years, a rare constant. And a dependable and-"I know. I know-God, it is you-"

Old habits had hard departures, as evidenced by Arthur's slip of the tongue and by his yanking Lancelot to him, burying his face in the other man's shoulder and hiding there the emotions that had sprung up within him, fierce as the northern winds. He drowned himself in the utter solidity of the man in his arms and forgot about everything else. Guinevere became a mere shadow at the side, and his injuries distant dull throbs in comparison to a single shivering gasp.

A hand slapped against his back, then flattened out and clenched at his shoulderblade, nails scrabbling at his skin. The scratches were careful and light at first, but soon grew harder and deeper, scoring Arthur into jerking away. Startled and somehow hurt inside, he stared at a waxen-faced Lancelot that looked...terrified. "I'm sorry," Arthur blurted.

"You're...burning up." Lancelot lifted his hand and hesitantly touched Arthur's forehead, then yanked it away, as if he'd grazed a hot pot. "You were fine a moment ago-" twisting an accusation on Guinevere "-you touched him. And now he should be setting the sheets on fire because he's-"

Arthur felt his own forehead, then slid his hand down to the back of his neck. He repeated the motion, but he still didn't feel any such heat. "I don't feel the fever..."

But Guinevere was too busy checking for herself, snatching her hand from his cheek and then lashing out Lancelot, a ferocious amount of rage and worry warring over her delicate features, twisting them almost to breaking. "I had nothing to do with this. It was all Merlin's doing-I don't even know how you've come back!"

"No, I can believe that." As muddled as Arthur's senses currently were, even he couldn't miss the meaningful contempt in Lancelot's tone. The other man slowly swept his gaze down Guinevere, then back up to stop at the small golden circlet she wore. "It wouldn't have been in your best interests, after all."

Her pupils contracted to pinpricks that did little to diminish the fierceness of her glare, and she leaped off the bed to stand with fists clenched to her side. The fine dress she wore suddenly seemed too frail, too gentle to be capable of sheathing that stretched bowstring of a body. And then she was flashing with so many colors and fabrics, skin covered one second and bare the next, that Arthur felt his head whip into a spin. Determined not to pass out, Arthur bit down on his tongue till he felt blood generously well up. A little slipped out of the corner of his mouth; he was licking it away when Guinevere finally spoke.

Each word was a dagger. "You think I'm the threat."

"Threats depend on circumstances." Lancelot sat up and let the sheets fall from him, unconscious or uncaring of the nudity that disclosed. He pulled up a knee and casually draped his arm over it to present a front of complete insouciance. "Why did Merlin revive me? And why only me-unless all the dead of Badon Hill are up and about?"

"We buried Tristan yesterday," Arthur said. Now that the first rush of elation had been washed away by the tension vibrating between Lancelot and Guinevere, Arthur could once again feel the exhaustion creep up on him. But when both of the others' attention swung to him, he forced himself to stay awake and deal with the problem. "But-this shames me, but I don't mourn him nearly as I do-as I did you. Merlin...he'd have to have been blind to miss that, but I swear, if I'd known that he was capable..."

Guinevere snorted, looking away at the window. "Damn it, Arthur-if you'd known, you would've helped. don't tell me you would've turned his offer down."

"I would have." Black spots were starting to blot out parts of Arthur's vision; he couldn't see Lancelot's right shoulder or distinguish the color of Guinevere's eyes. In an attempt to hold the dark at bay, he slashed his tongue again over his teeth. More blood sloshed around his mouth, and a bit fell out his numbed lips before he could swallow it all. "What he did was wrong, and before you ask, I don't speak because of my-because of the Christian doctrine. He had no right to do what he-what I think he was trying to do. To decide what he did for Lancelot."

At that, the other man whipped around and grabbed Arthur's arm. "And how exactly were you going to ask me?"

"How could you possibly doubt that he'd want to come back?" Guinevere added, voice bitter and sharp with knowledge. She'd survived too long on the edge to retreat from facts into a pretty illusion, and it was visibly costing her.

The double attack took Arthur aback, shattering the arguments he had constructed, and he spent a long moment trying to pull the shards back together before he finally gave up. His mouth, however, soldiered on. "I wouldn't have asked you. You wanted-you said you wanted to be free. And if you'd come back, you never would have been."

"Now who's dictating to whom?" Lancelot snapped. He shuffled closer and took Arthur's hands in his own. A tiny hiss of pain escaped him, but despite that and Arthur's half-hearted attempt to back away, Lancelot refused to let go. "I would have gladly come back."

"For me," Arthur said. The words were like iron pellets on his tongue and he had to force them out. "Just as you saved Guinevere for me. I had the story from her."

She had shifted from chair back to bedside, and was now crawling up to Arthur's other side. "I said no such thing, and I never asked it of him."

"You didn't have to," he told her, avoiding Lancelot's denying expression. "I was enough to ensure that. It's not just for one man to be able to demand so much from another, and never even..."

A sharp twist of Arthur's finger brought his speech to a stop and sent his gaze on a dizzying ricochet back to Lancelot, who was in a towering fury.

"Arthur, for once would you shut up and not take my own choices on yourself? I would do anything for you, but that doesn't make me a damned soft eunuch with no spine. I do as I will, and if my will happens to be accompanying your idiocy, then so be it. Whatever consequences Merlin has brought on our heads, I'll deal with them myself." Lancelot gouged his fingertips deep into the feet of Arthur's wrists, grinding bones and tendons together. Strangely enough, the effect was not to rouse Arthur with the pain, but rather to speed his slide into a dreamy, hallucinogenic state.

As his tongue was already cut twice, he tried sinking his teeth into the side of his mouth, but he could barely feel when the blood came out, much less any resultant pain. There was only the faint sensation of something warm trickling from his sticky lips, and the swift transition to shock on both Lancelot and Guinevere. He felt himself being pushed back against the bed, dimly noting the jostling as the other two fought to be nearest. Lancelot won, and a second later his breath was steaming Arthur's nose wide-open, leaving it vulnerable to staining by scents of peat and leather and blood edged with metal. "Arthur? Arthur? Fuck-Guinevere, you bitch, what did Merlin do? What price did he pay for-and who did he use to pay it with? Arthur, please, say something."

Arthur did try. But they were so close a sheet of parchment wouldn't have been able to slide between them, and Lancelot was incredibly, miraculously alive--and there was blood between them. Blood that Arthur could taste when he pressed into that chance graze of lips and helplessly took what he'd managed to so long resist, that burned down his throat like molten gold, that sank shining hooks into him and dragged him away into the cold.

***

The knights were already wound up because of Arthur's steadily deteriorating condition, and the fact that Lancelot hadn't yet wiped his mouth of Arthur's blood didn't help. Guinevere made herself face the battle ahead instead of uselessly trying to will Arthur awake with her eyes.

"You...I know you were dead, because I helped put the burial clothes on you myself." Galahad limply fell into the nearest chair, eyes frozen wide as hens' eggs. He was doing slightly better than Gawain or Bors, who merely stared from where they stood, half-through the doorway. "You were dead."

Shrugging, Lancelot spread his hands. At least he'd dressed his lower half, Guinevere thought to herself. One less distraction-and she immediately hated the very pragmatism that had kept her afloat during the long damp underworld in Marius' prison.

"I was. Now I'm not." Aggravating man. It was a wonder his own comrades hadn't killed him. "As far as we can tell, it's Merlin's fault."

"So those rumors of him being a dark sorcerer were true." Gawain's statement wasn't really an indication of recovery from shock more than a futile grasp at rationality.

Bors grunted, his eyes restlessly sweeping the room as if searching for a distraction. He saw Arthur's wan profile, and Guinevere could tell the exact second he connected the red flecks on Arthur's lips with the ones on Lancelot's. "What the fuck happened? Is this why he'd been getting worse and worse?"

"I don't know-oh, this?" Again with that unnatural calm, Lancelot smeared the back of his hand over his mouth, then held it out. He turned his wrist from side-to-side as if to get a better view. "Guinevere says that Merlin's spitting up blood. We thought Arthur was doing the same, but this is only from him biting his tongue. And...and him deciding to kiss me while he passed out."

Guinevere hissed, but too late to cover up Lancelot's words. His face was hard and cold, and its expression most reminded her of a Woad traitor as he'd gone off to his execution. Merlin had gutted the man and strung his guts around a tree trunk, then left him there, still alive. A few hours Guinevere had gone back, sure that he was dead, but instead she had found a face still lit with stubborn life and still set in the same resolute lines.

She'd never dared to find out when he had died.

"Fuck." Galahad seemed to slump even farther in his seat. Beside him, Gawain looked as if he wanted to do the same, only there were no available chairs.

Face smoothing to blankness, Bors simply turned on his heel and left.

"I think that's just too many surprises at once," Gawain muttered, glancing after him. "It's not like he's never come across it before."

"What, men liking men or the dead reviving?" Lancelot snapped. He was twisting his fingers in the blankets so tightly that his knuckles were glaring white. Guinevere took a closer look at him, and then she saw the many hairline cracks that were arising in his fašade.

Before the stung Gawain could give voice to his irked response, Guinevere stepped forward and raised a hand. She wasn't doing it to preserve Lancelot's so far unhelpful second life, but because she needed all the organized support she could gather, given that Arthur was down for an indeterminate amount of time. After all, that had been why she'd called for the knights and not her servants, though the latter's loyalty was far less questionable. The knights were trained warriors as the Britons were not, and if she wanted to prevent chaos in Arthur's absence, she'd need them.

If she wanted to keep Arthur alive, she'd need them. As much as it grated for her to admit, right now they could anchor him to life better than she could.

"Stop this. You're not helping him at all." When Lancelot leaned back and rolled his eyes, Guinevere rounded on him. "You bastard-do you want him to die, or do you want to find out what's going on? Be as selfish as you just swore you are, but leave him out of it."

Startled, he straightened up and snarled at her. His hand snaked behind to cover Arthur's. "What would you care about Arthur, woman? I thought you belonged to Britain."

For a moment, Guinevere wished she could snap his neck, throw his body out the window and curl up beside Arthur for the rest of her days. The man was so infuriating in ways that jabbed deeply enough for her to feel the barbed truth behind them. "I care about what he did for me on Marius' farm and what he won for me on the battlefield and what he's trying to do for me now. If you don't believe anything else about me, then at least believe that I wish him no more harm than you do."

"This isn't helping either." Fairly twitching with nerves, Galahad swung himself out of his chair and started to pace, stride jouncing with his pent-up frustration. "Look-what happened, who did what, and now what has to be done? That's all I want to know any more."

Blinking, Gawain and Lancelot both cast looks of surprise on their fellow knight. Apparently, such perspicacity was unusual behavior for him.

Guinevere couldn't bring herself to care. He was speaking sense, and that was enough for her. "Arthur was driving himself to death, and no one wanted that to happen. I think-I said some things-and Merlin somehow brought Lancelot back to life because he thought it would steady Arthur. Only things aren't going right."

"And how did Merlin do this?" When he received more startled glances, Galahad turned fully about to face the other men. He slashed his hand through the air, but a wince cut his gesture short and he gathered his arm back to him. "What? If it's so bad that I have to be the one with the working brain, then maybe you've got better things to do than stare at me. Arthur's dying, and-and I cannot take any more deaths. I can't. I'll kill someone if I have to."

For a long, quivering moment, they stood still in their tableau of agonizing limbo. And then Gawain slumped against the wall, one hand going up to uselessly try to stifle his laughter, which was liberally laced with hysteria. "Galahad, thank you. Thank you for never, ever changing."

"And thank you for having a cool head." Guinevere ignored the frenzy-tinged snickers from Lancelot and forged on. "No one knows exactly how Merlin did it; Arthur surprised him at the tail-end of the ritual and then fainted. Merlin came and got me and a servant of mine, and we helped get Arthur and Lancelot here before anyone else saw. Ever since, Merlin's been outside, refusing to speak to anyone."

"Well, someone had better make him," Lancelot said, looking straight at Guinevere. The boldness of his gaze raised her hackles, but he did have the right of it. She was the best candidate for that task.

On the other hand, he certainly wasn't off the hook. "And someone's got to get Bors before he accidentally tells anyone, and someone has to wake up Arthur and get food into him. He hasn't been eating..."

Lancelot growled, but at Arthur. "Stupid Christian," he muttered, rubbing a thumb over the inside of Arthur's wrist. Then he blinked. "He's not so fevered anymore."

Frowning, Guinevere came forward and ran two fingers over Arthur's brow. She instantly regretted it, as it felt like pressing her skin against red-hot iron. "Not to me. And he looks worse."

"Then what are you waiting for? Go loosen Merlin's tongue!" Without waiting for a reply, Lancelot turned his back on her and leaned over Arthur, murmuring something in a language that was neither Latin nor Briton.

It was in the tips of her fingers and the edges of her teeth to wrap a portion of her long sleeves around his neck and be done with the bastard, but Guinevere barely held herself in. Arthur needed-the thought clogged her mouth with foulness-Arthur did need Lancelot.

A palm lightly fell on her shoulder, and she pivoted to find Gawain's oddly sympathetic eyes. He silently but irresistibly drew her out of the room, with Galahad following them a moment later. "You never did get to know Lancelot, did you?"

"In the short time that we've known each other, I never really wanted to." Not like he meant. There had been a kind of attractive force in their rivalry, but it had been dark and clawing and most importantly, more shadow than substance. Now, she could barely remember how even that ephemeral feeling had been possible. Her sense of near victory, she supposed-Lancelot had been about to leave Arthur, one way or another. That was no longer the case. "You're being reasonable about this."

Gawain and Galahad exchanged something wordless with their looks, then turned back to her. "We've got stories about this kind of thing, so it's not...anyway, if we didn't learn to adjust, we would've been dead long since at the hands of your people."

"Not to mention that Lancelot's being a prick," Galahad muttered. "I would've been suspicious if he'd been nice and happy. Why? Are you Woads going to have a problem with this?"

"Not if it's handled right. Which of you is going after Bors?" Strands of Guinevere's hair had worked free of her coiffure and were now tickling her nose, but she kept her hands down at her sides. If she gave in once, then she would never regain control of things.

Another silent communication, and then Galahad gave her a short nod before spinning on his heel and walking off. Gawain fiddled with one of his bandages and glanced the opposite way. "Merlin?"

As that confused her, Guinevere stood still and didn't answer.

"No offense, lady, but after what's happened we want to know firsthand what's going on. Besides, you may have to be polite to Merlin because of whatever ties you two have, but I don't." It was the smile that closed the debate, because it was dark and skirting vicious and surprisingly at home on Gawain's open face. Arthur's first, warriors second, and then everything else. An arrangement that seemed to hold true in one way or another for all the knights.

Guinevere allowed her resignation to take over and let him come with her.

***

Bors ended up sitting with Tristan's fresh grave to his back and Dagonet's before him, the gently-curving mound of dirt already dotted with a few sprouts. Dagonet would've liked that; he had a strange enjoyment of little things that he kept secret from most. To Bors' shame, he had laughed once at it, but Dagonet had forgiven him.

"I'm sorry." He patted the dirt, careful not to dislodge any of the tiny tender green shoots. "I'm sorry about how things turned out. And I wish it hadn't been like that-shit, you're laughing now. Or doing that little half-smile, aren't you? You always went your own way, and didn't give a shit about what everyone else thought."

The wind whistled in his ears, bringing the sound of slow footsteps and soft cursing. Galahad never could stop complaining, even if it was over a simple stone beneath his foot.

"I wish it hadn't, but...you always would've done it, wouldn't you? Even saved once, it wouldn't have taken you long to try again. But it's not the same with you, Dagonet. You were always content."

"Bors?" Galahad called.

"Deeds are done and can't be undone. Not like that. You've just...got a new mess to get through." Bors gave the grave one last lingering sweep of his palm, drawing strength from the grainy unevenness of honest dirt beneath his skin. "Rest easy, because I've a feeling we aren't. Oh-right. I'm marrying her. And naming the kids. You want one to carry your banner?"

Boots stopped just short of Bors' left leg. "Are you sure you haven't taken too many knocks to the head?"

"You sure you want another one to add to your tally?" As he rose, Bors grudgingly observed that not all the aches and twinges were from the battle three days ago. He was getting old, and his life was the comfortable smolder of middle age. Time to settle down and leave the world to the ones that still burned high and fast.

"So..." Galahad shuffled his feet a bit, still showing traces of the nervous, snappish twelve-year-old. "do I need to talk to you?"

Bor looked up and saw the worry in the other man's face, then emphatically shook his head. "If it's about you thinking I'll go against Arthur or Lancelot, then you're an idiot. I've followed them too long to stop now."

Nodding, Galahad seemed to accept that, though his face remained troubled. He slowly pivoted to gaze upon Tristan's grave, and then he glanced up, as if sensing something. High up in the ice-purple dawn, a tiny dot was lazily circling.

"He didn't have to fight that Saxon. There were plenty others to choose," Bors finally said.

One of Galahad's shoulders lifted, held itself there for a moment, and then fell. "I know. And I don't know what'd been running through his head, but-it's just-why any of us? Why do we put up with this?"

"Because this, boy, is what we do. We wouldn't be knights if we didn't have to deal with it." Bors grimaced. "Though this time's definitely odder than all the other ones."

The other man stayed silent for a few more breaths, then broke into quiet laughter that bordered on sobs. He hunched his shoulders and ducked his head, struggling to keep the noise down. Aside from laying a hand on Galahad's shoulder, Bors let him deal with himself. He was a man, after all.

Soon enough, Galahad calmed enough to look steadily if not clearly on Tristan's grave. "And I was supposed to give you the speech. Oh-no talking about this. Guinevere's...nervous. don't trust her much, but she's still better than Merlin."

"About that. What happened?" Bors asked.

Galahad sighed and threw one last glance at the spiraling hawk. "I'll tell you on the way back. Come on. We've got to get Lancelot's things back to him. I've a feeling he'll be needing his swords at least."

***

Merlin knew they were coming before they had even stepped out of Arthur's room. When the knight and the queen finally crested his hill, it was like waking into a dream of the past.

Guinevere had gained and lost a great deal in the few but vastly eventful hours since their last meeting, and from her gaze he could see that they both knew she would gain and lose far more, no matter how things turned out.

Well, he'd tried his best to ensure the survival of his legacy and the consequences were etching away his insides, throwing up the occasional red trickle to stain the grass. If he tried, he could possibly make year's end-he still had enough strength for that. But given the new knowledge that weighed down the old, he now doubted the wisdom of that.

Age, he thought, was creaking joints and slowing reflexes and over-reaching. Experience was knowing when to give in to age.

"We need to speak," Guinevere at last said. Her tone was not that of before: girl to man, student to teacher, friend to friend. She spoke as a ruler to a subject, demanding all without deigning to even pretend to a possible return. As was her right, and it both warmed and cooled Merlin's heart to see how swiftly she assumed it.

Behind her, the knight Gawain relaxed into a easy stance that proved better than any words his determination to stay and hear everything. Merlin could choose to speak in one of the more obscure Briton tongues and thus pass the burden of that decision to Guinevere. He could have, but a small spark of untainted affection for his best still danced in his breast, and it was enough. It was a shame that Arthur never would realize just how similar he and Merlin were.

"Speak," Merlin replied. In Latin.

She didn't mince words. "What did you do?"

"I helped raise the dead. That was clear enough." Another cough rumbled in Merlin's gut, but for the moment he forced it to wait. "Listen, queen, and listen well. All I did was help; I had planned to go further, but that wasn't necessary. Or wanted."

Lines of confusion grooved in between the ones of frustration on Guinevere's face. She took a step forward and bent over Merlin, air hissing between clenched teeth. "do not play with me."

"If I were, I would be enjoying this far more. You've grown, girl, but not as much as you believe." The knots in Merlin's lungs wrenched themselves tight, and this time he had to cough even though he knew the act wouldn't relieve any of the awful tension beneath his ribs. Dull dark red stuff splattered his hand, which he used to draw script over the grass before him. "I tried to do what was necessary to keep Arthur here, and something else had a hand in it as well. And it didn't belong to Britain."

Gawain folded his arms across his chest and rocked back on his heels, thus managing to convey the impression of looming despite his lower position on the hill. He flicked a finger at the figures on the ground. "What's that?"

"You would know better than I would." Merlin closed his eyes and sent himself back to the dark room with the fire-shadows on the wall and the red-eyed king. He forced past the memory of Arthur's eyes and looked at the shapes flitting behind him, curling into the dark crevices but always stretching out for the men. Before they vanished, he had copied another three down.

"We don't have time for your mysticism," Guinevere replied, voice cracking through his concentration. When he opened his eyes, he found a surprising brittleness in her hard eyes that persuaded him to swallow his sharp retort. Inexperienced or not, she was just as essential as Arthur was. "I don't doubt your visions or your wisdom, but right now I'm concerned with Arthur, and he isn't encompassed by those. I need something solid to work with."

While she was speaking, Gawain covertly edged near and squatted down to study the symbols Merlin was tracing out. His jaw muscle ticked, and several times he seemed about to speak, but he always caught himself before a syllable ever fell from his lips.

"What consequences will we have to face? What's the drawback to this-" slight pause "-gift that you've bestowed upon Arthur. And why has his health taken such a turn for the worse, if you've only been working to strengthen it?" Once she was done, Guinevere shut her mouth so quickly that her teeth clicked together. Her voice had been calm and rational enough, but the uncertainty singing trembles through her body had only increased in its violence.

The last symbol was missing something, but no matter how Merlin strained his memory, he couldn't recall what. Suddenly angry with himself, he pushed himself up and started to smear away the script.

A hand caught his wrist and unceremoniously shoved him back. Gawain gave him a brief, dismissive glance that sorely tested Merlin's patience against his pride, then reached out and added the lacking stroke. "That one I know," he muttered.

"What?" It was a sign of Guinevere's nerves that when her attention shifted, it did so not as a smooth glide but as a jerk that nearly overbalanced her with its strength.

The knight didn't even look at her. "Wait a moment. I'm not done memorizing them yet. Merlin-where did you see these?"

"In the room that held Lancelot, when he had just begun to revive. You know them?" Merlin leaned forward, his rage melting to eager curiosity. Strange that he could still find the strength for interest.

Then again, perhaps not. He had always assumed that he knew who-what-would kill him, and it was more irritating than he could've predicted to discover that that was not so.

Gawain pressed two knuckles to his lips, thinking. "Not all of them. And you've got them jumbled up...hmm?" He finally saw Guinevere's mounting aggravation. "They're signs used by some of the Sarmatian tribes. These are from family trees...well, those six are, anyway. The way you've got them written out, I can't really..."

"Whose family tree?" Guinevere dropped down into a warrior's crouch, uncaring of how inappropriate the pose was when put together with her filmy skirts.

"I don't know. My tribe didn't use many, and it was Tristan who knew them the best." When Gawain mentioned his dead comrade, his gaze inevitably darkened as it turned toward Merlin.

The young always thought the impossible possible, and it was left to the old to know the pain of accomplishment. Merlin sat back and suffered yet another fit of coughing, then wiped his mouth clean. "Arthur is indeed why I sought to retrieve Lancelot's spirit, but there are more reasons than that for why the attempt succeeded. I don't think they hold true for every fallen knight."

"You think it's got to do with the Sarmatian blood. And certain family lines." Gawain let out an unexpected laugh, which was sardonic but weary. "How long have you had your eyes on us, old man?"

Merlin didn't bother to reply to a sally that obviously didn't want an answer.

"Yes, we've got some strange things back in our homeland. Magic even, some say. But we're not in Sarmatia. This is your land." With his boot, Gawain scuffed out the script and stood up, offering an arm to Guinevere. "We'll get no more from him, I think."

"Sadly, I agree with you." She favored Merlin with one last glance, the coldness of which did away with the last of their former trust. Perhaps magic was passing odd, but Merlin had to say that the most unknowable thing he'd ever come across was the working of a human heart, which could cleave to for the whole span of life or leap to something new and be one with in within the blink of an eye.

But he was romanticizing again, seeing smoothness where he had moments before cut himself on the rocks. A habit of age that sometimes annoyed and sometimes comforted Merlin.

"My land or yours, some things surpass borders," he called after them. Both startled, but when Gawain tried to go on, Guinevere made him wait. "And I am not the only dark sorcerer here."

They shook themselves free of him and walked on, leaving Merlin alone with his staff and his racking coughs and his memories. He spat red on the grass and hunched over the small shining drops, watching and recollecting and waiting while his limbs grew cold. The trees were calling him to them, offering that unfailing comfort, but he tarried a little longer because he wished to see the end of his dreams.

***

"You are, without a doubt, the stupidest man I've ever had the misfortune to meet." Galahad and Bors had come by a few minutes before, but one look from Lancelot and they had simply dropped off his few belongings and some food, which had probably congealed now. Lancelot could've used the nourishment, but part of him feared that the moment he turned away, the faint pulse between his fingertips would fail.

In fifteen years of fighting, after countless injuries of varying severity and the occasional disease-damned pestilential land, Britain was-he couldn't ever remember seeing Arthur so close to death. He was too pale, and he felt a little too weak to even do a cursory inspection of his weapons' conditions, but that was nothing compared to the chill of Arthur's bloodless skin. The other man hadn't moved, either-not in the thrashing of fever and not even in the moans of pain. His lips did occasionally twitch, but never in a way that diminished the anxiety clutching at Lancelot.

The bastard, Lancelot thought with sudden heat. The stupid bastard that never could leave him in any kind of peace. "Arthur, this is ridiculous. I die and you live, then I live and you die? Might as well go back to what we had before, because it is not an even trade. do you hear me? You'd better, you son of a raddled whore. You never listened before, and damn it, I am not going to be trapped in repetition."

After at least a steady half-hour of chafing, Arthur's palm lay as white and cold as before in between Lancelot's. Battlefields had rendered Lancelot numb to the ruined and wrecked and mauled, but the sight of this...absolute stillness dried out his mouth and choked his throat. The corners of his eyes were beginning to burn.

"I wasn't saving her, you fool. I was saving you," he muttered, bowing his head. In that position, he had an excellent view of how his hands resembled that of a devout Christian in prayer. He must look like a penitent. "And I am, in a way. I couldn't give you what you needed, and so you had to go to her. Failure cuts in both directions, you guilt-loving jackass."

Arthur's breath abruptly hitched into audibility. Lancelot froze, eyes fixed to the other man's face. When nothing else happened, he tried and failed to swallow the disappointment that had hardened into sharp rock in his throat.

"Why did you kiss me?" The question should actually have been why now, you selfish blind idiot, but Lancelot had never liked the way depression slowed and dulled things. He preferred anger, if only because then he knew he was feeling something. "I tried for so long-and I ended up thinking you just didn't look at men that way. But you-you-Arthur, for such an honorable man, you're a remarkable liar."

Lancelot's vision narrowed to the hand he was squeezing, making it flush up with blood till the fingertips seemed about to burst like so many blisters. He ran his tongue over his lips, but only tasted his own blood, oozing from his cracking lips. Cold and parched and drafty, the room was, and it sank down into his marrow. He shivered and laid down, curling around Arthur's arm so the blankets would suffice for both of them.

"You were always wondering who you were...and you wondered why I never had any patience with that. Constantly telling us that our deeds determined our legacy, and then never listening to even yourself." And perhaps Arthur had been right in saying that Lancelot would never be free, but if that was so, then they were self-imposed bonds Lancelot had. He wondered what Arthur's philosophers would make of that: was free will truly possible? Everyone had their allegiances and loves that decided their actions; the only people who didn't were the coldblooded solitary ones on high, who did solely as they willed without a care to anyone. Judging from the few examples of that lifestyle that Lancelot had met, it wasn't a path to be envied.

"I always forgot to ask whether or not you ever thought of your own freedom," he murmured to the webbing between Arthur's thumb and index finger. "Because I swear, of us all you were the one with the heaviest chains."

If Lancelot closed his eyes and pressed his cheek to the hand he held, he could pretend that the warmth he felt was actually radiating out of Arthur, and not his own body heat being pushed back at him. He could even imagine for a little while that the other man's thready pulse was speeding up to match his own.

"You really shouldn't do this to me. Too much like reviving-and no, I don't remember what went on in between. That kind of thing doesn't interest me. Never has. Damn it, you bastard. You can't leave me. Everything's a mess and you're the only reason that it hasn't yet made me lose my mind. If you need to follow that God of yours, then I need to follow you."

It had been deathly ice one moment, and searing heat the next. He'd revived into a fall, and found himself with Arthur as his first sight. If that was an omen-well, Lancelot didn't believe in those, either. Besides, he already knew the answers to those questions.

He had a second life. With Arthur, in Britain, and without Rome-and no matter what Guinevere did, she'd never be anything like the Empire. Truthfully, Lancelot wasn't entirely happy with all of that, but he wasn't going to dwell on it. Nor was he going to let Arthur offer up hope like that and then snatch it away, because that was even crueler and more hurtful than dying. And he did remember what that was like.

He uncoiled just enough to put his mouth to Arthur's ear, and then he concentrated with every particle of himself. "Arthur. Wake up."

And he waited.

Nothing.

Lancelot buried his face in the pillow and bit down on the cloth because the tears stung so much.

***

Arthur was drifting in a land he didn't quite not-know, wandering among and even through people he shouldn't have known but somehow recognized, albeit not in ways that allowed him to bring up names or relationships. He wasn't supposed to be there.

These were proud men and haughty women, strong and wild and windswept beautiful like the spare, magnificent landscape that framed them. They rode horses the like of which had never been seen on earth, and the gleam of their arms somehow blinded him.

Somehow. Somehow. Because that shouldn't happen, though why it shouldn't just escaped Arthur. Despite the mounting sense of urgency that gnawed at him, he forced himself to stay calm and study the situation. He was a soldier, and he hadn't survived that for so long out of sheer luck.

The long stream of riders snaked from horizon to horizon, and its course varied as widely as that of the islands in a delta mouth. Sometimes they rode to his right, sometimes to his left, and sometimes they seemed to tramp right through him, as if he were a-

--that was it. He wasn't dead, and as this couldn't possibly happen in reality, he must be dreaming. He was in a dream.

As soon as that thought entered Arthur's head, one horseman peeled off from the rest and halted just short of Arthur. A rough-hewn face of uncommon handsomeness glowered down on him, apparently hostile. However, a closer look discerned an odd softness in those flinty eyes, as if the man was only playing. Or uncertain himself of his welcome. There was also something strangely familiar about the shape of his nose, the line of his jaw, and the way he set his shoulders, reluctantly but firmly bent to whatever task he chose.

A chill wave suddenly went through Arthur and resolved into a misty figure running before-that had just run through him. It was a woman, and as she turned to lift her arms to the horseman, Arthur could see that she was exceptionally beautiful.

Then she was seated on the horse, facing Arthur, and his heartbeat stuttered. "Mother?"

She smiled. Strangely so, because it was without the hint of sorrow that he remembered. The rider behind her looped a possessive arm about her waist and grinned, bold and feral, over her shoulder.

"Father." Arthur stared even harder now, trying to memorize every line of the face that had previously been nothing more than a gray blob. "And this is Sarmatia?"

But as he spoke, the land around him was changing, bare blue-grey rock flowing into lush green grass. The other riders disappeared into a vast sky that mocked the feeble ants that crawled beneath it with its effortless dominance, while Uther merely continued to smile. He raised his arm to point at the sky, and when Arthur looked there was a fiery comet falling from zenith to horizon.

It sucked him up and bundled him in lightning flashes of heat that shocked his teeth into chattering while his flesh vaporized off the bone, while he was reduced in an instant to mere hurtling spirit, watching as the ground came nearer and nearer and-

--collision was not painful. Dreaming, Arthur reminded himself. He could actually see himself fragmenting into a thousand bits, but it wasn't real, he wasn't falling into ashes, and he certainly wasn't burning...burning...

Arthur. Wake up.

Odd symbols spread themselves across the world, tangling in the-branches? He'd fallen into a forest, and one that he recognized as well. Britain. The land that had first nibbled, then ravaged him, and then the land that had called to him, louder than any other. His blood was in its soil-his own blood, and not simply that of his ancestors. And blood would tell.

He'd chosen. There'd been an offer and an acceptance, and he'd walked open-eyed into both. When a decision was made in such a manner, then it was ridiculous to resent it. If Lancelot offered to go with him-

Arthur stopped, struck by that, but the flames didn't and he kept burning right up until the moment his harsh gasp snapped open his eyes.

"Arthur?" Lancelot was there, wet smears on his cheeks a contrast to the brightness of his blood-shot eyes. His hands were fluttering over Arthur's neck and face, scorching with every hesitant touch. "You woke.."

Another breath, and the heat only licked higher. He sat up and buried his face in Lancelot's neck, ran his palms over the other man's bare chest, shoved as much of himself as he could against lean cool muscles, all in an attempt to find some relief from the feverish melting inside. It didn't work, but the softness and the sudden quivering beneath his hands ignited an even more devastating hunger in Arthur. He mindlessly rolled them over and down, rubbing his cheek up and down Lancelot, feeling the warmth roll off him and plant itself in Lancelot's twisting body. Fruit was soon borne in the form of sweat, light salty sheen springing up all over, and Arthur found himself licking trails of it from collarbones to jaw, pressing his tongue deep into throat hollows that were furiously working around desperate moans. He swirled his way after one particularly fast droplet and thus went from shoulder to breastbone in a single breath. Danced about the ripple of ribs heaving up into his teeth, then traced that bead of sweat down firm stomach to finally trap it against leather. Waistband. A surprisingly difficult word to remember.

Fingers did their best to drag Arthur's hair from his scalp. "Wait-fuck, I didn't just say that-no, I did and I mean it, so wait..."

The heat was settling down to warmth, or perhaps Arthur was simply growing more accustomed to its intensity. Either way, it was now a pleasant sensation to mouth his way up Lancelot's increasingly restless body. He tasted bitter herbs, earth and cinders, but under that was a growing spiciness that tantalized his tongue, even luring him into a few bites in order to get more of it. He was-starving. Starving, and this was filling him but too, too slowly.

"Arthur-Arthur-damn it, stop. Wait. You're feverish again...wait, don't do tha...ah." The voice above Arthur soared into a broken whine when he latched onto one nipple and sucked it till it hardened against his teeth. Feverish? From the feel of things, it was Lancelot that was growing hotter by the moment. His shivers were searing Arthur's tongue, and it was bone-melting and delicious and so familiar. Even though Arthur knew very well that he'd never, ever been here before.

That had been on purpose, for reasons that he could now barely recall, though at the time, they'd seemed the most serious and damning thoughts he'd ever had to face. He'd shed tears before he'd made that decision, he remembered, and he'd felt himself dying a little every time he'd had to enforce it.

"Arthur. Stop." Stubbornly perverse as always, Lancelot shoved Arthur back and put up an arm to hold the space. "Think, would you-"

Wristbones rounded wonderfully in Arthur's mouth, and there he discovered a streak of sweetness that spiraled around each of Lancelot's fingers.

Lancelot gritted his teeth and made a fist. His cheeks were flushed past the cheekbones, his hair was a wild mess of wet curls, and he couldn't speak without gasps interrupting every other word. But he wasn't going to give in yet. "Honestly...the one time I actually want you to think..."

"I'm trying." And Arthur was, because he could see Lancelot asking for it, but the heat slipping about between his skin and the rest of his flesh was insistent. His rationality tottered and crumbled as fast as he could fit the pieces together, while those odd symbols blanketed his mind in a haze of sensation and meandering intuition that made only half-logic. "I'm-I did something and I don't know how. I saw Merlin over your body, and I-I guessed what he was doing and I wanted it, but I didn't want to hurt you..."

"You're rambling. And you're burning up again." Raising his hand to feel Arthur's forehead was a grave mistake on Lancelot's part.

Arthur felt the other man still, saw Lancelot's pupils shrink and then widen as if to swallow the rest of the eyes, and tasted the air change between them. "You're doing something."

"Am I?" Lancelot dropped his hand and pushed himself up on his elbows to violently smash their mouths together. This time, Arthur tasted blood from the source.

He barely noticed, saturated as he was with the frenzied tumbling that caught both of them up. Knees locked around his thigh and a hard cock pressed up against his own, but-leather. Irritating. Arthur reached down to get rid of it, and nearly blistered his palms in the process on the scorching silk that was the small of Lancelot's back. He trapped the other man's lower lip between his teeth and worried at it till Lancelot fell back, groaning, and allowed Arthur to fully strip him.

And then it was an incoherent mess of nails ripping along an old back scar, of Arthur's teeth bruising a too-white shoulder dark purple and his fingers chewing into flexing hips, of the rough hard grind that struck off clouds of sparks to glitter in his blackening vision.

Bite on his neck. Desperation. "No! Damn it, if you pass out again-don't put me through that-"

Arthur blinked and dragged color back to him. Black hair massing into the grey-brown furs, crisp shadow to the soft dull blankets. The wine-dark inside of a slack-open mouth. Silvering of sweat over eyelids squeezing shut at the last moment, and then the faint flicker of the world as everything settled down.

His mind was clearing as that happened, and he could think better than he had been able to in-weeks, really. Since they'd gotten news of Germanius' arrival and Lancelot had first spoken of Sarmatia not in tones of longing, but in tones of anticipation.

Sarmatia. Oh, God. "I'm so sorry," Arthur whispered, letting his head droop to rest on the other man's shoulder.

Lancelot didn't have to open his eyes for Arthur to know that he was rolling them. "Now what?"

"You can't leave me now. And I can't leave Britain." The euphoria-and damn it for the worst evil-was ebbing away, quick as the frost withering the earth. Arthur selfishly locked his fingers around Lancelot's wrists and cursed himself in every way that he knew how.

The other man still didn't understand, because he simply wriggled down and pecked at the corner of Arthur's mouth. "And that's something I didn't want?"

"No, you can't leave. Not as long as I'm alive. Think about it. Really think about it. Imagine yourself getting on a ship without me." Then Arthur braced himself.

For good reason. The shock of the ice that flooded through him nearly stopped his heart, and from the looks of things, Lancelot was feeling far worse. With a whimper that lashed at Arthur worse than any scourge, the other man grabbed for him and spent a long moment just breathing against Arthur's neck.

Finally, Lancelot asked, "You or Merlin?"

And Arthur had to reply with the truth. "I don't know."

***

Guinevere and Gawain would have returned sooner if they hadn't been waylaid by a group of concerned elders. Already the eastern tribal leaders wanted to go back to the old factional ways, and the elders wanted Arthur to immediately meet with them in order to awe them into continuing loyalty. The Saxons were gone, but no one fooled themselves in thinking that there weren't more still waiting in Germania for the right tides and winds.

It took far too long to persuade the elders to settle for other measures and to wait for Arthur to recover a little more from Badon Hill. By the time Guinevere finally saw them off, her senses were itching with premonition. Gawain looked uneasy as well, and kept glancing at the windows to Arthur's rooms.

"So you were saying there are two legends of immortality among your people," Guinevere said as they resumed walking.

"More than that, but only two important ones. And they're the only ones where..." Reluctance dogged Gawain's every word, but he eventually satisfied her pleading look. "Where I've proof that maybe they're true. The first one says that when a great Sarmatian warrior dies, he sometimes comes back as a warhorse. And this I think I've seen, when I was still in Sarmatia."

Lie or no lie, the situation was such that Guinevere at least needed to consider the possibility. And Gawain was one of the men to whom Arthur trusted his life, and so far he hadn't broken that trust. "Well...I don't think we're dealing with that. What about the other?"

"The other one I heard from Tristan and from...from a few knights that are long dead. But they came from south-told me about great oceans of sand, too. They say that there's a bird that lives for a thousand years, and then it makes itself a nest. Fancy thing with jewels and spices." A grin came and went on Gawain's face, and Guinevere deeply appreciated it. "Anyway, it burns itself, and a new bird rises from the ashes."

"But this is a bird, not a man." Still, Guinevere surreptitiously glanced at her hand and remembered the scorch of Arthur's skin.

Gawain shrugged, though his face was far from nonchalant. "I know. But some tribes burn their dead to free the souls for their next life. And you hear stories of sorcerers who can survive almost anything..."

"Lancelot wasn't the one on fire," Guinevere muttered. She was so busy counting the number of remaining steps that she almost missed the sharp look Gawain gave her.

A yard from the door, he took her by the arm and made them stop, cleverly positioning himself in such a way that she couldn't shove past him and go in. She made a note of that; as kind as Gawain could obviously be, he still didn't hold her in the same regard as he did Arthur, and so there was no point in dismissing his possible influence on the future.

"He wasn't the one," Gawain repeated. "You know, we forgot to ask-did Merlin do anything to Arthur?"

"From the sound of things, it was Merlin who ended up having things done to him. Listen-I may not know Arthur or Lancelot like you do, but you don't know Merlin as I do. And the man we spoke to was...he came up against something that wouldn't yield, and he's the worse for it." Grief and regret at that, because after all, it'd been only days before that she and he were the closest of friends. They'd made an odd pairing, but Guinevere had never and still didn't repent her choice to look to Merlin not only as fellow plotter but as fond acquaintance as well. It was a shame that fondness didn't stand a chance against certain other emotions, but that was the way of it. One succeeded another...

A second thought leaped out and just missed hooking on the tail-end of the first. Frowning, Guinevere paused and tried to drag it back. Consequently, when the door slammed open, she nearly jumped into the opposite wall.

Fury-eyed, Lancelot glared at them. He was covered in bruises and other marks that left absolutely nothing up to interpretation, and his only covering was a sheet that had been hastily wrapped about his waist. "Well?"

Gawain blinked. "So...is Arthur awake?"

"Yes." Lancelot clipped the word almost in half. Then he turned to face Guinevere, and she was stunned to see a broad streak of entreaty in the midst of his anger. "What did Merlin do to me?"

"He said something else interfered with what he was do-" Guinevere caught a glimpse a pale, swaying form behind him and forced her way into the room just in time to see Arthur stagger into another collapse. She rushed over and dropped to her knees beside him. "Help me get him up!"

Gawain instantly came over, but oddly enough, Lancelot hung back. "You said Merlin didn't finish what he was doing?"

"Oh, does it matter right now? do you want Arthur to live or die-damn it, you were supposed to get him to eat, not..." The words that rose to tongue were livid and snarling, and weren't useful at all to Arthur, who hadn't fainted this time but looked as if he desperately wanted to. His eyes were fixed on Lancelot, and they were so...heavy with guilt that Guinevere wanted to retch. "Lancelot, you useless piece of horse-shit."

"You have no idea what's-"

Between the two of them, she and Gawain got Arthur back on the bed. She slapped her hand over Arthur's weak mumbles and spun around to growl at Lancelot. "If living's so awful, then go take your sword and go back to being dead. But don't you dare try to take Arthur with you. Whatever he did, you know damned well he wouldn't have done it if you had truly not wanted it."

"I want something because I can, and not because someone makes me!" Lancelot slammed the door shut and stomped back across the room. Along the way, he snatched up some food from the table. "And if I could choose now-"

Arthur suddenly ripped Guinevere's hand off his mouth and forced himself up. The effort turned him an alarming gray, but he so strenuously resisted all attempts to quiet him that Guinevere and Gawain were forced to give up and simply watch.

"Lancelot. If you could choose now." Every word was carefully pronounced, edges as sharp as the piercing sick gleam in Arthur's eyes that was stabbing into a very still Lancelot.

The other man didn't answer, but the conflicting emotions in his face were apparently enough for Arthur, who slumped back onto the bed so quickly that Guinevere thought he was losing consciousness. But when she lunged for him, he caught her hands and held them away from him. "No, don't. I won't pass out any more."

"I need to go think. Or am I not allowed to leave the room?" It was impossible to tell whether the acid in Lancelot's tone was directed at Arthur or at Guinevere.

"For what it's worth, I think I did it because Merlin was trying to get control over you," Arthur sighed, not looking at the other man. Lancelot stiffened, but didn't otherwise react.

Guinevere closed her eyes. "Lancelot, if you're not going to help keep Arthur alive, leave. No one's using the chapel for anything, and I think I saw a good lock on the door."

She could hear Lancelot opening his mouth to say something to that, but Gawain got off the bed and somehow got the man into clothes and out of the room. And then she and Arthur were alone.

***

More ::: Home