Tangible Schizophrenia


The Rising II: Sacrificial Fire

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: R. Violence.
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: Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot all have their own set of priorities.


In lieu of speaking, Guinevere retrieved what food Lancelot had left behind and brought it over to the bed. When Arthur tried to wave it away, she grabbed his hand and forced it to close around a hunk of bread.

"I'm not in need," he murmured, still looking toward the door.

"You might not be, but I am. I want to see you eat so I can be sure that you've decided to live." Guinevere knew very well that that was by no means a foregone conclusion, but for the moment she chose to gloss over that difficulty. The brazen approach cost little and often yielded much.

Arthur finally looked at her as if seeing a person instead of a body, and the corners of his mouth twitched a little, like in the dying spasms of a laugh. He glanced at the bread, which had crumpled under the combined pressures of their fingers and now resembled a smashed mushroom.

Sighing, Guinevere replaced it with a new piece and a mug of watered wine. "Eat."

He did, slowly and methodically: first he stripped the crust, and then he divided the bread into seven pieces of equal size. The first one he ate without hesitation, but when his fingers picked up the second his eyes darted toward the door again. Then he roughly shook himself and put the rest of the bread to his mouth, washing each down with a good-sized mouthful of the wine. "Thank you."

"You're always so polite." A slightly underripe apple rested in the hollow of Guinevere's palm. She rolled it a bit, studying the change in the tint of its skin and comparing it to the different hues spilled blood could take on. It wasn't the metaphor of the bard, but then, she'd never had the time to do more than listen to those talents. Fighting was her milieu, and most of the time she was content with it. "Aren't you ever tempted to stop?"

"You've seen me do so." With an encouraging eagerness, Arthur reached for the apple and then the plate she had on her lap. Hunger was creeping into his eyes and pushing aside the black pall that had hung over them, and a little color was coming back into his cheeks. It was odd how a great warrior like himself seemed so comfortable in peace; Guinevere nearly always found herself growing restless and nervous in any lack of action, and as far as she knew, the other knights were the same way. "Grace is a quality that is sorely lacking in this world."

Guinevere arched an eyebrow at him and plucked up a bit of skirt. "And where is this grace when there's battles to be won? It's been rare that I've seen something besides force decide a matter."

"Then I'm sorry for you." Arthur must have noticed her rising indignation, because he quickly set down his cup and took her one hand in his two. "I wasn't referring to your sex."

"I'd hope not. I will be queen, and not a pretty thing on the shelf." She snapped her free fingers at the far wall, which housed both scrolls and the delicate instruments of the scribe's trade.

Smiling more in sincerity than irony, Arthur gave her hand a squeeze before dropping it and returning to his meal. "I pity the man that tries to dissuade you."

An unaccountable blush suddenly seared into Guinevere's cheeks and made her drop her head. She was embarrassed, and angry that she was so when there was nothing to be embarrassed about, but the annoyance only caused her face to burn all the hotter. So she looked at her nails, still sore and ragged to the quick; her hands themselves were callused and scarred and blotched, but they were passable enough, even if they would never be as fine and delicate as Fulcinia's had been.

"You shouldn't be ashamed of those."

When Guinevere looked up, Arthur was watching her with a steady but nonjudgmental gaze. It almost convinced her that he was being sincere in his kindness.

"They're hands I bent to fighting." She held up her fingers to the dim light and indulged herself in a bit of marveling at the quick recovery they had made. "Marius tried to break them, but you healed me."

"I put the bones back in the sockets. That's all." Arthur's gaze clouded over with humility...and a surprising amount of resentment. He tore more hurriedly into the meat and chewed through his words. "I'm no healer, Guinevere. I merely do what's needed."

Not only did he resist the pull of flattery, but he also seemed to actually detest it, as if a compliment were an enemy he had to either defeat or die. A strange attitude for him to take, she was thinking, but then she remembered the elders that had earlier accosted her and demanded she make Arthur do something about the rebellious easterners. Her counter-suggestions had been well-reasoned and sensible, but nevertheless they'd left her with disappointment accusing from every eye, as if they'd expected her to rise up and declare that the malcontents would be smote within the hour. And they knew perfectly well that prolonged internal warfare now, while nearly all the Briton tribes were still reeling from the Saxons, was decidedly not in their best interest.

"And I'm no queen," she said in a soft voice, clenching her fingers on her knees. "Not yet. Not ever to you, I think."

Blinking his surprise, Arthur of course tried to demur. "You're-"

"What am I to you?" Nearly all the food was gone, so Guinevere set aside plates and busied herself with wiping Arthur's hands and mouth, even though he clearly wanted to do that himself. The last few days weren't much of a recommendation on his ability to care for himself, and that was something at which Lancelot certainly had no talent. "Why did you let me into your bed?"

Arthur didn't answer her until she had run out of excuses to let her fingers linger on his now-cool skin and had had to sit back, daunted by the invisible but very present barrier of unfamiliarity that lay between them. She'd ridden him, raked nails down his back and felt his mouth bruise her own, but she still didn't feel comfortable enough to rail at him the way Lancelot did. To just flop down and lay her head on his chest, as if it were simple and unremarkable as breathing.

Lancelot took even the air that sustained him for granted, Guinevere thought with more than a little bitterness. She'd wager that death itself hadn't taught him a single thing-well, perhaps he'd know how to dodge arrows now. He was, after all, one of Arthur's knights, and to discount all of him was to discount part of Arthur.

"You still think I'm some kind of hero," Arthur suddenly said. He spoke like a man with a swollen tongue, trying so hard to make himself understood that he just blurred his words even more. "That's...that's humbling in a way that a sword over the neck isn't. It's been a long time since I've had anyone trust me that blindly. And yes, my knights follow me wherever I lead, but they do so knowing that I'm as human and vulnerable and wounded as they are. They only have one expectation of me-that I do right."

"I'm not an awestruck girl." Guinevere barely held herself from whipping the words across his face. He had seen her dive howling and raging joyful into the muck and blood, and he still thought she saw the world in such a narrow-minded way? "I know what men are capable of as well as you, and in some ways better, I think."

She started to turn away, but Arthur caught her by the arm and pulled her back. His hands burned through the flimsy stuff of her sleeves and seemed to brand themselves on her bones; she caught her gasp and pinned it to her lower lip with her teeth. "Let go of me."

"I don't think I will. Not right away." And Arthur's voice was suddenly rough with shadows, dark and shivering with heat. He didn't hurt her, but she wasn't able to break free as he tugged her onto his legs and wrapped an arm around her waist. "I never said thank you for how much you've done in the past three days, while I was waiting to die."

"I don't understand you!" Guinevere blurted, still struggling against him. She grabbed at his hands and tried to pry off his fingers, but he merely trapped her own in between his, and then he rested his chin on her shoulder like a loving husband. The contrast between the warmth coiling into her belly and the cold realization of their true situation made Guinevere snarl and snap, but Arthur stroked his palm over her side and she helplessly gentled. "I don't understand you, and I don't know if I ever will. Damn you for that."

A low, sarcastic chuckle fell from Arthur's lips, which were nearly grazing her shoulder. "You aren't the only one."

He was too strong, and Guinevere reluctantly forced herself still. She could strike when he weakened.

Oddly enough, Arthur didn't follow up on his clear advantage, and instead retreated into a thoughtful, almost melancholy tone. "You're beautiful and intelligent and so fierce that even if there weren't...other complications, I think Lancelot would still be wary of you. And Marius never broke you-he did the others, and they'll always bear marks of him. You won't."

Guinevere swirled her tongue in the bitterness gathering in her mouth. "So you respect me."

"If I didn't, I wouldn't tell you now that you're very like him, and that I thought you would...distract me from his leaving. Because I did believe that he would go." Arthur finally let her go, his warm body falling away to leave her freezing in the solitude of comprehension. His fingers drifted over her shoulder, possibly in an attempt to soften the blows his words were leaving on her, but they soon departed. It was impossible to say whether Guinevere was sad or angry or relieved at that. "I thought that I could bear it, if I had a hope of starting something new."

"So I'm him, only in a woman's body," she said, correcting her earlier statement.

Arthur sat up again, and he moved so quickly that the mattress violently shook. Startled, Guinevere twisted about with a question half-off her tongue, but was promptly silenced by his eyes. They were backlit with a blazing green, far more livid than any poor imitation of foxfire, and the black rings about those brilliant irises seemed to constrict Guinevere's lungs so that she could hardly breath.

"Then it was a matter of not having a choice, and only being able to see one of you at a time, because you're both so-you break my vision. Now-now I can see the differences." Long eyelashes snapped down, bars that should have been too frail to contain the sheer life behind them. Muscle by muscle, from clenched jaw to hunched shoulders to fists locked in the sheets, Arthur slumped into the bed. He rolled on his side and rubbed at his temples, the half of his mouth that Guinevere could see wrenching itself into a pained grimace. "I see...a good deal more since before my last waking."

"Merlin..." Guinevere stared down at Arthur, looking over every inch of this man that, despite all his modesty, was not like other men. He'd drawn her eyes to him for other reasons, but they stayed on him now because he was most compelling thing she'd ever seen, even if she couldn't explain the why of it. "Merlin said there was another sorcerer, and what you said to Lancelot..."

The grimace twisted into a razor-sharp smile, but its blade was facing inward. "I did something, and then I had to learn about what I did. My fainting before...I suppose it's quicker than sending to Sarmatia for a wonder-worker, but it still doesn't recommend itself as a teaching method."

"What did you do?" Even as she asked, Guinevere could already feel the answer frosting her insides. She snatched at Arthur's elbow and held on as tightly as she could, suddenly and inexplicably terrified that he would vanish before her very eyes.

"I stole Lancelot from Merlin. He's mine now, and he'll stay that way till I die. And...and I have to stay in Britain. How long is anyone's guess." When Arthur laughed this time, it was a strangled little sound that slithered, ugly and unwanted and nearly hateful, between the space that separated them. "Long enough to see you queen in everyone's eyes. At least. I'm sorry, Guinevere, but I'm afraid that I'll make a very poor king. You deserve better."

"don't--ever--tell me what I deserve." It felt fleetingly good to grate her rage and frustration into words that visibly bit into Arthur.

But then he looked up and fixed her with a gaze as drained and as draining as the sickly moon in the winter night. "Then tell me that you won't try to do the same thing to me if I die before you."

Guinevere choked, unable to say or do anything except struggle with the lump of fury and sorrow in her throat. By the time she'd freed herself of it and had sucked in enough breath for speech, Arthur had twisted away from her to face the wall.

Well, he could have his guilt-ridden morality, if he treasured it that much, and she would fall back on herself as she'd always had.

Pride carried her out the door, and even kept her chin up and her tears down till she reached the privacy of the hastily-designated council chamber. Then she collapsed into the nearest chair and cried so silently that the approaching group of tribal leaders almost caught her at it.


Lancelot fiddled with the last piece of crust remaining from the food he'd unknowingly carried off from Arthur's room. He had a full belly, a fairly comfortable place lounging on a bench, and he wasn't dulled by exhaustion. By all rights his mind should've been the clearest in the entire garrison, but in actual fact it was a morass of doubts and grievances slinging themselves at each other.

"You know, it's not as much his fault as he thinks. As you think." Gawain was still hanging around, calmly sharpening Lancelot's swords because he'd already worked through all his own weapons. He was probably botching the job, but Lancelot didn't feel a terrible need to correct him. After all, it wasn't like death was permanent any more, so who needed great weapons? Especially with Arthur's strong arm for protection.

Disgust tasted just as bad as it felt. Making a face at his thoughts, Lancelot leaned over and spat on the floor. He could hear Gawain shifting uneasily beside him, but he knew better than to fear any retribution from the Christian God. His resurrection had pretty much proved that that high deity had less than perfect control over Britain.

The rasping noises stopped, and Gawain fixed him with a mild, firm look. "It's not. Lancelot-think about it. How long could Arthur possibly have been studying magic?"

"He has a small library of scrolls. Could be a lot of tricks hidden in those." It was easy to see where Gawain's point was leading, but Lancelot was still too damned angry to do so. Arthur had been less than fair to him, and then the man had had to be so fucking apologetic and sad-eyed about it, as if he knew exactly how Lancelot was feeling. And he didn't.

"And he could've at least had the decency to be smug about it," Lancelot muttered.

A high screech made him start up just in time to see Gawain finish shoving his swords back in their sheathes and toss them at him. He snatched them up, barely keeping himself from getting a faceful of steel, and then glared at Gawain's impassive face. "What was that for?"

"You know as damned well as I do that Arthur's never even considered such things. Remember how much he laughed at Alymere's ghost stories?" Gawain threw Lancelot a contemptuous look as he got off the bench. "He was either a Christian or a rational man, or both. But he wasn't a magician until last night."

"So he really didn't know what he was doing. does that still excuse him the responsibility for making me a slave?" Lancelot wrestled off the straps tangled around his hands and started to pitch the swords into a corner, but as he was, he glimpsed the old, tattered rabbit's foot dangling from them. It was a stupid thing to do, but he laid his swords back in his lap and picked off the little charm, recalling the memory behind it with no small sense of irony.

The one time he'd mentioned it to Arthur, it'd been in this chapel. The other man had carefully looked over the tiny bit of fur and claw, then nodded toward the cross on the wall and asked if he couldn't be allowed the same thoughts of protection. Arthur had bent the last word of his question, sounding as if he hated to mention it, and when Lancelot had pressed him, he had simply said that the only thing he had left of either parent was his father's sword and that a man couldn't wish on something like that for peace.

"He never laughed at that, even though the rest of us did." Gawain poked the rabbit's foot, then let out an amused snort when Lancelot reflexively curled his fingers around it. "Honestly, do you two always have to be so fucking dramatic? And he didn't make you a slave."

Lancelot started. "You are such a-"

"All you have to do is take out one of those-" jerking his chin toward the swords "-walk back to Arthur's room and cut his throat. And you're free. You jackass-I bet he'd even lift his chin so you could get a better angle."

"He would not!" But even as Lancelot mouthed the words, he knew they would ring false in the tremulous echoes of the chapel. Arthur would, and he'd do it gladly because he would finally be able to think that he'd done sufficient penance.

Being a sensible man, Gawain merely stood and watched as Lancelot tried to shrivel in on himself.

"Why the fuck are you always so reasonable?" Because Lancelot tried to be, but his temper and Arthur inevitably sent him spiraling off into a fit, and Arthur tried so hard to be, but he invariably ended up thinking too much. It shouldn't be that difficult, and yet it was.

Gawain's laughter had a sad undertone to it, and he wrapped his arms around himself as if suddenly cold-or alone. He stared out one of the tiny slit-windows as he answered. "Because that's all we lesser men have, great Lancelot. I can look at you and then think on Tristan's grave, and I can afford not to be jealous or angry because my reason points out that you're suffering more than the value of your resurrection is worth."

"Death always seems easier than life." In truth, it wasn't. If Lancelot closed his eyes, he could remember the brutal snap of the arrow into his chest, the jerking interrupted leap his heart had taken when it'd been transfixed by the bolt, the sudden agony of knowing that he was going to lose. He could remember what it was like to be permanently divided from Arthur.

And now he was permanently cleaved to the man, no matter what Gawain had said. They both knew that Lancelot could barely think of Arthur dying without wanting to retch, let alone-let alone seek freedom at the cost of him.

"There's nothing stopping you from killing yourself, either." Calm and practical as Gawain's tone was, now that Lancelot was truly looking at him, it was easy to see just how pale and disturbed the other man had gone in the few short minutes of their conversation. Gawain licked his lips and avoided Lancelot's eyes as he added, "Now that Arthur knows what can be done, I find it difficult to believe that he'd force this on you again."

"The effort not to do it would kill him," Lancelot replied. His voice was growing softer and softer, and given the kind of thoughts it had to express, he couldn't really blame it. Before he had died, he doubted that he would've been even capable of forming such ideas in his head, let alone discuss them so...coolly. Even now, he suspected that a good deal of his composure was due to the dulling numbness that had fallen over him after he'd turned his back on Arthur and walked out.

Gawain sighed and tilted his head back, as if he were catching the relief of a nonexistent breeze. "For such an arrogant bastard, you're very good at not noticing how important you are to him. So much so that he's willing to forgo what he wants for what he thinks you want, even if he'll be by far the worse for it."

"Oh, I doubt that. He's a strong men, and Guinevere is very pretty and clever and-and I think she loves him now, even if she came to him for different reasons before." Lancelot was still undecided as to whether he would rather have continued to fight Rome for Arthur's attention, but he wasn't so blind as to not acknowledge that the woman was a formidable opponent. Of course, there was a difference between that and worthiness.

"Guinevere," Gawain acerbically drawled, "Isn't the one Arthur tore away from death-with whatever help Merlin gave there. He likes her well enough, and possibly might grow to like her more, but you're still the one who holds him. Lancelot, he was trying to will himself to death after you died, and he damn well almost succeeded."

And Lancelot wanted to believe Gawain, but fifteen years of gazing after Arthur and not getting more than the occasional inscrutable glance back made it difficult. "He took long enough to let me know that."

Something convulsed Gawain's face. He grabbed for the back of the bench and tightened his grip till his knuckles were bone-white, shaking his head and choking on unintelligible fragments of words. Concerned, Lancelot reached for him, but the other man flung himself away and snarled at him. In all the years that they'd known each other, Lancelot had never seen Gawain so enraged. Not even during the heaviest fighting, or the dreary, mournful aftermath of retrieving the broken bodies of their fallen comrades. "Fine, you stupid bastard. Be that way. Talk like that when I can see Arthur's marks all over you, when you know damned well that the only way anyone could ever really hurt Arthur was through you. You call yourself a slave--well, if that's so then I can't see why anyone would want to be a master."

The other man was halfway out of the chapel before Lancelot had recovered enough wits to jump over the bench back, and Gawain was slamming the door shut before Lancelot had even gotten halfway to it. "Wait! Gawain! Damn it, Gawain!"

Furious footsteps stomping away were all Lancelot heard. Cursing everything and everyone he could think of, including himself, he slammed his back against the door and let the pain soak through him. Then he slid down to sit on the floor, letting himself swim in the mindless burning of new bruises.

It was too dark, he absently thought. No wonder Arthur was so depressed, spending so much time in such abysmal surroundings. Man needed light.

And then there was light: a thousand little flames leaping out of nothing, alighting on every sliver of candlewax that they could find. Lancelot stared at them, dimly feeling his jaw swing open.

He never was sure why he lifted his hand then, but he did and there was a tiny flicker of yellow-red dancing in the hollow of his palm. It grew as he watched, seeming to engulf his entire world, but he didn't feel any pain. Not any more. And he saw so much.

He saw Arthur.


After leaving Arthur and Lancelot, Galahad had spent the past few hours wandering about the garrison, watching as the Britons swiftly appropriated the buildings for new uses. Rome thought herself the ineradicable Empire, but it was clear that her stamp here didn't reach beyond the topmost layer of the land. Britain was Britain, no matter who ruled.

His steps eventually found him Merlin, which he later supposed was predictable enough. At the moment, however, the sight of the man turned his stomach and did nothing for the length of his temper. "Well, here's a pretty picture."

Sticky red dribbled from both corners of Merlin's mouth and haphazardly stained his clothes, which were far too thin for the cold afternoon. More blood and phlegm streaked the grass around his feet, which were bony with long claw-like toes. As Galahad watched, Merlin hawked up another gobbet of darkish blood clots and spit, splattering the gross combination over his knee. He listlessly wiped at it, but didn't otherwise move from his position staring at Arthur's rooms.

The ire in Galahad died as quickly as it had blazed up, and he almost knelt down to clean the man's face before he remembered just how many knights had died at Merlin's instigations. "Pathetic, isn't it? You'd think the change of rule would be something glorious and hopeful."

"Rule hasn't changed," Merlin mumbled, words both thick and hollow. "Not yet."

"What are you talking about? Rome's gone, Saxons are gone, Arthur and Guinevere are taking control and you're here, going crazy in the dirt." The wind suddenly shrieked past, shivering both Galahad's body and mind. He instinctively put his hand to his hilt, ignoring the complaints of his still-recovering body. No one else was around, but in the dense obscuring dusk that fell on Britain, that could never be taken for safety.

Merlin switched his focus to Galahad then, rheumy eyes clearing to the razor lucidity that had haunted the knights for so long. "Arthur fought me over his knight. He won."

"Did he? Good for him." As irritating as Lancelot was, Merlin still had no right to touch him in any way, or do whatever he'd tried to do. Bastard sorcerer didn't have a clue as to the real Arthur if he'd thought that he could use Lancelot to turn his king into a puppet.

"He won, but I haven't let go. I'm not dying fast enough." Oddly enough, Merlin spoke like he was disappointed about that. "I wanted everything to go to Guinevere. He was only supposed to help."

Galahad rocked back on his heels, not quite sure what to make of this strange confession. "Maybe you should've told them that? It's not like he wanted Britain, but you made it so he thought he didn't have any choice."

Those eyes snapped to his and seized his gaze in an implacable grip. Merlin suddenly stood up, staggering like a drunkard even with the help of his staff, and seized Galahad's shoulder in a punishing hold. For a dying man, he was incredibly strong and wouldn't be put off even when Galahad shoved a sword-tip beneath his chin.

"Listen to me," Merlin hissed, sweat rolling down his bloody chin. "Listen. One of us has to die to finish it-I've always known that would be true, but I thought I would have longer before I had to go. Long enough so that they wouldn't blame him. Or her."

"Blame..." Of course they would. Badon Hill or not, a sizable minority of Britons obviously thought it'd be a great idea to whip around and kill the knights. They loved Guinevere but didn't implicitly trust her yet, and they were ambivalent about Arthur. Especially since he'd been stumbling about white and sick and dead-eyed for the past few days and hadn't looked as if he were capable of defending himself against a fly, let alone the many hungry-faced Woads that had gathered for the battle and still hadn't departed.

Panic didn't come in parts, but in one huge burst that nearly split Galahad's skin from his bones. He grabbed Merlin by the arms and shook the secretive son of a bitch till teeth rattled. "What's going to happen? What did you order done, you fucking bastard?"

"I didn't order anything." Merlin slammed a heel onto Galahad's boot, crushing his toes and making him let go. He stumbled back, then had to lunge forward to catch Merlin before the man tumbled down the hill. "They saw, and they drew their own conclusions."

"Who-the easterners." And while they were usually skulking about everywhere, just waiting to spring on a weakness of the knights, Galahad hadn't seen one in some time. "Shit."

He turned to go and warn the others, but a heavy weight slammed into his back and nearly knocked his feet out from under him. When he tried to push Merlin off, the other man dug thin sharp fingers into Galahad's wrist till bones ground pain out from between them. "You have to take me to Guinevere. If you want them to have a chance, I need to speak with her. Or else Arthur and I will both die, still fighting each other."

Then Merlin collapsed in Galahad's arms, eyes rolling back into his head. That was a sight with which Galahad had become far too familiar, and one that never failed to frighten him.

Nevertheless, he forced himself to pick up the man and to ignore the slickness that coated his hands. Then he headed down the hill at a dead run.


"He is not responsible for Merlin's condition!" Guinevere snapped, voice just shy of a shout. "Merlin is dying because of his own actions. If you ask him, he'll admit it."

The head of the eastern delegation didn't change his expression. "I don't need to ask him. The facts are clear enough-everyone knows that Merlin and Arthur had some kind of argument, and now Merlin is failing while the so-called king skulks in his rooms, working his malicious spells."

Inwardly fear chilled her marrow, but Guinevere forced her outward appearance to remain dismissive and disdainful. "I assure you, Arthur is doing nothing of the sort. Everyone also knows that he suffered grave injuries during the battle, and it's ridiculous to have expected him to have already recovered."

"I don't expect him to recover, given the loss of his beloved Rome," the insufferable prick said. The rest of his group shared his stony attitude; no matter how closely Guinevere looked, she couldn't see an exploitable weakness anywhere.

She did see sympathy, and she was hard-put to keep her temper in check. So they thought her too besotted with a handsome man to be rational, and believed her to be that shallow-minded? Well, if they didn't get their sorry faces out of her sight soon, they would feel the mettle of their queen. And they would remember that she didn't carry weapons merely for show, and Arthur hadn't triumphed over them in the past just because he looked fine on a horse.

"It's not right that a Roman should continue to rule over us," said another man. "We've been fighting against that for all these years, and now we're to tamely accept it?"

Guinevere set her teeth against each other and began to reach for her dagger. If she moved quickly enough, she could switch it for the sword of the nearest man. "He's not Roman. His mother was a Briton."

"And his father was a Sarmatian knight, and his religion is Rome's. We've seen the chapel. We've seen what goes in it."

For a brutally long instant, Guinevere felt her blood freeze. She hoped that her face had done the same, and hadn't betrayed anything. "He's renounced his Christianity," she replied as coolly as she could.

"What about his sorcery?" demanded the first man. "By all that I own, I will not see his knights lord over my children's children. They don't deserve eternal sovereignty."

"We'd be perfectly happy with a peaceful life and an easy death." Gawain and Bors swung themselves into the room, weapons casually hanging from their hands. "And how is my queen?" Gawain called.

The easterners whipped about, snarling, but they soon fell back when other faces showed behind the knights--Briton faces. Grinning, Gawain glanced over his shoulder. "If you're going to yell, you should shut the door first. There are many concerned ears in this place."

"I should've known you wouldn't listen. Your people have never-"

Guinevere rounded the table and knocked the easterner back a step with the slap she'd been itching to give ever since the conversation had started. "It's not a matter of peoples, unless you want to give the Saxons easy mouthfuls of Britain instead of making them choke. We're all one people, and if you were intelligent enough to get past your pettiness, you'd remember that that was what Merlin's life-long goal was. That that's what my life-long goal is. I-am-queen. There are two rulers, not one, and the next time you forget that will be your last."

She pushed past his stuttering reply and stalked to Gawain's side, only then noticing the tic in his jaw muscle. He and Bors fell in slightly behind her, but as soon as they were out of earshot of the arguing Briton nobles, he caught her arm and drew her back. "I noticed someone spying on the chapel when I left Lancelot, so I locked the door. He's got his swords, so he should be fine."

"Thank you," Guinevere whispered back. And even though it was Lancelot they were talking about, she genuinely meant it.

"But I think someone needs to check on Arthur," Gawain continued. "Lancelot isn't being very coop-Galahad! What on earth-"

The other man had just turned the corner ahead of them, and barely managed to halt before he crashed into Bors. He was carrying Merlin, who looked so much worse than he had earlier that Guinevere barely recognized him.

"I don't know, but he said I had to bring him to her." Galahad tried to drop the muttering, near-comatose man in Guinevere's arms. When she reflexively backed away, he grumbled and propped Merlin up against the wall instead. "How's Arthur?"

"Why? What did Merlin say?" Guinevere began to turn towards him, but then Merlin suddenly came alive and jerked her back to face him. He wheezed out black droplets that hissed as they hit the stone and nearly fell on her, but caught himself at the last minute.

Bors lifted his kukri. "Lady, I don't think-"

"You will go to Arthur and you will leave us alone," Merlin rasped. He raised his chin to send a blearing, burning, yellowing gaze around the hallway. When Bors grunted disagreement and took another step forward, Merlin twisted to fully focus his glower on the man.

Past experience that still dipped into Guinevere's nightmares had taught her the futility of resisting Merlin when he was this far gone. She laid her hand on Bors' arm and gently steered him aside. "I'll be fine. Someone does need to look in on Arthur; I think he believes Lancelot hates him now."

"If that was true, things might be a little simpler," Galahad muttered, not entirely in jest, but not entirely in resentment either. He spun on his heel and walked off; after a moment, Bors followed. Gawain gave Guinevere a long, considering glance, then nodded to her and did the same.

Gnarled things coiled around Guinevere's wrist, drawing her attention back to Merlin, who swayed even as his withered fingers bit more deeply into her flesh. He had aged so much in so few hours-even the feral speck of gold in his eyes was fading now, like the sun tumbling beneath the horizon. She almost forgot to not pity him.

"I'm going to die," Merlin whispered. "Soon. In a few minutes. And when I do-you have to act. Arthur...when he was forcing me back...he didn't know what to take, and so he took everything. It's too much too fast, and if you don't get some of it back, it'll always stay with him."

"Only a king, and no queen." Guinevere pressed fingers to her lips, imprisoning some kind of howl behind them. She suddenly understood how Lancelot felt, caged in the fingers of someone else's hand. As much as Arthur meant to her, he wasn't her. They were separate people with full lives, and Guinevere intended for it to stay that way. She hadn't thrown herself into the fighting for so long only to now fade into a pretty wisp on the edge of the scene.

Moreover, Arthur didn't want that. He'd made his opinion on the subject clear enough-so he didn't know what he'd done.

The relief within Guinevere was so overwhelming that she almost didn't notice the second in which she had actually doubted Arthur. Perhaps Lancelot wasn't being so unreasonable after all, if he'd had to experience this wavering in faith many times over the years.

Merlin nodded and nearly collapsed after it, but she grabbed his shoulders and steadied his next words. "I've been loosening his hold on that part-I'm not such a fool as to still go after his favored knight-and you have a chance." He took her hands and wrapped them around his staff. "Hold on to this."

After a moment, Guinevere had to ask. "And?"

"And you have to go against Arthur. Now leave me." He shoved her away and stumbled into a nearby room, coughing as if his lungs were ripping apart inside him.

For a long, long second, Guinevere wanted to follow Merlin. She wanted to sit at his feet, their knees bumping, and listen to his terse wisdom so she could later string together each bit into beautiful necklaces of foresight. She wanted to snap at his heels, begging for responsibility but in truth holding back so the burden remained on his back. She wanted to be a child again.

Then she shook her head, dismissing such ridiculous fancies, and turned her back on him. On her way to the chapel, she did find some servants and sent them to ease his last moments, but that was all. Her road was elsewhere now, and she and Merlin had nothing to do with each other any more.

She hoped that she still had something to do with Arthur, but even that wasn't certain now that-now that they would be set against each other. No matter how brief that event might be, it would change things, and she wasn't certain as to how much so. But she could ensure that he at least lived.

When she reached the chapel, she walked right between two implacable forces. The eastern leaders had unexpectedly come raging up from behind and had intercepted her, shouting about Merlin. From the sound of things, they had accidentally glimpsed the dying man, and had rushed away before Merlin could explain himself. The old bastard, Guinevere snarled to herself-and for the first time she didn't immediately rebuke herself for thinking it. He wouldn't make it easy for his successors.

"I told you, it's not of Arthur's doing! And I speak as one who owes Merlin everything, who's as grieved as you to see his decline! But it's his choice to do so-" They roared at her, drowning out the rest of her words; arms grabbed at Guinevere and dragged her back while more started to wrench at the chapel door, convinced that they'd find the evidence of Merlin's wrongdoing in there.

Abandoning all dignity, she kicked and bit and laid about with the staff, but the space was too narrow and there were too many. The tide of the crowd was too strong, carrying her further and further from the door, and she could only watch as the timbers started to splinter-

--then the staff twisted in her hands, and she found herself diving at the floor. A bare instant later, the place exploded with screaming flames.

People going up like dried grass in high summer, their last cries swirling quick into the oily, foul smoke that clouded Guinevere's mind. She curled around the staff, fitting fingers against the pulse of the carvings that veined its length, and went deep inside. But the red and yellow and orange followed her even there, trying to bind her down with strange symbols. The ones Merlin had drawn, the ones Gawain had recognized.

"Oh-damn it, can't anyone not faint?" came a distant voice. It whined and buzzed, stinging her lassitude into shaking harder, into snapping the script and breaking free. A glimmer of green, like the spring forests, called to her and she plunged after it.


It hurt, but she discovered she could detach enough of herself to go back and work her mouth. "Lancelot. You killed them."

"Well, they looked rather determined to kill me, so I think I was justified." Shaky laugh. "Is that Merlin's staff? He really had no idea what he was doing, did he?"

"You're killing all of us. Leave me alone." She could just touch the green, just graze it and feel it start to slip cool and comforting within her. But then something yanked it back, tore it out by the roots and it hurt so much, but she caught the edge and held. Like hauling rope, she strained inch by inch to recover it. Whatever was on the other end fought, but its efforts were random and unfocused-because it didn't know. "Lancelot. Go to Arthur."

Fingers dragging her up, feeling her face. "Your eyes..."

"Arthur!" she snapped. "Can you live with him or not?"

"What do you care?" he retorted, shaking her.

Because she wanted Arthur so badly, but-but even that couldn't break her open to him. Because it was too late in this life for them to know each other soul-deep and heart-wide, because she knew that no matter how hard they tried she would never be able to be so easy around him as to take him for granted.

No, she wanted to tell him. No, I wouldn't do the same to you as you did to Lancelot. Because doing that cost you Rome forever, and in the end, I cannot give up Britain. Not even for you.

"Because I don't want him to die, you fool." Guinevere needed all her strength together and turned toward struggling against Arthur's will, but she forced herself to say a little more. "Because he deserves to have you. Whether or not you deserve to have him."

Lancelot sucked in a breath as she drifted back to her own war. His fingers touched her brow, and then his lips did. "Sometimes you're not so hateful to me."

Then he picked her up, and that was the last she knew of the solid world.


Guinevere was barely gone before the fever was back, incinerating till Arthur thought there shouldn't have been any of himself left. Then it always discovered more, and another wave of pain would pulse through him. Though his eyes were wide open, he could barely see for the stretching distortion of the melting world. He struggled out of the bed and flopped onto the floor, which cold stone brought a temporary relief. Sighing, he spread out his limbs and soaked up the coolness, but soon even the stone couldn't leach the heat from him quick enough.

Soon, later-they were all relative measurements, and he could no longer orient himself in time or space. At any moment he was miles up in the sky and centuries back in history, watching Julius Caesar make his first landing. Then he was down in the dirt and somewhen distant in a world of metal and stinking gases and brutal yellow lights.

It was still Britain. It was always Britain. He knew that now, and if he was himself, he thought he might hate it. In any case, he had never had much reason to love it, and he didn't know whether he could now.

Guinevere loved it. She cherished it with the same depth of emotion that Arthur had once saved for Rome, only her adoration was sharpened by a ferocity that rivaled the pull he felt whenever Lancelot was near. She'd be an excellent queen.

And she would have made a perfect mate if they'd met sooner, before disappointment and disillusionment had bent Arthur into the broken pathetic thing he was now. When he looked at her, he remembered what it was to be young and dreaming and capable of remaking the world. When he looked at her, he thought that not everything had gone to ruin if such strong, determined leaders still rose from among the people.

But when he looked at himself, he saw only one whole strand left to his unraveled life. There was only one part that had never snapped, and now he was going to have to cut it himself in order to free Lancelot. It was too late to weave a new tapestry, and so he would just have to take his chances with the darkness beyond the frayed threads.

No. It wasn't darkness, but red fire that beckoned to him now. So Christianity had gotten that much right.

He only wished he could apologize to Guinevere, because he had promised to lead her people, and he had truly meant to keep that promise.


When Lancelot reached Arthur's rooms, he found only three knights frantically tearing apart the place. Gawain heaved aside the bed and looked in the small space between it and the wall, then groaned in frustration. He wiped at his face and caught sight of Lancelot. "You! What happened to her?"

"I don't know. Haven't you noticed that I'm always last to know everything?" Lancelot pushed past Galahad, who was shuffling through a pile of extra blankets stacked in the corner, and carefully swung Guinevere through the doorway. The staff she was wound around banged several times against the doorframe, but it couldn't be helped. "Where's-"

"Who do you think we're looking for?" Bors asked, stomping past. "I'm going to look outside."

Frowning, Gawain had come up and was now studying Guinevere's tense face. "It's like Arthur earlier."

"Look, I just burned to death a lot of important-looking Britons that were trying to kill me. Something about Arthur murdering Merlin. What's going on?" Lancelot eased past Gawain and set Guinevere down on the bed, where she promptly thrashed the blankets off before abruptly slumping into an eerie stillness.

"Burned?" Galahad stopped his search and turned around.

Arthur had taken sick again. Somehow Lancelot knew that, as if he could taste the man's fever on his tongue.

Well, he had, and it had been...fifteen years of imagining hadn't even compared. Of course, then Arthur had had to ruin it. Ruin it and send Lancelot running because he'd...because he'd never seen that side of Arthur before, that particle that was capable of doing whatever was necessary to keep him. He thought that he'd known every part of the man, and then it turned out that even he didn't. It had shaken a faith that he hadn't ever realized he'd had.

"Yes, burned. Apparently, I came back a little different." Lancelot raised his hand and rolled flames over the backs of his fingers. He watched the yellow-gold of them reflect off the shock and fear in the eyes of his fellow knights. "I'm beginning to think that-"

The world heaved ashes into his mouth and nose and eyes. He dropped to one knee, choking and clawing at his burning eyes, clearing them just in time to see Guinevere sit bolt upright on the bed.

"Merlin's dead," she said, glassy-eyed and staring at nothing.

Lancelot breathed, and he smelled the flames beginning to catch. "Arthur's-" He flung himself to the window and shoved open the shutters. In the window pane was the reflection of Guinevere, rocking the staff against herself and keening as she wrestled with some invisible thing. Gawain uttered an oath and turned towards her, but Lancelot remained peering out, looking for the man he knew should be out there.

He didn't have to wait long. Bors came pelting into view, dragging along a half-dressed Arthur that didn't seem to be fully conscious. After them followed a small crowd of Britons who were shouting angry questions at Arthur. "Galahad! Gawain! Out-oh, fuck. Bors, get away from him! Get back!"

Surprised, Bors glanced at Lancelot, and in that moment of distraction, Arthur suddenly exerted himself and broke free. He lurched several steps away, towards the Britons, and there he stopped. His back was to the window and so Lancelot couldn't see his face, but the abrupt quiet that fell over the others was a fairly good indication of what expression Arthur was wearing.

Everything tilted again, strings snapping and recoiling. Lancelot gasped and fell like he had lead in his knees; his chin slammed on the windowsill and blood flooded his mouth.

"I did it," Guinevere gasped, weak but triumphant. Then she swore and flew over to Lancelot's side, staring out the window. "Oh, no. He let go. He's-" she hit Lancelot, and then she hit him again and again, as if a dam had broken "-you son of a bitch! He's doing this for you!"

Still dazed, Lancelot could only blink up at her. "What?"

She grabbed his hair and shoved his face against the window, then almost doubled over in a violent sob. "I told you to go to him."

Arthur burst into flames.

One ragged breath. Two. Then the fire vanished to reveal nothing but a clump of ashes on the ground and the feeling of utter disconnection in Lancelot's breast. He could move because he stood up, and he could speak because he whispered "No," but he couldn't sense anything beyond himself.

His mind held only two thoughts. The first was that this was complete freedom. The second was that he didn't want any of it.

Fists were still hitting his back. Some of the blows were forceful enough to send him almost rocking into the side of the window, but Lancelot made no attempt to stop Guinevere. "I lost him," he said, inane and numbed and suddenly so very, very dead to everything.

And when it came down to it, sometimes having a choice at every step of the way didn't matter. Sometimes life moved so quickly that the only way to handle it was to grab at every good thing seen along the way and hold onto it for as long as possible, because it was never certain that that chance would come up again.

Sometimes some things were worth a loss of freedom. Loyalty and love both depended on a degree of surrender, but the returns were worth more than enough to make up for that. If one was smart enough to realize when one had those returns, and Lancelot hadn't been. Like Guinevere had said, he'd taken Arthur for granted in certain ways. He'd thought he knew Arthur, and knew how much the other man was willing to risk-cautious, dutiful, dependent on other men's orders-but he hadn't. This was something that he was supposed to do-something that he had done, never expecting Arthur to do the same.

"Something..." Gawain sounded like he was strangling; he audibly swallowed before continuing on. "Something's happening to the ashes."

Lancelot absently looked at the pitiful heap, too small to have ever made up a whole man. Then he shocked into alertness and looked again.

"That story you told me about the bird," Guinevere breathed to Gawain. She pivoted and nearly lunged for the door, but hesitated. With a little snarl, she grabbed Lancelot's arm and yanked him along. "Come on. I'm not going to live through this again."

He went with her, feet moving sluggishly at first but then picking up speed, feeling himself come back to life as if he was the one swirling out of the ashes. Soon he was going so fast that Guinevere was barely hanging on, tripping over her skirts and skidding an inch past corners. Lancelot hardly noticed.

"If he throws you off, you're a dead man," she was hissing. "If he even gives me the slightest hint that he doesn't want you anymore, I'm going to kill you."

"Fair enough. Same to you." And then they were outside, stiff cold air hitting Lancelot like a wall, but nothing was going to keep him from this.

Arthur was right there, and when Lancelot slid into him, he grunted and gave a little just like he had before. He smelled like ashes, but warm tarry ones, ready to be relit at a moment's notices, and he felt like a bundle of tingling heat that made Lancelot wrap himself around the other man, not wanting to miss a single prickle, and his fingers pressing into Lancelot's side and nape of neck were the last links of the chain between them clicking together.

"I want to stay. I want to stay. I don't care about choices or freedom or anything, I just want-that's what I'll always choose." Lancelot was babbling into Arthur's neck, and he knew he sounded like an idiot, but rational speech wouldn't do justice to the indescribable surge of relief and joy inside him. "don't do that again."

Arthur twitched, though he didn't loosen his grip. "I won't leave you, but I think I have to burn again. Sooner or later. It seems that the land won't let me die."

He wasn't speaking entirely to Lancelot, who reluctantly remembered the presence of others. Guinevere had stopped a bare foot away, her hand half-lifted toward Arthur's cheek. She didn't seem to know whether to dare or not-and then he reached out and took her hand, pressing it to his lips. "Still my queen?"

"I'll have no other king-no other man deserves to rule beside me." The determination in her eyes lent weight to her declaration, and the aggravation that simmered beside it when she looked at Lancelot promised that their argument was still unfinished.

"Then I'll endeavor not to disappoint." Arthur murmured his next words into Lancelot's ear. "Ever."

Lancelot swung himself to the side, relaxing enough to enjoy the sight of utterly stunned faces. "You're going to make it so we never have to discuss this again. If you're going to burn up, then I want to be there beside you. I can't-it hurt too much to watch you die."

"I know. I didn't mean for you to see that." Arthur seemed calmer now, sure of himself again. The pallor of sickness was gone as well, and he looked years younger.

"Never mind that. It's over now." Guinevere didn't relinquish her grip on Arthur's hand as she stepped to his other side and faced her-their-people. "Well? do you doubt him now?"

It started somewhere off to the left, but spread so quickly to the rest of the gathered people that the origin hardly mattered. Lancelot looked out on the mass of kneeling bodies, and for the first time, he saw a nation.


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