Author: Guede Mazaka
There is snow in Lancelot's hair, and it looks like flowers. A winter garden.
Naturally. Of the two of them, he is the one who's alive all the time, who does not have to grapple for outside flames to battle the chill that, bone by bone, has been nestling into Arthur. He is the one whose memory of his homeland is still candle-hot and bright.
Rome, beloved Roma, is like a distant brilliance. The silvery sheen that sometimes appears on the horizon in Britain in place of dawn, when the fog is over-thick and the chill tries to eat men. She used to be lively red, warming, a comfort on even the darkest nights, but that was a long time ago.
Was there anything in her land that appealed to him? Guinevere had asked. And Arthur had not answered then, astounded at her casual presumption of an entire country. Perhaps also a little afraid of his tongue, and of what it might say to men and women instead of to God, to whom disturbing confessions should properly be consigned.
It hurts to realize that part of his reasoning is that God does not betray a confession, because he cannot. He does not speak, and Arthur is falling farther from His grace, if in fact that was ever Arthur's to claim.
Necessity and practicality rule Arthur now, the cold hard facts of sword and pain and creeping black questions, for all that he still pretends to be an idealist. For all that he tries to walk that path, and instead finds his feet drifting, as they do now toward the half-phantom in the night.
She's a beautiful, terrible incarnation of past and present, echoes and fever, and she calls without a word. Calls with the turn of her throat, feminine and yet Arthur sees overlaid another one, bent in awkward bow at first meeting. Eyes the color of her woods, and then eyes the color of remembered steppes that are held dearer than any number of wide bountiful plains. Challenge that encompasses girl, woman, boy, man, and suddenly Arthur wonders whether he has stumbled into Homer, found the Teiresias that will tell him the future path that must be walked.
It's a foolish, short-lived thought; he is no hero, and his life is no tragedy. He has had his share of happiness-would that that had been greater, he secretly wishes sometimes-and he has his struggles, like anyone else. All he can do is do his best to hold to the greater pattern.
So he tells himself in times like these, when from behind calls one and before calls another.
As he follows Guinevere into the forest, the slide of Lancelot's gaze along his back is like the flat of a sword blade, pulled slow and shivering as the rise of mist from the ground.
Arthur knows he's watching. Lancelot can see the awareness in the way the other man addresses Merlin, in the way Arthur's voice raises as if questioning the entire forest, and not just the old rebel sorcerer, the enigmatic maid and the man behind the tree trunk, guarding his friend.
Friend. Commander. And if wishes were reality, many other things as well. But Arthur prefers not to complicate a simple thing if that isn't necessary, and Lancelot prefers not to push that particular point. They disagree on enough as it is, and time for reconciliations is growing short.
When Lancelot steps out from behind the tree, Guinevere is startled into nearly tripping backward. He decides that that is a good expression for her.
Arthur says nothing, does nothing. He merely stands with hands hanging easily at his side, all the tension bound up in his waiting eyes. It's clear that he thinks Lancelot will argue, will fight against his decision. And in other times, Lancelot might have, for after all, what use is fifteen years' fighting if in the last days of the last year, an alliance is formed? What does that for the dead in the graveyard, rotting away into Britain's soggy earth, too far from their rightful places among their proud, valiant ancestors?
But therein lies the change of heart. Sarmatia is so close. So close that Lancelot can see every wrinkle in his father's care-worn face, taste every campfire and feel again the wind of his homeland on his face, instead of this biting bitch of a breeze. So close that yes, Lancelot will go along with this if it will get him out of Britain faster. If it will rid him of the thousands of Saxons that stand between him and relief. In short, if he has to.
"So." He flicks his eyes at the edgy woman, who of course creeps closer to Arthur. "We're friends now?"
"Lancelot…" Arthur begins, but he isn't given the chance to finish.
The bedroll is calling, and Lancelot's sore muscles would dearly like to answer. "As you wish. You're the commander, after all."
He brushes past Arthur, gaze briefly battling with Guinevere's as he does, and is a step nearer to his goal when a hand grips his shoulder. When he tries to shove it off, Arthur only comes closer, backing Lancelot into a trunk. "It's needed. There are too many Saxons for only us-"
"I never said I didn't understand, Arthur." Lancelot throws off his friend's hand, pretending to not see the pain in the other man's eyes.
"Generous of you," Guinevere remarks, eyebrow arched.
When Arthur glares at her, her surprise takes her back a little, and it does the same to Lancelot. "I've had enough," Arthur says, turning to leave. "I did not come here to shepherd grown children."
"No, you came here to die, like everyone else. This land's too desolate for even your God's all-seeing eye to find." It's too far, and Lancelot knows it as soon as the words are out of his mouth. But he can't help the rise in himself whenever he finds Arthur wasting breath on a nothing, on a slip of a girl bred to fight against them. The duties of their posts take away enough of Arthur as it is.
Behind the stiff, closed face of Arthur, Guinevere smiles her triumph. She's going to lead him away and comfort him, and Lancelot shall have to return to his lonely watch even colder than before. He's always known that this feeling of silence, of empty vessels and sounds reaching no ear, would arrive someday, but he had thought that it would be vaunted Roma to do the taking. A city, an empire, and not a blood-and-flesh woman that weighs scarcely half of himself.
Guinevere slips her arm through Arthur's. And Arthur moves away from her, from Lancelot, and while soldier and Woad are frozen with shock, he turns toward the forest. "I'm going to check the perimeter. I'll return in a few minutes."
Then Lancelot sees-not the woman, not the ideal, but yet another thief that's sneaked in beneath both his and Guinevere's noses. Damn the sacrifice-when will Arthur see that it's better to live as a man than as a martyr?
Arthur's back is ice, chilling Lancelot's blood and making his eyes slide off to collide with the similar understanding in Guinevere's face. Lancelot does not want to see this as well, but he does, and-
--he wants Arthur to stop looking away, above all else.
He's a contradiction that fascinates her, fills the curious void in her belly that horrific captivity has only fed to ravenous hunger. After all, dreams may pass the bars that the body cannot.
Guinevere thinks that she might love him.
And he is a wolf in armor, almost her brother in spirit for all else that divides them. He looks at Arthur, and she wonders that the man does not vanish in a wisp of smoke, leaving behind only a small pile of ash.
Guinevere thinks that she might be able to tolerate him.
She'll have to try, at least. Because it is plain to see that alone, neither of them can lay hold of Arthur. She won't lose her savior to her own land; Britain is starved and violent as her poor abused people, but Arthur is one that is of better use alive than dead, blood spilled to satiate the parched soil.
Merlin probably knows what she plans, but he does not seem to object. In fact, his tacit acceptance of her choice to keep traveling with the knights might even be taken as underhanded encouragement. It certainly would be like how his mind works. But he won't have Arthur, either, if she has anything to say about it. Too many claims on the man for him to see unblended, and first of all, she'd like to change that. She thinks it would be a wonder to see the man truly soar.
She catches Lancelot's eye, acknowledges the reluctant assent that matches her own, and together, they go after Arthur.
It's too cold for clothes off, but man has and always will be creative.
Long dark strands flowing down bark of the same color, tangling slowly with every breath. Pale pink mouth lifted to the sky, murmuring a chant to her gods, no doubt. Her arm is thrown over her head, clutching at a branch that seems too frail to hold the fierce, twisting life that is Guinevere.
Black crisp curls settled beside straight locks, both heads half-obscured in the folds of her skirt. And then it's Lancelot up against the tree, eyes squeezed tight as his white-knuckled grip on Arthur's shoulders. Doubtful that there's much of the true business going on, given the frost already gathering on their stubble, but he seems to have no complaint. His mouth gropes for Arthur's, dallying with Guinevere's along the way but eventually finding its way, and his palm presses once down Arthur's back, hard and demanding slide tapering to limpness at the end.
Guinevere is like a cloak fitted to Arthur from behind, and before, Lancelot keeps his arms around Arthur's neck as if caught in a spring torrent with only an unsteady rock for an anchor.
Well, that should keep Arthur warm enough. Fate willing, it would last.
Gawain slips back to camp, wondering how long before he can tease.