|Under the Wide Sky II: Tumble
Author: Guede Mazaka
One edge of the long scroll nearly caught Galahad in the nose and he swiftly ducked, only to trip over a soft lump. He cursed and broke his fall with his hands, then rolled onto his knees. Meanwhile, the lump uncurled a fraction to reveal one eye and part of a cheek scar. Then Tristan recurled, but in doing that, he somehow crossed the two inches separating them so his head ended up pressing against Galahad’s leg.
“He came back just before midday. I told him to get some sleep, because he’s going to have to go out again tonight.” Gawain’s voice gradually unmuffled as he set down his armful of scrolls. They turned out to be beautifully-drawn maps of the border area, complete with neatly-lettered labels of what had to be Roman garrisons and the strengths of their forces.
“Are these numbers right?” Galahad got down on his elbows and squinted at the block letters, laboriously spelling out the Latin in his head and then translating it. He accidentally jabbed Tristan’s head and put a hand back to pat the spot, except Tristan had moved and instead Galahad got his fingers tangled in the man’s hair. “You’re not hurt. Good.”
Tristan nodded and shifted again, this time to accommodate Geraint squeezing in on the other side. The younger knights were all piling onto the floor of Gawain’s tent, since the maps were so large they wouldn’t fit on Gawain’s table. “How is she?”
“Bitchy. Nearly took off my finger, and I was offering her a nice strip of rabbit, so when you’re done with your nap, go make sure she knows you’re back.” Their conversation was confusing the others, but Galahad didn’t feel like explaining a hawk’s temperament to anyone, so he didn’t. Someone suddenly squeezed in beside him and jabbed his side as they did; Galahad jabbed back and found himself matching glares with Urien. “Watch your hands.”
“I’m watching everyone’s hands. Since I wouldn’t want to mistakenly find a dagger in my back,” Urien retorted, shoving again.
Though Galahad had no idea what the man was referencing, he wasn’t about to let a comment like that pass without challenge. He blocked Urien’s push with his arm and sat up so he could look down on the long-nosed bastard. “What the fuck does that mean?”
“It means that Urien, you’re about two words from getting kicked all the way out of camp,” Gawain snapped, making them both look towards him. His hand was hanging loosely by his hip, but the fingers were curling just enough to touch his sword-hilt. “That fight happened years ago, didn’t involve us, and was settled by the elders. Now, you want to keep it in the past, or you want to fight it instead of the Romans?”
“The Romans.” Percival directed a silent snarl across the maps at his half-brother and kept it up until Urien muttered a sulky apology. Then he made a pleading face at Gawain, who looked as if he badly wanted to crack heads together, but was refraining because then he wouldn’t have the right to scold people.
Geraint coughed, fidgeted with his fingers and dropped a few half-finished words before he finally got out his attempt at changing the topic. “These are incredible maps…”
“The numbers are outdated, though.” Tristan had apparently decided he wasn’t going to get any more sleep now, and was slowly sitting up. He flicked his fingers at a few of the marked spots on the scroll before them. “Abandoned here, reinforced here and here. And here I don’t think we know, but it’s probably changed. The commander was going to throw these out.”
One of the advantages of spending so much time with Tristan was that Galahad had gotten used to how the world seemed to tilt a little around the man. So he knew he could expect a stunning blow to the head, and thus he was able to grin at the realization filtering shock into everyone else’s faces.
The expression on Tristan’s face was mild, but a hint of amusement could be detected beneath it. “You said to find out as much as I could.”
“I wasn’t thinking of you stealing things from the garrison commander…don’t suppose you know which boot he puts on first, too?” Incredulity took some of the weariness off of Gawain’s face, and the pleased smile took off the rest. He started to dig around for something in the furs they’d spread over the dirt floor.
Tristan shrugged. “Right one.”
“You’re insane,” Galahad cheerfully told him, taking the opportunity to sneak a hand over Tristan’s thigh. Then he folded his fingers neatly in his lap before Urien could see and make nasty comments about it; the bastard was too sour for anyone to bother climbing into his bed, and he took that out on everyone within range. “So do we know what Ammianus is up to?”
The humor went out of Tristan’s eyes, and he leaned over the map so his hair shaded his face, hands moving over the paper. His shoulders were also a touch more hunched than they had to be, which all translated into him being upset at himself. “No. Best guess is around here, but…from what I can tell, there’s a new general somewhere. He’s given each commander a different set of orders—none of them know much more than that. They complain about it, but quietly.”
“So this new general must have some very powerful connections,” Geraint murmured, staring at the area in question. At the edge of the map, his hands were slowly curling into fists.
When Galahad looked about the room, he could see that same frustration coiling tight around everyone, even Urien. It compressed the emotion in their eyes to flat grimness, and sped up the pulses in their necks. But no one spoke, and the words were just hanging there, necessity begging that they be voiced.
Though Galahad didn’t make it a habit to put himself up as a possible scapegoat, he also wasn’t inclined to suffer when he didn’t have to. And this kind of tension, that slithered softly about and promised to whip blood out of them later, was even worse than the waiting in the moments before a battle began. So he said them. “Or he’s that good.”
Gawain was chewing on his lip, the shadows back in his face. “I don’t think this is going to wait till next year. Geraint? Have you heard—”
“Dagonet talked to Owein, who said Lancelot and the other two left early in the morning. They’re supposed to be back in four days, but they left before Owein could find out where they’re going. He said he’d send someone after them anyway.” The other man looked both apologetic and defensive, as if he expected to be blamed for the stupid mess. “Still, it’ll be a day at the fastest. Two, more like.”
“Irresponsible son of a bitch,” Urien muttered, and this time no one told him to shut up because they were all thinking the same thing.
* * *
Lancelot stayed well away from the water’s edge, where he could keep an ear to the noises of Guinevere tending the food. Considering how she’d been eying him like a cat stalking a broken-winged bird, it wouldn’t be wise to lose track of her. “But you just did this yesterday! That can’t be healthy.”
“Actually, there’s less sickness among people that bathe regularly. And it feels better as well.” Arthur stopped speaking to dunk his head in the current, then rose with water streaming down his neck. He raked the excess out of his eyes as he turned to Lancelot, other hand petting the river surface. “You should at least try it before you dismiss it.”
Either Arthur was spectacularly dense, or he had the smoothest coyness Lancelot had ever seen. Whichever it was, it was ruining Lancelot’s plan to just enjoy the conversation and keep his distance till Arthur’s father was safely reburied and Lancelot could go back to his normal routine. Leaving it, tedious dragging life that it was, had seemed like such a good idea…
…and now Lancelot was feeling a nagging yank in his gut that he suspected might actually be guilt. Snarling at it, he flopped down on the grass and stared at the sky. “You were an only child, weren’t you? No close relatives nearby?”
“Yes…” Soft, uneven splashing, as if Arthur was uncertain as to whether he should get out and properly greet Lancelot.
The thoughts that followed that one didn’t make Lancelot blush, but they did make him throw an arm over his eyes and groan under his breath. This was really ridiculous. Maybe he should just wander into Arthur’s bedroll and get it out of his system—though at this point, he was beginning to acknowledge that if it were really that easy, he would’ve already done it. “Then I’m guessing you never had a pack of cousins gang-toss you into a freezing pond.”
A startled pause, and then a quiet laugh, as if Arthur wasn’t sure whether that would offend Lancelot. The man was ridiculously attentive to other people’s feelings, and he called Lancelot considerate…
…Gawain would have some things to say about that, and right now Lancelot was willing to admit that they were very much in the right of it. He shouldn’t have run off like that, especially when it was looking as if everything was finally going to come together. He could’ve just made one of the boys guide Arthur, and ridden back to wait for the avalanche. Because that was what it felt like, working for so many years to meld the tribes into a uniform front, getting them ready to meet the Romans again. It was going to swallow Lancelot’s life and never let him up to breathe once it’d taken him—he had too much of a stake in it for that not to happen.
“Lancelot?” Somewhere along the line, Arthur had gotten out of the river and was now kneeling by Lancelot’s head.
“You were a commander, weren’t you? Did you ever just…get tired? Fed up with all the people asking your opinion, waiting for you to tell them to do the most obvious little things—just watching you, and every stare a lead weight?” Lancelot hesitated, then removed his arm and looked.
The other man had dried off and dressed, and was leaning over Lancelot to stare curiously into his eyes.
“Why did you join the army, anyway? It’s killed most of your family, one way or the other…” Lancelot asked, feeling too reckless for tact. After all, he never knew when he’d get a chance to be so uncaring again; very soon every step he took might end up killing him. And deep down, he wasn’t sure if he had the kind of fortitude to withstand a lifetime of that. He’d seen old respected knights suddenly break and go mad, seen supposed cowards suddenly learn to stand their ground, and there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it.
Arthur didn’t look as surprised as he should have, but then, he and Lancelot had already talked obliquely about that, and about many other things—Guinevere hadn’t been able to help riding ahead to scope out the landscape, so Lancelot had had the chance to ask about all those intriguing little details she’d mentioned. Christianity, Rome, Britain and the Woads…some Arthur had spoken about with frankness so stark it scorched, some he’d hesitated so Lancelot could see the pain rising, but when Lancelot had tried to change the topic, Arthur wouldn’t follow until he’d delivered some kind of reply.
As he did now, black humor not doing anything to lighten his expression. “I’m not quite a fool—I don’t agree with the people that say force accomplishes nothing. I’ve seen too many battlefields. But I thought it could accomplish good as well.”
“And what do you say now?” There were drops of water beading on the ends of Arthur’s hair, and they were falling to sprinkle Lancelot. Sometimes the sunlight would catch them mid-fall to burst them into color, a sharp contrast to the darkness of Arthur’s face. He could be unexpectedly, beautifully light, but more often than not it was in the tentative way of a blind man trying to figure out what something was from feeling out its shape. The scars got in the way, Lancelot thought.
A little of it must have shown in his eyes, or possibly the wind whispered it to Arthur, because comprehension flashed in his face. “I still think so. But it’s hard—it’s much harder than I thought to make force lead to peace. I would have chosen my standard differently, so that I wouldn’t now regret taking up the sword.”
“Are you burying your father’s sword, too?” Lancelot felt the heat of the sun seep into his body, turning the dampness on his face into a hazy steam that clogged his head. He let his hand float up with it till his knuckles were running over the line of Arthur’s jaw. There was a hair-fine scar along it, so thin that it couldn’t be seen, only felt.
Arthur’s pupils contracted and he started to rise, swiping a tongue over his bottom lip. Then he stopped and held very still, gaze intensifying until it was peeling Lancelot to the bone. “No. I’ll keep it. As a reminder of all that I’ve done.”
“And just in case, if you’ve any sense. You pick one up, you can’t put it down till someone buries it with you,” Lancelot muttered, giving himself one last moment to back away.
If he did, he’d never have a chance at this again—the fragile drop of calm in which they were was about to fall on the sword.
Lancelot curled his hand around the back of Arthur’s neck and pulled him down.
And Arthur came, eyes widening in surprise as if he hadn’t been leaning closer and closer, hands thudding hard on the ground on either side of Lancelot. His lips were slack at first, but they soon started to move against Lancelot’s, and the flutter of his eyelashes closing was a shocking lightness against Lancelot’s skin.
It was awkward because Arthur was upside-down, and then it was awkward because Lancelot twisted around and up one way to correct it, and Arthur the other. But eventually they spun rightways, into each other so Lancelot was fisting the heavy silk of Arthur’s wet hair and curling his fingers between Arthur’s neck and shirt, so that there was a palm warming the in-curve of Lancelot’s back and another molding itself to his hip. He pushed against them, pulled away, and they followed to knead his clothing away from his skin so the sunlight hit it, a soft but steady burn.
The grass was moist here, roots unsteady in the river-soaked soil, and someone’s knee slipped. They rolled, Arthur swerving under and then Lancelot, because he was too busy exploring the variations in the taste of Arthur’s mouth. He dug his nails into Arthur’s shoulder and yanked, mindlessly trying to gouge away the man’s clothing for several moments. Then he realized what he’d been doing and would have laughed, except it would’ve forced them to separate. And so would undressing, so Lancelot made do with pulling away every piece of cloth that he could.
Arthur tensed, then shuddered liquid every time Lancelot touched him, as if he was expecting every graze to turn into a cut. Though Lancelot wasn’t gentle—his fingers traced around hot raised lines that his nails had just left—that disturbed him enough to slow a little. To not just press them together into a fast hard twisting, but to feel out all those scars and imperfections that he’d been watching. The skin in between was silky, the muscles beneath smooth in their bunch and flat rhythms, but the marks themselves were rough and folded over, snagging at Lancelot’s fingertips. He slid his thumb along the spiraling one from rib to hip and earned himself a sharp bite on the lip.
That deliriously good mouth instantly lifted; Arthur rubbed his nose along the side of Lancelot’s jaw. “Sorry.”
“Maybe I like biting,” Lancelot gasped. Now that he could have air, the need for it was a brutal pressure blowing up his lungs and out his mouth. He braced his foot and hips against the ground, then pushed and shoved them over. Pointedly sank his teeth into the side of Arthur’s neck while his hands squirmed between them and got Arthur’s trousers down. Not all the way, because suddenly Arthur’s knees clamped around him and he couldn’t move while Arthur nibbled a scorching streak up the middle of his throat to just beneath his chin. “What—what was that from, anyway? Never seen one…”
“A whip.” Arthur’s eyes suddenly blanked. It was an illusion, but Lancelot could’ve sworn the body wound around him grew as chilly as it did still. But then Arthur was lunging up and mouthing Lancelot’s neck, shoulders, chest with a fervor that seared away Lancelot’s nerves, and the moment passed. Mostly.
Lancelot slid his hand around Arthur’s thigh, feeling the hard muscles built there by a life in the saddle, and then feathered his fingers around the cock rising to meet his touch. He dove at Arthur’s lips and caught the bottom one between his lip, chewed it a little. Let it go to groan appreciatively when Arthur’s hands swept up beneath his clothes to tease at the skin of his back. It didn’t take long for Arthur to figure out that Lancelot was particularly vulnerable between the shoulderblades and in the lowest part of the spine’s dip; that was why Lancelot always tried to meet the world head-on. “It must’ve been royalty, then—I can’t—”
“No. I told you, Guinevere exaggerates. She makes me what I might’ve—what I could’ve been among her people.” Arthur’s fingers slowed, but the urgency with which his mouth sought Lancelot’s skin only increased. “It was a hot, wet summer when the fever rose. Any educated person could tell you sickness comes and goes with the weather, but—the priests liked to say it was a judgment. I disagreed and turned my back on one of them.”
“What’s a priest doing with a whip? Unless you don’t mean a Christian one…” Grazes of teeth, flat of tongue…they all added up to a hazing of Lancelot’s mind as he tried to think, tried to dull that frightening edge to Arthur’s frantic touches by working the prick in his fingers. Tried to remember why that seemed contradictory.
The lips pressed against his collarbone smiled, and not pleasantly. Arthur suddenly pushed his knee up, snaked a hand down to condense Lancelot’s world into a hot pulsing between his legs. “Christianity’s not a peaceful religion. It—should be—but—priests are generals—generals claim God like he’s some trophy—”
Too hard. Arthur’s voice, Arthur’s hands, Arthur’s eyes squeezing shut against the sun—all too hard. It was like lying with a mountain and not a man.
Lancelot fought it: twined himself around and bit down on Arthur’s jaw till he heard the man gasp, moved his fingers faster and faster over Arthur’s prick, tried to soften it into melting again. He splayed his free hand over the scar’s end that bisected Arthur’s hip, gripping it while he filled Arthur’s mouth so there wouldn’t be room for those words that tried to curl back on Arthur. And he hoped it would swell to fill the rest as well, down into the many recesses that Lancelot couldn’t reach himself but could hear echoing in Arthur’s voice.
He thought it worked, in that moment just before the rush whipped around him and dragged him off. Arthur moaned and something snapped free in the middle of it so it was really two, one shallow and one so deep Lancelot fell into it so it shook his very bones.
* * *
First it caught her breath against the roof of her mouth, the beauty of it burning her. And then it stung, because Guinevere remembered what it was like to be lying on Arthur, watching him drift down into utter peace. The pain of her fingers intruded and she looked down, then resisted the urge to laugh at herself when she had to jerk them out of the little grooves they’d dug in the ground. She picked bits of grass from beneath her nails while she watched and listened; it still hurt, but it was already less than three months ago, looking on while a woman leaned out the window and smiled an invitation at Arthur. In time, it would fade even more—that was how she knew she’d chosen rightly, and at the right moment.
Lancelot stirred, lifted his head to blink blearily at Arthur, whose eyes were still closed and whose breathing had slowed almost to the point of unconsciousness. Only half the man’s expression was visible, and briefly less when Lancelot futilely tried to tug his hair into some kind of order, but that was enough for her to see satiation and wonder and trace of concern in his face. The last was echoed in the way Lancelot reached to almost touch his fingers to Arthur’s mouth, then paused. He shook himself a little and instead laid his hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “Should I be worried about a cooking knife in my back?”
“What?” Arthur asked, slowly opening his eyes. Then he understood and grinned, though he didn’t move. “Oh, no. No, you don’t. She wouldn’t even let me put her down as my wife on our papers—she’s officially my second cousin.”
“Those do seem to come in handy.” The next few mutters were about something involving Owein that Arthur didn’t understand, but that made Guinevere stretch and lick her lips. Then Lancelot slowly pulled himself up and toppled over, absently wiping his hands on the grass as he did. They left smears that gleamed on the ripped-up grass around them. “Maybe I should try this bathing thing. No offense, but your ‘cousin’ has a tongue that’s sharper than most men’s swords.”
That made Arthur laugh, raspy but full in a way that Guinevere hadn’t known he could do. He levered himself up and glanced down at his front, then laughed again. “She can be kind as well. In her own way.”
“I’ll wait until I see that.” Lancelot crawled the few yards to the water’s edge, where he vigorously splashed himself with water. After a moment, he dug out a cloth, soaked it, and tossed it to Arthur. “You don’t do this very often, do you?”
“Do what? Roll around with someone I’ve just met?” Arthur caught the cloth and diligently wiped off his chest and stomach and legs. He was moving differently—looser.
Hunched over to wash his face, Lancelot paused. Then he raised his head and shot a considering look at Arthur. “You’ve gotten a sense of humor.”
In response, Arthur’s face smoothed free of any emotion. “I wouldn’t let it go to your head. A Roman probably doesn’t count for much.”
Lancelot blinked, nonplussed as to whether he’d just been insulted, while Guinevere had to bite down on a tuft of grass to keep from giving herself away.
“Why do you call yourself that?” Lancelot finally asked, finishing his ablutions. The rag came flying at him and he snatched it out of the air, then turned back to the water to rinse it out. “You said earlier that you’ve more or less given up on it.”
“Because it’s what I am--was—what I’ve been for all of my life except for the past year. I’ll not name myself differently until I know I am so.” Arthur started to stand and Guinevere had to beat a hasty retreat to a more substantial clump of bushes and rocks. He picked at his clothing till it was in fairly good shape, then waited for Lancelot to come back.
Of course, the other man made no attempt to straighten out himself, other than to pull things around so he was decently dressed. And it was clear by the way he held himself that he knew exactly how good he looked that way. Guinevere was both appreciative and disgusted.
Interestingly, when Lancelot came within about a foot of Arthur, the proud stance lessened and he became almost shy, stealing cautious glances up at Arthur. He’d had a taste and now he wanted--
--“While we’re being honest—are you in the habit of fucking men you’ve just met?” Lancelot stepped in so he and Arthur were only a few inches apart.
Arthur considered the question. Long and seriously, till Guinevere was tempted to stand up and throw a dirt clod at him. But then he leaned in, so close she couldn’t see any space between his mouth and Lancelot’s, and whispered so she had to strain to hear. “I think I could try it.”
Then their lips were molding against each other—Lancelot got his arm up first to pull Arthur closer—and Guinevere silently slipped back to the…not-quite-burnt food. Well, it wasn’t as if any of them were used to delicate diets.
Anyway, Arthur was happy and distracted, and if it was anything like when he was worried and distracted, he wouldn’t notice something like food. And she didn’t particularly care about Lancelot’s opinion.
It wouldn’t be long before Arthur found some sore to pick at, the realistic part of Guinevere’s mind told her. She told it that it’d still be a while, and that was an improvement over picking at sores without any relief in between. Besides, she didn’t want him to take up permanently with Lancelot—that arrogant bastard was too much of a lightweight to properly counterbalance Arthur. But he would do to reintroduce Arthur to enjoying life, which Guinevere very much wanted to see happen. Especially since that way, Arthur wouldn’t concern himself with her.
She cherished his friendship and affection, but he still thought he could persuade her to a serene, backwater life—as if he was in any position to advise that. While Rome stood, she would find no rest except in battle, wherever that was. Britain her land might have been broken for the span of her generation, but Guinevere was not, and she was willing to take the fight to whatever field was most welcome to it.
* * *
“I did send for you! And if you were busy washing the shit off a baby, then that’s not my—ow!” Galahad danced away and dodged behind Gawain, though he peeked around to glare at his sister.
Elaine folded her arms over her breasts and glared back. “Those are your nephews, so I’d speak of them with a little more respect, if I was you.”
She looked as if she’d plenty more such words to wing at Galahad, but Gawain wasn’t in the mood for it. He grabbed Galahad and swung him onto the bed, then stepped in front of her when she started moving toward the cot. “Elaine. We’re very sorry you and Lynet didn’t receive the messages in time, but we couldn’t wait. The news was too urgent—we meant no offense at leaving you out. It was an accident.”
Her glower moved to direct its considerable force at Gawain and she held that pose for a moment longer. Then she drew back and let her arms fall to her sides. “Sometimes I think you’re the only man in this family with any sense. Even my dead husband was a bit of an idiot when it came to treating with the women.”
“Then why’d you marry him?” Galahad muttered, a bit loudly. Gawain shot a quieting look at him and he subsided, but sulkily.
It really was a shame they had to keep sending Tristan out of camp, because he did an excellent job of keeping the stupider statements from ever leaving Galahad’s mind. Without him around…all right, maybe Gawain should be taking into allowance that to explain Galahad’s crankiness. But still, it wasn’t as if no one else wasn’t also missing someone.
Though Gawain was free of that problem, much to his regret…which had to wait, because he had more immediate worries than his lack of bedding companions. “We’re still looking for Ammianus. Reports say he’s most likely around here—” tapping a finger on the map “--but that’s sketchy. Right now we’re just trying to concentrate on protecting the places he might target.”
“The herds,” Elaine instantly said. Then she winced and put a hand to her belly; she was only a month from birthing her latest, and it had been a difficult labor. Especially with her husband newly-dead, skewered by one of the many men he’d cuckolded. That had been a mess to get settled.
Muttering things about pushy women, Galahad climbed off the bed and stood to the side. After a moment, Gawain and Elaine realized that it was an offer and not an insult.
Most women probably still would’ve taken it as one, but she was his sister and so she was used to seeing past the grumpiness. Elaine cheerfully took the bed, and ruffled Galahad’s hair for good measure, which saw him batting her away and dodging behind Gawain. Someday, Gawain would figure out just why everyone seemed to think he made such a good shield; he had moments when he would’ve liked one himself, but there never seemed to be anyone he could use.
“Probably not,” Galahad said, once he’d stopped being an immature moron. He leaned against the table and stared at the ground, taking a rare moment of patience to first sort out his thoughts and then elaborate. “Ammianus is good. He lost the scouts we had on him. The Romans have been going after the horses for years, and they haven’t won that way.”
“Point.” She knuckled her mouth and gazed absently at a clod of dirt beside Gawain’s foot. “Nothing but a stalemate that way…they can’t match us when it comes to anything with horses, and we can’t—couldn’t—match their infantry.”
They’d been working on that. The Sarmatian infantry, and certain new aspects of their cavalry, were details that everyone had done their damnedest to keep very, very quiet, and if the Romans found out about it, then most of Gawain’s life had just been wasted. Not to mention they would’ve just lost the factors they’d been counting on for victory. “You don’t think…”
“But how would he have found out?” A strand of hair had gotten trapped between Elaine’s mouth and hand, and now she was vigorously chewing on it.
In an eerie mirror-image, Galahad was biting at his thumbnail with an identical expression on his face. He wrapped one arm around himself and stared harder at the dirt, as if the answers were slowly emerging from there. “Either he’s gotten better scouts, or someone opened his damn mouth.”
“That still doesn’t answer what he’d be going after,” Gawain interrupted. A coldness had sprouted in his gut and was rapidly unfurling throughout the rest of his body. “Even if he knows about the infantry, everyone’s still scattered. Where would—”
“We don’t have that many good leaders. Great fighters, yes, but strategy—especially infantry strategy—” Elaine shot a look at Galahad. After a moment, he looked up, saw it and reluctantly nodded. “Where’s Pelles?”
Galahad had exchanged his surliness for grim expectation. “Owein’s camp. Bors said his sister’s due, and they’re going to name the brat after him, so he wanted to be there.”
That was well within the lopsided charcoal loop marked out on the map…and that was where Lancelot and his two guests were going to be. As Gawain looked at it, he almost thought he saw the black line snap shut, like a noose.
Then he was striding out the tent and calling for his horse.
* * *
For the rest of the day’s ride, Guinevere’s smile was suspiciously smug. More tellingly, she was unusually polite to Lancelot, in that she lingered far enough behind them that Lancelot assumed she was out of earshot. She looked as if she was, but Arthur had long since learned not to underestimate her ability to learn whatever she cared to.
They stopped for the night on top of a rocky hill, where a smoothed area with a blackened streak at one end showed it was a popular camping spot. “The Wind’s Needle used to be a place where people went to swear unbreakable oaths,” Lancelot explained. “Supposedly if they broke it, then the wind would sew their grave shroud and they’d be marked out to die.”
“Why did they stop?” Guinevere wiped the last of dinner from her mouth and tossed another branch onto the small fire they were banking for the night. The red light painted her skin the way the blue woad had, and she was unconsciously squatting with knees to ears, as if back in the woods of Britain.
Lancelot’s smile was dyed just as scarlet, when he bared his teeth. “Because the first treaty between us and the Romans was sealed there nearly two hundred years ago, and Rome hasn’t fallen yet.”
“It will.” She glanced at Arthur, then raised her chin and deliberately licked her lips, a wolf watching a wounded deer making its last leaps.
Old habit made the protest rise in Arthur’s throat, but it was more than equaled by the low ghostly throb of his scars; he silently rose and walked towards the bedrolls. Rome—the one that existed, the one that had wanted to let fever-struck Britons die and the one that had lashed him when he’d refused that order—was no longer defensible. But he still remembered the Rome he had believed had existed, and the edges of that fragmented dream pained him. The resentment in Lancelot and Guinevere wasn’t Arthur’s, for if he were to put a word to his feeling about Rome now, it would be grief.
“You sound confident, considering your country lost.” The sarcasm in Lancelot’s voice was more detached than usual, as if he were merely observing and didn’t actually intend to wound.
From the sound of it, that was exactly how Guinevere took his words. “Britain’s ill, not lost. She’ll recover. Not in my lifetime, but she will.”
“When you’re snarling like that, I almost like you,” Lancelot laughed. He said something else after that, but by then Arthur was too far to hear.
He could still feel the free emotion that seemed to vibrate off the other man, just as it had by the river. And that would’ve made Arthur embarrassed, if the memory hadn’t called up an enjoyment so…unexpected and alien that it had Arthur overwhelmed before he could even begin to think about how to meet it. No, he wasn’t used to doing that sort of thing: before Guinevere had been a few flirtations in Rome that had amounted to nothing, and then either whores or the meaningless, fast, faceless groping of two soldiers in the dark that descended in between battles.
As for what he and Guinevere had had—war had brought it, and they’d never managed to excise that third specter from their bed. Once, she had touched his marred back, eyes closed and mouth tight, and had asked in a brittle voice if any of them weren’t from Britons. And once he’d kissed her cheek and tasted the traces of woad on it, and he hadn’t been able to touch her for the rest of the week without smelling the blood of his dead men. It had been more than simply a way to warm each other in the midst of death, but it hadn’t had any…buoyancy.
A boot crunched pebbles and Arthur looked up from where he’d been smoothing up his bedroll. Then he sat back so Lancelot would have room to lower himself to the ground. “Guinevere’s taking first watch?”
“I think she might’ve stolen a few looks, back there.” Which obviously didn’t please Lancelot, but it didn’t stop him from covering Arthur’s hands with his own and pressing Arthur backwards.
It was a bit frightening how quickly he could steal the breath from Arthur, and how much Arthur liked that, but it was even more frightening how Arthur found himself groping for something between them—some barrier that he’d grown used to being there—and could feel nothing. If he wanted to roll them over and stroke his fingers down the sides of Lancelot’s face, he could. There was no bugle call, no dead plucking at his sleeve…
“Thinking’s one of your bad habits, isn’t it?” Lancelot drew away and put the back of his hand to Arthur’s forehead, like a mother feeling her babe for fever, then ran his thumb over Arthur’s mouth. “I’ve decided to agree with Guinevere on one thing. You’re not a Roman. Go ahead and keep calling yourself one if it makes you happy, but honestly, it takes about a quarter-hour talking to you to know better.”
His mouth was smiling but his eyes were half-shuttered, prepared to play it as a joke or as a serious matter, depending on how Arthur took it. And how Arthur wanted to take it…he didn’t know. It would’ve been an insult two years ago, but two years ago Guinevere would’ve said he was a Roman and he would’ve—he probably had been trying to kill her. She said they’d met in several battles, but he hadn’t remembered and she hadn’t wanted to tell him which.
In the end, Arthur merely let the words stand as they were. When he could give Lancelot an unequivocal answer, he would, but until then he’d rather not risk an untruth, or a half-truth. “What were you saying before, about getting tired of—”
“Oh, nothing for you to worry about.” The shutters in Lancelot’s eyes suddenly clapped shut, as tight as his tone was breezy.
That hurt. Sharp, and deeper than he’d expected—he’d started hoping—but it was familiar and he soon remembered how to make himself used to it. Except he didn’t have to do that now, either, and so he rolled off Lancelot. “All right.”
No fear that this would turn into a habit, Arthur thought, and with a bitterness that surprised him. He made sure to lock that down as he straightened where they’d rumpled his bedroll, preparing to go to sleep. “I’ll take the next watch, if—”
First his head hit the rock, cracking what would be a considerable bruise into the back of it, and then his flailing hand slapped against a boulder. He hooked his fingers over the top, tried to pull himself up, but instead ended up moving in reverse as Lancelot’s tongue worked deeper into his mouth.
When there were black spots dancing in Arthur’s vision, Lancelot let up. Sat back enough to start ripping at Arthur’s clothing, ducking to lick at the bared skin and make sure that Arthur’s grip kept slipping. “No wonder you don’t do this often.”
“Did you want me to ask? You say I’m not a Roman and then you don’t—want to—” Arthur finally let go of the rock and let his elbow slam back, felt the impact jar cascades of pain up his arm. But it was all swallowed up in the kisses at his neck, the hands moving over him, the body twisting beneath his own palms. “If it’s your business, then it’s yours. You’ve known me for—”
“—I know how long I’ve known you. And I want to open my mouth far too wide, and tell you far too many things.” Lancelot raked a hand down himself, catching fastenings so his clothing gaped open in the wake of his fingers. He lunged and savaged Arthur’s shoulder, pushing them back down, and for a long moment Arthur was staring dizzy-eyed at the emerging stars.
Then Lancelot rose, planted himself above Arthur’s waist and pushed himself down. Not half-risen, and Arthur’s cock was suddenly gripped in tight heat, only the faintest feeling of slickness to reassure him that he wasn’t ripping Lancelot wide open. He snapped up and grabbed at Lancelot’s shoulders, trying to stop the violent spiral in which they’d fallen, but the shift whiplashed up, tore Arthur’s gasp in two and brought him to a shaking halt.
It seemed to have caught Lancelot as well, because the other man merely leaned against Arthur, breathing ragged in the curve of Arthur’s neck.
“I won’t take,” Arthur finally said, trying to at least hold still, if he couldn’t summon the energy or the will to fully withdraw.
“Then you’ll be assured to know that I’m giving,” Lancelot snapped. His face tensed against Arthur’s skin—he clenched brutally hard around Arthur—and then he relaxed a little. A little more. One hand came up to drift along Arthur’s whip-scar, as if Lancelot found some kind of comfort in petting it.
At any rate, Arthur found some, and it was enough to persuade him that they were safely away from that yawning precipice of madness, and closer to where they’d been on the riverbank. He took the deepest breath that his lungs could handle, then slowly brought up his arms around Lancelot. Waited till he felt the man’s muscles loosen before he tried a roll of the hips.
“Oh, that’s good…” Slow as the sun crawling behind the horizon, Lancelot’s head tilted back and his lips parted so his tongue could flicker over them. His hand clamped down on Arthur’s shoulder and he moved to meet the thrust.
Guinevere had to have heard something. The thought stumbled through Arthur’s dazed mind and tripped, tumbling over the side just as they tumbled again. He remembered to twist so he broke Lancelot’s fall, but after that he couldn’t think because of how the shift changed the way Lancelot moved around him, on him, and it burned through his head and eyes so he thought they were getting farther away. So Arthur scrabbled back, clutched at Lancelot and tried to press them together so that wouldn’t happen. And things reversed themselves, tracing nail edges on his skin so he sank beneath them, deeper and deeper till he thought he could go no further. Only somehow Lancelot’s mouth did open that wide, and Arthur’s tongue couldn’t help but fall inside.
It was night so Arthur didn’t know whether his vision had gone black, or whether he’d just imagined it. Which truth it was didn’t—didn’t matter. Didn’t ultimately make a difference to what had happened, just as not knowing what he was didn’t change how much he enjoyed it. Shocking realization to have, and his muscles were too limp for him to dodge, so he had to lie in it and absorb it.
After a few moments, enough strength crawled back into his limbs for him to pull out and slump to the side on his belly. He could feel stickiness cooling beneath his stomach and the bedroll, but he couldn’t convince himself that it was worth cleaning off. Not when Lancelot was slowly stretching, blissful satisfaction on his face, and then curling up to lick at the sweat streaking Arthur’s face.
“I wonder if a man can be nothing more than his name,” Arthur murmured, arching under the hand that rubbed slowly down his back. “But even there, I’ve two for two peoples…”
“Would you be content that way?” The contentment slowly receded from Lancelot’s eyes, leaving them dark and intense and scrutinizing. His hand was still wandering, trailing some kind of oil along Arthur’s spine, and now it had almost reached the end. It stopped where the swell of buttock started, drawing slow circles. “Some men make their names into countries or kingdoms.”
Though he could feel the conversation turning, could see the change in the other man’s face, Arthur was still too lightheaded to concentrate. He did try, but it was like spinning through one dream after another without any sense of up or down, forward or back, in or out. “In Britain, I started as a soldier and I ended as Arthur. The name spoke to three peoples, telling them knight, killer…here it merely means some stranger passing through. I’m still trying to decide if that’s better, being no one.”
The fingers dipped a little lower, and Arthur didn’t tense because he didn’t know what to expect, and so for this short span of time, nothing could surprise him. He watched Lancelot prop himself up on one arm, felt the fingers stroke lower and then the one fingertip easing into his relaxed body.
It still hurt, but not as much as Arthur had thought it would. Maybe he groaned a little, feeling some reality prickling at him, but the rest of the finger slid in easily enough, and then a second. And soon they were probing and spreading and--there made Arthur bite down on his lip and sway back to meet Lancelot’s fingers.
“When you were Arthur and that name meant something,” Lancelot began, voice rough as the rock on which they were lying. “How’d you—what did you hold to? Was it enough to have some higher cause? Is—is there one worth it?”
Somehow this was related to those mutterings from before. And if Arthur was honest, if he admitted that part of him still thought like a general and that he couldn’t stop it, he knew he had more than a faint idea of why Lancelot was asking. But it wasn’t his war, and despite his father’s blood, he didn’t feel as if he had any right to involve himself. As far as he’d stepped from Rome, he still wasn’t so far that he could turn all the way around and bare a sword at her.
“I think there is. But I wouldn’t ask me to judge how much a cause is worth,” Arthur finally said. Heat was collecting in his belly again, and his prick was beginning to harden; he closed his eyes and slowly let himself follow that rising flow once more, riding the crest as his hips rode Lancelot’s hand.
“Is it enough to keep you from wanting something else? At least while you’re following--” Lancelot cut himself off there, but Arthur could hear the rest in the silence that followed.
He opened his eyes again—had to grab at the ground in order to summon up the effort for that—and he started to answer, but the crest overtook him and he collapsed beneath it. For the best, most likely, because he didn’t trust his judgment there, either. Not now that he’d a taste of life without duty and shadows, that he had lived a little without thinking of how it would serve Rome, and without knowing what it was he had cut out of his life.
It seemed that Lancelot hadn’t been expecting him to be able to give an answer, for the man quietly withdrew his fingers and then rolled them into the blanket, as if he were about to fall asleep. But a last question floated to Arthur’s ear: “Where are you going, after you bury your father?”
And once again, Arthur couldn’t provide an answer.
* * *
The moon was a high, white, perfect circle, centered in the endless black arch of the night. Most would have stared and admired, but Tristan was resisting the urge to curse. It gave off too much light, forced him to keep lower to the ground and to move slower, and that meant he took longer than he wanted to in circling the camp.
They’d eventually decided that Ammianus’ target most likely was Bercilak’s home camp, where the majority of the horses belonging to his and Lancelot’s people had been quartered for the duration of the ‘trading fair,’ which was how the Sarmatians were passing off the coordinating meetings. It had seemed too simple an answer for a man that had sneaked past Sarmatian scouts on Sarmatian land, but it had been too much of a chance to leave unguarded. And so Tristan was here, keeping watch.
He should’ve been back at the main camp, following up on the uncertainty in Gawain’s eyes and the pensive silence into which Galahad had fallen, or better, working at tracking down Ammianus, but the others were still not comfortable with letting him roam that far out-of-touch in their lands. They still sang songs about wars and raids happening nearly a hundred years ago, and their dead ancestors and his bloody-handed ones were what they saw when they looked at him.
Normally Tristan was, if he cared at all, proud of that, but now it was frustrating. If they sat and thought for a single moment, they should have easily recognized what it meant just for him to shift tribes, to come this far west and to drop his things in Galahad’s tent.
But they hadn’t, and he was endlessly circling a clump of tents that he knew were safe as anywhere here while his hawk was probably screaming at Galahad, and while Galahad worked himself into careless irritation. Tristan gritted his teeth and stopped, listening to the night.
If he went back to his horse now and rode without break, he could be back before dawn. But if he did that, then it would be held against him, and that would put Galahad and Gawain in the position of defending him when they had other matters needing their attention.
So Tristan stayed. And when the sun rose and he saw the dark oily smear on the horizon, he curled his nails into his palms till he drew blood.
Then he was in the saddle, riding as if the earth were falling away behind him.
* * *
When Guinevere finally turned in for the night, Lancelot was sitting demurely besides Arthur, clothes straight and hands preoccupied with mending something. It was all entirely too amusing, but what she could see of Arthur’s face in the dim light was resting, so she let it pass for the moment. Anyway, in her experience, she got a better reaction if she teased when someone wasn’t expecting it.
She woke briefly when Arthur switched for Lancelot, partly because she’d grown too attuned to Arthur’s breathing patterns and partly because he knelt by her for a moment, hand stroking her hair. “You aren’t about to change the world, are you?” she murmured. “Because it’s too early for that. At least wait a few hours.”
“No,” and there was mirth in that one word, but a strange solemnity as well. He turned. It was dark, but she’d long since learned to translate sounds into movements and so she knew he was looking at Lancelot, who’d apparently fallen right into sleep. Like a lifelong soldier, awake when he was awake and resting the moment he got a chance. “You once told me I wasn’t built for faith.”
“I’d still say so—you question everything, and nothing in the world’s perfect enough to stand up to it.” Guinevere wanted to sleep as well because, as much as she was looking forward to plunging back into the rush of the fight, she would’ve been a fool not to acknowledge that peace did have its fleeting attractions. Being constantly on the edge of the sword had worn on her, too; that was why this time, she was planning to take things on her own terms. Which included breathing when she needed to, so she could last that much longer.
On the other hand, she could read the tones in Arthur’s voice and so she resigned herself to staying up a few more moments.
“So what do you call what you feel for Britain?” Arthur asked.
Damn. She had overestimated that part—but Arthur wasn’t typically one for only a pretty face and a flippant tongue, so Lancelot must have shown some depth.
“Before I answer that, tell me what you called what you felt for Rome? Admiration and respect? Was there any more than that?” she countered.
Across the way, Lancelot stirred and they both froze. Then a small puff of air escaped Arthur’s lips, as if he had suddenly bit back a reply. He stood and walked off.
For several moments afterward, Guinevere laid awake and traced out the constellations and thought. What she hadn’t said was that he was built far too well for loyalty, even when his eyes were open and seeing the flaws in what he followed. It was true that nothing was ever free of imperfections, but it was also true that some things summed up to be more than their flaws, and that some things summed up to be less. Like Rome. Like Christianity. That was why, though she’d sunk herself far into them to learn their ways, they had never caught her, and why Arthur had ultimately given up on them.
She fell asleep on the hopeful—wistful—thought that Arthur would choose better this time, when he finally found a replacement to fill the rents Rome had left in him.
When she woke again, the back of her neck prickled and her hand was lying on top of her dagger. The flavor of the air had changed, and it was collecting sourly at the back of her throat.
Guinevere flicked the crusts from her eyes and carefully sat up, more listening than looking around. Something rustled on her left and she silently spun to face it.
In the near-dawn light, Arthur’s eyes glowed: eerie, bright, hazy over the darkness behind. He was standing, but half-turned as if he’d been about to come get one of them.
She immediately looked over to Lancelot, but he was already up and looking in the same direction as Arthur, shadows crawling beneath his skin and turning his eyes to glittering steel. His hand was on his knee, and gripping it so hard that his knuckles were white. By the same trick of the light that had filled Arthur’s eyes with foxfire, a faint and deceptively serene glow clung to them.
On the horizon, from where they’d come, was a long smoky wash that Guinevere could identify without any effort on her part. She’d seen so many burnings that it was a reflex for her, just as glancing first at Arthur was.
“What are you doing?” Arthur suddenly said. Demanded. His voice had dropped to the octave he used when delivering orders.
Lancelot’s voice rose in counterpoint as he spun, all that pent-up rage finally ripping out. “What, are you going to turn around and defend Rome again? We’re trying to defend ourselves, you fucking hypocrite. They’ve—where are you going?”
“I didn’t ask why you’re doing it—that I know.” The words whipped over Arthur’s shoulder like a full quiver of arrows emptied into one target. But he wasn’t aiming at Lancelot, that Guinevere knew. “I asked you what you were doing.”
He was nearly at his horse before she had finished standing up; Guinevere calculated the possibilities of both situations, gave up Arthur’s for lost and turned on Lancelot. She grabbed him beneath his arm and yanked him to his feet. “Come on! That’s your cousin’s—”
And he ripped off her hands, pushing her back. “What, afraid you’ve just lost your entry into our people?”
That took her aback for a moment, but Guinevere was used to having the situation snap back at her and she sidestepped, diving behind to gather up their things. “That’s a fairer attack than the one you made on Arthur. Who I see you’re not going after, you fool. He’s asking because he’s trying to piece together what happened.”
“Are you trying to make me kill him?” It was an interesting way to phrase that.
Mostly uninterested, Guinevere whirled up and had a blade at his throat the same moment he seized her wrist. His grip was crushing the bones, but she’d fought through worse pain and so she could smile at him. “If you ever suggest that again in my hearing, I will kill you. Now go look at the bodies. You’ll have to, sooner or later.”
His flinch nearly put a fist in her face. “What would you know about that?”
“More than you do, since you’ve been under a supposed truce for the last few years. What, never seen a massacre before? Arthur has seen plenty.” She returned to swiftly bundling up everything, and when she was finished with that, carrying it over to the horses to strap it back on them. Arthur was already riding for the smoke. “He’s going because he can read the signs of the Romans better than you, and because he can’t help reading them, even if they’ll slice themselves into him.”
Lancelot was finally shaking off the shock of realization and was climbing into the saddle; Guinevere was both reassured and annoyed to see that he didn’t wait for her before he started off. She caught up easily enough, and then he started again.
“Didn’t you two ever step back and look, and know what you were about to become and wish you didn’t have to?” He slashed his reins down so hard that they flicked sideways and nearly touched Guinevere’s horse. “This is going to steal my life.”
“Of course we did. Arthur does that all the time. If it was a perfect world, we’d shape ourselves and not be bent by distant cities. But it’s not, and once you’re there and looking, you’re going to forget you ever knew what it was like to not want war.” To be free of it—she didn’t mention that eventually one remembered fragments, so different they seemed hallucinations more than memories, but that by then, it was too late to do more than remember. He had enough brains to figure out that for himself.
Anyway, Lancelot wasn’t someone she cared enough to worry that much over. More urgent was Arthur, and was the inevitable reaction she knew he was going to have, flaying him raw and angry.
If Lancelot had been perceptive enough to ask about that, she would’ve told him she’d never meant to bring Arthur into it. She knew the kind of advantages Arthur would bring, but she also knew the kind of damage he would sustain and she wasn’t sure that he could last a second time. Nor was she sure that, if he did last, what he’d be by the end would be anything like the man she knew now.
Too late to stop that as well. Guinevere bit her lip till she tasted blood and tried to drown herself in that metallic taste, looking forward instead of back.
* * *
Their parents’ generation had clashed again and again with Rome, and there were enough elders walking around with the horrors of that etched into them for Gawain to have never doubted the Roman capacity for atrocity. And he’d seen battles as well, most against the Romans and a few against tribes too stubborn to join them freely and too powerful to leave at their backs. But that had been straight fighting, with the rush of blood to carry him through, and then there’d been the truce, which hadn’t kept the Romans from tormenting individuals, but had kept their activities to a minimum. He’d never seen—seen something methodical and icy and inhumanly precise like this.
“Broken truce,” grunted Gorlois, cresting the hill beside Gawain. The old warrior eyed the smoking ruins below, somehow managed not to get his gaze trapped by small charred bodies. “Saves us the trouble of doing it.”
“How can you—” Galahad snarled the rest into incoherency and violently twisted about, jerking his horse forward. Then he stopped and squinted past the camp, where several little dots were fast approaching. “Lancelot.”