Tangible Schizophrenia


Under the Wide Sky III: Declaration

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: NC-17
Pairing: Arthur/Lancelot, implied Arthur/Guinevere, Tristan/Galahad
Feedback: Good lines, bad ones, etc.
Disclaimer: Versions from the movie.
Notes: AU. Following real history in that Rome only took a one-time levy of soldiers from Sarmatia, and didn’t continue to draft them into the Roman army. The rest attempts to be true to the period, but not necessarily to the actual historical timeline. Koumiss is fermented mare’s milk.
Summary: Loyalties are determined and faiths are tested.


By the time they’d all gone through camp, sorted out the wood ashes from the human ones and seen to the two or three people that had survived, the place was a veritable charnel fair. Gawain had sent Galahad running back to the main camp, both to get reinforcements and to get the word flying over the steppes: they’d passed from truce to war, and they couldn’t step back over the line. Some of Lancelot’s other relatives had shown up and he, just arrived and long past breathless, had had to exhaust himself making them keep order, because the last thing they needed were a thousand different private revenge quests dividing a thousand different of their best into chunks that even the clumsy Romans could swallow.

A little after the sky had begun to darken, a lone rider had shown—Tristan, some kind of tracker extraordinaire, from what Guinevere could gather. She had taken one look at the situation and had decided it would be better to stay low, help nurse Owein so she could keep her head down and forestall any attempt by him to shift blame on her and Arthur.

Arthur, who was being a reckless fool and thus was being himself, was walking about the camp as if it were his old army milling around him and not a seething, raging mob of Sarmatians who saw that he was a foreigner and who were begging for the slightest excuse. Which he looked as if he wanted to provide, what with the way he kept stopping to poke at a piece of charred wagon, or to gaze stone-eyed at a severed limb.

“Where…?” The man beneath Guinevere’s hands started to stir, and she quickly laid a finger to his lips.

“Don’t move yet. I need to finish smearing this on the burns so they won’t be infected.” And she needed to make friends with the women, or with someone who knew plants, because her supply was running dangerously low. She reached for the small bottle beside her—

--lunged back just in time to save her hand. The sword thunked into the grass, but the spear-tip nestled just beneath her chin.

“Funny that they’d go after the camp where you also went,” rasped a knight with bloodshot eyes. He slowly slid his hand down to the other end so he could flatten his palm against the spearbutt in preparation to skewer her.

Her dagger was already in her hand when Owein jerked to life once more. He hissed, snapped into a half-curl, but his gaze was steady enough. “Percival. They didn’t come because of her. Back down.”

“Maybe her figure’s gotten you a little confused—” said a second knight, swaggering up with ax swinging loose from his shoulder. There was enough of a resemblance to Percival for Guinevere to suspect familial relations.

“Urien. If you even…” And there Owein’s breath ragged to a stop and he started to collapse.

Not much for personality, not even as able as Lancelot at understanding her, but he’d given her a fair hearing, and then he’d given her a fair bedding. Rare enough, considering that most men’s idea of that consisted of biting down on her neck and then shoving in their prick. But he…it seemed that Guinevere was as ill-adapted for well treatment as Arthur was. She reflexively caught at Owein, then glanced back at the other two too late to see their muscles shift. And her hands were full.


Percival froze and jerked his spear away. Urien actually flinched. And considering how the ice softness of Arthur’s hiss curled shivers around Guinevere’s own bones—with her not even being the target this time—she was impressed by their control.

“Get the fuck back,” Lancelot snapped, stalking up. He came fast and furious and he was slapping the two men to the ground before Guinevere could even look to see Arthur. Then he flashed a glance at her, irritation rising high in it as if to dare her to comment on him intervening on her side, before turning to Percival with hand on sword-hilt. “You’re mistaken. And if you weren’t, you’d still be very fucking wrong because they’re my guests and if you touch them without my consent, you’re violating my honor.”

Using Guinevere as a support, Owein had nearly managed to pull himself upright. His hand grazed hers, which was still locked around the dagger pressed between them; a half-smile briefly graced his face and for a moment, she saw the blood tie between him and Lancelot. “Your salve is taking away the pain. Thank you.”

“It’d go faster if you lie down.” She slowly withdrew, making sure he wasn’t going to collapse without her support, and stood just as Gawain approached.

His words were curt and hard. “Percival. Urien. I swear, if I have to tell you another time, I’ll call you out myself so I can deal with one of your other brothers instead. Go help Galahad with arranging the clean-up.”

Urien opened his mouth to protest, but Percival smacked him first and he choked instead. The two of them grudgingly got up and went away a few dozen yards, glaring at Arthur as they did. He didn’t meet their gazes so much as let them slide past his too-blank, too-controlled face, and he only lowered Excalibur halfway.

Gawain, however, had lost interest in that byplay and was rounding on Lancelot. “You irresponsible—where have you been? Ammianus is romping somewhere behind our backs and you go—” his eyes shot to Lancelot’s neck and then red anger suffused his face “—you go off to fuck your damned guest! Which one—no, I don’t even want to know.”

“Listen to me—no one knew about Ammianus, no one could’ve predicted what he did. Not when I left. So don’t tell me if I’d stayed put that he wouldn’t have come here. Don’t tell me that I can control the fucking Roman army—” Lancelot whirled and chewed at the air, then turned back to show raw reddened eyes at Gawain. “—I just lost twelve of my family today! Their blood is soaking my nose, and you think I don’t care that—”

Arthur’s eyes went from one to the other, some bleak final decision settling in him. Some judgment--the guilt, Guinevere recognized. Realized, and she was leaping over to grab his arm as he sheathed Excalibur, but he pushed her away.

“If the two of you keep fighting, you’re going to lose too much time.” The loud scraping of metal had gotten their attention, and Arthur kept it by methodically speaking, by carefully pacing over to his horse so he could get on some more suitable clothing. Suitable for hard riding, and for fighting.

An almost dead hope bloomed a stinging-sharp taste in the back of Guinevere’s mouth at the same time that foresight shrank her gut into a tiny, incredibly dense particle of ice.

“Ammianus? He spent a few years in Britain—we fought beside each other.” As if he wasn’t already being suicidal, Arthur raised his voice so everyone else could hear. He didn’t seem to notice—or didn’t care—how hands were going to hilts and bows and spearshafts. Or maybe he did, because for all his hatred of pretenses, Arthur knew how to employ them just as well as any other great leader when he needed to. “This wasn’t a massacre—this was an assassination, wasn’t it?”

Lancelot had gone very, very still, with only his eyes widening so their dark centers seemed to reach out to engulf Arthur. One of his hands was curled against his hip, and as Guinevere looked at it, the knuckles went whiter and whiter.

“What would you know?” someone finally called. Tristan. And oddly enough, he sounded genuinely interested.

“How the soldiers went through—if it was only a slaughter, they wouldn’t have bothered to drag people out and line them up.” The lessening light painted Arthur’s face in gaunt black and ominous orange as he finished straightening his gauntlets. Tugged the collar of his leather jerkin so it was centered, and began strapping Excalibur to his back instead of to the saddle. “It wouldn’t have been the only one. He would’ve sent out groups to strike as many officers—as many leaders as he could.”

“Gorlois almost, Gareth yes. I just got word—hadn’t even told you,” Gawain muttered to Lancelot.

“Then he’d pull everyone back together and retreat back to his garrison for the day. So the only way you’ll catch him is on the move.” Arthur yanked the last buckle tight and then paused to rest his hands on the saddle. His head dipped and his lips moved…Guinevere squinted but she couldn’t make out the words. Though she could guess.

Lancelot finally said something, looking as if the words had to be dragged out. “And you know where that’ll be?”

When Arthur lifted his head, smiling at the sky, the feeling in his face was neither happy nor furious, but something far more determined and far more desolate. “Do you know where Roman cavalry officers went to learn how to fight? Britain. It has—had a steady supply of cavalrymen and a persistent but disorganized native resistance. After two or three years, officers rotate to other parts of the empire—except me. I stayed.”

“So what the fuck does that have to do with anything?” Percival called. His shakiness had subsided into a nervous, stunned stare at Arthur, which showed that his mind was beginning to work.

“It means I trained Ammianus and most of the cavalry officers you’ll be fighting against.” The smile vanished from Arthur’s face, and when he vaulted into the saddle, not a single hand raised to stop him. When he was sitting there, gazing about as if he could see the fires and was about to try and get burned by them, Guinevere almost believed they were back home. “I’ll know where that will be once you tell me what you have going on. And yes, you can trust me. If I lead you wrong, you can always kill me.”

Guinevere had been expecting that, but nevertheless when it came she had to bite down on her tongue to keep from lashing out. Because she had no idea whom she wanted to hit.

* * *

Back at the main camp, just about anyone who had a claim to a leadership position joined in on interrogating Arthur, tossing questions from all directions in an effort to make him falter. To make him slip and show his true colors, proving that his offer wasn’t genuine. Even Lancelot participated, however much it made him sick inside—because he could tell Arthur wasn’t dissembling, and because he had to carry out the duties of his rank, and that meant making sure that there was no risk to those under him. Especially now.

Arthur outlasted all of them, eyes nothing but mirrors and voice calm and weighty as a windless day in summer. He met their questions and simply rolled them under with the detail and precision of his answers, and in the end, he was the one querying them. When Lancelot finally slipped out of the tent, Arthur was bent over the maps and sketching possible troop movements with a stick of charcoal someone had hastily produced.

“That was a nice map.”

Lancelot jerked to a stop, hand flying to his swords. But then he saw just who was emerging from the dark and he relaxed. Allowed himself the sharp edge of a grin. “Fresh off the Roman commander’s desk, from what I understand.”

Guinevere had her arms clasped about herself, but the way she swayed up to him, chin high and lips in a full sneer, was anything but defensive. Her head went down so her hair—she’d taken it out of the braid—swept softly over her shoulder, and then she turned to look slantwise at him. Shoulders perpendicular to his front, hips parallel to his, shirt open far enough to present the soft swelling tops of her breasts. It was a very pretty presentation, he had to admit.

“Aren’t you clever,” she purred, eyes flicking up and down him. Long, long lashes fluttered an invitation that wasn’t echoed in her gaze. She breathed in, breasts plumping up, and leaned closer so her mouth almost grazed the words on his jaw. “The enemy’s maps, and now the enemy’s methods. You’ve just about gotten everything.”

“Except a victory.” His skin was prickling where her breath warmed it, prelude to a rash. He would have preferred to stand back, but he wasn’t about to show weakness to her.

She tilted her head at a coy angle and nodded. Stepped a little past him so their shoulders brushed past each other. “So go get one. Arthur’s told you how to do it—you’ve gotten all you need from him.”

Guinevere had continued to move so the words had floated over her shoulder, highs and lows of tone in time with her fingers that were slowly moving up and down her arms, as if she were cold. She was probably born cold, the bitch.

“Unlike you, I don’t fuck my way to them,” Lancelot fired back, and he knew he’d hit on the right explanation when he saw the tiny hesitation in her step.

It didn’t last long. All affectations of flirtation dropped; her arms went down and her walk turned into the rolling, self-assured stride of the fighter that she was. “You can fuck me any time, as long as you’re finding Romans for me to kill,” she called back. “I don’t care. It’s just a fuck and no one’s fooled as to differently. But it’s not to him. So call off your friends and let him go. And tell that bastard to your left to stop staring.”

“I didn’t—Arthur—what bastard?” He wanted to go after her and break the arrogant arch of her throat. He wanted to go back inside, drag Arthur out and have him on the grass. He wanted to toss Arthur back in the damned ocean and forget the man had ever existed. He wanted to be able to look Owein in the eye when he finally got to visit his cousin.

Instead of doing any of those things, he turned around.

Tristan eased out of tent’s shadow, staring speculatively at Guinevere’s back. “She knew I was here.”

“Yes, yes, you can admire her later. If Galahad doesn’t throw you out, and if none of his try to kill you. He’s a brat, but they’re still so damned protective—” Lancelot gagged on the word and had to slap a hand over his mouth. He pinched his nose between his fingers and held his breath till the bile receded and he was sure it wouldn’t suddenly flood his mouth. Then he looked up at the other man.

No expression, as usual, but something wounded and nasty was crawling around beneath Tristan’s blankness. It wasn’t hard to figure out what, though Lancelot still needed a moment because it was so surprising, what with the extreme self-possession Tristan exuded.

Lancelot needed to calm down. Now. He needed to breathe—he did that—and let his arms and hands hang loosely by his side—he did that—and he needed to act as if he had a brain. There was no point in dwelling—not now. He had gaps to fill and people to see—and he needed to figure out what to do about Arthur. Guinevere could handle herself, and if she was serious about fighting with the Sarmatians, she’d be too busy to really carry out a threat. And too intelligent.

So it was Arthur first. Well, momentarily, because first Lancelot needed to mend the break he’d just made with Tristan. He sucked in more air and tried not to sound too forced. “You know we say that because it’ll never happen. If it was going to, it already would have. Galahad’s worse than a mean dog at letting go.”

One eyebrow rose. Then Tristan produced something clinking and gleaming: a scrap of someone’s chainmail. “She might be useful.”

“We dearly hope,” Lancelot muttered, taking the links. He ran his finger over the broken links—fresh snaps. They caught the brightening light of dawn and shot them into his eyes so he could feel exactly how terrible he felt; less sleep than the night before, and not even—never mind. “Found Ammianus?”

“Found the cavalry troop he sent out after Nimue, exactly where Arthur said. She’s fine—spoiling for a counterstrike, but fine.” Tristan sounded impressed. Which meant he’d been successfully distracted, or placated, from Lancelot’s burst of temper.

Well, that should relieve everyone, even if Lancelot was strangely unsatisfied by unequivocal good news. And they badly needed that.

He handed the scrap back to Tristan, belatedly noting the blood crusted on it, and pointed to the tent. “Go ahead and let them know; they’ve mostly given up and are just letting Arthur talk. And—get Arthur out of there, and send him round to my tent. I need to speak with him.”

Strictly speaking, Lancelot wasn’t in a position to order around Tristan, but he assumed the pleading undertone that’d accidentally crept into his words would explain matters. It seemed to, for Tristan merely gave him a sharp glance before stepping inside.

Lancelot resisted the urge to hang about and walked quickly to his quarters, where he met the healers coming out. A short, pointed conversation with them convinced Lancelot that at least he wouldn’t need to worry over that, and then he ducked inside to see Owein teetering on a lacerated right leg, face full of concentration but otherwise not registering the pain that was shaking his whole body.

There was a reason Lancelot tended to come off badly around Tristan—the man reminded him too much of this cousin. “Sit down.”

Owein sat. “That was what I was trying to do. I needed to take a piss.”

His face was blanched white with pain, and it retained that colorlessness long after the blood should’ve started seeping back in. His voice was disturbingly devoid of intonation as well; while he could match Tristan for deadpan expressions, both Owein and Lancelot had slight lilts, courtesy of their mothers’ clan. But something had smashed Owein’s voice flatter than the plains.

Something. Lancelot gave himself a smack for still shying away from the subject and started repacking his things, which he’d dumped by the bed without looking…last night. His eyes kept wanting to close on him and his mind seemed as flittering as that of a small child’s, refusing to remember what he’d need for going to war. “Bercilak will be along in a moment; he’s staying here so he’ll watch over you and—and the others that lived. Heal up and don’t do anything stupid—the last thing I need is to have to worry about my back.”

Nodding, Owein picked at the bandages around his arm. He was looking at Lancelot as if he were just listening, taking notes and not thinking about anything else. As if that could really be the case.

“Later we’ll figure out compensation, but you’ll be settled in full. Bercilak is seeing to the burials. And—and damn it, stop staring like that,” Lancelot snapped. And then he wanted to snap his tongue in two and carve the angry, regretful, embarrassed flush out of his cheeks.

It was a nasty silence, but again, mostly on Lancelot’s part. Which just added to the feeling that he had to make up the ever-widening difference, so his nerves didn’t get any better.

“I don’t blame you,” Owein finally said. He’d stopped fiddling with his bandages and was instead reaching over to help Lancelot sort knives. “There wasn’t any way you could’ve known, and if you had, you would’ve acted differently.”

“Are you sure you aren’t just being especially vindictive, and letting me live to suffer?” As sarcastic as Lancelot made the words, the question was dead serious.

So was the answer, and Owein was much more polite about it. If he hadn’t been so bruised, Lancelot probably would’ve taken a trick from Galahad’s bag and hit him. “Yes. And my vision won’t steady, so I think I’m in shock. That’s probably why I sound annoying.”

“You—” Everything suddenly boiled fast and crammed up into the back of Lancelot’s throat, then collapsed just as violently. With it went the tension in his shoulders and arms, so that a dagger shivered out of his trembling hands onto the mattress. Before he could accidentally do anything, he flattened his palms against the bed and leaned over it, trying to catch his breath. Maybe, said the nasty dark voice in Lancelot’s head, Owein wasn’t the only one succumbing to shock. “Well, you’re definitely my cousin.”

“You’re still calling me that, even though I couldn’t stop—”

“—don’t even start with that,” Lancelot sighed. He hesitated, then put a hand on Owein’s good shoulder and squeezed.

If he were really as clever with words as people told him he was, he would’ve known what to say to go along with that. But his verbal slyness was limited and these circumstances were achingly not within those limits, and so Lancelot just did what he could and hoped it would suffice.

Thankfully, Bercilak chose to show up then, and his generous, talkative nature soon took over. Lancelot gratefully surrendered Owein to his care, and was seeing them off when Owein shot a diffident question at him. “So what about the Briton woman?”

“She’s staying, I think. Though where she spends the night is anyone’s guess…” Right about then, Lancelot realized that that comment might not be appropriate, given the fragility of Owein’s current state of being. Sympathy was, beyond a doubt, not his specialty.

However, fortune decided to be kind to him here. Owein dredged up a wan but conspiratorial grin from somewhere. “Ah, well. She was worth the night. And so it takes mentioning her to get you back to normal…”

“It damned well doesn’t take her,” Lancelot snorted, stepping back inside. All mentioning Guinevere did was remind him that he had Arthur to tackle next, and the way his stomach went queasy and his nerves twitched at that thought was anything but normal.

* * *

“Percival’s reserving judgment,” Gawain said, rolling up the maps inside each other. He carefully tied them off with a strip of sinew, then surrendered to the yawn that’d been clawing at his throat all night. As much as he wanted to get out and do something before his frustration and anger created something awful, he was glad they weren’t moving till the late afternoon. He needed the sleep.

“Understandable. He and Urien lost half their family to a Roman raid.” Galahad stood up and pressed the heels of his hand into the small of his back, stretching out the kinks. The fatigue was weaving fine red lines through the whites of his eyes, and dulling his temper to the point that he sounded almost sympathetic. “Urien’s going to be a bastard, though. So we’d better hope that tonight, Ammianus goes where Arthur says he will.”

A soft cooing in the corner made them both turn: Tristan dangled another tidbit into his hawk’s beak and whistle-coaxed her into taking it. The expression on Galahad’s face as he watched was…fondly annoyed, Gawain decided.

“Speaking of, where’d you send Arthur off to?” Galahad asked. He stepped backward a pace and flopped onto the bed; luckily for him, they’d used his tent and so he didn’t have to walk through half the camp before he could rest.

Yes, sleep sounded good. The last thing Gawain wanted was to prematurely transform into a bitter old wrinkle like Gorlois.

“Lancelot asked to see him.” Tristan lifted his hawk so the bounce Galahad made wouldn’t jostle her much, then shifted her to a nearby perch.

There were rods of varying thicknesses bristling from all over the tent—that was new. And fascinating, since Elaine had been after Galahad for literal years just to change how he made—or didn’t make—his bed, and yet here he was, letting his furniture sprout sticks.

“And what is Lancelot doing? He stares at that man like he’s never seen one before, and his temper’s—well, it’s never been good, but now it’s spectacularly bad. I thought he was going to strangle Urien a few times.” Flopping over, Galahad toed off his boots and began pulling at his clothes, loosening them for sleep. “Though some of that was because Urien’s a jackass and hinted Lancelot didn’t give a shit about the cousins he’d just lost. Oh, is that what? Planning to flick horseshit in Urien’s eye?”

One shoulder lifted and fell in pretended lack of knowledge, while Tristan’s hand strayed down to tangle in Galahad’s curls. “No. Actually, I think he’s having a fit of conscience.”

Lancelot?” Galahad stared. Read some kind of confirmation in Tristan’s face and snorted, rolling over to face Gawain. “Bet he’s taking that badly.”

“Very,” was Tristan’s dry, perceptive reply. He glanced at Gawain, who nodded in agreement while acting as if he wasn’t feeling uncomfortable, watching the unconscious closeness between them.

“See you in the afternoon, then. Galahad, either wake up on time, or I’ll let Lancelot take out his temper on you.” With that, Gawain tucked the roll of maps beneath his arm and walked out.

Sleep. Bed. It was comfortable and warm, and if it was also empty—well, life never gave one person everything they needed. Gawain could make do. He had—

--to do a better job at not running into things. People. Though whoever this was had a body with leanness and soft curves in exactly the right places. And…she wasn’t Sarmatian.

“I’m sorry,” Guinevere panted, disentangling herself with an apologetic smile. She patted at her hair, which was soaking up the sun to show bright glints in its rich darkness, and pulled at her disheveled clothing, which was rather…open. Lovely breasts. “I didn’t—oh, tell me I didn’t rip any of those. They were such beautiful maps.”

“Ah…” Gawain quickly checked “…no, they’re fine. A bit bent, but nothing that can’t be fixed.”

The smile flipped into a frown that put a little wrinkle between her fine brows; she leaned forward and ran her hands slowly over the maps. “Are you sure?”

“Well, yes.” It seemed that Gawain’s mind was still a bit shaken and so his mouth wanted to stutter with it. With an effort, he suppressed that ridiculousness. “You can see for yourself, if you don’t mind coming with me. I’d rather not unroll them out here.”

“Oh, not at all. Would your tent be better? Arthur and Lancelot are too busy talking to tell me where we’re staying now.” She smiled again, and stepped a little nearer.

* * *

To Arthur’s complete lack of surprise, Guinevere was waiting for him. He let go of the tent flap and came all the way out, while a glowering Urien and a curious, wary Geraint closely shadowed him. “I know,” he murmured in Briton.

“Somehow I doubt that,” she hissed back, falling in step beside him. They were heading to Lancelot’s tent; Arthur had absently memorized the way two days ago and so he’d refused the offer of a guide. Instead, he’d received guards.

Guinevere kept to Arthur’s left side, opposite of Urien, but she had chosen that position more out of habit than out of fear of the surly knight, who clearly didn’t trust them. There, she wouldn’t be in the way if Arthur should need to draw his sword. Old habits that were in demand once more…

No, that was only true in his case. She hadn’t ever believed the fighting had ended, and she hadn’t pretended that she could step out of it. She’d been restless and full of angry grief in Britain, seeing how low her land had been brought and knowing how long it would be before it was capable of putting up any challenge, and so she’d sneaked Arthur’s dispatches, reading them for news of other wars. When she had asked to come with him, claiming that she wanted to see the world and that he needed company, he’d known very well what were her true motivations. Guinevere hadn’t only come to find another battlefield against Rome—she was not, despite what many thought, a cold person—but that was the reason why she’d left Britain, and the only reason. Arthur wasn’t arrogant or foolish enough to believe she would have left for merely him.

“I can’t leave. And not only because I—if I were to cross the border, the Romans would want me to tell everything I could about the Sarmatians. If I refused, they’d probably kill me.” Yes, he’d fought with them, alongside them and trusted his back to their swords, but to a Roman, war was a business. It didn’t mean or promise anything farther than the present.

“So don’t cross the border. There’s more than one way out. You’ve told these people—” Guinevere refrained from gesturing around them, but just barely “—all they need to know, and you should be able to exact a price for it. Or do they not have the honor you told me they did?”

There wasn’t far to walk, and especially when both of them were rushing to keep ahead of their tempers. Arthur could already see the top of Lancelot’s residence, but he wasn’t yet ready to find out what welcome he would receive there. Somehow…somehow what he was doing wasn’t to Lancelot’s taste, either. “Perhaps they’ve learned, like the Britons, what honor costs a man,” Arthur retorted, deliberately taking a wrong turn.

“And perhaps I can see that that wasn’t the reason you told them the Romans’ plans. You didn’t do that to save your skin—of all the people in the world, you’re the one that cares least for keeping that intact.” She grabbed his arm and yanked him to a stop, for once not thinking about the impression she was giving to her audience. And it looked as if their two followers were mightily interested, even if they couldn’t understand a word of the conversation. “Damn you, this isn’t your war!”

“It’s not yours, either.” He jerked his arm free and resumed walking; this path would also take them to their destination, but it would take longer. Just as well, considering that Guinevere would not let go until she was satisfied, and that Arthur would rather deal separately with her and Lancelot.

Snarling, she hurried after him and twined her arm around his so he couldn’t pull away. Then her glare softened to sardonic bitterness, as if she’d suddenly understood something. “You’re wandering on purpose. And yet you have no problem seeking out the greater pain—Arthur, what is wrong with your priorities? You’re the most intelligent man I’ve ever met and yet you can’t seem to keep your head in order.”

“My head—”

She was stepping sideways now, still holding onto him and thus having to twist awkwardly to keep up. But when he slowed to accommodate her, Guinevere shot him an insulted look and made him resume his previous pace. “Your head is still in Rome. You still feel like you’re betraying her—that’s why this is my war, and why it’s not yours. And why you’re doing this. It’s not honor or survival. It’s you taking responsibility for a pack of dead horse-lovers and you needing to hurt for it. You utter idiot.”

Her words stung, burrowing beneath Arthur’s skin and wrapping about his throat till the muscles closed. He put up a hand and pressed it against his neck while rolling his head, trying to force relaxation before the snap came. But it was too late for that; his tongue was too quick at picking up the snap. “And where am I to go? Where wouldn’t I see Rome?”

“You said—”

“Byzantium is Roman and Christian. Deeply Christian.” The old dregs of faith rose and left their sour remains in Arthur’s mouth. He couldn’t even curse God for this, because he didn’t believe in Him now, and even if he had become the kind to rely upon a scapegoat, he had no substitute for God. “Alexandria is more secular, but still Roman. There’s nowhere in the world that Rome can’t reach, so there’s no point in running. Or didn’t I invade your lands enough times for you to see that?”

Guinevere’s breath caught, ripping itself on her teeth that audibly snapped together. Her fingers abruptly stabbed into his arm, hard enough to leave black marks later, and she swung her other arm down to her hip. Arthur noticed all of that, and he was sorry to have brought up that part of their past, but he refused to dodge or otherwise shield himself. Behind them, metal and leather rub-rasped. One of the Sarmatians was inclined to intervene, at least reflexively. A good sign, Arthur’s practical side informed him. That was about the only side of him that was still functioning without change.

After a long, long moment, Guinevere removed her hand from her hip and from the longsword she had strapped there. “I love you enough to not kill you for that. I wish you’d respect that, if you won’t respect yourself.”

Then she released his arm and all the blood rushed back into it. The drain on the rest of him was sudden and sharp enough so that Arthur’s mind didn’t clear until after she’d left, and after Lancelot had come out to glare away Urien and Geraint.

“If I knew how to love you better, I would. But I don’t and I won’t use you to learn for myself,” Arthur murmured, drawing a deep breath so he could catch the fading of her scent.

It was almost a perfect joke, how that problem and the problem he had with finding a place for himself were so similar.

“I see I should take up Briton, or whatever it is you speak in that country,” Lancelot said. He folded his hands together behind his back and stretched his arms, bending over to make his shoulders pop, then straightened. Fatigue was rapidly slicing away at his face, which was still as handsome as ever but now in a way that slashed at Arthur’s sight. “You haven’t eaten, have you? There’s food and koumiss, and my bed since I won’t be using it.”

There would be talking as well, and to judge by the way Lancelot was having a hard time directly looking at him, it wouldn’t be pleasant. Arthur started to open his mouth, then settled for merely nodding and following the other man.

* * *

When he came, Tristan let his knees slide out from under him so his weight would gradually come down on Galahad. He laid there for a moment, absently licking along the man’s sweat-soaked hairline, and then pulled out to collapse on the side.

“Only time you’re ever awkward,” Galahad said, sounding amused. And tired, which accounted for his lack of rancor. He rolled onto one hip and tucked his head into Tristan’s shoulder, apparently going to sleep.

Tristan’s count hit twenty-three when Galahad lifted his head again, a more familiar irritation gracing his face. “Now what? You hear a far-off disturbance in the land?” he grumbled.

The cuff Tristan gave him met a head-butt and then a mouth twisting around to nibble at Tristan’s wrist, which turned it into a slow, soothing petting. Something about teasing the tangles from Galahad’s ever-mussed hair satisfied the part of Tristan that disliked stillness, however much he was said to mimic it, and that needed to know all the threads that knotted into a life. Lives. He had the patience for waiting, but not for not knowing.

“The—well, what are we supposed to call him now? Lancelot’s? Anyway, what do you think of him?” Galahad’s question seemed to be sincere enough, though his intent was less about determining Tristan’s opinion than about trying to get Tristan’s problem solved and quickly so he could sleep in peace.

“I think you should call him by his name, until either he or Lancelot say differently. And I think he means what he says. He wouldn’t look so pained about it if he were lying.” Unfortunately for Galahad, what Tristan had was not a problem, which he was just as capable as solving, but a thought. “You think we should let him stay.”

One eyebrow went up and Galahad stopped biting at Tristan’s wrist. He started to answer, then took back the words. When he finally did speak, he did so with uncharacteristic slowness and care. “If he does know what he says he does, then we’ll need him. We’ve been working for years and years, building up our strength and trying to do the same with our wits. But we just—I don’t know, maybe a Roman’s brain is put together differently. We can’t think like them, not enough to outthink them. It…I was listening, and everything Arthur said made so much sense that I was annoyed I hadn’t thought of it.”

“Urien dislikes it immensely.” The bedding beneath Tristan’s hip was sticky and wet and beginning to feel highly unpleasant. He pushed himself up, absently wondering why he always ended up on that, and folded over the furs till he was on dry bedding.

“Urien thinks everything should be like the old ways. And he’s a pain that way because we have to keep him and his idiocy alive,” Galahad muttered, nuzzling his way down Tristan’s arm. He reached behind himself and flopped over a rich gray wolfskin so the chill wouldn’t steal the heat from them too quickly. “I want to see the Romans run out of here. I don’t really care too much how it’s done.”

“Even if it costs us who we are?” Tristan asked. Normally that thought would have never entered his mind, because he knew very well who he was and thus he didn’t suffer the kind of uncertainty that others seemed to. But lately there’d been so many predictions he should have been able to make, and yet he’d made the wrong ones…he’d thought Galahad wouldn’t have stood this long with him.

For once, it seemed as if Galahad was reading the thoughts as well as the words in the air. He snorted and gently poked Tristan under the chin with his nose. “First you’ve got to be alive, and free, in order to be able to make that choice. Stop worrying and go to sleep—you never worry, and when you do, then I start to get frightened.”

Which Tristan didn’t want to do, lest this close warmth be driven from him into the cold. So he turned over to lay an arm around Galahad’s waist, and he slept.

* * *

“You can leave.” Lancelot finished knotting the straps around his pack and then came over to the bed to sit across from Arthur. When he folded his leg under him, he did so with grace that was unpolished, raw. He wasn’t showing off now, or trying to make a good impression on Arthur. He was being honest. “I heard what was said. But I believe you’re telling the truth, and these are the lands of my tribe. If I say you’re going to leave safely, then you’ll leave safely.”

Despite the sleepless night, the sudden breaking twist in his life—or perhaps because of it—Arthur found himself liking what he saw now far more than anything he had before. It was a stupid, unfocused, telling thought to have, and Guinevere must have been exceptionally tired or distracted to have missed this extra loop in the knot.

“That wouldn’t be very good for your standing among your people, and from what I understand, you’re in some difficulties there.” Arthur was being honest as well, but it wasn’t a fair trade; his truth-telling always seemed to hurt people. No, he was refraining from lies because he’d unknowingly mouthed them for so long and now, when his eyes were clear enough for him to see what he’d done, he couldn’t bring himself to voice them any longer.

And perhaps he was tired in his soul, if he had one—tired of forcing himself to look beyond the hell and keep his eyes fixed on the heaven. On the promise of heaven. All his life, others had told him that he was too much of an idealist, too prone to optimism, and that constant repetition wore on the most willful and firm of men. Which Arthur was not—he’d never been able to completely ignore the mud beneath his feet. As time had gone on, he’d had his head dragged down to look for longer and longer periods, and now the weight was too much for him to lift. He’d been wrong about God, about Rome, about ideals and—there had been children among the dead. Children who had playfully eavesdropped and giggled at him only the day before, and a man he’d taught to fight had had them killed.

Guinevere wouldn’t have understood if Arthur had tried to explain it: how fellow officers became brothers and sometimes sons, and how they could be transferred thousands of miles away but still have that connection of shared experiences and goals and instruction. Or at least, that had been what Arthur had thought. The last root to anything that he’d had left, roughly severed like the charred wrist he’d seen first upon riding up.

Lancelot had had some retort ready, but he’d swallowed it and instead had chosen to scrutinize Arthur. Now he finally produced a conclusion, while his hands moved away the remains of their hasty meal. “You don’t do this often—trying to make people angry so they’ll let you be. You’re not very good at it.”

“You sound as if you’ve some expertise on the subject.” Traveling with Guinevere seemed to have shortened Arthur’s response time to sarcasm, though it’d not done anything to make him like it. He winced and looked away, trying to formulate an apology.

There wasn’t time to deliver it before Lancelot replied. “Let me worry about myself. If you want to go—”

“Thank you for the offer, but I won’t be needing it.” Arthur started to rise, intending to make his bed in the corner, but he was quickly pulled back down.

“It’s not your fault. You don’t have an obligation. You—damn it, you’ve had this argument with someone. You’re not even listening to me, and it was my damned family!” With a snarl that was eerily like Guinevere’s, Lancelot shoved Arthur backwards and used that same motion to push himself on his feet. He began pacing around the tent, occasionally jerking his hand towards Arthur to convey some kind of accusation. “What do you care, anyway? Do you know anything about Sarmatia? Do you even know what you’re trying to save? Or are you just doing this to massage your damned pointless guilt?”

And though Arthur had thought he’d been prepared, his temper showed him otherwise. He’d dragged Lancelot back to the bed before he even realized why his hand was curled, and then he couldn’t let go of the man’s wrist because it was all he could hold onto. “Why aren’t I allowed to feel guilty? To help? I trained Ammianus and made sure he lived to fight here—I’ve been—”

“You’re the most selfish man I’ve ever met,” Lancelot shot back. He yanked hard on his arm, but Arthur’s fingers had frozen themselves around it and so all he accomplished was to jerk them closer together. “You, you, you—Arthur, it isn’t you. For—you hadn’t even been born when Rome and Sarmatia first went to war. You think this is the only atrocity that’s happened? It’s not, and there would’ve been something even if you’d slaughtered Ammianus in Britain.”

“I didn’t see Sarmatia at war, that’s true enough. I—I didn’t. It has been, but what I saw was it at peace. What I thought I saw. What I’ll remember having seen.” The anger dropped away, shaved into nothing by the heavy cold realization Arthur had staring at Lancelot. At a man he’d laid with, laughed with and now at a man he was seeing go to war.

It was a reversal and a comparison that he’d never been in a position to see before, and suddenly he understood why Guinevere had refused to stay behind. Why she’d refused to bind herself to him, when one of them would have had to make the other wait behind while they went off to fight.

“So you should leave while you’ve still got such a nice memory.” Lancelot was slowly curling his arm against his chest so that Arthur had to keep moving toward him, though paradoxically, he was leaning backwards. His voice had gone low and ragged, and he looked as if he was about to snap and that he knew it, but that he didn’t know in which direction to go.

“The ‘nice memory’ is why I can’t leave.” And another echo of Guinevere stole into Arthur’s words; he owed her more than he would probably ever realize for staying with him while his eyes opened. Though she had left him after that, and so wouldn’t see how he became accustomed to seeing; a trace of wistfulness plucked at Arthur then, but it was swiftly overwhelmed by the absolutely clarity with which he understood why he was staying.

He put his other hand down for support and leaned to follow Lancelot. “I saw my mother killed. My father died before her—the letter telling us is one of the first memories I have. Sarmatia is the only place where I’ve seen peace in my entire life. Do you think that’s worth defending?”

“I—think—” Lancelot’s voice was thicker, his words slurred “—that there’s still too much guilt here.”

And then he prevented Arthur from defending himself by clamping a hand on the back of Arthur’s head and ripping him across those last few inches of separating space.

The first frenzy of mouthing and biting and grappling at clothes that were so tardy about getting out of the way crested within moments, and then Arthur rose from Lancelot’s intoxicating mouth to find his hands just finished baring the other man from the waist down and his head clear enough to think about what he’d just done. He did, remembering how it’d made him forget everything. And he bent back down to press his palms against Lancelot’s thighs and ignore the fingers tearing at his hair and to trace meaningless words on the skin jumping beneath his tongue.

“Wait—what are you—Arthur, you’re a Roman—”

“I should stop saying that. It’s a lie. Probably been so for the greater part of my life.” He turned his head to lay his cheek against Lancelot’s leg, then nuzzled upwards. Came back to lick away the pink rasping warmth his stubble had raised in the skin and kept licking till he’d just touched the prick rising under his attentions.

The fingers tangled in his hair suddenly jerked, hard enough to make him look up, and he met wild, angry-hungry eyes. “You fucking idiot. You’ll have to kill Romans. And it’s not so easy to just stop thinking of them as your people.”

“Then I’ll kill Romans, and suffer the consequences. I’m used to it.” An edge crept into Arthur’s voice, and he didn’t know how to remove it. “I spent fifteen years killing my mother’s people and had nothing to show for it but a broken country and a broken faith. But now there’s nothing left to be broken.”

It was ebbing away, clouding and tarnishing, and Arthur was losing his grip on that moment of comprehension. He clutched harder, refusing—epiphanies like that were so rare in his life, and this one was an understanding that he thought he’d never know again. Before it could slip away, he chased it.

He gagged for a moment, never having done this before. And he knew he was being sloppier than Guinevere had been when she’d taken him into her mouth—her throat. His throat was dry from slight panic and that made the swallowing more difficult, messier so that he couldn’t keep his lips tight around Lancelot’s prick. Though it didn’t seem to make too much of a difference to the other man, whose eyes squeezed shut and whose nails scored deep painful grooves in Arthur’s scalp and who, once he’d stopped resisting, let himself fall shockingly apart in Arthur’s mouth.

Lancelot slumped backward as the spasms ran from his hips up to his shoulders, head thunking softly on the end of the bed. His hands slowly slid out of Arthur’s hair, which let Arthur rise just in time to see the ache in the other man’s gaze.

“You’re going to change your mind when your head clears,” Lancelot said.

“I won’t.” Arthur swallowed once more, trying to get rid of the unexpected bitterness of the taste. He absently wiped off his mouth with his hand and started to rub it on his leg, then stopped, unaccountably embarrassed.

The only warning Lancelot gave was how fast his eyes flicked to Arthur’s hand. Then he was up and his hands were dropping the rest of their clothes on the ground, and he was savaging Arthur’s mouth while harsh words cut their way out from between them. “No, you won’t. Because you make a decision and you don’t fucking back down from it, even if it’s wrong and it’ll get you killed. I can see that, and you’re a fool, and—and—damn you, come here.”

They broke a lamp for the oil. Lancelot wrapped one arm around Arthur’s neck, baring his own to Arthur’s mouth, and fucked himself on his fingers, stretched and twisted and his nails clawed into Arthur’s back as if they wanted to rip off the scars there. His head stayed back so that Arthur couldn’t see his eyes though he could get drunk on the sweat of Lancelot’s skin, the quiet trembling and the vicious pants. The violent way Lancelot shoved himself down on Arthur’s prick and rocked against him, which made Arthur try to calm things to less pain by running his hands over Lancelot. But that only made it worse, and so they ended in falling to the bed to writhe and lash and crack each other open, never mind whose cock was in whom.

“You should have left,” Lancelot murmured later, when he was clinging to Arthur so tightly that Arthur couldn’t roll so he wasn’t crushing Lancelot. “You should have, because I wasn’t going to walk away and now I won’t let you.”

“I should have left many things long before I did, but I don’t count this as one of them.” Arthur took the deepest breath he could, forcing Lancelot’s hold to loosen a little, and quickly slid his hands between them. Using that to space them, he wriggled out of the other man and got his weight mostly onto the bed, then removed his hands so they collapsed back together.

A sigh slipped from Lancelot’s lips. He slitted his eyes to give Arthur a look that strove to be detached and penetrating. “How much of ‘this’ is me and how much of it is the memory of peace and how much of it is the guilt?”

It was a question that needed a moment to sort out, and Arthur did so. He hoped Lancelot didn’t mistake that for hesitation.

“I’ll defend the memory. I’ll kill because of the part that resulted from my doing. And I’ll stay for you.” Arthur lifted his hand and drew a fingertip along the clenching muscle in Lancelot’s jaw. “I can do the other two without having to be here, just as Guinevere can do them for Britain without being there.”

For a long time, Lancelot looked at him without speaking or moving. Then a humorless smile flickered. “You’re new at this, too. Usually people know better than to be direct about it.”

“Usually they do.” If they’d met a bare two years ago, Arthur wouldn’t have been. If they’d met then, everything would have been reversed and he would have carried Lancelot out the door himself; he’d been fortunate in that Guinevere was stubborn and had scaled the wall to meet him when he’d walked back into his rooms. But she’d never forgotten what he had done, and it had always stayed between them, up to and past when she had walked out on him, and he’d let her.

It wasn’t two years ago. Arthur was not the man he’d been then, and he was not going to make that mistake twice. Lancelot still didn’t believe him, but that didn’t change anything for Arthur.

“I hope you’re ready to see everything explode tonight, then,” Lancelot finally muttered, ducking down and tucking his head beneath Arthur’s chin. He was asleep—or feigning sleep—before Arthur could reply.

* * *

Gawain was still a little in shock at waking up not only from a good sleep but also next to a warm, pliant body. And the quick, devastatingly efficient greeting Guinevere had given his prick hadn’t helped clear his head. So he was understandably slow to make sense of things when he walked in to see her punching Lancelot.

“What the—” Percival had come in just behind Gawain and was equally transfixed. Which made Gawain feel a little better about himself.

Taken off-guard, Lancelot stumbled back and grabbed for one of his swords—

--only to have Arthur yank his wrist down. The other man dropped it almost immediately and ignored Lancelot’s offended cursing to turn on Guinevere. Those two had a fast, low conversation in Briton, but it was obvious Guinevere was not happy.

“I thought we were supposed to be fighting the Romans,” Galahad snapped, stalking inside. He seemed intent on finding out what the two foreigners were saying, but his eye snagged on Gawain and he spun about to stare at Gawain’s neck.

Oh. That woman had teeth. Flushing, Gawain slapped his hand over the spot and tried to make up an excuse involving shaving, but it was too late.

His cousin gaped. Started to ask who it was, but then everyone heard Arthur’s annoyed slip into traveler’s Latin; whatever blood he had in him, his unconscious habits were still Roman. “You’re angry at me when you were doing the same?”

“It’s not the same!” Guinevere snarled, and then she stalked out while everyone was eying Gawain with renewed amazement.

Well, everyone except Lancelot, who rubbed at his sore cheek and glowered at Arthur. “Make her stop sleeping with my cousins.”

“Gawain’s only one by marriage, and distant as well. I don’t think he counts.” Initial surprise over, Galahad seemed more amused than anything else; Tristan was rubbing off on him. Then again, he and Lancelot had been at each other’s throats for as long as Gawain could remember, so it wasn’t too unexpected that Galahad would completely forget about the present situation to have a laugh at the man.

And, along with Gawain who was still working on his first shock, completely missing the other implication of Arthur’s slip. Though Percival and Arthur caught it just fine; the one looked as if he needed to sit down on something and the other had worry and embarrassment warring over which was making him look more frantic.

“Lancelot…what were you doing with the—” Percival started.

“—later. We have Romans to catch, just in case anyone forgot.” Glare firmly fixed in place, Lancelot hefted his things and marched out.

Gawain just managed to sidestep, and then he almost ran into Arthur going after Lancelot, though at least Arthur had the grace to apologize. Percival had better reflexes and had spun to keep pace on Lancelot’s left side.

“Are you insane?” he hissed. “You…a Roman, and we aren’t sure yet…your tribe to…”

They were moving too fast for Gawain to hear. He briefly weighed the attention jogging after them would attract with the need to know what was going on, then ran after them.

“He’s blood of my damned tribe and he’s helping. And if Ammianus isn’t where he says, you can watch me kill him. Now shut the fuck up and get on your horse; we don’t have the time to talk about this now.”

Even from a yard away, Gawain could clearly see the way Lancelot’s face twisted when he mentioned killing Arthur. And he could’ve been a mile away and still have seen how Lancelot deliberately kept himself between Arthur and the rest of the Sarmatians, and how Arthur was calmly noting who tried to get behind Lancelot.

Fuck. Yes, they really needed this now.

For Lancelot’s sake, Gawain hoped Arthur was right. Actually, for all of their sakes, because since Ammianus had been so damned good at tracking down their leaders, Lancelot was the best strategist they had left. Bercilak might have been head of Lancelot’s tribe, but he didn’t hesitate to yield the ground to Lancelot when it came to warfare; that was a delicate balance to maintain, given how usually better fighting skills meant a political threat, but no one had ever known Lancelot as caring for much besides his own well-being and so no one had ever believed he’d have an interest in the greater responsibility to others that came with greater power.

It was almost funny. All the planning, the careful organizing, and what everything came down to was the part that couldn’t be controlled or predicted: the people.

Gawain didn’t laugh. He mounted his horse, rode to the men he was leading, and prayed that nothing would tip the balance against them.


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