|Under the Wide Sky IV: Faith
Author: Guede Mazaka
Nervous didn’t describe Guinevere. She had been reared on suffering and she’d seen death looking back at her far too many times to be afraid of it now. And anyway, her position was good with prospects of bettering it: she’d had no problem convincing the Sarmatians where her loyalties laid. Gawain was either still dazed, or he didn’t mind that she was chatting up Geraint, and Geraint obviously didn’t care a whit about Guinevere’s origin. Moreover, he was in charge of the archers and he was mightily impressed with her aim.
So she was not nervous. She was, however, worrying about Arthur to the point that her hands were shaking. Guinevere kept them pressed flat to the saddle as she let herself slip back from Geraint and come up beside Arthur.
He seemed calm enough, which in itself was a reason to be concerned. Arthur never stopped worrying, and Guinevere never bothered with it—at least, on the surface. When they exchanged roles, then she knew something was wrong with the world. “You’re a fool.”
“I know that. You tell me daily.” His eyes flicked once to note her approach, then returned to watching the valley below. It housed a trail the Sarmatians only used during the winter, and supposedly Ammianus would be coming down it before his men split up again. Hopefully, because if that didn’t happen, then Arthur was going to be in serious trouble.
And—Guinevere gritted her teeth and thought of all the effort she’d put forth so far to get herself into such a nice position. Then she thought of Britain, and what it meant to her…but inevitably, she was also reminded of what Arthur had done there, and of how much he’d saved for her. Including her life, since she never would’ve gotten the right treatment for her fever without his intervention.
She wasn’t in the habit of acknowledging debts that didn’t suit her goals, but then, Arthur’s specialty seemed to be turning people inside-out. First proof of that was how Lancelot couldn’t stop looking over at Arthur, raw nerves jumping in his eyes. And second proof was how Guinevere was contemplating—
--no, how she was resigning herself to the fact that she would intervene if they came after Arthur. The sourness in her mouth etched a point in her tongue. “If you’re wrong about this, then you’ve just put Lancelot in an extremely uncomfortable position.”
“I’m not wrong about this,” Arthur said. He straightened and checked something on the horizon, which was undisturbed as far as she could see, then nodded.
He really was the most inconvenient man: years spent bowing and scraping to ideals not worth the shit on his boot, and now that he had finally gotten himself a backbone, he was using it at entirely the wrong time.
And for the wrong person, the bitterness inside Guinevere whispered. The thought was clever and quick and insidious, and before she knew it, it’d broken her composure. “What is so special about him? Yes, he’s smart and nice to look at, but that’s a thousand others? What—why—”
Arthur’s face spasmed. His fingers momentarily clenched on his reins, making his horse dance a little, and that in turn got Lancelot’s attention. The bastard glanced at Arthur, then glared at Guinevere as if she was the one that had put them in this mess. If she’d known, she would have suggested someone else.
“Why did you push him at me?” The echo of Guinevere’s thought, verbalized by Arthur’s rough mutter, cut harder than the solidity of any sword would have. “You’re not a fool, and you never do things on a whim. You picked him for a reason.”
“Maybe it was availability. He had ‘whore’ written all over him when we first ran into him.” But the sarcasm was hollow, with nothing to support it, and they both knew it. Guinevere swallowed the urge to hit Arthur for putting her on the defensive—damn the man, but he was the only one who could ever do that.
By now, they knew each other far too well, so that all Arthur had to do was to look at her. Normally he would’ve been too busy defending himself or feeling as if he deserved the verbal whipping to let himself do so, but neither of those conditions were apparent in his calm, unmoving stance. Though Guinevere had spent long days and nights hoping he would become this, now she regretted it. And yes, she was angry that it was in this place and time, and not back in Britain when…not back in Britain.
She disliked dwelling on jealousy because of how weak and pathetic that emotion made her feel, so she changed the subject. “Something you don’t seem to realize is that your decision’s going beyond you. You stay and—”
“And Lancelot will have problems with the other Sarmatians, and you’ll have to worry about me.” For the first time since they’d left camp, a trace of the old Arthur appeared: regret shadowed his face and his shoulders hunched in a deep sigh. But unlike before, it only lasted a moment. Then he was back to watching the deepening dark of the sky. “I wish that wasn’t the case. I wish there was a way to satisfy everyone. But you and I have both seen how possible that is.”
“And you claim this isn’t another attempt to get yourself punished on earth, since you no longer believe in a hell.” Guinevere snapped off a hard laugh in hopes that that would get through, but no luck.
Instead, Arthur turned around and let her see everything. The scars peeking from his collar, the tired paleness beneath his tan, but also the strange, impenetrable serenity in his eyes. It was not the same as the way he looked before a battle, when his rage was up and so was his fear of himself. Nor was it the same as the way he’d looked after he’d caught the priest’s whip on its second strike, everything that had given meaning to his life collapsing, or when he’d been watching the shore of Britain vanish into the distance. It was calm, but it was not dead. On the contrary, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen him this alive, and not hesitant about it.
“I can see why you’d think that. But Guinevere, I swear to you on my father’s sword, that isn’t the reason.” As he spoke, Arthur leaned down so she wouldn’t miss a single word. She couldn’t have anyway, not with how deep their impacts were on her blood and mind. “I want to live. I want that because now I know what would come after the fighting, what I would be waiting for. But when I die, I don’t want to die for nothing.”
“So you’ll go by the sword,” she replied, feeling both proud and spiteful. “You’ll die in war instead of in peace, sitting among scrolls somewhere while the greatest thinkers of the world extend the reach of men’s knowledge. While your days are long and sunny and filled with the little pleasures of life, while your grandchildren give you the sweet slipping into the dark that your father never had.”
His eyes flickered black and his jaw tightened, but after a moment, Arthur nodded. “If you had my choice, then how would you choose?”
“I’m not you.” She couldn’t look at him any longer, and had to drop her eyes to where her fingers were knotting themselves in her horse’s mane.
The rustling indicated that he was shrugging and sitting back. “No, you’re better. And yet you’re trying to save me while keeping the worse fate for yourself. Guinevere—I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I couldn’t be content with only enough, that I couldn’t be content with you. But we make our choices in life and we live with them, and that’s all that I’m trying to do.”
Arthur wasn’t letting himself see the whole truth—at least that hadn’t changed. Because the explanation for the difference in himself was not simply that he’d chosen, but that this time, he’d chosen completely of his own free will. He hadn’t had any external influences to force him towards one path or the other. No, he wanted to live with this choice.
The air had only started to cool with the night, but it felt as if Guinevere were breathing particles of ice. They were sharp and drew little hot beads of blood in her lungs so that she felt she was drowning as she backed away.
For a moment, she couldn’t think. And then she clamped down on herself and made herself, made her mind work past the sheer emotion. He’d made his decision. He’d done it in a way that she’d been hoping he would—perhaps the results were not what she would have wanted, but she and he no longer shared common desires. She couldn’t afford to fight him—not if she wanted to keep fighting for Britain’s sake—and so she had to let this battle pass from her.
Guinevere let her head droop a little and breathed in, slowly, while her insides unraveled. And then she breathed out and looked up, seeing the new world stretching out in front of her.
“Cold?” Geraint sidled up her left side, nearly spooking her into stabbing him.
She caught herself and managed a small, distant smile while she regarded him: big, bluff, not bad-looking. A considerable number of men following him, and high enough to have a say in what went on. Neither he nor Gawain had the kind of temperament that would see them any higher than they already were, but…it would be good to keep him on her side.
He wasn’t Arthur. And Arthur was right—she hadn’t and wouldn’t settle for merely enough, either. Guinevere smiled a little wider at Geraint, and silently began to loosen her hold on that other dream. “A little. But the battle’s sure to warm me up.”
* * *
A half-hour after sunset, the first Roman soldiers marched into the valley and Lancelot almost shouted his thanks at them, because that meant he wouldn’t have to turn against his own people. Brave words aside, there was no way he could’ve picked up a sword against Arthur, even if the man was offering himself.
And he probably would have, the idiot. Of all the men in the world, it would be a noble not-Roman Roman who’d finally grounded Lancelot. The most ironic part probably was that, with the taste of Arthur still lingering in his mouth, Lancelot could hardly remember why he’d been so determined to stay loose.
“So he was right,” came Urien’s grudging comment. “Why aren’t we going?”
“Because we’re waiting for them to spread out and make easy targets of themselves,” Gawain snapped back. “Shut up and let them. You’ll get your chance to kill soon enough.”
Right. Because when he was floating high above, Lancelot couldn’t see any details and thus it was easier to just let things pass in and out of his life. But now that he had come down and had gotten to learn every inch, every smooth and every twisted rough patch of skin, he couldn’t leap back into his old life.
“I suppose he’s staying, then.” Somewhere along the line, Galahad had ridden up without Lancelot even noticing. Either the man was finally deigning to gain some maturity, or he was absorbing the qualities of his bedmate. “Not a bad idea, having a tame Roman around.”
“Call him that again and Tristan will be picking you out of the stars,” Lancelot snapped. Far too loudly; he winced and silently urged the Romans below to hurry up so he would have something to do besides make a fool of himself.
Rocked back, the other man blinked at Lancelot’s vehemence. But instead of choosing any of the innumerable possible taunts, Galahad merely regarded Lancelot with what appeared to be actual serious thought. Then he rode up close enough for them to talk without being overheard. “If I wasn’t seeing it, I never would’ve believed it. You’re not giving him up, are you?”
“More like the other way around.” Which was a half-lie, but Lancelot didn’t feel like explaining the truth to Galahad, no matter if the man had suddenly grown a sympathetic dimension.
In fact, what he felt like doing was yanking his horse down the hillside and spilling blood till there was enough to wash away every remnant of Rome left in Arthur. What he felt like doing was going back in time and not staring so long at that pretty woman in the marketplace, so that he would’ve gotten away before he and Arthur could’ve run into each other. So Arthur had found something worth fighting for—well, good for him. Really flattering to Lancelot. But Lancelot had found something worth protecting, and damned if that wasn’t making a mess out of his life. Sarmatia was always going to be under his feet and so he’d never felt afraid of losing it, though he’d feared having to see it trampled, but that stupid man staring at him was an entirely different matter.
Galahad coughed. “Stop looking at him like you’re going to eat him. There’s no time for it.”
“You don’t have to tell me that.” Angry and terrified and angry at his terror, Lancelot jerked himself back around and willed his body to stay that way.
“Oh, for…you’re acting worse than me. And I don’t even know where Tristan is, that sneaky son of a bitch.” The words were relatively light, but the tightening of Galahad’s jaw at the end of each was telling. He looked down at the valley, where the Roman line was almost completely stretched out, soldiers unworried and thus straggling so there were holes big enough for a horse to rampage through. But there were the sharp glints of sword and armor, and the nickering of the Romans’ cavalry mounts. “Bastard just said he was going to go check something, and by the time I turn around, the grass had already closed behind him.”
Lancelot resisted the urge to roll his eyes, and then the urge to laugh hysterically at the complete incongruity of their conversation. “Does your complaining have a point?”
“Just one. Get used to this. Everyone else has had to.” With that pithy bit of wisdom delivered, Galahad edged off and reached for his bow.
All around, everyone else was doing the same, and Lancelot’s hearing belatedly recognized Gawain’s whisper to prepare to fire. He gestured the order to his men, then took up his own.
Smooth, fine wood, worn to a perfect fit for his fingers. It had accompanied him through years and years of skirmishing and raiding and never quite ducking into the full thick of it. Now he was going to depend on it not only to carry him through something the dimensions of which he’d never come close to experiencing before, but also to…it’d been much easier when all he could’ve risked was himself. And he’d thought the looming weight had been frightening then.
The arrow slotted between his fingers, and then the strain on the string as he drew it back, sighted the arrow vibrated through his calluses as if they were nothing. Suddenly Lancelot was a boy again, feeling the unfamiliar shudder of the weapon shake against him and not quite sure what he was doing, but it was worse now because he should’ve known what he was doing. The sky above housed a different war, and the amount he had to lose had abruptly grown beyond his sight. He—
--bowstrings were singing and Lancelot shot with them, though he wasn’t ready. And he still wasn’t ready when his horse seemed to leap into thin air and he was weightless and a little panicky, as if he’d hadn’t loved that feeling just a few days before. But then the hooves hit dirt and the jolt slammed all the way up through him, shaking his swords into his hand and shaking the blood into his eyes so that he only saw red.
It wasn’t the same shade. It was brighter. More alive and more dead at the same time, and it had a significance now that hammered Lancelot’s pulse into his breath till both staggered, till his throat was raw from screaming and he had no idea how he was coming up with orders that sent knights cutting through the parts of the Roman column that were slow to recover from the arrow attack. He had no idea. And he did it anyway, because there was no way to stop.
* * *
To be honest, the relief was overwhelming and crushed out any other emotion. When the Romans rode into the valley, all Arthur felt was that.
And then he breathed, recognized the standards and the method of organization, recognized the horse: Ammianus had always liked showy dappled grays, and never mind how visible they were in moonlight. That was when Arthur’s gut clenched and his fingers tightened on his bow so hard he almost broke it.
The Sarmatians were deathly silent lines of hunched blacks and browns to either side of Arthur, but one head lifted so pale cream skin could break the shadowy monotony. Guinevere had always had an eerie sense of when a rip was about to start inside of him.
He had fought beside some of the men down there, and he’d protected them as best he could. Sometimes he envied the ease with which Guinevere managed to discard the pieces of her life that she no longer needed; it seemed to keep her sleek and fit, whereas he often felt too old, too burdened, too ready to sink down and never stand up again.
But that was exactly what he was trying to do, Arthur reminded himself. Yes, he’d fought with them and yes, once upon a time they’d shared a life, but that life had turned out to be so disgraceful and treacherous that he’d left it. That he’d refrained from killing Guinevere—that he had taken her with him to this land, and he had known very well why she’d wanted to come. So he had already taken steps against his old life, whether or not his had been the feet that had actually done that. What he was doing now was finally acknowledging that for himself.
What he was doing now was finally finding a war in which he could live as well as die.
Arthur lifted the bow. He put an arrow to the string, and he sighted it at the figure he knew was Ammianus. And, as the memories of camaraderie in the hellish British marshes warred with those of a warm body curling in the grass, his fingers slowly let the arrow go.
It hit. For a second, Arthur felt as if he’d been punched in the chest, but then his horse started to move and its rocking gait forced air back into his lungs. The breath hurt. But it was easier to breathe through it, and the second one didn’t hurt at all because he took it as a gasp, watching something whirr past Lancelot’s head.
By the third one, he was no longer thinking about how he was breathing. He was thinking about the weight of Excalibur sliding into his palm, and the speed at which he was going down the steep slope versus the soldiers only yards in front of him. His foot touched his horse’s side ever-so-slightly and, well-trained beast that it was, it shifted over.
They cannonaded through a place where the panicking soldiers had abandoned their gear and Arthur felt his blade-point slash through something resistant and wet. He heard the scream waver-twist as he yanked his horse into the sharpest turn possible and came back before the officers could organize pikes, spears, some kind of defense. Excalibur cut another scream in the Roman line.
Romans. He was killing Romans. The familiar armor flashed accusingly at Arthur so he had to squint and then an arterial stream arced to catch him across the nose. He reflexively blew out, breathed in and was instantly submerged in the hot metallic scent. It wasn’t any different from the Briton blood that had splashed him for fifteen years. Or from the blood of his men as they’d died before him, or from the blood of the Sarmatian being cut down a yard from him. The difference wasn’t in the blood.
Arthur smacked more than wiped the back of his hand over his face, cleared it enough to see a point coming at him. He parried it with his sword and let the momentum twist his blade backward to cut down his attacker. A Roman, and he could live with that.
His second charge was diagonal through the infantry line and it carried him far down that before he could slow his horse enough to change directions. Somewhere nearby Guinevere was shrieking the high, bone-chilling Woad warcry, and to judge from the tone, she was letting herself sink into the dark enjoyment of killing.
Someone took a swing at his horse’s legs and it reared back to pulp the man’s skull with its forehooves. Arthur felt the pressure of the air shift behind him and he blindly struck behind, sword crunching into a body. Then his horse was on all fours again and spinning around so he sliced off a sword and the hand holding it before he even realized; he ducked from the blood and lunged forward to slash away a pair of Romans in the process of ambushing a downed knight.
“Thank—” Urien stopped and stared.
Though Arthur didn’t, because there wasn’t time to acknowledge anything. He saw the horseman coming and he kicked his heels back, dancing his horse into a space relatively clear of any debris. Ammianus, mouth open in a howl and sword upraised, came straight at him. Their swords clashed and slipped—a burn flashed across Arthur’s jaw—and then, in one of those stretched moments that happened in war, Arthur saw the recognition slowly crawl into Ammianus’ eyes.
Time snapped them apart and Arthur was grabbing at the saddle horn to stay on his horse when it swerved away. An infantryman shoved a pike at him and only failed to impale him because his counterswing was powered by enough desperation to cut off the pikehead. Then an arrow sprouted from the side of the man’s skull and Arthur jerked his attention away from that threat back to Ammianus, whom he was turning to meet a second time. He absently slapped at the thin warm stream running down his neck.
The other man hadn’t lowered his sword. He stared a moment longer, then snorted and shook his head—not in disbelief, but in resignation. For Arthur, it was the first time he’d ever done this, but former comrades-in-arms ending up on opposite sides was by no means a historical precedent in the Roman army. War was a business to them, after all.
It was only a moment that Ammianus took to get over his shock, but in that moment, worlds broke and worlds rose to take their place. And when their swords rattled each other a second time, nothing held Arthur back.
“Shouldn’t have let you in,” Ammianus panted, wheeling away and trying to come up Arthur’s other side. He cursed as Arthur’s block twisted in to leave a red tear in his gauntlet. “Told those jackasses they were being too trusting.”
Arthur ducked a little too slow and felt another cut lance over the side of his forehead. He suppressed the wince and kept going down to seize Ammianus’ reins; parrying the next slash had to be done one-handed and that felt as if it was going to break Arthur’s arm, but when he punched his sword-hilt into the other man’s eye, the limb was working fine. “Shouldn’t have attacked children where I’d hear about it.”
“You always were too soft.” The blow rocked Ammianus, almost sent him out of the saddle. But not all the way, and his horse leaped forward so the reins ripped from Arthur’s hands. “Taught me a lot, though. I’ll regret this.”
And he was coming up too fast for Arthur to turn, his sword aimed right at the back of Arthur’s neck, and—
--and no. Not losing now. Arthur had to make the turn—was making it, somehow, and he slammed up Excalibur broadside with his other palm bracing the flat so it’d deflect the other sword. The impact of Ammianus’ blow smacked the blade edges into Arthur’s hand and slivered it so there was his own blood flowing over his sword. But he ignored that and the accompanying pain, and he ignored the feeling of badly-wrenched muscles in his side, and he charged after Ammianus. Same tactic, only the other man didn’t manage to block in time. Ammianus’ head went flying up into a knot of struggling soldiers and landed out of sight, even the sound of that obscured by the shouting and grunts and clanging of the rest of the valley.
Arthur took a breath.
“Move!” Someone slapped his horse’s flanks and made it leap forward just in time for the spear to miss him. Then Lancelot’s hand was blurring, and the thrower went down clawing at the knife in his throat.
Silver sparked just behind Lancelot. Excalibur snapped down and the man was dead before either Arthur or Lancelot really realized he was there in the first place.
“He saved my life once,” Arthur said, mouthing the vanishing ghost of a memory. “And he knew who I was, and he tried to kill me.”
“I told you it was going to be bad. It’s your own fault—” Lancelot sounded like he was on the verge of either falling apart or falling in on himself.
Arthur grabbed the man’s arm and squeezed it, wishing there was time for more, but the battle was still going. “It means you’ll live. I can live with that.”
He shouldered his horse past Lancelot and plunged into another cluster of Romans, sword flashing up and down. Behind him there might have been a moan or a silence; either way, Lancelot was beside him a moment later, watching his back.
* * *
Gawain stood up from checking a body for life and then jumped back a step. And after that, he smacked Tristan. “Where the fuck have you been?”
For a moment, Tristan couldn’t even find a way past the shock. His cheek was numb—and then it was blooming with pain, and his gut was cold. “Galahad?”
“He’s fine, but he dislocated a shoulder because he went looking for you and wasn’t paying attention and—” Lack of air stopped Gawain’s rant and he wheezed, bending over. Then he sighed. “Sorry. Look, don’t blame yourself too much, because he should’ve known better than to charge at that angle.”
The relief actually made Tristan sway a little, and even when he’d gotten himself under control, his skin still felt cold. He chafed his hands and looked over Gawain’s shoulder, trying to figure out where they would’ve taken Galahad; the orders were kill enemy survivors and bundle up their wounded, then ride off as quickly as possible, since they’d left the main camp inadequately protected to risk this strike. “Too much?”
“Do blame yourself for not saying where you were going, or when and where you’d be back.” As mild as he generally was, Gawain was not a man to cross. And that was forcefully evident in his glare at Tristan, and how hard his hand landed on Tristan’s shoulder. “You usually do.”
Which was true, because he liked having someone to return to and it didn’t make sense for them to not know, since then they couldn’t expect him. But he’d been preoccupied by all the new developments and so he’d reverted to his old habits. Much to his regret now. “I—”
“Am going over there—” Gawain pointed “—so Galahad will stop annoying everyone within range. All right? Good. I’ll be over in a bit; I just have a few more to check.”
Before Tristan could answer, the other man had moved off and was leaning over, ax in hand, the next corpse. But then, Gawain had said all he’d needed to say, and he wasn’t the kind of man that padded his words. And Tristan wasn’t the kind to question a clear meaning, such as how Gawain had just implied forgiveness and acceptance and familiarity in a few short sentences.
So he turned and walked to the group of people to which Gawain had pointed, and along the way, he came across some interesting company. It seemed that Guinevere was not completely informed about the Sarmatian hierarchy, because she gave him a flirtatious smile. “I see by the blood that you took your share.”
“I did,” Tristan agreed, keeping his distance. While he was impressed by her skills, he was also not in a position to be blinded by her considerable charms, and so he could keep his eye on the edge she had beneath them. “Are you enjoying yourself?”
She was quick and observant, he noted. Instead of taking the surface compliment, she heard the undertone and gave him a second, sharper look. “I’m here to kill the same people you are,” she finally replied, tone stripped of its ornamentation.
“I believe that. But you seem to have other interests as well.” Now Tristan could hear Galahad’s raised voice, though he couldn’t discern what the words were. Going by the tone, probably cursing. He relaxed a little more, and then he was amused at the irony in that. “Play with the Romans all you want, but don’t think you can do the same to us.”
“Then watch who you treat as hostile,” she shot back. “It’s hardly fair to expect someone not make themselves as safe as possible.”
Guinevere whirled and stalked off, her jerky movements a good measure of how deep Tristan had struck. Though once she’d learned a little more, she’d probably not worry so much about him; he only cared if she happened to take advantage of Gawain, since Galahad wasn’t going to be open to that kind of approach. And if she was sincere, and did help…then he might even support her. She had skills and a good brain, and he could sympathize a little with her position as an outsider. As long as she didn’t continue to act like one.
Tristan wiped off the blood on his face and headed for Galahad, anticipation speeding him along.
* * *
Surprisingly enough, Arthur was nowhere in sight when Guinevere finally tracked down Lancelot. And Lancelot himself didn’t even bat an eye when he saw her, which took away the only part of the coming confrontation to which she’d been looking forward.
“If you’re here to gather him up and ship him back over the ocean, I don’t think that’s going to happen.” Lancelot was swiping at the blood on his neck and face, but his hands were just as bloody, so he wasn’t accomplishing much except changing the patterns in which it glistened under the moon. “And don’t fucking blame me. I offered to get him out of here. I wanted him to leave. He chose to stay.”
“I know.” Though Guinevere still wanted to lay the fault at Lancelot’s feet for getting Arthur to that point, but that would’ve cut out Arthur’s own flaws. And as much as he meant to her she refused to canonize him.
Apparently, her lack of assault took Lancelot off-guard. He stopped rubbing the blood into his skin to stare at her. “Then what are you doing here?”
It was possibly the first sensible thing she’d heard him say since they’d met. Not that that was going to soften her towards him, because if she was going to give up any chance at Arthur, she wasn’t going to do so to anything that happened to be willing to take him. She owed him a good deal, and it was enough to make her acknowledge it no matter the circumstances.
Moreover, she still did love him. Even if it wasn’t quite enough to keep them together and healthy that way. “I wanted to check on him.”
“Oh.” The battle must have tired out Lancelot an exceptional amount, because he actually turned his back on her and walked over to his horse. He mounted slowly and started to go past her, as if she wasn’t also mounted. “He’s not here,” Lancelot said over his shoulder, sounding a touch irritated. “Are you blind?”
“No. And now I’m curious as to why he isn’t here. Considering that here is the cause of everything.” She hitched her leg over the saddle-horn in order to remain facing him. “Do you want him to stay?”
The first emotion on Lancelot’s face was pure disbelief. The second was a gaping contempt, as if she was being so stupid he couldn’t even begin to fathom it, let alone reply to it. “Are you deaf now, then?”
“I know what you said,” she snapped, dropping all pretenses at composure. Normally she would’ve killed herself before allowing someone like him see her unfiltered, but in this case, she’d make the exception in order to get across the point. The damned man didn’t seem to understand anything but a threat—a perfect reverse of Arthur, who seemed to understand nothing but threats.
Maybe they would be a good match, after all, whispered the part of Guinevere that wanted no grounding, no lines to the earth. If nothing else, they were so tied into each other that on their own, they couldn’t strike effectively at anyone but each other. And if together…then they could lash out at Rome, and deep enough to make her recoil.
“I know what you said,” Guinevere repeated, slashing the envy out of herself. Jealousy was a collection of lead weights, and she needed to be light enough to soar. “But he’s staying now, whether you’ll have him or not. He’ll do that.”
Lancelot’s snarl was so violent it nearly twisted him out of the saddle. “I know.”
“So I’ll ask again—do you want him to stay, or not?”
It was darkly amusing to watch how the answer scraped at the inside of Lancelot’s face and burned from his faces, but it was annoying when he refused to let it out. Instead, he jerked his horse away and started trotting for a group of men gathering ahead of them.
Guinevere hastily followed, and then overtook him to seize his reins. “Do you want him, you irresponsible son of a whore?”
“What do you care? Are you planning to take him if I give him up?” Lancelot fired back, tearing the reins out of her hands. His fingers curled into a fist as if he were going to strike her, but at the last moment, he clamped his hand around the reins. “Because—”
“Even if I wanted to, he wouldn’t have me, you blind nag. But I do care. I care enough to see him have some reward for—even if it’s idiocy on his part, it’s his idiocy and it’s better than most men’s wits. Rome chewed up half of him; I won’t see your land devour the other half to no purpose.” Whatever bound Lancelot from hitting out at her didn’t also bind her, for she had no problem cutting the edge of her hand into the side of his arm. Then she dug her heels into the ribs of her horse and went forward before he could retaliate. “So?”
He had slowed nearly to a stop, hand clutching at the spot where she’d hit him, expression a pulsing sore. For a moment, Guinevere thought she’d overdone it: her hand went to her sword and she braced herself in the stirrups. But then Lancelot closed his eyes, breathed in, and all the violence ready to break out quietly slipped away.
When he finally answered her, he didn’t do so with anger or with resignation. He merely stated the fact that both of them knew: “Yes, I do.”
And then he tugged his horse’s head about and sent it into an abrupt canter, whirling away from her. If she had been him, she would’ve approved of his neat avoidance of any further attacks.
Guinevere took her own deep draught of air and stared up at the sky, giving herself a moment to forget about all that kept her eyes earthward. She wondered at how it could change, from land to land and from season to season, and yet remain the same in essence. Distant, beautiful, peaceful…the dream-mirror of the world.
Then she laughed a little, because if that were really the truth and not merely an illusion of the eyes, then the sky should be much more bloody and rent and ugly. And it would be alive, with all the pains and joys that brought.
She turned her gaze back to the men gathering, picked out someone she recognized, and rode towards him.
* * *
“I know it’s going to be a problem. I know it’s not the time for this. And I know that everyone’s going to say I’m just doing whatever I please, without regard for anyone else’s welfare.” Lancelot seemed to have his speech all worked out and memorized, carefully hitting each word so they punched through the air.
After the first try, Gawain gave up and let the other man get through all of it. He did listen, but he also sat down on his bed and started to scrape at the dried blood in his beard, which was beginning to itch. His arms were heavy as boulders and about as unwieldy, and his mind wanted to sleep.
Come to think of it, he spent a lot of his time like that.
“…but I’m not giving this up. Everything else—fine, we’re finally at war, I’ll be too busy to bother with that. And you realize almost all of that was because I was bored with the waiting. But this isn’t the same.”
Gawain pressed his hands against his eyes and attempted to sort out his head. He’d come to several conclusions in the past few hours, all of them fairly important, and so he was having a hard time differentiating between them. “Lancelot, you can have him. I’ll back you. All right?”
“Because—what?” When the man stared like that, nothing but wide startled eyes, Gawain could almost see why people let him get away with so much.
“You don’t have to convince me. I saw him fighting—he killed Ammianus himself. And by the way, if you two are going to completely forget about the rest of the battle every time you catch sight of each other, maybe we should have you fighting at different times and places.” The pieces were slowly pulling together in Gawain’s head. He’d been either by Arthur or Lancelot for the duration of the battle, and he’d seen enough to persuade him. Moreover, he’d had to keep watch on Galahad while his cousin had fumed and ranted and searched for Tristan, and he’d learned something there as well.
It appeared that Lancelot still didn’t understand. Well, Gawain wasn’t up to much of an explanation, but he supposed he should try, if only to get the man out of his tent.
“Look, I grew up with you and Galahad. I never thought he’d manage to keep someone around. I never thought you’d want to have someone to keep around. It looked like you two were going to be lonely jackasses trying to make up for that by pretending you didn’t care.” Gawain shrugged and let the obvious speak for itself. “Tomorrow we could all be dead. So today, if it’ll help, then have it.”
Lancelot started to reply with something sharp, but apparently cut his own tongue on it. He winced, looked away, and thought for a moment. “I think I owe you a few—”
“Just get out of here and go back to being your old annoying self,” Gawain sighed. “It worries me when you start acting considerate. Then I wonder what else I won’t be able to predict anymore.”
The other man rocked back on one heel and held that pose, then snorted. Something similar to Lancelot’s familiar carefree attitude filtered into his laugh. “You need a wife. Shouldn’t bother mothering us hopeless souls.”
“I’m looking. But first, I’m going to sleep. We’re meeting in two hours to decide what to do next, right? Then I’ll see you in Gorlois’ tent.” With a grunt, Gawain swung his legs onto the bed and stretched out, uncaring of all the filth and gore still crusted on him. He desperately needed the nap, and besides, he’d be moving around again so soon that it should just flake off of his armor.
“Not Guinevere,” was Lancelot’s parting mutter. “Plenty of beautiful Sarmatian women without having to resort to her.”
Galahad’s opinion was that Lancelot was afraid of having her as a relative, because then he’d have to be nice to her. Which was probably right.
Anyway, there was hardly any reason to worry about that; Gawain still had no idea how he and the Briton woman had gone from conversation to rolling around on the floor—which probably accounted for his newfound relaxation, even after the fighting—but he was fairly certain the why had been the maps. Well, there hadn’t been much marked on them that Guinevere didn’t already know, and if she just wanted to memorize the land, Gawain wasn’t going to begrudge her a few looks. He considered it a more than fair trade, but he wasn’t expecting a second visit. She didn’t seem to be the type that would need more than one look, and he wasn’t the type that was used to getting more than one.
Besides, he’d have no idea what to do with—
“Gawain?” First a slender, fine-boned hand lifted aside the entrance flap, and then the rest of Guinevere gracefully followed. “Did I wake you?”
One. Two. Three. The sky didn’t collapse.
Rationality stepped forward. “Isn’t this a waste of your time?”
“What? Oh, that?” She perched on the edge of his bed, hauteur amusingly like Lancelot’s. On the other hand, it might’ve been nothing more than like disliking like. “If I made it easy for every man, I’d be nothing but a simple whore. Sometimes it’s better to keep them waiting a little.”
“So I’m not your host for the evening.” Gawain closed his eyes again and worked on pretending she wasn’t there. He was too tired to have yet another serious conversation.
But not, as it turned out, too tired to ignore her sliding in beside him. “Lancelot still hasn’t gotten around to finding me a place where I wouldn’t have to listen to him and Arthur. So if you don’t mind…” her voice briefly hesitated “…I just want to sleep. And hear about Lancelot’s embarrassing childhood, but that can come later.”
If Gawain were another man, he might’ve felt manipulated and offended by that. But he wasn’t, and so he could hear the genuine fatigue in her voice. And he could think about how similar people’s various goals really were, and consider this one harmless. Even helpful, because he knew he didn’t have the energy to keep up with Lancelot. “Up in two hours.”
“An hour and three-quarters,” she murmured, breathing already slowing down. “One quarter to tell me about Lancelot’s bad habits. And I’ll leave you and that cousin of yours—Galahad—completely alone in regards to other matters.”
“That sounds fair.” Then Gawain rolled over and let himself slip away.
* * *
Galahad hit the secretive bastard. And then he winced, clutching at his injured shoulder. Dislocations weren’t the worst that could happen, but nevertheless they weren’t any fun to put back, either. Not to mention that for the next couple of days, he’d have to worry about whether the damned thing was going to pop out again.
Tristan, idiot that he was, had his hand floating over Galahad’s shoulder as if he thought the slightest touch would break it.
“It’s annoying, not serious. Like you,” Galahad muttered.
A moment later, when Tristan still didn’t get it, Galahad wrapped his good arm around the man’s neck and pulled him down. He felt one shiver, and then warm breath nuzzled into the tender spot behind his ear…while the hawk made a whining cry and rustled her wings.
“Go to sleep, lady,” Tristan muttered. His head turned into the fingers Galahad was slowly drawing through his hair.
“Same to you.” Galahad stayed awake long enough to catch himself a mismatched, warm-wet kiss, and then he promptly sank into oblivion.
* * *
It was an urn of unglazed pottery, built with an eye to sturdiness and none to aestheticism. Amid the nest of brightly-colored rag strips that had padded it during the journey from Britain to Sarmatia, it was a dull, ugly lump. But it had done what it had been meant to do, and it’d done it well, so to Arthur’s eye, it had nothing for which it needed to apologize.
Arthur startled, then turned to look at Lancelot. The other man had stayed beside him all through the fighting, but the moment the moaning of the wounded had overtaken the clashing of swords, Lancelot had been off. And he’d avoided Arthur all the way back to the main camp, though his fellow knights had been considerably warmer in their reception.
“My father died in a campaign a week north of my—of my childhood home. And my mother was trapped in our burning house—it was hard to find anything that I knew was from her and not from ashes of something else.” The expression on Lancelot’s face was unreadable, so Arthur twisted back around and started to rewrap the urn. He was careful especially around the thin neck, wrapping extra layers there until the entire thing was more cylindrical than curved.
The bed dipped as Lancelot sat down behind him. Palms spread flat against Arthur’s shoulderblades, pressing down so he almost missed the tremble in them, and then Lancelot laid his head against the back of Arthur’s neck.
“There’s only one or two bone chips of hers in this.” Arthur leaned down to tuck it securely with the rest of his things. When he sat back up, Lancelot’s hands had slid to his waist and the fingers were digging grooves so deep he thought he could feel them wearing into his bones. “My father wanted to be in Sarmatian soil most of all; he would’ve liked to be buried near the Wind’s Needle, but he didn’t care too much as to particulars.”
“Suppose you got that from your mother’s side, then.” Though Lancelot kept his words short, the roughness in them still was audible.
Very slowly, Arthur reached down and took Lancelot’s hands off of himself. He kept hold of them while he turned around to meet the man’s eyes. “What I had from her was knowing that, despite all that’s dark in life, one could still find something worth following. She wanted to be buried where my father was, and never mind that it wasn’t her land.”
Lancelot blinked back a veil of wetness, then looked down at the fingers he was squeezing around Arthur’s wrists. He slowly tilted forward till his cheek touched Arthur’s jaw, paused and breathed, and then he moved his head so their mouths just covered each other.
“Stay,” Lancelot murmured. “Stay and live, stay and die—I can’t promise you anything, except that this is where I’ll be.”
“And so will I.”
It’d been a long time since Arthur had seen peace. And it had been never that he’d had it inside of him, but he had it there now, and nothing he could see outside would shake it.