Tangible Schizophrenia

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Wolfskin IV: Woods

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: R. Violence.
Pairing: Arthur/Lancelot, Arthur/Guinevere, Lancelot/Guinevere, Gawain/Galahad/Tristan
Feedback: Whatís good, whatís bad, etc.
Disclaimer: These versions arenít mine.
Notes: AU with supernatural elements; not entirely historically accurate due to that, though Iíll try to put in as many real details as I can. Arthur was first sent to Sarmatia to help gather conscripted knights, then to Britain.
Summary: And six years later, Germanius shows up to wreck everyoneís lives.

***

Ten years in Britain wasting blood on a soil that didn't want them, and now all the hopes of the knights were penned up in a swaying, jouncing carriage bumping along in the midst of some nervous legionaries. That bishop must have been ruing whatever had gotten him sent to such a forsaken land. When he wasn't vomiting, that was. "Sicker than Bors after a barrel of beer and a night with Vanora, I'd wager," Lancelot muttered.

"Sorry, were you saying something? Something about my always having woman and drink to come home to, and you not?" Bors instantly called back. He was sitting on the far end of the line, anchoring that end as Lancelot did the other.

And a sorry line it was--seven including Arthur. Lancelot had kept count of the burials up until that one battle in his fourth year of Britain, when Merlin hadn't quite killed him but had managed to help kill forty knights on the battlefield. Gangrene and fever had taken more knights in the days following that battle, and Lancelot consequently had lost his taste for accurate accounting. Numbers didn't even begin to describe the losses they'd sustained, after all, and numbers weren't any comfort either when he had to face yet another burial. Or when he woke in the middle of the night and remembered just how many knights had never even had the simple dignity of a grave.

One thing that had changed after that battle--both Romans and Woads had given up on straightforward fighting. The Britons probably had done that because they'd finally realized that they simply couldn't match the Romans head-on, but the Romans had gone with that decision solely because of one man.

Arthur sat easy and relaxed next to Lancelot, a rare expression of satisfaction on his face. Usually he hunched with furrowed brow over this map or that trail-trace Tristan had found, brooding on how to out-smart the Woads. He'd turned himself into quite the expert on guerilla hunting, and had virtually taken over command of the garrison, even though a few higher-ranking officers still lingered for various reasons. Once, on an exceptionally calm night, Tristan had mentioned that the Woads now spoke of Arthur in the same breath as their gods of the underworld. That had made Lancelot laugh till the bitterness had risen to choke him off.

"Didn't say a thing," he replied to Bors, a trace of that same laugh staining his words. "Nothing except how much I'm looking forward to greeting Vanora when we get back. Got to say hello to all my--I mean, your brats."

Galahad leaned over and buried his head in his hands. "I pulled them apart last time. It's someone else's turn."

Snickering, Gawain clapped him on the back, then casually dragged his fingers through Galahad's hair as he dropped his arm. As the knights had fallen, so the remaining ones had circled closer and closer together, to the point that sometimes they might as well have been living in each others' heads. It was something of a relief to not have to hide their true natures from quite so many people--though it wasn't nearly enough to make up for all the deaths. "Oh, they won't bother this time. Not when our discharges are right there, plodding towards us. Even Lancelot's not stupid enough to get himself killed before he's free."

"I never understand why everyone thinks I would lose," Lancelot snorted, smacking at Gawain. "It's not as if I haven't beaten you all so badly that you cried for your mothers."

"Don't start, because I'm not taking the bait." Gawain blocked the half-hearted blows and nudged his horse nearer to Galahad's.

Arthur suddenly stiffened, as did Tristan. "Not you, but it does seem as if the Woads aren't nearly as happy as we are."

Frowning, Lancelot turned his attention back to the bishop's carriage just in time to see the first Woads lunge out from the ditch that paralleled the road. More followed until the frenzied Britons were swarming as thick as the fleas of an abandoned hound over the beleaguered legionaries, their bloody weapons flashing through the air.

"You'd think they would want us to go," Galahad said. "Looks like we've killed so many that they're robbing cradles--that one there can't be more than fifteen or so."

Before Arthur even looked at them, they were already preparing for the coming fight. Lancelot lifted his hands from their resting place on the saddle horn and flexed his fingers till the knuckles cracked. "Well--"

"Knights?" Arthur reached behind himself and drew out Excalibur.

"--haven't killed any Britons yet today. I should do something about that." Lancelot took the reins in one hand and directed his horse into a gallop, then pulled out his own sword. A second later, it cut into the first skull.

Like every other Woad ambush, it was quick and nasty, but ultimately lacking in staying power. Hack, hack, then dismount and fall into the familiar rhythm of defeating death for a few more seconds on earth. Someday Lancelot was going to lose that war, but considering the caliber of his current opponents, that wasn't going to happen today. He had barely settled himself into the flow of the fighting when it all came to an end, Woads vanishing as swiftly as they came while the knights stood in sticky blood and tried not to lose themselves in the rich stench of it.

"God help us," gasped someone. A priest, cringing beneath the carriage like a fear-frozen rabbit, long pale throat ready for wringing.

Eyes still lit with the fight, Bors set one gory hand against a wheel rim for support and bared his teeth at the cassock-shrouded fool. "Blue demons that eat Christians. You aren't a Christian, are you?"

The laugh that slipped out of Lancelot was dark and pitiless, but it helped calm the seething fury within him. He wiped his swords off on a corpse's rags and sheathed them, then took Bors by one shoulder and dragged him back to Dagonet. "We're supposed to be nice to them, remember?"

"Don't see why. The bishop's dead," snapped Galahad, voice lashed with disappointment so intense it bordered on rage. He had wrenched open the carriage door and was glaring at the arrow-riddled body inside as if he could raise it back to life by the force of sheer anger.

"That's not him." Arthur rode by, barely sparing a glance for the body as he pulled up beside the centurion leading the carriage's guard detachment. With that gray-streaked beard and those experience-shrewd eyes, the man looked rather too old to be still waving a sword about. "Bishop Germanius. I see your military background's still useful."

The centurion's stern face abruptly cracked into a broad but faintly oily grin. "Arthur. It's been long years since last I saw you, has it not?"

Interestingly enough, Arthur's welcome seemed a little less than warm due to a strange preoccupation. He kept flicking his eyes toward the trees as if distracted by something in there, and old vengeance stirred beneath his polite façade every time he looked away. "Yes, it has. I trust you'll accept us as a replacement escort for the last leg of your journey?"

Of course, Germanius accepted and immediately monopolized Arthur's attention during the ride back to the garrison, which thus left Lancelot with a foul taste in his mouth despite the golden promise of his discharge. He hadn't given in so far to the allure of blind hatred to forget that Sarmatia had only been a little more welcoming than Britain, and when he cared to admit it, he also remembered that the whole issue of his fulfilling his term of service to Rome was a poor second in comparison to the real dilemma in his life. Sarmatia was far away both in time and in distance, and so it made a lovely, convenient illusion of paradise. Distracted him well enough from the agonizing realization that he was losing his true dream to prayers and notions of equality among men.

"When I get home, the first thing I'll do is find a lovely Sarmatian woman and settle down," Gawain was saying, playful and teasing. The battle-rage in his eyes had long since transmuted itself to lust that divided itself between Tristan, who never seemed to change his expression these days, and Galahad, who kept taking impatient glances at the bishop riding ahead.

"Then I expect I'll be spending a lot of time at your house," Lancelot said, rousing himself out of his black mood. Time enough for that later. Right now, he wanted the sun on his face and the pretense of a happy ending. "Your wife will welcome the company."

Eyebrow raised, Gawain turned and gleefully plunged into the farce. "I see. And what will I be doing?"

"Wondering at your good fortune that all your children look like me." As if Lancelot ever planned to be responsible for any child suffering what he had suffered. Though he occasionally did look at Bors' fertile contentment and think a little.

"Is that before or after I hit you with my ax?" Gawain mockingly raised the weapon in question.

A sharp snort of contempt from Galahad drew both their attention. "Don't joke about it. I want off this damned island--if I have to stay another day, I think I'll go mad. And I don't care if back in Sarmatia they still try to kill me. At least it'll be my own people."

He'd spoken what they were all thinking, and his words resonated too loudly in the uncomfortable silence that followed. And they reminded Lancelot once again that Arthur's people and his were not the same. The way Arthur was now, he was going to flee for the false, safe comforts of his adopted city--just as Lancelot was looking forward to running to ground in Sarmatia. It would figure that war would make him furious, but peace would make him sick.

"Bors, what about your children?" Dagonet asked. Now there was a calm that rivaled Tristan's; Lancelot sometimes thought he should ask Arthur just how that knight had come into the fold, but then, he wanted to ask Arthur so many questions that when a moment came up, he could never manage to pick one in time.

"Trying to avoid that decision, actually." Bors' chuckle was a little short on mirth. "Think getting killed would work?"

Everyone looked at each other. "No," they chorused.

"Damn." Mournful was an odd emotion to see on Bors. "They're too young to make it in Sarmatia. Haven't even started to shift skins yet."

Tristan lifted his hawk and kissed its head, murmuring little secrets to its gleaming eyes. "Think on it when you're a free man. Things will change then, so there's no point in deciding now."

And his words rang so true that they let him have the last word.

***

Arthur attempted to subtly catch Germanius' attention with every kind of gesture known to man. He tried to divert their conversation. He tried to interrupt their conversation. In the end, however, none of those approaches worked, and the only untried attack was the very one he'd desperately wanted to avoid.

"A...round table," Germanius said, voice slowed with patent disapproval.

"Yes. So no one place is favored above another. We're all equal here." The grating emphasis Arthur put on that did not go unnoticed by Germanius, which was exactly as Arthur intended. "And looking forward to the--"

Germanius coughed, heavy vestments rustling with all the weight of ominous premonition. He stepped up and whispered, "Arthur, if you please. I need to speak to you alone."

Dread filled Arthur's mouth with the taste of ashes, but he spoke strongly enough. "Whatever you need to say can be said to all."

Lancelot was smiling, those white teeth flashing with merciless foreknowledge and accusing resignation. Whenever Arthur saw the man these days, that expression was ever-present, doing much to nurture the guilt that snaked tendrils through every part of Arthur.

"I don't think it can." This time, Germanius spoke to be heard by everyone, and to remind them that he was a man whose life had been as hardened by warfare as their own. He would brook no disagreement.

Arthur's decision only added to the clawing demons in his gut, but he at last dismissed the knights, ignoring not only Lancelot's intense scrutiny but also Tristan's uncharacteristically public display of mockery in his farewell toast. And then, winter tightening its grip on him, he listened to Germanius speak of a Roman family trapped north of Hadrian's Wall, of a boy the Church wanted home to blood the political mill, of a last mission as blood-price for the discharges. He argued and protested till his voice rasped with overuse, all to no avail as Germanius countered with calls to duty, faith and debt, for the bishop had been the one to sponsor the parentless boy-Arthur through his rise up the army ranks.

Germanius probably didn't realize how near he came to having his throat ripped out, Arthur thought as he dragged his beaten self towards the tavern. If he ever did, it was extremely doubtful whether he'd recognize the honor inherent in that; only one other man had ever managed to push Arthur that far.

The anger surged back to the forefront of Arthur's mind, and he had to duck into an alley and press his fists against the wall, breathing so slowly that his vision began to black out. He couldn't do this. Not only did it contravene everything he believed in, all the ideals that had supported his sanity through the preceding years of constant savage darkness, but it also went against everything he'd come to love.

But there were innocent lives at stake, and possibly the future of the entire Church. Weighed against the lives of his knights, and Arthur doubted that even Solomon had ever been faced with a harder decision.

Thanks to his dual--if indeed he could only claim two, snorted his self-contempt--nature, Arthur could make out the individual voices of his men, all full of a joyous camaraderie that was rare enough in places of peace and wealth where men had all their wants satisfied, let alone in the never-ending mess that was Britain.

Gawain: "How do you do that, Tristan?"

Tristan: "I aim for the middle."

And irrepressible Lancelot, who somehow withstood all the wrongs that Arthur undeservedly heaped on him. "Vanora, when are you going to leave Bors and come home with me?"

"My lover's watching. And yours has a working nose," hissed Vanora.

"You look nothing like him." Empathetically told to the baby's gurgles, and then, to the whole tavern, Bors' bellow: "Give us a song!"

Vanora had a sweet voice, but tonight it was in especially fine form, soaring high and beautiful where only dreams could go. Hearkening to it, Arthur lost himself in the simple pleasure of it, and only too late noticed that he'd wandered to where he could be noticed.

And after all this time, Lancelot's face would still light up, stirring feelings within Arthur that should've been long since lost to dishonor. "And here's our leader, lately come from the good bishop. How'd it go?"

They were good men, great warriors and superior spirits. They'd risked excruciating death again and again for Arthur, they'd listened to his words and taken those into themselves. They were the best judges, so he would lay out the situation before them and let them decide.

When they all chose for him, however reluctantly, the shock was great enough to numb him until he reached the stables. It even lasted until his hands had touched his saddle, where one of his fingers slipped and jabbed itself on a jagged bit of metal, lacerating his senses back into him.

"Oh, God." Arthur wanted to fall through the earth. The leaden responsibilities that chained his limbs certainly should have been heavy enough.

As if he should have expected otherwise, said that sardonic particle of irony that haunted his every thought, always using Lancelot's voice. He'd already known that they couldn't disagree with him. Not when they'd spent the past fifteen years relying on his judgment and protection and leadership. Not when they'd dedicated themselves to him--him, and not Rome or war or religion or even philosophical utopias. They were wolves, and he led them.

"God," Arthur repeated, closing his eyes so the world wouldn't see the rot within him. "Preserve the lives of my knights. But if you must take a life, then take mine."

"Why do you always talk to him and not to me?" The voice was too loud, too crackling with life. It took Arthur a moment to realize that he was hearing the flesh-and-blood Lancelot and not the bodiless pretender that lurked in his mind. "Does he ever answer you?"

Sighing, Arthur turned around and opened his eyes to see Lancelot standing with clenched fists, fury bound up tightly in his unwavering gaze. "We've been over this. You have your beliefs and I have mine."

"I don't trust anything that puts a man on his knees," Lancelot snapped. "If such a powerful god is so jealous as to demand constant humiliation, then I say--"

"Don't! Don't--Lancelot, for the love of whatever friendship we still have. Don't do this." Damn the man. It never ceased to surprise Arthur how quickly Lancelot could rouse the rage in him. Nor did either of them ever seem to learn from their previous clashes; instead, they always ended up walking away with a belly full of resentment and a new set of marks to overlay the old ones, which were never completely erased.

When Lancelot didn't immediately answer, Arthur turned back to his tack. He was about to start filling his saddlebags when a hand seized his arm.

"There was a time when you would've taken an afternoon with me over a half-hour reading, or kneeling to your crosses." Lancelot's voice was low as ebb tide under a new moon, and smoky with heat.

Arthur froze, silently cursing himself for forgetting the other emotion that always came forth to Lancelot's call. He told himself to speak up before matters could grow even worse, but that hand on his arm slid down to cover his fingers, which were clamped around the railing. Leanness pressed into his side, instantly recalling and outdoing all the memories of happier times.

"You seemed to like Sarmatia, I remember." As Lancelot was resting his chin on Arthur's shoulder, every word vibrated down into the bone and floated caressingly over Arthur's ear. "Would you have left if we hadn't been posted here?"

"It's not my land," Arthur murmured, struggling not to press back against Lancelot. "It never was, though I found it pleasant for a while. It's your home."

Lancelot rubbed his cheek against Arthur's shoulderblade, laughing so softly his sarcasm was nearly masked. "Only until I was twelve. Then it didn't seem to welcome me too much."

"Then why are you so desperate to return?" Confusion was wriggling into the cracks in Arthur's determination, slowly prying them wide for foolish surrender.

"It's not Sarmatia, idiot. It's what Sarmatia means--no Rome. No overlord. But also...damn it. You make it so difficult to talk about the simplest little things." Frustrated, Lancelot beat his forehead against Arthur's arm. Then he stilled and slumped, every line of his body bespeaking a defeat that frightened Arthur on levels he hadn't realized he'd had. "You know, the stupidest thing about this is that part of me is actually happy. Because this way, it'll be a little longer before you leave me."

Arthur swallowed twice before he gave up on ridding himself of the lump in his throat. It refused to budge, which forced his breath to pool in the back of his mouth and stagnate. "I keep telling you to visit me in Rome. The arts and the learning that's gathered there..."

When Lancelot lifted his head, he revealed the eyes of a dying man, though his vigor was struggling till the end. The corner of his mouth lifted in listless humor. "But what of the women?"

"You aren't interested in the women," Arthur finally admitted, voice rough. So were his palms on their inevitable slide to Lancelot's waist.

"You aren't Roman," Lancelot countered as he swayed nearer. "At least, not the part of you that wants me."

His lips were like a brand on Arthur, searing and sweet and lingering. "I don't only want you," Arthur told them, just before they ran out of time for words.

He took Lancelot up against a pole, drowning himself in sweat-softened curls, sweet yielding flesh, fingers bruising his shoulders. Horses nickering, earthy fragrance from the hay being crushed by their feet, vulnerable pulse of Lancelot's bared throat beating against Arthur's mouth. And for a little while afterward, the feeling that Arthur had finally earned the right of it.

***

Tristan found Galahad sitting on a roof, slicing up an apple and stabbing the pieces into his mouth. With the way the name 'Gawain' kept recurring in his mutterings, it would've been easy to assume that he was imagining the bits of fruit to be the other man. But after six years of putting up with Galahad's restlessness, Tristan knew better.

"Where's your hawk?" Galahad called down. He unconsciously curled away from Tristan as he did.

"I left her with Gawain. He needed something to do besides fretting over you." Naturally, Tristan's response was to advance; it was the matter of a moment to catch the roof-edge with his hand, a window-sill with his boot-tip, and to swing himself up. He settled down a few feet from Galahad and started to attend to his knives.

It took a few minutes longer than usual for Galahad to complain. Tristan noted that and accordingly adjusted his assessment of the other man's state of aggravation. "Don't you ever do anything different? It's either hone those damn things, pet the hawk or run around the forest and make Ga--make that bastard fidget till you finally show up."

The afternoon's fight had left its mark in the form of a chip in one of Tristan's best long knives. Though it wasn't too deep, and with any luck...Tristan carefully filed down the edges of the notch.

"All right, all right. I won't kill him." Galahad spat out an apple seed that rattled a roof tile of the building next door. "But since when did he have the fucking right to speak for me? I'm nowhere near being a boy now, even blind as he is to that kind of thing."

"Were you going to tell Arthur no?" While Tristan waited for Galahad to not answer him, he finished smoothing the edge of his blade. A few last finicky swipes, and then he moved onto the next one. "So Arthur wasn't going to wait for you forever. Someone had to speak."

More tiles clinked as Galahad swung his legs over to dangle down the side of the building. He kicked his heels in the air, at first in a vague rhythm, but his movements gradually grew more violent and random as time passed.

"Why are you always so reasonable?" Galahad finally muttered. "Don't you ever lose your temper?"

That made Tristan think a moment, because he wanted to be sure. "Not in the time that you've known me. And I'm reasonable--"

"--because someone has to be--"

"--because I already know that I can't expect anything. So I don't lose anything of value by not getting upset." Tristan checked the sharpness of his last dagger against his thumb, then tucked away blade and whetstone before sucking off the blood. It helped stave off the restiveness he felt every time they were in the garrison and night fell; he'd grown so accustomed to sleeping in temporary shelters that permanent structures had started to bother him a little. Stone and brick walls were too...still.

Which was possibly why he was finding it easier and easier to tolerate Galahad, who never stopped moving. Even Lancelot's agitation had a kind of directed energy to it that was lacking in Galahad's impatience.

"Well, that makes me feel a little better. You've not grown out of being a fool." And then Galahad was scooting over and pushing Tristan against the roof without a care towards the possibility of observers.

"Not here." Tristan dodged, but kept one hand on Galahad's shoulder so the other man wouldn't take it as a complete rejection. His overreactions to that always resulted in at least a week of awkwardness, and that was when Gawain was in a position to play the role of intermediary. "Why'd you do that?"

Galahad rolled his eyes, then jumped off the roof. He stretched a hand back up to Tristan. "Because after six years, you should be able to expect something. You've got the right so, as Arthur would say."

"I doubt that," Tristan snorted. He didn't need the help, but for some reason, he found himself taking Galahad's hand anyway as he got down. "Come on. My hawk's probably winning by now."

"Gawain's not that bad with it," Galahad protested, apparently forgetting that he was supposed to be too angry to defend Gawain.

They walked in relative peace all the way to the door of their barracks, where Galahad stopped, stubborn nervousness blooming in his face. He shuffled the dust around with his feet, suddenly looking fifteen again. "You're going to make me apologize to him, aren't you."

Grinning, Tristan merely clamped a hand on Galahad's shoulder and dragged him inside.

***

Riding up to this Marius Honorius' villa was either an exercise in sheer bravado, or in sheer stupidity. Given how the night had gone, Gawain was leaning toward the latter choice. The Woads had had them completely trapped, had had the chance to utterly wipe them out where no sympathetic person would ever find their bodies...and then they'd let them go.

And that one Woad, who'd apparently been the leader--Gawain could've sworn that that had been the same one whose life Arthur had spared during the attack on Germanius. The strange look on Arthur's face when he'd confronted the Woad had just about confirmed that guess: it'd been rage, but more of a...reflection or shadow of some other grudge. "Dagonet?"

The other man slightly turned his head, but didn't speak. Understandably. They were still in deep forest, and Tristan hadn't yet returned from his last round of scouting.

"You were near Arthur when we were fighting the Woads that ambushed Germanius. Did you see Merlin anywhere near?" Gawain hoped that Tristan would come back soon, because the other man was much better at deciphering Arthur's various behaviors. Second only to Lancelot, but as Lancelot hadn't really talked to anyone since they'd left the garrison...

Dagonet shook his head, but his gaze intensified until Gawain could feel his skin begin to prickle. "Why?"

"Oh...well, when Arthur gets...off...it's almost always because of Lancelot or because of Merlin. And Lancelot's been quiet lately." Shrugging, Gawain touched up his horse's pace a little. If he didn't have to be last, then he wasn't going to let himself be; rearguard during a forest probe was always the worst position.

"Too quiet," Galahad muttered. He shot Gawain a look, as if deciding whether to go on or resume the strained silent truce that had been in effect since they'd first heard about their supposed last mission. "If they got into another fight--"

Gawain flapped his hand, darting worried looks at the aforementioned knights, who were riding ahead. "Then that's their business, and not ours."

"It's mine if it makes a difference in whether I get my discharge." The inflection on the last word spiked, as if Galahad was trying to stab Gawain with it.

"We're coming up on the house," Dagonet interrupted. He clucked at his horse, slowing it so he could back up to Bors and pass on the news, Gawain assumed.

And the path was opening onto a clearing, so quickly that the change was an almost physical shock. Gawain's vision blurred as it tried to see through gnarled knotwork trunks that were no longer there, then cleared as he adjusted. Up ahead, a proper Roman gate with sculptured posts loomed out of the landscape, incongruous as a flower growing out of a pile of horse-shit.

"One part done. Can't wait till we get through the rest." Galahad spurred his charger on.

Gawain wasn't quite so free with his enthusiasm, let alone his hope. He had a growing twist in his gut that told him matters were going to get much more complicated before the whole mission finally ended.

***

It had been a long, long time since Guinevere had smelled anything except the stench of agony-numbed fear and the sick twisted lust that drenched her captors, so when a wave of musky leather and steel curled itself into her nose, she forced herself to look. And her eyes met the horrified dark ones of a man dressed in the armor of the Sarmatian cavalry. "I'm Arthur," he whispered. "You no longer have to fear."

And then he reared back, revealing in passing the presence of another man, and with one furious blow knocked the lock from her cage. The thunderous clanging as the bars hit the stone lacerated Guinevere's hearing, making her duck her head and stop up her ears as best she could with her mangled hands.

She'd forgotten how much her fingers hurt. She'd forgotten how much pain hurt.

When she came to herself again, Guinevere then realized how much she'd also forgotten of the sky and grass and snow and wind. Gasping, she tried to climb out of the arms cradling her, desperate for more free air, more free space, more of everything that wasn't crushing walls painted with blood that never quite dried for the dampness of cruelty.

"No, no, don't." Some rough male voice tried to quiet her frantic whimperings, but she wasn't going to be denied again. Not when there was dirt forcing itself beneath her ragged nails, bleeding her afresh but with her own soil, and so many scents. So much she'd nearly lost. So--

"What do you think you're doing?" snapped that one. "You've no right--"

Guinevere remembered rage then, and humiliation and suffering and pride. She whipped out of the arms that sought to restrain her and snarling, changed. Tried to leap for that white throat's fatty vulnerability, but her body was too broken. Falling back broke it even more, jarring her back to benumbed legs and shattered hands, and then she cried a little. Because Marius had taken even that from her.

"See! See!" Eyes alight with righteous delight, he stabbed his finger in her direction. "She's a monster. They're all monsters here--not even human! They knew and they reverenced her for that!"

"It's worth more than your God," that second man sneered, lips pulled back to display long canines. He was standing over Guinevere and had his swords out, while the man holding her was also reaching for his--Arthur. Arthur had her.

For a moment, Guinevere wondered whether today was her time to die.

Then a snarl echoed from behind Marius, low fury trembling the ground. A huge knight was kneeling over Lucan--and then it was a huge wolf crouching over the boy, threat plainly directed at Marius. A blink, and the knight was back, now stroking Lucan's curls with all the tenderness of a new mother.

The Roman bastard's eyes bulged. His jaw dropped, slack as a baby's. "You--Arthur, you--"

"It hardly matters, considering that it's what's going to preserve your lives," Arthur spat, slipping his arms beneath Guinevere and lifting her, easy as a feather. Though when she caught sight of her arm, limp stick across her belly, that didn't seem surprising at all. "That it's what has kept the Woads from your doorstep all these years. Get into your wagon and stay there, Marius Honorius."

Arthur spoke against a tangible back-drop of growling that vibrated from one stony-faced knight to another, churning the frozen air into a slush of feral menace.

"You're supposed to be protecting us!" Marius darted for his pet guards, but however he moved, he always found a knight casually slipping between him and his dogs. Weak civilized curs that they were, they did nothing except shiver with fear. "Rome will hear of this. She'll hear of every single scrape you demons give us."

"We are protecting you, and unless you want to deal with the Saxons, you'll let us handle that as we see fit." Icicles snapping beneath their own weight didn't sound as crisp or cold as Arthur did. He didn't look at Marius as he handed Guinevere into Fulcinia's silent shameful sympathy, as he gestured for his knights to remount, as he hauled himself back on his own horse with a face like the dark shadow in a newly-dug grave.

In fact, he more or less ignored Marius throughout the journey, though his knights lost no chance to let slip some small reminder of their feelings towards the Romans. Watching them, Guinevere wondered how they had managed to keep their secrets for so long, because there was no mistaking the wolfishness in them now.

Merlin had hinted of such things, she remembered, and in doing that Guinevere slowly began to recover the parts of herself that had locked themselves away from Christianity's kind ministrations. She laid on her back, tracking the movements of each shadow on the lashed-down curtains while Fulcinia dressed her wounds, and she slowly recalled what it was like to be Guinevere, and not the caged beast tearing at itself. Then she remembered what she'd been helping to plan before Marius' men had snatched her from her bed.

The front of the carriage groaned alarmingly, complaining of its sudden increase in burden. Arthur's haggard face pushed through the curtains; with steps unsteadied by fatigue and worry, he made his way first to Lucan and...Dagonet, some of the other knights had named that one. They had a short conversation, too softly for even Guinevere to make out, and then Fulcinia was folding herself back into the shadows as Arthur knelt by Guinevere's pallet. His hand, iced on the surface but hot beneath, felt her brow before dropping to her bandaged fingers. She instinctively tried to draw them away, but he took her wrist and held it till she relaxed.

"Your bones are out of your joints," he told her, frank in his still strong horror at what'd been done to her. Guinevere had to remind herself that it was that and not her herself that disgusted him. "I need to force them back if you ever want to use your hand again."

Nodding, she forced her hand to lift and let him unwrap it. Then she allowed him to take the dull knobs of frozen ache embedded in each knuckle and burst them into agonizing mobility. It would have been better if she could've remained facing him as he did it, but the pain was too much and she fell into him, muffling her cries in his shoulder.

"There." Once he was finished, he rocked back on his heels and expressionlessly watched as she stared at her able fingers.

A bow, Guinevere thought. Those calluses would fit around it just so--and she curled her hand. The wonder when her fingers bent as they should was too painful for it to be a dream.

"I've never met a female one of us," Arthur said, tone too somber.

"I'm not a Roman," Guinevere corrected. The rules of this hunt were slowly coming back to her, smoothing oil onto the rusted intelligence of her mind. "But yes, I do change. There aren't as many women as men here that do, but there are some--is it less equal in Rome?"

Arthur stiffened ever-so-slightly. His scent thickened with uncertainty, turning sour and sharp. Guinevere silently thanked Merlin for making her learn Latin, and then for sending her those fragments hurriedly copied from Pelagius' essays.

"Romans don't have this." With a last searching glance of her face, Arthur began to rise. "Good day, lady."

"Wait, Artorius Castus." It sent lightning bolts of hurt from fingertips to shoulder, but Guinevere rose and seized his shoulder. "Sarmatian knight. I am Guinevere, and...thank you."

The muscle flexing in Arthur's jaw matched the flicker in his eyes. "I'm not Sarmatian, either. You're welcome."

Guinevere watched him leave, then quickly twisted around to put her eye to the small slivered window between carriage frame and drapes. She saw Arthur walk back to his horse, which was being held by that second man that had helped bring her out. Younger than Arthur, with dark eyes that she guessed would have been wickedly lively if not currently veiled with resentment. But when he looked at Arthur--even when they appeared to be violently arguing in whispers--

When he looked at Arthur, he looked as if there was nothing else in the world.

Lancelot.

"What are you thinking, when you watch him?" Fulcinia suddenly asked. Even her questions cringed, afraid of their very existence.

"Why? What do all women think when they see a handsome, brave, honorable man?" Guinevere laid down, cradling her wounded hand. Every so often, she made herself move the fingers so they wouldn't stiffen into another kind of immobility.

The other woman said nothing, but when she drew the blankets over Guinevere, her fingers hovered over Guinevere's shoulder as if she wanted to shake it.

"I will not lock myself in another prison," Guinevere muttered. "I care for no man's bars, no matter how gilded they might be. Your husband cured me of any inclination towards that."

It was a harsh thing to say, especially since Fulcinia was trying to make penance, but Guinevere had always detested that part of Christianity anyway. As if doing a good deed would ever truly erase the memory of the evil ones.

Still...Fulcinia couldn't help her broken nature any more than Guinevere could help her scarred, bent one. Some were simply born without backbones, and some were born too strong to do anything but break all others that they touched.

Something prickled Guinevere's nose. Startled, she looked out the chink to find Lancelot staring back. He was a good ten feet away, and the gap in the drapes was barely the size of Guinevere's eye--yet he was looking at her. She could feel that. And she could feel the smolder of his antipathy.

Guinevere abruptly rolled over, letting her one arm flop towards Fulcinia. She closed her eyes and watched the fairytales of her childhood pass one by one across the darkness, pale shadows compared to the world she was relearning. "How is Alecto?"

"Well. He's never seen your people as evil or flawed--not any more than the rest of humanity." Eager for the distraction, Fulcinia prattled on about the youth, and Guinevere let her, feeling the shy flow of words tumble and smooth over her as she fell into dream.

***

Tristan emerged from the brush just in time to catch the tail-end of Arthur and Guinevere's conversation. She had made quite the recovery, and was sitting at the front of the carriage, sweet dagger smile on her face. "A leader both Briton and Roman. Yet you chose to hold allegiance to the authority that takes what doesn't belong to them. That took your men from their lands."

Well, she knew a surprising amount about them, but she overreached herself in her presumption. Hiding his smile, Tristan waited for Arthur's response.

"Listen, lady--you know nothing about myself or my men. And you would do well to remember that Britain is not Sarmatia or Rome." Arthur sat straight and rigid in the saddle, a pose he normally reserved only for the parade-grounds. Which Tristan didn't believe he'd seen in years.

"How many Britons have you killed?" Guinevere asked. In the forefront of the group, Lancelot was attempting to ignore everything, but Tristan could still make out aborted turns toward Arthur's direction.

Shrugging, Arthur looked at the path in front of them. "As many as have tried to kill me. It's the natural state for any man to want to live."

"Animals live, yet we both know that they and man are quite different. It's the natural state for a man to want to live in his own country. An animal wouldn't notice that," she tartly riposted. "I belong to Britain...and where do you belong, Arthur? You say you're not Sarmatian, you claim to be Roman..."

"How many did you kill?" Bors asked, riding up to Tristan.

The hawk ruffled, slitting her eyes at the other knight. Tristan slipped her a bit of dried meat from his pack to settle her before he answered. "Four."

"Not a bad end to the day." Bors stayed alongside for a few more moments, obviously hoping to hear something before Tristan reported to Arthur, but he was disappointed in that. After an awkward grunt, he dropped back to chat with Dagonet, who was curiously protective of that Woad boy. Tristan momentarily regretted never getting around to learning more about that knight, but then, Dagonet had never been very forward to begin with. And it wasn't Tristan's place to question whatever choices the other knights made in regards to their secrets.

"How's your hand?" Arthur finally asked, not responding to Guinevere's query.

She lifted the body part in question, slowly moving the fingers. Sore, Tristan suspected, but they would be able to hold a weapon by now. "I'll live. But there's nothing in my land that appeals to you? Even your father married a Briton, so he must have found something."

"And my father died in battle, fighting my mother's supposed people." With that, Arthur started to withdraw. He turned his head, saw Tristan and raised an eyebrow, to which Tristan nodded toward the side of the cavaran.

"Battle?" Apparently, Guinevere hadn't known about that.

Arthur's smile was hard and double-edged as Excalibur. "It's a family tradition."

He rode away before she could throw any more barbs after him, slipping back to join Tristan. "Well?"

"There's about two hundred Saxons, coming up fast." And Woads as well, but for once, they weren't the most pressing worry. "They'll be on us by tomorrow."

It was a mark of the strain on Arthur that he swore at that--not in Latin, but in the bitter-voweled dialect of Lancelot's tribe. Other than that, he did keep his composure intact as he watched the wagons and people trudge through the forest, going scarcely faster than a pregnant cow. "How long before the Saxons make camp for the night?"

"They're doing that now. But they move fast; they'll soon make up the difference." Tristan honestly wished he had had better news, but he didn't and any kind of lie would only kill them quicker.

"Then it makes no difference. Everyone's exhausted anyway. Pushing them further tonight would only wear them out for the morning." Arthur was muttering to himself, gaze flickering over the frost-mossed trunks that loomed over them. He didn't seem to remember that Tristan was there, which was odd for him.

Two horses trotted up; Gawain and Lancelot, done with their turn at the vanguard. "We've got to stop soon," Gawain said. "They're starting to drop in their tracks."

"The next good campsite we see," Arthur replied. "And we start at first light."

Then Lancelot caught at the bridle of Arthur's horse, drawing him aside for...Tristan looked at Gawain. "How many times today?"

"I'm trying not to count anymore. Ask Galahad; he's practically got his nose shoved up their asses, he's listening so closely." Gawain clucked at his horse, gently nudging the tired beast onwards. He flicked his eyes over Tristan, then frowned and reached over to wipe a trace of blood from Tristan's neck. "If you're riding around with an unbandaged wound again, I'll--I'll tie you out for the Woads to find."

"The Saxons now," Tristan corrected, suddenly feeling the long stresses of the day himself. He let himself slump in the saddle and just trailed his horse alongside Gawain's, allowing the other man to lead for a while.

Dark, bitter irony was a brutal thing to see in Gawain's face. "Lovely. You know, now I understand why Galahad was so angry at my speaking for him. I probably wouldn't, if we were going to do that all over again."

Of course, he was lying. They all were, thinking only of their separate dreams so they needn't face the coming pain of separation. The years had bound them too tightly together for simple peace, hearth and dutiful wife to so easily replace the warmth of comradeship. Of being together, and striking together, and...bedding together for some of them. Not that that had ever been the only meaning that Gawain held for him.

Tristan was a coward, and he'd acknowledged that fact long ago. But whenever he looked at Gawain, the questions would rise fast and furious in his mouth, and he always started to wonder what it'd be like to be brave in that. To be demanding and selfish and wanting like Lancelot and Galahad, and then to get something for it.

"So...Tristan." Gawain's hand ghosted along Tristan's thigh, bringing him half out of his dark reverie. "What were you planning to do?"

"Follow you." It must have been the exhaustion. That and the musings on outspokenness, because Tristan had most certainly not meant to say that.

He flinched at his own words, then forced himself to look at Gawain. Surprisingly enough, the other man didn't seem upset or even very shocked. "Oh. Ah...Tristan..."

"Come on," Galahad interrupted, riding up. "We found a campsite that'll actually fit everyone."

"You know he'll still be around," Gawain muttered to Tristan, slow grin like honey on the tongue.

Galahad darted suspicious looks at them both. "Now what?"

"I think I'll live. He doesn't have a very strong bite," Tristan answered, watching with more than a little amusement as a red-faced Galahad promptly hauled his horse around and cantered off.

Just before they entered the makeshift camp, Gawain twisted about and grabbed Tristan's arm, solemn-faced. His eyes, however, were bright with something that hooked deep into Tristan's gut and stuck there, burning. "I was joking before about the wife. Someone had to distract Lancelot."

"I wasn't joking about what I said." As Tristan didn't smell anyone too near, he risked the moment and took Gawain's hand in his own, then pressed it to his cheek.

"Good. Because I didn't want you to be." Gawain's finger curled around Tristan's cheekbone, stroking over the twin marks there. Then they both sensed someone coming near and had to break apart, but the unspoken promises still lingered between them.

***

Lancelot could understand many things, but why Guinevere would so blatantly flaunt herself before him wasn't quite one of them. Neither was why he had stopped to watch, and couldn't lower his eyes no matter how many warnings screamed in his head. Something was wrong here...and besides, he still was of the mind that the knights should leave everyone behind except that damned Alecto. After all, the youth was the only one they'd really come for, and his guardians certainly had lost any hope of deserving a rescue by association. Marius and his perverted faith not only made the bile rise in Lancelot's throat, but the memories as well: families hunting their sons right into the arms of Rome, just for some stupid folk-fear that hadn't stood up to the test of time.

After all the years, the knights hadn't gone into ravening bloody madness. Although sometimes Lancelot could almost see why that would be such an appealing path. Guinevere did recover fast, didn't she? Only a few days, and already the starved body was developing slim shallow curves, soft fall of hair. On the other hand, Lancelot would have bet his life that the black cunning in those eyes hadn't ever gone away. Wolf-girl...now he knew why Sarmatian women never seemed to experience that. They were clever, but not of the same shadowy, smoky caliber as Guinevere.
Somewhere in the forest, a twig snapped. It was enough to break whatever spell that Woad girl had woven; Lancelot decisively turned away and stalked after the source of that sound, hiding his burning cheeks in the snow-coated darkness.

It was Arthur, of course. Kneeling in the middle of the damn forest with his sword out of reach and no one to watch his back. The fool...if Lancelot had had a choice, he would've picked someone with a better sense of self-preservation.

Except he hadn't, and even now it didn't take much for him to admit that he didn't want a choice. Not with Arthur.

Even when the other man was behaving so oddly--he would fold his hands together and squeeze shut his eyes, but a half-heartbeat later, his eyes would fly open and glare at the world while his arms flung apart as if to tear into an attacker. Then he would slowly raise his head to look at the sky, so anguished that even from the edge of the clearing, Lancelot could feel Arthur's pain as if it'd traveled across the intervening space to lodge within himself.

"He can't pray anymore."

The whisper almost sent Lancelot's swords stabbing behind him. As it was, he was amazed that Arthur didn't seem to notice the clatter of metal and leather as he jumped. "Guinevere. How nice to see you well enough to take walks in the middle of the night."

"One thing the Romans had right--baths make it harder to smell someone coming." She'd found a pretty flowing dress and cloak somewhere, a bit oversized but still becomingly clingy. "I never thanked you for helping me."

"You shouldn't. I argued against that--in fact, I'm still arguing against it." Lancelot carefully stepped back and leaned against a tree, positioning himself so he could keep an eye on both of them. "And you know something else? I think you must not have done a very good job washing, because I can still smell something on you. Merlin."

Guinevere's eyebrows went up, and so did the assessing fraction of her gaze. "Likewise, you reek of Arthur."

That stopped Lancelot for a moment. The other knights knew--they had to by now--but they'd never actually mentioned it, and had always gone along with the ribaldries about whores and camp followers. In fact, the only one who'd ever come close to being as bold as Guinevere had been a drunk knight who hadn't been one of them...and who'd been unfortunate enough to die in a Woad skirmish the day after.

"How many enemies do you want?" Guinevere whispered. "Marius isn't beaten yet, believe me--and then there are the Saxons and the Woads who still think it's better to die fighting than live to see their homeland freed."

"Are you threatening me?" Incredulous, Lancelot crossed his arms over his chest and made no attempt to hide his contempt.

Possibly a mistake, because that gave her a chance to lean in, her pretty hands searing where they rested on his elbows. "No. I'm...suggesting. And I'll be honest--all Merlin has tried to do these past few years has been aimed at separating you and Arthur. He knows that if Arthur falls, there won't be a true leader left in Britain. And he knows that you're the only failing Arthur has."

"You're making me blush." Sarcasm was comfortable on Lancelot's tongue, slick and easy to throw out. He bent forward till they were close enough to taste each other's breath and watched as her irises went gold. Listened as her pulse briefly sped up. So she wasn't quite so serene as she obviously considered herself to be. "So you're what in this grand scheme of Merlin's? The decoy?"

Guinevere shrugged. "Probably. It's been a few years since I've directly spoken to Merlin, and...and he wasn't there. On Marius' farm. He didn't see--he doesn't know, and he wouldn't ever understand. But I do."

"Do..." Lancelot trailed off, flapping his hand in an interrogative gesture.

"That God and Rome are dead to me now," interjected a third voice. Arthur betrayed a flash of amusement at their startled jerks, but that soon faded to a fierce black despair. He stood up and took slow steps towards them, moving like--prowling. Like he was hunting them, Lancelot realized with abrupt dread. Like the Arthur that would rage free when events pushed him beyond his control, like the Arthur that terrified them both. "That I am being whittled away by duty and compassion, and that all I receive in replacement are war and death and sorrow. That I either have to make my stand and die as I am, or change and die as something that I know nothing of."

As she spoke, hesitant and unsure, Guinevere unconsciously curled closer to Lancelot, as if he was safer. Which he was at the moment, and which was just an example of what strange ways constant battle twisted lives. "I...in that prison, I saw that Britain needed to be freed. And I saw that it needed more than ferocious warriors. It needs a strong, caring hand to guide it--those slaves of Marius were fearful and weak, but as soon as you came..."

"Whose game are you playing?" Arthur's hand crashed into the trunk six inches from Lancelot's head, trapping them between him and the tree. The eyes he turned on Guinevere were gold and black, too full of keen intelligence for comfort. "Because I'll tell you this--your land can take my faith, my beliefs, my life--but I won't let it take this."

And Arthur's palm scraped down the bark to land on Lancelot's shoulder. Fingers curled tight around Lancelot's neck, so tight that he could feel the bruises stretching into the bone, spreading out with the heat that suddenly swelled through him. He tried to speak, but the words caught themselves in his mouth, raking blood out whenever he tried to free them.

In the end, Lancelot turned his face to the side and pressed it into the side of Arthur's jaw, baring his throat. He hoped that that would be enough.

Arthur's breath hissed in, held for a long moment, and then came out filled with his pent-up fury. Drained, he swayed into Lancelot and simply nipped at the offered curve, gently lipping it.

"I'm not playing by any rules but my own," Guinevere finally said. She was still stuck between them, so her words ghosted over both their faces. "That's why Merlin sent me up north--so I could learn to do that. I want Britain to prosper. And I want you--I want--"

"Britain needs a general, Arthur."

Tonight was the one for unusual meetings, Lancelot irritably thought. Merlin, finally making his grand entrance.

"You killed my mother," Arthur snarled, not moving. "Do you remember? A house, a fire...a boy with his father's sword..."

"I do. It wasn't my intent; she was a Briton and I had no quarrel with her." Sincere enough, but Lancelot didn't doubt that Merlin could dissemble like a professional politician when it pleased him.

Guinevere laid one hand on Arthur's cheek, and the other on Lancelot's shoulder. "I didn't kill your mother," she whispered. "Will you hold all of us responsible for that, forever?"

Arthur didn't reply for a long time, choosing instead to look at Lancelot as if he saw some secret within Lancelot's eyes. But that couldn't be it, because Lancelot had never hid anything from Arthur, and he'd never be able to.

"No," Arthur finally said. He closed his eyes. "Speak your part, then."

***

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