Tangible Schizophrenia

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Wolfskin V: Badon Hill

Author: Guede Mazaka
Rating: NC-17. Sex and violence. Character death.
Pairing: Arthur/Lancelot, Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot, 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: People face the end in different ways, but some things are common to everyone.

***

The ground was full of frozen rocks, and since they were sleeping in full armor, Gawain wasn't much more comfortable. A whisper of air chilled down the back of Galahad's collar, shivering him further into the other man's bedroll so he banged his forehead on steel. "Shit!"

Snuffle. One eye cracked open to glare at the misty light oozing over the sky, then shifted down to look at Galahad. "Stop. Moving."

"Time to wake up," murmured a third voice. Tristan, whose movements had been the source of the breeze. He squatted by Galahad's head, hands loosely dangling between his knees so the worn nails scraped the dirt. "The Saxons are coming."

"That sounds like the end of a bad drinking story." Nevertheless, when Tristan wanted them to get up and go, it generally was a good idea to listen, if only to avoid the embarrassing fate of being dragged up, kicked into going, and then turning around to find Tristan already up front. Though that didn't make Galahad's mood any sweeter. "I hate this. If that bastard Germanius doesn't give us our damned discharges after this, then Arthur or no Arthur, my sword's going to have something to say about that."

Groaning beneath his breath, Gawain shoved Galahad all the way out of the bedroll, then levered himself up by his elbows. As he rubbed his eyes clear, he absently grabbed at Tristan's shoulder for support. "Galahad, would you just shut up about the discharges? We all know, all right?"

"No, I won't. Because maybe we know, but no one else is complaining, are they? And if no one does, then maybe Germanius will think we're all honored and happy to be his fucking curs, doing his dirty work for him. And maybe it'll be another last mission, and another--" Tristan's hand slapped across Galahad's mouth, cutting him off. When he snarled and snapped at it, Gawain cuffed him on the head and knocked askew his angle of attack so instead of sinking his teeth into Tristan's palm, he ended up mouthing air.

Of course, Tristan might as well have been on a pleasant stroll for all his change in expression. He merely ruffled Galahad's curls into his eyes, then handed over the meager rations that made up breakfast. "And what were you planning to do with your discharge? Did we wreck some elaborate timetable you had?"

"You sound like you don't even want it," Galahad accused in between bites. Long habit made him cram down the food so he wouldn't be off-guard for any more time than he had to be, even though Tristan was around to keep watch. "Do you actually like this place?"

Cool eyes studied him, flicking judgment over his face and hands. Then Tristan lifted and dropped a shoulder. "The forest is beautiful. Aside from the fighting. And here, they don't hunt us simply because of what we are. You saw--the Britons have people like us, and they aren't hated by the others."

"Right...I can't believe I'd almost forgotten," Gawain said, abruptly straightening himself. He stared down the line of wagons and their attendant cloth-wrapped people, who bundled into the side of the cliffs like so much debris. "That woman--Guinevere. She changed right in front of everyone, and so did Dagonet. And besides the Romans, who're idiots anyway, they've all still been...when I look into their eyes, there isn't even any disgust."

"So what? So the Woads still hate us for killing them. So this land is raining when it's not snowing, and foggy when it's not raining. So there has to be something better." With a last gulp, Galahad finished his food and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He could feel his stomach already unsettling itself, and his fingers didn't seem to want to hold still. "So I don't want to die in someone else's war."

Tristan and Gawain glanced at each other, probably to share their pitying contempt. Well, they could do that if they wanted; Galahad rose and slung on his sword, then turned for his horse. "Let's just get back to the garrison. With any luck, Lancelot will have stopped nagging Arthur like an old--"

The roar thundered down the path, rattling ground so the snow flew up in sickly dust clouds. Galahad jerked around and was in a run before he even realized what he was doing.

"Dagonet?" Gawain panted, having instantly done the same. As usual, Tristan was loping far ahead, ranging wide to view the whole awful situation.

And it was that bad, and Galahad was kicking himself for not getting around to tripping that son of a whore Marius into a ditch. It was small comfort that Tristan and Gawain betrayed identical feelings of helpless anger as they circled the Romans, who in turn kept close to their two hostages. The two guards held a snarling Dagonet at bay while their bastard master jabbed a knife beneath the Woad boy's chin, eyes blazing with mad fury.

"Get back, you filthy demons," Marius hissed, glaring over the too-calm boy's head. "Get back, or I'll kill him. Men! Slaughter that beast--"

The arrow whined past, coming within a foot of Galahad before it buried itself in Marius' chest. Galahad spun about, sword up to meet the new intruder, only to find Guinevere with drawn bow and narrowed ice slivers for eyes. She was bracketed by Arthur and Lancelot, both of whom had their swords out.

"Perversions." Croaked voice bubbling with malice to the very end. Turning just in time to see, Galahad watched Marius tumble down with no small welling of satisfaction in his chest. Everything that was the worst of Rome, finally on its face before its betters. "Demons..."

"That may be, but at least we have some sense of humanity." Arthur strode past Marius' dying twitches, barely sparing a glance. He did give Marius' wife and ward a long, considering look, but the youth watched his foster father with a sadness that was remarkably devoid of any vengeful tendencies. The woman was focused on the Woad boy, who'd scrambled from Marius' grasp as soon as it'd begun to slacken and was now nestling in Dagonet's arms.

"You and you." With his sword, Arthur pointed out Marius' pet soldiers. "Either throw in your lot with us, or go free. We'll not hinder you if you decide to risk the Saxons. Everyone else, start moving; we have to cross the river now, and we can't afford to waste more time."

Gray-faced, they made no response except to shuffle back into the ring of wide-eyed people, all of whom were fixated on Arthur. For such a depressed man, he had an amazing ability to make people love him.

Snorting at that thought, Galahad turned away and went for his horse. As he mounted, he kept a close eye on his leader and Arthur's two shadows, who spent nearly as much time trying to avoid each other as they did trying to be the nearest to Arthur. Something had changed there, though it didn't seem to be a reconciliation--if that had been so, Lancelot's swagger would have been a little stiffer, and his smirk a little lazier. Yet more worries, as if they didn't have enough without having to create some themselves.

Galahad managed to keep himself busy enough chivvying the human baggage that Gawain didn't get a chance to speak with him until they were nearly at the river. And by then, the stench of the Saxons was rolling in, foul rot stuffing up Galahad's nose whenever it thawed enough to be capable of smelling. It would've been more convenient if they could run along as wolves, but no matter how accepting the Britons seemed to be, he still didn't trust them.

"Galahad." Gawain's voice was starting to edge itself with aggravation. "Would you just--"

"You heard Tristan. Saxons right up our asses." The river was iced over, so at least they didn't have to worry about boats. One good happenstance for the day, as Galahad had hated ships ever since the troop transports that had pitched them around from Sarmatia to Gaul, and then again across the Channel.

A hand seized Galahad's shoulder and swung him around to face a truly upset Gawain. "Look," the other man hissed. "I don't know what's wrong with you, but we're about to pit seven of us against two hundred stinking Germans, and I'm not going to risk dying with this between us."

"You don't--I hate this, and you don't seem to. Now get off." Ignoring the curious stares they were getting, Galahad slapped away Gawain's hand and dug his heels into his horse. If he kept moving fast enough, then he wouldn't have the time to think about the sour taste that stained his tongue whenever he saw Gawain like that. Or whenever he could tell that Tristan was understanding something about Gawain that he couldn't.

Unfortunately, Gawain hurriedly caught up, face etched with barely-restrained anger. "I hate the fighting and the Romans, but no, I don't hate everything like you. Because if I did, then I'd hate what we have. Here. In Britain. So forgive me I don't think our time here's been a complete waste."

The words hit Galahad low in the belly and stabbed inside to sink down to his knees, spreading chilly lead in his veins as they went. He opened his mouth, then had to close it because anything that he could've possibly said wouldn't have been good enough.

But Gawain was riding onto the frozen river, not even looking at him, and suddenly Galahad understood enough to know that if he didn't say something soon, he would have to face death with nothing to look forward to. He kicked his horse and rushed alongside the other man, holding out his hand. "Wait--that's not what I meant. I just...it's so tangled. We're fighting Woads and saving them, and there are Woads that can do what we do, and use it to try and kill us, and...I don't know. I remember Sarmatia, and I remember that it wasn't this complicated."

"Your family almost burned you alive when you went back to them, and out of all of us, you're most desperate to return." Gawain shook his head, reluctant amusement drawing a half-smile on his face. "You know it won't be any more simple there. It only looks that way."

"I never know what to look at. Tristan's so much better at that--you don't even need--" The rest of Galahad's sentence was swallowed by the huge groan that cracked up between his frightened horse's rearing hooves. He hastily jumped down and soothed it, but had to start that all over again when another moan ominously vibrated through the ice.

A strong gust of wind blew the Saxons' reeking stink into their faces, sharp reminder that there was no other way to go but forward. Arthur was shouting, telling the Britons to spread out and keep moving and ordering the knights to him. They'd have to make some kind of stand in order to buy time, and they were almost certainly going to pay dearly for it with their own blood.

It was funny, but Galahad didn't hesitate in getting his bow and quiver and obeying Arthur. Or maybe it wasn't, because what he'd said earlier did apply to him: he loved and cleaved to Arthur just like the rest of them, even if he did occasionally grow restless beneath it. The man had done too much, cared too much, fought too hard for even Galahad to resist Arthur's call. And it was Arthur's and not Rome's that drew them.

"Gawain..." Galahad waited for the other man to catch up and start arranging his weapons on the ice. "I'm sorry for all the times I was in the way."

For a moment, Gawain just stared, hands stilling on the ax-handle. Then he gave Galahad an incredulous look. "You--you think I don't want you there?"

"Well, it's not like I do anything Tristan can't. And--and whatever you two want to do, don't worry about me. I can take care of myself." Pride wouldn't let Galahad end there; he lifted his chin and set his jaw as he took up his bow. "If you'd ever stop fussing, you'd know that by now."

"You idiot." Gawain's smack nearly knocked Galahad over, and then the other man trapped Galahad's head against his chest, squeezing it near to popping. "You were going to take Sarmatia as second-best because you thought--oh, you fucking moron. When this is over, I'm going to sit you down and not let you up until I've beaten some sense into you."

A polite cough brought the other knights' amusement to their attention. Cheeks flushing pink, Gawain quickly released Galahad and busied himself with examining his arrows. He did, however, move Galahad's sword so it lay next to his ax and mace.

"So..." The world had taken so many tilts in the past few seconds that Galahad wasn't sure whether he should even risk finishing his sentence.

"So you're staying with us," Gawain snapped. "Wherever that ends up being...and what are you doing?"

That last to Guinevere, who had shown up out of nowhere and was now settling her things between Gawain and Arthur. She arched one brow at him. "You could use another bow."

"Well, be careful, lady," Lancelot said, still sarcastic as ever despite the Saxons now advancing onto the ice. "There's large number of lonely men out there."

Her mouth curved, sweet and sharp. Whatever pact she'd made with Arthur and Lancelot, Galahad didn't envy the keeping of it. "Don't worry. I won't let them rape you."

On the other hand, Galahad might actually be starting to like her. It served that annoying ass right, and it gave Galahad something to laugh about so he didn't notice the growing fear that was knotting his stomach. He fitted arrow to bow, chose his first target, and then stole a last glance at Gawain...and yes, at Tristan. Two things to look forward to were better than one, after all. And with the current odds against them, they all needed every advantage that they could find.

***

One moment Arthur was shooting as fast as he could, trying to concentrate on aiming while his gut was screaming that the ice wasn't going to break, that it wasn't working, that he'd gambled all their lives and failed--and the next he himself was screaming after Dagonet's back.

Lancelot shouted as well, but Arthur couldn't make out the words because he was drawing his bow even quicker, making the string whine in protest as he futilely tried to cut down the Saxon archers before they could turn themselves to Dagonet. Of course it didn't work, and he had to watch drowned in horror as first one arrow, then another slammed into Dagonet. The huge ax swayed in the air one last time, weak and fading, but then it steadied somehow and came down, final blow reverberating through the world as its handler also fell.

The ice cracked, long fissures whipping out to vein the river with icy torrents that splashed Arthur as he ran forward. Something nearly caught his cloak as he went--perhaps fingers--but he hardly noticed. His vision had shrunk to the fallen man on the white plain, to the slip and slide of intentions gone wrong beneath him. He'd always known about the price they'd have to pay--he'd seen it paid again and again--but somehow this was like having to learn that lesson all over again. The shock of it crippled his limbs, making his arms too slow as they hooked beneath Dagonet's arms and his legs too heavy as he tried to haul them to safety.

"God, God--no." Arthur caught himself and thrust away that old habit, knowing it would do nothing but let him down once more. His mouth swam with bitterness and his ears rang with the cries of men soaring high above the booming, breaking ice. "Dagonet, don't--"

"Got him!" Bors, suddenly rushing up and lending his strength, and then it was enough. As they raced the fracturing of the river, he kept babbling to Dagonet in their mother-tongue, soft broken fragments of Vanora's missing Dagonet's help and of the daughter Dagonet had to have so she could marry Bors' third boy. It made Arthur wish he'd never learned the Sarmatian dialects.

They laid Dagonet down well clear of the vast expanse of free water that now ate up half the river, Bors holding Dagonet's head while Arthur frantically probed around the arrows in Dagonet's body, searching for--for hope.

That was it. He'd been given hope last night. He'd seen a way out--and then the next day, death had come to remind him that no one escaped its grasp. Yet why couldn't it have been him? He'd asked for that, and after so many years of faithful service, he couldn't even be granted such a little request? Arthur wasn't inclined to demands, but neither was he to passivity, and he had been pushed too far too many times. He was shattering, just as the ice had beneath Dagonet's ax.

Distantly, he realized that the Saxons had been engulfed by the river, and would not trouble them any more.

Right in front of him, so close his fingers could touch the last wisp, the life went out of Dagonet. Arthur bit down on his lip, but instead of blood he tasted hot coals.

Fingers suddenly dug into his shoulder, clawing deep so he couldn't ignore them. He snarled into the twist, spinning on his toes to confront whoever would dare--

--Lancelot and Guinevere, both grabbing at the same time. He was pale, fear and worry showing fierce in his eyes, and trembling. So was she, and she had her other hand wrapped around the hilt of a dagger strapped to her side.

"We need to catch up with the others," Guinevere whispered.

"You're starting to shift," Lancelot said. His hand edged up Arthur's shoulder to brush fingertips against muscles knotted halfway between shapes. It stayed there until Arthur had wrestled the wolf down into the dark, and then it grazed Arthur's jaw before pulling Guinevere's hand off. "Bors, you carry Dagonet's body. We'll make sure he gets a grave at least."

Arthur shook his head, then closed his eyes and forced himself to remember all the things that still remained between himself and peace. "No. Carry him with us, but he wanted to be burned. He talked with a priest while we were crossing Gaul--the man told him that burning the body freed the soul to travel. And that's what he wanted after that."

And so that was what they did. Afterwards, Arthur climbed back onto his horse and led the retreat, just as if it'd been any other time a knight had died under him. The others were wise enough to leave him alone, though for a time Guinevere rode beside him as wishing for some conversation. Lancelot and the other knights knew better, and stayed well clear.

They would kill for him and die for him--they would stay for him even if they hated it, he now saw. Not only Lancelot, but all of them, and none of them came close to deserving that fate. If there was a responsibility to be taken up, it fell only to him and shouldn't be chained to them as well. He'd made his bed long ago, and no one else needed to suffer it with him.

Guinevere would have her general, and her leader of men, and that uncrushed spirit of a woman wouldn't need to offer anything of herself in return. Lancelot would have his discharge and his bright future. As for Arthur...he'd been hiding parts of himself for so long that he no longer knew who he was. Not Roman, Briton or Sarmatian...a man without a country, which was a fitting match for a land without a single people. He would pull the Woads together and let them finally break him, since God seemed to insist on only breaking those around them.

But it hurt--pain in Arthur's breast, agony every time he breathed. A kind of dress rehearsal for death every time he thought about a life without wicked double-edged laughter...and dimly now, the wisp of flowing sleeves over a quick bow. Lancelot, the one faith Arthur had never doubted, and behind him Guinevere, the one who'd offered him hope in a hopeless land.

If there was one thing he did know, it was what he wanted.

No, two things, Arthur bitterly reminded himself--the second piece of knowledge being that he couldn't have what he wanted without destroying it. He'd preached about freedom all his life, and now was the time for him to put that into practice.

***

It was a finely-made thing, inlaid with ivory and gilt, hinges well-oiled so it almost seemed to glide open. The inside was lined with a fabric that was too soft and sleek to be believed, running like water beneath Tristan's fingertips.

Soft footfalls had long since alerted him to Galahad's approach, and so he wasn't startled by the brusque remark. "Why'd you keep that?"

"Because I wanted to see what was so special about a box that was capable of holding freedom." Tristan turned on the cot and handed it over to Galahad, then finished packing his few belongings. They made a neat, small bundle on the floor; his hawk took a liking to it and insisted on settling on top for the night. Shrugging, Tristan carefully moved her out of the way so Gawain wouldn't trip on her.

Frowning, Galahad was flipping the box over and over in his hands. "Looks normal enough to me. Pretty, but it's really just wood and a few bits of metal."

"So it is." Boots were next, getting shoved under the bed after Tristan had undone the laces. Then he stripped off the pieces of armor he still wore as well as most of the leather undergarments, setting them all aside on a nearby stool. "It never held it."

Surprisingly, Galahad seemed to understand right away. "Like Arthur says, you're thinking. Freedom isn't something that can been traded around."

"Freedom is the opportunity to do what you want, when you want." Fatigue and remembered death weighed heavily on Tristan's bones, making them ache as he laid down on his back. He stared at the ceiling, suddenly struck by the likeness of its cracks to the fragmenting river ice. "Are you leaving with the Romans tomorrow?"

The cot creaked as Galahad sat down on the edge; Tristan momentarily wondered about its sturdiness, then remembered that they'd long since broadened and strengthened the bed. No point in repairing the legs every morning if they could prevent those from breaking. Besides, Galahad didn't stop fidgeting even in the deepest sleep.

"I used to think it was that," Galahad muttered. His fingers absently plucked at the blankets, then patted them flat. "But now it's more like suddenly having to be responsible for every damned thing in the world."

"What, you can't think for yourself? I thought Gawain and I had done a better job than that." Tristan was expecting to deflect a physical blow, and so he was caught off-guard when Galahad answered him with words instead. Perhaps they'd taught him too well.

The discharge, paper already smudged with black and brown, appeared between Galahad's fingers. He twirled it, then tapped it against his other palm. "Before, I could blame whatever I lost on other people, because I had to follow orders. Now, if I lose something it's my own fault."

Too intent on his own thoughts, Galahad didn't notice Gawain quietly walking in, upwind of the slight breeze in the barracks. The other man raised a questioning eyebrow at Tristan, who surreptitiously waved it down. Melancholy Galahad was rare enough, but thoughtful Galahad was almost non-existent, and Tristan suddenly wanted to know very badly what had changed the other man so much in such a short period of time.

"I don't want to see you or Gawain die like Dagonet did." Galahad bit down on the end of his statement, chewing his lip. A faint blush came and went. "Not that I've learned to like you or anything, because I don't. But...you've always been around, and...I don't want to leave you. I don't want you to leave Gawain, either, because the jackass would mope. And I know you don't want to."

"Thank you," Tristan muttered. Typical of Galahad to fumble insult into compliment, but--it was familiar. Comfortable. And true, even if it might have been better for Tristan to deny that.

The other man pulled a knee up to his chest and rested his chin on it. It always amused Tristan how quickly the years would fall away from Galahad whenever he did something like that. "You could actually say something, you know. Tell Gawain, because otherwise he's never going to guess--"

"So that's what you think of me." Gawain finally made his presence known, ambling over to ruffle Galahad's quickly-ducked head. "Oh, for--stop blushing so much. You look like a girl."

"Bastard." Galahad's other knee went up and he curled even more tightly around himself. "Are either of you leaving?"

Instead of answering, Gawain plopped down beside Galahad and twisted his fingers into a painful-looking knot. The tip of his tongue flicked out the corner of his mouth as it always did whenever he was nervous or concentrating too hard. "There are more Saxons, just outside the Wall. You can't count the campfires because they go past the horizon."

"Faster than I thought." Tristan sat up and waited for Galahad's temper to explode.

But the other man continued to throw up surprises, limiting himself to a vitriolic but relatively restrained, "Fuck."

"Arthur won't ask us to fight. He wants us to leave. I heard him talking to Lancelot about it," Gawain added, staring out the doorway. His hands were clenched on his knees as tightly as Tristan's ribs suddenly were around his lungs. "He's staying and fighting with the Woads."

"So what are you doing?" Galahad asked. It was fairly clear that his question was directed at both of them. It was also fairly obvious that he was steeling himself not to argue with what he presumed it would be.

Except Tristan didn't have an answer within him, and from the looks of things, neither did Gawain. Staying or going--at first, it looked to be the simple choice of dying or living that they'd not had the chance to make since being taken in by Arthur. Long years learning all the possible explanations that could lie behind just a single broken twig had, however, taught Tristan that nothing was ever that simple.

They owed Arthur. He'd always sacrificed as much or more for them as they had for him, and they didn't want him to die for any stranger's sake, either. And they didn't even know what kind of welcome awaited them in Sarmatia, or what kind of death might stalk them in Britain now, after so many changes had been set in motion.

Gawain sighed and half-turned from the door to stare at them, gaze going slow as honey, as if he were trying to memorize everything. "I don't know. I'm going to sleep on it."

"What? What kind of decision is that--" Galahad was too annoyed to even see Gawain's hand coming. It tangled in his hair and yanked him forward into a kiss violent enough for Tristan to hear the loud snicks of teeth catching on teeth.

"For once, would you just shut up and try to understand?" Gawain mumbled in between kisses. His other hand was suddenly in frantic motion, stripping Galahad in mere seconds before shoving the other man half-over Tristan and pinning Galahad's squirming there. "We're not--I don't know!"

Normally, Tristan trusted enough in Galahad's sheer orneriness to let him handle things himself, but at the moment Galahad was nearly white, hands limply scrabbling at Gawain's back. He wasn't getting enough air, so Tristan pulled himself out from beneath him and jerked Gawain off. Consequently, the furious attack of fingers and mouth shifted to him, feverish touches lighting heat just under his skin as they peeled off his clothing. He tried to get a firm hold in Gawain's hair, on Gawain's shoulders, but it didn't work. Drawing up his legs to force some space between them did nothing except convince Gawain to worm a hand beneath the knees and wrap it too tightly around Tristan's cock. The heat flared into flame, and when Tristan breathed, he thought he could smell flesh burning.

"This is not sleeping on it," Galahad's voice laughed, shaky with a pinch of hysteria. His calmer hands slid down Tristan's chest to cover Gawain's, forcing them to stop; in the abrupt stillness that followed, Tristan gasped and hissed himself out of breathlessly broken composure.

His recovery didn't last very long. Galahad took a final worried look at Gawain's stony face before sucking in his breath and bending over to feed it to Tristan. The fingers around Tristan's cock twitched, making him jerk up into the kiss. Nearly bit off Galahad's tongue, which would have been a shame because that was one thing the man could use very well. Tristan's eyelashes fluttered against Galahad's forehead, never quite making it all the way down because their faces were pressed too closely together.

When they broke apart, it was to see an awed, aroused Gawain watching them with dark gold-sheened eyes. "If I could die seeing that, I think I'd be happy."

"Does it matter where you're seeing it?" Galahad whispered. His fingertips were nervously petting at Tristan's ribs, and one thumb occasionally flicked a nipple. It didn't look as if he realized what he was doing.

"Does it to you?" Gawain countered, voice thick-rough like winter bark.

Before he answered, Galahad ducked his head and tucked it beneath Gawain's chin, nuzzling at the other man's breastbone. "Not...really. If you're around."

"All right, then." Gawain nipped at Galahad's ear, then pushed past him to come down on Tristan. His lips drew the moans right out of Tristan's mouth, dragging them out even when it hurt--except it wasn't quite painful when Gawain did it. And his hands were gentler now, more directed in their rasping caresses that set every nerve to singing.

Something about Gawain's hair, long and beautiful and always tangled, had always called to Tristan. He couldn't help but knot his hands in it, feeling the different slide of braids and loose strands against his palm, while Gawain ravaged down the side of his neck, while two and then three hands stroked between his legs. It sometimes tickled, sometimes scratched--Galahad did like pushing it--but there was always someone's mouth to seek soothing from.

Galahad settled beside Tristan, nestling hard prick against Tristan's hip and lazily rubbing it along the bony curving top as he licked and nibbled from shoulder to jaw to ear. "It's funny," he murmured. "You're good at everything, but when it comes to him you're pathetic."

Tristan craned his head and bit Galahad's lip, then refused to let go when the other man squeaked and hissed. But then Gawain's first slicked finger jabbed inside, cracking everything wide open, and Tristan couldn't hang on any more. Or defend himself as Galahad took revenge by sucking at the edges of his moan-slackened mouth and by teasing the space between his balls and between the mercilessly good movements of Gawain's fingers. His fingers nervelessly fell from Gawain's hair.

"If you don't stop irking him, you're going to get it when your turn comes," Gawain scolded. But he was smiling as he swiped a tongue over Tristan's thigh, ending with a flick against the tip of Galahad's cock. Jump and groan into Tristan's lips, and then sharp shiver as Gawain's head buried itself into the business of dismantling Galahad as thoroughly as Gawain's hands were Tristan.

It took the space of a bare four ragged breaths before Galahad whipped himself against Tristan and keened, face dropping down to press the high thin sound against Tristan's neck. Gawain leaned back, satisfaction and faint white traces smeared across his mouth, and gave his fingers one last hook-push that momentarily sent Tristan's vision into the black.

"So much for keeping up with me," was how Gawain greeted Tristan's return to full consciousness.

Galahad was fast, but Tristan had the better angle for knocking Gawain over and rolling him under. Took the time to properly clean Gawain's face with tongue, and by then Gawain was considerably less smug and considerably more desperate. His face was an open plea. "Tristan..."

"I--I want--" Damn Galahad and his constant challenges, and damn Gawain for always making it so difficult to speak. "Stay with me."

Two bodies wrapped around Tristan, but it was Gawain that stroked a knuckle down the side of his face, then curled possessive fingers around the back of his neck. "If you tell me you were thinking I'd--how the fuck did I end up with two idiots?"

"Call us that again and we'll go to sleep on you," Galahad snorted, helping Tristan undress Gawain. He glanced mischief at Tristan, who had to admit that Gawain did deserve it.

Together, he and Galahad bent over and devoured Gawain.

***

Lancelot knew this path so well he didn't need to have his eyes open even for the lock-picking. Arthur would be stubborn, as always. Stubborn and too far gone within himself to notice anything but the parts of the world that were just as black.

"Who's there--Lancelot?" Arthur put his sword away and swung his legs over the side of his bed, confused frown grooving both his forehead and his mouth. The years were beginning to catch up to him, Lancelot abruptly saw with brutal clarity. "What are you doing here? You need to sleep--" deprecating irony straining Arthur's mouth "--it's going to be a long day tomorrow."

"I was thinking about what you told me...about going off to live for both of us." A chair was conveniently near, but Lancelot chose instead to stand and lean against the bedpost. His stomach was rattling about inside him, queasy and scared in a way that he never experienced in battle. Or in anything except making himself confront Arthur, really. "I can't."

Without taking his eyes off Lancelot, Arthur slowly straightened up and clenched his hands on his knees. His face didn't change its expression so much as close down so tightly that no emotion could get in or out. "What? You'll die if you stay here."

"Nice to see the level of confidence you've got in your new command." Sarcasm was an old, probably bad habit, but it did give Lancelot a little distance from the situation. He managed to keep his arms around himself and not around Arthur.

"Lancelot--"

But neither sarcasm nor dark humor had ever been a sufficient barrier against the fierce, frighteningly deep emotion that Arthur always brought to the surface in Lancelot. It wasn't even an identifiable feeling because it was tangled with so many elements: loyalty, caring, anger and sadness and longing.

"Don't, Arthur." Lancelot dropped to his knees and grabbed Arthur's hands, keeping the other man from doing anything but look at him. "Don't give me any argument about honor or beliefs or rights--I already know what those are to me. And it won't--"

"I can't survive if you're dead," Arthur abruptly snarled, fingers squeezing Lancelot's hands till the bones ground pain out of each other. He tried to drag Lancelot to standing, and when he was refused, all the little cracks and broken spots were suddenly visible in his stricken eyes. "Get up, damn it. I never asked for this."

Shaking his head, Lancelot couldn't help a laugh at the whole mess. His amusement was like cinders in his mouth, but at least there were a few sparks among the ashes. Not quite dead yet. "I know you never asked for it, but I never asked you to die for my sake, either. And I never will. Arthur--I can't--I can never leave you. That's all. And you can't do a damned thing about it, so stop trying."

Arthur stopped breathing.

The knots in Lancelot's gut went another twist, squeezing more terrified uncertainty. He grabbed at Arthur's wrists, pulses beating against his palms, and hastily memorized it all just in case he'd finally gone so far he'd lost it all. "I'm kneeling to you because you deserve it. Because you do that to me. Because I want to do it for you. Because I know that I'll die in battle--I can't not--but when that happens, I want to be able to see you as my last living sight. Because--"

"Stop," Arthur hissed, and when he wrenched Lancelot from the floor, it was as impossible to resist the sheer vicious force of it as it was to try and not age. Then his mouth was on Lancelot's, crushing the air between them, and his hands were everywhere at once, stroking and holding and squeezing, possessing and demanding and painfully free of reluctance.

"Stop--" lips branding Lancelot's throat and face "--stop, God, stop doing this--" fingers raking the clothes from him so fast the leather left hot pink burns behind, but then hot palms were searing away that hurt "--I can't, I can't--"

Lancelot had to struggle not to be immediately consumed by the desperation and anguish that caught him up, that tangled them to the bed in a mess of whimpering and gasping. He found himself chewing on sheets and spit them out, pushing himself up on elbows and knees just in time to collide with a fury of heat and wet and smoothly rasping skin on skin. Arthur pinned him down and savaged trembles out of him, licking and biting down backbone and then up again so every single nerve in Lancelot's body spasmed at once.

And then the other man abruptly turned slow, palms gliding agonizingly light pressure down Lancelot's back and sides and thighs, then sliding in. Gentle kisses at the back of his neck stabbed straight through, and when he reared back into Arthur's oiled fingers, Lancelot could see tears falling onto the pillow before him. He collapsed again, filled his mouth with cloth while Arthur filled him first with careful fingers, then with hard cock that stretched scars all through Lancelot.

"I can't sacrifice you," Arthur was saying, low and broken. "Can't give this up, and God, it's going to kill you..."

"Just--" whimpers were constantly silencing Lancelot "--let me stay. I don't care about anything else--let me stay. Let me--oh. Oh."

And he forgot which language he was supposed to speak in, but it didn't matter because Arthur always understood it anyway. There weren't the words, so Lancelot turned to movement: clawing at the blankets, bucking to feel Arthur's chest for just a moment, hip-rolling clenches so Arthur wouldn't be able to leave himself behind with this.

Coming, lashing himself to pieces, Lancelot could dimly feel the same happening to Arthur. It was a small victory in comparison to the battles they still had to fight, but he seized it anyway and held onto it.

A tired hand cupped his face and made him see the final walls falling from Arthur's eyes. "You are...you've got to be the most frustrating, beautiful, damnable man I've ever met."

"If you were a maid, I could tell you that I love you," Lancelot replied, turning his head to suck at each of Arthur's fingertips. "But it's...not as nice and gentle as that. And it's worth more than a few sorry words."

Arthur sighed and buried his face in Lancelot's hair. "I don't want to hate myself for this, but you make it difficult."

"He doesn't. You do that yourself," said a third voice.

And Guinevere should have been expected, but Lancelot was still furious with her...usurpation of this. Her and her intrusions. "Go away, girl. Bed is full."

"I'm not a girl, and while the bed is full, the chair isn't." Wood scraped on stone as Guinevere took a seat. Lancelot started to sit up, but Arthur dragged him back and clamped an arm around him, keeping him securely tucked beneath Arthur's chin. "I didn't come to offer myself because I thought it would ensure your loyalty, Arthur. It's obvious enough that you don't break your promises."

"Most of them," Arthur acknowledged with no small amount of irony. His fingers nipped at Lancelot's inner thigh before curling around Lancelot's hip. "So why are you here?"

Her shrug was casual enough, but the serenity in her face was close to shaking apart. She fidgeted a little with her dress, but didn't drop her gaze. "Because I don't know what will happen tomorrow, but...I wasn't lying when I said I grew up on fairytales about you. About you both. And I wanted to see if they were true."

A lopsided smile on his face, Arthur waved his arm at the bed. His eyes softened a little as he looked at her, and when she looked at him, she let her smooth coy guard drop a bit to show the woman beneath the conniver. "Only men, I'm afraid," Arthur said.

"I think I like them better. Legends always run the risk of disappointment. Men don't." Guinevere stood up and came to the side of the bed, where she paused, looking at Lancelot.

Well, she was right. They didn't know what would happen on the morrow--but tonight, everyone was seeing who they were. And Lancelot was not, in the end, cruel in his jealousy. Or blind. She was leading the Woads, and of all the people in the garrison, she probably knew best what Arthur and he were going through. If they lived, she would be their best ally in...whatever they ended up making of themselves in Britain. And if she could do anything good for Arthur...

Lancelot moved aside, and she settled next to him against Arthur.

***

Galahad stared down at the massing Saxons, fingers playing over the front of his saddle. "Gawain? What are we doing again?"

"Shut up and think about how to kill those bastards," Bors snapped. "Vanora's due in four months, and I'm not missing this one."

"So how's she feel about staying?" Gawain asked, ignoring Galahad.

Bors shrugged and rolled his shoulders, resettling his armor in a minor cacophony of squeaks and clatters. "Well, she didn't want to move in the first place. Britain's her home. And she swears that the Britons won't hunt our children. When I told her about how our families drove us out, she threw a fit."

"The Britons think of our kind as the best warriors. If anything, the wolves are the ones ruling the Woads," Lancelot suddenly said. It was the first time he'd spoken since coming into the barracks first thing in the morning and telling them all that he was staying to fight beside Arthur. He hadn't asked them for anything and neither had Arthur, but then, those two had never really needed to. And now they were sitting on the hill, watching Arthur come back from meeting with the apparent Saxon leader.

That was a decision Galahad still didn't quite understand. He remembered making it clear enough, but now that he was looking on the consequences, he couldn't figure out how he'd made it. It'd been a complete muddle of looking at Gawain's solemn face, and Tristan already reaching for his armor, and Bors kissing a proud, terrified Vanora. Galahad's stomach had flopped sideways and the subsequent cold nausea had dragged every thought from his head except one: he was staying.

"That explains a lot." Gawain was shading his eyes with his hands, lips silently moving as he counted the number in the Saxon contingent that advanced first. "Don't suppose you could've mentioned that before?"

"No, I couldn't. I didn't know till..." Lancelot tucked in his chin and coughed, actually looking a little embarrassed. "Guinevere told us last night. She was promising that her people wouldn't still seek revenge on us afterward. Apparently, it's considered extremely bad luck to kill someone who's got two skins unless you've also got the gift of shifting. Though that didn't seem to be much of an issue before..."

As he nocked an arrow to his bow, Tristan slanted a curious look at Lancelot. "Guinevere told...you...and Arthur?"

Half-shrugging, Lancelot concentrated very hard on watching Arthur ride up. "She's persistent. And, well, there's some brains to go with the nice breasts. Arthur seems to like her."

"You know, now I'm almost hoping we die here. Living afterward would be a lot more complicated." Gawain was only half-joking, and that comprehension showed on everyone's face.

In their own ways, they were all frightened, Galahad suddenly saw. Not because of the Saxons, or because of the fight ahead of them--they knew that business well enough, and death was the same whether it came from a German sword or a Briton one--but because for the first time, they didn't know what lay ahead. They had no idea what went beyond the battle, and still they were choosing it.

Maybe that was freedom, then: risking the unknown because you loved something that much. And all right, compared to Gawain and Tristan, Sarmatia was nothing more than the mist on the sea.

"We're insane," Galahad muttered. "And if either of you die on me, I'm holding you both responsible."

Gawain blinked. "What's that supposed to mean?"

The twang of Tristan's bow prevented Galahad from answering. Just beyond the wall on the Saxon side, something dark plummeted out of a tree. Tristan gave a satisfied nod and put away his bow, then stared up at his hawk, which was no more than a tiny blotch on the sky. "I let her go, but she always comes back of her own will." His smile took on a bit of a mocking edge. "Galahad, if you had half her brains, I could die without worrying."

"You fucking bastard." Galahad rose in his stirrups, wondering just how much he could hurt Tristan and not make the odds against them any worse. However, his thoughts were interrupted by clattering hooves and a hoarse shout.

"Knights!" Arthur was back, halting his charger by the vexillation's swooping red flickers through the air. Its tip occasionally brushed the top of his helmet and his shoulders, swirling to meet his cape in a continuous back-drop. "Knights! The gift of freedom is yours by right, and you cannot be denied it any longer. But the home we seek resides not in some distant land--it's in us, and in our actions! If this be our destiny, then so be it. But history will remember that we chose it to be so. As free men, we chose it!"

Lancelot threw back his shoulders and sat up straight, reaching for his swords. He and Arthur shared a glance that fairly hummed with last words, and then he looked back out at the Saxons. "Knights. Time to slaughter them."

And at first, that was what they did. The Saxon leader wasn't a complete fool and sent in his men one group at a time, fearing a trap, but that strategy only worked to the knights' advantage. When Woad arrows had forced the Saxon lines into defensive huddles, then the knights would ride down through the obscuring smoke and smash through the lines, effortlessly hacking it to bits. By the time they were finished with the first group, Galahad was having trouble holding onto his sword for all the blood that slicked it and him.

The second group went the same way, but when the third wave came in, there were too many for the arrows to reach at once, and so the ends of the lines remained on their feet and able to move.

"Time for the nasty part," Gawain muttered as they regrouped one last time on the hill. He was gasping and trying not to, and when he caught Galahad's curious look, he shrugged. "Too much blood. I keep wanting to shift."

"Then go ahead," Arthur said. His smile was a feral thing of curled lips and flashing teeth that would've looked more appropriate on Lancelot. "We're not under anyone's rules anymore. You can shift whenever you want."

Tristan rode by, holding his sword high and far from him so the gobbets of flesh dripped away from his excited horse. "I think I'd save it for when we have to. I don't know whether the Saxons have anyone like us."

"Good point." Arthur pulled back to speak with Lancelot, who seemed to be well into fight-fever, then rode back up. He lifted Excalibur over his head and thrust it at the advancing Saxons. "Charge!"

There were too many Saxons for the knights to break through the lines this time, but--Galahad pricked up as he galloped into the first Germans. The Woads, on the mark as promised. Their charge slammed into the Saxon flank and roiled it far enough for its chaos to join with the one the knights were creating. In less than two breaths, the Saxons went from ranks to bloody melee.

Damned Germans were too thick. Galahad used his superior height to hack down as many as he could, but more filled in the holes too quickly. When he could no longer hold them back, he slid off his horse and fought on foot. It was slower going, but better that than risking being dragged off and beaten to death.

Gawain was barely a yard from him, roaring over the swishing of his whirling mace and ax. Blood from his kills kept splattering Galahad, drenching him in the stench of dying life. One spurt almost blinded him to a Saxon running up from behind, and he only just caught the bastard's throat with the edge of his shield. Then it was his turn to splash Gawain.

"Watch where you're swinging that," the other man growled, anger and black laughter present in equal parts in his voice. He'd switched to his tribal dialect, howling guttural obscenities back at the screaming Saxons.

"Go fuck yourself. Where's Tristan?" Galahad sidestepped an oncoming attack and backhanded a deep slash into his opponent's side, then smashed his shield down on the man's head. He parried a sword and twisted to stab that one in the face, wrenching his blade out at an angle to meet a new charge. "Gawain?"

The mace slammed over Galahad's shoulder, missing him by a bare inch to crush someone's skull. "I'm looking. I'm--shit."

When Galahad finally sliced away enough Saxons to see, he had to agree. Tristan and the Saxon leader--and Tristan was losing. As Galahad watched, the huge Saxon came within a hairsbreadth of slicing a staggering Tristan in two with an ax. When the gigantic thing came spinning at Tristan's other side, he managed to pull himself up enough to block, but the Saxon caught him with a knee in the stomach. Wide-eyed, he went to his knees.

--stretchpaintwistfurroughroughsmooth--

Galahad distantly hoped Gawain would keep an eye on his sword and shield for him. Frustrating that weapons would change with him when he was wearing them, but not when he was only holding them.

Not that he had much time to think about such things, or much rationality to do that with. Going to wolf always meant sinking into a shrieking storm of sounds and scents and wants that washed the humanity into the blood. Blood, hot and coppery in Galahad's mouth as he lunged on the first Saxon. By the time that body had fallen, he'd already torn through two more throats. It was easier to move like this. Better balance, more flexibility--he could dart between bodies and leap from gurgling dying to screaming prey without even having to touch the ground.

The Saxons were howling still, but the tone of their voice had changed. Gone higher, wilder, less supported. And they smelled--fear and loathing and fear and terror--it threatened to make Galahad drunk on it.

At the last minute, instinct jerked his aim from the Saxon leader's throat to the man's ax. Galahad tasted wood, felt splinters going into his tongue, but he hung on and wrenched the ax away by sheer weight. And had his thigh instead of his throat sliced by the Saxon's sword.

Snarling, Tristan shook himself into wolf form and darted in front of Galahad while he recovered his balance. His leg burned with the hot blood trickling over him, but he could breathe without too much trouble. A glancing blow, then. And more Saxons--he shifted back and seized a cast-off shield just in time to block an arrow, then twisted about to grab Tristan by the scruff of his neck and heave him out of the path of the Saxon warlord's sword. It wasn't gentle and wasn't going to help Tristan's wounds any, but the idiot would go on ahead without letting anyone know. Good for scouting, bad for living. Galahad reminded himself to point that out sometime. When he wasn't busy trying to keep them alive.

"They bleed!" the huge Saxon was yelling to his men. "They bleed!"

"And so do you!" Arthur plunged out of the clashing masses and surprised the Saxon, getting through his guard long enough to slash his arm. Then Arthur whipped around, coming back for another try.

Gawain suddenly hacked his way through the other side of the ring, blood-soaked and fire-eyed. He tossed Galahad's sword back to him, then shoved the now-human Tristan back down to the ground and took up guard on the side opposite Galahad. "Down."

There was a new note in his voice: command. It shivered and warmed Galahad at the same time, but most importantly, it reassured him. In all the flying blades and groaning death, order was still present somewhere. Order and ties that transcended anything that could be thrown at them.

Tristan stayed down. In a way. He did go back to wolf and lunge at any Saxons that were stupid enough to get within range, but he stayed with them, and together, they fought.

***

In the end, Guinevere discovered that she couldn't quite bear to watch. The Saxon's sword came down, her eyes helplessly fluttered shut--

--and metal clanged metal instead of steel cleaving her flesh. When she opened her eyes, Lancelot and the Saxon had already exchanged several blows, their feet dancing back and forth over the same patch of blood-trammeled ground. Lancelot blocked with his left sword and slashed forward with his right, but at the last moment, the other man twisted out of the way and slammed an elbow into Lancelot's side. That rattled him, sending him reeling to the side, but when the Saxon's sword came overhand at him, he recovered enough to slash through the bastard's furs and draw blood.

He was defending her for Arthur, of course. Guinevere didn't know exactly what Arthur felt for her, but she knew it'd been enough to make him listen to Merlin in the forest, to make him take up the fight of her people. And if she was honest with herself, she'd admit that she was hoping whatever it was would grow into...some kind of love. Something fierce and faithful and unfading like what she could see between Arthur and Lancelot.

Arthur had been her model enemy. Merlin had seen to that, and had seen that she'd learned every strength and weakness Arthur had. So it hadn't been too surprising to discover that she'd learned to admire him, and then, when she had spoken with and watched him, to linger near him. He was what Britain needed--him as he was, as conflicted and proud and raging as the land itself. If he was broken like Merlin wanted, then everything was lost even if the battle was won.

And that was why Guinevere bit her tongue till her nerves leaped into full awareness, and why she leaped at the Saxon, stabbing down with her dagger. The point was turned aside by his shoulder-guard, but she managed to distract him long enough for Lancelot to regain his balance. By the time the Saxon had thrown her off, Lancelot was too close to avoid. German blood splattered into Guinevere's mouth from the deep slash in the man's side--not fatal, but serious enough.

She hit the ground as a wolf and rolled, a little jarred but not nearly as badly as it would've been if she'd been human. A moment to get back on her feet, but that was long enough for the Saxon to ram his sword-hilt into Lancelot's temple. The knight dropped, dazed and near fainting, while the Saxon lurched away, holding his side.

Guinevere started forward, but one of the other Saxons mustered up enough courage to rush her and she had to deal with him. A slashed throat later, she was shifting into human form and scooping up a dagger from the ground. Lancelot was slowly climbing to his feet, still shaking his head--and the Saxon had a crossbow.

The girl was frozen and too slow, but the wolf was smashing into Lancelot's knees. Guinevere cut herself on his sword, but it was a minor wound and she could still move. Lancelot was as well, cursing and throwing himself sideways as the Saxon hurriedly reloaded. His shoulder had an arrow sticking out of it, but he was snarling too much for it to be a fatal injury. At least for the moment.

Her slashed side burned, but Guinevere gritted her teeth and threw her dagger, knocking the crossbow aside again. Then Lancelot was up enough to fling his sword into the Saxon's heart. Both men fell, German to twitch and gurgle his life away and Sarmatian to twist into a limping black wolf. Guinevere switched back as well since it was easier to handle a wounded side that way. She leaped over Lancelot and brought down another Saxon, sinking her teeth into the soft neck flesh until she hit the spine.

A muzzle shoved hers aside and into an oncoming attacker, tripping the Saxon right into Lancelot's jaws. His eyes snapped a mocking challenge at her, and irked, she rose to it. They circled around each other, guarding the other's weaker side while they also competed for kills. Guinevere's vision wavered from time to time, and the blood loss started to make her unsteady, but she kept up with Lancelot.

His shoulder was matted with blood from the arrow still in it, fur a red mess all the way down his leg, but he persisted in fighting. Fortunately, the Saxons were clearly losing heart, unfamiliar with this kind of enemy. The whites of their eyes shone with confused terror, which brought a warm sweet wave of satisfaction over Guinevere's tongue.

Then the crowds thinned. Parted. And there was Arthur and the Saxon leader, both bleeding profusely, faces drawn and deathly pale with exhaustion. They were holding back, prelude to another rush. Guinevere found herself shaking into human form, not because she'd intended to but because she was too drained and too fearful to stay as a wolf. Beside her, Lancelot was doing the same thing. He was white as the dead, swaying on his feet with one arm hanging uselessly at his side, but he still yanked a sword from the nearest corpse and began to move toward the pair in front.

But before he could take more than one step, a Saxon blundered in the way. Lancelot dodged and chopped his opponent into death, but the effort clearly cost him. He went to his knees, grabbing at his injured shoulder, and like Guinevere could only watch.

Arthur swung his sword and went low, but the Saxon met his blow and forced it away, then pivoted to slash at Arthur's back. The thrust was overextended and so didn't kill Arthur outright, but it did send him to his knees, pain-hazed eyes staring straight at Guinevere and Lancelot.

Behind him, the Saxon raised his sword.

Lancelot screamed. Guinevere couldn't understand what he was shouting because she'd suddenly run out of air.

And Arthur's eyes closed as he blindly stabbed behind him. The sword above his head trembled--then fell backwards as the Saxon choked up thick black-flecked blood and died. Arthur held onto his sword long enough to pull it from the Saxon's body, then dropped it and fell forward onto his elbows, gasping as if he'd never breathed before.

Where she found the energy, Guinevere didn't know, but somehow she was over the intervening space and pressing her face into one side of Arthur's neck, taking deep whiffs of the sweat, blood, death and life that saturated his skin. She slumped against him, each of them mutually propping the other up.

"Well. Looks like the battle's over." Lancelot was there--he'd gotten to Arthur first and had his head on Arthur's shoulder. The arrow forced him to twist away from Guinevere, but she could still hear the shaking in his voice. His hand groped against her hip, then found Arthur's hand and knotted their fingers together. "What I do to you...more like what you do to me. Arthur--you almost--Arthur--Arthur--"

"I'm here. We're here." Arthur carefully lifted his other hand and roughly stroked Lancelot's bent head, then drifted his fingers to the arrow shaft. "This needs to come out. We--we need to get off this field."

Someone coughed, and Guinevere looked up to see the other knights dragging themselves towards the three of them. The scout--Tristan?--was being carried between two others; he looked near to dying, but when he raised his head, she saw that his eyes were still too bright for that.

They were all more hurt than she was. The thought stung at Guinevere, goading her into standing. Her head rippled in blackness for a moment, but it passed and she was still on her feet, still in command of her people, who were slowly gathering around her and the knights. "You've won Britain. All of you. Now let her heal you."

***

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