Actions

Work Header

Le Morte D'Arturia

Chapter Text

A golden-haired man made his way through the darkness of a misty English night, a carefully wrapped bundle in his hands. He’d found himself tragically unable to immaterialize or travel in spirit form after the Grail War, but as soon as he had awakened, he’d known what he would to do, who he had to find.

Her.

She’d barely even had time to reply to his proposal before her idiot master had made his final command. He recalled the last time he saw her, a proud figure in silver and blue, standing alone in a room of flames. She was his; like all the treasures of the earth, she belonged to him. He would find her again. He’d rip apart history to have her.

The remains of the church – a few arches and pillars, overgrown with vines - was eerie in the moonlight. Didn’t the people of this country have any respect for history? His Uruk might be in a shabby state now, but at least his people had more respect for their history.

At the far end of the cemetery, he found what he was seeking. A small rectangle with a cross at the head that bore the inscription Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus in insula Avalonia.

Rexa Arturia actually, he thought idly, though it didn’t matter. He unwrapped the package very carefully, revealing a battered piece of ancient wood. He’d removed it from the possession of the fools at the Mage’s Association (really, it had been too easy to sneak in), and if the document archived with it was to be believed, it had come from the same Round Table on which King Arthur had rested her elbows.

Performing a summoning outside of a Holy Grail War was difficult, but not impossible. If anything could be a catalyst for her summons, surely it was this. If any place could facilitate her manifestation, surely it was here, where her mortal bones lay beneath the soil.

He began the circle, the incantation, the rising of power. Mana crackled like lightning in the air.

It reached a crescendo, and a figure clad in silver armor appeared.

Gilgamesh’s breath hitched. It was…Arturia’s face, certainly, but he could not imagine her ever having that reckless look on her face, or allowing her hair to grow so wild. He hadn’t imagined, until that moment, that a piece of the Round Table could summon someone other than Arturia.

The figure grinned. “Hey you, are you my Master?”

A voice like Arturia’s, and yet she never would have spoken in such a tone. “Who are you? Arturia…?”

At the sound of the name, something changed in the Servant’s face. In the blink of an eye, she was at Gilgamesh’s throat with a sword.

“What the fuck do you want with Father?” Mordred hissed in his ear.

Chapter Text

They sat across from each other at a restaurant, tension crackling between them. After Gilgamesh had thoroughly trounced her in the cemetery, she'd grudgingly accepted his offer of parley. She eyed him mutinously from across the table until her plate of fish and chips had arrived, then she seemed to forget him entirely.

For his part, Gilgamesh was intrigued by this strange creature who looked so much like Arturia. It was the only thing that had kept her alive thus far.

“Explain again. Arturia is your…father…?”

“Yes. That’s the word for it, isn’t it, when someone is your sperm donor.” Mordred impaled the whole side of fish with her fork and brought it to her mouth. Gilgamesh felt a flash of rage at the thought of Arturia making a child with someone other than himself.

Mordred saw his expression and rolled her eyes. “She was, uh, under a bit of a magical influence at the time. It wasn’t a permanent condition, though it probably would have made her life a lot easier if it was.” She gnawed her fish and added, “Now I got a question for you. Who are you and what do you want with Father?”

“She is mine. I am king Gilgamesh of Uruk, half-man and half-god. I defeated the giant Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, and it is my intention to marry her.”

Mordred stared at him for a moment, then threw back her head and howled with laughter. She struggled for breath and tears rolled down her cheeks.

“It's not funny.” Gilgamesh was miffed.

“Oh oh, that’s rich, Goldilocks here wants to marry King Arthur. Adorable.” Mordred wiped tears from her eyes then took a few deep breaths. “You know what, why the fuck not. Why not play matchmaker for Father, maybe that’ll finally help her relax and pull the stick out of her ass.” Mordred shrugged. “I’m in.”

“I’m glad you see things my way,” Gilgamesh sipped his wine delicately. A slightly terrified waiter dropped off a shepherd’s pie for Mordred and she dug into her second supper of the evening. “Though I hadn’t imagined that Arturia and her daughter would be so-“

Mordred’s fist came down on the table hard enough to make the glasses shiver. “Do not call me a woman,” she snarled.

Gilgamesh’s face was impassive, but his eyes glittered with rage. It had been a long time since anyone had dared speak to him in such a tone of voice.

“Don’t call me a woman.” Mordred repeated. “Women weave, spin, sing pretty songs, and wear silky dresses. They don’t fight and they don’t become kings. I cannot be a woman.”

“You don’t dress to hide your…attributes.” The clothing beneath her armor was brief and revealing, and when he realized that her strange and scanty clothing was attracting attention, he’d purchased her a shirt from one of the vendors lining the streets who catered to tourists. She was now wearing a tent-like shirt emblazoned with the words SOMEONE I LOVE WENT TO ENGLAND AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT. Gilgamesh thought it was atrocious. Mordred didn’t care.

“If you got it, you may as well flaunt it,” she shrugged, punctuating her words with another bite of shepherd’s pie.

“You should be more respectful toward your Master,” Gilgamesh showed her his hand, adorned with red Command Seals. One of the peculiarities of the fleshy new body he’d acquired from the Grail was the ability to provision spirits with mana. “I summoned you to this world, I can take you out of it again.”

Mordred put down her fork and gave him a long slow look. “Probably. But you don't have the time. You're not from here, you're a Servant like me. And if you're not careful, time and space are going to snap like a rubber band and knock you right back to the Throne of Heroes.”

Gilgamesh didn’t answer. It was true that he’d been unable to shake the tense feeling, that at any moment the magic of the Grail would run out. Which was why he was trying so hard to avoid the attention of the public, and why he didn’t have time to waste with banter. He needed to find Arturia.

“Fortunately,” Mordred grinned, her spirit of mischief returning. “I'm your best bet to get to Father.” She threw her napkin on the table and sauntered out. Gilgamesh paused for a moment, rolled his eyes, and followed after her.

“I'm pleased you see thing my way," he said. :Though tell me if you’re Arturia’s…child, the Mordred of legend, then you were the one who killed her. And she killed you. Why do you deign to help me find her?”

Mordred opened her mouth to reply, but her words were drowned out by the sound of shouting behind them. Gilgamesh’s eyes narrowed. The bill. He'd nearly forgotten about that barbarous custom. He considered using his Gate on the pursuers, but the attention it would garner would slow them down further.

Mordred hear them too, and started to run. “C’mon, they can’t arrest us if they can’t catch us,” she said as she began to flee into the darkness of the night.

Chapter Text

Perhaps a few angry waiters couldn’t catch them, but the Glastonbury police force certainly could. Gilgamesh gazed at the ceiling of the jail cell.

More than ever, he regretted losing the ability to assume spirit form. Even with his diminished powers, he could have laid waste to all of them easily, but – he reminded himself firmly – he did not have time for that. These mongrels were no match for his strength, but they could inconvenience him, detain him, and waste his precious time. He clenched his fists. He could hear the minutes ticking away.

He plotted. He needed to find a way out.

Mordred lay unconscious on the cot next to his. True to form, she’d fought like an angry cat and hurled obscenities at the officers when they’d tried to cuff her. Gilgamesh had been utterly delighted when they’d finally tazed her into unconsciousness. It had been the high point of the night as far as he was concerned.

Their jailers had kindly left them a few hard rolls of bread and a pitcher of water with two cups. Gilgamesh picked up a roll and threw it at Mordred. She grunted and rolled over.

Clearly more drastic measures were needed. Gilgamesh hurled one of the empty plastic cups at Mordred’s head. It connected with a satisfying thunk. She sat up, rubbing her head “Owwww, what the fuck…? Ughhh, I feel like I’ve just been trampled in a cattle raid.”

“Get yourself together,” Gilgamesh said. “We need to find a way to get out of here.”

Mordred glared at him with bloodshot eyes, then flopped back down on the cot. “Sounds like a personal problem to me.”

Not for the first time, Gilgamesh considered summoning his Gate and skewering her.

A massive explosion interrupted his train of thought. Screams and gunshots followed. Mordred sat up, and an uncharacteristic look of alarm crossed her face. “Was that magecraft?”

Wheels turned in Gilgamesh’s head. He had wondered why it had been so easy to break into the Clocktower and steal the piece of the Round Table. The Mage’s Association must have wanted to find a way to track him and find Arturia as well. “Likely.”

“We’ve got to get out of here,” Mordred swung her legs unsteadily off the bed.

“That…is…what…I’ve…been…saying….” Gilgamesh growled through gritted teeth.

“Relax, Goldie, I have a plan,” she replied. “Do you still have that piece of the Round Table?”

“It was confiscated when we were taken into police custody. It should be in an evidence locker somewhere.” He wasn’t quite sure how or why he knew what an ‘evidence locker’ was, but he wasn’t about the question the contextual knowledge that the Grail still somehow managed to bring him.

More explosions sounded, closer this time. The Mages’ Association was being uncharacteristically bold, invading a police station, but the chance to capture a pair of Heroic Spirits (with a very good chance of apprehending a third) could very well prompt such a drastic response.

“Alright, let’s move,” Mordred said. She summoned her armor and swung her red and silver sword. There was a flash of red lightning, and when the smoke cleared, a hole gaped in the bars. Gilgamesh found himself nodding with approval.

“After you,” she said sweetly.

_____

“Where is the evidence locker?”

“Oh yeah, let me just dig through my encyclopedic knowledge of the architecture of modern British police stations, I gotcha, Goldie.”

They’d already searched half the police station unsuccessfully. Fortunately, both the mages and the police officers were focused on each other, but Gilgamesh knew that wouldn’t last.

They turned a corner. At the end of the hallway were three figures in the robes of the Mage’s Association.

Gilgamesh and Mordred exchanged a wordless glance. She charged at the mages with her sword while he covered her with a series of arrows from his Gate. The battle did not last long.

“Yess! Nice work, Goldie.” Grinning, Mordred high-fived him. Gilgamesh stared at his hand in astonishment.

A sign on a door slightly past the fallen mages caught her attention - EVIDENCE LOCKER. “There!” she yelled. One blow of her sword destroyed the lock, and she and Gilgamesh pushed into the room, only to find row on row of identical lockers.

Gilgamesh muttered some choice words. Mordred’s face was grim. “I’ll get looking, you watch the door.”

A red blast of concentrated mana exploded above his head, and Gilgamesh saw more mages running down the hallway. Cursing, he sent a volley of weapons towards them, turning them into screaming pincushions. Behind him, Mordred clanged open lockers and rummaged through their contents. She gave a cry of delight. “Got it!”

Gilgamesh kicked the door closed and nailed it shut with a dozen arrows from his Gate, then ran to Mordred, who was clutching the battered piece of wood as though it was a raft in a stormy ocean.

Something slammed against the door, which shivered but held.

“We’ve got to get out of here now,” he said. He laid one hand on the piece of wood and raised the other. “By the power of these Command Seals, I order you to…get us out of here!”

All three seals flashed red, and then everything went black. Strange winds buffeted Gilgamesh, and he felt an agonizing sensation, as though he was being forced through some kind of narrow entryway.

And then it stopped. Gilgamesh opened his eyes. Sunlight. A green field.

And her. Arturia. She was there, after all this time, so close to him that he could see the strands of her golden hair, could see the flush on her cheeks from the chill of the damp air. She was walking with several men, presumably her knights or advisors. She was shorter than them, clad in strange clothing - leather britches and a long tunic - and yet she still managed to be the most dazzling creature he had ever seen.

She looked at him with a look of stunned shock on her face, as though he had dropped from the sky. He realized that it probably appeared as though he had.

He was so focused on Arturia that he didn’t notice Mordred take out her sword and slide into a battle stance next to him.

“ARTHUR!” Mordred’s cry rent the air as she charged, at the unarmed king.

Gilgamesh’s body reacted before his mind had time to process the situation. The chains of Enkidu wrapped around Mordred before she had gone a handful of pace and slammed her into the dirt.

Gilgamesh dragged her back and hissed, “What the fuck are you doing?! Do you always try to kill people when you meet them?!”

Mordred looked at him, wild eyes in a dirt-stained face. “I know how everything’s going to end. I can…I can remember the hill of Camlann. I can change it, Gil, I can change how it all goes. You think I really wanted to set you up with Father? Don’t make me laugh. She’s married, she wouldn’t go for you even if you were the last man on earth. No, I needed you so I could get back to the Camelot of my time with all the knowledge I have now. So that I can change things.”

Snarling like a creature gone mad, she twisted against the chains, raising her sword so that it pointed at Gilgamesh’s chest. “And if you stop me, I’ll –“

She didn’t have a chance to finish her sentence before Gilgamesh’s fist connected with the side of her head, knocking her into unconsciousness.

Gilgamesh shook out his hand and frowned. He felt an odd sense of regret at harming Mordred, but if she was going to act like a mad dog, she needed to be treated like one.

One of the men with Arturia cackled. He was tall and red-headed, and wore leather instead of the soft wool and linen clothing that the King and her companions were clad in. “Really, Dux Bellorum,” he said in a guttural accent. “Are your knights always so brash?”

Arturia ignored the tall man. Her attention was fixed on Gilgamesh. “I have not seem you before. What is your name, stranger?” she asked

He stood and squared his shoulders. “I am king Gilgamesh of Uruk, son of Lugalbanda and Rimat-Ninsun.”

Her brow furrowed, “Uruk, is that in Saxony?”

Gilgamesh laughed. “It’s about as far from that filthy frozen land as you can possibly get.” The red-haired man made an offended sound. Both Gilgamesh and Arturia ignored him.

Arturia smiled. “In that case, I bid you welcome, foreign king, and give you thanks for subduing my wayward knight. I am King Arthur, and this is Camelot.”

Chapter Text

Head aching, Mordred blinked her eyes open – and gazed into an abyss filled with hundreds of weapons .

“Good, you’re awake. Let me make something very clear.” Gilgamesh leaned forward, his crimson eyes glittering. “You may have killed Arturia once, but you will not do so again, not while I draw breath. You will not harm one hair on her head or one fiber of her clothing. You will not plot against her and you will not support the enemies who intend harm to her.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it, I get it.” Mordred grumbled and rubbed her temple. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, my head hurts. Gil, you’re going to give me brain damage.”

“As delighted as I am that you’re actually addressing me by even a portion of my actual name, I think the damage may already be done on that front.” Still, he closed the Gate.

To his surprise, she didn’t rise to the bait, but instead furrowed her brow thoughtfully. “I guess...I am willing to consider the idea that perhaps I maybe possibly acted just a touch…impulsively.”

Gilgamesh nodded in approval. For Mordred, that was a pretty good apology.

Mordred sighed. “I thought that if I could take down Arturia now before everything had a chance to spiral, I could change things. But in a way, I’m glad you stopped me. I didn’t really want to kill Father. I didn’t want to do it at Camlann and I don’t want to do it now. Maybe I can figure out a better way to change things.”

“Our interests are aligned on that score.” Gilgamesh folded his hands.

He looked around the room. Like the rest of the castle, this portion of the infirmary was constructed of heavy stone, adorned with a few tapestries and rugs to keep the chill at bay. They did a poor job of this.

“This was your plan? Pulling us to fifth-century England?” Gilgamesh’s mouth quirked in distaste.

Mordred crossed her arms. “I wasn’t exactly weighing your refined aesthetic tastes when I got us out of that station, Gil. I didn’t want to end up the slave of some whiny mage, and I don't think you did either. Besides, you get to see Father now, shouldn’t you be happy?”

Gilgamesh opened his mouth to reply when an attendant entered the room. “Sir, you have a visitor.” The attendant was followed by a tall, elegant woman in a long-sleeved gown, a delicate silver crown adorning her long brown hair. She wasn’t the most beautiful woman Gilgamesh had ever seen – that distinction belonged to another in this castle - but her presence was magnetic. This was probably the famous Queen Guinevere.

Her effect on Mordred was dramatic. “Your Grace!” She tried to sit up, then winced at the pain.

Guinevere laughed lightly. “Sir Mordred, please don’t strain yourself on my account. I only wanted to make sure that you were well.” She laid a soft hand on Mordred’s, and Gilgamesh saw the young knight nearly vibrate with happiness.

“Ah, yes, erm, it was uh…kind of a joke, you see, me and Gil here had a bit too much ale to drink and laid a wager that I could disarm the king. But it’s passed now, I sobered up and I gotta admit it was a pretty dumb choice. Won’t do it again. On my honor,” she added solemnly. The queen nodded.

“Will you be well for our sword lesson in a few days?” Guinevere asked.

“YES! I mean,” Mordred coughed and tried to dial back the enthusiasm in her voice. “Of course, your majesty. I gave you my word that I would teach you the arts of the sword and I intend to keep it.” Guinevere nodded, then turned to Gilgamesh.

“King Gilgamesh,” the queen said. “On behalf of myself and my husband, thank you for your presence and for looking after our dear Sir Mordred. The King humbly requests your presence at the feast tonight.”

Gilgamesh was about to say that if the King wanted him there, she had two feet and a mouth and was perfectly capable of inviting him herself, but an icy glare from Mordred stopped him. “I look forward to it,” he replied.

“My thanks.” Guinevere rose. “Sir Mordred, please rest now. The king and I look forward to seeing you at the feast as well.” Mordred nodded fervently.

As soon as the queen had left the room, Gilgamesh turned to Mordred, who was watching Guinevere go with a wistful expression on her face. “So,” he said, “Have you been in love with her since you met her, or just for the last few years?”

Mordred gave a strangled chuckle. “I, what? Ha! Uhh, that’s ridiculous…”

Gilgamesh raised an eyebrow.

Mordred heaved a sigh. “Yeah, um, maybe I’m a little fond of her, is all. And it's been...well, it's been a while since I've seen her, but she doesn't know that.”

Gilgamesh thought about Mordred’s words. The king is married, she wouldn’t go for you even if you were the last man on earth. The knight wasn't wrong. He knew well how very strictly Arturia took her vows. For the first time, he felt a sense of unease.

_____

“So do you think Sir Mordred be trusted?” Arturia asked her wife.

Arturia and Guinerevere took their noonday meal in their private chambers. Arturia had dismissed her other knights and advisors.

“Yes,” Guinevere replied, bringing a bit of bread and cheese to her mouth. “His apology was genuine and he didn’t seem to be brooding like a thwarted assassin. Still, I would council you not to find yourself alone with him over the coming weeks. I could find no evidence from our spy network that he made common cause with the Picts, Saxons, or any of our internal enemies, but his behavior was so peculiar that it’s wisest to keep him on a short leash for the time being.”

Arturia nodded. “I was thinking the same thing. And you’re still planning to continue those sword lessons with him?”

Guinevere smiled slightly and averted her gaze modestly. “I know you disapprove, husband, but the lessons give me joy and offer Sir Mordred some greater focus. I think you can be a bit too harsh on him sometimes.”

Arturia sipped her ale. “I'd be less harsh if he was less rash. This prank couldn’t have come at a worse time, humiliating me in front of that Saxon chief Horsa.”

“Constantly heaping disapproval on him won’t help with that. Besides, Horsa will think you’re an incompetent usurper no matter what you do. Mordred’s antics will only offer entertainment and might even make him more amenable to extending the peace treaty.”

Arturia smiled at her wife. “I can’t say you’re wrong about that.”

Guinevere’s father, King Lot, had led a rebellion against the newly-crowned Arturia that had nearly destroyed her reign before it had even begun. Arturia had managed to quash it, and had killed Lot in single combat. After that, the kingdom had expected that Arturia would exterminate the house of Lot, erasing his descendants from the earth. Instead, she had married Lot’s youngest daughter, Guinevere, and pardoned the rest of the traitor king's children and relatives. This shocking act had earned the young king the respect and loyalty of a powerful duchy, and had served as a signal to England as a whole that this king would not be like the others who had gone before.

It had been a calculated risk. Arturia had met Guinevere before, briefly, and knew that Guinevere was intelligent, politically savvy, and dedicated to her duty. Guinevere, perhaps better than anyone else in Arturia’s inner circle, knew the cost of war and supported Arturia in her determination to maintain England’s fragile peace. After she had learned Arturia’s true gender, she had pushed away her disappointment at their sham of a marriage and had proven to be one of Arturia’s most trusted and insightful advisors.

Guinevere was a good wife. Sometimes Arturia wished bitterly that she could be a better husband.

“I am more concerned about the foreigner - Gilgamesh,” Guinevere continued. “No one knows who he is, how he got here, or what he wants. It’s strange that he appeared suddenly with Sir Mordred rather than presenting himself at the great hall the way a visiting royal traditionally would. Our contacts in the port cities made no mention of such a stranger, nor was there any word about him on the roads. And it’s not exactly like he blends in.”

Arturia considered this for a moment. “He’s a foreign barbarian and his loyalties are unknown, but I truly don’t believe he means me harm. The opposite, actually. He reacted with too much quickness and surety countering Sir Mordred’s assault.”

“It could be a ploy. Perhaps he knew Mordred wouldn’t actually harm you and only wanted to give the appearance of loyalty.”

Arturia shook her head and gazed out the open window at the passing clouds. “I don’t think so. I’ve had enough people make attempts on my life that I can predict who’s likely to do so before they make a move. I truly don’t believe that he’s one of them. And besides,” she frowned, deep in thought. “I can’t help feeling like I’ve met him before.”

Chapter Text

Gilgamesh had been in Britannia for less than a day, but he had already concluded that he hated the place. It was cold, damp, and dirty. He wasn’t sure why Arturia’s people made chosen to make their homes in drafty, chilly castles. They’d given him private quarters as well as a set of itchy, unpleasant wool garments (which lay untouched) but altogether it was impractical. He accepted the noble quarters as his due, though they were just a new way to experience the cold and damp w.

He wondered if he could find a way to Uruk of his time. Arturia would join him. They could lounge together on the banks of the Euphrates and he could show her the riches of his city.

A knock interrupted his chain of thought. He flung open the door. “Who dares to-“

A beautiful, light-haired man bowed. “My apologies for disturbing you, my lord. King Arthur has given me orders to escort you to his table. I am Bedivere, one of the king’s knights.”

Gilgamesh’s irritation ebbed. He was reminded suddenly of Enkidu, though Bedivere’s eyes were older and wiser than Enkidu’s ever had a chance to become.

“Excellent.” Gilgamesh followed the knight down the winding corridors of the castle.

Bedivere paused before a set of oak doors. He looked at Gilgamesh thoughtfully. “I fear you might misunderstand our king, foreign lord. He’s been accused of being…distant, but in fact I believe that he simply tries to be the vessel for a purpose too great for any mortal to bear. He wants to create a world based on trust and generosity rather than terror and compliance, where people can trust their rulers, and where kings protect their people rather than exploiting them. You are a newcomer to these lands, so you don’t yet know how much that means.” Without waiting for a response, Bedivere pushed open the door to the great hall.

A cacophony of sound descended. All the people of the castle, hundreds of them – knights, squires, artisans, farmers, wives, and children – were gathered at several long tables, devouring a feast of pork, vegetables, and several different types of bread. Dogs and children cavorted between the tables. Most people ate with their hands and washed the meal down with mugs of ale. Altogether unappetizing, but eating wasn’t the reason that Gilgamesh was here.

Bedivere led him to a high table set at one end of the hall. Arturia sat at the center, a delicate gold crown in her hair and a mink-lined cape settled over her shoulders. Bedivere indicated the seat at her right hand, a place of honor.

Guinevere sat at the king’s left, but was absorbed in conversation with one of the most handsome men Gilgamesh had ever seen, a dark-haired knight – probably Lancelot. On Gilgamesh’s other side was Mordred, who grinned and waggled her eyebrows at him by way of greeting. What an idiot.

Seated between Arturia and Mordred, he was struck by the uncanny similarity between them. How on earth had the court remained ignorant of their connection? But he already knew the answer – people see what they wish to see. One was a bastard child turned knight, the other the regal King of Britain; people had no reason to think there was a connection between them, and so they remained blind to the fact that they had the same face. Most people really were idiots, Gilgamesh marveled.

As for the public ignorance of the fact that both Mordred and Arturia were female, that was less surprising. Bedivere seemed more feminine than either of them, and no one questioned his sex.

“Well met, Gilgamesh,” she raised a cup to him. “I hope you’re finding Camelot to your liking.”

He wasn’t, but gave a noncommittal grunt. He liked seeing Arturia like this – as close to relaxed as she ever could be, enjoying her meal. In a rare moment of restraint, he decided to keep his complaints to himself.

A plate was placed before him, along with a goblet of ale. “I provide for my people at least one meat meal a day,” Arturia said, her chest puffed out slightly as she surveyed the feast room.

“Is that…unusual? In Uruk, lamb and goat were a staple.”

“You must come from a rich and wealthy kingdom. Things in Britannia are…harder. How much has Mordred told you about the political situation?”

“Nothing. He doesn’t seem to have a head for politics.” Arturia smiled slightly. “No, he does not.” Mordred, overhearing the slight, huffed and turned her attention back to her meal.

Arturia began, “For centuries, the High Kings of Britannia ruled over a lesser coalition of petty kings and chieftains, and kept peace on this island. The Romans conquered Britannia five hundred years ago, establishing dominance over the lesser kings and toppling the High Kingship. They bled the people dry with taxes, but at least they maintained order. At least until sixty years ago, when the barbarians attacked Rome and the legions withdrew to defend the heart of the Empire. The problem is, the same barbarians were attacking here. The Saxons.

“My grandfather reestablished the High Kingship and attempted to unite the petty kings against the invaders. The result was chaos: the petty kings turned against him and each other. He was betrayed and murdered by one of his retainers, Vortigen, who was in turn eventually defeated by my father Uther.

“I’m sure you’re already thinking this is complicated enough,” (in fact, Gilgamesh was mostly thinking about who he needed to slaughter first before he could convince Arturia to go to Uruk with him) “But there are other factors as well, namely the Picts, the wild tribes from the north beyond Hadrian’s Wall. They are natives of this isle and distantly related to us Britons, but they never yielded to Roman authority and so they view us as their enemies. We must also deal with their occasional incursions into our land and pray to God that they never find common cause to ally with the Saxons.

“The worst part of it all is that the Saxons have some claim to at least a portion of the land. After the usurper Vortigen gave land on the southern coast to the Saxon mercenaries who had helped him rise up against my grandfather, those mercenaries brought over their all of their relations and friends. Saxony was growing overpopulated, it seems. Eventually they tried to expand within England, and they were driven back. They called for aid from their fellow countrymen, and the retaliation against the Britons was…horrific. They burned churches and monasteries. They slaughtered children.” Arturia’s face never betrayed much emotion, but the even tone of her voice seemed to quiver for a moment.

“Uther managed to drive them back, but they never left. More of them arrive every year, some of them joining the southern settlement and others slaughtering villages along the coast. My father Uther died not long after I was born, when someone poisoned the well he drank from, a stunt that killed a hundred other people. The country fell back into civil war for a decade and a half until I drew the Sword of Selection and ascended the throne. We’ve reached a tentative peace with the Saxon settlers on the southern coast, who may help us take up arms against their roving countrymen who keep invading our shores.

“The Saxon chief Horsa,” she pointed to the far end of the table, at the red-haired men Gilgamesh had seen walking with Arturia when he and Mordred had first arrived in this place. The man was loudly playing some sort of drinking game with a few of his Saxon companions. “He’s the leader of the Saxon settlement. He’s here to discuss terms for extending the peace treaty between our peoples. His presence here is essential, even if he is a touch…difficult.” As if on cue, Horsa knocked a cup from the hand of one of his men, spilling ale all over the lap of one of Arturia’s knights, who leapt up in outrage with a hand on his sword. Arturia gave the knight a look, and the man stalked off.

Gilgamesh pondered it all. The names whirled in his head - Roman, Briton, Saxon. The forest giants and divine bulls and angry gods had been challenge enough during his own reign. “Why not slaughter the Saxon settlement?”

Arturia eyed him with some alarm. “Horsa is right there. And didn’t you hear what I just said? The Saxons have a claim to a portion of this land, by law. And law aside, alliance with them to stop the barbarian invasion from the continent. They are technically citizens of Britannia now, and if I can convince them it’s in their best interests to ally themselves with us rather than their Saxon cousins from the continent, Britannia might be able to stave off invasion.”

A servant girl who had been pouring ale for Horsa yelped and leaped back, a hand flying to her breast. The Saxon cackled loudly, though no one else at the table did. On Gilgamesh’s other side, he noticed Mordred snap to attention and glare at the Saxon lord. The girl fled towards Mordred, and the knight laid a surprisingly gentle hand on her arm before the servant girl departed back to the kitchen.

Arturia sighed. “He’s been harassing the servant girls ever since he got here. It’s becoming a serious problem. Among us Britons, no one would take such liberties without a woman’s consent, but the Saxons don’t appear to share such customs.”

Gilgamesh noticed that Horsa was glaring at him. Another Saxon tried to whisper to him, but Horsa waved him off, eyes still locked on Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh raised his cup in Horsa’s direction, smiling. Horsa looked away.

“He doesn’t look pleased at being seated so far from the king,” Gilgamesh remarked to Arturia.

She smiled. “You’re perceptive. And no, I imagine he’s incensed about it, but being king has a few advantages and one of them is being able to eat at least a few meals in the presence of companions of my own choosing.”

Gilgamesh wouldn’t have thought twice about such a thing – he’d always eaten whatever he wanted in the presence of whomever he had pleased - but Arturia seemed to consider it an indulgence.

Arturia continued. “He’s been a challenge, but this treaty is Britannia’s best chance at peace in nearly half a century.”

“Challenge is putting it lightly. He makes a mad dog seem like a paragon of etiquette.”

Arturia laughed then. Gods, she was beautiful, he thought as he felt his loins stir. He hadn’t forgotten why he’d come here. But he was no coarse barbarian like Horsa – he wouldn’t take her by force, he’d make her yearn for him, ache for him, reach out a pleading hand while gazing up at him from the sheets –

“I don’t know anyone who speaks like you.” Arturia’s words interrupted his line of thought. She was looking at him intently. “Most people here guard their words carefully, lest they offend some lord and end up in a blood feud or end up accusing of conspiracy.”

“Speaking freely is the right of a king,” he replied, shrugging.

She raised an eyebrow. “Would that all kings had such rights. But this reminds me. I wanted to ask – why have you come here?”

He paused for a moment. What to say? That he had been summoned from the realms beyond death to fight against six other heroes, and that he’d fallen in love with her – no, her future self – during the course of the war?

Folly. Madness. He despised lying – it was an act of fear, suitable for sycophants and beggars. Kings had no reason to conceal the truth. But he did have to admit that it was time to improvise.

“I heard stories of the king of Camelot and his knights. I wanted to see the truth for myself.”

Arturia nodded, seemingly satisfied with his answer.

As the meal was ending, the people of Camelot began to approach their king. It seemed that the time to mediate conflicts occurred after the last meal of the day, and Arturia stepped capably into her role as a law-giver and a resolver of conflicts. No matter was too small or to petty to be brought before the king. For her part, Arturia weighed each case with solemn gravity, sometimes eliciting the opinions of her knights, then pronounced her ruling decisively and fairly.

As she listened to a toothless old farmer drone on and on about a mysteriously vanished sheep – a narrative which would have made Gilgamesh fall asleep on his own throne had he been the one forced to listened to it – he began to realize how great the gulf between him and Arturia was. The fire that had sustained him from Fuyuki to England to Camelot, that had made him so accommodating toward the difficult Mordred, began to flicker and dim. She was near enough to touch, and yet he’d never been so far away from her.

This wasn’t Saber, the tragic hero locked into a battle to the death in a distant time and space. This was King Arthur at the height of her power, surrounded by her own people, in her own world. There was no room in this world for him, and moreover, he wasn’t sure he wanted there to be.

He left quietly. Mordred watched him depart with a quizzical expression on her face, but no one stopped him.
He exited the hall into the dark of the corridor, lit only by torches. After the loudness of the feasting hall, the silence was almost uncanny.

Suddenly, some unseen force slammed him against the wall. Enraged, Gilgamesh tried to strike this insolent attacker, but found his arms wouldn’t move.

A face, framed by white hair, loomed near his. Gilgamesh knew enough to guess his identity. “Merlin,” he snarled.

The magus moved closer to Gilgamesh, and…sniffed him. “You don’t smell right. You’re not from here – this time, I mean, not just this continent. I don’t know who you are or what you want, but do not fuck this up for me.

“I would never harm her,” Gilgamesh growled.

“Harm her? The king? Oh, I don’t care about that. Her wellbeing is irrelevant - antithetical, even - to the chain of events that must happen. What I’m saying to you is, don’t get in the way. Or I’ll turn you into a newt,” he added as an afterthought.

Killing this man would be a pleasure. At a slight gesture, his Gate of Babylon opened, bearing a thousand gold-tipped weapons.

Merlin frowned slightly. “Can’t have this. Let’s seal that right up, shall we,” Merlin flicked a wrist.

The Gate vanished. Gilgamesh tried to call it forth again. Nothing.

Fine. Gilgamesh didn’t need weapons to be dangerous.

He brought a knee up into the crux of Merlin’s legs – hard. The magus gasped, eyes goggling like a goldfish’s. Gilgamesh’s fist slammed into the side of his head, and Merlin went reeling. Gilgamesh prepared to finish him off, but a strange sound stopped him.

Merlin was laughing.

“Ah, just as one would expect from the King of Heroes. ‘Till we meet again, Gilgamesh.”

Then the mage was gone.

Not fled – if he had tried to run, Gilgamesh would have hunted him down like a hawk does a sparrow – but utterly vanished.

Gilgamesh swayed. He was never sure how exactly he made it back to his quarters, but once he did, he fell into a sleep riddled with dreams.
_____

He dreamed of Enkidu that night. Enkidu appeared to him sometimes in dreams, which never failed to split open the old wound in his heart.

They were sitting on a hill outside the city of Uruk overlooking the Euphrates. It was a place they had gone often in life.

Enkidu was looking concerned. “You haven’t been yourself lately, my king. Maybe this mortal meatsack you’ve been toting around is making you soft,” Enkidu poked Gilgamesh’s arm. “You’ve gone easy on the Knight of Treachery. You've been almost parental, I might say.”

“She’s a fool. Killing her would be a waste of effort.”

Enkidu smiled. “That’s about as much tenderness as she’s gotten from her actual parents, so my statement still stands.”

“It allowed me to get to her. Arturia.”

“Yes, and finding her hasn’t been as pleasant as the idea of finding her was, right? When faced with the real King Arthur, it’s hard to keep up your fantasy. But sometimes life is better than fantasy, if you can really live it.” Enkidu plucked at a blade of grass. “If you love a flower, you don’t pick it, you water it and protect it and watch it grow.”

“Past and future, I only have only loved one person like that.”

Enkidu sighed, annoyed. “You’ve said that before, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You can have friends, and lovers too. It wouldn’t bother me, anyway. It would be reassuring, in a way, having someone else to look after you while I’m stuck here in the realms of Ereshkigal.”

Gilgamesh scowled. “I don’t need anyone to look after me.”

Enkidu did not let himself be drawn into an argument, a habit he’d perfected in life. Instead he looked at Gilgamesh, eyes piercing. Over the Euphrates, dark clouds began to gather. “That’s all beside the point. I’m here to warn you, Gilgamesh. Be careful, my king, my dear. As much as I miss you, I don’t want to see your strange second life end just yet, and that’s a greater danger with this fleshy mortal body you’re carrying around. Events are being set in motion and the wheels of fate are starting to turn and correct themselves. Something’s coming, something terrible.”

Thunder crashed over the river as the clouds let loose a torrent of rain.

A thousand miles away, in his private quarters in a castle in Britannia, Gilgamesh’s eyes snapped open.

Chapter Text

“He’s just horrible, Mordred, Lisbet and I were discussing it and we just can’t stand any more.”

“I know, I know, honey.” Mordred stroked the servant girl’s hair gently.

“I don’t know how the king expects us all to just let him run rampant through the castle. You saw how he humiliated me at the feast! Twisting my nipple like that in front of everyone!”

“I know, Elin. But Horsa will only be here for a few days more, maybe a week, then he’ll be gone forever and we’ll have peace.”

Wasn't that how it had gone, in that other timeline? Mordred was having some trouble remembering the order in which things had happened; it was disconcerting, being dropped suddenly into the middle of the story like this. Still, the advantage of having lived it all before meant that she enjoyed a new advantage: foresight.

“You sound awfully sure about that,” the servant girl pouted and eyed Mordred mutinously. “I thought you’d be on my side.”

Mordred sighed inwardly. Sometimes knowing the future was a real pain in the ass.

It was shortly past dawn, and the servant girl had crept into Mordred’s quarters after the feast was over. Mordred had been pleased to see Elin again – the girl was a pleasant lover and she’d enjoyed her company in the past. But trying to calm Elin after she’d been hassled by that douche of a Saxon princeling wasn’t how Mordred wanted to spend this time.

“How’s this,” Mordred said, “Horsa’s a pile of pond scum that has somehow obtained sentience, and with any luck he’ll ride off the end of the world once he leaves Camelot.”

Elin giggled and Mordred relaxed. Elin kissed her deeply, and Mordred allowed her hands to wander over her lover’s luscious body. She flashed the servant girl a wicked grin. “What was that about a nipple? Need a bit of soothing?” In response, Elin pulled down the front of her dress, allowing her breasts to spill out. Mordred caressed her breasts gently, stifling a grunt of pleasure. Really, Elin was built like a fucking fertility goddess.

Mordred took one pink nipple in her mouth, and Elin arched her back and moaned. Mordred ran a hand up Elin’s soft thighs and began to work the soft bud between them, trying not to grin more as Elin’s moans intensified.

With a single swift movement, Mordred pinned the girl playfully beneath her. Elin looked up at her, a coy smile on her face, her eyes a haze of desire. “Horsa doesn’t deserve you,” Mordred said softly, kissing her again. Then she hoisted Elin’s skirts and buried her face between the woman’s legs.

Elin bucked and made a truly delightful set of sounds, her cries growing stronger as she reached her peak – which didn’t take long. Mordred was very, very good at what she did.

Mordred had barely had time to settle down Elin’s skirts and snuggle next to her when the door to her chambers was flung open. Gilgamesh entered the room like a golden tempest, throwing a brazier to the floor in a rage and shouting “WHERE IS MERLIN!??”

Elin stifled a small scream. Mordred tried not to roll her eyes. This was really not what she needed right now.

Gilgamesh’s crimson eyes blazed, and he swept the remains of Mordred’s wine set – which she’d been enjoying with Elin – to the floor. “Tell me where I can find Merlin!”

Mordred glanced to Elin, “You should probably go now, honey.” The servant girl was out of the room in a heartbeat.

Mordred turned to the irate Gilgamesh. “Goldie, relax, Merlin is not hiding in my wine cups. Calm down and I’ll help you find him.”

Telling someone to calm down was a strategy likely to backfire, especially an enraged golden king, but for some miraculous reason it actually worked. Or at least, it distracted Gilgamesh enough for him to take stock of the situation. “Fucking the servants while you wait to fuck the queen. Classy, Mordred.”

Mordred decided to let it go. “Gil, what happened with Merlin?”

Gilgamesh was vibrating with fury. “The coward accosted me and sealed my Gate.”

Mordred recoiled. “That’s not good.”

She knew that Gilgamesh didn’t have the powers of a Servant in his strange new body (Mordred didn’t either, now that she’d returned to Camelot). The Gate of Babylon was his greatest and only supernatural weapon, tied as it was to him rather than his Servant status. Even Mordred understood that Gilgamesh’s Gate wasn’t merely a weapon – it was his greatest treasure. Being cut off from it would be more painful than losing a limb.

Mordred rubbed her temples. “The thing with Merlin is – you don’t really find him, he finds you. He-“

Gilgamesh crossed his arms.

“Gil, I’m trying to give you intel on the enemy. Merlin’s not exactly what you’d call human. Some people say his father was an incubus, some people say he was just a garden-variety demon, but in any case, this guy is some bad news. The only person who can even kind of control him is Father, and even in her case, I’ve never been entirely sure who’s really the one calling the shots there.”

“Tell me where he is.”

“Gil, haven’t you heard anything I've said? Fuck if I know where he is. He might be combing the skies above the castle in the shape of a hawk, or maybe he’s fucked off to the Fae again. Personally I try to avoid him. I hate conjurers, they remind me of Mother,” Mordred’s mouth twisted at the word ‘mother,’ pronouncing it like a curse. “For a while Merlin liked to sneak up on Father and his knights disguised like a beggar, I’m not sure if that’s something he’s doing anymore.” Mordred tried to force a reassuring smile. It hurt her face. “Talk to Father. She’ll know what to do. Which reminds me,” a coy grin flashed across Mordred’s face. “How did things go last night? You made her laugh, it’s been ages since anyone’s done that.”

Gilgamesh, not quite mollified but no longer in the grasp of a blood rage, waved a hand dismissively. “Well enough. Why your sudden curiosity about the matter? I thought your interest in my personal life was just a ploy to get back to Camelot.”

Mordred leaned back, still grinning. “Well yeah, but that doesn’t mean I’m totally disinterested in dear Father’s happiness.”

Gilgamesh sneered, then seemed distracted by a sudden thought. “What happened to the other Mordred, the one who is supposed to be here? No one has made mention of two Mordreds.”

Mordred was uneasy. “I’m…not sure. When I went to her room – this room, my old room - and it was exactly like it was when it was mine at this time in my life. Everyone seems to remember me the same too, though it gets tricky remembering that they don’t know all the things that I know.” She looked up at the ceiling, trying to ignore the goosebumps prickling her skin. “It makes me think of something Merlin mentioned once – that there are many worlds, not just this one, and that reality is like the branches of a tree. A different choice at the right moment, and you can make one branch split off from another. Maybe we arrived at this point in the history of Camelot because the other Mordred – the one from this branch - died suddenly here and I was able to take her place before anyone noticed. Or maybe, when I arrived here, she just winked out of existence like a snuffed-out candle….” Mordred shuddered. Some possibilities didn’t bear thinking about.

Gilgamesh seemed thoughtful. “I don’t have that feeling anymore, the one I had in England. What you called the rubber-band feeling.”

Mordred nodded. She recalled that tense, unnatural sensation, the feeling that at any moment both she and he could be snapped back to the Throne of Heroes. “Me too. I thought it was just because Camelot is my home, but maybe it’s something else. Maybe we’ve created a new branch on the tree.”

If that was true…then what? Did that mean they save Arturia?

Gilgamesh shook off his thoughtfulness and resumed being an asshole. “I will find Arturia and have her reason with Merlin.”

Mordred stood. “She’ll be on the practice fields at this time of day. If you wait a little while, I’m heading over m-“

Gilgamesh let the door slam behind him.

Mordred sat down, hard, on the edge of her bed. She gazed morosely at the ceiling, and muttered to herself, “You wanted a second chance. Should’ve been more careful for what you wished for.”

 

_____

Arturia knew the identity of the golden-haired man marching towards her from across the practice field long before she could see his face. His coloring and even his height weren’t that unique among the Britons, but the lithe, utterly self-assured way in which he moved was unknown among her people. The Britons, survivors of the Roman occupation and a seemingly endless series of wars, often moved furtively, like hunted things. Gilgamesh did not; he moved as if all of the earth was his kingdom.

She’d found herself turning over their conversation in her mind throughout the night. She was used to people trying to get things from her – power, military aid, political advancement, favors – and she found herself intrigued by this man who only seemed to want her company.

She was standing with some of her knights and retainers on a small dais overlooking the practice field. Knights and squires were engaged in training before them – some practicing swordplay, others archery, and still others perfecting the art of riding. The morning was sunny and warm, with a hint of spring flowers was the air. This was as close as her kingdom got to being peaceful, and therefore Arturia was as close as she ever got to being happy.

Gilgamesh clearly didn’t share her light mood. He leapt up the steps in one quick movement and was at her side. He didn’t bother was politeness or pleasantries. “I need you to speak to Merlin. He has taken something important from me.”

Arturia blinked. For the first time, she noticed the odd color of the foreigner’s eyes – last night at the feast she’d thought they were a dark brown, but in the daylight she realized they were an unsettling red. They seemed to pierce her somewhere deep inside.

It took her a moment to slip into diplomatic mode and offer him a reply. “My apologies for the behavior of my Chief Magus. Rest assured that I will speak to him after morning practice and make certain that he returns whatever he has taken from you.”

Something about the springtime or the sunlight or the strange red eyes of the foreigner must have gotten to her, because she found herself adding, “On the condition that you duel with me.”

Gilgamesh looked baffled, and she hastily added, “Just as a form of practice, not with any serious intent. I’m curious to cross swords with a man from…Uruk, you said? My foster father Sir Ector says that you never truly know a man until you fight him”

Gilgamesh pondered her offer for a moment, then shrugged. “I’m not averse to the idea.”

A squire wooden swords for Gilgamesh and Arturia . He hefted it – it was heavier than the swords he was used to, but certainly not unmanageable. A few of the knights who had been standing with her looked slightly alarmed. One of them, a man a few years older than her – her foster brother Kay, perhaps? – leaned over to whisper something in her ear, but she waved him off.

She and Gilgamesh circled each other on the open field.

He’d fought her before, of course, but that was in another lifetime, when they were Servants. This, the clash of swords, was more visceral and real. She was remarkably aggressive in her advance, and Gilgamesh found himself taking one step back, and then another. She expended no excess effort, and used her smaller stature and speed in an attempt to outmaneuver him and sneak under his guard.

She was a remarkable warrior, but there was one thing she didn’t plan for.

Gilgamesh fought dirty.

When she pressed forward, for a split second her weight was unevenly distributed, and he used that moment to knock her off balance. She managed to twist her ankle around his, and brought him down with her. Gilgamesh found himself on top of Arturia, pinning her to the field.

She looked up at him with a shocked expression in her green eyes. Exertion had brought the blood to her cheeks, and he could feel the heat of her body through her clothes. She was strong, banded with muscle, and yet he could feel softness of her curves –

Suddenly, she wrapped her legs around his hips, and with a grunt of effort, flipped him over beneath her. The move knocked the wind out of Gilgamesh, and he felt the wood of her sword at his throat. He raised a hand in surrender.

Arturia was smiling as she raised herself off of Gilgamesh, then extended a hand to him. “You’re a good fighter,” she said. “If you are in no hurry to return to your city, a place could be found for you here at Camelot.”

Gilgamesh muttered something noncommittal, trying to ignore the mix of battle rage and desire coursing through his veins. Part of him wanted to fight her and most of him wanted to fuck her, but now wasn’t the time for either of those things. He watched her walk back to the stands, then followed at a distance.

Mordred had arrived at some point during their duel, and she was crossing wooden practice swords with Queen Guinevere. As Gilgamesh walked near her, Mordred mouthed WHAT WAS THAT, GIL? while waggling her eyebrows. Gods, he really could kill her.

Instead he turned his attention to Guinevere. “Lessons with Mordred are a waste of time. There is little that mongrel can teach you.”

Guinevere smiled politely and whirled her sword, cutting the air with a whoosh. “I have some training. My father saw to it that all the children of his house had familiarity with armed combat. It’s a dangerous world, and one must be prepared to defend one’s property if the men are away.”

Mordred was staring at the queen like a besotted puppy. He recalled her words from their first meeting. Women weave and spin, and never fight, eh? Mordred should have known she’d lose her heart when she met a woman who could do both.

A sudden sound caught his attention. Horsa and his Saxon companions had arrived, conversing raucously in their own language. A chill seemed to settle over Arturia’s people.

“You! Boy!” Horsa pointed at a frightened squire, a boy of no more than eleven or twelve. “Fetch me a sword.”

The child hastily acquiesced. When he saw what the squire had brought, Horsa roared in anger and smacked the objects out of the boy’s hand. “Wooden practice swords?! What are we, children?!”

The boy, shaking, replied, “It’s the king’s policy.”

“The king?!” Horsa huffed. He picked up a sword and whacked the boy’s shoulder with it. “We – are – not – children – to – be – bossed!” Each word was punctuated by a whack of the sword. The child yelped in pain and embarrassment. The rest of the Saxons laughed; they probably thought this was some sort of joke.

Next to him, Mordred’s face had gone murderous. Guinevere even looked unsettled. Gilgamesh sought at Arturia, standing with her knights on the dais overlooking the field. Her face was neutral, but already he was able to read the more subtle signs of her body – her shoulders squared, her jawline tensed. Horsa’s actions infuriated her, but she had to play nice with the hateful diplomat.

Well. He didn’t.

He didn’t like Horsa, and something about this pointless cruelty irked Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh was no stranger to actions that others might call “cruel” – in his youth he’d bedded married women and worked his laborers to the bone to build the walls of Uruk, but he'd had a purpose. He’d wanted pleasure and a well-fortified city. Cruelty without any aim or reason was wasteful, and that disgusted him.

It didn’t help that his blood was still up from his fight with Arturia, and he hadn’t forgotten his rage at Merlin’s theft of his Gate. He relished the opportunity to lash out at a worthy object of his aggression.

He strode to the Saxon, and called out in the clear, authoritative voice of a king, “Stop this foolishness.”

Horsa looked at him, inadvertently following Gilgamesh’s commands simply because he was too startled to do anything else. “The foreign king? What do you want here?”

Gilgamesh smiled lazily, crossing his arms. “To challenge you to a fight. Your choice of weapon.”

Horsa glanced to his Saxon companions and chuckled. “That’s bold, southern king. How are you with a lance?”

Gilgamesh shrugged. “I have mastery of all weapons.”

The field cleared. Squires fetched the horses, equipment, and weapons. Mordred hastily explained the rules of jousting to Gilgamesh: “The idea is to use your lance to knock the other rider off his horse. Don’t go for the horse. You get three passes.” She placed a hand on his shoulder, and looked at him solemnly. “Good luck.”

Gilgamesh donned the heavy, clunky armor they offered him (he had to get his Gate and access to his treasury back soon – he had never desired his own elegant golden armor so much), and mounted the massive war horse they offered him. The animal was as well-armored as he was, though it did wear a strange cloth that draped along the ground like a skirt. (Really, why did Arturia’s people make their horses wear skirts?)

The lance, though, was a thing of beauty, taller than he was and tapering to a smooth, blunt point.

Horsa and Gilgamesh took up their positions at opposite ends of the field. Arturia and all her knights and squires were watching from the dais. With a cry, Horsa spurred his horse forward and Gilgamesh followed suit.

There was something delightful about charging toward an enemy with a gigantic weapon. At first, Gilgamesh was sure success was his, but then Horsa’s lance caught him hard on the shoulder, and his entire body snapped back.

It was like being hit by an avalanche. Dimly, Gilgamesh heard a collective cry from the assembled knights, but he locked his feet in the stirrups. As his horse slowed to a trot, he regained his position in the saddle.

He glared at Horsa on the other end of the field. The mongrel would pay for that.

Gilgamesh forced his horse into a gallop and lowered his lance. He nimbly evaded Horsa’s lance, and slammed his own into the armored man’s chest so hard that it splinted into a thousand pieces.

Horsa fell to earth with a crash of steel.

Gilgamesh smirked. He lifted his helm and sought Arturia’s face. But instead of beholding awe and respect, he saw horror instead.

Gilgamesh turned back. Horsa lay where he had fallen, his legs oddly askew. Why didn’t he just get up? Gilgamesh wondered. Why be so dramatic? Then he noticed the shattered fragment of the lance lodged beneath Horsa’s helmet, and the pool of blood spreading out from the fallen Saxon.

Only the wind made a sound on the silent field.

Then everything happened at once. Someone screamed, and a half dozen of the Saxons rushed to Horsa’s side. Two guards grabbed Gilgamesh by the arms and led him away. He was too shocked to resist.

He threw once last glance behind his shoulder, seeking Arturia. She had turned away, conversely anxiously with her knights.

He saw only one person still looking at him. Only a glimpse, and then it was gone - a flash of white hair, a single smiling face in the sea of horror. Merlin looked delighted.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this, it wasn’t supposed to happen like this, it wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

The words were a steady beat in Mordred’s head. This wasn’t how she remembered it – as she’d mentioned to Elin, Horsa was supposed to confirm the treaty and return to his people. Eventually Saxons would break the treaty in a few years when they started raiding local British settlements, but the lull in hostilities would give the land some sorely-needed peace. Trust Gilgamesh to throw a wrench in all their plans.

Lost in thought, Mordred suddenly found herself alone with Arturia.

They were on the trail back to the castle from the practice field. Arturia’s knights had scattered – some to the infirmary, some to corral Horsa’s irate Saxon companions, others to tamp down the panic surely even now beginning to spread through the castle. Mordred was only a few steps behind the king.

Mordred gulped, hard. She’d been avoiding her father deliberately since her return to Camelot and her ill-planned assassination attempt. She still wanted to prevent the nightmare at Camlann, but she’d hoped that maybe…she could do it without talking to Arturia too much.

Mordred couldn’t help but recall that the last time she’d been alone with Arturia, it had been on a field of corpses right before they had murdered each other.

Mordred shook herself. No, that was a different future, one that she could still prevent. Perhaps. But Arturia would need her help.

Arturia was frowning. “This is going to be a problem,” she said, half to herself. “We need to send word to the Saxon settlement as soon as possible before rumors start to spread. Perhaps we can still contain this.”

“Maybe they…would understand that it was just an accident?” even as the words left her mouth, Mordred knew how stupid they sounded.

Arturia looked at Mordred as if noticing her for the first time, fixing the knight with a glare of contempt. “They sent their chief into British territory – enemy territory – as a whole, hale man, and he’ll come back to them a cripple. If he comes back at all. I can only pray that the healers help him survive his injuries.” Arturia kept walking, and Mordred struggled to match her stride. They had reached the castle now, and Arturia gave a brief nod to the porter as they stepped inside the stone hallways.

Mordred tried again. “There were witnesses, lots of them. Maybe-“

Arturia didn’t even look at her this time. “Yes, and they were all Britons. The Saxons will accuse us all of conspiring together.”

Mordred’s heart sank. Oh Father ….

“Now leave me,” Arturia waved a hand, as if shooing away a fly. “I need to draft a letter to Horsa’s brother Hengist.”

“Your Majesty!” Galahad burst in. He was pale and out of breath. “News from the infirmary. Horsa is dead.”
_____

Gilgamesh paced in his chambers like a caged lion. Two heavily armed guards stood outside his door. If he asked, he was sure he’d be told that they were there for his protection, but he knew that they were more likely there to deter him from leaving. Even without his Gate he was certain he could beat them, but there wasn’t anywhere in the castle he particularly wanted to go.

His dislike for this strange, cold, violent land intensified. He wanted to take Arturia and return to the warm gardens of Uruk. He wanted to wrest his Gate back from Merlin and then crush the Magus’ throat.

A cold mantle of misery settled upon him, and this made him furious.

The door opened, and Arturia entered. She was flanked by Bedivere and Lancelot, hands on their swords, who took up positions on either side of her. He was sure that if he made any move toward the king they’d be on him in an instant.

Arturia stood before him, every inch the imperious king. The warmth he’d glimpsed on the practice field was gone. “King Gilgamesh,” she said icily “The Saxon chief Horsa is dead of his wounds. I am here to inform you that you stand accused of murder and treason against the realm for your actions.”

“Murder and treason? That seems extreme. Accidents happen, no one can deny that. Now about Merlin’s theft-“

She didn’t let him finish. “You killed a respected guest in my home. I know you are a barbarian and unaware of the ancient laws of hospitality-“

That irked him. “My people were the ones who codified those laws while the Britons were still living in caves,” he snarled.

She continued in the same steely voice “-But to kill another guest in the home of the host is an atrocity beyond measure. Not to mention that the Saxons will likely demand your head as recompense for the dead chief – if we’re lucky.”

“Ha! A dead dog would be too good of a trade for him.”

Arturia gritted her teeth. “You truly don’t understand, do you? Not only have you broken the unwritten laws of hospitality, you’ve also single-handedly ruined the best chance at peace that Britannia has seen in decades!” Arturia was yelling now, her voice echoing off the stone walls.

Gilgamesh looked at her coolly. “Why not accuse Horsa’s armorer of treachery, since he was clearly asleep when he was forging? Or the lance-maker, whose faulty product is to blame for this mess? Or even his horse, who so impudently carried him into danger?”

Arturia looked at him in disgust and shook her head. “I’m not going to get anywhere with you, am I?”

There was no real answer to that, so Gilgamesh said nothing.

Arturia stormed out of the room. Lancelot followed her wordlessly. Bedivere went to follow too, but turned back for a moment, a hand on the doorway. “You have an interesting effect on our young king. That’s more emotion that I’ve seen him express in years,” he said to Gilgamesh. Then he too was gone.

Gilgamesh resumed pacing.

_____

Artura unbuckled Excalibur and Avalon and left them in her chambers. The loss of their constant presence by her side felt like losing a limb – for most of her adult life, she had never been without them. But one of the conditions of the parley with the Saxons was that each side lay down their swords, at least for the duration of the meeting.

The letter had arrived a few days ago. Despite the death of their leader, the Saxons were willing to hold a peace conference on the condition that the Britons brought them Gilgamesh. She’d summoned her knights to the Round Table and read the letter aloud to them before asking their advice.

Galahad, Lancelot, Kay, and most of the other knights had been in favor of accepting the Saxon demands and giving up the southern king. Strangely, it had been only Mordred who had argued – with surprising eloquence – in favor of shielding the foreigner.

Arturia listened to all of their opinions, as she always did, and tried to craft a middle course. To walk a tightrope over the abyss.

Gilgamesh. What on earth had possessed her on the practice field? He was another entitled petty king, like so many others. It should be easy to surrender him without reservations to the Saxons. Should be.

She accompanied the guards as they went to escort Gilgamesh from his chambers. The simple meal they’d left for him had been dashed against a wall, the plates and cups smashed to fragments. She felt a flicker of anger, but quickly dismissed it. Even if the southern king couldn’t control himself, she could.

She was pleasantly surprised when Gilgamesh accompanied them without resistance. He seemed oddly subdued.

The meeting would take place at a small villa less than a day’s ride outside Camelot. The willingness of the Saxons to travel so deep into Briton land was promising – maybe they could move past this after all.

She took a small group of some of her most trusted knights and advisors - Kay, Bedivere, Gawain, Galahad, and a few older men schooled in law. She’d thought of bringing Lancelot, but had decided that someone had to assist Guinevere in looking after the affairs of Camelot in the king’s absence. As for Mordred, Arturia didn’t want to deal with the nightmarish combination of the southern king’s arrogance and the knight’s impulsivity.

They departed on horseback shortly after daybreak. Behind them rode a palanquin carried by four servants, carrying a beautiful marble coffin that housed the mortal remains of the Saxon chief Horsa. His subdued Saxon entourage traveled with it. Arturia couldn’t bring Horsa back to life, but she could at least ensure he had the trappings of a magnificent funeral. Hopefully that would help appease the Saxons.

They traveled on one of the old Roman roads. Despite the secret bitterness Arturia harbored toward the Romans for abandoning her people in their hour of greatest need, she did have to admit that their system of roads was a marvel – arrow-straight and smoothly paved. The sound of horses’ hooves on the road was the only sound. No one seemed especially talkative.

Except, of course, for Gilgamesh, who was suddenly beside her. “You go easy on your prisoners. You haven’t even manacled me for this ride. I could escape easily.”

She didn’t look at him. “I trust you to act with honor.”

“The some way you trust that the Saxons won’t murder you all on sight.”

Her hands went white-knuckled on the reins. She was thankful that her knights had spread out in front and behind her and couldn’t hear him. “Trust cannot be earned by distrust.”

“No. But complicity can be earned by show of force.”

She stopped and glared at him. “I understand if you have no respect for trust or truth or chivalry. But if you have no respect for the kingdom I am trying to build – for the way I rule – then I do ask that you shut your mouth.” Gilgamesh, unruffled, returned her stare. She urged her onward and snapped, “I can’t think that you’re very popular with your people.”

“Popularity has never concerned me.” When she had no response to that, he added, “If you do insist on riding to your doom, then I appreciate that at least you’ve kept my hands free.”

“All the better for you to flee if things grow difficult, I assume.”

“Wrong. All the better for me to keep you from courting the death you apparently so ardently desire.” She looked at him, startled, but he kept his eyes on the road ahead.

It was afternoon by the time they arrived. They settled their horses outside and entered the coolness of the villa.

The Saxons were waiting for them, milling in the meeting hall. There were more of them than she’d expected – around two dozen – and she noted that Horsa’s brother and co-chief Hengist wasn’t among them. They wore no swords, per the agreement. Arturia let out a quiet sigh of relief.

Trust cannot be earned by distrust, she thought to herself. If she was going to end the cycles of betrayal and violence that plagued Britannia, she had to start somewhere.

An older man with a face like weathered stone stepped forward. He was more than a head taller than her and probably weighed twice as much as she did – most of it solid muscle. “I am Octric, one of Hengist’s thanes,” he said.

She squared her shoulders, and replied, “I am Arthur, High King of Britannia. I am here to offer my condolences for the passing of your honored chief. We bear his mortal remains in a marble coffin outside. We hope you shall return his body to his people as soon as possible.” She had rehearsed her words carefully, offering her sympathy for the death of their leader but accepting no culpability for it.

Octric grunted. “Where is the foreigner?”

“With us, as you can see.”

To her left, hemmed in by her knights and advisors, she saw Gilgamesh stiffen.

Octric nodded. “Very well. We’ll take him now.”

“No.” Arturia’s voice was clear and strong, and every head in the room whipped to face her. “He is a guest of the royal house of Pendragon. I’ve invited you here that you might watch him stand trial and offer your counsel-“

“He is a murderer. He will face Saxon justice.”

Arturia would not budge. “The rule of law unites and civilizes us. We cannot give up a foreign royal to vigilante justice-“

“Fuck your British laws,” Octric said in a low, threatening voice. He and his Saxons moved in like a pack of wolves.

The Britons had assumed that the Saxons were unarmed because they wore no swords. Suddenly, chaotically, Arturia’s mind shifted to etymology. The term “Saxon” derived from the word “sax,” after the long knives – about the length of a forearm – that these people used for everything.

She realized, suddenly, that it didn’t really matter what she said or didn’t say. It wouldn’t matter if she had served Gilgamesh’s head to them on a silver platter. None of them were getting out of this room alive.

(Hadn’t she already known this would happen, on some level? Hadn’t that been why she’d insisted that Lancelot, capable as he was, stay behind? Hadn’t that been why she was so incensed at Gilgamesh’s comments on the road?)

Kay leaped forward, yelling (trust Kay to be the hotheaded one, she thought). The Saxon next to him drew one of those selfsame saxes from his long sleeve and ran her foster brother through.

The room exploded into chaos. The rest of the Saxons pulled long knives from boots, sleeves, and other hiding places, and fell on the unarmed Britons.

Arturia saw things only in flashes after that. Kay stared at the handle of the knife protruding from his chest. She screamed and tried to fight her way to him; when a Saxon tried to grab her, she drove the heel of her palm into the man’s nose, shattering his face.

Kay was looking at her, confused, as his blood pooled beneath him. She saw his lips shape her name, her true name – Arturia – before he closed his eyes in agony and slumped to the floor.

Bedivere ran for help, only to fall with a sax in his back. Gawain reached for her, then halted suddenly when a Saxon drew a knife across his throat and let loose a torrent of blood. Galahad broke the wrist of one Saxon before another caught him from behind. One of her law advisors – an elderly man – screamed in agony as a Saxon stabbed him a dozen times.

Something golden caught her eye. Gilgamesh was facing off with a particularly large Saxons, trying to make the man lose his footing as the Saxon tried to get him into a headlock.

She had a brief moment to marvel the fact that the big Saxon wasn’t trying to use a knife on him before a heavy blow from behind cast her into darkness.

Chapter Text

When Gilgamesh regained consciousness, the world had turned upside down. It took him a few moments to realize that he had been slung over the side of a horse as though he was a bundle of turnips.

Nearby, he noticed Arturia in a similar state. She was awake and looking at him wearily, but flicked her gaze away when she noticed that he had awakened.

“I told you so,” he muttered. She didn’t reply. It was a low blow, even Gilgamesh had to admit that, but he was furious at her for walking wide-eyed into a trap and even more furious with himself for not fleeing this likely outcome.

“Ahh! The foreigner is awake!” A face loomed into Gilgamesh’s view – the huge Saxon who had fought him back at the villa. He poked at Gilgamesh and chuckled to himself.

Gilgamesh’s hands were manacled, but he wouldn't let that stop him. He looped his hands over big Saxon’s neck and twisted, tightening the chains around the man’s throat.

He felt a heavy blow, and his grip weakened, allowing the big Saxon to extricate himself. Gilgamesh caught a glimpse of Octric’s mask-like face in the corner of his vision.

Arturia watched all of this impassively.

The big Saxon was rubbing his throat and sputtering with rage. “The plan was successful, we have Arthur, what need do we have for this troublesome southern king? I say we leave him as a sacrifice to Odin, to serve as Chief Horsa’s cupbearer in Valhalla.”

A lean Saxon with a cruel face added, “Shall we impale him and leave him to rot for the crows? Or should we pull his lungs out through his ribs and let him bake in the sun?”

Octric looked thoughtful and not inclined to put a stop to this line of discussion. For the first time since his arrival in Britannia, Gilgamesh felt a flicker of fear. Death. He had always hated death. He tried to fight against the recollection of his friend falling to dust in his arms….

A voice interrupted the Saxon’s scheming. “Careful, you wouldn’t want to affect the ransom.” Arturia’s gaze was focused on the ground, but her voice was as clear as ever.

“Insolence!” The big Saxon struck Arturia, and Gilgamesh bristled.

Ostric lifted a hand, “At ease, Hafthor..” He turned his attention to Arturia. “What is this about a ransom?”

Arturia lifted her hollow eyes to him. “Haven’t you heard of the wealth of the kingdom of Uruk? It’s said they eat their meals on plates of gold and silver. Their herds of sheep and cows are more numerous than the stars. I’m certain that the king’s royal family would offer great compensation for his safe return.”

Gilgamesh stared at her. Had Arturia – that paragon of virtue and truth – just lied to cover for him?

Ostric stroked his chin in thought, weighing the advantages of killing Gilgamesh versus the promised recompense to come. He finally nodded. “It would be best to talk to Chief Hengist about such a thing. Money like that might be useful.”

He nodded to two of his men. “Cut them down and let them walk. Let's give the horses a break.”

Gilgamesh crashed to the ground, shortly followed by Arturia. They were both manacled at the ankles and wrists, weighed down by heavy chains, and unable to take a full stride.

“Move. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.”

____

Camelot was eerily quiet.

After a day had gone by without word, a search party had been sent out. What they’d found was a bloodbath in an empty villa.

Of the knights and advisors who had gone with Arturia, only Bedivere came back alive, and he had to be carried by servants due his wounds. He lay in a daze in the infirmary, and no one knew if he would live or die.

There was no sign of Arturia or Gilgamesh. Strangely, that gave Mordred hope.

The remnants of the knights gathered at the Round Table after the news arrived, sitting together in numb silence. Ector looked like he’d aged a decade overnight, appearing more feeble than Mordred had ever seen him. The younger knights gathered together like frightened puppies. Lancelot stared ahead blankly, his eyes like a dead man’s. Guinevere stoked his back, tears running down her face. The sight tore at Mordred’s heart. Several seats sat empty.

What were they without King Arthur to hold them together? What would Camelot become without the king at its heart?

Mordred thought suddenly of Gilgamesh, and wondered what he would say. Probably something harsh and insightful enough to snap them all out of their stupor. She could almost hear his snotty voice - she’d wanted to change things, hadn’t she? Mitigating the aftermath of a massacre and royal kidnapping weren’t exactly what she’d had in mind, but one didn’t get to choose the cards that fate dealt one.

Besides, she couldn’t let Camelot fall until she’d had a chance to say everything she needed to say to Arturia.

In her best impression of Arturia, Mordred said, “We can't just sit here moping, we've got to take action. Lancelot, establish search parties. The Saxons can’t have gone far. Guinevere, make a public proclamation that the king has gone – of his own volition - on a peace expedition to the Saxon settlement; we don’t need people panicking. Ector, take the younger knights and start preparations for war.”

If she talked fast enough, maybe no one would notice that she had no idea what she was doing. Miraculously, grasping for any sense of normalcy, they actually scrambled to obey her.

“Now, if any of you need me,” Mordred pushed out her chair and stood. “I’ll be in my chambers drafting letters to our allies.” In reality, she needed a stiff drink after this, but she wasn’t about to let the rest of them know that.

Mordred’s relief was short-lived. Her chambers weren’t empty. A woman with long blonde hair and a dark veil concealing her face stood in the center of the room.

She grasped Mordred by the shoulders and kissed her cheeks. “Blessed day! Our hour has finally arrived, my sweet Mordred.”

Oh fuck, Mordred thought. “Hello, Mother.”

“Oh darling, there has been something I’ve been waiting to tell you. King Arthur is your father. You are his sole rightful heir.”

Once, in another lifetime, those words had rocked Mordred to the core. Transformed her. They’d been the fulfillment of all those hopes she’d nurtured throughout the dark nights of her childhood, lying in her hard cot, aching from Morgan’s brutal training regime. She’d dreamed then of her father, that the parent she had never known would take her away from all of this. To be told that the great king Arthur was her father was a joy she’d never thought she’d experience in life.

And look at where that joy had led. Treachery, death, destruction.

Shaking off her mother’s touch, Mordred poured herself a glass of ale and drank it in one gulp. “Gotcha, Ma, but somehow I don’t think he’d share your perspective.”

Morgan snapped “IDIOT! Summon the nobles, rally the knights, and force them to acknowledge you as king. Abandon Arthur and that foreigner to the untender mercies of the Saxon horde.” Her irritation forgotten, Morgan worked herself into a rapture once again. “This is what we’ve worked for, my sweet. Only say the word, and I’ll ensure that Arthur never comes back. You’re already halfway to occupying the throne.”

“Let’s think about this, Mumsy. You’re Arthur’s half-sister, right? And I’m his child? Mmmm, there’s some math there that doesn’t quite add up. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men aren’t exactly going to be lining up to support someone who’s a bastard and a product of incest.”

Mordred’s face snapped to one side, and she realized Morgan had slapped her. Internally, she was delighted – it was difficult for Mordred to read her mother’s face through her thick veil, but when Morgan stooped to violence, it meant she was overcome by emotion. “Ah, just like old times. You’re so sentimental, Mother.”

“Isn’t this what you wanted, you ungrateful little wretch?! The throne is yours.”

“No, the throne would never really be mine, not while you’re here, Mother. And it’s not the throne I want, or even knighthood or glory. All I wanted was a father.”

“A father,” Morgan spat. “You know what your glorious father, your noble king, did when he heard that a child had been born who could oppose him? He gathered up all the infants in the region, and told their parents they would be given apprenticeships at Camelot. Then he loaded them onto a ship, and when the ship was far enough out at sea, he told the crew to abandon them.”

THAT was news. Mordred froze. She could almost hear the creak of the ship and wails of infants calling out to indifferent silence.

Morgan seemed pleased at Mordred’s reaction. “You only survived because I hid you away. I’m sure it was that wicked Merlin who suggested that Arthur do such a thing, but Arthur still did it.”

Would Father really do such a thing, let innocent children die? Then again, was there anything Arturia wouldn’t sacrifice if she thought the best interests of the realm were at stake? Couldn’t she have been persuaded to do such a thing as a young, uncertain king?

Trying her best to keep her voice even, Mordred replied, “I’ll take that up with the king when he returns. Until then, I’m just going to try to keep everything from going to shit.”

Morgan’s reply was interrupted by a rush of wind and a slamming of the door. Merlin stood there.

Speak the devil’s name and he shall appear, Mordred thought dryly. Morgan shrieked in rage and turned into a crow, swooping out of Mordred’s window. Merlin changed became a small hawk – a merlin, from which he derived his name.

The enmity between the magus and the sorceress was legendary. Mordred could hear their cries of rage and pain as they tore at each other with beak and claw.

Mordred ran to the window and screamed into the void, “You have real shit timing, Merlin, you know that right? A couple minutes earlier would have been nice. And for Christ’s sake, give Gilgamesh his Gate back!!!!"

_____

 

The day passed. Then another. The Saxons kept up a steady pace. They refused to use the main roads (probably wise, Gilgamesh reflected wryly, wouldn’t want to run into any of the king’s people when you had the king in chains), and they also refused to remove the heavy manacles from the wrists and ankles of Arturia and Gilgamesh.

The sky was gray and cold. Rain trickled down Gilgamesh’s back, mud sucked at his feet. Never one to move at any pace but his own, he’d resisted the Saxons in a myriad of ways, only to be met with fists, clubs, and whips. Without his Gate, without a weapon, without the strength of a Servant, he found he had no choice but to hatefully comply. Better to survive now and get his revenge later.

Arturia had not spoken a word to him since her bluff about the ransom. He wondered if she blamed him for the deaths of her knights and advisors.

He noticed suddenly that she was walking with a new sort of stiffness, as if in pain, one hand pressed over her lower abdomen. A secret wound? Something more unspeakable? But the Saxons hadn’t gotten her alone, she hadn’t been out of his sight over the last few days.

Night fell. The Saxons made a small fire that hissed in the rain, and exiled the two captives to the outer edges with a ragged blanket and a few hard biscuits.

Facing away from Gilgamesh and the rest of the camp, Arturia curled on the ground in the fetal position. She dipped one hand beneath her tunic and under her trousers, between her legs. It emerged covered with blood.

He must have made a sound, because she looked back over her shoulder at him. She seemed to collapse into herself, closing her eyes in misery. “Now you know.”

He moved to sit in front of her. “I know that you’re bleeding.”

“It’s my…” she sighed. “I’m a woman, Gilgamesh.”

He sat back on his heels. “Is that all?” She raised her head, confusion in her eyes. Gilgamesh ignored her and glanced back at the Saxons, who were too busy setting up camp to notice this quiet exchange between the captives. He found a tear at the edge of his tunic, ripped a few long pieces from the fabric, and placed them before her.

“You’ll need these. I’ve heard that women in your state require such things.” He shifted and turned so that his back was to Arturia and his face toward the Saxon camp, giving her a moment of privacy and ensuring that none of the Saxons noticed her actions. He didn’t see the look of stunned shock she gave him.

_____

Arturia woke later in the night. Her cramps had eased somewhat. She’d not had to deal with this nuisance for many years – Avalon worked as well on the strange machinations of the female body as it did on wounds, it seemed. When she’d had her first blood many years ago, Sir Ector’s wife and the older women of the castle had made her special tea and coddled her in blankets. There was none of that now, yet she couldn’t recall feeling so comforted as she did now.

Gilgamesh stirred in his sleep. His back was pressed against hers, which kept her warm and eased her cramps.

He knew. He knew she was a woman.

How long had it been since she’d told someone? Who outside of her adopted family, Guinevere, and Merlin knew the truth?

She let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Even her closest knights, sworn to die and kill for her (and some of them had – no, she wouldn’t think about that now) had no idea of her true sex. Every waking moment she guarded that secret.

But now this golden foreign king knew. And he hadn’t pulled back in horror, but instead had helped her.

The rain had stopped, and the stars shone. A tiny sliver of a new moon rode high in the sky. The Saxons snored and one of them let out a fart in his sleep. Gilgamesh was warm against her back. She was a prisoner of her worst enemy, sleeping on the wet ground, and had arguably never been in such difficult circumstances. And yet she felt a lightness she hadn’t experienced in years, since before she’d pulled the sword from the stone.

Arturia fell into a dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

The next day, she seemed stronger, though still pale. “Just so you know, my name isn’t Arthur. It’s Arturia. And,” she added, “You cannot tell anyone that I’m a woman.”

Gilgamesh glanced at her. “Why would I do a foolish thing like that?”

She shrugged. “The point seemed worth emphasizing.”

The Saxons broke camp and marched onward. The rains had covered their trail, so their captors favored a slower pace. Arturia swiftly came up with a solution to the problem of preserving the secret of her sex in a group of hostile male warriors; she’d quietly told their Saxon captors that she was suffering from symptoms of dysentary. Amazingly, the subterfuge worked, and the Saxons allowed her more privacy when she went into the woods to answer the call of nature. They also gave her and Gilgamesh a wider berth, shying away from the threat of disease. The manacles, made from heavy iron that linked their hands and feet together, prevented them from taking long steps, so the slower pace allowed them time to think. They seemed to walk in their own small bubble of silence.  

Something about Arturia seemed to have changed. The angry silence she’d maintained since the ill-fated jousting match has dissipated, and the aloof air she had cultivated so assiduously was gone.

“None of my men know,” she said. “Not even Lancelot. Well, Kay knows – knew - since we were raised together.

“When my first blood came, he told me we couldn’t wrestle anymore – and we loved doing that. When I asked him why, he replied that he couldn’t hope to win against any creature that bled for a week every month and didn’t die. So I punched him in the face, and he never brought it up again.” She smiled at the memory, and her eyes suddenly filled with tears.

 “The rest of them, though, they never knew the truth. They fought and died for me and they never knew,” she whispered. She looked away as tears poured down her cheeks.

 Gilgamesh said nothing. To offer any comfort or reassurance would be useless.

 She brushed her tears away and they continued on. The Saxons chattered in their own language. The clink of the manacles they still wore was the only sound between them.

 She spoke like a person in a dream. “In some ways, I barely knew them. My knights. Well, I knew their capacities as warriors well enough, not as people. I didn’t know about their dreams or their fears or what kept them up at night. It was easier to maintain my secret if I kept them at arm’s length. I didn’t join them on late night swims, or at taverns or brothels. It was easier because they didn’t have a chance to ask too many questions. And if I didn’t let them get too close, I didn’t have to feel guilty about lying to them constantly.”

 Her words came out like a river after a broken dam. It occurred to Gilgamesh that she had probably never spoken so freely with anyone in her life. The thought made him feel peculiar.

They halted around noon, and the Saxons threw them a few stale loaves. Arturia glanced at hers, then held it out to Gilgamesh. “You take it. I’m not hungry.”

“There’s not an idiot in the world who’d believe that. You’ve been marching through the wilderness for days, and you’re still bleeding.”

She frowned, but the hand remained out. “I don’t need it.” 

Gilgamesh looked at the bread. It would have been poor fare at the best of times, and it had clearly been transported in some Saxon saddlebag for the better part of a week. It was a mark of how dire their circumstances were that he was even slightly tempted to accept her offer. Ordinarily he wouldn’t deem it fit even for dog food. 

He locked eyes with her. “I’m not one of your knights or your petty kings. I’m not sworn to carry out your orders or mince words to appease you. So hear me when I say – starving yourself won’t bring them back.” 

She stiffened in surprise, and drew back the bread. He wasn’t sure if she was about to attack him or start weeping.

He added, “Your men knew what they were doing when they chose to follow you. They knew what might be asked of them. They didn’t die in ignorance, and you’ll make sure they didn’t die in vain.”

She nodded, then raised the bread to her mouth and devoured it in a few bites. Octric shouted at them to get moving. She seemed…not better, exactly, but less consumed by her grief.

“You don’t seem surprised to learn that I’m a woman,” she said suddenly.

He hadn’t been, but he didn’t wish to explain to her why that was. He shrugged, “The world is full of peculiar things. Have you even seen a giraffe? They’re far stranger than a female king.” He added “What I don’t understand is why you keep your gender a secret. Lies don’t suit a king.”

Arturia frowned. “Because…to be a woman is to be something antithetical to a king. Women are ruled, kings rule. Don’t you see? I might be female but I am a king, and thus I cannot be a woman.”

Gilgamesh recalled Mordred’s words, so similar to her father’s. Women weave, spin, sing pretty songs, and wear silky dresses. They don’t fight and they don’t become kings. I cannot be a woman. How similar they were, despite their many differences.

Arturia seemed deep in thought. “It’s not just that. People look for any excuse they can to turn their backs on the king. When I was first crowned, half the isle rose up in revolt, and I was an accomplished knight, the rightful heir of the High King, and the wielder of the Sword of Selection. It’s as if we forgot what it means to offer loyalty once the Romans left. If the people knew I was a woman, it would be just another reason to rescind loyalty.” She glanced at him, “Surely you understand, as a fellow king.”

Gilgamesh scoffed. “Not at all. In Uruk, the king is like unto a god and his power is unquestioned.”

Arturia raised an eyebrow and shook her head. “I still can’t imagine that. Will you...tell me about your world? You’ve seen so much of mine, but I know so little of yours.”  

And so he did.

_____

 A voice startled Mordred out of a daydream of a creaking ship filled with crying children. “Sir,” the anxious young knight began, “we’ve received reports that the Picts have overrun the Wall. They’re making raids on the farming settlements in the north, and the lord of that area has requested our assistance.” 

Mordred didn’t recognize the young messenger. Not surprising, given how many had died in what was coming to be called the Treachery of the Long Knives, and how many others had returned to their individual kingdoms and keeps. This was probably a third or fourth son, who never would have expected to rise high enough to speak with a Knight of the Round Table at any normal time.

She leaned back in her chair, ignoring the heap of letters that needed writing. “Why are you telling me this?”

The messenger looked baffled at her question, then shrugged. “We wanted to know what you thought we should do,” he said, as though it was obvious.  

Elin, who’d taken it upon herself to keep Mordred well-supplied with ale and bread (and mutton, and anything else she could get her hands on) glanced at Mordred anxiously.

Mordred leaned back in her chair, and mused that this was one of the unique advantages of this whole time-travel thing. She could remember what had happened before, in that other timeline. The Pictish uprising then had occurred due to some sort of land dispute, a year or two after the Saxon treaty had been made. Mordred and a few knights under her command had stormed a Pictish stronghold and slaughtered everyone, man, women, and child, down to the horses in their stables and the dogs in the kennels. Mordred had thought that this was the kind of decisive action that befitted a knight or a king. Instead, Arturia had been horrified, and had never looked at Mordred quite the same way again.

No. No, things were going to be different this time.

 She could handle this, put down the Pictish uprising, and return to Camelot in a fortnight. She was uniquely positioned to do so. She could learn from the past, do things in a way that would make Father…proud. Then, perhaps, she could get to the truth of the matter regarding that ship of lost children.

Mordred wondered, once again, where Arturia and Gilgamesh were. The search party had found tracks, but they’d lost the trail after a heavy rain. Mordred had insisted on sending search parties throughout the countryside, but they’d had little luck. If Father and the southern king were still together, even if they were in the hands of the Saxons, they might both stand a chance of surviving.

Either that, or they’d kill each other before the Saxons had a chance. But probably the former, Mordred reassured herself.

Mordred stood. “Well fuck, I guess we’ll just have to beat the Pictish savages back. Honestly I’ve been spoiling for a good fight, all of these politics make my head spin.” She turned to the young knight. “Find my squire, and relay a message: we leave at dawn.”

_____

Gilgamesh told Arturia about the great ziggurats of Uruk, the lush gardens, the splendor of his palace, the richness of his treasury. A strange world where winter never came, where a king had absolute power over his people, curbed only by the will of gods who seemed to delight in toying with the lives of men and women.

Arturia listened, skeptical but deeply curious. She was critical of his early indulgences as king, but delighted by his battles with Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven. He’d wondered if she might object to his tale of his half-divine birth, but instead she shrugged, saying that she was not unfamiliar with goddesses and this sounded like something one of them would do.

 To his surprise, he found himself talking about Enkidu for the first time in years. About Enkidu’s death, and about the intimacy between them before that.

 “But you were both men. How does that…work?” There was no trace of judgment or disgust in her expression, only puzzlement.

 “Same as most sex does. You insert a willing appendage into an eager hole.” Arturia turned away blushing, and Gilgamesh smirked, adding, “You have a wife. What do you do with her?”

 “Not that.” She refused to meet his gaze.

 “That’s a pity. Guinevere is a remarkably attractive woman,” he mused.

 Arturia’s temper flared. “She’s still my wife by law, and I won’t have you-“

 “Calm yourself. I have no designs upon your wife. Though I’m surprised you’ve never consummated your marriage.”

 Arturia looked like she might die of embarrassment. “She’s…never been interested.”

 “But you have.”

She tried not to think too much about those times she’d felt a strange heat rise in her, a new and different kind of hunger. Guinevere had always been sweetly confused and gently dismissive. And she’d had duties enough to attend to as a king.

 She looked up at him, green eyes meeting red. He was looking at her intently, as though she was the only thing in the world. A strange sensation thrummed along her spine. Arturia had spent most of her life around men, had pretended to be one of them. Yet she’d never felt…confronted with maleness in this way. She couldn’t help noticing how broad his shoulders where, how intense his gaze, how soft his lips looked…

 “Hyaaa!” A club swung in between them, making them both leap back. From atop his horse, Octric glared at them. “Quit lagging.”

 Arturia hadn’t realized that both she and Gilgamesh had stopped walking. She resumed a brisk pace, somewhat relieved at the interruption. All this talk about sex was going to her head.

 Gilgamesh, though, did not seem inclined to leave the topic behind. “And you’ve never gone outside the marriage bed-“

 Arturia shot him a glare. “We can’t just respect the laws when they’re convenient for us and throw them away when they become difficult.”

 “That’s exactly what everyone else in your country has done.”

 That was a step too far. “You don’t know the first thing about my country.”

 “I’ve spent a fair amount of time in it at this point, and I still find your concept of kingship utterly perplexing. A country serves its king, not the other way around. But then, I was born to be a bridge between gods and men, and I defied them both.” He preened a bit at the observation, and Arturia tried not to roll her eyes.

“Yes, and you were punished for it. 

“Oh, thoroughly. And in the worst possible way. It is one thing to be utterly alone and not realize it, but to gain a true companion and then lose him is a calamity scarcely to be borne.” Gilgamesh’s light tone belied the depth of his words.

 She shook her head. “I hope I never experience such a thing.”

 “Indeed.”

 She looked at him again. It must have been strange, being so different from the other children in the royal household of Uruk, being set apart in such a way. Perhaps it was not so different from being a sixteen-year-old girl chosen by the Sword of Selection to lead a nation. Even if he was much more of an ass about it.

 She looked out at the countryside. They’d been walking for days now, and had carefully avoided any signs of human habitation, but she knew her country well and had a good enough idea of where they were. “We’re getting closer to the Saxon territory,” she observed. “That’s probably another reason why our captors don’t feel the need to watch us so closely.”

 She felt the dread she’d been trying to ignore creep back in. Her conversation with Gilgamesh had almost made her forget that she was a king in enemy hands. She took a deep breath, and said, “Horsa might be dead, but his brother Hengist leads the Saxons now, and I don’t expect he’ll be happy with us. I’m not sure what will happen to us when we reach the Saxon stronghold. And…I’m sorry for getting you mixed up in the politics of Britannia.”

 “It doesn’t matter,” Gilgamesh said confidently. “We are not going to the Saxon settlement.”

 She looked at him with alarm, only to see a sly grin cross his face. “We’re going to escape,” he said.

 

Chapter Text

“I thought,” she said through gritted teeth when they’d finally had a chance to catch their breath. “That you might have had more of an escape plan than ‘just make a break for it.’”

“I did. You didn’t seem to like my play-sick idea.”

“That’s because it’s embarrassing and trite. And I don’t understand why I was the one who needed to play sick.”

“It would have worked beautifully. They already thought you had dysentery.”

“You must have gotten too close to Sir Mordred, this seems like the sort of plan he would have come up with.”

She could hear the irritation in his voice. “I’m ‘close’ with Mordred in the same way that lions become close with the carrion birds that follow them from place to place. And don’t mock my plan, we’re out of there, are we not?”

She rolled her eyes, though she knew he wouldn’t be able to see it in the darkness of the forest, the moon and stars blocked by clouds. Their banter did serve the practical purpose of allowing them to keep track of each other as they ran through the night, trying to put as much distance as possible between the Saxons and themselves before their former captors awoke and noticed their disappearance.

Despite his usual arrogance, Gilgamesh wasn’t quite keeping up with her and she could hear his breath hitch occaisionally with pain. She knew why. The wound the big Saxon had given him was a nasty one.

Their captors had set a sole guard earlier that night – the one she’d come to think of as the big Saxon, who’d tormented Gilgamesh when they’d first been captured. The giant of a Saxon had sat up by the fire until his eyes began to grow heavy and his head began to droop. Then Gilgamesh had crept towards him, silent as a cat despite the heavy manacles, and choked the life from him.

The big Saxon hadn’t been unarmed, though, and he’d struck at Gilgamesh with a small, rusted knife, skidding across his breastbone and scoring a nasty gash across Gilgamesh’s chest. Gilgamesh had ignored the pain and tightened his grip on the man’s throat. After that, it had been a fairly simple task to steal the keys to their manacles from a sleeping Octric and escape.

There had been no time to bandage the injury, and Gilgamesh had never been one to plead weakness. He was too busy being inordinately pleased with himself after their unlikely escape.

Suddenly, a distant sound caught her ear – raised voices and branches breaking in the underbrush. She felt a flare of adrenaline. “They’ve found us,” she said to Gilgamesh, unseen next to her. “Run.”

They did.

She knew, as she was sure Gilgamesh did as well, what would happen if they were caught. Octric and his men might be careless, but they weren’t stupid. They’d deliver two corpses to the Saxon king, ransom be damned, rather than risking losing their prisoners again.

They ran half-blind through the darkness of the forest as a long rain began. Branches raked Arturia’s face and arms, and she could hear Gilgamesh’s grunt of pain as he stumbled on a fallen tree and nearly fell. She cursed at the thought of the plain trail they were leaving for the Saxons, but there was nothing she could do about it.

Behind them, the crashing and voices grew gradually closer. Arturia growled in irritation. “There’s no use,” she said, slowing her pace. “We have to go up.”

“What nonsense are you speaking?” Gilgamesh said.

She ignored him. The rain was coming down harder now, and it blinded her even more thoroughly than the darkness. She ran her hands over the trunk of a nearby tree, stretching as far as she could. No, that wouldn’t work. She moved on to the next, and her hand caught a lower branch. She pulled herself up and balanced on the branch, then reached down to Gilgamesh. “Come on,” she whispered, and felt his hand in hers.

Blindly feeling her way with one hand, she grabbed another branch and hauled herself up. She’d been climbing trees since she was a child, but even she was hard-pressed to do so in pitch darkness with rain-slick hands. Rain slicked her hair to her head and ran in rivulets down her face. Once she heard a branch snap under Gilgamesh’s weight, and she flung out an arm just in time to catch him. It took every once of her strength to haul him up after her.

Finally she reached a branch that was as wide as a shield’s breadth. She tested her weight on it, then dragged Gilgamesh next to her. “Quiet,” she whispered.

Gray light was slowly filling the forest – dawn must be close, though dark clouds and rain still obscured the sky. Arturia could vaguely pick out the forms of a dozen or so Saxons below, armed to the teeth. A torch sputtered in the rain, and she could feel its vague heat even from her vantage point. She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. Don’t look up, she thought silently.

“…can’t believe you were a big enough fool to let them get away. How far can a beardless boy-king and a foreigner have gone?” That would be Octric, berating some underling.

“Their trail was clear,” another voice replied. “But it seems like it cut off here…”

“What, you think they suddenly learned to fly? Over this way, you fool.”

“Sir, those are just some branches knocked down by the rain.”

“No, it’s leading off in this direction.”

Eventually, the voices and the accompanying sound of human feet tromping through the underbrush faded. She counted to a hundred before heaving a sigh of relief.

The sky was starting to lighten. Arturia could just make out Gilgamesh’s features in the pre-dawn light. He looked as fierce and proud as he always did, despite the fact that he was clinging to a branch, soaked to the bone, his hair slicked down against his head.

Suddenly it struck her how foolish they looked, two kings hiding in a tree like squirrels. Their odd predicament overwhelmed her, and she found herself laughing in stunned relief. Gilgamesh stared at her as though she’d gone mad, though he couldn’t suppress his amusement at her sudden fit of laughter. For a moment, they might have been hunting companions in the midst of a game.

Then, in the gray growing light, she caught sight of a massive dark spot on Gilgamesh’s chest. She gasped slightly when she realized it was blood staining his tunic, and all sense of amusement fled.

“Gilgamesh, your wound….” She reached out toward it, and he pulled back, saying “I didn’t think you of all people would be squeamish about blood. Come, I tire of this perch.”

“You need medical attention, badly.” More than I can provide, she added silently. Not for the first time, she longed for Avalon. He dismissed her concerns with a wave of his hand.

The reality of their circumstances began to dawn on her. They were free from their captors, but they were lost in the wilderness, without allies or any method of contacting help. They had no food, no weapons, no clothes but the tattered, stinking, and now blood-soaked rags on their backs. They were pursued by enemies who sought their deaths. And Gilgamesh was wounded.

 

_____

Mordred looked out dully over the wreckage of the battlefield. Some of her men were gathering up the corpses of the fallen and tending to the wounded, and she knew she’d soon have her own part to play in discussing the terms of the surrender. But for now, all she could do was look out at the evidence of her failure.

She’d sought out the Pictish forces with her band of knights, expecting to meet a small raiding party. She hadn’t expected half the Pictish army to ambush them.

It had been a massacre. She’d watched them die, her knights, some of whom she’d known for years. To stop the horror, she’d done the unthinkable – flown the white flag and surrendered to the Picts.

It brought to mind Camlann.

She heard footsteps approach, and then Lancelot stood beside her. His armor was stained with dirt and gore, and his eyes were sunken and weary. He laid a hand on her shoulder. “You’ve done well enough. I’ll take over from here.”

Some about his smarmy, self-assured tone filled Mordred with anger. “You were happy to follow me when I was the only one who stepped up after Arthur’s disappearance, and now that I’ve made a single misstep, you turn on me.”

“A misstep? We’ve lost two-thirds of our forces and we’re at the mercy of one of our oldest enemies.”

She eyed the Pictish tents on the other side of the hill. She’d have to go there soon to discuss terms of surrender. She knew quite well that one of the terms might be the surrender of her head from the rest of her body. She sighed.

“What would you have done differently?” She asked Lancelot dully.

Lancelot seemed surprised at that. No strings of curses, no taunts, no threats of a battle to the death, just a simple question. He opened his mouth, then closed it, thinking.

Mordred waved a hand. “Exactly. None of us was prepared.”

“You could have consulted more carefully with your advisors,” he said sullenly.

“Only a magus would have been able to see this coming. Merlin’s vanished again, and my mother -” Mordred made a face. “Let’s just say we want to keep my mother as far from Camelot as possible until this whole thing blows over.” Mordred briefly mused that Morgan would have made herself far more useful by offering a legion or two of undead soldiers instead of dropping truth bombs about royal lineages and ancient crimes, but that was Morgan for you – she was never particularly interested in being useful to anyone but herself.

Lancelot stared at her, shaking his head. “Something’s come over you. You’re different.”

Yeah, a time jump from an alternate universe will do that, Mordred thought. She was surprised that more people hadn’t noticed what must seem to them a sudden change in personality. She had an extra bone to pick with Lancelot, she admitted – she couldn’t forget the whole catastrophe with Guinevere. The Mordred of his timeline wouldn’t be carrying that grudge; the trial and sentencing hadn’t happened yet in this world.

Mordred’s mind reeled slightly as she thought of that other Mordred, the one from this timeline, and how different she must have been. A Mordred who didn’t know that she was King Arthur’s heir. A Mordred who hadn’t pierced her father through and been killed in turn on the bloody hill of Camlann. A Mordred who hadn’t died holding her own guts in the ruin of the world she’d loved, knowing herself to be the instrument of its destruction.

What a fucking moron that bitch must’ve been, Mordred thought.

She grinned wryly and glanced at Lancelot. “Yeah, I guess I am different. But not all changes are bad.”

Then she steeled her resolve, waving a dismissive hand at Lancelot. “Anyway, leave it to me to see this through and meet with the Picts. Arthur would want you back at Camelot anyway.”

Lancelot seemed slightly pacified by her reference to his favored status. His tone took on a hint of what might have been actual concern, “There’s no telling what they might do to you, as an enemy leader.”

“Yeah,” Mordred said wistfully, and looked up at the clouds skittering through the sky. “I know. But I was the one who got us into this, and I’m the one who needs to get us out. And I’ll make sure I secure safe passage for you and the rest of our knights, at least. Just gotta go in with the right attitude.” She flashed a toothy grin that belied the dread she felt and started towards the Pictish tents.

And because she was still Mordred, she called back over her shoulder, “Give Guinevere my regards.” Lancelot’s puzzled, slightly alarmed expression put an extra bounce into her step as she walked towards the tent of her enemy.

_____

Gilgamesh stripped out of his dirty rags and dove into the water. The stream was cold, but his blood heated quickly. In life, he’d often gone swimming in the much warmer waters of the Euphrates. It was a pleasure he hadn’t indulged in for far too long. The filth of captivity and flight washed away from him.

The water stung the gash on his chest a bit, and he winced. Had he been a Servant still, it would have been a small matter to heal it, but Enkidu had been right – this new fleshy human body healed itself annoyingly slowly. If he’d still had access to his treasury, he might have been able to retrieve one of his healing salves, but the Gate remained infuriatingly closed to him.

As he threw himself into the pleasure of swimming, Arturia washed herself. Her hair was down, which made her look softer, more like a young girl than a king. He eyed her keenly, but she kept herself infuriatingly modest, refusing to disrobe entirely and instead rubbing her body clean with sand and cold water under her clothing. Her travel-stained tunic billowed out around her in the water.

He was naked, gloriously so. He floated on his back, stretching his limbs luxuriously. She looked at him, and her eyes moved slowly down his torso. Then she snapped her gaze back to his face. “Stop showing off. Let me examine your injury.”

He went to her, water swirling around him. She grimaced as she looked at the wound on his pectoral muscles. It was a nasty one, even Gilgamesh had to admit that, though he was rather enjoying the way she was fussing over him.

Her brows furrowed. “If only I’d been taught needlework like an ordinary woman, I could sew it shut.”

“That sounds incredibly unpleasant. Besides, you are no ordinary woman.” He peeled away from her and dove back in the water, adding as an afterthought, “I remain utterly baffled by the way the people of your kingdom remain oblivious to the truth that their king is a beautiful woman.”

The word hung between them for a moment – beautiful – and Arturia looked at him with puzzlement in her eyes, then shook herself and resumed washing. “Will you ever have something good to say about my kingdom?” she asked irritably.

“Probably not,” he answered candidly, floating luxuriously on his back once more.

_____

“Yes, here.” Arturia pointed at the same thatched-roof house and started walking toward it.

Several days had passed. They’d been heading north and east away from the Saxon settlement. This wasn’t the first sign of human habitation they’d spotted, but Arturia had eschewed the others, pointing out the long wooden halls that characterized them: “That’s Saxon design,” she’d said, “My people don’t build their houses like that.” Then she’d shaken her head miserably. “I had no idea that the Saxons had made so many permanent settlements so far inland. No wonder Octric’s men was so lax in keeping watch over us. This area is Saxon land now, so they must have felt safe.”

The little hut, though, was different. “That’s a Briton house," She sounded pleased.

Gilgamesh grunted in affirmation and followed. The dull beat of pain in his wound made it difficult to think, let alone argue, and the paucity of their diet – acorns and whatever berries they could forage – didn’t help matters. He felt drained and exhausted in a way only partly explained by their grueling journey.

A man emerged from the work area around the house. Arturia hailed him, and he gave a reserved greeting in reply. “We’re travelers here and in need of shelter, food, and clothing. I am pleased to offer my labor in return for such things,” she said to him when he approached.

“Uh huh.” The man eyed Gilgamesh’s shirt, especially the large rust-colored patch of dried blood that had proven impossible to wash out in the stream. They probably made quite the sight. All kingly repose, Arturia continued, “As you can see my…companion here is wounded.”

“We don’t get too many strangers here.” The man eyed her mistrustfully.

“No, I imagine you don’t. We were…forced to leave our last place of shelter abruptly.

Arturia and the man looked at each other. Gilgamesh had the distinct impression of a battle of wills. He considered the convenience of killing the man and his family and simply taking their resources, but he knew Arturia wouldn’t like that.

“Could be someone waiting in the forest,” The man said.

Still meeting his gaze, Arturia raised a hand, wrist still red with the healing scabs from the Saxon manacles. “If there was anyone waiting for us, we would be in greater danger from them than you would be.”

The tension broke. The man waved them into the small house, offering a welcome as well as his name, which Gilgamesh couldn’t be bothered to remember. Inside, his wife – who was as reserved and unremarkable as he – bade them welcome as well. A baby was nestled a sling she wore; the infant stared at them and gurgled.

The man and woman offered them food and water, and new sets of clothes. They were ill-fitting and of poor make, but better than their older stained rags, which were quietly spirited away, probably to a nearby fire.

Arturia went to the yard to help the man chop firewood, and Gilgamesh allowed himself to be settled on a low bed. It wasn’t quite the level of luxury to which he was accustomed, but it would do. A farm cat ambled over and settled down next to him, purring. He stroked its head absentmindedly and dozed.

They awoke him before dinner, which was a simple affair. He ate ravenously, then gazed at the small house. It was better than sleeping outside, but not by much. The floor was dirt, the walls close and stifling, the roof had a hole in the center to permit smoke from the central fire to exit. Was this how ordinary people lived? He’d never spent time in an ordinary peasant house in Uruk, either, so he had no idea.

Arturia conversed with the man and woman about banal things – weather, the crops, the best way to preserve smoked meat. None of it interested Gilgamesh, who instead looked around the tiny smoke filled house and for the first time in his life wondered what it might be like to be someone else. He had noticed that other people were different from him, of course (and often that they were generally inferior), but had never before spent time wondering what their lives might be like. How different this place was from his palace at Uruk, how much more dirty and small – yes – but also how much less lonely.

The infant, nestled in its mother’s arms, stared at him with wide blue eyes. He stared back. He could remember little about his own childhood, save the sound of his own feet echoing through the palatial empty corridors; his father off on the business of ruling, his divine mother occupied with her goddessly duties. What a different life it would be to live here, to enveloped by closeness and care.

Gilgamesh shook himself slightly. The fever must be affecting his brain.

After they had finished dinner, Arturia shared a conspiratorial glance with the woman. In short order, Gilgamesh found himself shirtless and laying down on the table. The wound was a nasty one, red and weeping, even he had to admit that. He heard Arturia’s sharp intake of breath when she saw it.

The woman clucked her tongue, muttering something about how they should have gotten to her earlier. She poured a cup of bitter-smelling liquid on Gilgamesh’s wound, which stung like fire. His body tensed, reflexes used to delivering killing blows to anyone who would cause him such pain.

He felt a hand on his own. Arturia was at his side, her hand on his.

At last the woman smeared a poultice made of mashed herbs on the wound, wrapping it in clean cloth. Then they all retired to bed.

Arturia lay next to Gilgamesh on the bed, her body pressed against his from shoulder to thigh. (When had they started sleeping so closely? Probably to keep each other alive during the cold nights of their captivity.) When the fire had died down low and the family – even the fussing baby – snored softly nearby, he heard her voice.

“You’re critical of my country and my leadership, not without cause. I’m…not perfect, I admit. But this-“ he couldn’t see her gesture in the dark, but felt her indicate the little farmhouse “-this is what I’m trying to protect. I want my people to be able to fuss over the barley harvest or the health of their sheep rather than living in terror of the Saxon invasion. I want their children to be able to grow up without fear.

“There’s a reason they let us stay here. These people, or their very close relatives, are likely escaped slaves. Probably from the Saxon settlements in the southeast, but perhaps from the big Romano-British estates as well. I’ve seen that shy, skittish look before, and few others would take the risk of living in such contested territory. We’re lucky they trusted us, and we can rest certain that they won’t be telling anyone else that we passed by here.

“I’ve done my best to eradicate chattel slavery in Britannia, but all of the wars and invasions generate an endless stream of captives. The victors always want to make a bit of coin by selling their fellow human beings into slavery, it’s been that way since the Romans.” A huff of irritation, then she added, “We glorify the Romans, but they destroyed so much. We have a chance to be better.”

“Anyway,” she added, rolling over to a more comfortable position. “We’ll leave in the morning. We have to keep moving - if Octric and his men trace us here, they won’t hesitate to kill the whole family before dispatching us.”

Gilgamesh was silent for a while, so silent that she might have fallen asleep. Then he added, “I still don’t approve of your ideals. But…I think I can understand them.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 11 – Cave of Forgotten Dreams

 

Arturia is young, an uncertain new king who occupies a tenuous throne, when Merlin shows her the Round Table. “This was a project that your father Uther began. Round like unto the world, so that every man who sits at it is the equal of every other, a company of knights based on ability rather exalted birth,” Merlin says.

One seat is different from the others. “That is the Siege Perilous,” Merlin adds. “Any man who sits in it-“

(God, Arturia hated it when Merlin used the word “man” as a generic term for Arturia’s knights or human beings in general. The secret of her sex twisted and burned within her.)

“- other than the one fated to occupy it, will die a violent and hideous death.” And indeed, there would be a few who tried. The first would fall from his horse and break his neck; the second would die from poison; the third from an arrow wound inflicted during a skirmish with the Picts.

After that, the Siege Perilous developed a reputation, and it had sat empty for years until a brash but skilled young knight from the west had arrived to lay claim to it. Mordred had earned praise and awe from the court for his ability hold on to the seat, but Arturia had found it impossible to share in their delight, because only she knew what Merlin had said next: “When the one who is meant to occupy the Siege Perilous arrives, the beginning of the end of your reign has begun.”

_____

Arturia opened her eyes.

Why did she dream about that now? Merlin’s prophecy hadn’t come true and her reign hadn’t ended, thought she had to admit that someone deep inside it had caused her to regard Mordred with a certain suspicion.

An odd dream. She shook her head and rolled over. Sun filtered through the trees, birds sang in the distance. It had been two full days and nights since she and Gilgamesh had left the little family at the cottage, who had so generously provided them with fresh clothes, blankets, a canteen, and even some meat and bread.

She stretched and looked over at the form of the sleeping man beside her. His back was to her, and he was motionless. Odd, normally he was awake before her.

“Gilgamesh.”

No response.

“GILGAMESH!”

Still nothing.

Alarm filled her. Something was wrong.

She rolled him over. Gilgamesh’s face had gone pale and his skin was covered in a sheen of sweat. His strange red eyes were closed, his teeth gritted. She laid a hand on his forehead, and his skin nearly burned her.

She pulled up his shirt, but she already knew what she would find – the wound across his chest was red and angry, red streaks starting to make their way across his chest. The smell confirmed her worst fears.

Infection. She’d seen it take countless lives after battles – brave knights survived the first clash only to die slowly days later, dissolving into fever and delirium. Sometimes she lost twice as many men to those stinking wounds and red crawling streaks as she did in the battle itself.

Why hadn’t she thought of this? Why hadn’t she been prepared for it? She shook her head miserably.

He’d been quieter than usual, which should have been a sign. She’d hoped the treatment offered by the woman at the farmhouse had been enough, but that had been days after the initial injury. She should have known, should have prepared for this. She didn’t want to admit that she’d been powerless, utterly powerless to prevent the suffering of someone who had become a…friend.

“Gilgamesh, wake up,” she shook him.

Pain flickered across his features as his eyes opened into slits, peering at her feverishly. “Infernal woman, let me rest.”

He needed a healer. They were…what, three days’ walk from the little farmhouse? Too far to go back, in any case. And Arturia herself knew almost nothing of the healing arts. At the very least, she needed to get him to some sort of shelter; he wouldn’t have a chance in the open wilderness should a band of robbers or a wild animal find him….

She gathered up their few possessions and slung them over one shoulder. With her other arm, she gathered up Gilgamesh, slipping an arm around his shoulders and lifting him up. He was bigger and heavier than her, his body made deadweight by illness, but after a lifetime of fighting and marching in heavy armor, she was strong enough to carry him. At least for a little while. She was certain she’d seen a barrow not far back…

She began to walk, half-carrying half-dragging Gilgamesh. Incoherent with fever, he swore at her – quite creatively, she had to admit – all the while.

_____

Enkidu was struggling to breathe.

The gods desired vengeance. Gilgamesh, being half-divine, was untouchable. Enkidu, their own creation, was not.

This was the first time Gilgamesh had truly encountered death. He’d known of it in the abstract, of course, and he himself had caused the deaths of more than a few enemy soldiers and mythic beasts. But he hadn’t thought death would come for him or his own. He hadn’t known the hideous helplessness that comes from watching someone you love sicken and fade. He hadn’t seen the slow breakdown– literally, in Enkidu’s case, given that his clay form was falling back into its constituent parts. And Gilgamesh hadn’t known that no matter how much you love someone, you can’t help but take a step back when they start to smell like the grave.

Still, Gilgamesh stayed with him. He listened to his friend’s struggling breathing lapse into silence. He held his friend’s hand until that hand collapsed into dust, tears running down his face and the words still ringing in his ears: “You’ll find a thousand treasures more worthy than me.”

To the silence and the empty bed, Gilgamesh said, “You alone have this worth. I hereby declare: In all this world, only one shall be my friend. Not for all eternity shall your worth ever change."

___
When he woke, she was looking at him with concern in her beautiful green eyes.

“You’re awake. Oh thank God, you’re finally awake.” Cool, gentle fingers pushed his hair back from his face, stroked his brow. She brought something to his lips.

“Eat it. Please,” she said.

A bit of dried meat. In his current state the smell made his stomach heave. The pain of his injury was excruciating now; his skin burned and every nerve ending in his body screamed in agony.

“Water,” he rasped.

She brought their single shared canteen to his lips, and he drank greedily. When he was done, he lay back on a nest of blankets – she must have done that for him, he realized – and looked around them. They were in a small dank cave, barely tall enough to stand up in, a little fire burning nearby.

He considered, perhaps, that he should have heeded the dream he’d had of Enkidu when he first arrived on this gods-forsaken island and been more careful with this strange mortal body. Then sleep took him once more.

_____

 

The waters were cool and sweet, and Gilgamesh entered them in exultation. He washed off the dust of his long journey, scrubbed hair that had gone long and lank with neglect.

He’d undertaken the long journey and obtained the herb of immortality. He savored his triumph as he swam in the cool waters. Nothing had ever truly challenged him before this, and he had never known the joy of a challenge conquered. He could prevent his own death with this, and perhaps even bring back Enkidu….

When he returned to his pack on the shore, white hot panic filled his brain. The herb was gone. He would later learn that a hungry snake passing by had eaten it, and in the future he’d take every opportunity to kill representatives of this species that ensured their own deathlessness by shedding their skin.

The herb was gone, truly gone. All that journeying, all that sacrifice, for nothing.

That was the moment he knew he would die and there was nothing to be done about it. He would pass from this world just like all the other animals and men and women, and even his divine mother could do nothing to prevent it. All his riches would not save him, would not purchase for him the thing that he desired most. The experience had changed him, and his people would remark on the change – he had not grown gentler, exactly, though he was less violent and impulsive, and possessed of the certain brand of wisdom that comes from pain.

When he discovered the the herb of immortality had been stolen from him and that his long journey had been for nothing, Gilgamesh fell to his knees and began to laugh. Deep, belly-shaking laughs that caused tears to spring to his eyes, laughter that reached the heavens and made the gods shift uncomfortably and consider that they may have been a touch too harsh.

_____

 

It was around dawn when she woke. She reached for the familiar form of Gilgamesh, and found the space he had occupied suddenly empty.

Alarmed, she sat up. She relaxed slightly when she saw a blanket-covered form near the mouth of the cave. Gilgamesh lay there on his side, too weak to even sit up. Before him, the sun was just starting to come up over the horizon, and the sky was stained with vivid purples and reds.

“This place. It isn’t a cave,” he said.

She looked at him, startled at the question. “N-no, it’s a barrow. An earthen chamber reinforced by wood. Our ancestors built them, the ones who came before the Romans, but we don’t know why or for what. No burials or hidden treasures were even found in them. Some people say they’re owned by the Fae now, but I’ve stayed in them before without incident when I’m on the road. They're reputed to bring strange dreams, though.”

He grunted noncommittally. Birds were singing somewhere nearby, and the pre-dawn breeze carried a hint of flowers. The world was slowly coming awake.

They watched the sun come up together. He looked at her with his strange red eyes glowing like embers in his pallid face. They seemed to rest in deep hollows. “Sometimes, I can almost understand why you love this country so much.”

_____

Her hair was in a tangle around her face, and she wore a look of worry that didn’t suit her. She looked exhausted and beautiful.

She was trying to heat water. Given that all they had in the way of utensils was a tin canteen, this was no easy task. She banked the fire down to coals, then stuck the canteen among them. A few moments later, she wrapped her hand in the end of her tunic and gingerly attempted to retrieve the canteen, only to yelp in pain as the hot metal scorched her skin through the fabric. She managed to get the canteen to safety before sticking her burned fingers in her mouth.

The sight made him chuckle a little. She’d probably always had servants to help her with such tasks, at least during her adult life. Not that he could have done much better, he had to admit.

She glanced over at him. “Good, you’re awake. I’m going to try to sterilize your wound again. Sometimes hot water can-“

He shook his head, beckoning him over to her.

Her face quizzical, she approached him where he lay among the blankets. She leaned down, and he grabbed the back of her head, forcing her mouth on his and kissing her fiercely. He felt her mouth open slightly – perhaps in surprise, perhaps in desire - to admit his tongue. Ah, to finally taste her. He recalled how she’d looked bathing in the stream, her hair down around her face instead of tied up in her usual bun, her green eyes fixed on him. He felt himself grow hard despite his pain.

She pulled back, wrenching his fingers from her hair. He let her. He’d never wished to force her, but rather to come to him of her own will. “Gilgamesh…what are you…” She covered her mouth with a hand, staring at him in utter astonishment.

He gazed at her steadily. “I’d do more than that, if you’d have me.”

“What – what are you saying?! It’s your fever, isn’t it, ?!”

He reached up played idly with a strand of her golden hair. “No. I’m dying.” His tone was light, factual. A flash of horror crossed her face, as if her worst fears had been confirmed. Then she scoffed, “Don’t be foolish, I’ll get some hot water, you’ll rest more and -“

“No. I want you.” Why be coy about it now? He knew the signs of imminent death, inevitable since the failure of his quest for the herb of immortality. He’d already died once before. This strange afterlife as a Servant and then a Grail-born mortal body had been merely an interlude. It was a stupid way to die, and that annoyed him. But he intended to have one last treasure before he slept forever.

“I’ve wanted you for a long time. Don’t deny a dying man his one wish,” he added.

For a moment, he thought she acquiesce. Abandon her worldly duties and commitments, here a world away from the white walls of Camelot. He could see her lips part and her breathing quicken. He knew the signs of desire in a woman, and relished the knowledge that even sick and dying, he could have such an effect on her.

Then she was on her feet, backing away from him as though he were some wild beast instead of an ill man. Her expression was inscrutable.

He watched her, his heart sinking. “Arturia,” he said softly. The word was like a caress.

She turned and fled.

_____

She ran through the woods, and knew not what she was running from.

She didn’t go far. She didn’t want to leave him, weak as he was. Eventually she willed her limbs to pause, and tried to slow her hammering heart. She sunk down to the soft earth.

She touched her lips again, thinking about the feel of his mouth on hers again. His hand in her hair, unyielding. Him, lying there, his long golden eyelashes as soft as feathers, his strange red eyes half-lidded, glittering with fever, and…something else. He was probably half mad from the fever, he didn’t really, truly….

A thrill of desire coursed through her, and she shuddered.

Some reprobate part of herself was starved for it. Wanted to go to this man who knew her secret, this man who’d kept her alive even as she’d done the same for him, and let him know her as the woman she could never let herself be.

But there were her vows, her marriage, her role as a king, and…and there were other things, darker memories as well. The smell of flowers over the lake, the shock of desire, the loss of self in flesh and pleasure. And after.

No. She couldn’t. She couldn’t go back to that again.

She rose, her hands in fists, her breathing calm again. “You golden bastard. I will not let you die on me,” she said aloud.

Suddenly, she heard the sound of voices, and horses moving through the underbrush. She realized she’d found herself alone in the woods, a ripe target for brigands or roving Saxon bands. Or Octric’s own men, if she was truly unlucky.

From the nearness of the sounds, she didn’t have much time. She had no sword or spear, so she ripped a branch from a tree, cracking it in half to give it a point. She could, perhaps, hold them off for a little while with this. She wondered what would happen to Gilgamesh, lying helpless and wracked with fever in the cave, but pushed the thought out of her mind and readied for battle.

The leader of the party came into view atop a grey horse. He and Arturia stared at each other for a moment.

“My…my lord Arthur, is that you?”

She stared at the face before her for a moment, not quite believing what she saw. Then relief flooded her, and she rested her makeshift spear on the ground to keep her knees from buckling. “King Pellinore, my old friend. I do not have the words to tell you how good it is to see you.”
_____

On one fine sunny that summer, the people of Camelot witnessed a strange sight. The farmers in the countryside around the castle noticed it first: A group of Picts, dark-haired, blue-tattooed warriors from the north, were approaching. That was enough to cause alarm, but group was small, and moved without haste or all the supplies needed for war. A veiled palanquin rode in the center.

Farmers put down their tools and artisans came out of their workshops to watch. Messengers on horseback darted back and forth between the approaching Pictish delegation and the gates of Camelot. At one point, Lancelot rode forth on his war horse, accompanied by a group of knights dressed in full armor and armed to the teeth. He barreled towards the Picts, halting only when Sir Mordred appeared from within their ranks and began speaking with him urgently.

The stableboys were nonplussed at the short, shaggy Pictish horses they were given to board. The little creatures, smaller than the British horses, were snappish and flighty. The solemn tattooed warrior who escorted them to the stables insisted that they were to be given no oats, only hay. The stableboys decided they weren’t going to argue with him.

Within the castle, several serving women saw a small figure in the company of several Pictish guards be led away to a set of the most luxurious quarters in Camelot. The replacement steward (Bedivere was still recovering in the infirmary) was running himself ragged trying to find appropriate lodging for all of the visitors. It was the general consensus of all that this was a bizarre turn of events, Camelot playing host to a group of Picts – strange times we live in, truly - but probably it would be no worse than dealing with the Saxon ambassador.
_____

Guinevere met them inside the courtyard. “Mordred!” she cried, after pausing only briefly to offer a chaste embrace to Lancelot that made Mordred’s stomach turn. The queen clasped Mordred’s hands, gazing into her face. “Mordred, what happened?”

Mordred ignored the pointed look that Lancelot shot her, and said, “The Pictish leaders have agreed to call off any further attacks. They’ve even offered to lend their aid in the case of further incursions by the Saxons.”

A look of bafflement crossed Guinevere’s face, but instead of inquiring about this odd turn of events, she asked, “Are you well? Were you harmed?”

Mordred laughed hollowly. “Worse. I’m married.”

Chapter Text

“The entire kingdom has been looking for you, your majesty. I can’t believe I’d be the one to find you, and here of all places.” Pellinore kept staring at her as though he expected her to dissolve into mist. It was rather unnerving.

Arturia forced herself to smile politely. It was the expected thing to do. “True, it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. I hadn’t realized how far north we’d gone.”

Pellinore and his party had provided her with a horse, and she was grateful to ride after days – weeks, nearly – of walking. Pellinore, for his part, was ecstatic. “I’ll send word immediately to Camelot when we return to my castle. Sir Mordred and the others will be so delighted to know that you’re well.”

Mordred? Since when was Mordred at the top of the list for receiving correspondence about matters of state? Good God, what had happened to Camelot in if Mordred was the one who had ended up taking charge? Arturia shuddered, and pushed the thought out of her mind.

“Perhaps, my king, I might persuade you to at last vanquish the Questing Beast, which still plagues my lands…”

He trailed off awkwardly, eagerly awaiting her response. Yes, she’d wondered when he’d ask. His constant attempts to induce her to slay that odd beast had always grated on her nerves. She was appreciative that he’d found her, but this made her something of a captive audience for his demands.

“Perhaps, Sir Pellinore, though summer is a terrible time for hunting mythic beasts. Pray tell, how is it that you’ve returned to your ancestral lands from Camelot so early?”
He bluthered a bit, and Arturia felt a grim satisfaction. She was right. She’d had a hunch that some of her more fair-weather followers would have returned to defend their holdings and villages against the inevitable Saxon horde, after their king had been abducted by the enemy. She wasn’t pleased to have her hunch confirmed, but she did feel vindicated.

There was another reason she was less than ecstatic about being found by this particular knight of hers. Pellinore’s land contained memories, ones she’d rather forget. The path they were riding on curved slightly, and the lake came into view. It sparkled in the sunlight, waves lapping the shore, and Arturia felt a chill descend. She never thought she’d come back here. In all her years at king, she had deliberately tried to stay far away from it.

Any port in a storm, though. They both needed it, Gilgamesh more than her. She looked behind her, at the limp form propped another horse. The knights who escorted him looked uneasy, and she didn’t blame them. Even sick and dying, Gilgamesh had tried to fight the knights when they attempted to retrieve him from the barrow. If she hadn’t intervened, he might have succeeded in seriously harming one of them.

Pellinore followed her gaze. “Don’t worry about your friend. I have a remarkably skilled healer in my employ. He’ll be well enough to ride for Camelot in no time.”

She nodded in reply. “My thanks. Should I have the time, I will see what I can do about the Questing Beast.” Pellinore’s round face crinkled into a smile at the words.

Arturia didn’t smile back. She rode in silence and tried very hard not to think of the golden-haired men riding behind her, or the wide lake – so deceptively serene – in front of her.

_____

“Where is Arthur?”

The mousey-looking serving girl sputtered. “I…I don’t know, sir. The king is-“

“You will find him for me,” Gilgamesh said in a tone that brooked no disobedience. The girl nodded, her eyes wide as dinner plates, and fled the room.

It is hard to be sufficiently threatening when one is bedridden, but Gilgamesh was satisfied that he could still accomplish the necessities. Truth be told, he felt infinitely better than he had in days – his fever was gone, and the formerly festering wound on his chest was now marked only by a simple scab. He vaguely recalled being tended by a woman in a dark veil, though his memories were somewhat fragmented. Still, he felt well and strong enough now. And he had unfinished business with Arturia.

Time passed. Too much time. Gilgamesh began to grow restless. He was about to test the limits of his healing body and go searching for Arturia himself when a gentle knock caught his attention.

Arturia was therer. She was dressed in new clothes – blue, of course – and her hair had been braided and pinned up once more. There seemed little resemblance between her and the woman he’d spent days with in the wilderness.

Her body was stiff and aloof, every bit the noble king once more. “I hope you’re well, my lord. The servants have assured me that you’re in a stable condition.”

“I wouldn’t be talking to you if I wasn’t.”

She nodded awkwardly. There was no diplomatic answer to that, and she didn’t try.

Something about her demeanor filled him with rage. She was acting as though he was one of her common subjects, as though they weren't both kings, as though they hadn’t shivered in the rain and slept in the dirt together. As though he hadn’t felt her lips on his in the cave.

Because he knew it would provoke her, he said, “You never gave me an answer. In the cave.”

A strange expression crossed her face before the mask of neutrality returned. “I think my actions spoke clearly enough.” Her eyes flicked momentarily to the left, and he realized there must be other people waiting in the wings, listening ears that forced her to choose her words carefully.

Gilgamesh smirked. “And which action do you refer to: fleeing like a hare into the woods, or-“

“I am glad to see you are well, my friend. I shall take my leave now and allow you to rest.” Her words came out swiftly, cutting him off gently but surely. Then she was gone.

_____

Arturia paused at the entrance to the dining hall, trying to compose herself. Gilgamesh was well. He was going to live. Her joy at his restored health warred with her frustration at his arrogance.

She thought of the look he’d given her, propped up by pillows in the sickbed. A look that suggested how easy it might be to crawl under the covers with him, to….

No. She pushed the thought from her mind and entered the great hall of Pellinore’s keep.

It had been, what, more than a decade since she’d been back here. It had been the site of her coronation, the first assembly of the chieftains and lesser lords under the High King Arthur. It seemed smaller now, somehow.

She was seated at the high table, near the hand of the lesser king. Technically Pellinore was more like a chieftain or a duke, though the Britons used the more formal term to refer to their leaders. Pellinore’s face lit up at her arrival.

“My son Percival, recently returned from Camelot, was telling us about his recent battle with the Picts.”

The young man seemed delighted at commanding the attention of the older men at the table. “It was Sir Mordred who led us into battle, and-“

“Mordred?” Arturia paused in the process of spreading butter on her bread.

The boy nodded. “Yes, Sir Mordred has been doing a lot of things for the kingdom in your absence. So, as I was saying, we thought the Picts were just going to be a little raiding party, right? Well, as it turns out, half the Pictish army is there. We nearly lost hope, but then Sir Mordred calls a ceasefire and goes to negotiate with the Saxon chiefs. I don’t know what he says to them, but before long we’re marching home to Camelot with Sir Lancelot. Mordred managed negotiations by himself. It was amazing,” The young man shook his head, overcome by wonder. “I hear he’s back at Camelot too, but that’s just a rumor.”

Arturia poured herself some ale, and sipped it thoughtfully. Mordred certainly sounded like he was keeping himself busy. She thought briefly of Merlin’s warning. When the one who is meant to occupy the Siege Perilous arrives, the beginning of the end of your reign has begun. Arturia pushed the memory out of her mind – she would not base matters of state on the utterings of a magus.

Perhaps she was being unfair to Mordred. After all, other Knights of the Round sometimes assumed positions of power when their king was away – Lancelot was practically Arturia’s regent, and Gawain had handled matters capably for more than a few summers when Arturia was away.

Then she realized that she would never see Gawain (or Galahad, or Kay) ever again. They were dead a hundred miles back, in the country villa after the Saxon ambush. The struggles of surviving in the wilderness had distracted her for a time, but now that she was back here safely among her own people, grief suddenly hit Arturia like an avalanche. She put down her fork.

As clearly as if these horrors were happening in front of her now, she saw Bedivere fall with a Sax in his back. Gawain sink to his knees, clutching the wound at his throat. Galahad screaming as two Saxons dragged him down.

Kay looking at her, sitting in a pool of his own blood, confusion in his eyes and her name on his lips.

If she had attempted negotiations with the Saxons in another way, would they still be alive? If she had just been more careful, if she had just been less obsessed with her own ideals….

She tried to push these thoughts out of her mind. This place, filled with so many difficult memories, was affecting her too strongly. She needed to get herself under control.

Suddenly, she could hear Gilgamesh’s voice over the din of the great hall. There he was, clad in little more than a single linen shift from the sickbed, making his way to the king’s high table and Arturia.

Another complication, one that Arturia did not have time to deal with. She rose stiffly, making solemn but empty excuses to Pellinore and his son, and left.

_____

Gilgamesh seated himself next to the paunchy little under-king, gazing after Arturia. She’d be back momentarily, he was certain of it, so he’d keep her seat warm for her.

Pellinore said to his son, “I’d hoped we might be able to discuss the matter of the Questing Beast with the king.”

Gilgamesh leaned forward. “Tell me more of this beast. I am renowned at slaying monsters, and as your good fortune would have it, I would be willing to undertake such a feat for you.”

Pellinor’ and his son looked at Gilgamesh as they might a tiger come down from the mountains to eat at their table. Pellinore licked his lips and cleared his throat, “Well, ah, it’s considered the duty of the High King to rid the land of monsters and demons. Normally I’d do it myself, but the thing is a curse on my bloodline, you see, and-“

Gilgamesh cut him off with an impatient wave. “Nonsense. The king is clearly busy. I will do you this favor. Rejoice.” Self-satisfied, he nibbled some bread drenched in honey.

Looking none too sure, Pellinore nodded nervously. “Well and so, my lord. I must warn you, though, the Questing Beast is a terror. It’s a nightmare creature, composed of the parts of other animals: it has the head and neck of a snake, the body of a leopard, the haunches of a lion, and the legs of a deer. It lays waste to our crops and decimates our forests. It has roamed my land for decades now, and it eludes all attempts to capture. Many heroes have tried to claim the beast, and all have failed.”

Gilgamesh leaned back langorously, sipping the ale. “It shouldn’t present the slightest problem for me. Let me tell you about Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven-“

“Ah, before you continue, sir, might you be…rather cold? Could I offer you a mantle?”

Gilgamesh looked down at himself. He was wearing a single thin garment, a long tunic that ended around mid-thigh. It suited him quite well, he thought, looking at how the thin fabric stretched over his muscles. Certainly it was much more pleasant than the numerous layers of shapeless clothing that most Britons wore.

“No, I’m quite comfortable. Now, Humbaba was a giant who had claimed some of my precious forests for himself…” Gilgamesh began, crossing on leg over the other. Pellinore and Percival glanced down involuntarily, then blushed and looked away.

)_____

Arturia went to her chambers. She shut the door and sank back against the wall, head in her hands. The faces of her dead knights swirled around her. Then there was the constant specter of that golden southern king and all his lewd propositions….

“Hello, my dear.” A voice, far too close.

Arturia looked up and saw the last person she expected to see. The last person she wanted to see.

Morgan.

How long had it been? A decade? Morgan didn’t seem to have aged a day, though that might have just been the affect of the dark veil over her face. Under the thin fabric, Arturia could vaguely make out her familiar features.

Morgan laughed dryly. “Must I repeat myself, dear sister?”

“Hello Morgan,” Arturia said obediently through numb lips. Dimly, she wondered if she should scream for help, but then reasoned that if Morgan wanted to, she could probably kill her before even the closest guards arrived. Arturia was reminded of the time that she had come face to face with a lioness during a hunt. The only thing to do was to face the beast calmly and steadily, without any quick movements.

“Pellinore is a gracious host, isn’t he? Taking in you and that southern king of yours.” Morgan ran a hand along a thick tapestry depicting a domestic scene.

And why didn’t he tell me that you were here? Arturia raged internally, though she did her best to keep her face neutral. Pellinore didn’t know what had happened after the ritual all those years ago – what Morgan had done to her. No one did.

“Speaking of your golden king, he’s quite a handsome one, isn’t he? You brought him to me in such bad shape, but I’ve managed to fix him up. Still, he will continue to sicken unless what he has lost is restored to him.

Arturia’s heart twisted at the mention of Gilgamesh, but she had no idea what Morgan was trying to say and it showed. Morgan sighed irritably, and added “The thing that Merlin took from him. His Gate of Babylon.”

Arturia did recall him mentioning that, though she wasn’t sure how much she believed Gilgamesh’s story about a mystic gate that allowed him access to a hidden treasury. She nodded numbly.

“Your southern king is well enough now, but he ails without his Gate. It is the only thing that connects him to the Root. He weakens without it.”

Arturia’s brows furrowed. “What is…mana…?”

"

“Never mind about that. Just know that it’s important,” Morgan waved a hand dismissively. She picked up a decanter from the table and poured herself a glass of wine. "There are only two magi in all your kingdom who had the power to restore it. The first is Merlin, who isn't going to be particularly inclined to assist even if you can track him down. The second…is me,” she beamed with pride.

“Generous,” Arturia said dryly.

The smile melted off of Morgan’s face, and she grew serious. “He used to touch me, you know. Merlin. When I came to him for lessons, before I was sent off to be fostered at the convent. It started with a hand on a shoulder, a hand on the knee. A bit of a grope here and there. It quickly escalated.”

Arturia felt sick. It wasn’t out of keeping with Merlin’s reputation - she’d heard tales of his wantonness with women, but never with a girl so young. Her own sister.

Steeling herself, Arturia said, “By my honor, I declare Merlin an enemy of the realm for his atrocious actions. I swear to you that he will stand trial.”

“That’s not what I want,” Morgan broke in, almost petulant. “I want you to understand that I’m superior to that filthy old wizard. If your dear golden king is to live, I’m his only hope.”

Arturia hesitated. "Why don't you take this up with Gilgamesh, then?”

“He doesn’t have anything I want. You do.”

God no. Arturia forced her voice into calmness. “And what is that?”

Through the thin fabric, Arturia saw Morgan’s face curl into a grin. “I shall help your southern king. On one condition – that you make Mordred your rightful heir.”

“Mordred?” Arturia forgot her fear for a moment out of sheer confusion. She’d expected some sort of outrageous demand, but this was beyond anything she could have imagined. Why had everyone become so obsessed with Sir Mordred in her absence?!

“Yes, your knight, Sir Mordred. You have no heir, king, despite having a lovely wife. Naming Mordred as your heir would fix that thorny problem.”

Arturia’s lips twitched. How dare Morgan mention the problem of secession so lightly, as if it wasn’t something that kept Arturia awake at night. “Even if I chose to honor your request, the realm would never recognize Mordred as my heir. He’s not of royal blood,” she said.

“Oh, my dear,” Morgan chuckled. “Mordred is your child.”

Arturia’s world spun. A low buzzing filled her ears, and she sat down hard on the stone floor. “How is that possible?”

Morgan approached her, laying a hand on Arturia’s shoulder. “Don’t you remember that night we shared, just before your coronation?”

The buzzing intensified. Arturia felt all the memories she’d tried so hard to contain bursting forth. Her skin crawled.

Anything. Anything to make this go away. Anything to save someone – anyone – she cared about, after so many had died. She heard her own voice in her ears: “I’ll do it. I’ll name Mordred my heir. Just give Gilgamesh back his Gate.”

“Excellent! Here, sign this letter and I’ll send a messenger to Camelot posthaste. This document will make Mordred a legitimate child and your official heir. It should take it only a day or so to arrive.” As Arturia put her signature to the document, hands numb and unfeeling, Morgan clapped her hands and spun around, as joyous as a little girl. “At last, at last you’re revenged for your dishonor at Uther’s hands, Igrane, my mother. Your grandchild will sit on the throne of Britannia.”

It occurred to Arturia that Mordred was Igrane’s grandchild through both of her surviving daughterst. Her stomach lurched and for a moment she thought she would retch.

Her feet carried her from the room, staggering, while Morgan’s manic laughter followed her like an uneasy ghost.

 

______

Pellinore and his men looked glum and miserable. Gilgamesh, who had not only slain the creature (quite handily) but had also generously taken it upon himself to field-dress the animal, was vexed. He’d been promised a challenging fight with a mythical creature, and here he’d been brought face to face with a mere giraffe.

He slit the beast’s throat, draining its blood. The wet redness stained his hands to the elbow and flecked his hair, perfectly matching the red of his eyes. “’The head and neck of a snake, the body of a leopard, the haunches of a lion, and the legs of a deer.’ A provincial description of a giraffe.”

He continued, slitting the beast’s stomach and removing its entrails. One of Pellinore’s men retched. Gilgamesh continued with his grim task unperturbed. “They are leaf eaters, you know. I had one in my menagerie at Uruk. They’re gentle as cows. If this beast has plagued your land for so long, then I question the abilities of your hunters and warriors.”

Pellinore looked unhappy but said nothing out of deference to Gilgamesh’s position and the great favor he had performed by ridding the land of the Questing Beast.

A disappointing fight, far less engaging than a hero like Gilgamesh deserved. Yet he felt drained by it; he tried to ignore the weariness in his limbs, the crushing fatigue that threatened to drag him down. The healing wound on his chest throbbed.

He continued to butcher the beast as Pellinore and his men stood by uselessly. At least they would all eat well that night.

 

_____

Arturia wandered the hallways like a woman possessed.

The blood mingling with water. The thing that rose from the lake.

The sound of her sister moaning.

Other thoughts. Her men, dying under Saxon knives. Mordred, sitting on the throne. Gilgamesh, feverish and wanton in a barrow by firelight.

What could she do to change the past, what could she do to affect the future? She was useless, helpless.

Let someone else be king of Britain….

She found herself at a door. She knocked, and Gilgamesh opened it. He had a sour look on his face and a (probably quite cutting) remark ready on his lips, but when he saw her, his expression changed to one she’d never seen him wear before.

Concern.

She must look like a banshee. Her eyes were swollen, and at some point she must have dragged her nails down her cheeks.

But he, he was alive, gloriously so. Wordlessly, she ran a hand over his chest, feeling his hard muscles beneath the thin linen shift he wore. She moved closer, leaning her chest on his. He was warm, an oasis in the sea of cold confusion. The she was moving onto her tiptoes and pressing her lips to his, and –

Rough hands pushed her away. Gilgamesh was looking at her, desire and anger warring in his face. “It is not me that you’ve been weeping over. I am not substitute for the things that vex you.”

He closed the door, and settled her in a chair.

He settled in the chair opposite her, and said, “You will tell me what happened.”

She took a deep breath, then another. She told him everything.

Chapter Text

Ten years ago…

It was no problem, Merlin insisted. It’s a hassle to seduce a woman who will only bed her husband – a man who has gone to war against you to prevent that very outcome - but there are ways around that. Moreover, seeing as she is the only woman who is capable of bearing the promised heir, it’s really a matter of duty.

Uther feels no different, but the face that looks back at him from the mirror is that of Igrane’s husband, Gerlois.

A man’s footsteps echo on the dusty stone of the castle. It was easy to gain entry once he possessed the duke’s appearance. He passes a guard, who nods to him politely. He nods back, and quietly thanks God that the man doesn’t speak to him. A small blonde girl peers at him distrustfully from the darkness, but makes no sound.

He arrives at Igrane’s bedroom in the dark of the night and kisses her awake. If she notices that the way he kisses her, the way he touches her, is different from the way her husband does, she makes no comment. Her nightgown falls away like a leaf, and her body is more delicious than his wildest fantasies.

He will leave in the morning. A few hours later, Igrane will be horrified to learn that her husband died in the fighting with the High King’s forces the day before. She knows instantly who visited her that night and collapses with horror, but already the tiny spark that will become the Once and Future King is growing in her womb.

Merlin is satisfied. It is all going according to plan.
_____

 

Arturia takes a deep breath and tries to smooth down the front of her tunic. The brocade makes her skin itch – she grew up wearing simple but practical linen and wool, but she isn’t the foster child of Sir Ector anymore. She’s king now, and she has to act like it.

She surveys the scene in the hall. The lesser kings of the land of Britannia have finally gathered here at her bequest. They’re a rough bunch, most of them wearing swords even at this formal occasion. They haven’t bowed down to a high king in over a decade. But they will now, Arturia vows silently.

No one has been murdered yet, which is a good sign. They sip fine Roman wine and mill about, sometimes chatting with old friends, other times giving death glares to enemies from across the room.

She greets them all, the names blurring together in her mind – Lot, Cador, Leodegrance, Meliodas, and many many more. They greet her warmly enough, but cautiously. Who is this young king, their eyes seem to say, and why should we throw in with him?

Merlin had been blunt when he’d spoken to Arturia before the evening festivities had begun: “At last, your long-awaited introduction to your subjects! Now, don’t for a moment let yourself forget that they’re all a bunch of jeweled vultures who’d just as soon murder you as look at you.”

Arturia blinked.

“You’re not king quite yet, not until the ritual tonight and the coronation tomorrow. You’ve got to win over these kings, or else your crowned head will end up decorating a spike.” Merlin grins and shrugs, palms facing the sky, as though this is a mildly inconvenient outcome rather than the very way that Arturia’s grand-uncle died.

So here Arturia is, among these hard-bitten kings who had been at war with each other for a decade.

“Your Majesty! There’s someone I want you to meet.” A voice at her side catches her attention. It’s Sir Pelinor, the host of the event. He’s never without a smile, ever eager to please - and Arturia doesn’t trust him farther than she could throw him. He has an obsequious, greasy quality to him.

Sir Pelinor gestures to a young woman at his side. She is pretty, and would be beautiful if not for the coldness of her features. “This is Morgan, your half-sister. I’m presently fostering her.”

Sister! Those words give Arturia a rush of delight. She’s never known one of her blood relatives before – her mother and father gave her into the care of Sir Ector before she was old enough to remember their faces, and now they are both long dead. But she has a sister. Her heart beats faster and she takes Morgan’s hand in her own. “It would be my honor to invite you into my service at the royal city I’m building, Camelot,” she says to the blonde girl. It sounds like something a king would say, and it would warm Arturia’s heart to have a sister at her side.

Morgan looks at Arturia’s hand as though Arturia has offered her a dead fish, then turns away without a word, vanishing into the crowd. Pelinor, looking nonplussed (he probably thought that this introduction would curry favor with the new king) runs after her. Arturia’s heart sinks.

“Forgive Morgan, she’s always a bit difficult,” another voice says. A tall, sweet-faced girl smiles at Arturia. “It’s an honor to meet you. I’m Guinevere, daughter of King Lot.

“Morgan and I were fostered at the same convent for a while,” Guinevere continues. “She’s, ah, the daughter of Lady Igrane and her first husband, the late Lord Gerlois. So I’m sure you can see why she’s not exactly pleased to meet you.”

“Of course,” Arturia replies with a certainty she does not feel. “It can be difficult to meet a step-sibling.”

“True, and the whole Cornwall affair didn’t help the situation. Gerlois’ body not even cold before Igrane became pregnant with you, if you count nine months back from your birth,” the tall girl shakes her head, then seems to recall who she’s talking to and stammers, red-faced, “I-I’m so sorry! I’m not meaning to insult the memory of your royal parents, please forgive me.”

(In just a few months, this story, which is already in wide circulation around the kingdom, would provide cover for an uprising against the king. According to some, the circumstances of Arturia’s conception meant that the new king is a bastard and therefore unfit for the throne. The claim will have enough validity to draw in the discontented elements of the kingdom and set off a series of conflicts that will occupy the first year of Arturia’s reign. For now, though, these events are still in the distant future.)

Arturia’s stomach lurches. She wishes she could sit down somewhere. She’d never heard the story of her conception before. Had Uther broken Igrane’s marital vows? Had he taken her by force? No one – not Ector, not Merlin – has told her these things about her parentage.

Arturia hides her emotions behind a neutral mask (a kingly skill she’s becoming quite adept at) and focuses her attention on the tall girl, Guinevere. Arturia searches her face, seeking the hidden intent behind these words (a kingly skill that she’s not yet particularly good at). Relaying such a story might be a way to humiliate Arturia, but no, the girl seems sincere in her apology and truly embarrassed at her breach of etiquette.

Arturia thinks again of her fleeting glimpse of her sister, and her heart breaks once more. Morgan’s father had died and then Morgan’s mother had left her to marry Uther after Arturia’s birth. “It seems that Morgan blames me for these events.”

Guinevere frowns. “You weren’t even born yet! You didn’t abuse your kingship or ignore your marital vows.” She huffed. “Don’t take it personally, Morgan’s always like this. One time another girl in the convent criticized her handwriting, so Morgan mixed some dung from the chicken coop in with the girl’s ink.” Guinevere tries to suppress an unexpected giggle, “It’s especially disgusting, you see, because we need to lick our quills before we dip then in the ink.”

Guinevere can’t hold back a giggle, and her amusement sets Arturia off as well. Arturia only has a second to enjoy this golden moment, laughing with a girl her own age in this stuffy place, before another minor king is at her elbow calling for her attention.

She looks back to Guinevere before she’s drawn back to the crowd, to another discussion about regional fortifications or trade routes. “I thank you for your words, Lady Guinevere. I hope we meet again,” Arturia says to the tall princess, who curtseys shyly. These are the sincerest words she will speak that night.

Arturia spends the rest of the night moving amongst the lords and petty kings. To those who are uncertain, she offers surety; to those who are fearful, she offers calm; to those in need of guidance, she offers authority. She tries to become the king she says she is.

_____

 

Arturia has a little time alone before the ritual, which she savors. She is wearing a short white tunic and white trousers now rather than her original blue. The strange new fleshy appendage between her legs is awkward, and she shifts to try to find a more comfortable way to sit.

The appendage - Arturia had been concerned she lacked certain necessary qualifications for the ritual, but Merlin had assured her that he could provide a temporary solution to her obvious problem. He had given her a cup of bitter liquid to drink, and sure enough, the cock had sprouted from between her legs.

Arturia pulls back her clothing and looks at it. Really, did men enjoy having these? The thing looks so strange and vulnerable. Given that everyone thinks she’s a boy anyway, it might be easier having one all the time, but she’s happier with her natural equipment.

Still, it’s necessary for the task she must accomplish. She adjusts her clothing and leans back in her chair, watching the setting sun. Takes one deep breath, then another.

Merlin had explained it to her, before he’d given her the cup. “In the old times, before the Romans, it was the duty of the High King to lay with the Lady of the Lake and thereby ensure the fertility of the lands. The Lady is the land, the sovereignty of the earth and the people, and a man must woo her like a lover or the land itself will rise up and reject us.”

He spoke in a strange tone, like a chant. He didn’t sound like the Merlin she knew – unpredictable and wild, but playful at least.

The meaning of his words unsettled Arturia as well. This kind of duplicity makes her uneasy - how could a person bend two bows or serve two masters? “But the Britons are Christians. It’s one of the things that makes us different from the Saxon invaders. This…what you’re talking about, it sounds like-”

“It sounds like what everyone else in Britannia does,” Merlin interrupted. “Go to church, say your prayers, but leave offerings at the wells and the crossroads for the old ones. Your official coronation will be performed in the church tomorrow, but we pay our respects to the old gods tonight. I’d bet a phoenix’s tailfeather that the priest who’ll perform your coronation tomorrow will be in attendance at the ritual tonight. Where do you think your name itself comes from? Dea Arto is the bear goddess and the patroness of warriors.”

“I thought it was from my great-great-grandfather who was a Roman consul by the name of Artorius,” she replied stubbornly, but even as she says it, she knows that Merlin is probably right.

(She thinks now, alone in her room in her white tunic, about her sister. Morgan. She shares a name with the war goddess who bathes in the blood of the slain, the crow who watches from the crossroads. Igrane certainly had great ambitions for her both of her daughters.)

Merlin had looked as her with rare solemnity. “I’ll be frank with you, my young king. You intend to assume the throne of a father you’ve never met and rule over a country fractured by war and invasion. You’re going to need all the help you can get, natural or supernatural. Any ritual that lends credence to your claim on the High Kingship is something you should leap at. Besides,” Merlin grinned slyly, solemnity gone, “it should be fun.”

He chuckled slightly when Arturia blushed and sputtered, and with a wicked grin her continued, “Now – you do know how it works, correct?”

Arturia’s face was beet-red. Her cock twitched uncomfortably between her legs, like a puppy catching the scent of a rabbit. “You insert sword into scabbard, it’s pretty straightforward.”

“You’ll be a natural, I’m sure. The Lady gives great gifts to those who earn her favor.” Merlin waggled his eyebrows and clapped her on the shoulder. Arturia tried to contain her embarrassment.

In the present moment, the sun sinks below the horizon. A servant knocks on the door of Arturia’s chambers. It’s time.

_____

The moon is full. The air is warm and filled with the heady scent of spring flowers.
Arturia leads the procession seated on a white mare.

The people – the lesser kings and their families – are also dressed in white. They’re signing and laughing, the women scattering flowers. Someone is playing a flute, someone else is playing a drum. They’ve all drunk deeply from the cups of mead passed around before they departed from the castle, but this only partially accounts for their intoxication.

Eros! Desire! It moves all around us and animates us. Arturia knew that tomorrow was what used to be called Beltaine, the festival of fertility. The farmers and common folk in the villages still lit fires and danced and did other things under the cover of night. Generally the Briton nobility were more reserved regarding such events, but the coronation of a new high king called for an appeal to the old powers.

What had Merlin said? “As a man woos a lover”? But she wasn’t a man, even if she had a fleshy appendage between her legs at the moment. She was also realizing that having a cock makes riding a horse rather uncomfortable.

They arrive at the lake. The music and singing die down, as if the stillness of the water imparts a stillness to the gathered crowd.

At their center, Arturia dismounts and stands face-to-face with the white mare. The creature looks at her innocently, perhaps awaiting a gift of carrots. There are worlds in those brown eyes.

In another life, Arturia would have liked to ride her into battle or at tournaments. The animal’s gentle, unruffled disposition would make her an excellent mount. But that isn’t meant to be. A sacrifice must be made to draw the attention of the deities that inhabit this place.

In one smooth stroke, Arturia pulls the knife from her belt and slits the animal’s throat.

A gout of blood stains Arturia’s face and clothing, and the mare dies. Arturia pushes away her own horror and disgust, and in a clear voice calls out. “I am Arthur, High King of Britannia! With this sacrifice, I call upon you. Answer me now.”

And something does.

What rises from the lake is terrifyingly beautiful and not human. It is, however, deeply – even archetypically – female, and Arturia feels her cock harden as firm breasts push against her chest, and a warm mouth seeks hers. She places her hands on the goddess’ hips, which grind against her hungrily.

In a swift motion, Arturia unlaces her britches and let them fall to the ground, exposing her hard cock. Even in this warm moment, she knows better than to take off her shirt, under which her small breasts are firmly bound. Not that any of the assembled nobles are likely to notice; she’s dimly aware that they’re pairing off themselves. Hands removing the lacing of a gown, a mouth kissing an arched neck, a tongue teasing a hard nipple, moans and cries rising. They too are surrendering to the spell of desire, and tonight the bonds of matrimony can be cast aside like useless garments.

She thinks briefly of Igrane and Gerlois (if only they could have had such a chance), before sensation pulls her back into the world. Her cock is so hard it almost hurts, and the goddess has wrapped her legs around Arturia, exposing her sweet wet pussy. Arturia plunges her cock inside.

Arturia’s head snaps back from the pleasure, the heat and wetness caressing her hard member. The goddess screams in delight and rakes her nails across Arturia’s back, leaving bloody tracks, which only causes the young king to thrust harder.

In ordinary life, Arturia is restrained and sensible, keeping her emotions carefully in check. This, however, is not ordinary life – that’s the purpose of ritual - and she hears herself growling like a wild beast as she fucks the Lady of the Lake.

Arturia is no longer sure whether she is lying down, standing, on land, or in the water. The only real thing is the sensation of her cock moving inside the goddess. There is nothing in the world except this all-consuming pleasure.

The Lady of the Lake bucks her hips and cries out suddenly, her tight walls convulsing, and Arturia feels the world around her – trees, lake, kingdom – dissolve into an explosion of white light as she cums.

When Arturia comes back to herself, she is laying on the shore of the lake. She is alone. She hears the sounds – some of them quite loud – of her people in the forest around the lake, but none of them are nearby.

A hand rises up from the stillness of the lake, holding something blue and gold. Arturia is quite sure she felt the touch of that hand not long ago, and she smiles a little. The hand casts the object into the air, and Arturia manages to catch it.

It is a sword and a sheath – a sword sharper and better balanced than any she has ever seen before, and a blue and gold sheath that seems to shimmer in the moonlight. They are uncannily perfect, and she’s certain that they harbor secrets she’ll discover in time. Holding it makes her feel like a part of herself that has long been missing has finally been returned. “Excalibur,” she whispers. She has no idea where the name comes from, but she knows it’s the sword’s.

She gathers her clothes, takes the sword, and begins the long journey back to the castle by herself. A solitary, sleepy guard lets her in. She makes it to her chambers and falls asleep almost as soon as her head hits the pillow.

She dreams again of fucking the Lady of the Lake. She’s never experienced such radiant pleasure, and yet in this dream the experience is…so much different, so cruder….

Arturia opens her eyes and looks into the face of Morgan. Morgan is straddling her, with Arturia’s cock is buried deep inside her.

Arturia recoils and tries to throw her off. “NO! Morgan, what are you doing?!” Morgan only laughs in reply and bears down harder.

Arturia tries to grab for her sword, but Morgan holds down her hands. The girl is surprisingly strong, or perhaps Arturia is weakened from her supernatural encounter.

Morgan begins to ride Arturia’s cock, giving a slight whine of enjoyment. Arturia feels her skin crawl with revulsion.

Morgan’s tightness moves up and down Arturia’s cock. The feel of it, the sheer mechanical stimulation of nerve endings – Arturia can’t even call it pleasure, it’s too different from what she felt with the Lady of the Lake - pushes Arturia to the edge. Her orgasm is an ugly thing, wrung out of her. She cums for the second time that night, this time with a cry of agony rather than pleasure.

Only now does Morgan dismount, ignoring the semen dripping down her thighs. Arturia curls onto her side like a wounded animal. Morgan leans down and hisses, “Your father raped my mother and murdered my father. He ruined my family. You were born from lust and death and now you’ll be destroyed by it. You’ll see,” Morgan spits on Arturia’s prone form.

Morgan exits the room, pulling a robe around herself for modesty and leaving behind the shaking form of her sister like a heap of carrion.

Unconsciousness would have been a relief, but Arturia is denied that. Instead, her eyes mindlessly trace the grains of the wood that make up the bedpost. Outside, the stars wheel in the sky and the wind moves through the trees.

It is her first taste of the utter loneliness that will be her lot as a king. No one will come save her. No one can.

Arturia doesn’t recall falling asleep, but she must have, because she opens her eyes to find Merlin looking directly at her. She realizes she is nude, and pulls a blanket around herself. The idea of anyone else seeing her naked body feels intolerable.
(She does notice that her cock is gone, replaced instead with her original golden-haired vulva, which fills her with relief. Even if her body no longer feels like hers, at least it looks like hers.)

Merlin looks oddly solemn. “What is better, sword or scabbard?”

She stares at him. “What?!”

Merlin repeats himself more slowly, as though she’s a dim-witted child. “What is better, sword or scabbard?”

Arturia thinks for a moment. “The sword, of course.”

“Wrong,” Merlin replies. He gestures at Excalibur in its blue and gold scabbard, lying haphazardly on the floor. “The scabbard is called Avalon. As long as you possess it, you will not die from any wound, nor will you lose any blood.” He wiggles his eyebrows, “I was right, the Lady of the Lake did favor you.”

Arturia looks away. She doesn’t want to talk about what happened last night. Any of it.

Merlin gets, up, stretches, and saunters out, saying something about the need for Arturia to prepare herself for the coronation happening in a few hours.

Arturia watches him leave with distrust and suspicion. How much does he know? How much did he plan?

_____

Arturia doesn’t know it then, but that night another Pendragon child was conceived in rape and magic and hate. An uncanny image of Arturia, the child would grow unusually rapidly, and her mother would train her relentlessly, brutally, in the arts of combat. Full of anger and rebelliousness, this child – now a knight without peer – would eventually make her way to Camelot, where she would become known as Sir Mordred.

Chapter Text

When Arturia had finished speaking, she lapsed into silence. She wasn’t sure how Gilgamesh would react to the story, to any part of it – the knowledge of the ritual, the things that Morgan had done, the fact that Mordred was her child.

His face was unreadable, though it held an almost destructive intensity. Yet Arturia wasn’t afraid – not for herself anyway.

After a moment, he said, “When we return to Camelot, I will search for Merlin, and I will compel him to return my Gate.” He paused. “Don’t take the witch’s bargain.”

“It’s too late. It’s already done and signed.”

His red eyes burned into her. “Then undo it.”

She lifted her chin defiantly. She might be aching and bleeding from a thousand invisible wounds, but she wouldn’t be cowed. “I won’t take back my word.”

He stared at her for a moment. She returned his gaze defiantly. Then he sighed and stood up. “Come to bed.”

Seeing her reaction, he added, “To sleep.” Something in his eyes seemed very old and very sad. She followed him.

They nestled beneath the covers. Her natural reserve overcome by craving for human contact, she pillowed her head on the spot where his neck met his shoulder, feeling his breath in her hair.

While telling the story, she had been certain that she would never sleep again. But the bed was soft and the arms around her were warm, and….

_____

Mordred refused to be daunted by the line of stern, hard faces glowering at her. Well, you couldn’t exactly form a line at the Round Table, but the other knights were so united in their disapproval of her recent choices that they might as well be doing so. She wasn’t exactly thrilled about her new marital status either, but she wasn’t about to let them know that. She maintained an attitude of studied nonchalance.

“So, based on your status as a Knight of the Round Table, you made a marriage alliance with the Picts after your defeat. I can’t say that Arthur is going to be thrilled about this.” Sir Ector shook his white head.

Bedivere, recently released from the infirmary and still weak, spoke up. “Going from discussing terms of surrender to brokering a marriage alliance is no mean feat. It’s possible that this match might prove advantageous for us as well. How did you get them to agree to terms?

Mordred puffed out her chest a bit at Bedivere’s regard. He was right, it hadn’t been easy. “I told them that their real enemy wasn’t me or even the Britons. I said they had as much to lose from the Saxons as we did, and that they didn’t have a leader who could hold them off like King Arthur could. Not all the clans agreed, but enough did.”

It had probably helped that she’d started off negotiations by strolling into the parley tent as lazy as a lion, and asked how they’d make her knights’ deaths up to her. Moreover, Mordred would have liked to see any of these straight-laced paladins at the Round Table handle negotiations better than she did; none of them could keep up with the amount of drinking the Picts enjoyed. Mordred had to hand it to those tough, hard-drinking mountain people - they knew how to enjoy themselves.

Bedivere nodded. “The Picts are our ancestral enemy, it’s true, but they might provide support in the fight against the Saxons.”

Ah, sweet blessed Bedivere. Mordred could have kissed him. “My thoughts exactly,” she replied.

“That can’t be all.” Lancelot was tapping his fingers irritably on the Table’s surface. “All the terms of the marriage, I mean. What else did you promise them?”

Shit. Mordred had been hoping they wouldn’t ask that. “Uhhhh somelandandashareofthetreasury,” she said awkwardly.

Lancelot sighed condescendingly. Sir Ector scoffed, and even Bedivere seemed shocked.
Grimacing, Mordred said more slowly, “I promised we’d give them some land, and a bit of funds from the treasury. It makes sense, right? We’ve got plenty of money in the treasury. They don’t have much good land, being up in the mountains and all, and we have plenty of it here.” She knew how stupid she sounded as soon as the words left her lips. The treasury wasn’t infinite, and that aforementioned good land was already owned by hardworking – and aristocratic - Britons.

She didn’t add the obvious. The Picts also believed that this marriage meant that in a generation there would be little half-Pictish nobles situated in high places in Camelot, the political center of Britannia. Mordred didn’t mention this fact to the knights of the Round Table, just as she hadn’t mentioned her true sex (and the fact that she lacked the equipment for creating the aforementioned half-Pictish descendants with her new wife).

Sir Ector was working himself up to a fine frenzy, huffing and puffing about ancestral land and loyalty to one’s people when he was interrupted by the appearance of a young squire. “Pardon me, good sirs, there is a letter from the king.”

Everyone stood, and Lancelot grabbed the letter. He read it in silence, his face crumpling partway through. Then Sir Ector took it from him read it aloud to the stunned silence. It began with the expected pleasantries – the king was safe in Pellinore’s domain, her companion (that would be Gilgamesh) was gravely injured but recovering well, and then….

The matter of succession.

Mordred almost didn’t recognize the words as discrete parcels of meaning at first. Then slowly they took shape. I name Sir Mordred my heir.

Everyone was staring at her again, this time with awe rather than disapproval. Mordred, Knight of the Round Table. Mordred, the “husband” of the Pictish princess. Mordred, the former Knight of Treachery.

Mordred, now the heir to the realm.

It was all she’d ever wanted. It was what she’d turned back time for, fought for, defied all the odds for. So she wasn’t quite sure why it left her feeling as though someone had dumped a bucket of cold water on her head.

Everyone was staring at her.“Oh,” she said to the startled silence. “Fuck.

_____-

 

They went to the great hall together.

Gilgamesh was quiet, almost brooding, if such a term could ever be applied to him. Arturia wore the same garments she had worn the day before. She wondered if someone might notice and question this oversight, but then she realized she was too tired to care. All of her strength went into bracing herself for the sight that awaited her.

Morgan.

It was the second time she had seen her sister in the last twenty-four hours, but that did little to allay the feeling that she had been hit by an avalanche. Some corner of her mind observed with amusement that the figure who had cast such a long shadow over her life for so long was actually remarkably short.

A few sundry nobles, not to mention King Pellinore himself, were present, probably curious to see the workings of magecraft first hand. Introductions were made, pleasantries exchanged, though Arturia found herself unable to concentrate on the words. She stared blankly ahead at Morgan.

If the little assembly had gathered with the hope of seeing an elaborate ritual performed, they were sorely disappointed. Morgan whispered a few words and made a few hand gestures around Gilgamesh, who looked at her as though she was something that had crawled out from beneath a rock. Still, a light seemed come back into Gilgamesh that had been missing since the loss of his magic.

He flexed a wrist and made an experimental gesture. A dozen golden eyes winked into existence, and his face split into a cold grin of satisfaction. A feral look, almost a look of madness, crossed his face as he stared at Morgan. “I thank you,” he said. “Now die.”

Spears and swords pierced Morgan’s body, which fell limply to the floor as blood began to pool beneath it. She barely had time to cry out. Pellinore, horrified, rushed Gilgamesh, trying to put himself between the golden king and the dying witch. Gilgamesh had another round of weapons ready for him.

As it did sometimes in moments of great stress, Arturia’s brain shifted into a cold, clinical mode. She did a few very quick calculations before her emotions had a chance to catch up to her. An angry Gilgamesh plus a mob of enraged nobles would add up to a bloodbath.

And so, moving like a dancer in a dream, she subtracted one part of that equation. She grabbed Gilgamesh’s hand and fled.

Incredibly, he followed. Through the door, down the hallway. A few heartbeats before she heard shouts of rage and footsteps in hot pursuit, Pellinore’s people coming for them.

They passed through the front gate. The porter stares at the fleeing king and her companion with openmouthed shock.

Arturia’s brain worked frantically. Where to go? Where to find shelter? But she knew the answer already. Her feet were already carrying her there already - the wide expanse of the blue lake.

The path from the castle to the lake wasn’t as long as she remembered, and there was no moonlight and no flowers. Her feet flew down the path, Gilgamesh close behind her.

Pellinore’s people weren’t far behind, and it sounded like their rage was quickly overcoming their shock. She wondered what would happen if they caught her, her and Gilgamesh, but then they were at the lake and she was diving into those dark depths. She felt rather than heard the splash as Gilgamesh followed her.

The lake was deeper than it seemed, and she quickly lost the direction of the surface. Lake water filled her mouth and nostrils, and she gagged.

A hand grabbed her and dragged her roughly to the surface. Arturia sprawled on the shore and gasped for air. She noticed, though, that it wasn’t the same shore that she’d stood on moments before.

A woman towered over her, one of the most beautiful women she’d ever seen. The woman didn’t seem pleased, though, and as she dragged Gilgamesh from the water, she said, “I thought the fucking geis I put on that damn lake would be enough to keep idiots like you from wandering in. There’s nothing I hate more than the bloated corpses of some bored stablehands clogging up my sacred lake, but it’s not in my job description to save your stupid asses from-“

Then the woman got a better look at Arturia. “Oh, she said simply, in a very different tone, “Oh, it’s you.”

“You remember me.” Arturia’s lips formed the words numbly. She staggered to her feet and looked the woman in the face, swaying slightly.

“Oh, my brave little king,” the woman laid a hand on Arturia’s cheek, looking deeply into her eyes. “How could I ever forget you.”

As Gilgamesh looked on, the Lady of the Lake kissed Arturia deeply.

Chapter Text

Arturia drew back, a hand covering her mouth. The Lady smirked slightly and tilted her head. “Feeling shy today, are you? That’s alright, I can wait.” Her gaze dropped lower, to the place between Arturia’s legs. “I don’t suppose you still have that big-“

Gilgamesh had had enough. In a moment, a dozen blades flew through the air towards the Lady. She lifted one hand, almost lazily, and they swords froze midair, then vanished into sparks of light. She made a gesture as if shooing away a fly, and Gilgamesh felt himself lifted bodily by some strange force and hurled into the base of a tree.

Arturia interposed herself between the two of them before matters could escalate. “My Lady,” she said. “I apologize for the actions of my companion. And I,” she swallowed hard, “I apologize that I will…not be able to…pay homage to you in the way I did before.”

The Lady of the Lake heaved a sigh. “Ah well, can’t say I’m not disappointed. You don’t get laid like that every century. Still, you’re good company and it’s a joy to see you again. Call me Vivian, little king.” She patted Arturia’s cheek. “I’m glad that I was the one who found you here.”

Even Gilgamesh, staggering to his feet, had noticed that the knights who had been in hot pursuit were nowhere to be found, and the scenery itself seemed somewhat…different. Arturia gave voice to the unspoken question in both of their minds: “Lady, where is ‘here’?”

Vivian smiled. “Surely you’ve realized where you are?” she said. “What the Britons call the Otherworld or the land of the Fae. The place where true magic still dwells. The Reverse Side of the World.”

All three of them were silent for a moment. Gilgamesh was familiar was the term, and Arturia’s people had a rich mythology around it. The Reverse Side of the World – the flip side of the fabric of existence, where the magic of the ancients still dwelt. A photo negative of the world they knew, populated by strange beings forgotten by time.

Arturia said suddenly, “We need to get back to Camelot, as soon as we can.”

Vivian nodded. “For you, my little king, that is easily done. The coordinates of your world are imperfectly mapped onto mine, so it's possible to travel to one place via the other. Piercing the veil when you want to return to your world to might not be easy, but it can be done. Travel here is probably safer than travel through your own war-torn country, and quicker too, though it’s not without a strain on your mortal bodies and minds.” She gestured with one long and graceful hand at a nearby path – one that Gilgamesh was certain had not existed a few seconds ago. “Stay on this path, or at least near it. It’ll shield you from the most harmful elements of this place until you can return to your world.

“Alright, a few rules since you’ve found reason to stick around in the Otherworld. Number one - don’t speak to any creature you meet here, and above all don’t promise anything to anyone. You know how the Fae are, Arturia, but make sure your little friend doesn’t do anything stupid.” (Gilgamesh glared at her, nursing a set of bruised ribs). “Number two – don’t eat or drink anything you find here, you don’t want to become bound to this place. You shouldn’t feel any hunger or thirst, since I’ll be supplying you with all the mana you need, but it’s worth saying anyway. Number three…you’ll see things here, or hear things. Don’t become too wrapped up in them.”

“I’ve got to go. There will be some delicate negotiations involved in ensuring your safe passage. I’ll find you later. Call my name if you need me.” A wicked smile curved Vivian’s lips. “And, if you change your mind about that ‘homage,’ let me know.” She planted a kiss on Arturia’s cheek and was gone.

She didn’t depart down the path or through the forest – one moment she was there, the next she wasn’t, as quick as the blink of an eye. Arturia raised a hand to her cheek in wonder. Gilgamesh spat on the ground.

The sound seemed to snap Arturia out of her reverie, and she whirled on him in a rage. “Stop trying to kill everyone you meet. She’s trying to help us, to get us out of the mess you made at Pellinore’s castle. How dare you attack her.”

“ I was defending your honor. And as for my actions at the castle, I thought you’d be grateful to me for killing that witch-“

Gilgamesh staggered back, and it took him a moment to realize that Arturia had shoved him. Her face bloodless with rage, she snarled “She was my sister.”

Gilgamesh stared at her coldly. Had it been anyone else in the world who had laid hands on him, they would be dead before they could draw another breath. “She raped you.”

“It isn’t for you to decide what I do with that. You’re not the one who gets to choose what happens from there.” The rage that gripped Arturia wasn’t the cold rage of the battlefield, or even the righteous fury she’d confronted Gilgamesh with when he’s slain that Saxon ambassador so long ago. It was the rage of a wounded creature, tear-stained and savage.

Arturia continued. “She was the only living relative I had left. Don’t you think there was a reason I didn’t try to find her for all those years? That I never tried to bring her to justice? I didn’t ever want to see her again, not for as long as I live. But I also didn’t want her to die.”

“ I’ve killed people over far less. Your sense of mercy is incomprehensible to me.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand.” She dashed the tears from her eyes with a fist and turned away.

They stood there in silence for a while. Then Arturia added, much more quietly, “I didn’t want her to die. Even after what she did, part of me hoped we could reconcile someday. That we could be a family. Even if I never saw her again, as long as she was alive then so was that hope. It’s foolish and it makes no sense, I know, but it’s still what I hoped for. At least I won’t need to be looking over my shoulder constantly, waiting for her to make her next move.

The mention of family caught in Gilgamesh’s mind. “Mordred…”

“Yes. That’s why we’ve got to get back to Camelot as soon as possible. Morgan was lying about Mordred being my child, I’m certain of it. The timelines don’t match up – my coronation a little over a decade ago, and Mordred is well into his late teens. I'll be able to sort it out when we're backt.” Arturia looked at herself and realized that she was still drenched from their passage through the lake. “It seems like we’re back in the wilderness. Better get dry and then start walking.”

_____

The terrain was not so different from that of Britannia – forests, rolling hills, and so on – but there was a strange quality to it. Every once in a while they would spot a creature in the woods that by rights shouldn’t exist, something with too many wings or eyes in the wrong places.

They followed the road that Vivian had set for them, and observed what they could of this strange world. Night and day still existed here, though sometimes the sun rose in the west or set in the east, and certainly the days seemed much more erratic than the ones in the ordinary world. Once they looked up from the small campfire they shared to see two moons in the sky. As they walked further on, he thought he saw the glint of distant cities, or perhaps a tower. A few times they passed ruins of inexplicable buildings, unbelievably old, even by Gilgamesh's standards. Who or what lived there, neither of them could tell.

Vivian appeared again one evening shortly before dusk. She embraced Arturia warmly and pointedly snubbed Gilgamesh, who wandered a short distance away like a surly cat and settled down to polish one of the swords that he took from the golden eye of his Gate.

As Vivian had told them, they had no hunger or thirst, but Arturia still kindled a fire and sat with the Lady next to it. They talked for – in Gilgamesh’s opinion – an inordinately long period of time.

When the Lady departed, Gilgamesh glanced at Arturia. “She still wants to fuck you, you know.”

Arturia reddened and looked away.

Gilgamesh ran the whetstone across the blade with more force, and pushed the question. “And will you?”

A slow, shy smile spread over her face. “I wouldn’t mind. It was strange, that night, but it wasn’t bad with her.” She tilted her head, thinking. “It wouldn’t be like it was before, but you said two men could find a way so I’m sure two women could as well. I’ve tried with Guinevere, but she was never interested.”

A crack. Gilgamesh swore at the shattered remnants of his blade, broken in two by the force of the whetstone.

She lifted her head and smiled slightly. “Come on,” she said, holding out a hand. “Let’s go to sleep.”

They might be immune to hunger and thirst, but they found they were still tired. Gilgamesh and Arturia lay down together in that strange place, and tried not to think too much about the sounds they heard from the darkness beyond their fire.

 

_____

They continued on, their days blending into each other. Vivian appeared now and then with a bit of guidance or information; Arturia was always pleasantly puzzled by the esteem she enjoyed in the eyes of a literal goddess. Gilgamesh amused himself by trying to spear one of the many little beasts covered in eyes that scuttled up the trees, a task which took a great deal of precision and skill. Other times he would draw a bottle of wine from his Gate, reasoning that after all it wasn’t from this place. Arturia always pointed refused when he tried to share it with her.

His actions did bring a slight smile to her face, but for the most part Arturia was silent and grim, her eyes fixed on the distant horizon where Camelot and her many duties awaited her.

And there would be many of them. Announcing the death of Pellinore, mourning her lost knights, preparing to exact vengeance against the treacherous Saxons, not to mention dealing with lots of other problems that had cropped up in the meantime.

There was one problem, though, that she dreaded more than all the others.

Mordred.

The letter declaring Mordred heir must have arrived at Camelot by now. Given the absence of the high king, the heir was expected to take his place in matters of politics and war. God only knew how much of a mess Mordred had probably made of things by now.

Worse, though, was Morgan’s revelation – that Mordred was Arturia’s son. The single worst moment of Arturia’s difficult life made form. The only thing that kept Arturia on her feet was the thought that it must be a lie. Mordred was nearly seventeen or eighteen, which would be impossible if he had been conceived a decade ago. The timelines didn’t lineup. Morgan must have conceived him with another man and lied to Arturia to shock her into acquiescing with her hateful demands. Arturia pointedly tried to ignore the uncanny resemblance between herself and the knight – probably that was just a general family trait.

She thought, too, of Merlin’s long-ago prophecy. “When the one who is meant to occupy the Siege Perilous arrives, the beginning of the end of your reign has begun.” Then there were the strange dreams that she had been having, of a hill covered with the dead of a great battle....

______

They made camp underneath a large oak tree that night. Since they ate and drank nothing (excepting Gilgamesh with his wine), there was little enough to do and so usually they quickly went to sleep. Arturia, though, sat up that night, staring at the fire blankly.

Gilgamesh peered at her from underneath blankets (drawn from his Treasury and therefore of the finest linen). “Do you plan to stare at the fire all night?”

She looked around at him. She hesitated, and then said, “I’ve…I’ve been having the same dream, every night. I’m in some field, after a battle, but when I look around I see knights that I know in the colors of the enemy. I see Gawain dead, even though it’s been weeks now since the Saxons murdered him. I know for certain that everything is lost, and I’m bleeding from a dozen wounds, but I’m waiting for someone. I’m going to kill them, and they’re going to kill me, and Britannia as we know it will be destroyed.”

He’d noticed her restlessness, given how closely they slept. He thought about what Mordred had told him about the battle of Camlann.

Arturia continued “I don’t know if I can go back. I don’t know if I can do this, after everything that’s happened with Morgan. If I should be the one to lead Britannia, if that’s how it’s all going to end.”

Before Gilgamesh could reply another voice interrupted him.

“There is a reason I chose you,” the Lady of the Lake said as she emerged out of the shadows. Gilgamesh was quite certain that she hadn’t been there even a moment before.

Vivian sauntered over to Arturia, bending down and taking the king’s chin in her hand. “And not just because it had been too long since I’d gotten laid. You were always meant to lead Britannia. Here, I have something to show you.”

Vivian turned Arturia towards the great oak they had camped under. Only it wasn’t simply a mere tree anymore – it was greater, vaster, seeming to encompass all dimensions of time and space.

The Tree of Life appears in many cultures (Gilgamesh was familiar with it, as was Arturia), and so he understood some of what he saw. Other worlds, other selves. As if he could see through Arturia’s eyes, as she approached the tree and laid a reverent hand on it. Other versions of her, throughout the many branches of the Tree, time and all of the worlds of the multiverse: a naive girl with a sword, a woman with pale white hair and hawk-golden eyes, a figure in a blue dress and armor bringing down a monster, even a man.

Gilgamesh blinked, and the vision vanished. He saw Arturia lying, as if in a deep sleep, at the root of the tree. He rose to wake her, but a voice stopped him.

“Let her be. She needs this.” Vivian patted the air next to her, which was no longer air at all but rather a set of luxuriously-appointed chairs. “Sit next to me and let’s have a chat.”

Threats or bribes could not sway Gilgamesh, but when his curiosity was piqued he was relentless in resolving it. He settled down into one of the chairs.

Chapter Text

Gilgamesh and Vivian eyed each other across the fire.

“It’s uncouth to sit and talk without anything to drink,” he said, and pulled a bottle of the finest wine from his Gate. He sipped slowly and pointedly did not offer any to Vivian.

Vivian tilted her head slightly at Arturia’s prone form, as still as if she were sleeping, at the foot of the tree. “It’s clear you want her even more than I do, so let’s decide on a plan. I’ll take one of my swords – I have more of them than you do, for the record – and while she’s sleeping there, defenseless, I’ll cut her in two. From end to end or right through the middle, I’ll let you decide, and then we’ll each take half. I’ll even go so far as to give you first pick over which half you’d like to take, so you don’t ever have cause to belittle my generosity. How does that sound to you?”

Gilgamesh balked. “You madwoman. Gods, no.”

Her prior look of seriousness faded, and slow smile spread over her face. It was as though she was truly seeing Gilgamesh for the first time. “Keep talking like that, and maybe I will believe that you actually love her.”

Gilgamesh continued to sip his wine.

“There was a time in your life when you would have accepted my bargain, wouldn’t you? When you would have gladly ordered a woman cut in two just to stick it to me. My little king’s been a good influence on you, it seems.” Vivian smiled. It didn’t quite reach her eyes.

Gilgamesh frowned. “The fact that you are continuing to bore me with your banter means that you must have something worthwhile to say. Otherwise you would leave, or try to kill me – though I don’t think you would succeed, I’m half-god myself and you’re only a shadow of what you once were. I’ve passed your little test. Now tell me whatever it is that you have come here to say.”

Vivian grew serious. “You don’t understand what she is. How important she is. You and I are gods, or nearly. She isn’t. A bit of dragon blood, sure, but no divinity. She wasn’t born wealthy or powerful. She might have died in obscurity if she hadn’t passed by that sword in that stone. She isn’t a powerful mage or even a strapping warrior. You’ve seen the way she fights, how hard she has to work to make up for the massive difference between her size and that of her opponents.

“Many kings come to me, to offer their pound of flesh – so to speak – in return for my blessing. I forget most of them. Her, I never could.” Vivian paused for a moment, gazing at Arturia’s sleeping form with both affection and respect. “She is…nothing less than the longing of humanity to surpass its own limitations in its quest for the good.”
Vivan turned back to Gilgamesh and all softness left her expression. “I wasn’t expecting to see her again, and I generally have a very good idea of what to expect, since I’m a goddess and all. Things were changing all around me, things that should have been set in stone. So I did some digging. Since you seem to have a permanent position at her side (as much as I question her taste), you will listen to what I have found.

“There is a war going on. A war behind all things, between the collective desire of the human race to survive and the will of the planet to continue its own existence. This war runs like a thread through all of history.

“When you harm a creature, it will defend itself, correct? How much more true would this be of hundreds of creatures? Over time, the collective desire of the human race to live gave rise to an entity: we call this Alaya, and it is one of the sides in this war.

“What does humanity need to defend itself against, you ask?” (“I did not ask,” Gilgamesh said. The Lady of the Lake ignored him) “The earth itself, which they are slowly destroying, which must now try to destroy its own wayward child. This is Gaia.

“Gaia seeks to destroy humanity, Alaya seeks to save it. Gaia generally uses inanimate forces to curb the human population: plagues, hurricanes, landslides, and so on. Alaya, on the other hand, uses human pawns. And that’s where our little king comes in, because both sides – for very different reasons – want her dead.

“Gaia reacts to her the way an immune system might react to a virus. Our little king rose to power in a time of chaos and saved countless lives – more pests for Gaia to deal with. Gaia obviously seeks to destroy her.

“But the enemy of my enemy is not my friend. You see, the Saber that you met during that little war in Fuyuki wasn’t actually a Heroic Spirit. She never died. She made a pact with Alaya on her deathbed at Camlann: she consented to become one of the aforementioned Counter Guardians after she finally finds the Grail. She will wish for someone to rule Britain in her stead, a waste of a wish if you ask me. Fortunately, she has not succeeded in finding the Grail, and so we had ourselves a nice little stalemate. Until you intervened.

“Somehow, through methods I don’t fully understand, you managed to actually go back in time. You rewound the tape, in essence; you erased events back to a certain point. You’ve brought us to a time before Arturia made the contract with Alaya. It shouldn’t be possible. You shouldn’t be able create new events and lines of causality in such a way. But somehow, you – you and the king’s bastard son – did.” Vivian shook her head.

Gilgamesh felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. He recalled what Mordred had said when they’d first arrived in Camelot, when she puzzled over the absence of the Mordred from this timeline. It makes me think of something Merlin mentioned once – that there are many worlds, not just this one, and that reality is like the branches of a tree.

“You’ve managed to introduce an unstable new element in the midst of the story, and that changes the possibilities for how this whole thing might play out. So congrats, King of Uruk,” she added sarcastically, “It would not be an exaggeration to say that thinking with your dick has created a time-space paradox.”

“Only one of the impressive things it’s done,” Gilgamesh remarked.

Vivian ignored him. “In any case, from Alaya’s perspective, this is disastrous. Alaya is desperate to recoup her long investment, she will stop at nothing to ensure that Arturia makes the pact with her. The best way to do that is through creating instability and strife.”

The Saxons. He thought again of the shattered lance lodged in the idiot ambassador’s throat. That single event had set off a chain of betrayal and chaos.

Vivian saw the look on his face and nodded. “Exactly. If Alaya can put Arturia in enough hopeless situations, all the more likely that she will be more willing to sacrifice herself and make a contract to become a Counter Guardian.

“If you don’t know what it means to become a Counter Guardian, let me explain. She would be summoned again and again into the worst moments of human history, forced to kill and die at Alaya’s command. She would be slowly crushed by the wheel of fate across all the worlds of the Kaleidoscope until history itself dies. Not the destiny that you or I would want for her.”

“That much we can agree on.”

Vivian looked at him intently. “I haven’t spent my night prattling away at you because I think it’s fun, King of Uruk. I’ll be blunt: I don’t like you. I think you’re arrogant, self-centered, and far too quick to resort to violence. But I do think you might be in the best position to save the little king we both love. To that end, I have three pieces of advice.”

"Do you always speak in threes?" Gilgamesh remarked.

"It's a Celtic thing. And a goddess thing. Anyway, first – keep our littler king from making the pact with Alaya under any circumstances. If you fail then all of your efforts will have been in vain.

“Second – do not trust Merlin. He’s the only one other than me who would be able to figure out that you’re re-written fate and the future can be changed. Only Merlin would be stupid or foolish enough to think he could play double agent with both Gaia and Alaya. Whether he’s attempting to save Arturia or trying to save his own skin, I can’t say. Keep an eye on him.”

“Merlin took something precious from me. If ever I meet him again, he will not walk away alive,” Gilgamesh said.

“Good. A sensible choice. Third – watch your back. Something hunts you. You came this way through the aid of the Holy Grail, did you not? Something ancient and awful lurks in that thing, and you owe it a debt. Watch yourself.”

Something from the Grail War, in Fuyuki? A chill crept up his back. It was nonsense, more drivel from this strange goddess, most likely. He ignored it.

The Lady of the Lake looked at Arturia’s sleeping form. “She’ll wake up soon, and she’ll feel very strange when she does. Knowledge does that to a person, and she’ll be gaining more knowledge that a mortal could comfortably bear, including some I’d rather she not have.” Then the Lady of the Lake added thoughtfully, “But what can you do about creatures with free will?”

She stooped to stroke Arturia’s hair back from her face in a tender gesture, then she was gone. Gilgamesh stood alone by the fire as Arturia began to stir beneath the tree.

Chapter Text

Arturia staggered to her feet, and Gilgamesh caught her when she stumbled. She looked at him with eyes gone hazy from the otherworldly vision she’d received. “Gilgamesh,” she said, “I saw things. I…saw the rest of the battle on the hill. Mordred....” She furrowed her brow and shook her head, then looked him deep in the eyes. “And I saw you. I saw the war in that city in the east in the far future, and I don’t understand it all, but I…I know what you did for me. I know how far you came.”

She looked at him in wonder, and her eyes seemed to see to the depths of his soul. He looked back at her, recalling Vivian’s words and wondering who or what might try to kill Arturia next. Then she kissed him, and he did not think about anything else.

Her mouth was soft and sweet. She was unpracticed, but passionate. Clearly the kissing wasn’t enough for her, because then her hands were under his shirt, pulling his clothes off.

He returned the favor. She seemed nervous, almost shy, when they stood naked before each other for the first time. {Gilgamesh wasn’t nervous – he knew he was a glory to behold). Her body was small but powerfully muscled, marked here and there by scars from a lifetime of fighting, her breasts small and firm. He took them into his hands – they fit his palms perfectly - and she moaned.

The sound sent him into a frenzy he struggled to control himself. His mouth was on one of her nipples, and his fingers on the other. She cried out, louder. His cock grew almost unbearably hard.

His tongue laved her nipple, softly and then with more fervor, before he turned his attentions lower, down her well-muscled stomach, to the soft thatch of golden hair between her legs. She shied away and grabbed his hair, yelping “What are you doing?!”

He chuckled. “Quiet,” he said, and delved his tongue into her warm wet cleft. He heard a little cry of please as her head snapped back and her hips moved forward. Her hand was still in his hair, but rather than trying to push him away from her, she was trying to move him into her.

He licked her slowly at first, rousing her gently into a frenzy. Then he parted her lower lips and began to run his tongue around the swollen bud of her clitoris. This made her hips buck so hard that he had to grab one of her hips firmly to keep her in place for more of his attentions.

When at last he was satisfied (and her cries had reached a pleasing crescendo), he broke away and kissed her. She kissed him back, fiercely, and the thought of her tasting her own juices on his lips aroused him even more. His cock ached and his balls felt like they would burst.

She must have noticed, because she looked down at him. “Oh,” she said. “Are they all that big?”

Gilgamesh preened. “No,”

She reached a tentative hand to stroke his length, and Gilgamesh shuddered and closed his eyes.

He heard rustling, and opened his eyes to see her on her knees before him. Gods, the sight was worth all the insults he’d suffered on this journey. She looked up at him with her green eyes, her beautiful face so close to his cock, and said, “I want…I want to return the favor.” She looked slightly nervous but determined and she ran her hands along his shaft.

Not trusting himself to speak, he nodded.

She gave his cock a long slow lick, running from the base to the head. “How’s that?”

Again, he nodded.

She grinned and gave another long slow lick. Then another and another, in rapid succession. Gilgamesh grabbed a nearby tree branch to steady himself.

His fingers wrapped around the braided bun at the back of her head. “If I may,” he grunted.

She nodded, and he grabbed her bun and used the leverage to move her mouth slowly down his cock. She made a noise of surprise, then adjusted to accommodate his length in her throat.

Grabbing her hair, he used it to move her delicious mouth over his length. She worked her lips and tongue over his shaft in the most delightful way.

When he thrust too deep and she began to cough, he let her up. She wiped her mouth, and asked nervously, “was that good?”

He pulled her up and kissed her again. “Yes. Now, lie down.” He pointed to the blanket next to the fire.

To his surprise, she followed his command. The firelight played over her wide hips and muscled legs, her firm breasts.

He lowered himself over her, propping himself on his knees and elbows. His cock bobbed against her belly, a light trail of precum leaking over her muscled abdomen.

Her eyes were wide, and he realized she must be a virgin. There had been the time with the lake goddess, and the witch sister, but not like this.

“You understand what I am about to do?” he said.

She nodded, her eyes fixed on his.

"You want this?"

"Oh yes," she said and Gilgamesh slid the head of his cock into her, slipping inch by inch in her pussy. Gods, it was a tight fit, though her copious wetness made it an easier process.

Once he had sunk his entire length into her, he paused for a moment to allow her to accommodate his cock. She was whimpered slightly into his ear, and her felt her inner walls undulate over his cock. Gods, she felt so good wrapped around him, her tight walls hot and wet. This was what he’d wanted, what he’d wanted for so long. He tried not to cum right then and there, and instead took up a slow and steady pace, driving long, hard strokes into her.

She moaned and matched his pace. She bit him hard on the shoulder, hard enough to leave a mark and perhaps to draw blood. The pain only aroused him further.
He moved himself up on his hands to gain better leverage to thrust into her. This also allowed him to get a better look at her. Her hair was in disarray, her braid quickly coming undone. Her eyes were hazy with pleasure, and a light flush colored her cheeks.

This also allowed him to play with her breasts, which bounced slightly with each thrust. She moaned when he pinched both her nipples, and deliciously, he felt her pussy tighten around his cock.

Keeping one hand fixed on her nipple, he moved the other to the crux of their joined bodies. With his thumb, he sought the dripping knob of her clitoris and began to massage it.

She cried out and bucked. He laughed, and pinned her down with one hand. Not the one that was affixed to her clitoris., though.

He knew it would happen a few seconds before she did. He felt her walls begin to tighten and convulse, but he refused to relax his pace. Then she stammered “G-Gilgamesh, I think I’m going to-“

“Let it happen,” he commanded, and she let her orgasm take her. Her back arched and she screamed his name. Her pussy was nearly convulsing on his cock, and he could hold back no longer. With a grunt, he spent himself inside her.

Exhausted, he rested his forehead on hers. Her body twitched occasionally from the aftershocks of her orgasm, and this made him smile.

He waited until he had gone soft to pull himself out of her. A flood of white liquid followed, and she looked down at herself “I didn’t know there would be such a mess.”

“We’ll clean it up later.” To his surprise, she obeyed. He glanced at her with one eye. “I didn’t know you liked that sort of thing.”

She huffed and propped herself up to look up at him. “Do you know how hard it is to be the king, the one who needs to make all of the decisions? It’s nice to give someone else some responsibility for once.”

“It’s fortunate for you that I never tire of being in charge,” he said..

They fell asleep in each others’ arms. Gilgamesh pulled a blanket over them when the fire burned low at some point in the night.

Strange creates prowled and hunted those woods, yet a powerful force kept them away from the pair sleeping beneath the tree.

_____

When he awoke, he reached for her and she was no longer there.

He looked up and saw that she was tending the fire (fully dressed, unfortunately), feeding small sticks into the blaze.

When he walked near her, despite the warmth of the fire, it was as if he had run into a wall of ice. She fixed him with a cold look. “I saw many things when I was under the spell of the tree. And I realized something. You knew. You knew Mordred was my child, that she-“ Arturia’s voice broke at the pronoun, but she continued. “You didn’t tell me. You kept it from me for all those miles we’ve walked. You lied.” The word had the weight of a stone.

Gilgamesh was deathly still. “I never lied.”

“I can forgive many things, but I cannot forgive a liar.”

Enkidu had once said that Gilgamesh’s Gate of Babylon was only his second favorite way to cut people. “And when we return to your people, will you be a liar regarding what happened between us last night?”

Her face went white and she turned away, and he knew he had broken something between them. Permanently, perhaps. He was too angry to care.

A glass bowl dropped on marble can never be smooth again. Spilt wine can never be tasted again. There are some things that one said, cannot ever be taken back. Like pulling a thread from a tapestry that unwinds the whole cloth, they destroy everything around them.

They continued on the path, wordless and not touching.

Chapter Text

Mordred stared at the letter she held in her hands.

After the letter she’d received from Father naming her heir, Mordred thought no letter would ever shock her again. She’d received the ultimate shocking letter, all others would forever fall woefully short of that bar.

She hadn’t been particularly stunned when a letter arrived several months back, saying that Pellinore’s kingdom was in uproar. Apparently Gilgamesh had killed King Pellinore as well as an unnamed guest, and Mordred thought it sounded absolutely in keeping with Gil’s character to skewer an old man over some trifle. Gilgamesh wouldn’t have cared about the massive mess a civil war would be, and now one of the many tasks on Mordred’s plate was fixing the mess he’d caused. The fact that Arturia had then taken Gil on the run was pretty weird, but Father must have a screw loose anyway if she’d decided to name Mordred heir. As for Pellinore, she didn’t mourn him overmuch – he’d always looked down on her, probably because she was a nameless bastard, and preferred to spend his time unsuccessfully currying favor with the king. Still, Pellinore’s liege men had declared open rebellion against the crown after his death, which was going to be a big problem. Gilgamesh really had to stop this inconvenient habit of killing people. And Arturia needed to come back to Camelot.

Mordred had received many other letters (many, many others) since the one that had named her heir, and even after the one relaying the events that had taken place in Pellinore’s kingdom. In her position as heir meant she was next in command in the absence of the king, so now a major portion of her day revolved around the exchange of letters, documents, and other state nonsense. It made her eyes burn.

This letter, the one she held in her hands now, this one was different. It didn’t surprise her, exactly – it chilled her to the core. It was from a garrison captain stationed to the southeast. If even a fraction of what it contained was true, time had run out for all of them.

Mordred read the letter twice, to make she sure understood what it said. Then she folded it carefully, put it in her pocket, and poured herself a glass of mead. It was still morning, too early, but she downed the amber liquid in a single swallow anyway.

After she had done that, she put out the word for the Knights of the Round to gather. Then she poured herself another glass of honey-wine and looked at the sleeping form of her wife, who lay bundled in the bed. Whereas most Picts were stocky, strapping types, Ailish was a slender, quiet dark-haired girl with blue woad tattoos adorning her cheeks. All in all, Mordred had no idea how to relate to her.

Mordred had met the young woman the night of their wedding. The daughter of a prominent Pictish lord, Ailish had looked proud but pale throughout the ceremony. Afterward, when they had found themselves in the bedchamber, Mordred noticed she was literally shaking with fear.

Mordred stopped the girl when she tried to pull off Mordred’s clothes. “Hey, I’m tired,” Mordred told her. “Let’s just go to bed.”

The girl, looking relieved, had nodded. They fell asleep on opposite sides of the bed, not a toe touching.

It had gone like that since their return to Camelot. They shared the same bed, but didn’t share sex, conversation, or much of anything else. Mordred was too overwhelmed by her duties as official regent to care very much. Her wife seemed homesick and lost among the Britons, and she sometimes wandered off to the Pictish encampment to be among her own people, though she seemed as different from the rowdy Pictish warriors as night from day.

At least her shyness saved Mordred from the challenge of their wedding night. Mordred had posed as a man since her youth, and found it easy enough to hide her true sex even from her occasional lovers – a dark room and a well-placed strap-on were generally enough to do the trick.

But none of that seemed useful now. This wasn’t a single assignation she was planning, but a marriage. A lifetime together. Ugh.

She knew she’d have to tell the young woman, her wife, the truth about her sex someday. But how to do it? Sorry, honey, hope you weren’t wanting heirs because I don’t have the equipment to help you make them? Better kiss your dreams of an ordinary marital sex life goodbye? Also please don’t spill my secret to the rest of the kingdom and jeopardize my claim to the throne? The thought gave Mordred a headache.

She knew that Father must have had that conversation with Guinevere at some point. Guinevere had accepted her, at least in some capacity, and seemed to have some genuine affection for the king. But then again, Guinevere had made herself rather scarce lately….

Mordred felt a pang at the thought of Guinevere. The queen had always been unobtainable for her, had always been out of her reach, and now she was doubly so. But that didn’t stop Mordred from missing her.

Mordred turned her attention back to the person before her. “I’m, ah,” Mordred began awkwardly. “I’m going off to an assembly of the Round Table. We’ve got some pretty serious news to discuss. I can tell you about it later if you want.” Married people said things like that to their spouses, right?

The sleepy lump on the bed made a noncommittal grunt. Mordred left the room.

_____

Mordred was reading over a map as she walked through the castle, trying to calculate the rate at which an army could move over the terrain. She was sure it couldn’t be very fast, especially an army of the size they were dealing with, but she’d need to discuss the matter with some of her advisors just to be sure -

“You!”

A voice pierced her concentration. Mordred’s head jerked up at the sound, and then a palm connected with her cheek. She staggered back, more from shock than from force, and finally got a good luck at her assailant.

Elin.

Tears filled the serving woman’s eyes and anger brought color to her cheeks. Her breasts heaved fetchingly. Mordred couldn’t help noting, with equal parts admiration and exasperation, that Elin was one of those women who looked pretty even when she cried.

“A wife?!” Elin’s voice was shrill. “A wife and you never even mentioned it to me?!”

Mordred blinked. “Elin, it wasn’t exactly planned-“

“I know I was never going to marry you. You’re a knight and I’m just a…” she dashed the tears from her eyes and snuffled irritably. “But you could have at least told me. Or taken a moment to speak to me in the months since you’ve been back.”

Good god, had it been that long? Mordred had been so immersed in all of her duties that she hadn’t even noticed the amount of time that had gone by. “Elin,” Mordred said, “I haven’t had time to take a dump in peace for months. When do you think I would have had time to contact you?”

Elin refused to be pacified. The tears continued to flow. “You could have tried. But you didn’t.”

Mordred thought for a moment. “No,” she said solemnly. “I didn’t.” She was silent for a moment, then said, “Elin. I’m sorry. I cared for you, but it’s over.”

Elin dissolved into tears. There was no other way to describe it. She crumpled up as though she’d received a mortal wound, and wept like a child. Mordred reached out a hand to comfort her, then pulled it back. “I’m sorry,” she said again after a little while. “But I have to go.”

Part of Mordred wanted to tell Elin that she hadn’t really meant it, wanted to grovel at her feet until Elin took her back. She didn’t love Elin the way the other woman clearly loved her, but she liked her well enough. Mordred didn’t have to be like Arthur, did she, sacrificing passion and desire in order to present a kingly façade. Why couldn’t she keep a lover even though she had a wife? Kings had done worse. No one had to know.

But her feet kept carrying her onward, toward her many many duties.

_____

 

“Mordred, you look like hell.” Lancelot said.

She glared at him. She was well aware that if her physical state was anything close to her mental state, she must bear a striking resemblance to a bog witch.

He was the last person that Mordred wanted to see. She recalled that other time in which Lancelot had ridden like hell for France while Guinevere was lashed to the stake and burned for adultery, and realized that she hated him for something that hadn’t even happened yet.

“Yeah, and I’ll give you hell if you mess with me. Sit the fuck down,” she said, shoving past him.

The other knights were assembled, looking at her curiously. They’d more or less accepted her position as heir and de facto leader, but Mordred was well aware of how tenuous their loyalty was.

“I bet you’re wondering why I’ve called you all here today,” she began, rather lamely.

“No kidding,” someone said, and laughter ensued.

Mordred narrowed her eyes. “Knock it off, we’ve got some important things to discuss.” She looked back down at the letter she held, along with the numerous maps she’d been poring over.

“I’ve gotten a letter from a garrison captain to the southeast near the Saxon settlement. He says that he’s seen trade ships arriving with shipments of iron and steel, and forges working day and night. There’s been an uptick on raids on small British settlements. Worst of all, he’s noticed numerous ships arriving from the Saxon homeland carrying young men of fighting age. The population of the Saxon settlement is growing quickly with all of these new arrivals.” Mordred paused. She wasn’t sure how to say what she needed to say next. “It’s his belief – which I share – that the Saxons are planning an invasion.”

The roomful of knights stared at her for a moment, then burst into discussion. They said many things to each other, but behind all of their words was the same sentiment: Where is Arthur? Where is the king who can save us from this menace?

He's not here, Mordred thought grimly. But I am.

She continued. “They’re not going to attack before spring, because they’re not crazy. But as soon as the snow melts, before we can start the harvest, they’re probably going to make their way across Britannia towards Camelot. Fortunately we’re far away from them and we’ll have plenty of advance notice, but the west wall is crumbling in a few spots and will need to be reinforced. Not to meantion we’ll need to start stockpiling food, and….”

She continued on like that, trying to project an assurance she did not feel. The Britons had maintained an uneasy truce with the Saxons for years, but with the murder of the Saxon ambassador Horsa and the kidnapping of Arthur, all of that was changing. Her people had to be ready.

At last Mordred dismissed the meeting and sent her knights on their way. She was looking forward to getting back to her room and another glass of mead, when a figure pulled her aside into a small alcove.

Guinevere.

Mordred felt something inside her unclench. There was no one she wanted to see more. Perhaps she could tell Guinevere the truth about her sham of a marriage; maybe she could even tell the queen about her true parentage, her strange journey back in time, her struggle to become the kind of person Arturia would be proud of. Surely she could tell Guinevere about the pending invasion.

“I need your help,” Guinevere said.

Well, that was alright, a lot of people did. After that was taken care of, they could really talk. Mordred suddenly wanted Guinevere to embrace her, to hold her in her arms and tell her it would all be alright.

But before Mordred could open her mouth, Guinevere whispered. “I’m pregnant.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 19 – The Return.

“I’m pregnant.”

The words echoed in Mordred’s head. She felt as though someone had slipped a knife in between her ribs. She thought of Lancelot, instantly, and imagined half a dozen scenarios in which he met an excruciating death, some of them with her assistance. At least now she knew why Guinevere hadn’t been much help looking after the kingdom in the months since Arthur’s disappearance. The queen had been too busy seeking reassurance in the arms of her husband’s most trusted knight. Just as she had before.

“Why are you telling me this?” Mordred asked.

Guinevere blinked. “I knew I could trust you.”

“Have you told...” Mordred paused. Lancelot. “…the father yet?”

Guinevere shook her head.

“This is bad,” Mordred said through lips gone numb. At least this wasn’t exactly like the time before, when Guinevere’s misstep had been seen by all. At least now, it was only Mordred herself who knew. Maybe that meant that there was a chance. “The king has been gone for months. No one’s going to believe that he fathered the kid.”

“I know.” Guinevere’s eyes were full of tears.

Mordred gazed as her for a moment, and then raked a hand through her hair. “We’ll figure it out,” she said. “We can send you to a safehouse in the countryside, somewhere you can recuperate for a few months or a year away from prying eyes at Camelot.”

Mordred patted Guinevere’s shoulder awkwardly, which only served to make the tears in Guinevere’s eyes well up and fall down her cheeks. It seems like crying women are just what fate has in store for me today, Mordred thought wearily.

Then Guinevere embraced her suddenly, tightly, and all of Mordred’s exhaustion and frustration were washed away. Yeah, Mordred thought, relaxing into the arms of the women she’d always carried a torch for. Yeah, I could get used to this.
_____

Vivian was waiting for them at a turn in the road.

Arturia hadn’t been sure when their journey through this alien world would end. The things she’d seen in the tree – other versions of herself, other possibilities – whirled in her head. She’d seen Gilgamesh’s true origins there, and she knew Mordred's true identity. There was no denying that the knight was her child. And then last night, her stupid moment of impulsiveness –

No. She wouldn’t think of that. She glanced at the man who walked in uncomfortable silence beside her, but couldn’t bring herself to look him in the face.

She turned her eyes toward Vivian, who looked elegant but not out of place sitting on a low rock by the road. Arturia felt a small thrill at the sight of her supernatural benefactress – awe, fear, and desire all wrapped up in one. It offered a reprieve from her preoccupation with the man beside her.

Vivian gave them both a long, slow look, and Arturia felt certain she knew what had passed between her and Gilgamesh the night before. But she said nothing, instead pointing to a gate that Arturia was sure hadn’t been there a moment before. “Go through the gate. I had to fudge things a bit, but it should get you close enough to your city. What happens from here on out is up to you, but I’ll be there if you call. And as for you” she locked eyes with Gilgamesh. “Remember what I said.”

Gilgamesh’s only reply was a low grunt of acknowledgment.

Arturia had no time to puzzle over this cryptic exchange before Vivian stepped forward and planted a kiss on her cheek. Then she was gone.

The gate was hulking and awkward; it wouldn’t have looked out of place on a castle or keep, but here in the wilds of the Otherworld, it was peculiar. Still, one had to get where one was going. A few steps forward, a strange sense of distortion, and they were standing in a grove of trees about half a mile from the familiar white walls of Camelot.

Arturia felt her knees weaken in relief at the sight. Camelot. Her city. Home at last, after a very long and very strange journey.

But something was wrong. It had been late summer when they’d made their escape into Vivian’s pool only a few days ago, but now the air was the kind of bitter cold that only comes in midwinter. Stranger still, a few snowflakes drifted down from a slate-gray sky.

She watched as Gilgamesh, puzzled, raised a hand to touch one of the tiny snowflakes, jerking his hand back and muttering a curse when one landed on his skin and melted in a burst of cold.

Arturia recalled the legend of Niamh and Oisin: Oisin was an ordinary man who fell in love with one of the Fae, Niamh. She whisked him back to her Otherworld kingdom, and they spent a week of passion together. Oisin wished to pay a visit to his friend, so he returned to the ordinary world, but to his horror 300 years had passed and everyone he had known was long dead.

Of course. Time passes differently in the Otherworld than it passes in the realm of the living. What had seemed like a matter of days to her and Gilgamesh had been months in Britannia.

What had transpired in her absence? Good God, how long had Mordred had full reign of the castle? Arturia was surprised that the walls of Camelot were still standing. She needed to get home and set things in order now. She began to walk towards the castle.

“What is this peculiar substance?” Gilgamesh crinkled his nose in distaste at the white flakes falling from the sky, keeping pace with her.

She almost smiled, in spite of herself. “it’s called snow,” she replied.

_____

Mordred had pored over the accounts and inventories until she was sure her eyes are bleeding. It had only been a week or so since the messenger from the south had brought news of the Saxons preparing for war, but you could never be too careful or too well prepared for a siege at the hands of your sworn enemy. It was a good idea to start stocking up on rations and materials, and everyone knew that an army traveled on its stomach.

Either way you looked at it, though, it really was a conundrum – should she risk the somewhat dwindled resources of the treasury on buying up food for the population of Camelot and the inevitable wave of refugees who would come fleeing the Saxons? Or, if she assumed that Camelot would do fine on its own and so didn’t spend a fortune purchasing excess crops, should she accept the possibility of mass starvation in the event of a siege? And what about the farmers she was buying the extra wheat and grains from, what would they eat when the Saxons came and burned their fields? Then there was the matter of reinforcing the walls of Camelot as well…

She heard distant voices and footsteps. She leaned back in her chair, gazing thoughtfully at the papers before her. She couldn’t afford to make a mistake. Kings didn’t make mistakes. Arturia certainly didn’t – unless you count that incident with the May Day ship that Morgan had hinted at so many months ago, and that Mordred had confirmed with some of the older soldiers. What had she been thinking then? Why had she wanted to kill Mordred’s infant self so badly? And why suddenly name Mordred heir?

The sound of feet and excited voices intensified. The door flew open, and a breathless young page, as if summoned by her thoughts, said the words that Mordred had been waiting to hear for months – “Sir, King Arthur has returned!”

_____

The guard at the gate was skeptical at first, then utterly nonplussed when he realized that the figure who stood before him was, in fact, King Arthur.

After Arturia had persuaded Gilgamesh to refrain from ending the mongrel’s life and a more senior officer had been found to confirm Arturia’s identity, they were finally ushered into the main courtyard of Camelot amidst effusive apologies and expressions of joy. Hot barley tea was sent for and she held it, warming her hands as they awaited the arrival of everyone else.

Home. She was home. She shivered, partly with cold and partly with a thrill of happiness. Whatever messes had transpired in her absence, she could fix them.

She flicked her gaze at the man beside her. “I know my words alone won’t stop you. But I do request that you do not tell anyone about what transpired between us last night.”

Gilgamesh had contemptuously poured out his cup of barley tea and thrown the cup over his shoulder. Instead, he sipped a glass of wine he’d taken from his Gate. Anyone else would have looked ridiculous standing in the courtyard of Camelot in midwinter, wearing tattered summer clothes and sipping wine; Gilgamesh managed to make it look like something everyone should feel ashamed for not doing.

He tilted his chin and eyed her. “The noble King of Knights, asking me to lie?”

Arturia’s fists clenched. “Just-“

Then the door to the courtyard flew open, and a dozen knights and notables flooded in, accompanying a figure in a regal red cape. After a moment of stunned shock, Arturia realized it was Mordred.

_____

It was Gilgamesh who caught Mordred’s eye first, still golden despite being travel-stained. He looked askance at the light snow falling, shivering unpleasantly under a luxurious cape he’d probably gotten from his Gate and sipping – of all things – a glass of wine.

Mordred launched herself towards Gilgamesh like a happy puppy, locking her arms around his neck and he tried to peel her off. “Mongrel, control yourself,” he growled. The knights and retainers who had accompanied Mordred stepped forward in concern for their regent, but Mordred nuzzled Gilgamesh’s shoulder and said, “I’m glad to see you too, Goldie.”

When Gilgamesh had detached her from his person and settled her back on the ground, she turned to Arturia just as the king looked up from her greeting to Lancelot, and the two locked eyes.

They saw only each other. They might have been utterly alone. Between the figure clothed in red and the figure in blue, only the snowflakes moved.

You know, they each thought. You know.

Mordred’s second thought was that Father was shorter than she had remembered. Surprisingly short, really, for a figure who commanded such authority. How had she ever convinced everyone that she was a man? She looked rather worse for wear, too, with travel-stained clothing and poorly-braided hair. Yet even exhausted and shabby, her natural charisma shone through. You could see why men would go to their deaths for her.

Then Mordred noticed her expression. Arturia looked as though she’d seen a ghost, and that was enough to make Mordred panic. Oh, shit, don’t want Father flipping out. Better say something, anything, to take her mind off things-

“Father,” Mordred blurted out. “I’ve wanted to ask you. Why did you give those orders to the crew of the May Day ship?”

As soon as the words made their way out of her mouth. Mordred kicked herself internally. Really? Arturia had just journeyed for miles, and this was what came out of Mordred’s mouth as soon as she beheld her long-lost father?!! She’d never been great at finding the right thing to say at a critical moment, but really?!

So caught up was she in her own internal remonstrations that she didn’t even notice Arturia’s reaction until she was looking up at her from the ground, struggling for breath.

_____

 

In the future, everyone would disagree about what had happened. Some said that Arturia had shoved Mordred, or punched her. Others said they had hit each other, or perhaps simply pushed away from each other the way that magnets of opposite polarities do.

It was a fact generally agreed upon that a brief scuffle of some sort sent snow flying. Then Gilgamesh’s hands were on Arturia’s shoulders and Mordred’s retainers were helping her to her feet. There was a moment of awkward silence, as everyone present tried to make sense of what the reigning king, returned after kidnapping and exile, had just done to the regent. Then someone raised the chant, “King Arthur has returned, long live the king!” Others took up the call, and Arturia was ushered back into Camelot in a wave of exhultant humanity. Mordred, holding a fistful of snow to her face, followed like a shadow.

_____

Arturia was able to maintain her expression of careful neutrality throughout the reception and the impromptu feast that celebrated her return. She was even able to actually listen and respond to the many people – nobles, knights, common folk – who felt the need to greet her and communicate the joy they felt at her return. She felt Gilgamesh’s questioning gaze on her more than once, though she ignored it; perhaps she couldn’t fool him the same way she could fool the others, but she wasn’t about to indulge him.

She managed to keep up the façade until she returned to her chambers. They were the same way she’d left them, all those months before. There was a thin layer of dust on the desk and table, but otherwise it was her home, her own, a place she wasn’t sure she’d live to see again.

Then, and only then, did she let herself break down and allow the thoughts she’d kept at bay to wash over her.

Mordred. Looking upon the child with her own eyes, any doubts she’d had as to Mordred’s true parentage were utterly dispelled. Mordred’s face was like a copy of the one that Arturia saw whenever she looked into a mirror.

There meeting confirmed another truth that the tree had shown her. Mordred’s face was just a little too round and soft, her voice a bit too high-pitched. She wore the heavy clothes of kingship well, but Mordred had been born a girl, like Arturia, and she’d been forced to hide her gender in order to fulfill her destiny – also like Arturia.

What were they? Father and son and mother and daughter, and uncle/aunt and nephew/niece as well due to Morgan’s treachery. What could they be? Two people who could understand each other, two someones who know what it is like to live one’s life as a lie.

When the figure before her said those words - May Day - it was as if someone had tapped a sheet of melting ice in just the precise place to send cracks shivering all along its surface.

And then all she can hear is the sound of waves.

_____
It is just after the civil war with King Lot. Merlin comes to her with a prophecy.

He tells her that a child has been born who will kill her, end her reign, and destroy everything she holds dear. Merlin delivers the news with unnerving calm, as though listing out the types of bread available at the bakery.

Merlin’s prophecies have a history of being unnervingly accurate. His prediction of Gerlois’ death, for example, or that whole affair with the two dragons. Arturia has only been high king for a year or so at that point, and Britannia is reeling from the civil war ignited by her rise to the throne. They cannot afford another conflict.

Merlin smiles. “Don’t worry, don’t worry, you can still root out this weed before it kills all the others in your garden.”

Merlin gives her the idea for the May Day ship, but she is the one who puts the plan into reality. No one forces her hand. It seems like the most sound political decision that she can make, given the circumstances.

Mindful of the effect of the plan on the children’s parents, Arturia orders her men to tell them that their children will be fostered at Camelot and will eventually hold positions of rank at court or in the armies. The parents are mostly subsistence farmers, with dirt permanently ground into the cracks in their hands and their backs prematurely stooped from hard labor. They know that their children will have a better life in the white-walled city of the great King Arthur, and they don’t expect to see them again.

Mindful of the effect of the plan on her men, Arturia develops a plan that allows the sailors to compete their task without the stain of blood-guilt. They will simply sail the ship out into the stormy ocean, and then depart back to shore on smaller crafts. No one actually has to snuff out the life from those tiny forms, no one has to listen to their plaintive cries cut short.

She still insists on touring the ship, though. She insists on looking each child in the eyes, in seeing each little life she is sending to its death. A king needs to do such things, to know the cost of peace.

And they are gone.

Her shame. Her greatest shame.

She regrets it bitterly, even at the time. She will think about it over the years whenever she faces a choice that will mean life for some and death for others. Yet she knows that if presented with the same situation again, she would make the same choice. She would never have done such a thing to save herself or even someone dear to her, but it is a question of preserving the realm, of saving Britannia. For that, anything is acceptable.

Chapter Text

The rooms were, if possible, even colder and more unpleasant than they had been before. Gilgamesh was irate. He had not counted on dealing with this “snow” nonsense and he was not about to accept a bed that felt like an icebox and a floor of bare stone. He roared for the servants. They arrived and assessed the situation, then regretfully informed him that this was just what the weather was like in midwinter and they could set up a few braziers but that would only help a little. In response, he sent a barrage of missiles from his Gate at them.

At last, someone sent for Bedivere. The knight’s quiet calm didn’t soothe Gilgamesh’s rage, but it did hold it at bay long enough for Bedivere to say, “I’ve heard many tales of your supernatural wealth, my lord. Might you not make this room over in your own image?”

Gilgamesh’s mood turned. He quickly put the terrified servants to work arranging the rich furnishings that he retrieved from his Gate – a few massive braziers (not like these tiny lampholders that the foolish Britons seemed to prefer), some Persian rugs on the floor, several woven tapestries from Antioch on the walls.

In the midst of this, the door creaked and swung open. Gilgamesh whirled around to confront this new intruder, and saw Mordred, looking more exhausted than he’d ever seen a mortal look. A nasty blue-black mark covered her left eye. The servants took one look at her and vacated the room in a flash, leaving the two of them alone.

She looked at him wearily. “Why did Arthur make me the heir? Why?”

For a moment, Gilgamesh said nothing. Instead he seated himself at the table and reached into his Gate, pulling forth one of his finest wines. He poured two glasses, and pushed one toward Mordred. When she had seated herself and drunk deeply from the glass, he looked her in the eye and said a single word: “Morgan.”

Mordred made a face. “That sounds like Mother.”

“I killed her,” Gilgamesh said suddenly. He didn’t relish relaying this fact to Mordred, but a man must face facts regarding the things that he has done. He didn’t regret his choice to kill the witch.

For a moment, Mordred’s expression was unreadable. Then she shrugged and took another sip of the wine he had handed her. “Well, the only surprising thing about that is the fact that no one got around to killing her before you did. Mother was never exactly good at making herself likeable. You were never great at not murdering people you didn’t like.” A pause, and then Mordred asked “What did Morgan promise her in exchange for making me heir?”

“The return of my Gate.”

Mordred nodded, absorbing this new fact. “Merlin took it, yeah. Making a bargain with Mother was probably easier than getting that old succubus to cooperate, honestly.”

Then she glanced at Gilgamesh and waggled her eyebrows. “Damn, Gil, I guess Father really likes you, if she’d name me heir just to get Morgan to do a favor for you.”

He scoffed. “It is impossible to spend any amount of time in my company and not desire me.”

Mordred smiled a little, then grew serious as a thought occurred to her. “Don’t imagine Father was too happy about you offing Morgan, though.”

“She wasn’t.”

“She never had time to get to know Mother. She doesn’t know what Morgan is capable of. Was.” Mordred shook her head, looking for a moment like the lost teenager she was. “The letters mentioned that someone else died, but I didn’t know it was her. I didn’t even know she was in Pellinore’s kingdom. I guess that explains why I haven’t heard from her in so long. Maybe I should be more upset about it.”

Gilgamesh thought she might weep, a scenario he dreaded immensely, but then she threw back her head and groaned dramatically instead.
“Christ on a cracker, I’m exhausted. I don’t know how you kings do this shit.”

“What are you talking about?’

“This ruling thing. I’m exhausted. Too many meetings and letters and all that crap.”

Gilgamesh wrinkled his nose as though he’d detected a noxious odor. “Why would you spend your own time doing that? Appoint a royal secretary and have him fritter away his time on correspondence.”

Mordred blinked. “Wait, I can do that?!”

You mean delegate? Yesss,” he said the word slowly, as though explaining a concept to a curious but rather stupid child. “It’s one of the prerogatives of a king.”

Mordred frowned. “I’m not really a king yet, am I?”

“You’re next in line for the throne. You’d best learn.”

“Huh. Thanks Gil. I appreciate the vote of confidence.”

_____

Mordred paused for a moment outside the door. She didn’t want to seem too eager to answer Father’s summons, too quick to leap at the promise – however vague - of a parlay. Mordred wasn’t entirely sure who she’d encounter when she opened the door – the aloof king or the figure of rage who’d left her laid out on the snow. The blue-black mark around Mordred’s eye twinged, but she wasn’t about to abandon hope. Father had wanted to talk. Maybe things could still change for the better.

Mordred took a deep breath and entered.

Father was once more the aloof king. It had been only a day or so since she’d arrived, but she’d managed to clean up after her long journey and was seated in her receiving quarters. A lesser person might have wanted time to recover from the ordeal of being kidnapped, becoming a fugitive, and then ending up in another world, but not Arturia. The fact that no one else was in attendance – unusual for a king, particularly for one who had recently returned from the dead – made Mordred’s heart hammer in her chest.

“Sir Mordred,” Arturia inclined her head, her tone neutral and polite. “Thank you for attending this meeting.”

Mordred grunted in reply. Her throat was so tight that she didn’t trust herself to speak.

Father folded her hands. “I wished to discuss with you the matter of your recent marital alliance with the Picts.”

Mordred felt her stomach drop. Oh shit. Of all the things she’d expected Father to talk to her about, this didn’t even make the top ten. “Uhhh, yeah. What do you wanna know about it?”

Arturia stared at her for a moment, and then said, “The terms of the alliance, the identity of your new spouse, and so forth.”

Mordred wiped her sweaty palms on her britches. “Oh yeah, they’re umm… Part of the Caledonii-”

Arturia’s brow furrowed. “One of the smaller Pictish tribes.”

“Well, uh, yeah kinda, but they’ve got a lot of connections with the other tribes, you know, and so I thought…” Dammit, Mordred thought, what is Father trying to get at? Doesn’t she know that I wasn't exactly been in a position to carefully negotiate the terms of the match? And why do I sound like such a stammering idiot?!

“It seems to me that you weren’t thinking at all when you made this match,” Arturia said primly.

Arturia kept speaking – something about concerns regarding the treasury, or a match with a strong tribe – but Mordred had stopped listening. All she could see was red. She thought of the extended negotiations with her Picts, of the British soldiers she’d managed to save, the silent lump of blankets on the other side of the bed that was her new wife. She thought of all she’d accomplished over the past few months, all she’d done to show Father what she was capable of. And none of it mattered.

“You think I made a mistake?” Mordred heard herself say. “A mistake? Like you did when you gave the orders to the crew of the May Day ship?”

That had an effect. Arturia sat up stiffly, her mask of kingly composure slipping for a moment. It was something of a relief to see that familiar cold expression. Some things never changed. Mordred knew she was an idiot for expecting things to go otherwise.

“You are hereby stripped of your rank as regent,” Arturia said icily.

“Took you long enough. Sure, go ahead,” Mordred was fully enraged now, and waved a hand carelessly. “No one in Camelot is ever going to forget that you DID, for however long, name me regent.”

Arturia’s whole body tensed at that, and part of Mordred wondered if she’d strike her again. The knight was out of her chair and out of the door before the king had a chance to move.

_____

 

Mordred thundered through the hallway like a stormcloud. Her boots echoed on the stone floors. People shrunk back from her, noble ladies and servants stared at her. The very air around her crackled like lightning.

Father could do whatever she wanted to her – strip her of her position, mock her, humiliate her - but there was someone she had to protect. Someone who had far more to lose.

When Mordred arrived in her chambers, Guinevere was sitting with her women and spinning. They looked up like a bunch of startled owls, when Mordred shoved her way through the door, trailing the guards behind her.

“Your Majesty,” Mordred said. “I need to speak with you alone.”

A gesture from the queen. There was a flurry of movement as the ladies made their way out.

“I’ve got a horse and a pair of guards who are going to take you to Britanny, over on the mainland. We’ve got connections with the nobility there, they’ll take you in. Pack whatever you can carry, and don’t say a word to anyone. They leave at dusk, so you’re gonna have to meet them at the stables.” The words came out fragmented, splintered. Mordred didn’t want to think too much about what they really meant.

Guinevere looked startled at first, then nodded. “Thank you.” She said. No questions about Mordred ‘s sudden orders, no desire to plead her case before Arthur. Guinevere understood what the king was capable of.

“I’ll tell the king that you’ve gone to stay with an elderly relative, what with the Saxon invasion and all,” Mordred finished awkwardly.

The queen nodded and rose. “I’d like to leave a letter for him. The king,” she said. She said the lie so easily – him – that a part of Mordred wondered what else she was capable of lying so well about.

“You haven’t seen the king yet?” Arturia had returned yesterday, so surely there’d been time for a reunion. Guinevere only shook her head.

Mordred hesitated for a moment, then placed a brief kiss on the queen’s cheek. “Travel safe, your Majesty,” she said, before pivoting and walking out of the room before Guinevere could notice the tears welling up in her eyes.

_____

When she was far enough away from the queen’s chambers, Mordred leaned against a wall. I’ve done it, she thought, almost staggered by her own daring. I saved her.

Guinevere was safe. Rather than tearing the Round Table apart and leading to the civil war that ended so tragically at Camlann, this event would lead only to brief puzzlement quickly forgotten. Lancelot wouldn’t be too happy, but as far as Mordred was concerned, he could suck a turnip. Arturia would be puzzled at the departure of her wife, but with the impending Saxon invasion, it made sense. Plenty of nobles were getting out of town while the getting was good.

There’d be no sudden revelation this time, no exposure of the queen’s adultery. No stake and fire. The law was clear on the punishment for an adulteress, and Arturia equally clear that a king must fulfill the law. Tears had followed down Arturia’s face when she had lowered the torch onto the kindling, but she still did it.

Mordred didn’t like to remember the smell. Or the sounds. The next day, they had taken what little remained of the queen and buried her.

How could you do that? How could anyone do that? And how could anyone ever again trust the person who had ordered such a thing? It was a testament to the prevailing sentiment in the kingdom that Mordred had found it so easily to build up a rebellion.

No. That was another past, a different ending. Mordred had another chance now, she was different. But Arturia wasn't, and Mordred tried not to think too long about a king who would execute her own wife and send dozens of infant children to their deaths.

_____

Arturia stared out at the snowy fields from the window of her receiving room, and listened distractedly to all the entreaties and petitions and demands that her people came to her with. She should have expected that Mordred would respond to her questions with monosyllabic answers and grunts before bringing up her greatest shame.

Now that the shock of realizing that Mordred was her child had ebbed somewhat, Arturia found herself filled with another emotion – dismay. How on earth was this bull of a youth her child? It might have been different if Mordred was more reserved, or humble, or thoughtful. But no, the knight had always been a hellraiser, always picking fights or pulling pranks or harassing the serving girls. He-

No. Arturia’s mind still stumbled over the correct word. She. Different as she and Mordred were, they had that secret in common.

The farmer who had brought a cause about blight left, and Lancelot entered. ‘Your Majesty,” he said, “I am overjoyed at your return, hale and hearty-“

“Sir Lancelot,” Arturia interrupted, her voice weary. “I believe that you have a question?”

Lancelot looked somewhat surprised, but recovered quickly. “I did have a matter I wished to discuss with you, sir, about the golden king.”

“His name is Gilgamesh.”

Lancelot didn’t bother to attempt to pronounce the name, so strange to the British tongue. “Yes, just so. As I'm sure you are aware, there’s been an uprising in what was Pellinore’s kingdom, and some of his relatives are demanding that the golden king be handed over to them to stand trial for murder.”

Just like the Saxons, Arturia thought. Gilgamesh did not take pains to endear himself to people.

“Out of the question,” she replied. “Pellinore allied himself with a power hostile to the throne, and Gilgamesh was defending his king. He is a boon companion and a trusted friend. I will not give him over to insurgents and rebels.”

A boon companion, was that what he had been that night? She could see the firelight rippling over his muscles, feel the shock of pleasure as he slid into her.

“Then perhaps it is time for him to return to his own people.” Lancelot’s voice brought her back to reality. “Especially with the incoming Saxon invasion.”

Gilgamesh’s people were a thousand years gone, and the city he had lived in was dust. But this wasn’t something she could easily explain to Lancelot, and so she made a few vague promises.

When Lancelot had left, Arturia gave word to her attendants that she would be back shortly, and anyone with urgent business would simply have to wait. She walked swiftly to her destination, casting glances behind her in case anyone was following. She hesitated for a moment before knocking on the door.

A British servant opened it, and she was struck immediately by a sudden gust of warmth. Camelot, despite the best attempts of its residents, remained bitterly cold during the winter. Arturia, like most of the Britons, was used to it and had more or less accepted that she would be perpetually uncomfortable between the months of November and April. The sudden warmth felt like a revelation.

The noticed the scents next. God, a small fortune in incense must be floating through the air i. A nervous-looking servant was stirring the coals in a massive brazier, and incredible rugs and tapestries covered the stone floors.

Gilgamesh reclined langorously on a leopard skin draped over a crimson couch, sipping wine. He was naked to the waist, an unprecedented choice during a Camelot winter, but easily facilitated by the warmth of his chambers. Arturia felt her cheeks warm slightly and looked away.

Gilgamesh sat up at her arrival. “Arthur! I see you have finally come to enjoy a glass of Uruk’s finest wine.”

“What is all this?” She said.

He grinned. “These are only some of the contents of my Treasury. I have told you tales of my wealth, but now you at last have the privilege to see it. Come,” he said, gesturing to an empty spot on the couch next to him.

A couch. Wine. Unseasonable heat that made her want to pull off her thick, itchy wool garments. Why had she come here again? What had she hoped to accomplish?

He was looking at her again with those strange red eyes. The place between her legs throbbed with desire.

“I merely wanted to see how you were doing, but now that I see that you want for naught, I will leave you in peace.” She shut the door on his reply before her nerve could fail her.

Chapter Text

Gilgamesh was enjoying himself.

He had made his own little kingdom in his chambers, one that didn’t require any effort at all to rule. It was the least he deserved after his long miserable march through the British countryside, he reasoned. He spent his days lounging, drinking wine, eating, reading ancient texts from his Treasury, terrorizing the British servants, and playing chess with Bedivere (who was continually being summoned in order to distract Gilgamesh from his aforementioned habit of terrorizing the servants). It was glorious.

The one thing that bothered him, the one thorn in his side, was her absence. Arturia. He had sent for her repeatedly - that is, whenever he could find a servant who didn’t balk at being made to carry a summons for the king. She hadn’t answered any of them. He considered trying to fetch her himself, but then reconsidered. No, women were like cats: there was no point in trying to force them into anything. Better to let her come to him, as she had that night shortly after their return. And she would come, he was certain of it.

In the meantime, her child seemed to have taken a liking to him. The knight really did bear an uncanny resemblance to Arturia, though there was no world in which the king would have accepted his order to fan him with peacock feathers, all the while trying to sneak Damascus figs from the bowl at his side when she thought he wasn’t looking. Which was exactly what Mordred was doing at present. He decided to allow it for now.

She was trying to persuade him to go to some dull royal function. “Really, Gil, you don’t want to miss it. It’s the only thing that makes any of this winter business worth it. It’s not like Christmas with all those long boring masses. You get to drink and party and switch clothes. It’s the best of Camelot. Please say you’ll go.”

“Switch clothes…?”

Mordrd waved a hand, the one that wasn’t fanning him, dismissively. “Never mind about that. Just say you’ll go.”

“I still do not understand what this celebration is all about.”

“It’s called Epiphany. When Jesus - you remember him, he’s the guy who was a god and also killed himself to protect us all from God, yeah, I never really got it either – when he was a baby, these three mages brought him some-“

“Why would anyone ever accept a gift from a mage?” Gilgamesh thought of Merlin and frowned in disgust.

Mordred made an exasperated sound. “I don’t know, Gil, maybe mages were just different back then, let me finish. So the mages brought some gifts to the baby Jesus – gold, myrrh, and, uh…frankenfurter? No, that’s not right,” she scratched her head. “There was a third one, but I forget what it was.”

“It amazes me that you have somehow been entrusted with the war effort.”

“Hey, I’m plenty good at military strategy, I’m just not the best at remembering birthday crap some baby received five hundred years ago.

“I assume you are still speaking of this baby who is actually a god?”

“Well, yeah. THE God, technically, but like I said you won’t have to sit through some boring priest droning in Latin. Epiphany is about fun. Well, it's more Misrule - that's an older celebration, one we got from the Celts. They kind of mean the same thing though.” As if to punctuate her words, she snatched a fig from the bowl at his side and popped it in her mouth, then grimaced. “These things are weird, Gil,” she said reproachfully.

Gilgamesh ignored her antics and sipped his wine. “I dislike celebrations for the gods. They are dull and vapid,” he said. He thought again of Enkidu’s death, the goddess Ishtar reducing his friend to clay in order to prove some petty fight. Through his long life and afterlife, he’d found that most gods were little different from her.

“But aren’t you part god?” Mordred asked, furrowing her brow.

He snorted. “Yes, unfortunately.”

“Why is it unfortunate?”

He shifted. “Your little civilization has irrigation, I assume? So you are familiar with the process by which water follows the furrows in the ground? It is the same way with gods. They merely fit themselves into the expectations laid out for them. Their personal abilities or desires are meaningless. This is in contrast to humans, who would remake the entire landscape to suit themselves.”

He sipped his wine again. “My desires are never meaningless or beyond my reach. Therefore I would never accept being merely a god. Even the deities of heaven and earth tremble at humanity.”

A sly expression crept over Mordred’s face, and she said, “You, know, Father will be there tonight.”

Well, that did make the prospect of attending this strange event more appealing, but he wasn’t about to give her the satisfaction of winning him over. “How do you know this? I thought you and the king hadn’t spoken since she disinherited you.”

Mordred's shoulders drooped. “We haven’t, but I know she’ll go because it’s expected of the king. It’s only been a couple weeks, but Father has had a harder time than she bargained for taking the title of regent away from me – too many people still report to me. She and I end up in the same meetings, but we don’t…really say anything to each other.” She seemed quiet and almost thoughtful for a moment, then seemed to remember her greater purpose. “But, you’ll see her if you go tonight. Oh! And, you’re going to see a whole new side of Father.” Mordred wiggled her eyebrows again in that ridiculous gesture.

Gilgamesh considered the prospect. Arturia would end up in his bed again, he was certain of it. Still, time was passing, and he disliked waiting for the fulfillment of his desires. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to shift the odds in his favor.

_____

 

Arturia knelt before the cross in the empty church, trying to pray. It wasn’t the most popular way to spend the holiday (she could hear the carousing already beginning in the halls outside), but she had a duty to the divine just as she had a duty to her people.

She also hoped the silence and contemplation would bring her some peace. She remembered the stories that she’d been taught at the little church in the village where she'd grown up. After the Three Magi had left the barn where the baby Jesus lay, they were faced with a dilemma. They could keep the promise they had made to King Herod, that they would investigate certain mysterious claims of a new king, or they could shirk their duty to the murderous monarch and head back towards their distant homes. They had decided to do the latter, and the holiday was in no small part about this act of bravery in the face of tyranny.

But what makes a tyrant? She couldn’t help but see the parallels between her choice to launch the May Day ship with its fatal cargo and Herod’s choice to kill all of the male children in his kingdom. Would she be remembered as the villain in some future tale? She didn’t want to think about it.

She looked up at the twisted figure on the cross. She felt more of a rapport with St. Michael, the leader of the archangels, than she did with this frail man. Surely a fellow warrior could understand her and the choices she was required to make better than someone who had allowed the Romans to kill him. Something about the Christian god and his sacrifice frightened her - not because such an act of sacrifice was strange to her, but rather because it was all too familiar.

She thought of the vision she’d received from the tree of life during her journey through the underworld, of the Holy Grail filled with this god-man’s blood that had the power to grant any wish. The things that might be made possible by such a thing. The wishes that such an object could grant.

Let another rule Britain in my stead.

No. There was no use thinking about it. She stood and left the chapel.

_____

Arturia was about to head back to her chambers when she beheld an unusual sight. A stout knight flounced through the hallway in a yellow dress, followed by what must have been a few of his men-at-arms, arrayed in green gowns. He nodded solemnly at the king as he passed by, swishing his skirts.

She had almost forgotten. Epiphany also marked the feast of Misrule, in which men dressed like women and women like men. (the irony of this had never been lost on Arturia.) Polarities were flipped and rules blatantly flouted in order to buoy people’s spirits through the dark half of the year. She’d never been sure exactly why her people had decided to link it to the holiday of Epiphany, but the tradition of Misrule had been old when the founder of Christianity was swaddled in a manger, and no king or pope or priest had been able to stamp it out. Arturia certainly wasn’t going to; she already owed too much to the old gods. She thought of the Lady of the Lake, and a chill ran down her spine. It was not altogether unpleasant.

She decided to head to Guinevere’s chambers. She'd been rather surprised to hear that Guinevere had departed so abruptly, but the queen probably had her reasons for this startling choicea. Though she didn’t want to admit it, Arturia was relieved to be spared the experience of telling her wife about her indiscretion with Gilgamesh. The law made allowances for the desires of men, so Arturia would not face the same consequences for her indiscretion as a woman would, but she still dreaded the thought of telling anyone else about her impulsive indulgence.

Regardless, her wife surely wouldn’t mind if Arturia borrowed some of her clothes for the festival tonight.

The lady-in-waiting who opened the door looked surprised and a little frightened. “Your majesty,” she squeaked. “I didn’t expect you. The queen has already departed-“

“I know,” Arturia said. “But as I am her husband, I wish to borrow some clothing of hers for the ball tonight.”

The young woman nodded and ushered the king into the queen’s chambers. When Arturia had reached the closet, she turned around to ask a question of the girl, but the servant had vanished.

Odd. Usually noble ladies required several servants and ladies-in-waiting to help them properly fit into their heavy clothing. Still, Arturia would have had to dismiss her if she had not left of her own accord – Arturia could not afford anyone discovering the secret of her gender.

She ran her hands along the gowns. Linen, wool, even some in silk and brocade. In a different life, if she had been allowed to grow up as a noblewoman instead of a king, Arturia might have worn dresses like these as well.

Still, that was not her life, but Misrule offered the opportunity to see what it might have been like. She selected a midnight blue dress, and with some struggle (the assistance of a servant girl might have come in handy just then) she managed to fit herself into it.

Arturia looked down at herself, clad in unfamiliar fabrics. A complex mix of emotions ran through her. It was rather comfortable, she had to admit, but certainly impractical. It was nearly impossible to defend oneself against an attack when one was constantly tripping over one’s own skirts.

She turned, ready to be on her way, when her eyes fell upon the letter.

It sat in the middle of what must have been Guinevere’s writing table, propped up as though it had been waiting for her. Arthur, the text on the envelope said in Guinevere’s elegant handwriting.

Arturia froze. She could have just left it there. Or perhaps put it in a drawer, where it would have remained unread and lost in darkness. But that sort of thing, the easy way out, had never been her way.

Arturia walked over and picked up the envelope, trying to ignore the wave of foreboding that washed over her. Arturia opened it and read the contents once, quickly, and then again, as if to confirm the impossible.

After she had read it the second time, she took a candle holder from the table and hurled it against the wall.

_____

Her first reaction was rage. Not at the queen’s adultery, no, it was hard to blame Guinevere given Arturia’s many shortcomings as a husband. No, Arturia was furious at Guinevere’s lack of judgment.

After all they’d worked for, after all they’d both done over the years to ensure the survival of Britannia, to risk it all over a roll in the hay was unconscionable.

They’d never been lovers, and there’d been no possibility of them being ordinary spouses, but Arturia had hoped – believed– that they had at least been friends, partners in managing the affairs of the kingdom. Clearly none of that mattered for Guinevere to risk it all on something so stupid and pointless. God, Arturia thought bitterly, the worst part of it all is that if Guinevere had only waited until after my return, we could have passed the child off as mine and finally found a solution to the problem of succession.

But Guinevere hadn’t, and instead she’d incriminated herself in the worst way possible. Her giant belly would become a constant testament to her transgression in the eyes of the whole kingdom. She must have known the penalty for adulteresses who were stupid enough to get caught, even royal ones. Especially royal ones, because who needed to uphold the laws of the land more than its king, however awful that duty might be?

No wonder she had left, fled beyond Arturia’s reach, and gone to a place where she could give birth quietly. Hadn’t some part of Arturia expected this? Hadn’t this been one of the possible futures (or pasts?) that she had seen during her vision of the tree?

Guinevere, gone. Despair filled her suddenly, and she sank down to her knees. However odd the circumstances that had thrown Arturia and Guinevere together, however unorthodox their union, Guinevere had still been the closest thing to family that Arturia had left after Morgan’s death. And now she was gone.

At last, when the crushing wave of loneliness and grief and betrayal had faded, Arturia almost laughed. We’ve both made a mess of our marriage vows, she thought. Maybe Guinevere would have understood about Gilgamesh, maybe we could have found some way to make it all work. Maybe it could have brought us closer together. But more likely, she thought, it would have torn us apart completely.

Arturia wondered what would happen when Guinevere eventually returned from Britanny. Then again, with the impending Saxon invasion, perhaps there would be no Camelot for the queen to come back to.

Her thoughts turned again to that unseen third party, the reason for Guinevere’s pregnancy, and rage flared again. Guinevere’s letter did not specify her partner in the transgression of her marriage vows, but Arturia could guess. She’d seen the knight making cow eyes at the queen for a long time now. Combined with all of these strange changes in personality, and Arturia should have known sooner that something was amiss.

Arturia took care to confirm her suspicions. Over the next few hours, she interrogated the stableboys, the ladies-in-waiting, the palace guard, and slowly a consensus emerged – the one who had made plans for Guinevere’s sudden departure, the one with whom she’d had her last conversation, was none other than Sir Mordred.

Of course. All the evidence Arturia had was circumstantial – no one would admit to having seen the two in the act - but the thought of it still infuriated her. The knight had never exactly been known for impulse control or respect for authority, but this was truly beyond the pale. To interfere with the chastity of her father’s wife?! What abomination was this?! There was the small matter of Mordred’s true sex, but that was easily remedied by enchantments, spells, or other such things. After all, hadn’t Arturia been able to father her?

Arturia unclenched her fists. She was still wearing the (unfamiliar, but not unpleasant) midnight blue dress. She was expected at the festivities tonight. She’d insisted to her advisors that it was a frivolous waste, but given the Saxon threat, the people of Camelot needed whatever distractions they could get. She had a duty to fulfill.

Chapter Text

It was around the third time that one of the Pictish warriors nearly bowled over a member of the Birtish gentry in his enthusiasm that Mordred decided it was time to step in. Misrule celebrations weren’t exactly somber affairs by the standards of the Britons, but the Picts were accustomed to more boisterous events.

She cut short his merry reign of terror by stomping on his foot and then snatching the cup out of his hands. “Fucking hell, Drustan, what the fuck are you doing?” she caught a whiff of what was in the cup and winced. “Jesus, are you drinking this unwatered?!”

Drustan was beyond caring. Eyes glazed, he gesticulated broadly. “British honey-wine is pretty good. We like it.” His fellows-at-arms, part of Mordred’s wife’s small contingent of Pictish guards, cheered and raised their cups in agreement, then returned to their pastime of - apparently - throwing each other into tables. The British party-goers looked on with a mix of horror and curiosity.

“Knock it off,” Mordred hissed. “Or take the feats-of-strength stuff outside.”

Drustan turned back to her to fire off another reply, then caught a look what she was wearing. Through tears of laughter, he managed to ask, “What happened to your clothes?”

Mordred looked down at herself. She was wearing an old, voluminous dress with far too many frills in a faded shade of pink that fit her with all the snugness of a field tent. It was hideous, and that was the point. Mordred hated dressing like a woman, even for a festival that she otherwise looked forward to.

The rest of the men had joined their leader in laugher. “You look like a grandmother,” one of them said.

Mordred whirled and poked the burly Pictish warrior in the chest. He was over a head taller than her, but that didn’t intimidate her; she knew who’d win in a fight, and it wouldn’t be him. “Yeah, and I’ll beat your ass like your grandma used to if you don’t listen to me. Besides, it’s a tradition. It’s part of Misrule, and-”

“Sir Mordred,” a cold voice cut in.

Mordred turned, and her blood froze. Arturia. Shit, she hadn’t even heard the herald announce the king’s entrance.

Arturia was looking at her with icy contempt. Mordred didn’t think she’d done that badly in trying to corral the rambunctious Picts, but something about the expression on Arturia’s face stilled all the excuses that were on the tip of Mordred’s tongue.

“You have guard duty tonight on the eastern wall, Sir Mordred” Arturia said. They were the first words she had spoken directly to Mordred in weeks.

Mordred frowned, puzzled. “I requested tonight off months in advance.”

“The eastern wall, Mordred. I need not remind you that defying a direct order from the king is treason.”

“Sure, but asking why shouldn’t be,” the words left Mordred’s lips before she could stop herself.

The look on Arturia’s face deepened. “Go,” she hissed.

Mordred did. The band of drunk, rather subdued Picts followed her.

_____

Arturia did what was expected of her, presiding over the festivities from her throne, but internally she seethed. To encounter Mordred nearly as soon as she walked in – that traitor, that adulterer – was a stroke of bad luck. The knight’s indiscretions with Guinevere could have plunged the kingdom into chaos. Arturia considered briefly that she should rightfully feel regret at ordering Mordred to her post in spite of the festivities. She decided instead that it was the king’s prerogative to enjoy a holiday without having to share the space with such a traitor.

The food was served, and then the tables cleared for dancing. Musicians played and acrobats tumbled. Arturia wished she could be anywhere else.

Throughout the evening, the assembled nobility would leave gifts at Arturia’s feet, often accompanied by obsequious smiles or hints at their desire for future military aid. She accepted the gifts with clipped gratitude and put them to the side.

Suddenly, the glint of gold caught her eye. She watched in disbelief as the crowd parted like a sea, revealing Gilgamesh.

He was clad in a set of golden armor, his hair slicked back. There was little that one could see of his body, but Arturia knew well enough how it felt against hers. She hadn’t seen him since her abortive visit to his chambers shortly after their return.

He strode regally through the assembled Britons, who paused mid-conversation to stare at him. Arturia had not realized until now that he had become a figure of fascination for much of the court. Not only was he a foreign and wealthy ruler from a distant land, but he had also managed to ensure their own king’s survival and successful return from Saxon captivity. The fact that he had been involved in at least two murders only added to his air of romance and danger.

Everyone was looking at him, some with dislike, some with desire, and some with envy. Arturia mused that she would have to do something about that.

Gilgamesh, for his part, never took his gaze off of her.

“Arthur!” he said, stopping at the foot of her throne. “King of the Britons, it is I, King Gilgamesh of Uruk, who have graced with you my presence.” No bowing and scraping for him, but then again she had never expected that.

She began, “I greet yo-“

“In Uruk,” Gilgamesh interrupted her. He was well aware that the party had ground to a halt around him, and he seemed to be gratified by it. “The food that is being served at this feast would not even be fed to the dogs. This tragic event you call a celebration would pale before even the most minor holiday. The gifts seen fit for a king,” he nudged the pile of gifts at her feet with a foot, “would provoke outrage if offered to even a minor lordling.”

The silence in the hall was deafening. Arturia gaped at him. How dare he come here and insult them like this?! The mood of the crowd had shifted; she could almost feel the animosity.

Unperturbed, Gilgamesh continued. “I have beheld the things you call precious, and I tell you that they are sad, shallow imitations of true wealth. Fortunately, you have the blessing of my presence in your midst. Though I would have been far better served by staying in my own well-appointed chambers this evening, I have still come to show you the meaning of true generosity.

“First you, king,” he said. “I grace you with a treasure you have not seen for years, what you thought you had lost forever. Such is the wealth of my Treasury and the infinitude of my generosity that I return it to you now.”

A golden ripple appeared in the air, and Gilgamesh pulled what looked like a sword out of it, placing it on top of the pile of gifts. The assembled crowd cried out in awe at the sight.

“You will wish to thank me heartily for this gift. To convey your gratitude, I merely ask that you remember my request.” A slow, sly smile crossed his face.

Become my wife. Arturia felt her cheeks and chest grow hot; it was as if he had undressed her in front of everyone. He must have noticed, because his smile only grew.

She wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction. “I will look at your gift later,” she said curtly.

His smile faded slightly. Then he shrugged, as if to say suit yourself, and turned his attention to the crowd. “Britons! Do not think my generosity fails to extend to you as well. Though you are ignorant and unworthy of the nobility of your king, Arthur, still you are necessary for the proper functioning of his kingdom.”

His. Even when crashing her celebration with a ridiculous, insulting monologue, he didn’t forget to guard her secret.

He continued. “Since you are ignorant of all the offerings of the land, due to this terrible event called winter, I offer you a most precious gift. Though you will wish to thank me, I order you to refrain from heaping upon me your pretty trinkets or harassing me with your words of gratitude.”

A gesture, and a series of golden ripples hovered above the heads of the audience. Arturia gripped the edges of her throne, but it was not the sharp tips of spears and swords that flew out of the Gates. Instead, a series of round objects rained down upon them.

The assembled Britons picked the objects up, examining them. “These are oranges, and they are a prized crop of Uruk. Rejoice that you have received such a bounty from me. They are especially useful to prevent the onset of scurvy that will surely result from your poor diets. Peel the rind from them first, unless you truly have a taste for bitterness.

“Now,” he said, “I will drink my fill of your honey-wine, which is the only thing of passable quality at this celebration. Do not speak with me or otherwise waste my time.”

With that, he turned his back on Arturia and made his way through the crowd. The people parted for him, and then the room burst into a buzz of conversation.

Oranges. Arturia gestured to a servant, who brought her one of the strange fruits. She used a nail to peel the rind from the soft flesh – as her people were doing all around her - then dropped one of the segments in her mouth. A rush of sweet and tart filled her mouth, and her eyes widened. She had never tasted anything like this. Surely not in midwinter, when the land lay under a blanket of ice.

Not only was it delicious, but if Gilgamesh was right, the fruit could prevent the inevitable illness that set in around this time of year. When people had gone without fresh fruit for months, they were nearly always plagued by an illness that caused loosening of the teeth and terrible exhaustion. Even she had not be immune to it in past years.

Gilgamesh was truly infuriating – if only he was merely difficult and arrogant, he would be much easier to deal with.

Once she had eaten the orange, she rose from her throne and prepared to join the crowd. Her people were still casting glances at Gilgamesh and muttering amongst themselves. It would be wise to redirect their attention.

_____

She should have known that she would end up face-to-face with him.

She’d had a few cups of mead at that point, and she’d just finished an interminable conversation with a noble whose lands lay near the Saxon settlement. He’d been insistent on asking for her royal promise to protect his lands, and had been incensed when she said she could not give it. The situation required delicate handling, and she was relieved to finally break away after they had come to some semblance of an understanding.

Gilgamesh enjoyed his own bubble of silence. The crowd refused to come near him, though they did sneak nervous glances now and then. This seemed to suit him just fine, as he seemed perfectly content to drink his mead in silence and stare at her.

A rush of uncharacteristic boldness filled her, and she strode toward him. “You were remarkably rude, you know,” she told him.

He shrugged. “What do I care about the opinions of a bunch of mongrels? Besides,” he said as his gaze flicked downward, traveling over her body. She was suddenly conscious of the fact that she was still wearing a dress. “You are remarkably bold. If you are not careful, your people will know that their king is a beautiful woman.”

He had moved so that his mouth was nearly to her ear, but still she pulled back and glanced around her. The nearest person was several feet away.

“Fear not, I will not reveal your secret, whether or not you choose to accept my invitation. But I do not think that you can forget what passed between us any more than I can.” His eyes – that strange red – were locked on hers.

Something within her gave way. God, she wanted this, propriety be damned. Guinevere had done the same thing before she’d run off; Arturia barely had a wife anymore. No one else needed to know.

“West hallway. One hour from now.” She whispered, then turned away from him and disappeared back to the crowd.

_____

In retrospect, it was a near miracle that they made it back to his chambers.

He had never known how excruciating slow an hour’s passing could be, exacerbated by the presence of so many mongrels.

But at last, at last he heard her footsteps in the dark, empty hallway. In a flash, he had her up against a wall, his lips on hers and his hands in her clothes. She responded beautifully, kissing him back with ferocity and heat. His cock was almost painfully hard, and he cursed the weight of his armor.

Oh yes. He was looking forward to this.

In his chambers, they stripped each other hurriedly, her dress falling to the floor and his armor vanishing into his Gate. She made to push him onto the bed, but he stopped her. “Don’t think you’re the one driving this,” he growled. “Don’t think I will act like your mere plaything when you return to me after such a long absence."

He knelt between her legs, pushing them apart. He ran his fingers over the soft folds, feeling the wetness there.

“Oh this again,” she said, sitting up slightly. “You d-“

He didn’t say anything that time, simply laid a hand on her chest and pushed her back down.

He began to roll the bud of her clit with the thumb of one hand; with the other, he slid two fingers within the wetness of her pussy. Her inner walls gripped his fingers deliciously as she stifled a moan.

Gilgamesh took up a casual pace, thrusting his fingers into her, laughing as she squirmed and cried out in pleasure. “It’s rather enjoyable having you in the palm of my hand, little king.”

Her eyes narrowed to slits. “You-“ she began, before a well-aimed attack at her g-spot derailed that train of thought.

It didn’t take long after that. Gilgamesh smiled as he felt the rippling wave of contractions move across his fingers, lodged deep inside Arturia’s pussy. A flush spread over her face and chest, and her body arched as she reached her climax.
_____

When the golden light of her orgasm had dissipated, leaving her relaxed and warm in Gilgamesh’s embrace, she opened her eyes, and found herself looking directly into his. “Why did you wait until now to come to me?”

“I…” Possible responses flashed through her mind. I’ve been busy, you’re insufferable, I’m married, I’ve had better things to do. Instead, she decided to tell the truth. “I found a letter. From Guinevere. “

She paused for a moment, then told him everything. The infidelity, and the pregnancy, and all the ways it shredded her soul. And lastly, she told him about her suspicions regarding the other party to Guinevere’s infidelity.

Gilgamesh snorted. “The woman is pregnant, is she not? Mordred lacks the anatomy necessary to create a child in such a way.”

Arturia frowned. “I know that, but there are spells and that sort of thing. I was able to father her, wasn’t I?”

“Merlin has not been on hand to hand out phalluses. Otherwise I would have found him.”

Arturia frowned. Could she have been mistaken about Mordred’s involvement with Guinevere?

Gilgamesh continued. “It’s obvious that the mongrel is besotted with that woman, but she had no part in this latest incident. You should keep a closer watch over that dark-haired knight.”

It took Arturia a moment to realize who he was talking about. “Lancelot? Are you talking about Lancelot?”

“You have too many knights, I don’t bother to remember their names.”

Arturis was thoughtful. Lancelot. That explained a lot. Well, uncomfortable as it was, Guinevere could have chosen worse. Best to never speak of it again. If Camelot could survive the spring, then she would discuss the matter with Guinevere and Lancelot both. First, though, they had to deal with the Saxon menace.

No point in thinking about that tonight, though. Besides, her orgasm had left her feeling suffused by a truly divine glow. She curled comfortably next to Gilgamesh.

“You will stay the night?” Gilgamesh said, his voice containing only the hint of a question.

“Yes,” Arturia said, half-shocked at her own daring. “I’ll figure out some sort of cover story for the guards. Or maybe I won’t – after all it’s a king’s right to sleep anywhere she pleases.”

Nearly asleep already, she did not notice Gilgamesh’s look of approval.

______

In his dream, Gilgamesh was with Enkidu again.

They were on the hill again, overlooking the city. Sunlight sparked on the Tigris and Euphrates, and the tiny ships that skimmed its surface looked like a child’s toys.

“I never did understand the appeal that cities held for you. They’re so loud and smelly and full of people,” Enkidu said. His hair was a shade of green just a shade lighter than the grass all around them. Gilgamesh reached out to stroke the long locks, and Enkidu leaned against him affectionately. The weight of his friend’s body was familiar and comforting.

“That was quite a few months you had,” Enkidu said.

“That’s an understatement.”

“I did try to warn you.”

“You did,” Gilgamesh acknowledged.

A lesser being might have pushed the point, but instead Enkidu asked, “Now that you’ve had her, will you leave? Will you return to the Throne and be with me?”

Gilgamesh did not hesitate. “No. Not yet.”

“Are you thinking of what that lake goddess said? About the great powers fighting over her?”

Gilgamesh said nothing. His silence was response enough.

Enkidu looked almost pouty. Gilgamesh turned to his friend and pressed his forehead against Enkidu’s. “Don’t act as though we do not have eternity,” Gilgamesh said, voice harsh with emotion. “From now until the limits of eternity, you are the friend of my soul.”

Enkidu sighed, and nodded. “I know. I’ll be waiting for you when you return.”

The next day, Arturia was sifting through the gifts she’d received during Misrule, trying to brush the sleep from her eyes. She’d crept out of Gilgamesh’s chambers before the sun had risen in order to dodge any prying eyes, but the lack of sleep was catching up with her.

Gilgamesh’s gift. She lifted the sword, and something about it looked oddly family. She unsheathed it, and then nearly dropped the weapon in shock. She held in her hand the sword Caliburn – if not the enchanted sword itself, then a near-perfect copy of it. Caliburn, the sword she’d pulled from the stone, the one that had made her king, the one that she had lost forever.

Chapter Text

Mordred waited near the gate for the shipment of iron, waving now and then at the merchants and farmers who passed by. Iron was even more essential than crops or livestock: Camelot needed all of the stuff it could get to prepare for the Saxon invasion. Swords and weapons weren’t going to forge themselves.

Father had asked her to be the one to receive the shipment. Father, actually trusting Mordred with such a duty! Mordred wouldn’t have believed such a thing was possible even a few weeks ago. Mordred had watched Arturia closely in the weeks after Misrule, waiting for the return of the old anger she’d witnessed at the celebration, but it never came. To her astonishment, Father had actually started speaking to her again. Only a bit during meetings, but at least they weren’t both stuck pretending the other one didn’t exist anymore.

Arturia had seemed different lately, lighter somehow. Given how pleased Gilgamesh had been looking with himself, Mordred could guess why that might be. Well, if getting laid regularly ensured that Father was happier and nicer, that was to everyone’s benefit.

Mordred stomped her feet to warm herself and pulled her mantle tighter. This damn iron merchant really was taking his time.

Then she caught sight of something that drove every thought of the merchant or Father or Gilgamesh out of her mind. Something that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. She stared at it as the constant stream of people and horses passed around her through the gate.

The icicles. They were clustered along the edges of the roof like fangs in the mouth of some monster. Yet every few seconds a series of droplets fell from them, an off-tempo melody, onto the half-frozen mud below.

Spring was coming. And so was the Saxon army.

_____

The first reports of the Saxon army on the move came a few weeks later.

They lost communication with the southernmost garrison, along with the small town near it. Couriers sent to investigate the issue reported widespread destruction, and an army so vast that it cut a swath through the landscape. The garrison and the towns that had surrounded it were nothing more than burned-out husks. The Saxons left no survivors.

It was happening earlier than expected. Arturia read over the reports, trying to comprehend the scale of the threat they faced. The country hadn’t seen a military force like this since the Roman conquest. This wasn’t another cattle raid or a border skirmish. The Saxons wanted nothing less than complete control of the isle of Britannia.

Briefly, Arturia wondered what had happened to the little family who had sheltered her and Gilgamesh following their escape from the Saxons. She had not forgotten their kindness, but she had planned to wait until after spring to repay her debt to them. It seemed that there was no chance for that now.

There was no use dwelling on it. She had to ensure that Camelot was prepared for war. Provisions had to be stoked up, walls reinforced, weapons made. Pellinore’s kingdom was still in open rebellion against the crown. Refugees from outlying farms and undefended villages had begun to flood into the city, and space needed to be found for them within the increasingly cramped quarters of the city and the castle.

She had a long day ahead of her. She touched Caliburn, buckled in Avalon at her waist, and thought of the one who had given it to her. At least she had something to look forward to at the end of it.

_____

“Given the trajectory of the Saxon army,” Mordred traced a path along the map, “It looks like they’re going to hit Londinium next. We’ve gotta send some troops and supplies there.” Everyone on the council was staring at her. Shit, sometimes it was hard to forget that she was no longer the heir apparent or the chief decision-maker. “That’s what I recommend, anyway,” she finished awkwardly.

Arturia looked at her disapprovingly. “That’s precisely what the Saxon army would want us to do. Scatter our forces, divide our army, and send half of it out of the safety of Camelot. Londinium is a heavily fortified city. They won’t yield easily.”

Lancelot nodded. “We can provide a safe haven for the refugees who come here, but we cannot afford to provide them with military support.”

Mordred shot him a glace. You fucking suck-up, she thought, though fortunately she managed to hold her tongue. Instead, she addressed Arthur. “We don’t want a repeat of what happened with the southern garrison. We can’t let more British settlements fall. There’ll be nothing left when we drive the Saxons off.”

“We won’t be able to drive the Saxons off with half of an army,” Arturia replied.

“So we’re just going to abandon Londinium?” Mordred shot back. “We’re not going to send them any support at all?”

That caused murmuring amongst the war council. Most of the knights and assembled nobles had ties of some kind to the city of Londinium, and they didn’t relish the idea of them falling into Saxon hands.

Arturia raised her voice above the din. “Londinium is a trading town. It’s not their main target - Camelot is. Londinium may be in their path, but there’s no indication that they intend to spend the time or resources necessary to take the city. We might be dividing our forces for no reason at all. Besides, they have their own militias that should be able to fend off the Saxons.”

Bedivere’s gentle voice rose above the din. “Your majesty, if I may, it would be prudent to assist Londinium in protecting itself. Perhaps we could find some way to offer military support that wouldn’t compromise our own defenses.”

Arturia shot him a sharp glance. “We do not have the numbers to meet the Saxons in the field. Better to wait for the Saxons to come to us - we have enough supplies to hold out here for a very long time in the likely event of a siege, but not if we leave the safety of Camelot’s walls.” As an apparent concession, she added after a moment, “I will send word that Camelot welcomes anyone fleeing from the Saxon army.”

Mordred’s blood was up now. “And where are we going to put the refugees, Arthur? We’ve already got nearly every room full up in the castle and it’s not much better in the city down below. There’s not enough room in Camelot for all the people of Britannia or even just Londonium. And,” she continued, “If we just let the Saxons burn all the villages and torch all the fields, what are we going to do next year with no crops? We’ve got to make a stand before the Saxons get all the way to Camelot.”

Arturia glared at her. The tiny bit of goodwill that had sprung up between her and Mordred dissipated. “Prudent supply management will allow us to get by with a scanty harvest for a year or two. You should know this.”

There was no point to it. Mordred stood, and before all the watching eyes of the war council, left the room.

_____

In the end, the Saxon army didn’t touch Londinium, which had prepared as best it could for the invasion. Instead, the Saxons systematically exterminated the smaller, undefended towns around the city. It was said that this time they mounted the heads of their victims on pikes for the glory of their dark and terrible gods.
_____

Arturia was thinking about weapons.

Even with the forges burning day and night, even with the recent shipments of iron, would there be enough? They would probably have sufficient swords, but arrows were another matter. Archers would be essential for holding the Saxon army at bay, but arrows were one-use weapons; it would be impossible to retrieve them in the din of battle, and-

“What vexes you?” Gilgamesh’s voice interrupted her train of thought. He had rolled over to look at her, his head propped on one hand. They were laying in bed, the glow of sex still suffusing their bodies.

“Weapons,” she said honestly. “I don’t know if we have enough.”

“You do realize, do you not, that I am in possession of a nearly limitless arsenal? All of the weapons of the heroes of history are mine.” She thought again of Caliburn – or rather, the sword that was a perfect copy of Caliburn, lacking all of the nicks and scratches that the true Caliburn had picked up over years on the battlefield.

“I wouldn’t ask such a thing of you,” she said, taken aback.

“I have not forgotten the disrespect of those Saxons. Nothing would please me more than to see all of those filthy barbarians slain. Besides,” he added, “I would happily part with a few of my lesser treasures to preserve the greater.”

It took Arturia a moment to realize what he meant, but when she did her cheeks turned a deep crimson. “Th-thank you,” she said, unsure of what else to say. “We certainly need all the weapons we can, and as for troops-”

“This city is teeming with refugees, is it not? Enlist them into the war effort. Every able-bodied adult male must train to defend the city.”

She thought about that for a moment. It wasn’t a bad idea. “What about the women?”

He stretched out on his back, folding his arms under his head. “They are welcome to fight too, if they are willing. Men fight better when they are protecting women, whether they are at their sides or cloistered within a castle.” He glanced at her, eyes half-lidded. “Don’t look surprised. I know these things. More than once I had to fortify Uruk against invading forces.”

Arturia thought about the idea for a moment. It could work. Most of the refugees who had arrived in Camelot had lost everything when they escaped the Saxon army; they’d want revenge.

“But most of them won’t have any combat experience,” she pointed out. “They’re farmers, not soldiers.”

“Human beings can learn,” Gilgamesh said. “Especially when their other option is to die.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Arturia said, though she knew as well as he did that none of them would be left alive if the Saxons were victorious. “It would be volunteer enlistment only.”

But who could she spare from the war effort? A few of her knights, perhaps, but…

A idea occurred to her.. “Gilgamesh,” she said. “What if you train them? Not all of them, just a small group.”

He shot her a glance. “In other words, you are asking me to turn a mass of weak, pathetic mongrels into a skilled fighting force?” He closed his eyes. “I would love to.”
_____

It was really all quite entertaining, Gilgamesh thought. Most of his charges – British refugees - were scrawny, pathetic things; they had probably lost everything they had to the Saxon horde. But their eyes blazed with determination and hatred, and that was good. They’d do well enough against the Saxons if they retained that anger.

He taught them to create a defensive phalanx, and shot arrows at them from his Gate to test it. He made them run laps until their legs gave out. He made them spar with each other until blisters formed and broke on their hands and their bones vibrated with the impact of parrying thrusts and blows.

Fewer of them stood in the courtyard the next day, but those who did were grim-faced and determined. By the third day, those who remained had begun to rise to the challenge. They ran more surely now, deflected blows more cleanly. They seemed to know that Gilgamesh would beat them within an inch of their lives, but if they truly learned what he had to teach them, they might survive the coming battle.

He refused to bother remembering their names (most of them would probably die anyway), but a few began to stand out to him. A woman of middle years possessed of remarkable strength. A young man who held the buckling phalanx together with shouted encouragement. It occurred to him that they really weren’t much different from the people who had been his subjects back in Uruk. He supposed that all people had their similarities – the serious ones, the jokers, the helpful ones.

“They’ve started referring to themselves with a nickname,” Bedivere said, on one of the days he joined Gilgamesh in the courtyard to supervise the training of the new recruits. “They call themselves the Golden King’s Army.”

Gilgamesh smiled at that.

Bedivere continued. “There have been reports of a few serious injuries. Arrow wounds, broken bones, and the like. You might go easier on them.”

“The Saxons won’t,” Gilgamesh replied, and even Bedivere couldn’t argue with that.
_____

One of the lesser kings under Arturia’s command defied her orders and rode with his knights against the Saxon army. A few days later, scouts from Camelot found ravens picking at his bones amidst the wreckage of his small army.

More men she couldn’t afford to lose. Arturia gripped the report that described the massacre until her knuckles turned white. Even with the new recruits, she didn’t have enough troops.

Mordred (looking unduly pleased with herself, Arturia thought) called in her alliance with the Picts. Within a week, nearly a thousand Pictish soldiers had arrived at Camelot. It was difficult finding quarters for them within the city, its walls crammed nearly to bursting, but somehow she did.

With the addition of Picts, the troops of Camelot numbered around three thousand. It was difficult to judge the size of the Saxon army, but most estimates suggested that it was nearly six thousand strong.

Arturia laid down the letter and gazed out at the clear blue sky. She wondered if any of them would live to see spring.
_____

The air had begun to warm and flowers began to sprout from the ground. News arrived that the Saxon army was only a few days’ ride away.

The war council had convened again. Following the ill-fated stand against the Saxon army, Arturia had instituted a ban on travel into and out of Camelot. Mordred challenged it immediately.

“We need to send out a scouting party,” Mordred said. “We need to figure out how big this army really is.”

Arturia frowned. “And risk our best riders getting captured and interrogated? No. We don’t need precise numbers. We have vague estimates from the scouts that will suffice.”

Mordred narrowed her eyes. “We need to survey the army, we need to figure out its features and its weaknesses and any other information we can possibly get.”

“We have enough information.”

“Do we know how many cavalry they have, how many foot soldiers? What about the organization of their supply chain? We don’t know what we’re facing,” Mordred added, “I’m not even talking about sending out a large number of troops. A small scouting party.”

“We cannot risk someone with knowledge of Camelot’s inner workings being captured by the Saxons.”

“What if it was just one person?” Mordred rose, “Your Majesty, I exercise my right as Knight of the Round Table and challenge your authority. I’m volunteering for this quest.”

There was a slight intake of breath around the table. To go on alone on a mission like this was near suicidal.

Tension crackled in the air between Mordred and Arturia. As last, Arturia said, “The knowledge of Camelot that you carry cannot fall into enemy hands. Lest you be captured and interrogated, remember your duty.”

Both of them knew what that meant: Mordred couldn’t allow herself to be taken alive. Other things, unsaid, hung in the air between them.
_____

Arturia had grown used to the gust of hot, sweetly spiced air that wafteud from Gilgamesh’s room whenever she opened the door, but she was taken aback by the person she saw there. Bedivere’s presence in the king’s chambers shouldn’t have surprised her; he was one of the few people, other than Arturia or her rebellious child, whose presence the golden king could stand. Still, something about the scene – Gilgamesh and Bedivere seated across from each other, in the midst of a game of chess - unsettled Arturia.

Bedivere struggled to rise to his feet in greeting. “At ease, Bedivere,” she replied. She hadn’t expected to need to act like a king here.

Bedivere looked at Gilgamesh, and as if on cue, the golden king yawned and stretched as languorously as a cat, saying, “I desire fresh air. Look after my possessions until I return.” To Arturia’s astonishment, he strode past her and left the room, leaving her alone with Bedivere.

An uneasy silence followed. Bedivere, unruffled, surveyed the figures on the chess board. At last, Arturia said, “I assume you have something to say to me.”

“I do,” he acknowledged. “I had a feeling you would be paying a visit to his foreign highness, and I also had a feeling that I would have never gained your ear if I had sought your audience through more public measures. But I believe that what I have to say is of great importance.”

“Then say it,” Arturia replied dryly.

“A long time ago, a child was born from deceit and darkness. That child never knew his father, and instead pushed himself to great deeds to earn a love that was never freely given.”

Arturia stiffened. She had her suspicions about why Bedivere had come here, but she hadn’t expected this personal attack. “Sir Bedivere, to speak thusly about the king –“

“I wasn’t talking about you,” his sea-blue eyes met hers serenely. “I was talking about Sir Mordred.”

He paused for a beat, giving her a moment to think about that, before he continued. “I have come to understand that you and the knight share a family connection, though I don’t quite know the nature of it. After all, you did name him heir, even for a rather brief time, and that is a form of acknowledgement not so easily forgotten.

“I have also noticed that you seem inclined toward harshness with regard to Sir Mordred, despite the fact that he has consistently governed well, though admittedly sometimes a bit impulsively. But consider this: he forged an alliance with one of our oldest enemies, carried the kingdom during a time when we did not know whether you were living or dead, and has always served as a voice for the best interests of the people. A rather impressive set of accomplishments, I must say.”

“Mordred is foolish and rash,” Arturia said harshly.

Bedivere didn’t respond to that. Instead, he reached out a hand to his cane, twirling it against the floor absentmindedly. “I was always a mediocre knight. After the…incident with the Saxons, I am no longer even that. It is a struggle to walk, let alone to lift a sword or shield. And yet you have not dismissed me from your service.”

Arturia softened. “Bedivere, regardless of your ability to bear arms, you are a valued counselor and a dear friend.”

“Thank you, my king. Your esteem is precious to me. I am grateful that I can still do something to serve the kingdom.” Only Bedivere could say such a thing and actually make it sound sincere. “You said you value my counsel. Listen when I tell you this: if there is a place for a broken, useless knight like me in your regard, there should be space for someone as promising as Mordred as well.”

Arturia stared at Bedivere. He returned her gaze serenely.

At last, Arturia found her voice again. “Are you saying I should go after Mordred?”

“I am saying you should do whatever you must to ensure that Mordred returns safe. Not only because he is essential to the war effort, but because I think some part of you will never be the same if he perishes on this mission.”

The words felt like a slap. Bedivere didn’t know all the details – he couldn’t – but he knew enough to confront her with gentleness and penetrating insight that cut to the bone. Mordred, born from deceit and darkness, raised by Morgan of all people (gods above and below, the idea of that witch having dominion over a child almost didn’t bear thinking about). Had Arturia abandoned Mordred just as her own father Uther had abandoned her? Where would it end, if they did not make an end to it?

Mordred. Mordred, who looked so much like her, whose past resembled hers so closely as well. Mordred, who – not Morgan – was Arturia’s last surviving blood relative. How had she not seen it? It had all been in front of her all along.

Arturia had never known her parents, but perhaps she could come to know her child.

She looked up just in time to meet Gilgamesh’s gaze. He had entered the room again at some point during her conversation with Bedivere, and his eyes held a question. Ever so slightly, she nodded.

Chapter Text

Mordred rode through the gates of Camelot, a solitary figure mounted on her gray horse Macha. She rode away from the bitterness, the words unsaid, the endless clash between Father’s will and hers.

The roads were empty. It was a strange sight. Never in all her life had she seen them like this – normally they were filled with travelers going to and fro. Not now, though, with the Saxon army so close. Most people seemed to respect Father’s ban on travel.

Around her, the countryside was starting to emerge from winter. There were green buds everywhere, and the barrenness of the empty trees was beginning to soften. It would probably still be cold at night, and Mordred was glad she had thought to bring a bedroll. The Saxon army was no more than two days away, but it was still better to be comfortable.

Mordred wondered briefly if she should have bid her wife good bye (wasn’t that what a good husband was supposed to do?) but instead she realized she was relieved to be riding away from the silent dark bundle in her shared bed.

She let her thoughts drift, become as empty as the roads. There wasn’t all that much to think about, really. Either she’d succeed in this mission or she’d be dead and beyond worrying about the consequences. Still, it seemed like a waste to have been granted a second chance with Father and have nothing at all come of it….

Mordred slept that night alone under the stars in the utter quiet, Macha munching happily on some newly-sprouted grass near her. It was cold, but Mordred barely noticed the weather. Sometimes when the wind was right, she could hear the sound of a vast encampment in the distance.

_____

Mordred found the army around dusk the next day.

She let Macha wander off when she identified their trail. It would be easier to remain undetected if she traveled by foot. The horse would make her way back to the last warm stable she’d known – Camelot. There was no need to get another creature, human or animal, mixed up in this mission that Mordred had undertaken.

The trail was easy enough to follow, with all the broken branches and felled trees. The army wasn’t concerned with hiding its trail – its leaders rightly realized that most people would be running from them, not towards them.

Eventually Mordred realized that she could see movement through the trees. She found their camp. Now the trick was to maintain undetected. Fortunately, there were two things Mordred knew better than anyone else in the world: how to woo a woman and how to travel through a forest as soundless as a cat.

She took advantage of the growing darkness to survey the perimeter of the camp, carefully evading the watchful gaze of the sentries posted around it.

It was enormous. The red sparks of light extending through the forest as far as she could see – those must be campfires. The reports they’d received and pored over during the war councils did no justice to its true size. She could hear half a dozen languages being spoken – British and Saxon, but also Angle, Jute, Frankish, and Frisian. The Saxons had indeed been recruiting assistance from their allies on the continent; they’d probably been promised British land for their support. If they conquered the Britons, there would be more than enough treasure to go around. If they didn’t, the Saxons would have a number of irate allies. They must be desperate to win.

Mordred noticed a few large wooden structures in the last rays of the setting sun, so tall that their tops were nearly lost amid the canopy. What the hell were those? Traveling storehouses? Were the Saxons planning on building their own city?

She had to get back to Camelot. She had to let her people know what they were up against.

“Hey, who are you?”

Mordred’s head whipped around. The voice belonged to the tallest of the three men who were all looking at her with hostility and suspicion. They might have come back from a latrine break, or perhaps from some dicing game they’d sought to play apart from the rest of the camp. Either way, they didn’t look thrilled to see an interloper crouching among the ferns and peering at the camp.

Still, Mordred was nothing if not resourceful. Nothing about her appearance, from her boiled-leather armor to the short sword at her belt, looked particularly British. She could easily pose as some Frisian or Jute, shake them off with a few grunts and head toward the camp, veering away at the last moment when she’d lost their attention. If she had encountered nearly anyone else from this vast camp, this plan would have worked.

Suddenly, the man’s eyes widened in recognition. “Sir Mordred?”

Mordred realized, belatedly, why she could understand what he was saying: he was speaking British. She even recognized the fellow, albeit vaguely – he was one of Pellinore’s men (well, Pellinore’s former men) and she’d kicked his ass quite soundly during a tournament a few years ago.

Damn. She knew Pellinore’s people weren’t happy about their king’s untimely end, but she hadn’t thought they’d make common cause with the Saxons. She wished she’d been able to find out in a different way.

The tall man lunged forward. In a flash, Mordred pulled the dagger from its sheath at her forearm and slit his throat.

She didn’t wait to see him fall. She ran, as hard and fast as she could, into the growing darkness of the forest.

She heard the crash of a pursuer following her through the underbrush. Only one set of footsteps, it sounded like – perhaps the second of the three man had sought assistance for his wounded friend, or was even now alerting the Saxon army to the presence of a spy in their midst. Well, Mordred thought as she vaulted onto a falling log, they could try –

Suddenly the rotten wood collapsed underneath her foot, spilling her to the ground. White-hot pain shot through her ankle and she gritted her teeth on a scream.

The man was above her, his sword glinting in the moonlight.

I’m going to die here, Mordred thought, almost dreamily. There is where I will die, just like I died on the hill of Camlann before. I just wish that Father and I -

There was a sudden flurry of hooves and a flash of blue and silver. The man gave a scream of pain, and then there was someone on horseback reaching down to Mordred.

Arturia.

At first, Mordred assumed she must be hallucinating. Didn’t old folks always say that your life flashed before your eyes right before you died? It occurred to her that perhaps Arturia had come to kill her after all, to claim her death from this stranger, to make Camlann a reality.

There was no time to question it. Mordred took the outstretched hand, hauling herself up on her good ankle. In a second, she had joined Arturia on the back of the horse.

Mordred held fast as the branches whipped by her head. She tightened her knees around the horse’s back and wrapped her arms around her Father’s midsection. It occurred to her that this was the closest she had ever been to Father, and despite the burning agony in her twisted ankle and the threat of the Saxon army at their backs, Mordred savored it.

Father had never acknowledged her – save for that strange choice to make her heir – let alone treated her like an ordinary child. Mordred had grown rapidly, probably as a result of the magical experiments Morgan had conducted on her. She’d never been a cherished, coddled child sitting on her Father’s lap. It was too late for all of that.

Mordred thought of the concern on Father’s features as she reached out her hand, every inch the noble king. It was as if she had been summoned by Mordred’s last thought. For some reason, the idea filled Mordred with rage.

When the horse slowed and stopped, Mordred flung herself off the horse and away from Arturia. In a low voice, she snarled, “WHY ARE YOU HERE?”

It was too dark in the forest to see the look on Arturia’s face, but her voice was perplexed. “I thought you might need assistance. I-”

“Yeah, rescuing stupid Mordred when she gets in over her head again, huh.” Mordred paced, agitated, ignoring the blinding pain in her ankle. “I’m not another stick propping up your façade of being a perfect king. You should have just left me to die.”

Arturia was silent, her spine stiff and straight. After a moment, she said, “You must speak more quietly, lest you attract the Saxons again.”

“NO.” The horse whickered and shifted uncomfortably at the anger in Mordred’s tone. “Why did you come for me now?”

“I spoke with Bedivere-“

“Oh great, Bedi, everyone’s fuckin’ collective conscience. Of course he’d talk you into this idiot mission.” Mordred continued to pace in her halting, injured gait, favoring her wounded ankle.

“He didn’t have to talk me into anything.”

“What the fuck’s that supposed to mean?”

Arturia sighed. “You’re not making this easy.”

“Yeah? WHAT am I not making easy, Father?”

Arturia had no immediate answer. “You don’t get to ride in on your white horse after all this time and have everything just be okay. After all those years you just left me with her, you don’t get to just decide to be a father now.”

Something seemed to occur to Arturia. “Are you…are you talking about Morgan?”

Mordred hoped her silence was answer enough. She didn’t trust herself to speak.

There was a strange note – humility, regret, something else? - in Arturia’s voice as she answered. “I don’t…I don’t imagine it was easy being her child.”

“No,” Mordred said harshly. “It wasn’t.”

There was silence for a moment. Then a dam broke inside of Mordred, and she slumped to the ground and began to weep.

Mordred wasn’t actually sure when the last time she’d cried was. Had it been the time Morgan had broken her arm during one of their “training sessions”? She could still remember Mother’s cold eyes and the twig-like snap of bone; sometimes her arm still ached before it rained. Surely she hadn’t wept through all the long months of being regent at Camelot, nor before that during her brief weird sojourn in the modern world with Gilgamesh. Perhaps it had been at Camlann, then.

Well, she was weeping now, and there was no controlling it. Internally, she was disgusted at herself – crying was weakness, not suitable for a knight – but she was weeping in the ugly way that leaves one gasping for breath. A lifetime of tears.

To her shock, she felt arms around her. She tensed, ready to defend herself, but the touch had no malice in it. She looked up to see Arturia’s face, visible in the dim moonlight that filtered down through the trees. The king looked somewhat horrified, but genuinely concerned as well. It was an uncomfortable mix.

She began to pat Mordred’s shoulder lightly, awkwardly, and Mordred’s tears turned into half-hysterical laughter. “You’re terrible at being comforting, you know,” Mordred said as she wiped the snot and tears from her face.

“I suppose I never really had a chance to learn,” Arturia replied, looking at her hand as though it was a foreign object.

“You should keep doing it, though,” Mordred replied, taking Arturia’s hand and placing it on her shoulder.

Mordred heard a small sound in the darkness that might, just might, have been a slight chuckle. Father began to pat her shoulder again, in an irregular, awkward tempo. Mordred closed her eyes, tears still leaking from them, drinking in the sensation.

Eventually, Mordred’s thoughts turned to something else. Father and Morgan had been half-siblings, something Mordred hadn’t allowed herself to think about too much. She said, “I don’t…I don’t imagine the process of…making me with Mother…was entirely consensual.”

The hand froze for a moment before it resumed its pace. “No,” Arturia said, something haunted in her voice. “It wasn’t.”

Mordred thought about that for a moment. “Must be kinda hard to see the product of that running around Camelot.”

“It was. But I didn’t always know who you were. I didn’t even know you existed for a long time.”

“How did you find out?”

“Morgan told me. Right before she demanded I make you heir in exchange for returning Gilgamesh’s Gate. It was the first time I’d seen her in the decade since…your conception.”

Mordred shook her head. “Well, fuck. Bad way to find out you have a kid, but that’s Morgan for you.”

The next words Arturia said seemed faltering but certain, as though it was something she’d known to be true for a long time but had never consciously acknowledged. “If I’d known that you existed…if I’d known that there was a child, I would have stopped at nothing to get you away from her. That I promise you.”

Mordred was glad she had no tears left. “Thanks, Dad,” she said.

Arturia shook her head. “That is going take some getting used to.”

Another thought occurred to Mordred. “I need to know something. Why did you order the deaths of every infant in the region where I was born?” What she did not say was Why did you try to kill me when I was still an infant?

Arturia sighed. “There was a prophecy. One of the children born in that area, at that time, would end my reign and destroy everything I’d worked for. I wasn’t trying to kill you. As I said, I never knew who you really were until Morgan told me. Maybe I should have known, but I didn’t.”

Mordred thought of Camlann. Father’s lance piercing her belly as her sword cut through Father’s flesh. Had the prophecy really been so far off?

Arturia continued. “I…I’m sorry. The way I’ve treated you is unbefitting of any father, let alone a king.”

“Well hey, uh, thanks.” Mordred said awkwardly. “I guess I’d do the same thing if I heard a prophecy like that.”

“It was from Merlin.” Arturia sighed. “I really thought I could trust him. He’d served me so well for years.”

“Yeah, well, sometimes people surprise you.” Mordred replied.

Arturia smiled, looking at her. “That they do.”

“Are you finished?” A strange voice said as a golden-haired form strode out of the darkness. “We are still far too close to that barbarian army, and both of you are rather loud.”

Mordred looked up in shock. “Gilgamesh?! What the hell are you doing here?”

He snorted. “Did you truly think I would let her go alone into this lion’s den, mongrel? Now, if you are finished with your reunion, let us return to Camelot.”

Chapter Text

Over the next few days, a tentative peace developed between Arturia and Mordred. They could be seen talking in the hallways, their heads bent close together. There was something breathless and fumbling about the way they acted around each other, as though neither of them could quite believe the turn things had taken but both of them were infinitely grateful for it.

This delicate peace provided a pleasant distraction from the looming threat. The Saxon army remained camped just within the boundaries of the forest, though the watchmen on Camelot’s walls reported seeing movement within the trees. According to Mordred’s reports about the army’s size, the Britons were outnumbered at least three to one.

“Think we’re ready?” Mordred asked one evening while they were both poring over inventories of supplies.

“As ready as we’ll ever be,” Arturia replied.

_____

A lone rider made his way across the expanse between the forest and the castle. If there had been any others with him, the archers assembled along the would have launched the arrows held taut in their bows.

The man stopped when he was near the gates of the castle. “Hail! I come as a messenger from King Hengist of the Saxons.”

“Oh he’s a king now, is he,” Arturia muttered irritably. Mordred chuckled at that. Lancelot’s eyes were trained on the messenger, and Bedivere tapped his cane with uncharacteristic impatience.

Arturia replied, “Arthur, King of all Britannia, greets you. Say what you have come to say.”

The rider sat back on his milling horse. “Your own King Vortigern promised land to our people. We have come back to take what is ours. Why do you renege on his promise?”

That caused an outburst of angry muttering among the Britons on the wall. Arturia’s voice cut through them as she said: “Vortigern was a usurper, and his promises are not mine to keep.”

She saw the figure shake his head. “A promise is a promise. Here are our terms: you will yield the high kingship to King Hengist and go into exile. All British lords will swear fealty to him, and as a token of their submission they will offer up one fifth of their people as war tribute. Last but not least, we demand the head of the foreign king who took the life of King Horsa.”

Mordred snorted. “Good thing Gil isn’t here. That messenger wouldn’t walk away with his life if he heard that.”

Arturia cracked a slight smile. Then she called: “Your terms are unacceptable. We demand that you disband your army, and return to your settlement on the southern shore. Then we may discuss the conditions for your continued occupation of that territory.”

The messenger laughed. “Arthur, we have already taken Britannia. Camelot alone remains. Our army stretches across the horizon – you have no hope of defeating it. If you surrender now, King Hengist will generously allow you exile rather than execution.”

An uneasy silence fell over those assembled on the wall. Arturia replied, “I, and none other, am the rightful king of Britannia. My place is neither in exile nor in the grave, but on the throne of the high king.”

The messenger replied: “You have one day to think on our terms. Tomorrow, the might of the Saxon army will descend upon Camelot and nothing will be left of the city of legend.”

“You have heard our answer. It will not change,” Arturia replied.

The messenger did not respond, only dug his heels into his horse’s sides and rode away.

Arturia turned to her people. They, from the eldest nobles to the most unseasoned young knights, were looking at her expectantly.

She said to them “We Britons are the children of two nations. We are the descendants of the ancient inhabitants of the isle who intermarried with the conquering Romans, whose empire stretched across the earth. We will not be cowed by a barbarian rabble.”

The tension of the crowd eased. The people seemed reassured, secure in the knowledge that the great King Arthur would ensure their victory.

Arturia’s hands were clenched into fists. Only Mordred was close enough to see how much they were shaking.

_____

Day passed and evening fell. The people of Camelot, from commoners to royalty, checked their stores of weapons and food and watched the treeline with bated breath.

_____

Arturia looked over the documents before her and sighed. She must have gone over them a hundred times – inventories of rations and weapons, lists of men at arms – but once more couldn’t hurt. Besides, it gave her a moment of solitude away from the chaos of war preparation; her quiet office was a welcome respite from hours of drilling in the courtyards of the city.

Suddenly the door flung open, and in strode the last person she expected to see – Gilgamesh. He was clad in a long linen robe that she was sure must have come from his Treasury. He looked utterly out of place amongst the stone walls of Camelot.

“I do not understand why you waste time with documents when you have only one day before battle. Your time could be spent in more…pleasurable ways.” The look he gave her emphasized the point.

She sighed in irritation. “I’ve got other matters to attend to.”

Sauntering over, he picked up one of the documents on her desk. “Stores of barley? That’s the vital matter keeping you from me?”

Arturia frowned and snatched the paper back. “I can’t support an army or a populace of refugees if I don’t have any damn food for them. Besides,” she added, “What are you doing here? I haven’t known you to forsake your chambers for anyone, even me.”

“I have just finished putting my battalion of mongrels through their paces. Having finished that, I decided to find you.” He reached out a hand to play with her hair. “The night before a battle should be spent enjoying the finest pleasures that life has to offer.”

Arturia opened her mouth to reply, then a knock sounded at the door. Arturia froze, then made a calculated but very risky decision. She grabbed Gilgamesh and shoved him beneath her desk. Fortunately the thing was made of solid wood; the visitor would see only Arturia sitting neatly. Arturia wondered if he would fight her, but he was frozen in absolute astonishment – for the moment, anyway.
_____

How dare she treat him in such a way?! He, crouching on the floor like a dog?! Gilgamesh was infuriated. He was about to force his way out of the desk when another, far more interesting, possibility occurred to him.

Arturia’s lap was nearly level with his face. The angle was awkward, but it was a simple enough task to unlace her britches slightly and slip a finger inside, toying with her ever so slightly as the mongrel droned on.
_____

If the messenger noticed the jolt that traveled through the king’s body, but he didn’t think much of it. Perhaps a flea-bite or a muscle spasm. The king’s expression might have changed for a second, but that happens when bugs bite or muscles cramp.

“…and that, your majesty, is why the knights under my command are seeking a posting on the eastern wall. Is that amenable to your plans.”

“Mm. Yes,” the king answered curtly. The messenger blinked. He’d been expecting more of a debate; the king was notorious for sticking to strict battle plans.

“Thank you, your majesty. As for the next matter-“

“You may go now,” the king replied in the same curt tone.

The messenger’s brows furrowed in confusion. “But your majesty, we will need to find another battalion to take our former position above the gates of the city.”

Beneath the desk, Gilgamesh was enjoying himself thoroughly. The awkward position caused his arm to cramp, but that was no matter. He could feel how wet she was becoming, how her muscles tensed from the struggle of maintaining her calm, cool exterior in the face of the pleasure she was experiencing. How delicious. He wondered how long she’d be able to keep it up.
_____

“Thank you. You are dismissed.” Arturia tried to keep her face neutral. Damn, she should have known Gilgamesh would find some way to protest the indignity she’d subjected him to, but she hadn’t expected it would be quite so…distracting. His fingers caressed the folds of her sex and played over her clit.

The damn knight was staring at her like an idiot. “But sire, what about the-“

“You. Are. Dismissed.” Her tone brooked no disobedience. The man turned and fled from the room.

Not a second too soon. She let out the moan she had been holding back and bucked her hips freely.

Then the touch was gone and his lips were on hers, his hands in her hair, tearing it free from all the pins that held it back. Her hands were pulling at his clothes as well – he was naked under the robes. She was cursing him, caressing him. She felt his teeth on her neck as she bit into his earlobe, whispering, “How dare you do such a thing. Even worse, how dare you stop.”

She could feel rather than see the smile that crossed his face.
_____

Mordred was strolling through the hallways of the castle, greeting the guards posted here and there. It gave her a chance to familiarize herself with all of the new soldiers, and to avoid spending much time in bed next to the unhappy bundle of her wife.

As she had for so much of her life, Mordred was thinking about Father. It was as if a thorn in her side had been pulled out. She’d grown so used to the constant pain that she’d barely noticed it until it was gone. There were plenty of other things to worry about, with the Saxons and all, but Mordred felt an ease she had never known before.

Suddenly, she noticed movement ahead. There were no guards posted in this section of the castle, and people rarely came here. The figure passed through a beam of moonlight streaming through a window, and Mordred caught a glimpse of unmistakable white hair.

In a flash, she had Merlin pinned against the wall. She didn’t have her sword, but the dagger that she carried everywhere was at his throat. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

She caught sight of the object in his hands. She recognized Avalon, the sheath to Father’s sacred sword. “And what the hell are you doing with that?!” She ripped it from him with her left hand, the other still holding the dagger at his throat.

“Let me speak!” The magus cried.

She was never sure whether it was due to magecraft or simply her own curiosity, but Mordred did.

Merlin continued, “If I act now, she’ll never make the pact with Alaya, she’ll never be thrown into all these endless Grail Wars or risk becoming a Counter Guardian. I’ve tried to tilt the balance, for her sake. Don’t you see? This is all for her own good.”

Mordred’s eyes narrowed. She? “Are you talking about Father?”

Merlin nodded. “It’s all about what’s best for her. I’ve known her since her birth, I wouldn’t allow her to spend eternity as a slave.”

Even for Merlin, this was nonsensical. “What the fuck are you talking about? The Saxons?” Mordred snarled.

Merlin chuckled, sounding not at all like a man cornered by one of the greatest knights of the realm. “Oh, the Saxons are the least of it. And, I dare say, you’ve got the mouth of a sailor. It doesn’t suit the heir apparent to Camelot.”

“I’m not the heir anymore.”

“You will be,” Merlin said simply. “This timeline’s been shot to hell since you and that damn Gilgamesh showed up, but I don’t need magecraft to see that.”

Mordred decided to ignore that for now. “What’s going to happen to Father? And who’s Alaya?”

“Tsk. What an unfortunate lapse in knowledge. That vain king would know, but fortunately he wasn’t the one to find me. I wouldn’t have had the chance to say a single thing before I was pincushioned with arrows.”

“You’re acting real smart for someone with my dagger at your throat. Just answer my damn questions,” Mordred growled.

“No time. If your poor Father isn’t to lose her soul, I must act now.”

Mordred’s knife skidded against stone. Merlin had vanished, but not before he had ripped the sheath of the sacred sword out of her hand.

FUCK. What was this about Father dying or becoming a slave? She ran that risk at the hands of the Saxons, but somehow Mordred didn’t think that was what the magus had been referring to.

Shit. He had Avalon. What on earth was she going to tell Father?
_____

Arturia woke from the light sleep that follows lovemaking to find him with his head propped on an elbow, looking at her. She wondered how long he had been watching her sleep.

“I love you,” he said simply.

Her mouth opened, but no words came out. She tried again. “Thank you.”

God, what a ridiculous answer, even to her own ears. To her astonishment, Gilgamesh threw back his head and laughed. “I am pleased by your gratitude. Have you thought on my request?”

Be my woman. Become my wife. They’d done things that husbands and wives did together but…

“It’s not that simple,” Arturia replied. She moved closer to him, resting her head on his chest.

“You wife is gone. You are king here. What stops you from taking a consort?”

“Have you forgotten my people think I’m a man? The Britons aren’t as accepting of that sort of thing as yours where. And they won’t look lightly on a dalliance with a foreign ruler while the city is under siege.”

“Camelot’s military situation has nothing to do with me.”

She decided not to tell him about the Saxon messenger’s demand for his head. “And do you really want all the duties involved in being a king’s consort? All the scrutiny and public appearances and responsibilities? Or maybe,” she added wryly, “You want to take over my kingdom after I’m revealed as a woman?”

Gilgamesh scoffed. “I’ve seen it. I don’t want it.”

The answer endeared him to her more than he would ever know. It was her turn to laugh.

“Wife or not, you are my woman. Mine alone.”

“And you are mine,” she said, an unexpected note of fierceness in her voice. Gilgamesh looked slightly taken aback, but he’d best get used to it.

It was true. She wasn’t sure when it had happened – during their captivity or flight, the night under the tree, or at some different point – but it was true. The feeling unnerved her. It was like realizing the tide had swept you far out to sea.

“But there’s another thing, something you must keep in mind if we are to…continue on this way. I…I think it is easiest to explain with a story. About one of my knights, Gawain.” Saying Gawain’s name felt like a knife through the heart, even after all this time, but she forced herself to continue.

“I had a…rather unfortunate encounter with a local lord, Sir Gromer. It ended with Gawain and I in his debt. To lift the curse, we had one year to find an answer to the riddle that he posed to us: what do women want?”

Arturia’s lips twisted in a bitter smile at the memory. She’d proved quite useless in discovering the answer to this riddle, despite her true sex. She’d been king so long that she’d stopped allowing herself to want anything, save for the peace and prosperity of Britannia.

“We received a variety of answers, some of them from women themselves. Women want strong children, loyal husbands, bountiful harvests, an end to Saxon raids, and so on. But there was no single answer, no unifying factor.

“One day, when we were riding through the countryside seeking an answer to this riddle, a hunched, hideous old crone approached us. ‘Dame Ragnell knows the answer to the riddle that you two knights seek. I will give it to you for a price.’

‘What price? ‘I asked her.

‘The hand of that young man in marriage.’ The woman pointed to Gawain.

I told Gawain he didn’t have to go through with it, that the rules of honor didn’t compel him to undertake such a marriage, but he insisted that he must. They wed, and she gave us the answer to the riddle. It was one word: sovereignty.”

Sovereignty. That was what women wanted: the ability to make their own choices, to rule themselves.

She continued. “Being Gawain, he treated her with respect and care throughout the ceremony. Afterward, in the wedding chamber, Gawain said that she transformed from a bent, wizened hag into the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She explained that she was under an enchantment that forced her to spend half her time in the ugly form he had seen at first, and half as her true self, young and beautiful. She asked him a question: did he want her to be beautiful at night when they are together alone, or beautiful in the daytime?”

“Folly,” Gilgamesh interjected. “The choice is not his to make.”

A slow smile spread over Arturia’s face at that. “That was what Gawain said. ‘It’s your choice.’ This broke the enchantment, and she remained beautiful both day and night. Though she was never very sociable.” Arturia thought of the glimpses she’d had of Lady Ragnell, here and there during her infrequent trips to the women’s quarters. Ragnell had left Camelot to return to her own people after Gawain’s death. Arturia had never had a chance to offer condolences.

“Sovereignty,” Arturia repeated. “Once I heard the answer, I understood. I am not just sovereign over myself, but over my whole people. I can never be yours in the way an ordinary woman could.”

She realized she was holding her breath. Would he still want her, knowing this? Would he not cast her aside for someone more convenient?

After a long time, he answered. “Since you seem to favor storytelling tonight, I will answer you with another story. When I was king of Uruk and all Mesopotamia, I kept lions. I allowed them to stroll the grounds of my palace freely, lounging wherever they liked and doing whatever they pleased. They were remarkably useful for keeping out assassins, and their antics entertained me.

“One of my viziers took issue with it. Cringing and bowing, he told me that one of my lions might maul an attendant or escape the walls of my palace. He suggested I lock them in a cage.

“As punishment for his impudence, I ordered a collar affixed around his neck and had him shut in a cage for a full day and night. He never said anything about my lions again.

“Had I locked them away like common mongrels in a kennel, they would have wasted away and died. I would destroy the very thing I loved. They were dumb beasts of the field; you are a king of my own stature. Your sovereignty is assured – to trifle with it would be to destroy all that is best in you.”

Before Arturia could respond, the door flung open and Mordred walked in. “Father! I need to talk to you.”

“Mongrel, what are you doing here?” Gilgamesh growled.

“Hey Gil.” Mordred waved half-heartedly, then went back to wringing her hands.
“Father, Merlin was here. He took Avalon.”

Beside her, Gilgamesh stiffened at the magus’ name. Arturia was stunned. “Avalon? Why would he do such a thing?”

“He was saying something about somebody named Alaya, and you being a slave, I think. I don’t get any of it. Is Alaya one of the Saxons?”

Gilgamesh stiffened at the name, and Arturia sighed. “That sounds like Merlin, being opaque as usual. I don’t know what’s gotten into him, why he needed to take Avalon – maybe he has some sort of plan to help us win this? – but regardless, I will be leading our troops on the battlefield tomorrow.”

“No! Unacceptable!” Gilgamesh snapped. “Without your enchantment, you will be vulnerable.” Mordred nodded in agreement.

Arturia crossed her arms. “The rest of my knights go into battle never knowing what injuries they might sustain. It’s only right that their king take a similar risk.”

“Nonsense,” Gilgamesh replied. “You will stay where it is safe.”

She whipped around to face him, and Mordred nearly stepped back from the tension that crackled between them. Slowly, Arturia said one word, “Sovereignty.” Gilgamesh looked away.

What the hell was that all about, Mordred wondered. Then again, the less she knew about Father and Gilgamesh’s relationship, the better off she was. Seeing them entangled in the sheets already told her more than she wanted to know.

Chapter Text

Arturia watched Mordred talking to the knights stationed along the wall. Mordred greeted each of them like an old friend, joking and teasing until they cracked a smile. Many of them were fresh recruits from among the refugees; they were inexperienced and frightened, though they tried to hide it. Her boisterous presence had a strangely reassuring affect on them.

She’s good at this, Arturia realized, far better than I ever was. Arturia had always been the remote, perfect king, but Mordred was one of them, someone they understood and trusted. There was still the thorny question of succession. Perhaps a King Mordred might not be so bad after all, she mused.

Mordred joined Arturia at her post, and the two gazed at the darkening sky and the forest down below.

“What I don’t get,” Mordred said, “Is why the Saxons are planning to attack us at all. They’ve got us cornered. We’ve got half the damn island holed up in here. We’ve got rations but only so much. If they just waited a few months, they could starve us out.”

“You have a point,” Arturia replied. Truth be told, she’d wondered the same thing. “Hengist’s army is made up of people from many different nations, with nothing to hold them together other than the enmity of the Britons. He needs to give them a more worthy opponent than a bunch of untrained farmers or they’ll tear themselves apart.”

“Well, they’re gonna find out the Camelot won’t gonna give in that easily,” Mordred said with a grin, glancing at the ranks of soldiers on the walls. In order to have a chance of entering Camelot, a Saxon warrior would first need to dodge a hail of arrows, then scale the sheer city walls, then fight through the soldiers waiting on the top of the wall. “No army has ever conquered Camelot,” Mordred said, “And none ever will.”
_____
“You look ridiculous with those blue stripes under your eyes.”

The lanky young man frowned. “It’s not stupid. It’s like the ones the Picts have. It’s fashionable.”

The broad-shouldered middle-aged woman turned to the man beside her. “What do you think?”

He glanced at the teenager. “You look like a moron.”

The lanky young man scoffed. “Yeah, we’ll see who the real moron is when I have half a dozen Saxon heads hanging from my saddle.”

The woman snorted. “You don’t even have a horse, where are you going to put that saddle? You all hear that?” she called to the rest of the battalion, who were lounging around the walls. “He’s over here is talking about his horse.”

“MONGRELS!” In a flash they stood at attention, just the way he had trained them.

Gilgamesh wore strange golden armor unlike any they had seen before, as well as his usual expression of regal disregard, seeming utterly unfazed by the looming threat of the Saxon army.

“Mongrels!” he began. “You were utterly incompetent when I first began training you, and now you are only slightly less so. You are about to experience the first true test of your skills. Some of you may die, but you will not disgrace me by dying stupidly. Now, show the Saxon barbarians the wrath of the King of Heroes! Now-“ Suddenly he broke off. “What is that?”

Something had appeared at the treeline.
_____
Across the walls of Camelot, knights ran to their posts. Every eye was trained on the thing that rolled out from the treeline. It was almost as tall as a tree itself - some structure made from wood. It took a dozen men to move it, and it came to a stop just beyond the treeline. Distant shouting and scrambling continued.

Mordred squinted. “I think that’s one of the things I saw in the camp. But what is it? A giant step-stool? Are they going to try to walk over the walls of Camelot?

“Whatever it is, I don’t like it,” Arturia whispered.
_____
Gilgamesh’s eyes widened, pupils dilating in fear. His gaze, that of a trained archer, ran back and forth between the wooden structure and the walls of the city, calculating speed, velocity, and the range of the impact.

To his recruits, he screamed, “RUN YOU FOOLS!”

After a moment of confusion they did, rushing past the confused faces of other soldiers, the Golden King hot on their heels.
_____
There was the sound of distant shouting as the Saxons rolled something onto the structure.

“Is that a boulder?” Mordred said. “What the hell do they think they’re going to do with that?”

“FIRE!” Arturia ordered the archers, but the strange object was far beyond their range. The Britons could only watch in puzzlement as the machine creaked and rocked.
_____
The trebuchet pulled back and launched the boulder through the air. It flew surprisingly high for such a large thing, and the knights of Camelot watched it soar in puzzlement and awe.

The boulder made a long arc through the air before crashing into the east wall of the city, knocking a massive hole through it as though it was made of sand.
_____
The eastern wall fell, sending dozens of knights screaming to their deaths. The rest of the walls shivered but held, but the Britons were in chaos.

It was at that moment that the Saxon army charged out of the treeline, heading directly for the gap in the walls.
_____
Arturia stared in horror at the gaping hole in the wall. “TO ARMS!” she screamed. There was no time to think things through, no time to weigh options. If the Saxons were able to breach the city through the hole left by that strange device, Camelot was lost.

Knights followed her as she dashed down the stairs and onto the field. She ran as fast as she could, determined to intercept the Saxons before they could reach the breached wall.

Swords and shields slammed into each other as Arturia’s band of knights met the Saxons head-on. She caught movement out of the corner of her eye, and raised her sword just in time to parry a blow from a Saxon warrior. He was at least a head taller than her and thick with muscle. It took all of her strength to hold him back.
_____
Mordred looked up in time to see Arturia disappearing down the stairs, several knights following her. No. She didn’t have Avalon, what was she thinking? Mordred knew how important it was to hold the wall, but heading directly onto the field of battle was far too dangerous.

“Father, if you die I swear I’ll kill you,” Mordred muttered to herself as she ran down the stairs.
_____
The blast knocked Gilgamesh to the ground. Debris pelted his back and the impact scraped his hands raw, but that meant that he still had hands, and therefore that he was alive.

Gods, had none of these British barbarians ever seen a trebuchet before? What morons.

His recruits began stirring around him, eventually dragging themselves to their feet. They were alive, all of them. “Mongrels, what are you waiting for? You have your orders. Hold the city.”

With a cheer, they charged down the stairs.

One of them hung back. The young man with the blue marks under his eyes turned to Gilgamesh and asked, “Aren’t you coming with us?”

Gilgamesh snorted. “You insult me. I merely allow you to go on ahead of me.”

The boy nodded and ran after the others.

Gilgamesh turned and held out a hand. A golden ripple appeared in the air, expanding rapidly in size until it was three times his height. A sleek gold object appeared, with wings as delicate as a dragonfly’s.
_____
Mordred looked around the field, her lungs burning. Damn, she’d forgotten how unpleasant it was to run in full armor. The ping of an arrow ricocheting off her armor reminded her why she wore it.

All around her, warriors were fighting and dying. The British knights had stationed themselves on the rubble of the wall, holding it against the Saxons. Some of the Picts were with them as well, showing their true worth as allies. They had the high ground but were badly outnumbered.

There. She saw Father some distance away, crossing swords with a vicious looking Saxon warrior. Mordred shoved her way towards the king. Another Saxon attempted to block her way and she brought him down with a single stroke.

Father had the man on the ground, her sword raised for the killing blow. There was a flash of movement and a glint of steel, and Arturia staggered back, her sword falling uselessly from her hands. Protruding from her belly was a sax, one of the long knives that the Saxons were famous for. He’d managed to slip it between a gap in her armor.

NO. Mordred heard someone screaming and realized it was herself. The Saxon turned towards her and she beheaded him, his body crumpling uselessly to the dirt.

Arturia had sunk to her knees, staring at the knife handle protruding from her stomach. Blood dripped down her armor.

She would have collapsed, but Mordred was there holding her up. “Father,” she whispered, her hands going to the wound. God, it was deep…

“Mordred?” Arturia said, her eyes already going glassy from pain. “What are you doing here?”

“I was following you, dumbass,” Mordred said. Father’s blood was already all over her hands, staining her armor red. There was a lot of blood.

Arturia chuckled. “It seems I acted rashly. You have my apologies…”

Her eyes closed and her breathing became shallow.

“No,” Mordred hissed. “You don’t just fucking get to die after all of this.” With a strength she didn’t know she possessed, she hauled Arturia’s arm over her shoulder and half-carried, half-dragged the wounded king out of the fray.
_____
Gilgamesh seated himself in Vimana. He relished its elegance and power; truly it was one of the finest objects in his treasury, a worthy chariot for the King of Heroes.

Move, he thought, and Vimana did, ascending from the wall and taking to the sky over the battlefield. Ah, there was his band of recruits in the thick of things, holding the damaged wall with skill and courage. Perhaps he’d let them know that they weren’t worthless after all.

From his vantage point, Gilgamesh could see a brace of Saxon cavalry riding towards his recruits, who wouldn’t notice the mounted Saxons until they were nearly upon them. How like those loathsome barbarians to resort to such cheap tricks. Gilgamesh flicked his fingers in a lazy gesture, and Vimana’s lasers reduced them to a cinder.
_____
The Saxons and the Britons were too busy fighting each other to notice the strange object in the sky until it poured forth lightning upon them. The effect was nearly instantaneous. The Saxons had superior numbers and weaponry, but they had come here to fight humans, not gods. A few especially brave (or foolhardy) warriors launched arrows or spears at the strange thing in the sky and were promptly incinerated.

The Britons were equally terrified, but they held fast to their mandate to defend the city and hold the damaged wall. The Saxons had no such unity of purpose, and they fled back to the safety of the forest.
_____
Gilgamesh laughed with satisfaction as he watched the Saxons flee, looking like tiny ants. At last he had vengeance for the outrage they had inflicted upon him and Arturia.

Wheeling through the air, he guided Vimana towards the trebuchet. Those barbarians had loaded another boulder onto the thing and were ready to launch another attack against the walls of Camelot. He couldn’t have that. He gestured again, this time with his whole hand, and the siege engine burst into flame.

Arturia had been so worried about the Saxons. Gilgamesh wondered what she would think of this gift he had given her. He couldn’t wait to find out.

Suddenly he caught sight of a figure in blue and a figure in red at the edge of the field. He knew them. He would know them anywhere.

One of the figures seemed to be carrying the other. Gilgamesh flew toward them.
_____
Mordred was too tired to be afraid as she watched the strange sky-ship land a few feet away from her. She’d dragged Father away from the thick of the battle, carrying the wounded king with one arm while attempting to fend off her enemies with the other.

The hatch opened and Gilgamesh, of all people, stepped out.

Mordred stared for a moment, then laughed hollowly. “I should have known that was you,” she said. Next to her, Father stirred uncomfortably. Bewildered British knights watched them from a distance, afraid to come any closer.

Gilgamesh ignored her comment, his eyes fixed on Arturia. “What happened to her?” he said, gathering the injured king into his arms. He carried her like a groom carries a bride, her head resting on his shoulder.

“A Saxon,” Mordred replied. “He-“

“You let this happen?” Gilgamesh demanded, his eyes flashing. Mordred stepped back. For the first time, she realized why so many people were afraid of him.

“Gilgamesh?” Arturia’s voice, weak and filled with pain. She looked up at him. “Gilgamesh, I…I love you. I’m sorry I didn’t say it before, I didn’t know how. I thought I was going to die without ever being able to say it, but-“

“Quiet,” he said to her tenderly, his rage gone. “You must rest now.” A golden ripple appeared in the air, and he pulled a bottle from it. “Here, drink this. You will sleep and feel no pain.”

Arturia nodded and drank the contents from the bottle. “And you’ll stay with me?”

“Of course.” He took the bottle from her faltering hands as she fell into unconsciousness.

Mordred, red-faced, tried to make herself as inconspicuous as possible. Gilgamesh snapped, “Come, mongrel, you will help me attend to her.”

“What?!” Mordred choked.

“Yes. We must move quickly. I will not leave her at the mercy of the idiot healers of this city.” Gilgamesh strode back to Vimana and laid Arturia down. She seemed fast asleep, the slight rise and fall of her chest showing that she was still alive. For now.

Golden ripples appeared in the air, and Gilgamesh pulled things from them. Bandages, salves, potions, and other things Mordred couldn’t easily identify. He removed Arturia’s armor with gentleness and precision, and Mordred could see the hideous wound above her belly button and the sword protruding from it. Father. Her vision swam.

“MONGREL! Don’t stand there stupidly. Come here. Take these bandages and hold them to the wound as I take out the sword.”

“Are you crazy?!” Mordred snapped, half-hysterical. “She’ll bleed out. She might die.”

“She will die for certain if we do nothing, you fool,” he snarled. “We need to close up the wound now. If you lack the stomach for the task, then leave.”

“No,” Mordred said, swallowing hard. “I’ll do it.” With hands gone numb, she pressed the bandages to the wound.

Gilgamesh gripped the handle of the knife. “On the count of three,” he said. His voice was firm, but for the first time Mordred noticed that his hands were shaking slightly. “One, two….”
_____
“MONGRELS! If you plague me with your foolishness one more time, I will place your heads on pikes above the city walls.”

The two healers raced out of the room, nearly running into Mordred. “Sir!” One of them, an elderly man with a long beard, squeaked, “The foreigner, he will not let us in to see the king. You must help us, please, it is absolutely critical that we see him-“

“What were you trying to do when ‘the foreigner’ stopped you?” Mordred asked.

The second healer, a balding man of middle years, blinked. “Why, we were trying to give the king an emetic. His humors are all out of balance from his injuries, you see, and it’s necessary to restore them.”

Mordred winced. An emetic was something that made you vomit. You didn’t have to be a genius to realize that giving an emetic to someone with a gut wound was a bad idea. “Just go,” she said to the healers. “I’ll handle it.”

“Sir Mordred,” one of the healers whined. “Please, you must convince the foreigner-“

“I said I’ll handle it,” Mordred growled in her best imitation of Gilgamesh. It seemed to work – the healers scurried down the hallway.

The king lay in the bed, eyes closed. Gilgamesh sat in a chair nearby, his bloodshot eyes trained on Arturia. It was a few hours before dawn, and he looked like he hadn’t slept at all. Then again, neither had Mordred.

Gilgamesh’s head whipped around at her entrance. “MONGR- Oh, it’s you.” He turned back to Arturia. “Bring more soft cloths. And more hot water – truly hot, not the tepid swill these fools keep bringing me.”

“How is she?”

Gilgamesh looked up at Mordred with an expression she had never seen before. “She is stable, for the moment. It took a large number of the healing elixirs from my Treasury to achieve that much. Her wounds are…rather serious. Even I lack the ability to heal her fully.” He dipped a cloth in the bowl of water on the bedside table and laid it on her forehead. Arturia did not stir.

Mordred nodded. Coming from Gilgamesh, the admission was sobering. Mordred tried not to think about the damage to Arturia’s internal organs, and she wondered if Father would ever wake. She decided to switch topics. “The wall’s holding, for now. We’ve got troops stationed all around it and the stonemasons are making whatever emergency repairs they can.”

Gilgamesh ignored her. Mordred wasn’t surprised; he didn’t give a fig for a Camelot without Arturia. Mordred added, “I’ll keep an eye on her if you want to rest. And I promise I’ll make sure those stupid healers don’t come back.”

Gilgamesh shot her a glare. “Mongrel, first you will bring that hot water and cloth.”

Mordred held up her hands. “Okay, okay.”

When she returned, Gilgamesh had fallen asleep in his chair, his arms crossed and his head resting against the wall.
_____
At some point in the night, Arturia woke.

She whispered Mordred’s name, and the knight nearly jumped out of her skin. Her shock was quickly replaced by a wave of relief. “Father,” she said, falling to her knees beside the bed, “You’re awake.”

“Yes,” Arturia replied weakly. “I fear I must ask your help once more. I need you to bring me somewhere.”

“What?” Mordred shook her head. “Father, you need to rest.”

Arturia’s hand tightened on Mordred’s. “This is the only way. The only way to save you, Gilgamesh, Camelot, all of Britannia.”

“No.”

Arturia sighed, closing her eyes in frustration. “Mordred, I know I have not always been the parent I should have been to you. A parent should protect their child,” she opened her eyes, locking her intense gaze on Mordred. “Let me do that for you now.”

Mordred was silent for a moment, then asked “Where do you need to go?”

“The spring.” That must be the spring below Camelot, which brought the city an endless supply of fresh water, allowing it to hold out in the event of a siege such as this. But Arturia’s insistence on going there now was baffling – what could she possibly need? “The spring? Why do you need to go there?”

“I need to meet someone,” Arturia replied. “The Lady of the Lake. Her name is Vivian.”

Chapter Text

Arturia paused in front of the still-sleeping Gilgamesh, running a hand through his hair in a gesture of intimate familiarity. “I wish I had a chance to say goodbye. I know he’ll never forgive me for doing this.” Arturia turned to Mordred. “Promise me you’ll look after him, Mordred. Help him find his way back to his own time, if possible. He has…given me a great deal of happiness.”

Mordred wanted to say that Father had been asking for a lot of favors lately, and besides she could look after Gilgamesh herself because it wasn’t as if she was going to die or something. Instead, Mordred replied, “Of course I will.”

Arturia was struggling to stand on her own, much less walk, so Mordred found herself carrying her as she had on the battlefield. The hallways were nearly empty, given how close to dawn it was. Even the wounded soldiers in the infirmary were asleep.

“Your – your Majesty?”

Mordred whirled around at the voice, moving Arturia with her. Bedivere stared at them in obvious shock, leaning on his cane. “What are you doing out of bed? I thought you were injured.”

With the assurance of a king, Arturia replied. “Ah, Sir Bedivere. Excellent. You’re the perfect person to accompany us. We are heading to the spring.”

‘The spring?” There were dark circles under Bedivere’s eyes; he had probably been overseeing emergency repair efforts to the wall through the night. He looked at Mordred and Arturia as though they were part of some strange dream.

“Don’t question it,” Mordred replied, “Are you coming with us or not?”

Bedivere nodded. The three of them made their way down to the spring, Bedivere holding the torch to light their way. He took the stairs slowly with his wounded leg, and so did Arturia and Mordred.

At last they reached the small underground chamber that housed the spring. Mordred helped Arturia to sit next to the stone pool that held the water. Arturia leaned in and whispered something over the water.

Suddenly a woman emerged from the pool. She was one of the most beautiful people that Mordred had ever seen, and strangely inhuman. Mordred was absolutely certain that she had not been there even a moment before.

The woman stepped from the pool and walked over to Arturia, taking her face in her hands. “I’m glad you remembered you could always call on me, but why the hell did you wait so long?! You’ve been wounded, my little king.” The Lady of the Lake pressed her hands to Arturia’s belly and some of the color seemed to return to the king’s face. “Thank you,” Arturia said.

The mysterious figure – who Mordred was beginning to suspect was not human at all - put her hands on her hips and glared at Arturia. “It’s only a temporary fix. You’ve lost a lot of blood and your guts are shredded…” The Lady shook her head. “Where the fuck is Avalon?! That would have fixed you up right quick.”

“I would never have lost a gift that you had given me,” Arturia replied. “Merlin took it.”

“Merlin,” the Lady repeated, her face darkening. “I should have figured.” She threw up her hands in frustration. “I knew I shouldn’t have put all my damn healing magic in that stupid scabbard. What’s the point of being a goddess if you can’t even keep one stupid mortal alive?!”

“My Lady,” Bedivere knelt as best he could. “It is an honor to meet you. I have never had the chance to make the acquaintance of a deity before.”

The Lady shot him an irritated glance. “Get up off that stone before you hurt yourself. One wounded mortal is all I have the capacity to deal with right now. Though I do appreciate your manners.” Vivian’s gaze left Bedivere and fell on Mordred. “And you’re the bastard, I suppose? Huh, you look just like her.”

Mordred opened her mouth to reply, but Bedivere interrupted her. “Bastard…?” he asked, puzzled. “Her…?

Vivian looked at him squarely. “Yes. The king’s bastard,” she gestured at Arturia.

Bedivere had turned paler than the wounded king. “Mordred is the king’s son,” he repeated slowly.

“Not son - daughter,” The Lady said primly, ignoring the glare that Mordred shot her. She seemed to notice the look of shock on Bedivere’s face. “Don’t tell me that you didn’t know both the king and her bastard are female?”

“I fear I did not,” Bedivere replied, looking as though he was going to faint. “I thought they might be cousins, given how close they are in age-“

“Ah, well, homunculi tend to age more swiftly,” The Lady continued, ignoring Mordred’s increasingly red face. “I suppose Morgan planned that when she created the child.”

Bedivere’s eyes were as round as saucers. He sat down on the edge of the pool, hard, staring at ground.

“Vivian,” Arturia said, fierce solemnity in her voice. “I need your help. I didn’t come here for healing, I know I’m far past that.” Mordred opened her mouth to protest, but a glance from Arturia silenced her. The king continued, “I need you to unlock the dragon.”

Vivian’s eyes widened. “Do you understand what you’re asking?”

Arturia nodded. “It’s our last hope. We’re outnumbered. The wall is compromised. And I won’t survive another week, even with your help.”

Sorrow filled Vivian’s eyes. “You won’t be able to come back from this. You won’t be human anymore.”

Arturia laughed weakly. “That’s what Merlin said to me when I pulled the sword from the stone. I haven’t been human for years. A king isn’t allowed to be.” She caught Mordred’s eye, and a slight smile crossed her face. “Though I did have more happiness in this life than I expected.”

Mordred shook her head. “Father, what are you talking about? Why won’t you be human anymore?”

Arturia held her gaze, and her eyes seemed to burn with green fire. “Haven’t you ever wondered why we have the surname Pendragon?”
_____
A long time ago, as the story goes, the red and white dragons fought over the land of Britannia. They twisted and clawed each other as they soared through the sky. Finally the red dragon triumphed and became the symbol of Britannia.

The Pendragon clan was said to be descended from the dragon, though no one knew how true that rumor was or where it had come from. Dragons themselves were long gone, dead along with the Age of the Gods. Or so most people thought.

When his court mage Merlin approached him with the idea, Uther was uncertain. Merlin, always keener than most, had noticed Uther’s attraction to the beautiful Igrane, wife of his loyal duke Gerlois. “What if,” Merlin asked, “You could have her and also father a child who would save this land?” He opened his hand to reveal a dragon tooth. What if this union, illicit as it was, could produce a child with the power of a dragon sealed inside him? A king who could lead armies in battle and if needed, draw upon the Red Dragon of Britannia itself?

Uther took Merlin’s offer, and Merlin used magecraft to disguise him as Igrane’s husband Gerlois. Nine months later, Arturia was born, the power of the dragon sealed within her.

Uther was stunned by the child’s sex, but Merlin insisted that it did not matter. “A king is a king,” the mage said. “And a dragon is deadly regardless of whether it is male or female.”
_____
“There must be a way,” Arturia said, “To release the dragon. To take the Dragon Core in me, and turn it inside out.”

Vivian nodded thoughtfully. “There is. But you won’t survive it, my little king.”

“I don’t expect to.”

Vivian sighed. “This is why I’m an idiot to care about mortals. Always going and dying on you.”

Mordred could hold back no longer. “Father! I don’t get all this stuff about dragons, but you can’t die. Not after everything.” She glared at Arturia. “If you’re doing this, I’m going with you. I’m a Pendragon too.”

Arturia shook her head. “No. You lack the Dragon Core that I possess, and more importantly, I need you alive. You have to take over after I am gone. That is why we are fortunate to have you with us, Bedivere.” The king’s steward looked up from the ground, his expression one of stunned shock. “You are here to witness my formal declaration of Mordred as my heir.”

Mordred tried to speak but no words came out.

Arturia smiled at her. “I’ve long had a wish, one that I’ve told no one else. In some worlds it seems I fought for the Holy Grail in order to achieve it. I wished to go back in time, to have someone else lead Britannia in my stead.” She paused, “It seems I didn’t need the Grail to accomplish that wish. Mordred, I love you and I’m sorry. I know you will be an excellent High King of Britannia.” Shuffling to her feet, Arturia wrapped her arms around Mordred and hugged her so tightly that the knight struggled to breath.

Vivian looked grim. “We need to do this now. We don’t have much time.”
_____
The dragon emerged from her underground chamber as the sky began to grow gray in the east. She circled the city once or twice, like a falcon ecstatic to be released into the skies, and then headed to the forest.

She knew what she had come to do. Her mind was a beasts’s, full of sensory impressions and little foresight or conscious thought, but she remembered that much. She gave a roar that shook the Saxons in their tents and released a mouthful of fire onto the camp.

The Saxon army woke up to an inferno. Trees and tents burned, and warriors with them. The bedraggled, stunned survivors, weaponless and without armor, fled to the edge of the forest.

The knights of Camelot were waiting for them, Mordred at their head.
_____
Gilgamesh snapped awake. Immediately his eyes went to the bed, only to find it empty.

What followed could only be described as a rampage. Gilgamesh stormed around the castle like a force of nature, destroying whatever he could get his hands on and demanding to know where Arturia was. He refused to accept that no one else knew.

He sought for Mordred and could not find her. He sought for Bedivere and could not find him. There were few enough guards, even, perhaps diverted to some effort at the front. Finally Gilgamesh managed to get his hands one of those sniveling so-called healers, grabbing him by the collar.“WHERE IS THE KING?”

“I don’t know,” the healer squeaked. “I swear to you, I don’t know where he is any more than you do.” The healer cringed and tried to cover his head.

Coward or no, he seemed to be speaking the truth. Gilgamesh dropped him to the floor. He contemplated killing the pitiful man for his insolence and uselessness, then thought better of it. Arturia wouldn’t like it, and he did not wish for her to become agitated in her current state.

Suddenly he heard a sound that lifted the hairs on the back of his neck. He sprinted toward the stairs to the walls of Camelot, reaching the top in time to see the forest on fire and the dragon circling the city.
_____
A few of the Saxons fought back. A small band of them dragged one of the remaining trebuchets from the inferno, pulling it to the treeline. It was charred and damaged but still functional.

The men loaded in one of the boulders. Another aimed it in the direction of the red dragon.
_____
The dragon’s powerful wings flexed as she resumed circling the city. She opened her mouth and gave another roar, shaking the stones under Gilgamesh’s feet. The rays of the rising sun caught her scales, which flashed iridescent red.

This was not the first dragon Gilgamesh had seen during his long life – he had fought them sometimes in his role as the king of Uruk – but his one was particularly magnificent. She flew by him, close enough to touch, and fixed him with a look from her enormous eyes. Green eyes.

He knew those eyes. They’d looked into his a thousand times.

NO. The scream tore itself from his throat. He did not understand what had happened to her, but he could guess. His grief tore from him in a wordless cry.

The dragon’s head snapped back, her head tilting in curiosity. She wheeled around in the sky and flew back towards him, perching delicately on the rampants near him, peering at him with those green eyes. Almost as though she recognized him.

Neither of them noticed the boulder flying through the air towards her.
_____
The Saxon sagged against the trebuchet and sighed with relief as the flames took him. It was their only shot; the trebuchet had splintered into charred kindling after it launched the boulder, and flying creatures are notoriously hard to hit. But he saw it strike true. He could die with the satisfaction of knowing that he had done his duty.
_____
It was as though the world has come apart. The dragon fell in a tangle of limbs, and the impact took Gilgamesh as well. He heard the dragon’s screams of pain, or perhaps they were his own. He was falling, falling, and then there was silence.

Mordred staggered back, pulling her sword from a Saxon corpse. All around her the battle raged, but the Britons seemed to have the advantage.

Suddenly a terrible dizziness took her, and she fell to her knees. What the fuck? She could barely lift her sword.

A nearby Saxon saw her compromised position and stalked towards her with a sword in his hand. He’d probably gotten it off a dead British soldier.

Mordred closed her eyes, and suddenly the sounds of the battlefield stopped abruptly, leaving only silence. The Saxon swung at her, but there was only empty space where the knight had been only a moment before.
_____
Merlin mused that the countryside was quite peaceful once you managed to get all the riffraff sorted out. You finally had time to enjoy the scenery without the annoyance of humans everywhere. He traveled on horseback with few possessions. Avalon was buckled at his waist, though he felt a bit foolish wearing it with no sword to put it in.

He wondered what had happened since he’d left Camelot. He wondered if Arturia was dead yet. Human or dragon, with an army at her gate and her source of magical healing gone, she wouldn’t last long, especially given the heroic feats she always insisted on performing.

It was all well and good for him to be thought a traitor, Merlin mused. No one else could see things as he could, in their entirety. No one else had noticed the fundamental shift that occurred when the golden king and that damn homunculous had appeared. Suddenly fate had become unmoored from its tracks and new possibilities had opened up.

Arutria didn’t need to risk becoming a Counter Guardian or a Heroic Spirit, if only she would die.

And if Merlin just so happened to end up with an artifact like Avalon, well that was only his due, wasn’t it.

He wondered where he should go next. Britannia would probably be quite the mess after the Saxon conquest, but he’d heard that Ireland was nice around this time of year –

His train of thought was interrupted by the sight of a young woman standing by the road. She was beautiful, barely in her teens, with skin like milk and hair like spun gold. Just what he liked. He wondered briefly what she was doing out here just after sunrise all alone, but then reasoned that she must be a war refugee who had become separated from her family.

He dismounted and approached her. “Please sir,” she said, looking up at him with enormous begging eyes, “Will you help me to the next village?”

Merlin laughed. “Of course, young lady! But don’t be surprised if I ask for a favor or two of my own,” he added with a wink.

He turned back to his horse when suddenly he felt four rods of pain sink into his back. A voice – no longer the girl’s but still frighteningly familiar - whispered in his ear, “I suppose I have you to thank for introducing me to her, but that’s where my gratitude ends.”

Merlin twisted back to get a look at his assailant. The girl was no longer there. Instead, before him stood a beautiful, inhuman, and absolutely furious woman. “Vivian,” he whispered in terror.

“I’ll be taking that back now,” she said, removing Avalon from his belt. She pulled her elongated fingernails from his flesh and Merlin collapsed to the ground, writhing in pain. She poisoned the damn things, he realized as his legs began to go numb.

She nudged him with a foot. “You really are a fucking piece of work, mage. She is the Once and Future King of Britain, and you would see her dead.”

“It’s all for her own good,” Merlin gasped. “She won’t make the pact with Alaya, she won’t become a Counter Guardian.”

“Bullshit. If you wanted to ensure that she didn’t become a Counter Guardian, you should have made sure that she died an old woman after a long and peaceful reign, as I would have. You wanted to serve yourself and have a chance at treasures intended for far better people than you will ever be. And now you’ve left us in this mess,” she added darkly.

“Don’t kill me, please,” Merlin whispered as another spasm of pain took him.

Vivian laughed hollowly. “No, I won’t kill you. Death is too good for you. For you there is only the Tower.”

The Tower At the End of the World. The structure rose up in Merlin’s mind’s eye. Impenetrable, endless, beyond life and death, utterly cut off from all the world of the multiverse. A man could go mad there and still be forced to live a thousand more years.

He protested but Vivian ignored him, smiling coldly. “I might not be able to save her, but at least I can get revenge on idiot who caused her death. Sometimes it’s good to be a goddess.”

Chapter Text

Arturia opened her eyes. She was somewhere hazy, without a clear ground or sky or any form at all. She was somehow able to stand, but there was nothing except gray nothingness before her.

She wasn’t alone. Someone shifted next to her. “Father?”

“Mordred,” Arturia said with relief. Her voice was human again; words came out of her mouth, not the guttural roar of the dragon. Her hands terminated in fingers, not claws. How was this possible?

“Where are we?” Mordred asked, looking around in alarm.

“I don’t know,” Arturia said, gazing in wonder at her hands. Were they dead? Was this the afterlife?

“Arturia!” Gilgamesh was there, fury suffusing his face. “How dare you insult me by taking such foolish risks? Your recklessness -“

“I was doing what had to be done in order to save my people. You know that,” she responded coolly.

“My, you are all so loud.”

All three of them whirled to face the speaker. There, amidst the drifting gray emptiness, stood Morgan.

Morgan tilted her head. “It is unexpected that three should answer the summons of one. An unusual thread of fate binds you, one that I must investigate further. Still, this turn of events could prove advantageous.” Seeing the expression on Arturia’s face, she added, “Hello sister.”

NO. Arturia staggered back, shuddering. Memories surfaced: the night, the feeling of skin on skin….

A touch on her arm snapped her back to reality. It was Gilgamesh. She felt a gentle pressure on her other side as well; Mordred was there, stabilizing her. Arturia relaxed against them both, and together they all faced the figure who stood before them.

Mordred shook her head. “That’s not her, Father,” the knight said. “I don’t know who it is, but that’s not Morgan.”

Yes. Morgan was dead, gone, pierced by a thousand swords. Even a mage couldn’t come back from that.

The figure who looked like Morgan frowned. “Hmm. I selected this form in order to ensure your docility and compliance. I see that I miscalculated. Unfortunate. The energy expenditure necessary to change my form is too high, so we shall continue to converse while I am in this body.” Mordred was right, Arturia thought. This isn’t how Morgan would talk, even if this creature shared both Morgan’s appearance and her conniving nature.

The figure gave a slight bow. “Allow me to introduce myself: I am Alaya.”

Beside her, Gilgamesh snarled, “You have no place here, mongrel. She never made the contract with you.” Arturia shot him a puzzled glance but he ignored her.

Alaya waved a hand in vague irritation. “A technicality. An unfortunate delay caused by you and the homunculus.”

When Gilgamesh had no reply, Alaya turned to Arturia. God, it was unnerving how much this thing looked like Morgan. “You are dead, Arturia. In your absence, your kingdom will fall into ruin or be overrun by the Saxons. In a generation or two, the city you have built will be only a memory. I offer you a choice: I can restore you to life and allow you to continue ruling your kingdom. Upon your death, you will be my servant and you will continue the work of preserving humanity.”

“Who are you?” Arturia whispered.

“I am the will of humanity to defend itself.” Alaya gave a smile that showed all of her teeth.

Arturia glanced at Gilgamesh. The look he shot her was clear: don’t do it. Arturia gave a slight nod.  However angry he was at her for taking what he deemed to be unnecessary risks, he would not guide her astray.

“I fear I will have to decline your offer, Lady Alaya. My apologies,” Arturia said.

Without missing a beat, Alaya pivoted to Mordred. “And what of you, homunculus? You would make an excellent Counter Guardian.”

“Listen, bitch,” Mordred snapped. “If you call me a homunculus one more time-“

“But that is what you are,” Alaya replied. “An artificial human, grown from the ova of Morgan le Fay and the sperm of Arturia Pendragon. That is why you have reached sexual maturity so quickly, and it is also why you will start to decay far more rapidly than a human.” She tilted her head in a very un-Morgan-like way. “According to my calculations, you have five to ten functional years left. If you make a contract to enter my service, I will multiply that exponentially.”

Next to her, Mordred swallowed hard. Arturia’s heart twisted. Oh my child, I am so sorry.

Mordred laughed with easy contempt, though Arturia knew that this information must have shaken her. “Who cares? It’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it.”

Alaya blinked, clearly unable to recognize the innuendo.“You answer in the negative?”

Mordred mimicked her tone. “Yeah, I answer in the negative.”

Alaya nodded thoughtfully, then made a gesture. Two swords appeared in front of Arturia and Mordred.

“Then you will fight each other, and the one who loses will become a Counter Guardian.”

Mordred stared at the sword in front of her, stuck blade first into whatever comprised the ground of this strange world. Then she laughed. “Oh fuck that. You can’t make us do that.”

“It is indeed difficult to compel mortal creatures to do anything. But I will only release you from this place once one of you chooses to become a Counter Guardian.” She looked around at the gray world. “Presently we are located outside of ordinary time and space, in a Reality Marble of my creation. Unlike most mages you have met, I can sustain this state of affairs nearly indefinitely.”

Gilgamesh broke in. “Mongrel, how dare you detain us here? All your foolish chatter about-“

“Ah, King Gilgamesh,” Alaya looked at him. “Unfortunately you are a poor choice for Counter Guardian. You were always much more interested in yourself than in humanity.”

She raised a hand and Gilgamesh was lifted up bodily from the ground. Something unseen wracked him, and his body contorted in agony. He gritted his teeth on a scream of pain.

Alaya gazed at him, expressionless. “A strange thing, the human capacity for pain.”

“STOP,” Arturia cried, pulling out the sword.“Let him go.”

Alaya made a gesture and Gilgamesh fell to the ground.

Mordred was staring at her, wide-eyed. With the sword in her hands, Arturia realized how she must look. “Father, no,” Mordred said. “Don’t do this, please.”

“Pick up your sword,” Arturia hissed through her teeth, as she glanced at Gilgamesh. He had managed to get into a crouching position. His eyes caught hers, and flicked toward Alaya.

If they hadn’t spent weeks together in the wilderness – if she hadn’t felt every inch of his skin against hers and learned the intimate language of his body – she might not have understood what he meant.

She knew what he was planning. And she was certain that he knew her well enough to know what kind of strategy she might use.

No words passed between them. None were needed.

Arturia lifted her sword and drove it into her breast. Alaya cried out in shock and Gilgamesh took advantage of the distraction to tackle her. The gray world around them rumbled as Alaya’s focus shook.

Arturia sank to the ground, driving the sword deeper into her chest. It didn’t hurt as much this time, which was good, but she was so cold….

“Father!” Mordred was with her. “Father why…”

Arturia smiled at her. She’d never seen Mordred looked so distressed before, so unlike the brash persona she showed to the world. “What kind of father would let you die here? Someone’s coming to retrieve you as we speak.” The gray world around them began to crumble.

Arturia reached a hand up to touch Mordred’s cheek. “You were a good son, Mordred. I am sure you will make a wonderful king.”

Arturia glanced at Gilgamesh, who was still wrestling with Alaya. She wished she could tell him that she loved him once last time. Then again, she was sure that he understood. She closed her eyes and let the gentle darkness wash her away.

Chapter Text

“Damn kid, you’ve got some good luck, you know that?”

Mordred blinked. Father and Gilgamesh and that Alaya bitch were all gone, and instead of being in that weird gray world she was floating somewhere far above her own world. She could see Camelot and the forest – not to mention the charred wreckage of the battlefield - as well as the farms and countryside beyond.

She glanced up, and saw the Lady of the Lake. The Lady was carrying her, and kept them both aloft with the elegant white wings of a crane that sprouted from her back.

Mordred raised one of her hands and realized she could see through it. She yelped in surprise. “Fuck! Am I dead?!”

“No, you idiot. Do you think I’d be trying to return you to your damn homeland if you were dead?”

“Hey, it’s a fair question. I don’t know what kind of shit you Fae get up to.”

“I’m not just one of the Fae, kid, I’m a fucking goddess. Show some respect.” She shook her head. “You’re lucky I like your dad.”

Mordred went quiet. "Father's gone, you know.”

“Yeah, I know,” Vivian frowned. “She made that call a while ago, when she chose to become the dragon.”

They were both quiet for a moment, then Mordred said, “I guess we’re right back where we started huh, with Father dead. It’s like all of this was for nothing.” She paused, thinking. “No, that’s not true. Father might be dead, but she died saving her country, not fighting with her own kid. We won a victory against the Saxons. I’m king now, it looks like. And…” She thought of Father and Gilgamesh. They’d been a family of sorts, for a little while anyway. “We got to have some good times too,” she added awkwardly.

Vivian glanced at Mordred, nodding in respect. “You’re pretty sharp, kid, I was just about to say the same thing.”

“Heh. Thanks.” Something occurred to her.  “Hey, do you think the Saxons will win now that Father’s gone?”

They had reached the city of Camelot, and passed through the walls as though they were made of mist. “I don’t know,” the Lady said. “I usually have a pretty good handle on likely futures, but everything’s gone topsy-turvy since you and the Golden King showed up. I don’t think it’s likely that the Saxons will return, though. You defeated them soundly.”

Mordred nodded, thinking of something else. “Alaya said that I was a homunculus, that I was artificial and didn’t have long to live.” Mordred paused and then asked “Is that true?”

The Lady sighed unhappily. “You won’t have a full human lifespan and you’ll age more rapidly than other humans. I might be able to slow down the progression for a little while, but even I can’t change that fact.”

Mordred sighed. Morgan had mentioned something about this before, but Mordred had assumed that it was a product of her mother’s cruelty rather than a reflection of fact. Apparently not.

“What are you going to do?” The Lady asked.

“I don’t know,” Mordred replied. “I’ll figure it out. And anyway, nobody really knows how much time they have left, homunculus or not.”

They swept through the corridor, coming to the bed in the infirmary on which Mordred’s body was lying. “Oh that’s weird,” Mordred said, staring at her own body. Someone was sitting on the chair next to her – was that Lancelot, of all people?!

The Lady smiled. “Call me if you need anything, okay kid?”

Mordred opened her eyes. She was back in her body – the sudden ache of a dozen bruises and the flare of pain in her injured ankle told her that much.   

Lancelot leaned in, a sudden smile stretching across his face. “You’re awake!”

“Ooof, yeah I guess so,” Mordred said, drawing a deep breath into her aching lungs.

“You vanished suddenly in the middle of the fighting. I looked all over but no one could find you. Then you reappeared in the same place after the battle.” He shook his head, as though he couldn’t quite believe it himself. “It was a while after, and we might not have found you at all if there hadn’t been a scout patrolling the area. If it was anyone else, I would have assumed that they were a deserter or dead.’”

“’If it was anyone else?’” Mordred smirked. “Are you trying to pay me a compliment, Lancelot?”

Lancelot scowled, the expression awkward on his pretty face. “It’s an accurate assessment. You never did know when to quit. You’d never flee from a battlefield – we’d have to drag you away from it.”

Mordred grinned. He wasn’t wrong. Then the smile melted off her face as something else occurred to her. “The battle with the Saxons. What happened?”

“It was a staggering victory,” Lancelot replied. “Our losses were small compared to theirs. And that dragon….” He shook his head in awe. He didn’t know what the dragon was or why it had arrived at that moment to ensure their victory, but Mordred did. She wasn’t about to share that information with him, though.

“Anyway,” Lancelot recovered. “The Saxons are retreating. There’s been no formal declaration of defeat – and I suggest that we don’t pursue it – but our scouts report that several clans left this morning and others are likely to follow. It looks like they’re heading southeast.”

Mordred nodded. Even if the Saxons were limping back to their stronghold, there was no garauntee that they would remain there. It was only a matter of time before they staged another attack. Mordred would have to figure out a way to deal with them.   

“Your Majesty, there is someone here to see you,” an attendant poked her head around the door. With a shock, Mordred realized that Your Majesty referred to her. Damn, that title was going to take some getting used to.

Lancelot rolled his eyes and clapped a hand to Mordred’s shoulder, rising from his chair. “Rest well,” he said before leaving the room. Mordred watched him go, reevaluating her earlier assumptions. Maybe he wasn’t as stuffy and boring as she remembered.

Her wife Ailish entered the room. To Mordred’s awe, she was wearing armor in the Pictish style – worn and dented armor, no less, armor that had actually seen combat.

“Where did you get that?" Mordred asked.

“It’s mine,” Ailish said, looking at it proudly.

“I mean who did you get it from?”

“I said. It’s mine.” There was an edge in Ailish’s soft voice this time.

“You – oh,” Mordred frowned, thinking. She knew that many Pictish women were trained to fight, but she’d never dreamed that her wife was one of them. She sat up slightly as another thought occurred to her:  “Did you fight in the battle?!”

“Yes,” she said shyly. “With my Pictish brothers. You should lie back down before you hurt yourself.”

“Did you, uh, kill anybody.”

“Yes, seven Saxon warriors,” said Ailish. Mordred almost wouldn’t have believed it save for the obvious wear on Ailish’s armor and weaponry. This clearly wasn’t the girl’s first battle.

Mordred stared at Ailish as though she’d sprouted antlers. “I uh, I didn’t know you knew how to fight.”

“You never asked,” Ailish said with a wry smile.

“I guess I didn’t.” Mordred’s secret itched within her. Now was as good a time as any. “Ailish, I need to tell you something.” She hesitated, then said, “I’m a woman.”

She wasn’t sure how she expected Ailish to react to this admission, but she certainly didn’t expect her wife to smile and chuckle behind her hand. “Yes, isn’t that obvious?”

Once again, Mordred found herself stared open-mouthed at her wife. You can sleep next to a person for months and still they find ways to surprise you. “You didn’t think it was weird that you were marrying a woman?!”

Ailish shrugged. “Sometimes women fall in love with each other. Marriage between two of them is more unusual, but I thought it might be a Briton custom.”

Mordred rubbed her forehead. How long had she spent biting her tongue, trying to hold this secret back from the person she’d bound her life to? No wonder Ailish had been so quiet and depressed. Mordred had barely acknowledged her.

Mordred continued, “You understand this means we won’t be able to have children of our own, right?” The Pictish alliance was premised on the descendants of Ailish.

Ailish tilted her head, thinking, her girlish gestures a strange contrast to her armor. “If a flower appears in someone’s field, doesn’t everyone assume it belongs to him regardless of who planted the seed?”

Mordred’s mouth fell open as revelation dawned on her. Ailish blushed and glanced away. “I mean, discreetly of course,” she added.

“No, I’m with you,” Mordred replied. Maybe this would be alright after all. “Hey, I’m sorry about the way I acted earlier. Ignoring you and all.”

Ailish nodded. “I understand. You were scared too.” Blushing slightly, she reached out and took Mordred’s hand. “We will have many years together to create new memories.”

Mordred swallowed hard. “Ha, yeah.” Five to ten years, Alaya had said. Vivian had promised to extend that, but by how much? Would it be time enough to fortify Britannia against the Saxons, to ensure King Arthur’s legacy?

What was it going to be like to be King Mordred? Would she be equal to the task?

Well, that was a stupid question. She’d have to be.

She thought of Father and Gilgamesh and felt a sudden pang of longing. She wished they were here with her, but they weren’t. Still, it didn’t matter. Between the two of them, they’d taught her how to be a king of legend.
_____
 
Arturia stared at the water. Just a moment before she had been in the crumbling ruin of Alaya’s Reality Marble. Now she was standing at the shore of some river, a small boat drifting on the waters in front of her. A hooded figure sat in the boat.

“I have been waiting for you, Arturia,” the figure said.

“Where is Gilgamesh? Where’s Mordred?” She asked. She did not want to ask why the woman knew her name.

The woman shook her head. “They are not here. Their stories are no longer a part of yours. I can say no more than that.”

Arturia nodded. There was no use protesting. There was only room for one more in the boat.

Arturia climbed in and sat in the empty seat. The woman pushed off into the center of the dark river and began to guide the ship through the waters. The only sound was the splash of the paddles on the water.

“I suppose you want a coin as payment for passage?” Arturia said wryly, breaking the silence.

The figure shook her head. “Not from you, Once and Future King. Ferrying you to your final resting place is an honor.”

Her final resting place. Fear filled Arturia. She thought of the hell that the priests preached about: fire and brimstone and endless torture. It was said that murderers and liars and adulterers went to hell, and she was all of those things. “Where am I bound?" she asked.

“Avalon,” the woman said simply.

“Avalon?” Arturia was puzzled. “But Merlin has it.”

“No. Not the sheath. The island that is its namesake. The resting place of heroes.” At that moment, the boat made its way around a bend and golden sunlight suffused Arturia’s vision. It made her recall the days of her youth long before she ever pulled the sword out of the stone, when she played with Kay and the other children through long summer afternoons.

There were trees weighed down with sweet fruit and near-endless fields of soft grass. It seemed to her that there were people waiting for her on the shore, people she’d long been wanting to see. Was that Kay, and Gawain? And that older woman and man – could those be her parents?

The bottom of the boat scraped against the sand. Arturia stepped onto shore.
_____
 
Gilgamesh pinned Alaya as the gray world fell to shards around them. She glared up at him in an expression oddly suited to Morgan’s face. “Impertinence! You were always subject to impulsiveness, despite your many gifts. You are poorly suited to be a Guardian, but there is another who wishes to acquire you. I give you over to him now.”

Gilgamesh felt tendrils of darkness wrap around him. The sensation was sinister and all too familiar. Something he had not encountered since Fuyuki and the tainted Grail. It couldn’t be.

Alaya wore a look of satisfaction as her body dissolved into a thousand motes of light. Gilgamesh barely had time to curse her before the darkness took him.

Chapter Text

The Grail had been the force that granted him this strange un-life, and it was the Grail that took him back now. The black mud swallowed him, and Angra Mainyu showed him an endless procession of horrors: starving mouths yawned, babies were thrown to their deaths, villages were torched, entire cities put to the sword. Milennia of this.

These tragedies have nothing to do with me, Gilgamesh replied.

The visions became more personal. He beheld Enkidu falling into dust before him. He saw Arturia, smeared with blood and dirt, the handle of the sax protruding from her stomach. NO. He opened his mouth to scream and black ooze poured out.

Do you yield? Came the formless voice

Gilgamesh snarled back, Never.

When Gilgamesh refused to break, the Grail redoubled its efforts. He fought it with every ounce of his strength. He had killed the giant Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, and he had beaten back the Saxon invaders. He was King Gilgamesh and he would not lose to a mere cup.

At last the Grail withdrew; perhaps he had wounded it. He began to search for a way out, to claw at the darkness. Could that be a hint of light?

You cannot escape me.

Watch me, you filthy mongrel.

You will lose a part of yourself if you do. There is a price that must be paid.

Gilgamesh ignored this. He tore a hole in the fabric of the world and forced his way through. He felt something – something precious – being torn from him, but he had no time to think about it before his lungs were filled with air rather than tar, and he found himself in a burned out husk of a city.

He was covered in mud. He made a sound of disgust and wiped himself as clean as possible. He was nude, but that didn’t particularly bother him. Where was he? Where was that mongrel Kiritsugu, who had just given Saber that foolish command? For that matter, where was Saber herself?

He saw a shock of brown hair protruding from a heap of rubble, looking like a tuft of grass. Gilgamesh grabbed it and yanked. Up came the head of Kotomine Kirei, who was mercifully unconscious.

It wouldn’t do to let his erstwhile Master die. This priest with the eyes of a shark was only mildly entertaining, far less to his taste than the incomparable Saber, but having him alive would make things much more convenient. Gilgamesh laid him down atop the rubble.

The city smoldered around him. In the distance he could hear sirens and shouting, but everything around him was dead except for the unconscious priest. Where had he been before this? He dimly recalled the visions inside the dark mud of the Grail, but there had been something even before that – a place with castles and green fields and…

He shook his head. His last clear memory was of Saber, screaming as her Noble Phantasm destroyed the Grail, his sword piercing her thigh. How irritating that his proposal had been interrupted like that.  

Gilgamesh watched Fuyuki burn. _____ There are many branches on the tree. The right choice at a key moment might set into motion a new chain of events, causing one timeline to break away from the other. Lines of continuity are fractured and then forged anew.

It is said that there are infinite worlds that can be seen through the Kaleidoscope. There might be a world in which they are all sitting in the feasting hall. The ordinary people are there, celebrating a bountiful harvest. Mordred, on the king’s right side, engages in some sort of drinking game as her Father looks on in wry amusement. Gilgamesh holds himself aloof, but the faintest trace of a smile appears on his face when one of his recruits runs over to greet him. The people of Camelot have come to accept his place at the side of the king.

Arturia glances at them. Her lover and her child. She’d never imagined that such a thing could be possible.  

Someone calls for quiet. Arturia rises to address her people and realizes that she is smiling.