They stood at the edge of the lake, the very one Merlin had convinced the commoners Arthur had received his sword from, letting the world fade away, the sounds of the water and wind the only real things they were willing to consider.
“How did it come to this?” Bedivere asked, not expecting an answer.
Kai was silent for several heartbeats before he replied: “Were you actually looking for details?” There were hints of more formal intonations and intentions, leftovers from their years around Arthur's table still finding their way into Kai's words.
“Yes,” Bedivere answered before he could think about it.
Kai began to speak, voice coming from somewhere deep in his chest rather than the back of his throat as it did when he was still keeper of the castle.
“I'm not sure how I like him,” Kai said to his father as the elder man went about setting up a space for the infant Arthur.
“You'll like him in time,” Ector assured his son, “It's a lot happening right now, but we'll adjust. We always have.”
Kai watched his father work, tired hands steady while the infant slept in his bundle of rags that hid a blanket more befitting royalty.
“Why do we have to keep him?” Kai asked as he stood on his toes to get a better look.
“You leave him sleep,” Ector scolded, “You'll understand when you're older.”
“You say that about everything,” Kai rolled his eyes, “I want to understand NOW.”
Ector laughed, a quiet, brief thing. He stopped his fussing to turn around and kneel on one knee so he was closer to his son's eye level.
“Arthur is destined for great things, but not for a long, long time,” Ector explained, “And until then, we have to keep him secret and safe.”
“Merlin said war was coming near,” Kai recalled the wizard's word, “Aren't you supposed to go fight in wars? You're one of Uther's knights, after all.”
“Not this war, son,” Ector shook his head, “Sometimes being a knight means doing what your King requires, even if it isn't quite what you expect to do.”
“Will mum be back to help?” Kai had so many questions, as most boys of his age did. He had no idea how unwelcome they were, both for his father and the universe at large.
“No,” Ector reached out a hand to squeeze Kai's shoulder, “It's just going to be the three of us, I'm afraid.”
“Then who's going to teach him how to do things while you're working?” Kai looked back towards the infant.
“I suppose that will be you,” Ector said as he rose, “You'll make a good teacher, Kai.”
Kai's eyes went wide, the remainder of his questions gone with the sudden sense of duty his father had imparted. He walked back to Arthur, as quietly as he could, and used the edge of the table to pull himself up a little better.
“You're going to be great,” Kai told the sleeping bundle, “and I'm going to get you there.”
Ector chuckled as he scooped Arthur up and placed him on a nest of furs, a much more suitable bed for a future king.
“Kai, wait!” Arthur called, his brother just out of sight after cresting the hill before him.
“You hurry!” Kai called back despite coming to a stop in a few paces, “You'll have to learn to keep up!”
“Your legs are longer,” Arthur called, not sure if Kai would be waiting, “It's not fair!”
“Of course my legs are longer,” Kai went back to the top of the hill, lengthening his strides as he went, “I'm older.”
“You will always be older and your legs will always be longer,” Arthur grumbled, “I don't see how I'm supposed to catch up to that.”
Eight years had passed and Kai, newly thirteen, had taken to showing Arthur everything he learned almost as soon as he learned it for himself. The boys had no concept of what a child should and should not do, so the tools Kai shared – knife, bow, hunting traps, practice swords – were all near too large in his young hands.
Still, Kai was sharp and a strict teacher, and he was determined not to let Arthur be less just because of his age and size.
“Everyone stops growing eventually,” Kai shrugged, bouncing from one foot to the other, “You'll get there.”
“No I won't,” Arthur pouted, “Where are we going?”
“Into the woods,” Kai reminded him, “We're going to set rabbit traps and then swim in the stream and then go back and collect what we've caught for dinner.”
“Ew,” Arthur pulled a face, “You're skinning them, right?” They stood at the top of the hill, Arthur trying to catch his breath.
The first time Arthur had tried to skin one of their catches his hand had slipped, earning himself a forearm gash Kai had to use his own tunic to tie off so they could get home. Their catch had been left behind and there was no meat with dinner that night.
Arthur hadn't yet gotten over the entire incident.
“Sure,” Kai sighed, “Now come on. The sooner we set the traps, the more time we spend swimming.”
“Okay!” Arthur took off running again, laughing as the slope of the downhill helped him speed up.
Kai shook his head before he took off after Arthur.
“He grew up as your brother rather than your foster-brother?” Bedivere interrupted. Kai nodded. “Why?”
“Father – Ector – believed nothing good would come of Arthur finding out he had different parents before it was time,” Kai's voice held notes of arguments long since past, arguments that could only be brought to a close by arguing with the dead.
“I don't understand!” Arthur cried as Kai rushed to get both of their bags packed.
“You'll understand in a few days,” Kai's voice was tight, frightened, “For now, we have to get out of here.”
“But dad -” Arthur's protests were cut off as Kai shoved his bag into his chest. Kai threw several furs across his shoulders, knowing they would be their only protection from the elements. Arthur followed his lead.
“Ector and Uther and hundreds of others are dead,” Kai was already nearly out the door, “knights and common folk and children and women alike. There will be war on our doorstep in the morning. It would be unwise to join either the dead or the war.”
“Where are we going?” Arthur took off after Kai.
“We take Ector's horses,” Kai couldn't refer to him as 'dad' right now; he couldn't stop to personalize the loss, “and we ride until they can't ride any more. We'll figure it out from there.”
“Here,” Arthur slung his pack over his shoulder, “I'll saddle them. Go grab more, if you can.”
Kai gave pause before he realized exactly what Arthur was saying.
Go get any valuables Ector would have hidden.
Kai ran back inside, leaving his bag by the horses.
He returned with a small leather sack tied around his waist and two swords in their scabbards. He handed one to Arthur, who tied it to his saddle.
He had saddled two of the horses and tied the other three horses to the saddled ones – the youngest horse to one and the two older, more trained horses to the other. He'd managed to tie the furs he had grabbed to one of the horses who lacked tack.
Kai was proud.
“What now?” Arthur's voice cracked.
“Now,” Kai picked up his bag and jumped on one of the horses in a single, near-fluid movement, “we try not to think until we see the sunlight.”
Arthur nodded as if he understood. He was slightly less graceful getting on his horse.
They rode as quickly as they could, Kai leading the way.
It was easier like this, Arthur realized, following Kai.
Merlin found the young men two mornings later. They had set up a small camp far from any town, four of the five horses remaining.
One had tripped the first night and pulled up worse than lame. It had screamed in pain and staggered to its knees, the entire group having to stop.
Kai had untied it from his horse and slashed its throat, a mercy that nevertheless had caused Arthur to scream in fear at Kai's decision.
Kai explained it would have suffered and died alone otherwise. Placated but still unhappy, Arthur accepted the explanation.
“Arthur Pendragon,” Merlin announced his presence by calling to the King who didn't know he was King, “Where on Earth have you been?”
Merlin's horse was the biggest stallion Arthur had ever seen, black as night and sleek. The beast reminded him of the moment before the sky opened and a storm started.
Arthur looked to Kai for guidance. Kai was glowering at Merlin, so Arthur hardened his face as much as he could for having fifteen summers to his name.
“I've been here,” Arthur said, “and I'm not a Pendragon.”
Merlin laughed as if Arthur had something hilarious. Kai sighed and turned back to tend their fire.
It was a sigh that marked the end of Kai's ability to stay ahead of Arthur and protect him from the world.
“No one told you?” Merlin asked.
“Told me what?” Arthur demanded. He looked between Kai and Merlin, hopelessly lost.
“Kai ap Ector, I am shocked,” Merlin addressed the elder of the two, “You, keep a secret for fifteen years?”
“I do what I must,” Kay's reply was without emotion. His eyes were lowered, head turned away.
Shame, Arthur thought, was a terrible look on his brother.
“We're not brothers,” Kai told Arthur, “You're Uther's son, hidden for political reasons with his most trusted knight.”
“No,” Arthur shook his head, “I'm your brother. I'm Ector's son. I'm going to start train to be a Knight next summer and we're going to be Knights together.”
“I'm already a Knight,” Kai hadn't told Arthur he'd been Knighted over a year prior, opting to stay to protect the Prince rather than continue to train with the King and his father, “and you're King now.”
“No,” Arthur refused, “None of that can be true. I cannot be the heir to the throne. Go find another.”
“You are the King,” Merlin's patience had already run out, “and the only one who is going to continue the bloodline. There is a lot I am going to tell you on the road, but it's time to leave.”
“But the camp -” Arthur gestured around himself.
“Sir Kai will take care of the camp,” Merlin snapped, “and meet us at court as soon as he is able. Now, get on your animal and come along.”
“Kai,” Arthur's voice was a plea.
“Go,” Kai finally looked at Arthur, “Go with Merlin.”
“A visit a year and you never thought it a good idea to maybe tell me you were visiting to check on the future King?” Arthur was yelling at Merlin as he mounted his horse, “Fifteen fucking years and no one told me. It’s because they’re afraid of you, isn’t it, Merlin?”
“I thought we'd have more time,” Kai was barely loud enough for Arthur to hear.
Arthur turned back to look at Kai, fearing it would be the last time he saw his brother.
Kai didn't watch them leave.
Bedivere shivered, the chill of the lake's air not at fault.
“You make it sound as if you did not like Merlin,” Bedivere tried to pick his words carefully.
“I did not like the secrets he forced to be kept and the way he treated Arthur as if Arthur was his to command,” Kai's words were more free, “I did not like how he kept his prophecies to himself until it was too late to follow them. Arthur grew up surrounded by so many secrets I fear he never knew himself, and as such he was woefully unprepared for everything that was about to happen.”
“It was the next day that I met Arthur,” Bedivere told Kai, “He was exhausted and his eyes were haunted, but he was alert and refused to rest until nightfall.”
“He was always proud,” Kai's words were softer, now, “and always afraid of being left behind.”
The gentle waves of the lake lapped at their feet as Kai continued the story.
It was near a week before Kai joined them at court. By that time, Merlin had concocted a convoluted story about a sword and an anvil and a prophecy that was beginning to spread, whispers of Uther's secret heir come to claim his birthright.
“Where were you?” were Arthur's first words to Kai upon his return. He was angry. At who, exactly, Kai could not tell.
“Believe it or not,” Kai seethed, “the road isn't as easy for all of us as it may have been for you.”
Merlin ushered Arthur away, leaving no room for more questions between once-brothers.
Kai untacked his horse and saw the mare and the other one who survived the trip were taken to the stables for food and water. A squire who couldn't have been older than ten tried to carry the things Kai hadn't left behind or otherwise parted with.
Kai took most of the load out of pity. The squire looked terrified.
“I will show you to your rooms, sir,” the small voice said, “We've been expecting you.”
“Of course you have,” Kay muttered, “Go on then.”
It was a winding trip up several steep flights of stairs and down a number of damp hallways, servants and displaced Knights that survived the worst of the battle's fury casting him awkward glances.
Kai was too clean, too wide-eyed to be one of them from the battlefield, too tall and lanky to be of the Pendragon line, too fresh-faced to have yet seen the horrors of battle. He was an outsider, not to be trusted, being lead to the deepest parts of the castle.
When he was finally shown his rooms, he told the squire to drop the load on the floor and leave him be. The squire was quick to do so, almost running away.
He had, he supposed, just snapped at a child who had seen the aftermath of the horrors of war for simply existing in his space.
He made quick work of untying the leather straps that kept his boots snug against his legs, allowing for much better blood circulation. He kept his riding jacket on, fearing the chilly dampness of the hallway was in his rooms and not simply lingering.
He had been attacked on the road, one exhausted young man with no armor or visible weapons in charge of three horses and piles of fur making a tempting target for people who had just lost everything.
He'd gotten away with a deep wound to his right thigh, one lost horse, and the tent the horse was carrying the only losses he suffered.
Still too much, he believed.
It was a good thing he was alone, he told himself. No one had to see his failure to defend what was his.
His leg ached, the tunics he'd sacrificed to keep the thing closed – or at least from seeping through everything he owned – stained and rubbing the area raw. He'd managed to not limp thus far, but now that he was alone his leg dragged, the limb exhausted and so far beyond pain he didn't have words for it.
The rooms – his rooms – were four in number: a sort of welcome chamber, sleeping quarters, a store room, and what Kai supposed was meant to be a servant's quarters. He only glanced at the store room and servant's quarters, unwilling to look through something he'd never had need for.
He wondered if he had been taken to the wrong rooms.
He wondered what Arthur and Merlin had planned for him.
The bed had a horse hair mattress and feather pillows but no bedding to speak of. It was the most comfortable thing he had ever sat on.
The bedroom and welcome chamber each had windows large enough to let light in and yet narrow enough someone could not climb in or out of them without making a production of the effort.
Kai bolted the door with the wooden latch and laid down to sleep, still in his riding attire.
Arthur pounded on Kai's door over and over until Kai finally woke up and shuffled to the door to see what the noise was about. It was dark outside, and as such dark in his rooms.
“KAI!” Arthur cried and lept at his foster-brother, hugging him tight, “Kai, I was so worried.”
“The road was difficult,” Kai offered, “Come, tell me what has happened.”
Arthur was quick to enter Kai's rooms with a torch swiped from the hallway and bolt the door behind them.
“May we sit?” Arthur asked.
“Please,” Kai made his way back to the bed. Arthur hooked the torch into a holder fixed into the wall. He sat down next to Kai, thankfully on Kai's side that had not been injured.
“Merlin showed me everything,” Arthur was exhausted, “Not told, showed. His magic is something beyond imagination. I'm King, Kai, King.”
“I know,” Kai's voice held notes of regret, “I am sorry.”
“I forgive you,” Arthur was quick to say, “I understand now the weight of the secrets you and dad – Ector – were forced to keep. I can't imagine the weight it must have put on your mind.”
“You're even beginning to speak like a King,” Kai noted, “Dad was quick to make sure I treated you as a brother and teach you everything you'd normally learn from a parent. He told me you were destined for great things, and I decided I would be the one to get you there. I had no idea exactly what he meant until much later, when he finally decided I was old enough to keep that type of secret.”
“When they died,” Arthur leaned on Kai's shoulder, heart and soul heavy, “our fathers. How did you keep yourself together to get us out of harm's way like you did? You were so quick to act, so steadfast when you had every right to mourn.”
“I focused on what I had left,” Kai answered honestly, “I focused on not losing you to the war that was coming.”
“The messenger,” Arthur shivered, “What happened to him?”
“Presumably what happened to a lot of people,” Kai tried to shrug, “Or he lived. He had a lot of families to inform there had been an attempted coup that turned into a battle.”
“The coup didn't work, did it?” Arthur was still trying to wrap his head around everything.
“Only because you survived,” Kai explained, “I am assuming there will be many more battles, perhaps enough to count it as its own war, against you now that you're on the throne.”
“That's what Merlin's been saying,” Arthur sounded as if he had been defeated already, “I don't have a head for this sort of thing.”
“You don't yet,” Kai corrected, “But you will.”
“I couldn't even skin a rabbit on my own until last summer,” Arthur whined, “How am I supposed to send men to their death in my name?”
“Try thinking it as sacrificing the few for the safety of the many,” Kai suggested.
“I can try,” Arthur frowned, “It's late tonight, but tomorrow, I want you to join me in the planning parts of court. And the talking parts. And all the parts, honestly.”
“You're King now,” Kai reminded him, “I will not be able to teach you as I have your entire life while you are holding court.”
“I get to pick who I want close to me,” Arthur was quick to say, “I'll need to pick a lot of people. Most of the Knights and advisors and other things Uther kept near him are dead now. Most of the people Uther – my father – that he had hand-picked are gone. I'm going in blind.”
“Not entirely blind, Arthur. I'll be there,” Kay promised him, “What time?”
“Just before sunrise,” Arthur answered, “Everyone will be there at first light and Merlin says I need to be there first.”
“I'll let you cross the threshold first,” Kai said.
“See?” Arthur groaned, “You know stuff already like the importance of who steps over thresholds first.”
“You know this, too,” Kai jostled Arthur, trying to lighten the mood. Arthur shoved back. Kai hissed before he could stop himself, his thigh burning.
“Kai?” Arthur froze.
“It's nothing,” Kai tried to assure him.
“You're a terrible liar,” Arthur frowned.
“Only to you,” Kai shook his head, “Really, though, it's nothing.”
“Let me see,” Arthur demanded, “Let me see this nothing.”
Kai looked over to Arthur, whose jaw had set and eyes had hardened. Kai sighed, the argument lost before it had begun.
Kai removed his outer garments carefully to reveal the haphazardly wrapped gash, fabric completely soaked with dried blood. He could feel the wound threatening to open again.
“We have proper medicines here,” Arthur's face fell, “Stay here.”
“Where would I go?” Kai asked Arthur's retreating form.
He sat alone, half naked, and bleeding in the dark. When Arthur returned, he had two of the court's physicians and three squires carrying more torches with him.
“King Arthur says you were injured,” the older physician said.
“It's nothing,” Kai insisted.
One of the squires brought a torch closer to Kai's wound.
The younger physician untied the fabric strips slowly, pulling the scabs with it. Kai tried to remain stoic but failed, hissing and wincing away from the feeling. His knuckles had gone white gripping the edge of the bed.
“This is deep,” the younger physician noted, “and infected.”
“It's healing,” Kai tried to defend himself.
“What happened?” Arthur asked, forcing himself to watch. He would, he figured, have to get used to blood and gore sooner than later.
“I was stopped,” Kai said, “and continuing on had a bit of a price to it.”
“A little more detail?” Arthur tried not to plead.
“They got one of the horses and the tent,” Kai said with a heavy sigh, “I took a hit to the leg during the scuffle. Two of them took a hit to the neck, so it was almost a fair fight, I suppose.” He hissed as the physicians began to clean his wound, cold water and something that stung dripping onto the floor, mixed with some of his blood. There was a layer of dark, dried blood crusted around the now open part.
What little the torchlight afforded him to see was much worse than he'd realized.
“How many?” Arthur demanded.
“Seven?” Kai tried to remember, “Maybe six?”
“You took on seven armed bandits on horseback and only lost one horse?” the elder physician asked.
“And some supplies,” Kai added.
“Where did you train?” the oldest-looking squire asked, awe on his face.
“At home,” Kai told him, “My father he-” There was a sudden realization he'd train with the rest of the Knights now, if he trained at all, the solitude being Ector's son and foster-brother to the secret Prince had afforded him now gone.
“Ector was an excellent teacher,” Arthur picked up, “Sir Kai is worth many men in a scrape.”
“More than many,” the younger physician muttered, “That you lived was a miracle; that you're walking and still have most of your animals is beyond that.”
“I did what I had to,” Kai deflected, “The mare, the young one, and the bay gelding survived.”
Arthur frowned. The horse Kai had lost was his favorite, but had not been broken enough to ride over distances.
“How does it feel to walk on it?” the elder physician tried to assess the damage.
“It hurts,” Kai admitted, “but I managed well enough getting up here.”
“He did not limp or slow on his way up here,” the youngest squire – Kai finally recognized him as the squire that had escorted him up here – said, “I had no idea he was injured.”
“There was no need to favor it,” Kai lied.
“No need indeed,” the elder physician said, “The muscle itself is damaged. It will heal as it wants, but it will take time and you will need to stay off it as much as you can if you want to use it after it heals.”
“And it will need to be cleaned at least twice a day,” the younger physician added, “preferably by a physician and preferably when there is light out. One of the squires will show you to where you and those with similar wounds are being treated after first meal today.”
Kai recognized there was no question there, more warning that he would listen or he would be made to listen in less favorable ways.
“Understood,” Kai nodded.
Arthur stayed by Kai's side as the torches burned through their fuel and the physicians tended the wound.
At one point Kai cursed the physicians in response to a particularly painful scrape of the wound so severely that the squires took several steps back.
The physicians applied a touch more pressure to the area he was working and asked Kai to repeat himself. Kai declined.
The rest of the cleaning work was done in near-silence, the occasional hiss of pain from Kai or a cleared throat from one of the squires the loudest sounds.
Merlin came in when the work was almost done, frenzy obvious on his features.
“Arthur!” Merlin's shout shattered the silence, “You cannot run off like this!”
“I can run off as I please,” Arthur crossed his arms, “My brother is finally here and I needed to see to him.”
Merlin ignored the others in the room as he continued to lecture Arthur about the importance of ensuring he had at least one guard at all times.
“Kai is more than capable of guarding me,” Arthur snapped, “He's guarded me my entire life.”
“Kai is wounded,” Merlin pointed out the obvious.
“And yet he still got here on his own and walked up to his rooms without complaints. Even you did not notice until now,” Arthur retorted, “Kai is more than capable of guarding me.”
Merlin made a lunge at Arthur to prove a point.
Kai was on his feet and between Arthur and Merlin in half a heartbeat, leaving two confused physicians kneeling on the floor, clutching their tools and rags.
Kai had Merlin by the wrist.
“So he is,” Merlin seemed satisfied, “Do not run off again, Arthur.”
“Not alone,” Arthur didn't quite promise.
Merlin left in a huff, physicians quick to finish the cleaning and wrap clean bandages around Kai's legs. They left without a word, their sense of self-preservation keeping any comments they may have had silent.
Arthur sat down next to Kai again.
“Kai,” Arthur said once he was sure they were alone again, “I am so, so sorry, I didn't insist we wait for you.”
“Destiny waits for no one,” Kai's words were heavy, “I'm fine, Wart.” The old nickname caused a smile to ghost across Arthur's face.
“You're not going to be able to call me that any more,” Arthur informed Kai.
“Only when other people are around,” Kai tried to smile, “I'll be there, in the morning. Where, exactly?”
“Right!” Arthur realized Kai did not know his way around yet, “I'll have one of the Knights who has already pledged loyalty to me guide you.”
“Alright,” Kai nodded, “Who's been guarding you?”
“Someone named Bedivere,” Arthur frowned, “He's rather silent but one of the strongest survivors of the coup. He was wounded, though. I'm not sure if Merlin's going to let him keep acting as my guard.”
“Merlin's going to have to learn we have limited resources and a wound does not mean a loss of ability,” Kai sighed, “He undermines you, by berating you like that in front of people. Tomorrow, we can go over everything. Together.”
“I hadn’t thought it if like that. Thank you,” Arthur managed a small smile, “Do try to sleep, Kai?”
“As long as you can promise me the same thing,” Kai put an arm around Arthur.
“We are so out of our depth,” Arthur leaned into Kai again, “I'll do my best to show you the way myself, I really will.”
“I know,” Kai assured him, “I know. Now get to bed. First light grows nearer and nearer.”
“Yeah,” Arthur yawned as he stood, “See you soon.”
Kai was asleep before Arthur finished leaving.
Arthur had managed to show Kai the way to the meeting rooms. Bedivere hung back, alert and largely ignoring Kai.
Arthur had brought Kai garments that more suited a member of the court than the riding and hunting clothes Kai had brought. They fit awkwardly, the finery clashing with Kai's general affect.
Kai had struggled to get them on without jostling his wound. Arthur had waited patiently in the hallway.
Bedivere was missing his hand and part of his arm, his own bandages wrapped tight and tied with less finesse than Kai's. Arthur kept glancing over at Kai's legs to check his foster-brother's gate.
Kai managed to walk without a limp to the meeting room, a wide thing that made every sound echo. He took a moment to take in the space.
There were five windows on each of two opposing walls with two torches between each window. The side they'd entered from was plain aside from the oversized double doors. The final side of the room was a blank stone wall. If Kai squinted, he could make out the outlines of dust that hinted things hand been hung there until recently.
Arthur sat at the head of the table, too small in his father's throne. Bedivere stood behind Arthur, arms behind his back and spine rod-straight. Arthur patted the table next to him, telling Kai to sit there. Kai did.
“What we have so far,” Arthur began explaining to Kai, “is the strongest sects of the coup that killed our fathers dealt with. Several other kings see Uther's death as an invitation to try to claim Camelot and her lands as their own, so many groups of our men have been sent to meet them. To keep them as far away from us as possible.
“We also have some hints of Lords and similar figures who would like to see peace treaties with us in exchange for becoming a part of our kingdom, or at least having Camelot's aid and trade at a greatly reduced cost if they remained independent. So far, we haven't really gone into those, at least not yet. Merlin's thoughts are we need to see most of the battles and scrimmages stopped first.”
Kai watched Arthur carefully as he spoke, the words strange to hear and the affect changed entirely from when they'd fled the only home either of them had even known in the dark of night.
“And what do you think?” Kai asked, knowing full well he could not ask such questions with more people present. He hoped the trust Bedivere held by virtue of his position was not misplaced.
“I think a network of loyal areas would be a good thing,” Arthur sighed, “Even if the areas are not connected physically, it would mean more men to help fight, more areas we could have people reporting to, more eyes and ears keeping watch forces that may come for us.”
Kai looked proud. Bedivere looked surprised, but only for a moment. Kai could have convinced himself it was a trick of the torchlight if he had been so inclined.
Bedivere had not said a word all morning, at least not in Kai's presence.
“What are we expecting today?” Kai asked.
“Reports on how the battles are going,” Arthur replied, “We will hear where there is still fighting, what areas and people are still considered to be risks to Camelot. We will hear how many dead, or at least an estimate. Hopefully some news of peace.”
“War is always going to happen,” Kai told Arthur, “Maybe not here, maybe not even your men, but war is a part of humanity.”
“It doesn't have to be,” Arthur put his head down on the table. Kai rustled Arthur's hair. Bedivere put his hand around Kai's wrist, a solid gesture telling him to not touch his King. Kai withdrew, a sadness he was unfamiliar with filling his heart.
Bedivere watched Kai out of the corner of his eye, suspicion and distrust not hidden in the glare.
“If that's what you believe,” Kai's voice was dangerously close to hollow, “then perhaps you should begin to draft plans about how you plan on changing the standard of war into one of peace. When your plans are not drafts, you can present them.”
“You've always been the better planner,” Arthur sat up again, smoothing his hair as best as he could manage, “I can't do this, Kai.”
“Can and can't don't matter here,” Kai tried to be gentle, “You will do this and you will succeed.”
“How?” Arthur demanded an answer, “How will I succeed when I cannot?”
“Arthur,” Kai dropped his voice and his head, “listen to yourself.”
Arthur sighed and slumped his shoulders.
“Just a week and a half ago you were teaching me how to repair broken saddles and patch a boat in the middle of a lake,” Arthur was shaking, “Now I'm King and have to relearn everything about who I am and how to be, well, a person. A King.”
“You've always been a fast study,” Kai reached out and touched Arthur on the shoulder, almost daring the King's personal guard to stop him again, “and you've always overcome whatever was put in your way. This, ultimately, will be no different. I will be here with you every step of the way now that I have finally arrived, for anything you need me.”
“Arthur will not be your puppet,” Bedivere finally spoke, his hand around Kai's wrist, neither of them moving.
Kai laughed before he could stop himself, the sharp sound echoing more than their voices had.
“Arthur was my brother long before he was King,” Kai finally managed to say, “If I had wanted to be a King in the shadows I would not have taught him to think or act for himself.”
Bedivere withdrew his hand and stiffened his posture even more. He looked straight ahead, ignoring Kai's presence entirely.
“I mean it, Arthur,” Kai withdrew his hand, “I cannot imagine what you're being put through, but if I can lessen your burden, I will do so gladly.”
“You have your spot here,” Arthur promised him.
“With the rooms I was given it would seem odd not to work to deserve them,” Kai shrugged.
“Other people will show up soon,” Arthur ended their conversation, “It would be best if we seemed to not have been in deep conversation.
Kai nodded his understanding.
“I was so furious with your brazen closeness to the King,” Bedivere hung his head, “I did not know you were the same foster-brother he'd spoken of.”
“And we did not make a mention of it until then,” Kai had long since forgiven Bedivere, “I felt responsible for the gaps in his confidence and knowledge alike.”
“He thought the world of you,” Bedivere told Kai.
“And I of him,” Kai's smile was a sad thing, ghosts of everything he'd left unsaid while Arthur was alive haunting him.
It had been less than a year after Arthur rose to occupy Camelot's throne before men and children began streaming in, seeking to become Knights and squires to a King whose reputation had managed to travel far beyond where his physical presence.
King Arthur Pendragon, the winds said, was quickly uniting all of the lands. He was just, a careful thinker, and formidable on the battlefield as well as in debate and at court.
Less careful whispers said he was nothing like his father. For better or for worse, those whispers persisted.
He had, after a series of jokes with Kai, turned his own meeting table into a round table, tired of always being at the literal head of things. Kai took no credit and Arthur made no jokes about its origins in front of others.
Bedivere had only spoken to Kai directly twice since Kai had laughed at him.
Kai's leg had healed enough, but it was not quite the same. Cold made it hurt as if it was fresh again. Sometimes he caught himself limping, favoring the leg so heavily he barely picked it up off the ground.
In front of anyone but Arthur, Kai had become cold, distant, unwilling to grow fond of people who stood a high chance of dying before their time. He snapped and pushed people away, content to spend his time not at court or at work alone.
The King’s former foster-brother, it was said, was cruel yet efficient. Kai leaned into this assessment, allowing it to serve as the base of his reputation. It was safer for Arthur, he figured, the fewer people took a liking to him.
Merlin's visits had all but stopped, the wizard seemingly satisfied with where Arthur was headed. The occasional prophecy would be delivered, but never at court and rarely during hours a sane man would keep.
“Rise,” Arthur withdrew his sword from the new Knight's shoulder, “Sir Lancelot. Rise and join us at the round table.”
Sir Lancelot rose slowly, his blonde curls obscuring his almost too perfect face.
He had been raised by the fair folk, rumors said, and was undefeatable. Indeed, neither Arthur nor Kai had seen him lose to anyone in the training ring. Neither of them had scrapped with Sir Lancelot, Arthur being King and also being overly protective of Kai and his leg. Kai knew better than to argue, wanting to save his argument allotment for more pressing matters.
“It is my honor to serve you until my last breath,” Lancelot's English was perfect but his accent clipped, “my King.”
Lancelot's eyes were honest, open things that bared the man's soul for the world to see.
Lancelot took his seat on the other side of Arthur. No one told him to move.
There was a weight to Lancelot that was near tangible, a belief that as long as he served Arthur, he would be doing what he was born to do that emanated from his every movement.
Kai wasn't sure he liked the new Knight.
The round table still had a lot of room for new Knights. Despite the influx, only a small handful had passed whatever standards Arthur had set for his court.
Sir Bors sat next to Lancelot, then around the table there sat Knights named Tristan, Lamorak, Caradoc, Constantine, Dagonet, Dinadan, Lionel, and Pellinore. Bedivere had, only three months ago, moved from standing behind Arthur to sitting two seats down from Kai.
Kai remained next to Arthur.
Lancelot looked at Arthur as if he had been invited to be in the company of a god, awe and adoration and idolization so obvious that Kai wondered if the man was capable of hiding anything from anyone.
“Last night a rider returned from our northern borders with a request from King Lot and his Queen, Morgause, seeking a treaty to ensure protected trade. In exchange, they will send their best men, including two of their own children, to train at Camelot to become Knights of our realm,” Arthur told everyone, “They are the keepers of Orkney, and trade with them without the taxes would be a boon for us.”
“What do they offer?” Lionel asked, “For trade, I mean.”
Arthur looked at Kai to tell him to answer.
“Cloth, wools, furs, meat, livestock,” Kai listed, “They have access to salt mines, gem mines, and metal veins as well. They border more sea than we do, so they also have fish more readily available, as well as ways of building ships that can handle rocks better than what we have managed so far.”
A few mutters, Knights conferring with those near them, before Arthur banged the side of his fist on the tabletop twice to call everyone's attention. Conversations ceased at once.
“In three days' time I will ride to Orkney with Kai, Bedivere, Lancelot, and some of the honor guard to begin this process,” Arthur continued, “In my absence, any decisions involving the Kings and Lords who still seek to battle Camelot will go through both Merlin and Pellinore before they are implemented. Understood?”
“Yes, my Lord,” sounded around the room, voices overlapping before the echoes began.
When Arthur returned about two months later, little had changed at Court. The treaty process had been tedious but without violence or threat therein.
Merlin was waiting for Arthur in Arthur's quarters when they returned. Kai was thankful he and Bedivere had insisted they remain with Arthur until Arthur had settled back into the castle. Merlin was less likely to try to influence Arthur’s feelings and thoughts with Knights present, Kai had noticed.
Arthur caught Merlin up to speed, omitting the part where he'd been seduced by the queen and, at sixteen and still new at the whole King thing, hadn't put up more than a token resistance.
Kai could see the aesthetic appeal – despite the Queen being over ten years Arthur's senior, she had an ageless beauty and a smile that could charm a snake. Politically, however, it was the most foolish thing Arthur could have done.
Kai informed Arthur as such the instant Arthur confessed what he had done. Bedivere got to hear the entire exchange, and had not managed to look either of them in the eye since.
“Can you believe it went so smoothly, Merlin?” Arthur beamed, the refined speech of the court missing entirely, “This is the most significant treaty yet!”
“Well, given Morgause is your half-sister, I'm not surprised,” Merlin shook his head, “There's a call of blood that wants to be near and at peace, even when the people involved don't know what's happening.”
“My what?” Arthur's face fell.
“From your mother's first marriage,” Merlin said as if they'd been over this before, “I told you that you have a sister.”
“A name and location would have been nice,” Arthur was gritting his teeth.
“I suppose,” Merlin shrugged, “Still, peace and allegiance with Orkney should make it much easier to form other such treaties.”
Merlin left without any formal goodbyes, off to do who knows what for who knew how long.
“Shit,” Arthur spat as soon as Merlin was gone, “Shit fucking shit.”
Kai, for the first time in his life, was at a loss for words. He found himself looking to Bedivere, who also had nothing to say.
“The treaty is in place,” Kai managed, “and besides us three, the world is none the wiser.”
“You say that like it's not going to take my legs out from under me one day,” Arthur shook his head.
“One day isn't now,” Kai heard himself say, “and some secrets must be kept.”
“You'd know,” Arthur was pacing the room, “Kai, what do I do?”
“You stop pacing and think for a moment,” Kai told him. Arthur came to a halt and turned towards Kai.
“You're right,” Arthur sighed, “Some secrets must be kept. I trust you both.”
Bedivere nodded, trusting his heart but not his words.
“Go, please,” Arthur looked between the two older men, “I need to be alone with my thoughts for a while.”
“Bar the door,” Kai said as if he needed reminding.
Kai heard Arthur slam the bar as soon as the door was shut behind them.
“You handled that remarkably well,” Bedivere said his first full sentence to Kai in what was probably near half a year.
“Everything about Arthur's life so far has been secrets that have lead him astray,” Kai said effortlessly, “It's about time he started choosing his own secrets to keep.”
Kai turned to head back to his room without giving Bedivere any room to reply.
Lancelot replaced Bedivere as Arthur's personal guard about six months after their return from Orkney. Bedivere had viewed it as a slight at first, refusing to speak to Lancelot and not looking Arthur in the eye unless he absolutely needed to in the immediate aftermath.
He was, by his own estimation, still stronger and faster than the newer Knight, and possessed more skill with both sword and shield than half the Knights put together.
Arthur's decision had come from wanting Bedivere free of guard duties when the matter of who oversaw training came up a week later. Bedivere was, by Arthur's own praise, the key to ensuring Camelot had the strongest, most capable army the world had ever seen.
Bedivere took the position with the support of the entire round table.
The children they'd brought back from Orkney – Gawain and Agrivane – were fifteen and thirteen. Too young to be Knighted but too old to be squires, they trained most of the day and then worked alongside maids and servants in the evening. Gawain would be Knighted next year if he kept training like he was. Agrivane was jealous of his brother's two additional years and made no effort of hiding it.
“He could have told me,” Bedivere groused over his drink, Kai the only one listening, “instead of tossing me aside like he did.”
“He needs an advisor,” Kai said in confidence, “Someone he's not quite so familiar with.”
“He needs a queen,” Bedivere muttered.
“Are we sure that's what we want?” Kai asked. When Bedivere narrowed his eyes but said nothing, Kai continued: “A queen may well provide some temperance to Arthur's impulsivity, but a marriage to a King also needs to have a major political and social advantage. We could not suggest marriage for him without a candidate in mind.”
“And what position are we in to even suggest that?” Bedivere was, by Kai's estimate, on his third or fourth drink of the evening.
“Given how few kingdoms remain in opposition, not much,” Kai sighed.
Bedivere huffed, the sound almost resembling a laugh. Kai shook his head and downed the remainder of his drink in one go.
They had no idea Merlin was going to suggest a marriage to a daughter of a King across the sea only a handful of weeks later. She was, by Merlin's assurance, young, fair, intelligent, and a sure way to ensure help would come from across the western seas should Arthur ever need it.
Arthur initially refused, claiming to be in no state for marriage. Merlin ultimately told Arthur it could be his choice or not, but the marriage needed to happen. When neither Kai or Lancelot, who'd come running when they heard the yelling, came to Arthur's defense, he gave up trying to argue.
“I'm not going to be able to love her,” Arthur said the next day, “Not like I know love.”
“You don't have to love her,” Kai almost snapped, “You simply have to be kind to her so you don't upset her father by proxy.”
Arthur hated that idea, both the implication that he would treat her cruelly and he felt like he had no control over the whole situation.
Bedivere managed to laugh, memories of the conversation over drinks followed so quickly by the marriage announcement fresh enough to displace the battle's horror for a moment.
“I was so worried that someone would have heard us talking,” Bedivere recalled, “Can you imagine?”
“If someone tried to tell the King his foster-brother and former personal guard thought he needed to get married?” Kai managed to smile despite himself, “He would have shouted us clear out of the castle for at least a month.”
Guinevere was beautiful, as promised. She was about two years younger than Arthur, but here eyes held a wisdom so rarely seen alongside youth.
Arthur fell in love with her in the middle of their wedding ceremony.
Lancelot, who had long before moved into Arthur's disused servants' quarters so he could guard his King at all times, sat at breakfast the morning after the wedding with haunted, tired eyes. Several of the other Knights teased him relentlessly, asking him if it was really that bad.
“You would do well to remember this is your King you're asking after,” Kai had cut in. The teasing stopped and the guilty parties scurried off. Lancelot thanked Kai with a nod, knowing better than to say anything with so many people around.
Kai shook his head and wandered off without eating.
Arthur made Kai his seneschal three months after his marriage, a position Kai was not thrilled to take but nonetheless knew better than to object to. Being relegated to overseeing the castle's staff, feasts, finances, and laborers was something he knew he would excel at, and in truth he had been hoping the seneschal who had preceded him would be replaced. He had aged, and his mind was not sharp enough to give Camelot what she deserved. However, being the one to replace him was not Kai’s first choice, or even his second.
Camelot flourished with Kai in the background, making sure all pieces fell into place as they needed to. Four years had passed since he had taken the position and with the exception of a few new faces at the round table, not much had changed. Arthur was well-respected, almost idolized. Lancelot and Bedivere were feared warriors, and the men Bedivere trained aspired to their level of prowess.
Agrivane and Gawain had grown into themselves and into their roles as Knights of the round table. Their brothers, Gareth and Gaheris, had joined them in Camelot and were both working to join their brothers as Knights. Lot and Morgouse, it seemed, produced sturdy sons whose desire to fight was inborn rather than cultured through any sort of training.
Kai was thankful they wanted to fight for Camelot, not against it.
The Orkney brothers spoke of a fifth brother, much younger than them, who was too young yet to determine if he would be any sort of fighter. Mordred, they called him, and Kai did not at all like how the math between Mordred's age and their only visit to Orkney added up. He did not, however, speak to anyone on the matter.
It was while seeking Arthur for more information about what foods he should order to be prepared for an upcoming visit from an allied King that he caught Lancelot atop Guinevere and Arthur nowhere in sight.
Kai cleared his throat to announce his presence.
Guinevere screamed before she could cut herself off. Thankfully, it was not a loud scream, at least not loud enough to draw guards or curious onlookers.
Lancelot was quick to throw a blanket over Guinevere and leap to his feet, naked, in a fighting stance.
“What are you going to do, Lancelot?” Kai shook his head, “Strike me? Really?”
Lancelot's eyes were wide with fear, his secret and the shared betrayal of their King no longer their secret.
“Where's my brother?” Kai asked.
“At the training grounds to evaluate those who wish to be Knights,” Lancelot answered, “He is expected to return after supper.” He lowered his guard, eyes still narrowed, darting back and forth between Kai and Arthur's bed.
“Excellent,” Kai nodded, “Might I suggest barring the door next time?”
“You're not...” Lancelot's guard dropped entirely.
“Going to run off and tell Arthur?” Kai laughed, “Please, what good would that do?”
“Your loyalty to Camelot may be called into question should anyone else find out,” Lancelot cautioned, “And mine, though rest assured I know the risks and consequences.”
“Yet not enough to bolt the door,” Kai shook his head, “What good, honestly, would come of telling anyone?”
“None,” Lancelot admitted after a pause, “I will admit to being surprised, though. Your love for Arthur is unrivaled.”
“And it is through my love for him that I will not destroy his marriage and the people's faith in his ability to control his own court,” Kai's reply was terse.
Lancelot nodded so deeply it was closer to a bow.
“Kai, please understand,” Guinevere finally found her voice, “It is not that I do not love-”
“My queen,” Kai interrupted.
“- Arthur, because I do, but -” she started to sit up, blanket clutched to her collarbones.
“- there are so many things we cannot possibly explain right now and -”
“- I am so truly sorry for our oversights -”
“- and appreciate your loyalty and love in every direction -”
“Jenny,” Kai finally snapped at his queen, “I'm not even asking you to tell Arthur, either of you, but the less I know, the better we all are. Now if you will excuse me, I have a feast to plan.”
Kai turned on his heels and left, making sure the open the door as little as possible. He heard the bolt slam almost as soon as it shut behind him.
“Holy hell,” Bedivere's jaw was slack, “You knew?”
“Oh, I knew,” Kai's laugh was a dry, mournful thing, “It wasn't just them, either. Arthur and Lancelot, Arthur and Guinevere. All three of them, once, in the war tent.”
“That many times?” Bedivere tried to reign in his disbelief.
“They were young, impulsive, and used to having someone else at their disposal to pay attention to the smaller details,” Kai shrugged, “And I took more time than most to learn the value of a knock.”
Bedivere laughed, a less empty thing than Kai's. “It's strange, to hear this now.”
“It's strange to speak of it,” Kai admitted, “All of it, but especially Arthur's, well, proclivities.”
“You say that as if it was wrong,” Bedivere frowned.
“Only for the political risks it posed,” Kai was quick to add, “Who am I to judge what people need and how they suit those needs?”
“You do not think it a sin?” Bedivere tilted his head, still not looking towards Kai. He did not wish to see the depth of the grief on his old friend's face.
“I think this new god is a dangerous thing for the well-being of menfolk,” Kai said, his words honest and unguarded, “Remember, I spent time with the fair folk.”
“Aye,” Bedivere's admission was brief, “I seem to have forgotten a lot of things about you.”
“And a lot about our pasts,” Kai said as he continued his story.
The winter after Arthur turned twenty-three was when peace began to settle in the land and Lords and Knights from friendly kingdoms began to show up and request the aid of Arthur and his men in increasingly bizarre quests.
He had made Lancelot his champion rather than simply his guard, and as such Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot were rarely seen apart at court.
It was when Pellinore returned, half mad, from one of those quests and ranting about a beast he needed to slay before he could consider himself worthy of his place at Arthur's round table once more that Lancelot and Kai began to speak to each other in less formal manners.
Lancelot had not quite recovered from his horror at Kai’s being so adept at finding him in more compromising positions.
“I fear Pellinore suffered some sort of malady,” Lancelot confided in Kai one afternoon as they were looking over the horses and how they were handling the last of winter's chill.
“A malady or a terror,” Kai agreed, “Has Arthur spoken of Pellinore's condition?”
“Only that he is disappointed,” Lancelot frowned, “I fear he thinks he is somehow lacking, that somewhere in the years of service, he was unable to make Pellinore believe in his own greatness.”
“A shame, all of it,” Kai's frown mirrored Lancelot's, “And with the whispers of the new faith spreading, the fear and splintering is sure to continue.”
“How do you mean?” Lancelot stopped checking one of the older mares to look at Kai.
“Faith is a fragile thing, especially in times of peace,” Kai spoke plainly, “If the men start to feel division over whose gods are true and correct, nothing good will come of it.”
“You speak much more clearly now than you do at court,” Lancelot chided Kai, “If one did not speak to you outside the table, one may think you were little but barbs and a lack of patience.”
“It benefits all of us if the King's foster-brother is not easy to get close to,” Kai explained, “A secret for a secret, if you would like to think of it as such.”
Lancelot shook his head, near disbelieving. “I wish my secrets were so straightforward.”
“Men wish a lot of things,” Kai resumed examining the horses.
They worked alongside a silence that bordered on disquieted. Kai watched Lancelot out of the corner of his eye, the King's champion carrying a weight that work and duty would not shake from his soul. Kai realized that, perhaps, Lancelot carried more secrets within him than he could handle.
“The King rests tomorrow,” Kai told Lancelot as if he did not know, “Perhaps we should take part of the day in the lower parts of the surrounding towns.”
“Your offer is kind,” Lancelot's words were as carefully measured as Kai's, their informal conversation still unable to shake the formalities of the court, its claws having both men so ensnared, “Shall I collect you before nightfall?”
“Yes,” Kai nodded.
Lancelot had showed up at Kai's rooms well before night had begun to fall. Kai was busy, the storeroom and servant's quarters he'd once swore he would never use both now storage rooms for the paperwork that ruled his life.
“TEVEN The King has the day off,” Lancelot said as he leaned against the doorway.
“Aye, but the paperwork does not,” Kai sighed. He replaced the cap on his inkwell carefully and wrapped his quill in lamb's skin to keep it from staining his desk. He had spent the day in plainclothes, not wanting to be caught off-guard by both Lancelot and the need to change.
They walked rather than rode, the frozen ground a slip risk for the horses. Kai had lost enough horses for one lifetime. Conversation was a sparse thing until Kai lead Lancelot into a tavern the champion had never seen.
Kai leaned his elbows on the bar and called for two drinks. The barkeep nodded and set about fetching the drinks.
“I've never been this far from the castle while not on a quest or visit,” Lancelot followed Kai's lead and leaned on the bar.
“It's far enough our faces have been forgotten,” Kai shrugged, “We are no one here, just rich men looking for a drink.”
“You come here often?” Lancelot asked.
“Often enough,” Kai shrugged again, “Your soul seemed heavy.”
“I find too much time to think as of late,” Lancelot's voice was so quiet that Kai had to lean in to hear him, “about things I wish had never come to pass.”
“You may speak of them here and your words will be forgotten if you wish them as such,” Kai told the Champion.
Lancelot frowned, brow furrowed and eyes haunted.
“I know his deepest shame,” Lancelot picked his words with a well-guarded caution, “and have a similar secret of my own to bear.”
Kai raised his eyebrows, wondering how the conversation came about, if his Queen knew as well, and what, exactly, Lancelot's shame was to liken it to their King's probable bastard child they were secretly waiting to come to court.
“He'd be two years younger,” Lancelot took his drink from the barkeep and drank deeply. Kai thought he would empty it in one go. “His mother, there was.” Lancelot stopped talking.
Kai watched the Champion fidget, behavior that would have never been tolerated at or near the court. To see the man charged with the safety of their King – Kai's foster-brother – at such an unease sent a chill of panic down Kai's nerves.
“I was drugged,” Lancelot said as plainly as he could, “I knew there was some risk to the visit, but I didn't expect.”
Kai waited, but Lancelot said nothing. His hands shook despite their grip on the tankard. Kai frowned, unsure of how to proceed. The visit had been to an outlying area that had been prone to contradicting itself in its letters. Arthur had taken Lancelot, Percival, Bedivere, and Bors with him to address the Lord of the land directly.
No one had said anything had gone wrong or seemed off upon their return. The rest of the company, in Kai's estimate, had most likely forgotten about the visit entirely.
“She wants to abandon the boy,” Lancelot managed to continue, his unfinished sentences destined to remain undone, “Leave him to starve. She sent a messenger last week. I have until the first thaw to give an answer regarding what I wish to see happen to the child.”
Bedivere recoiled, the horrors of battle and the horrors of abandoning a child of four to its death very different things.
“That is how we wound up with Galahad in the castle,” Kai was squinting at the horizon, “Lancelot was afraid the boy would have echoes of the horrors of his conception etched onto his soul. Guinevere was the one who eventually convinced him to retrieve his son.”
“He was such a small boy,” Bedivere recalled Galahad's earliest days, “Quiet, too.”
“I fear he had not been given much care,” Kai frowned, “His mother drowned herself the day after Bors and I went to collect Galahad.”
“You and Bors?” Bedivere had not been told the entire story before.
“It was done in secret,” Kai grimaced, “and Bors was always good at secrets.”
“I did not know,” Bedivere exhaled as he spoke.
“It was not exactly communal knowledge,” Kai said with a sigh, “I was selected because Lancelot had told me everything. Arthur believed that sending Lancelot himself would only cause more problems. Bors, he was good at keeping quiet and being intimidating, qualities Arthout figured would be useful should the mother or anyone near her have tried to pull anything.”
“Did they?” Bedivere asked before he could think better of the question.
“Almost,” Kai began removing his armor, “Bors just had to step in front of me and let loose that growl of his and the boy was handed over with no further interactions.”
“Lord and Lady,” Bedivere swore, “How was his ride back to Camelot?”
“Uneventful,” Kai said, “He rode with Bors. Bors was good with children.”
“He did have several,” there was something wistful in Bedivere's voice that Kai did not care to place, “I wonder how they are.”
“Knowing Bors, well cared for,” Kai lied to himself. Bors had gone missing well before the battle.
Bedivere did not dispute the statement.
Galahad grew up believing he was an orphan taken in by the court, Arthur convinced it was better for both Galahad and Lancelot to not have the familiar connection.
When Galahad was twelve, eight years after his arrival, he began his training alongside older boys, all desiring to be Knights. He'd grown up hearing stories of the quests the Knights and his King went on, learning the beauty of far away lands through tales fortified with wine and glory.
He had lived alongside Arthur's most dearly held Knights, schooling pushed aside in favor of scaffolding him into greatness.
He was still small for his age, more waif-like than sinew. His fierce determination made up for his lack of physical strength.
Several Knights believed Lancelot to be Galahad's sire, and had said as much when they believed there were no ears who would repeat their beliefs, especially to Lancelot himself. Kai was not amused to hear the shame and terrors his friend had gone through being treated as simple gossip.
Galahad asked Lancelot himself, once, in front of Guinevere and Kai. Lancelot had told Galahad an abbreviated version of the truth, embellished solely by Lancelot telling Galahad he did not know of the boy's existence until shortly before he came to court. Galahad, sometimes wise beyond his short dozen years, said he understood and simply wished he had been told before he heard the whispers himself.
Lancelot had stayed in the King's personal chambers for several days after, not trusting himself to handle the stares and questions from the Knights he usually would trust with his life. Lancelot had, he would tell Kai later, not realized the boy would keep the truth to himself. Arthur stayed with him, worried beyond measure.
When asked, Kai told the others they had answered summons without notice or time to gather others. He had become adept at lying, at keeping secrets without second-guessing himself.
At the beginning of the third day, Bors cornered Kai in the kitchens. They were alone, the hour early and the sun so barely risen that Kai had to squint to read his own writing.
Kai preferred to work early because, usually, he was alone. He could work faster without the weight of other people’s shortcomings to slow him.
“Summons, really?” Bors demanded answers without forming complete questions.
“The King and his Champion will return to court as they will,” Kai tried to keep his temper under control.
“Galahad has been unusually aggressive since their disappearance,” Bors commented. His posture was threatening, arms crossed and shoulders squared. Kai was not amused.
“What the boy's driving forces are not my concern,” Kai shrugged, “and what summons our King decides to tend to on his own are outside of both of our control.”
“Does the boy know?” Bors demanded.
“Know what?” Kai did not want to give away more secrets than Bors was asking after.
“Know what?” Bors scoffed, mocking, “I was beside you when we took the boy. When we walked away from a woman who took her own life the next day. Do not do this. Not to me.”
“There are many things the boy may know,” Kai snapped, “You could ask him yourself.”
“You may lead the others in circles and avoid giving answers,” Bors took two steps closer to Kai, “But you will not do this to me. Not over this.”
“Ask Galahad yourself,” Kai didn't step back.
“He is a child,” Bors uncrossed his arms.
“And his mother was a grown woman,” Kai knew he was pushing, that his words were uncalled for, “who made a choice neither of us appear to agree with. Would you rather she have made that choice for the boy?”
“Does he know that?” Bors spat.
“You're really not going to ask him, are you?” Kai challenged.
“He's still a child!” Bors was shouting.
“He won't be for long,” Kai turned to resume taking inventory of the kitchen stocks.
Bors grabbed Kai by the shoulder and spun him back around. Kai whirled faster than Bors spun, catching the older Knight off guard.
Bors swung, expecting Kai to be readying a swing himself.
Kai had both hands at his sides, no intention of fighting.
Bors' fist connected with Kai's face, just shy of his left eye. Kai did not falter or flinch away from the impact, a lifetime of training and fifteen years of watching the child he'd raised while still a child himself become his King having long exhausted his ability to react to most things regardless of pain or shock.
“Somehow, I doubt you expected to actually get answers that way,” Kay touched fingertips to temple cautiously. They came away bloodied, skin split from the force of Bors' strike.
They had both seen fights between Knights come to blows, usually at the end of a day and after more alcohol. They were violent things that had ended with more than one Knight needing to take time off from quests and patrols to recover.
They had both been in perhaps more than their fair share of those types of fights.
“I thought you were...” Bors' face had paled and his jaw had gone slack.
“Go fetch me three clean rags, a needle, and a length of thread,” Kai's voice carried enough tension to snap at any moment, “Now.”
Bors scampered off, a series of motions Kai did not think the other man capable of making.
Kai put his inventory list on a preparation bench carefully, the charcoal piece he'd been using to mark the list he'd scrawled the night before rolling to the edge before he stopped it from finding its way to the floor.
He pressed one palm to his temple and used his other hand to brace himself on the nearest flat surface near waist level. The pain was a throbbing thing, radiating from behind his eye through his entire skull, trickling into his neck. He would not know if it needed to be stitched up until the bleeding slowed. He could feel the blood seep down his face despite the pressure.
He kept the pressure even and hard, hoping the bleeding would not be out of control by the time Bors returned. The last thing he wanted was to have to scrub the floors to hide the incident from curious kitchen staff and servants.
Bors returned with the physician who had been the younger of the two that attended Kai when he first arrived.
They had become well-acquainted over the decade and a half of Kai's tenure at the castle, Kai's temper and penchant for angering the people he oversaw and worked with in addition to his tendency of ignoring his bad leg until it was well past the point of needing attention landing Kai with a variety of injuries that needed more than basic tending.
“You again,” there was no heat in the no longer so young physician's words, “Let me see.”
Bors held a torch for the physician to work with.
“What happened?” the physician asked when the bleeding had finally slowed enough to stitch the wound.
“A mistake,” Kai answered for Bors.
Bors opened and closed his mouth a few times before he decided not to say anything in front of the physician.
Kai needed seven stitches, six of them crossed over another to form three X shapes and the seventh served as an end point to the closure.
“Do try not to have any more mistakes of this caliber,” the physician took on a lecturer's tone, one eye on Bors, “You are fortunate I was the one who was roused.”
“I know,” Kai sighed, holding the bloodied rags loosely, “Thank you.”
“Do try to take as much of the day off as you can,” the physician sighed. He left without further conversation or recommendations.
“You could have had me reprimanded,” Bors said once they were alone again.
“To what end?” Kai asked as he picked up the ledger and charcoal again, slinging the rags over his shoulders.
Bors did not have an answer.
“Do you want your answers that badly you'd seek reprimand for striking a Knight without his guard up?” Kai wasn't looking at Bors.
“I suppose,” Bors' answer was more of a mutter than two words. He had not considered the consequences, only his anger.
“He knows Lancelot is his father,” Kai said, his words short and temper shorter, “No more, no less.”
“And Lancelot?” Bors asked.
“I will not speak for his feelings on the matter,” Kai turned around to face Bors, “nor will I ask him for them.”
Bors deflated, his shoulders dropped and face exhausted. He left, then, unsure what else to say without making the whole situation worse.
Kai finished his work as quickly as he could, opting to spend the day hunting alone rather than try to spend time around anyone else.
“How many times did you need to see a physician?” Bedivere inquired.
“Honestly?” Kai had removed all of his armor, the cold wind and moisture from the lake seeping into his skin, “Several times a year, on a good year. You know my temper.”
“That doesn't give anyone the right to strike you while you were unarmed!” Bedivere was appalled.
“Several of them were at taverns,” Kai was unbothered, “And besides, I can take a hit.”
“Obviously,” Bedivere removed the last of his armor, “but that doesn't mean you had to. And to your leg?”
“My leg has always been in the way since the first injury. I refuse to let it stop me unless there is no other option. Still, it did land me in a physician’s care a number of times, too. But to your point, there were a lot of things I did not have to do,” Kai slipped into something closer to his more formal speech pattern.
Mordred came to court almost immediately after he turned sixteen, his four older brothers already Knights with some renown to speak of.
The boy was a quick study, aggressive, strong, and so obviously not a full sibling to the other four Orkney brothers. Where the sons of Lot and Morgause had tanned skin and hair so straight it was almost unnatural, Mordred's near-black hair fell in waves over his shoulders, his pale skin translucent in places.
Mordred had a temper to rival Kai's, yet the teen did not have the advantage of Kai's years or experience to know when his temper needed to be restrained.
He took most of his anger out on Galahad. Lancelot's initial guess of his bastard being two years younger than Arthur's were correct. Both young men needed work and training before they could be considered for Knighthood. Mordred did not take kindly to being told he needed both refinement and more training, lashing out at those training alongside him and harming them more than sparring with them.
Galahad proved to be Mordred's equal, able to parry blows that fell older and stronger trainees. Mordred hated the lad; Galahad was incapable of hate. The younger trainee's unflagging good nature only served to worsen Mordred's temper.
Lancelot took to counseling Galahad, telling his son to be careful of the company he kept, to keep his focus on his future. Galahad did not rebuff the advice, but also did not welcome it. He was of the age where children begin to believe they can find their own way in the world and Galahad, having spent too long believing he was on his own when push came to shove, did not have it in him to yield to fatherly advice that came too late.
Arthur withdrew, the sight and thought of Mordred turning him from great King to anxious disaster of a human.
Lancelot and Guinevere had taken up the habit of shadowing Arthur wherever he went, their nerves barely hidden.
The table began to show signs of fracture, Knights seeking more quests and even battles to avoid facing what was happening at home. Three years passed without much to note about them, Knights coming and going without adding more than young Gawain to Arthur's circle of most trusted Knights.
Mordred and Galahad were Knighted side-by-side, Galahad's fair features and carefully measured movements in stark contrast to Mordred's sturdy build, broad shoulders, and untamed affect.
The Queen Knighted them both, having no blood relations to either, to take the weight off of her lovers.
Arthur and Lancelot raised a team to go to war on behalf of Sir Tristan not a month later, Mordred and Galahad among those who volunteered to go.
Tristan's homeland was under threat of invasion, the King unable to push back at his borders. Despite Tristan's personal dislike of his homeland's King and unwavering loyalty to Arthur, he could not bear to see the place that has spit him out fall to a foreign people.
Kai had gone to fight against the advice of both Arthur and the court physicians. His leg, they worried, could not take another wound like the first one he had received.
“You're not young anymore,” Arthur had told Kai, “I cannot have you fall defending another King's land.”
“But you'll have the rest of them fall?” Kai had been more than willing to start a fight with his foster-brother. The fact the man was King was laid aside for the moment.
“Not you, Kai,” Arthur had pleaded instead of argued, “Not here. Please.”
“I will go,” Kai refused to be left behind; he was a fine soldier and worth ten men or more when he took to the field, twenty when he was on his horse.
The battles were bloody ones, retreat and negotiations not options as they had been in most of the previous battles Arthur lead his men into.
Mordred was sent back to Camelot after a fall from a borrowed horse, his sword arm useless from the impact.
Kai could see the hate in the youth's eyes as he looked back one more time before departing with the handful of other soldiers who were being sent back for as many reasons as there were people.
Kai, too, had received a grave wound to the same leg he'd injured during his first ride to Camelot. It was not as deep as the first, but made his leg useless nonetheless.
Arthur had entered the medical area screaming, eyes wild and face red, demanding to know why Kai thought joining the fray was a good idea. He berated Kai for being so selfish and so full of his own hubris that he presumed to know better than his King. To Arthur, it sounded like concern, fear of losing the man he owed his life to.
To everyone else, it sounded as though their King no longer trusted his seneschal.
Kai could not be moved immediately. He spent five days of recovery listening to whispers that spoke of an unstable power at Camelot's center strong enough to sever trust between brothers.
As soon as Kai could stand unassisted, he left the battlefield and the tents the soldiers rested in between battles.
The court would not see him again for a long, long time.
“So that's what happened,” Bedivere said, his voice quiet.
“The barest bones of it,” Kai's mouth was pulled into a tight frown.
“You had disappeared,” Bedivere's throat was tight, “All your belongings had been left behind, including your most prized horse, your armor, your weapons.”
“That explains everyone's reactions upon my return,” Kai shivered.
“What truly happened, that drove you away?” Bedivere asked. Once again, he did not quite expect an answer.
“I feared my continued presence would only further the idea that Arthur could not control his court,” Kai admitted, “I had only meant to be gone long enough for the battles to be won and Arthur's control to be re-established.”
“How was it, being away for so long?” Bedivere asked.
“It was not as long for me as it was for everyone else. Many times I heard of Arthur's exploits in whispers from the fair folk,” Kai stretched his arms towards the sky and leaned back to stretch his spine, “They said he was fighting giants, taking down dragons, slaying warlords who lesser Kings had fallen to without so much as blinking.”
“He did get reckless for many a year after you disappeared,” Bedivere wasn't sure why he was telling Kai this, “He was untouchable, by man, woman, and nature alike.”
“I spent that time between worlds,” Kai said as if it was nothing, “The fair folk taught me their ways and then limited what I had learned so that I could only access it with a calm mind.”
“I wasn't aware your mind was ever anything but calm,” Bedivere noted as Kai waded into the near-freezing waters of the lake.
“Lucky you,” Kai did not call over his shoulder, “My mind has not been calm since the day Arthur came into my life, I think.”
Unsure of how to reply, Bedivere waded in after Kai.
When Kai finally returned to Camelot, he had been gone for so long that he expected not to be welcomed. Time had passed much differently between worlds, he knew, but exactly how differently he was unsure.
He braced himself for complete rejection at the main gates.
Instead, Arthur himself greeted Kai at the gates, his brown hair flecked with silver and the lines under his eyes etched deep. He wore a near-full coat of mail. He embraced Kai despite Kai's filth he so desperately wanted to wash off.
“You're alive,” Arthur breathed, “It's been ten years, Kai.”
“A lot has happened,” Kai did not want to tell Arthur the truth with so many witnesses.
“As it has here,” Arthur finally pulled back, keeping both his hands on Kai's shoulders, “Come, come, there is not much time to catch up.”
Kai sighed and followed Arthur, Arthur’s hand wrapped around Kai’s, unwilling to release his brother.. The castle itself was, physically, the same though he recognized none of the faces on their way to the round table, servants he had been tasked with keeping track of long gone.
When they finally got to the round table, the Knights were assembled, all wearing full armor, helmets cradled under their arms. There, too, he found that he did not recognize several of the faces that greeted him.
“Kai!” Lancelot was the first to recognize him, “Oh good heavens themselves, Kai, where have you been?”
The door shut behind Kai, shaking the stones under his feet.
Lancelot rose to his feet and embraced Kai, armor scraping against Kai's thin clothes.
“Between worlds,” Kai told the truth, “Learning from the fair folk as much as they cared to teach me.”
It was only then that Kai noticed Merlin in the corner of the room.
Merlin strode over to Kai, grabbed his chin, and locked eyes. The wizard's gaze was as if he was looking into Kai's very soul.
“He tells the truth,” Merlin announced, “Sir Kai has been trained by the fair folk and brings new skills with him.”
“And I have returned just in time for something major,” Kai guessed.
There were no empty seats around the table, save for Arthur and Lancelot's. Lancelot made his way back to his seat first, leaving Arthur standing next to Kai.
“What happened,” Kai whispered.
“A lot,” Arthur shook his head.
Arthur took his seat at the table at last. Merlin and Kai stood near the doors, more as observers than participants.
“King Lot has declared War,” Arthur told the table, “and I understand that several among you may not wish to go to war against your father.
“His armies rode out nearly a month ago. They will be nearing our borders soon. We will need to have an army ready to meet them so that our people may be spared raids.
“We will begin the rally call as soon as we leave this room. If you wish to stay behind, you may, but you will have to decide now. Outside of this room, there will be no allowances for desertion, nor for holding back,” Arthur took a deep breath and looked around the room.
Kai noticed only two of the five Orkney brothers were present – Gawain and Gareth, if he had aged them in his head correctly.
Galahad sat beside his father, proud, still young in the face but a hardness behind his eyes Kai could not reconcile with the image he'd had of the boy.
“We fight,” Gawain spoke for both him and his brother, “Whatever drove my father to seek war with you, I cannot abide.”
Merlin leaned in to Kai and whispered, “Arthur, Lancelot, Galahad, Lamorak, Galehaut, Caradoc, Gawain, Percival, Dinadan, Elyan, Pellinore, Palomedes, Lionel, Bedivere.”
Bedivere sat where Kai had sat before his departure, at Arthur's right hand. It was fitting, Kai supposed, that Arthur's first guard would return to Arthur's side.
“Your old armor is in your rooms,” Merlin told Kai, “Arthur refused to believe you were dead.”
“I'll be in it as soon as these doors open,” Kai promised.
“I fear it may not be so simple to slip away like that again,” Merlin had his eyes on Arthur. Kai understood, then, than his King would have questions.
That his brother would delay a war to speak with him.
That, Kai supposed, had not changed.
“You recognized Gawain and Gareth?” Bedivere tried to ignore the water's chill.
“That time had become incongruent thing did disrupt my head for a little bit,” Kai sighed, “but Gawain's eyes that betrayed his surface good nature had not changed. Gareth, he looked relieved to be free from his father's line. There had been hints of his wishes to escape whatever drove him to follow his brothers here rather than stay with his own blood when he was young,”
“It frightens me,” Bedivere tried to convince himself the shiver had been from the water rather than the confession, “how much you noticed and stayed silent about.”
“A part of being an effective seneschal is learning when to keep silent,” Kai lowered himself into the water until he was submerged to his collar bones.
“The men who replaced you were less efficient and let a lot of details slip,” Bedivere stayed with the water at his waist.
“Men?” Kai asked.
“Five of them,” Bedivere couldn't stop the eye roll, “Five men put together could not compare to you, on or off the battlefield.”
“The same could be said of you,” Kai looked up at Bedivere.
“My only work was fighting,” Bedivere did not look at Kai, did not meet his gaze, “You had many jobs.”
“I'd had many jobs my entire life,” Kai was staring at Bedivere outright, “and learned how to balance duties that had no overlap well before I had the words to explain what I was doing.”
“Somehow, I am not surprised,” Bedivere crouched down until the water came to the middle of his rib cage, “I did not think you were capable of selflessness before today.”
“I did what I had to,” Kai shrugged, the gesture making the water around him ripple.
“You did more than that,” Bedivere moved closer to Kai.
“As did you,” Kai watched the other man move. Kai was on his knees, the lake's dirt and stones digging in to his skin.
“Kai,” Arthur beckoned for his brother to stay behind as the rest of the Knights filed out to begin the rally call.
Kai froze in place, feeling more than seeing the rest of their company leave.
Merlin, Lancelot, and Galahad also stayed behind.
Merlin closed the door.
“What happened?” Kai asked before Arthur could get any of his questions out.
“Mordred found out,” Galahad answered, “about his parentage. He told Lot the truth, maybe six months ago. Lot's queen, brothers, Lancelot, Bedivere, and myself were there, too. It was supposed to be a friendly visit.”
“I take it that is what has led to this war,” Kai did his best not to react, his face not as used to hiding as it had been before the fair folk found him.
“I am afraid it's a bit more complicated than that, but I will try to keep it short,” Galahad said with a heavy sigh, “Lot wound up killing Morgouse on the spot in a fit of rage. Gaheris turned around and killed his father. Agrivane decided Arthur is to blame for the death of his parents. When Gawain did not agree with him, he, well.”
Galahad stopped, a near-boyish nervousness taking over his features.
“Gawain was chased out, along with the rest of us,” Lancelot picked up for his son, “Gawain said to expect war.”
Kai shifted from one foot to the other, waiting for someone to say something, do something.
“I will fight,” Kai's tone left no room for argument from Arthur, or anyone else, “and I will see whatever happens through to the end.”
“We thought you dead, Kai!” Arthur tried to object anyways, “Ten years! Ten years you were gone!”
“And yet you kept his rooms untouched,” Galahad sounded unimpressed.
Kai stopped a cringe at the thought of how much dust and debris his belongings, clothes, and bed had collected.
“I did not mean to be gone so long,” Kai dropped his eyes, “Forgive me.”
“Long forgiven,” Arthur put his helmet on the table and walked over to Kai. He braced both his hands on Kai's shoulders. Kai let out a breath he did not know he was holding.
“How long do you think we have until the war officially begins?” Kai asked.
“A week at most,” Arthur told him, “There will barely be time to gather supplies enough to keep everyone fed.”
“You think it will be like when we went to war for Tristan?” Kai asked, unable to keep the sudden rise of fear out of his words.
“Worse, I fear,” Arthur shook his head, “We have lost many of those who survived our fathers in their war. Those who are asking lesser Knights and foot soldiers are almost all either aging or young, not exactly what inspires courage and faith.”
Kai frowned. Galahad's gaze burned.
“Is your backing not enough to bring them both courage and faith?” Kai asked, surprised at Arthur's pessimism.
“They all know,” Arthur looked broken.
“Mordred being Arthur's only heir is sewing an unease,” Lancelot spoke as plainly as he could, “It may be difficult to rouse an army strong enough to defeat whatever forces Agrivane, Gaheris, and Mordred have rallied.”
Kai realized in that moment there had been no mention of Arthur's Queen.
“But Guinevere -” Kai looked between Arthur and Lancelot.
“Dead,” Galahad spoke so they did not have to, “She died during childbirth three years ago, the child with her.”
“Arthur, I -” Kai did not know the words for his grief.
“Not now,” Arthur warned, “Not now, Kai.”
“Of course,” Kai finally reached up to wrap his hands around Arthur's forearms.
“We must move swiftly,” Arthur released Kai, “If we are to have hope I must be at the frontlines.”
Kai watched Arthur leave, a sense of finality seeping into his skin.
Kai crawled out of the water to grab his tunic before quickly resubmerging himself.
“And well,” Kai used the tunic to scrub the blood and mud off his skin, his armor having failed to protect him from the worst of the filth, “you saw the rest of the battle.”
“Mind if I use that after you?” Bedivere asked, “I fear I lack your fortitude to exit the water more than once.”
“Sure,” Kai blinked a few times, “I missed ten years and I did not even get the chance to ask what happened.”
“You could ask me,” Bedivere shivered, unable to keep the cold off his bones.
“The years I was gone,” Kai's eyes held more regrets than his words, “what happened?”
“I fear there were not as many events as a decade should contain,” Bedivere warned him.
“I want to know,” Kai assured him.
Bedivere sighed and tried to gather himself to speak as calmly and plainly as Kai had. The decade the younger Knight had missed would, ultimately, end with the story of what happened at Orkney.
His attempts were interrupted by the sounds of two sets of footsteps, one steady and one dragging, getting nearer and nearer.
Both men cursed how little attention they had been paying at they turned to face the sounds. A Knight bearing Camelot’s heraldry was supporting a Knight bearing Lot’s heraldry. They both had their full mail on, so who exactly they were was unknown.
“If you have come to drown one of the last survivors I ask you reconsider,” Kai called, “or at least do so closer to where the underground river starts.”
Camelot’s Knight tore off his helmet and let it crash to the ground. It was Galahad.
“We come to cleanse ourselves,” Galahad called out, “and to tend our own wounds so the physicians and lesser medics may be less burdened.”
Kai rose to help Galahad with his armor. Bedivere remained submerged.
“I do not deserve this kindness,” Kai recognized Mordred’s voice.
“This is not about deserving,” Galahad said as Kai took Mordred’s weight so Galahad could remove his softer clothes, “This is about surviving.”
Mordred could find no strength to offer further protests while Galahad shed the last of his armor before removing Mordred’s.
Galahad was bruised from head to toe but not bleeding anywhere Kai could see. Mordred had received a flail’s blow to the shoulder. His armor had taken most of the hit, but a rake of deep scratches rolled from the back of his shoulder blade to his collarbone.
Kai carried Mordred to the lake and lowered him in as if he weighed nothing. Mordred shivered as soon as he touched the water. Galahad’s footfalls were less steady, less proud, as he walked himself into the frigid waters.
“I take it we’re interrupting something?” Galahad asked.
“Stories,” Bedivere said before he began to tell Kai of what happened.
Bedivere and Lancelot had been the ones to tell their King that Kai had gone missing. They, along with Bors and Dagonet, had combed the forest for signs of where Kai had gone to before informing Arthur.
Arthur had gone into a rage that carried him into battle without half his armor, without his shield. He stole weapons from the dead and shattered them against shields and bones alike. In stories, his strength would be said to have been fueled by the old gods, the blood of those he slaughtered the price he paid for their blessing.
They won the war but Arthur lost heart for many months after. He had numerous scouting groups seek Kai, or at least evidence of his survival. When no one came back with proof, or even hope, he withdrew, allowing Lancelot to act as regent for nearly two years while he focused his time and energy on unifying the lands once and for all.
In Arthur's mind, if there was no more need for war – as he had tried to tell Kai when he was still newly on the throne - then there would be no more senseless loss, no more people dying for the ideas of richer, more powerful men.
There would be no more people missing as his brother was.
There were, of course, battles in the name of rebuffing Arthur's proposals of peace. Many good men and Knights alike fell, but Arthur ultimately came out victorious. It was, perhaps, Arthur's battle prowess and abilities as a diplomat alike that prevented more losses.
Lancelot held up under the pressure, but a sort of callousness had began to form just under his skin. He had cut himself off from the very parts of himself that enabled him to get so close to Arthur and Guinevere.
“Christ,” Kai swore, “He did not look so desperate when I saw him upon my return,” Kai handed Bedivere his tunic.
“He improved, once Arthur was satisfied with the unification,” Bedivere did not have any joy or relief on his face, “I fear, however, the only thing that caused Arthur to reconsider his efforts and time away from home was the death of our Queen.”
Mordred and Galahad listened in mute awe that bordered into horror, having spent their lives unaware of the more intimate happenings between their King and his closest persons.
Arthur had doted over Guinevere during her pregnancy, from the moment she told him to her very last.
A boy, she predicted; a strong son who they could raise together who would have all the chances and truths Arthur so badly needed.
When she went into labor, Arthur was in the middle of holding court with several Lords of more far-flung territories. He had barely excused himself before he broke into a run, Lancelot close behind him.
They would, much later and only a small handful of people, confess they were unsure whose the child was. To them, it would not have mattered.
“I thought you had no idea about them,” Kai interrupted.
“Until you told me, no,” Bedivere shook his head, “but I did hear whispers. I put them down as people's misplaced grief, but after your recount I am more inclined to give them weight.”
“Somehow it seems my father’s proclivities-” Mordred was cut off with a flick to the temple from Kai.
“You would do well to know more of what you speak of before you assume anything of his proclivities,” Kai warned.
“Because hoping I would receive information worked out well,” Mordred huffed.
“Did you ask?” Galahad asked Mordred. Mordred scowled but said nothing.
“Children,” Bedivere cut them off, “there is time and space for stories and questions, here and now. Yes?”
Galahad and Mordred said nothing. Kai nodded, his silent affirmation making room for Bedivere to continue.
The child was delivered in only a few short hours. He only lived for a few minutes, his lungs ill-formed and every breath he took rattled and wheezed.
Guinevere bled heavily, her heart broken and spirit too weak, they said.
Arthur instated a period of mourning that lasted nine months, the black cloth tied around his arm a somber reminder of the losses.
Lancelot did his best to act as regent. He was able to pass off his affect as grief as well, his occasional slips and forgotten details attributed to his closeness to his King.
Arthur made it clear he would not remarry, and Lancelot made it clear he would stand by his King at all hours, through all circumstances. To have an audience with the King meant an audience with Lancelot as well.
Lancelot came to act as regent for Camelot's lost queen, his loyalty to his King and steadfastness when Arthur's well-being once again at their peak.
It was perhaps a season after they became one for all intents and purposes that the hardness which had overtaken Lancelot finally began to dissipate.
Almost immediately after the Queen's passing, Galahad, Bors, and Percival spent much of their time in far-flung lands seeking talismans of the elder gods. Why they went, they did not say and no one seemed to know any truth to the matter. Occasionally they would take men with them, but usually it was the three of them and no more.
It took less than three months before they returned without Bors, a haunted look in their eyes. They would not speak of what happened, only that their need to find these talismans was stronger than ever.
There were echoes of Sir Pellinore's madness regarding the beast he needed to slay. Nothing could dissuade them, and they returned empty-handed each time.
“There was something in your eyes,” Kay noted, looking at Galahad, “A wisdom that someone of twenty-five years should not have earned.”
“Aye,” Bedivere was scrubbing himself, the water and Kai's tunic taking away the physical remains of the battle, “He returned like that last spring. Percival returned seeming more youthful, as if they had found something very much opposite yet balancing. They would not speak of it, either. Sometimes, though, they would be found in a trance-like state muttering about finding their place within the heavens.”
“The elder gods are not to be taken lightly,” Galahad shivered, something not from the cold, “They exact a heavy price for their wisdom, even when their followers are yielding to newer, easier gods.”
“I thought you a Christian,” Mordred said.
“Most did,” Galahad shrugged, “They forget my father was raised by fair folk.”
“Raised by?” Kai asked.
Galahad nodded. “He would not give much detail, but he would often tell me of them, how to honor them and how to avoid crossing them. He said they would one day find me and give me a choice I would only be able to make once.”
“And have they?” Bedivere asked.
“Yes,” Galahad swallowed.
It was somewhere in the mountain forests west of France, my father’s homelands, that Percival, Bors, and I met the fair folk together.
They looked human enough if you were not paying close attention, but they had too many teeth and their eyes had a different kind of life behind them entirely. They came to us by firelight, dressed as travellers and asking for food and a warm place to sleep for the night.
Bors had asked them: “What do you offer in return?” Percival objected to Bors’ question, saying that we were Knights of Camelot no matter how far we roamed, and it was our duty to help those who needed it.
They could offer us stories, they said. Bors seemed satisfied with this.
They ate and drank with us late into the night, but the food never ran out and the wine sack did not empty. They taught us new dances and we taught them songs, styles of each clashing with each other but great fun nevertheless.
It was morning when we realized we had not sleep, not had sleep found us. It was like being without time itself.
In the day’s first light their glamours did not hold up and we were able to see them for the fair folk they were. Percival was terrified, frozen where he stood.
“A gift for your hospitality,”one of them said with a bow, “We offer each of you one truth, an answer to one question, whatever your heart desires.”
“Fair folk cannot lie anyways,” Mordred interrupted.
“They cannot,” Kai confirmed, “but they can give answers so complicated and unhelpful that you find yourself wishing they could lie just to save you the headache.”
Galahad laughed at Kai’s assessment, a somber thing where mirth should have been.
“What was your truth you asked?” Kai inquired.
“I asked to learn the magics my father had known,” Galahad said, “It was, in my best estimate, still a truth.”
“And?” Mordred asked despite himself.
“And so they taught me,” Galahad said, “It was as if they had gone into my very soul and planted the knowing there, letting it spread itself into every bit of my being.”
“That sounds terrifying,” Bedivere handed the tunic to Galahad, who took it.
“It was,” Galahad began to scrub himself, “Percival asked to see his sisters, who he had lost when he was young. Bors asked to know the heavens themselves.”
“None of those things are straightforward, either in asking or answering” Kai frowned.
“You really have been between worlds,” Galahad leveled his gaze with Kai’s, “No, they were not. Bors was taken to the heavens, and returned madder than I had even seen a man. He ran off so fast we were unable to catch him, even on horseback.” Galahad took a moment to collect himself
“Percival, well,” Galahad frowned, “He saw their bodies as they were, decayed and forgotten under someone else’s farmlands. At least, that was how he described it. He seemed fine with it, or at least as fine as someone can be seeing something like that, but the closer to Camelot we got, the less he seemed himself. The youth you saw, I fear, was a reversion to the age he last saw his sisters alive.”
“And the trances?” Bedivere asked before sympathy for Percival’s state could take over.
“Communing with Bors,” Galahad grimaced, “It was not a voluntary thing, at first, but I learned to come close to controlling it eventually. I found that if I reached for him before his madness found me, I could reduce the duration and intensity. All three of us were locked together by that night.”
“And yet you kept going out on those quests,” Bedivere frowned. Mordred was watching the other three intently.
“It was a compulsion,” Galahad admitted, “The desire to find talismans to the elder gods started as a way to see if we could divine the lost and hidden persons, at the King’s request. It became much more than that, especially after the fair folk incident. Though now that Percival is dead I believe the spell is finally broken.”
“It was an odd choice, then, bringing both you and Percival to Orkney,” Mordred noted.
“We were still two of the most durable Knights,” Galahad defended them, “and did not require much in terms of supplies, rest, or food. I’d say we were a sensible choice.”
“Orkney was never a sensible choice,” Bedivere muttered before he continued his story.
It was less than a month after Galahad and Percival returned from one of their quests that we journeyed back to Orkney for the first time since Mordred's conception. It had been a simple plan on the surface, to go and thank our oldest, strongest allies in person.
It was, naturally, much more complicated than this. The Orkney brothers were brought so their parents – well, you know – could see how they had flourished at Camelot. They had not all five been in their father’s keep since Gawain and Agrivane were first brought to court.
The trip was also supposed to assess how strong Orkney's northern defenses were. Rumors of people from lands we had never so much as stepped foot on taking to the seas and conquering whatever they likes had began to filter through the court. Orkney was, we figured, Camelot's first line of defense against such an invasion.
The meetings and talks and scouting parties went well, actually. It was on our last day, when we presented ourselves to Lot and Morgause, that Mordred accused his mother of siring him with Arthur instead of Lot.
Mordred had not been home in thirteen years, and the more he aged, the more his features had taken to resemble Arthur's. Morgause had wept at the accusation, and had been unable to say anything before Lot slayed her where she sat.
Ultimately, Gaheris agreed with Agrivane that their parents' deaths were Arthur's fault. A way to distance himself from his actions, perhaps, but a move that set three brothers against Camelot.
We rode home as quickly as we could. We had to find new horses twice, having run them until they were so close to death we did not trust them to carry us any further. We made the journey in eight days, though, riding through the night most nights. We crossed the sea on a stolen boat, not willing to risk the time it would have taken to find safer passage.
When we returned to Camelot, Gawain had explained what army his brothers could raise, and how vital to Camelot's survival that scouts were sent in all directions so that there would be ample time to rally the forces we would need.
Arthur feared that the time Agrivane, Gaheris, and Mordred had spent at court would cause some to sway in their favor rather than Arthur's, especially once the truth of Mordred's parentage – and the fact Mordred was the only heir to Camelot's throne – managed to find its way into a more public sphere.
It was not until news of a well-organized group of soldiers crossing the sea between the mainland and Orkney that Arthur decided to begin rousing his own reserves. The Knights who remained loyal to him needed to all agree on one plan so they could command as one no matter how far they were separated on the field.
“Which was the court I returned during,” Kai guessed. Bedivere nodded. “I regret my absence.”
“We all regret a lot of things,” Galahad said as if it were meant to absolve Kai of the weight of his guilt.
“And the path to war from Orkney was not nearly so simple,” Mordred seethed.
“You can correct us, if you’d like,” Galahad encouraged.
Mordred grumbled before he spoke again.
After the death of my parents, Gaheris seized the throne and imprisoned Agrivane for the murder of the King. Agrivane attempted to accuse Gaheris of lying to Arthur about his convictions and ambitions, but, well, you can imagine how poorly that went.
I remained in Orkney because I knew returning to Camelot was not an option, given that I had managed to start a war. I wanted to know the truth, hear that I indeed was the next rightful King of Camelot, and did not believe there would be any way to get the truth besides demanding it in front of both parties at once. I had waited thirteen years to get them both in the same room and did not want to wait another thirteen or more. One of them may well have been dead by that time.
Gaheris wanted to march on Camelot immediately, believing that not giving Arthur enough time to rally would be the only way we would win. His plan, ultimately, was to instate me on the throne so that we, as brothers, would have control over the whole of England.
I cautioned him that marching immediately would mean we, too, were entering a war without the ability to ensure our troops would even make it to Camelot, nevertheless have strength left to fight.
I had figured it would be a war like the one we backed Tristan and his King in, bloody and final, and I had no desire to be on the other side of it.
“It sounds like you did not wish for war at all when you say it like that,” Bedivere interrupted.
“I did not,” Mordred pursed his lips, “I wanted the truth, nothing more.”
“Were that the truth was a simple thing,” Galahad said, his voice empty.
“Were truth simple, men would trust it,” Kai quipped, “But no, truth sends men into frenzy and children into hiding all too often. Deceit and withholding information has long been the status quo.”
“If I were to claim Camelot now, there would be another uprising,” Mordred predicted, “We do not have men enough with Orkney and Camelot put together to withstand that kind of onslaught.”
“Your father did,” Bedivere told Mordred, “With even fewer survivors of his father’s coup and subsequent War, he was able to keep Camelot in the Pendragon line.”
“I am not my father,” Mordred sighed, “If anyone, Camelot should go to Kai.”
“Absolutely not!” Kai did not want to hear Mordred’s reasoning, “Not saying it should go to you, but it should not go to me.”
“Why not?” Mordred asked.
“You, because you have no council loyal enough to help you run a kingdom without turning into a puppet King,” Kai narrowed his eyes, “And me because I would turn into a Warmonger every time someone mentioned Arthur as if he failed in some way, shape, or form.”
“I can see it,” Bedivere looked over Kai, “though I can also see better endings.”
“And besides that, I am not a Pendragon,” Kai bristled, “Camelot fails without a Pendragon at her helm.”
“You seem sure of that,” Galahad began to swim around slowly, his feet kicking up sediment in the shallow waters.
“Camelot and Pendragon are one in the same,” Kai looked towards where Camelot lay beyond the horizon, “They rose together, and will fall together.”
“When Camelot, falls, what then?” Mordred asked.
“Ask me later, if you can find me,” Kai frowned, “Right now the loss and the pain of my broken promise are all too fresh.
“You were with him in the end,” Bedivere's face was stricken despite the calm of his words, “As you promised him when he was a new King and your name had not yet made its way into the court.”
“Aye,” Kai's eyes stung with the threat of tears, “I regret many things. How many survived, if you know?”
“I do not know,” Bedivere shook his head, “How many died?”
“Almost all of them, from both sides,” Kai gestured for his tunic back, “I would say nearly a quarter of those dead were men beyond hope of recovery when the battle finally finished.” He scrubbed at a spot on his shoulder he had missed.
“How did you manage it?” Bedivere asked, “What you did for them?”
“The same way I managed it for the horse when I was twenty,” Kai handed the tunic back to Galahad, “I told myself it was either run my sword through their heart or let them die a slow, agonizing end, alone except for the smell of rot and death.”
Bedivere shivered, not from the cold this time. “I still cannot imagine it,” his eyes were kind, something Kai had not seen in them before, “You say that as if you did not have to remove their mail to do so.”
“For many of them, I did not,” Kai rose to his feet, water surging around him as he moved, “Their armor and mail alike were destroyed in battle. Their wounds could not have been obtained otherwise. Stomachs hanging out of decimated chain mail, heads smashed open, arrows through lungs.”
“This from someone who had the entire court convinced he had no care for his fellow men,” Bedivere rose as well, shaking his head.
“Wait, what?” Mordred asked, much slower in rising to his feet. Galahad was at his side almost instantly, supporting the older man.
“I took men from Camelot and Orkney out of misery and into death,” Kai headed back to the lakeshore, “The ones who were still conscious enough to know what I was doing, I knelt and spoke with them. Lancelot, Palamedes, Percival, Agrivane. They were so sorry they did not die in battle, every last one of them.”
“What was it like?” Galahad asked.
Kai did not turn around to face the lad, so only Bedivere saw the dark clouds behind Kai’s eyes.
After the smoke from the battle cleared, Kai found Arthur first. He was easy to find, his golden plate mail catching the sun’s light. He had a wound on his side that Kai dared to hope he could recover from.
“You’re here,” Arthur said as Kai removed Arthur’s helmet.
“I promised,” Kai forced his feelings away, a fear they would slow him down driving the decision, “Now hush, I’ll send a flare so the field medics can come collect you.”
“Save your arrows,” Arthur instructed. Kai ignored him, grabbing a bow that looked like it still had one shot left in its string and an arrow from one of Orkney’s fallen. He struck it with a flint and let the shaft began to burn before firing it straight up. The brothers waited in silence until a stretcher came for Arthur. The medics were relieved to see their King alive, and took him as quickly as they could.
“Will you be coming?” Arthur wheezed.
“I have a few things to take care of first, but then yes,” Kai promised.
Arthur tried to reply, but the words failed him as the pain of being moved took over his every sense.
Kai stood up and looked around, the battlefield stretching almost as far as he could see.
He began scouting for the wounded that would not make it, ending each life as he found them.
Most of them only had a pulse, their brains dead and their souls already gone. They were the easy ones.
Lancelot was the first Kai recognized who was still conscious enough to hold a conversation.
“Kai,” Lancelot croaked.
“Lance,” Kai used Lancelot’s nickname for the first time, “Hey.”
“It’s bad, isn’t it?” Lancelot asked. He could not move his limbs to feel his wounds or his neck to look at them. He was sprawled on his back, entrails exposed and legs bent at angles they were never meant to.
“Yes,” Kai did not want to lie to him, “I cannot send for the medics for you.”
“I figured,” Lancelot looked at Kai, eyes pleading, “Do what you must.”
“I am sorry,” Kai closed his eyes as he reached for Lancelot’s sword.
“No, I am the one who should apologise,” Lancelot managed to say, “Both that you must do this and that I could not tell you how Arthur is.”
“He lives,” Kai left out the details.
A smile ghosted Lancelot’s face as Kai plunged the blade up through Laneclot’s rib cage, spearing stomach, lung, and heart in one movement. He watched Lancelot’s anguish breath leave his body, the smile still on his face.
He took a few moments to hold Lancelot’s hand, as if the gesture would somehow help.
The next one he found who he recognized was Palamedes. The Knight had taken a blow to the head that left his brain exposed. His eyes rolled back into his skull and his breathing was shallow. He gave no indication of awareness. His breaths were long, gasping things with pauses between them that stretched so long Kai thought he had died until the next one started.
“I am sorry, old friend,” Kai told him, “I hope this is not painful.” He used the nearest arrow to pierce through Palamedes' skull, down his throat. The gasping stopped shortly after. Kai had worried for a moment that he was going to have to try a different way.
“Whatever you peace is, I hope you find it,” Kai said as close to a prayer as he would ever come as he rose again.
There were men and boys alike littering the field, unable to walk or stand on their own. A few of them Kai was able to send a flare up for a small handful of them, the medics or physicians sometimes arriving on horseback. Some they did not take, explaining that transporting them would kill them anyways. Some of those, they treated on the field before risking the move, others they left with Kai.
“I tried,” Kai would tell them. They did not always understand, no longer brave in the face of death now that the battle had ended.
Agrivane had a number of injuries, most notably several gashes to his legs that looked as if someone had struck him over and over with an axe.
“Come to gloat?” Agrivane asked through gritted teeth as soon as he recognized Kai.
“I have come to do the archers’ job,” Kai told him, “It seems Orkney and Camelot alike are out of archers.”
“The archers’ work does not fall under the duties of a seneschal,” Agrivane tried to understand why Kai would do this.
“A number of things do not fall under a seneschal’s work,” Kai shrugged, “but I do what I must.”
“It is you who should have taken Camelot before Arthur had the chance to become King,” Agrivane attempted to goad Kai, “At least then my whore of a mother would not have seduced her own kin.”
“THere are a number of things wrong with that statement and I am not going to address any of them,” Kai bristled, “Now, did you want the archers’ ending, or did you want to lie there, because I can promise you the medics will not move you.”
“Why give me the mercy?” Agrivane’s voice began to fail.
“At the end of it all, you are still human,” Kai sighed, “and no human or animal deserves to suffer needlessly.”
“Consider it my penance,” Agrivane hissed.
“If that is what you wish,” Kai moved to continue his task. He got no more than three steps.
“Wait!” Agrivane said as loud as he could, “Please.”
Kai nodded. He picked up a sword and ran it through Agrivane’s armor, the metal weak and nearly destroyed from the blows he had taken. The blade did not quite strike true, and Agrivane died twitching.
“Oh,” Mordred cringed back, nearly toppling Galahad, “I liked none of those words.”
“Agrivane was always a man full of anger,” Kai’s voice was level.
“He knew!” Mordred roared, “He KNEW the truth and never bothered to tell me!”
“We can only speculate,” Kai still did not turn around.
"They were related!?" Mordred squawked, "How did everything about that get worse."
"Arthur did not know," Kai told him, "and I suspect neither did your mother."
"I have questions," Mordred's face twisted into one of disgust, "but none that I want to ask now."
“Percival,” Galahad changed the subject, “You said you found Percival. How?”
“Are you sure you want to know?” Kai looked at Bedivere with a look that plainly said ‘please discourage him.’
“No,” Galahad said honestly, “but I am sure I do not want to regret not knowing later in life.”
Bedivere gave Kai a look that said, ‘He is his own man.’
“I thought Percival dead when I found him,” Kai told Bedivere more than Galahad, “He had lost most of his armor, most likely from faulty or aged straps, and had been hit by many weapons from as many angles. He let out a groan as I passed - I suppose an attempt to catch my attention.”
“He lived through that?” Galahad’s eyes went wide. He nearly dropped Mordred.
“Aye,” Kai shook his head, “He could not speak but he kept mouthing ‘sorry’ as I knelt next to him. I ran a sword through his back, lungs, and heart. It took naught but a few heartbeats before he was moved on to whatever awaits after death.”
“I am sure he was thankful,” Galahad managed to remember himself.
“I feel less like I could fall,” Mordred informed Galahad, “I think I can walk on my own.”
“The lake has healing properties,” Bedivere told the boys, “It is said to be fed from a spring in another world, and the underground river that takes the water away keeps it clean.”
“That’s why I came here,” Galahad let Mordred go, a tentative thing.
“I know I have no right to know,” Mordred stood on his own, legs not quite steady, “but Arthur…”
“Dead,” Bedivere informed the boys, “died shortly before we came to the lake. I sat with Arthur from the time he was brought from the field until he died,” Bedivere was shivering without stop now that the cold air and his wet skin had no barrier between them, “I sat with him while Kai was scouting for the living and helping the dead to their final destinations.”
“I was present, in the end,” Kai’s voice hitched, “I seem to have a knack for returning just in time for something final.”
“I think he was waiting for you,” Bedivere said before he could stop himself.
“He spent too much of his life waiting for me,” Kai said, “Ah, yes, here, some fair folk magic.”
The air around Bedivere warmed instantly and the shivering stopped.
“Thank you,” Bedivere still had his arms crossed over his chest, expecting the cold to return at any moment. "Your mind is clear now?"
"I cannot tell if my mind if clear or empty," Kai said with a shrug.
“Uhm,” Galahad cleared his throat.
Kai sighed and the air around Galahad, and by extension Mordred, warmed as well.
“Why did you bring me here, Galahad?” Mordred finally asked, “I have done absolutely nothing to deserve kindness, least of all from you.”
“You are alive,” Galahad told him, “and unlikely to survive the week out without a knife through your back if you do not have a Knight of Camelot near you.”
“Why?” Mordred asked again, “I cannot rule Camelot, cannot return home, and have neither skill nor renown to relocate.”
“This is both of our chances to become someone else entirely,” Galahad explained, “Without the weight of who our fathers were shaping our paths.”
“You had a good relationship with Lancelot,” Mordred noted. He took a step and stumbled. Galahad caught him.
“Yes,” Galahad straightened up, Mordred under one arm, “but at the same time, I was - still am, I suppose - the bastard son of the King’s Champion. His life was pasted over mine before he ever told me the truth of my siring.”
Mordred made a thoughtful yet frustrated sound. Galahad began walking, slowly, careful not to rush Mordred.
“I wish to leave my armor behind,” Kai said, “and everything else with blood and battle memories.”
“You mean to walk back to the castle naked?” Bedivere gawked.
“The injured with hope of recovery are still trickling in,” Kai shrugged, “It will not be the strangest sight.”
Bedivere had no rebuff.
“I may be recognized,” Mordred told the other three, “Please, do not endanger yourselves for me.”
“Wounded from Camelot and Orkney alike will be present,” Kai said, “Camelot does not pick and choose who we help when it comes to battles.”
“After the war where you disappeared,” Galahad said to Kai, “we did treat many of Cornwall’s injured.”
“I would not know,” Mordred said as if he still resented being sent back.
“In times of war,” Kai advised, “if you treat your enemies alongside your own, you either put your enemy in debt or create an ally. Either way, it generally works in your favor.”
“Where did you learn that?” Mordred asked.
“My own father,” Kai still felt the loss acutely at times, and this was one of them.
They walked together, slowly, bodies sore and spirits drained.
“What now?” Bedivere asked once the castle was in sight again.
“We get our clothes on,” Kai said, “I gather my belongings, take a horse, and ride until I find somewhere my name and reputation have not proceeded me. Whatever you do is your choice.”
“You wish to forget?” Bedivere asked.
“Ah crap, it's Merlin,” Kai squinted at the horizon, “I do not wish to forget; I wish merely to not live where I cannot escape reminders of the life I will never get back.”
They walked in silence towards Merlin, who greeted them with a bow.
“You two have been gone a long time,” Merlin informed them, “and you two were about to be listed among the dead.”
“We have cleaned the worst of the battle off our bodies,” Kai told him.
“And we are very much alive,” Galahad glared at the wizard.
“What is it you want, Merlin?” Kai snapped, wanting to be rid of the wizard as soon as possible.
“Arthur will be burned on a pyre tonight,” Merlin's face held more sorrow than Kai had expected, “I thought there would be more time.”
“His life revolved around thinking there would be more time,” Kai held no sympathy for the wizard’s sorrow.
“He will return,” Merlin said, “In Camelot's greatest hour of need, he will rise again, his most faithful Knights as his side, and set things to right.”
“Whether that is true or not does not detract from the fact he is out of time,” Kai snarled, “And out of life, at that.”
“You will see him again,” Merlin promised before vanishing into thin air.
“Has he always been like that?” Mordred asked the horizon.
“Vague, shitty timing, and generally condescending without having to say much at all?” Kai clarified.
“I will take that as a yes,” Mordred said under his breath.
“Do you believe him?” Bedivere asked.
“I do not know,” Kai shook his head, “but I do not wish to concern myself with the ramblings of an old man who, despite having magic on his side, could not spare my brother this fate.”
“If he does return,” Bedivere asked, “and we are among those to return with him, would you not want to know?”
“Absolutely not!” Kai exclaimed. Upon seeing the horror on Bedivere's face, he explained: “I would not wish to spend a life constantly wondering if this was the life. I would not want to see ghosts of people I dared to care about on strangers' faces, wanting so badly to be right about who I thought they were. I would rather be blindsided, the memories of this life returning when I need them rather than following me.”
“I would want to know,” Galahad spoke up, “I would want to know not to set roots in a life I would have to abandon to serve my King once more.”
“What kind of life would you like?” Bedivere asked as they resumed walking.
“I suppose a quiet one,” Galahad said, “One where I tend a shop or raise grains for milling and generally do not have to worry about what I leave behind.”
“So, basically the opposite of what your life is now,” Mordred noted.
“I will drop you,” Galahad warned.
“No you won’t,” Mordred challenged, “Besides, we do not know for sure if history will remember us.”
“History will remember us,” Bedivere did not sound as confident as he had hoped.
“I hope history gets damned near everything wrong,” Kai spat, “I hope the ancestors of the people who survived this massacre think Arthur's reign was much more prosperous, much longer, much more fantastical. I hope the future casts a kindness onto him the past could not grant him. I hope the stories we find our ways into give us lives much more beautiful than this one.”
Bedivere reached out to touch Kai's shoulder. Kai froze. Bedivere stopped walking.
“Wherever you are going,” Bedivere started, “Would you like company?”
Kai considered for a few measures.
“Only if you are the company,” Kai told him.
Bedivere smiled and a weight that Kai had assumed would follow him for the rest of his life began to lift itself from the deepest parts of his soul.
“I think we’re intruding at this point,” Mordred said to Galahad.
“I think we’ve been intruding since we showed up,” Galahad replied.
“I still do not understand why you’re insisting on keeping me alive and safe,” Mordred gritted out. The younger Knights watched the older Knights, still unmoving except their eyes, something deep and intangible transpiring.
“Because, while I do not know your mind or your pain,” Galahad shifted to redistribute Mordred’s weight a little more evenly, “I know how deeply regret runs, and I see it in your eyes, now.”
“What little good regret does for the dead,” Mordred grumbled.
“What will you do, Mordred?” Galahad asked, “Once we are clothed and headed away from Camelot for the last time.”
“Perhaps find a farm,” Mordred rolled his eyes, “Oh my gods, they’re touching.”
“It’s called an embrace,” Galahad jostled Mordred harder than he needed to, “Are you not familiar?”
“Not in the least,” Mordred tilted his head sideways, an unspoken question, “I think they’ve forgotten about us.”
“They will forget much of this entire conversation,” Galahad kept his voice low, “Especially Kai.”
“You seem sure of that,” Mordred dropped his voice.
“What Kai did for the dying,” Galahad studied the seneschal, “that kind of thing stays with you if you do not keep your actions and your thoughts apart during and after.”
“That makes no sense,” Mordred frowned.
“Consider it a good thing,” Galahad did not elaborate. Mordred huffed, unable to find words for more questions or barbs. “And even if you do not think you deserve help or anything of the sort, that would not have stopped me.”
“I know,” Mordred sighed, “No matter what I have put you through, you have never found cause to hate or harm me.”
“Both hate and harm are a waste of time,” Galahad told them, “Now, I do believe we should give them some, uh, some personal space.”
“I do not understand,” Mordred said, “I took the worst blow to my shoulder.”
“Just because you do not remember the blow does not mean your body will not feel the after-effects,” Galahad told him, “We both took many blows that even the best armor did not hold up against.”
They finished their walk to the castle slowly, Mordred’s legs still not quite working and Galahad’s energy depleting.
Mordred sat on Galahad’s bed, back against the wall and legs out in front of him, while he watched Galahad pack.
“You are certain they will accept us both?” Mordred asked for the third time that hour.
“No,” Galahad gave the same answer he had the other two times, “but there will be no harm in trying.”
“And if he does want to forget?” Mordred tried a different question.
“Then we go on our own,” Galahad’s answer was a quick one.
Mordred sighed and tried to relax, Galahad’s straw bed well-worn and not quite comfortable. He guessed it was either someone else’s before Galahad’s or had not been frequently maintained.
Galahad had insisted Mordred stay near them while they were still in the castle. Without a King, Camelot was little but chaos and fear. Mordred let his mind drift to what he considered the moment Camelot knew she had fallen.
They had watched Arthur’s funeral pyre from an archer’s watch post, high above the ceremony itself. The smell of burning flesh and blood was something neither of them had experience with, and the power of it caught them unaware.
Mordred had vomited and tried to get Galahad to leave him alone. Galahad refused silently, easing Mordred back to his feet and making sure his face was clean.
“Always giving,” Mordred mumbled, the memories fresh.
“Always things to give,” Galahad replied, “And you are certain you have retrieved everything from your rooms you want to keep?”
“You saw as well as I did my rooms were ransacked,” Mordred huffed.
“Most rooms were ransacked,” Galahad said as if it mattered to them, “It seems people are becoming more full of fear than sense.”
“How are you younger than me?” Mordred asked, “You speak as if you are much older.”
“I was raised around the round table,” Galahad cinched his bag closed, “I took their lessons to heart from a very young age.”
“It shows,” Mordred meant it as a compliment, "You are not disgusted by knowing the full legacy behind my very being?"
"Your legacy is not mine to form opinions about," Galahad gave a non-answer before changing the subject, “Your legs, how have they been?”
“More steady,” Mordred did not move to stand up and make a show of it, “Still sore, but more steady.”
“And your shoulder?” Galahad tested the weight of his bag.
“Also still sore,” Mordred frowned, “You can see it better than I can.”
“But I cannot feel it,” Galahad rolled his eyes, “Good, though, that you seem to be recovering quickly.”
“We are both young,” Mordred did not need to mention the two he was comparing them to.
“They seem to have taken less of a beating than we did,” Galahad sighed.
“Kai fights on horseback as if he were born for it and Bedivere becomes more god than man as soon as he picks up a weapon,” Mordred let the back of his skull come into contact with the wall.
Galahad laughed, a quiet thing that carried some hope in it.
It was near a week before Bedivere and Kai made their way down to the stables to see which horses were both fit for distance riding and good for taking without inadvertently stealing from the living.
They had taken most of their time to rest and to make sure their wounds did not have any dangerous effects that waited a few days to show themselves.
They had - and they would only admit it to each other - taken the time to mourn their king in ways they could not speak of, could not show the world.
They packed only what they could carry, deciding they had more than enough money between them to replenish their wardrobe and stores should they find a place to settle.
Kai had been thrilled to find that his horse had not only survived the battle, but also was not lame in any of her legs. She had recognized Kai, and Kai her, upon his return from his sojourn between worlds.
Galahad and Mordred caught up to them as they were finishing tacking the horses.
“We want to come with you,” Galahad said as he tried to catch his breath.
“Why?” was the only word Kai could find.
“We were talking about,” Galahad stopped to pant, “what you said about,” he stopped again, lungs not functioning as well as he was used to, “Mordred, help.”
“I’m not any better,” Mordred was also panting, “About history being wrong. We talked.”
“I think we need to let them find their lungs, Kai,” Bedivere looked amused. Kai did not.
“The best way for history to remember us but not the truth,” Galahad managed to say, “is to spread the stories ourselves.”
Kai considered the younger Knights - no longer Knights, he supposed - and the point they were trying to make. He looked to Bedivere, who shrugged.
“Not a farm or a shop?” Kai asked, a hint of teasing in his voice. In the outer edges of his vision, he could see Bedivere’s tired expression flicker into a smile.
“Not this life,” Galahad shrugged, “I wouldn’t know the first thing about running a shop. It’s something you get taught from a young age, I believe.”
“Only until we all have the same stories to tell,” Kai told them, “then you two find your own path. Tell me you have your bags packed.”
“Packed and already tied to our horses,” Mordred finally caught his breath, “We’ve been waiting for you two for three days.”
Bedivere looked at Kai, who was focused on getting the last bits of tack secured.
“Kai,” Mordred addressed his foster-uncle.
“Whatever you are going to say,” Kai did not look at Mordred, “if it has to do with my foster-brother, I do not wish to hear it.”
Mordred fell silent.
Galahad lead his and Mordred’s horses out of the stables. Mordred had taken Arthur’s horse, who had apparently not been ridden into battle. Galahad took Lancelot’s who, aside from a cut on his neck that did not go deep, was sturdy. Kai could see the outline of where armor had worn away patches of fur.
Bedivere took one of the horses that was not fully broken, confident he would be able to handle the stallion.
Kai was first on his horse. Despite the lingering pain, his height and his horse’s training made for short work of the process.
“This whole thing was one mistake after another,” Galahad said as he helped Mordred mount his father’s horse, “Not just the last few months, but from what I understand everything from Uther’s coming of age to now.”
“Did you spend the week in the archives or something?” Bedivere asked.
“I spent the week getting stories,” Galahad corrected, “I figure the best way to spin the lies we seek is to root them in the truth.”
“Good thinking,” Bedivere praised. His horse shuffled sideways, nervous and unhappy with having someone in the saddle. Bedivere chuckled and turned the horse the other direction. "It seems at least one among our party is eager to get going."
Kai did not roll his eyes, but it was a near thing.
Galahad was last on his horse, the gelding taller than he was used to and his body still more sore than he would admit to it being.
“Alright,” Galahad clutched the reigns, “Where do we start?”
“I vote we see where Bedivere’s horse takes us,” Kai suggested, “It will at least make for an interesting journey.”
“You wish to see us run off a cliff,” Bedivere accused, voice containing traces of good humor.
“It’s a risk I am willing to take,” Kai said effortlessly.
“It’s a plan that works for me,” Galahad looked to Bedivere. Bedivere looked to Mordred for someone to say no, this is a terrible idea, but Mordred only shrugged.
Bedivere sighed, dropped his reigns, and kicked his horse.
His horse headed down the nearest path, walking right down the center. Kai laughed.
They would, Kai hoped, find each other’s company tolerable enough to craft stories that would do his brother and King justice.