The door of the workshop creaked open, and Bedivere set down the stave he'd been shaping to slip his hand under the edge of his worktable. He kept a short sword secured there, in the unlikely event that Vortigern's soldiers ever connected his current identity as a bowyer to his work with the resistance or his past as Uther's chief knight; but the hooded figure that stepped through, easing the heavy dark wood closed behind him, was a much more welcome visitor.
Though on such an occasion, very nearly as infuriating. "I thought I told you not to go tonight," he said mildly as he let go the weapon and stepped away from the table. "It's too dangerous, now that the Sword has been exposed."
The hood fell back, revealing short greying hair and a stubbornly set chin. "And you know as well as I do that we couldn't afford to miss this rendezvous, for just that reason."
"And what if you had been caught by the new patrols?" Bedivere replied, making no secret of his worry as he stepped forward to grip his partner by the shoulder. "If Blacklegs had seen you with Maggie, or traced you back to this place?"
Bill had a bad habit of being careless with himself in altercations with the usurper's men. He might be at less risk of being recognized by the officers than was Bedivere, in leathers now instead of brocades and with twenty more years of wear and tear than when they'd sat together as young men on Uther's council, but his rage still burned as brightly as it had the day Camelot's stones had run red with blood and the true king himself – along with all too many others – had disappeared.
He'd never forgiven himself for not being there. Not that Bedivere had, either; he should have known that the orders that had taken Uther's best defenders out of the castle that night, prompted by Lord Mercia, had not been genuine. The difference was, Bedivere's anger burned cool enough to fuel his strategy rather than burn it all away; Bill's most decidedly did not.
"It would have been riskier not to go," Bill insisted, dodging Bedivere's hand long enough to shrug the cloak off entirely and toss it toward the worktable. The fire flickering low in the braziers lit the room just enough to assist Bedivere's visual inspection for fresh wounds, but also illuminated an expression set in firm, if weary, lines. "Everyone knows Maggie has a common suitor that she meets with when she can get liberty; breaking pattern now would have been more noticeable, not less."
Bedivere's jaw tightened; he didn't like that Maggie was at risk either, but when Vortigern had begun tightening his grip on the barons and taking 'guests' from many of their families into his court, the opportunity to get a member of the resistance into the usurper's household had been too great to pass up. But her proximity to the king and his advisors, as Catia's chief lady in waiting, meant that Bedivere very rarely had a chance to see her himself, now; Mercia and most of his senior Blacklegs – including most of the guards that followed Maggie when she was out of the castle – would have known his face at once. Hence it had been left to Bill, most often, to gather her reports. Usually, that didn't especially worry him; they were both very capable, loyal to the cause, and dear to each other as much as to him. But since the river level had sunk below Camelot, exposing Excalibur and with it the first real vulnerability in Vortigern's reign in two decades, Bill had become increasingly reckless.
"There could be any number of things that kept her lover away. And even you, Goosefat, might have found it difficult to save Maggie as well as yourself if they threw you in the dungeon."
Bill huffed an irritated breath, chest rising and falling reassuringly under the palm of Bedivere's hand. "Are you satisfied yet that I've taken no new injury? Because if you can keep your hands off me for a moment, I might find the time to tell you what I've learned."
Bedivere took that jibe in the spirit it had been meant, and stayed right where he was, too close to Bill for him to slip away. "It better have been worth it," he replied, warningly.
"Oh, I think you'll agree it was," Bill replied, with a mirthless smile. "You remember Lord Cynyr?"
Of course Bedivere remembered him; he'd also been a member of Uther's council. As blond as Queen Igraine, and also of more Brythonic ancestry than Roman, he'd been a scion of one of the oldest families still in power during the war with Mordred. His father had supported Uther's in the early days of the kingdom after the last Roman legions had been recalled and the island's governance had reverted to local rule; he'd always seemed equally loyal to Uther himself. But after Vortigern's rise to power and thorough winnowing of Uther's supporters, Cynyr had survived virtually unscathed, withdrawing back to his own lands and rebuffing every overture from the resistance. He'd had a son just a few years older than Uther's; Bedivere had suspected for years that a secret betrothal to the princess had been made to secure his support. But no such announcement had ever been made.
"He has not been seen at court these twenty years," he said, slowly. "What could Maggie have possibly heard of him that has aught to do with the situation at hand?"
"It seems that, not content to have scooped up every indigent off the streets between Camelot and Londinium, Vortigern has begun ordering Blacklegs to visit every noble household as well, looking for young men of a certain age that have not yet volunteered for the testing," Bill replied, eyes glittering with reflected flame. "Clarendon was sent to Lord Cynyr's castle ... and found there not only Cynyr's son Ector, but another young man a few years Ector's junior serving as his squire, of mysteriously uncertain background."
Bedivere's breath caught in his throat. Could it possibly be? "You don't think...?"
"That perhaps Cynyr had more reason for his reticence than we all assumed?" Bill lifted his brows. "We never thought to look more deeply at our more reluctant comrades, but then, we all thought the prince another casualty of Vortigern's conquest. We knew he was far too cunning to leave such a loose end unplucked. But it's been obvious since the water dropped that something must have gone wrong with his plans. What if this is that something? If the king had time to send his son away...."
"But if the Blacklegs already have him...." Bedivere could not bear to think of Uther's son – the happy child with the queen's colouring and the king's eyes that he'd last seen in the arms of his mother, perhaps waiting all these years for a chance to reclaim his father's throne – taken and slain by Vortigern before they could even offer their support. His uncle would deal with Arthur as he had every other obstacle between him and his goals: with utter ruination.
"They have him, but he has not yet been tested; he is to be sent upriver tomorrow from Londinium with the rest of their latest gleanings. Which means that there is still a chance."
A very tempting one indeed – too tempting, perhaps? Bedivere could not help but wonder. But Bill had gone as tense as a strung bow as he spoke, reaching out to grip Bedivere's upper arms with clenched fingers; he could already see there'd be no dissuading him from this course. "We've had false hopes before. Bill, if there is any doubt...."
Bill made a scoffing noise. "Of course there's doubt; he'll be on a barge in the middle of dozens of other men of the same age, and I have no idea what he's grown up to look like. But we can't let this opportunity pass us by, either. Not if there's any chance at all that he's the one."
"And what of the chance that it's a trap?" Bedivere understood the impulse – but hope could be a poison as well as a remedy, if they let it go to their heads too soon. "If they sail with the dawn, there won't be time to fetch many of the others – we'll barely have time to intercept the barge as it is."
Bill's expression softened a little at that; his gaze traced over Bedivere's face, and he loosened his grip on his sleeves, hands shifting up to cup his face between them. Callused thumbs swept over Bedivere's cheeks, and Bill slowly shook his head. "Not we, boss. You'll need to be ready to arrange my rescue, if I do get caught. Besides, you know I'm the better shot – and far more expendable as well. You're the only reason the rest of us have survived long enough to see this day."
A bittersweet pang seized Bedivere's chest, and he reached up to grip Bill's wrists. "You are not expendable. William...."
Bill cut Bedivere's next objection off the old-fashioned way: by heading it off with a kiss. He preferred to look scruffy for his visits to Maggie, as a further layer of disguise, so he hadn't shaved in a few days; the stubble of his beard scratched against Bedivere's lips, and he let his eyes drift closed to savour the sensation. Gods willing it wouldn't be the last, but there were so few certainties anymore, he'd allow the distraction rather than part on yet another argument.
The prophecies said the Born King would come – but they'd never said if he'd win.
"You were saying?" Bill finally said, pulling back with a knowing smirk.
"Just – don't get yourself killed," Bedivere conceded with a sigh. "We're so close, now; I don't want to have to do this without you."
"Yes, boss," Bill said cheekily, rolling his eyes. Then he turned to a hook behind the door, where one of his working bows always hung ready. "Don't worry, I'll be back before you know it."
The door shut behind him again with another solid thunk, and Bedivere turned back to the worktable, heart heavy. He'd let the braziers burn down intending to go to bed after Bill returned – but the empty bed in the loft no longer held any appeal for him. He might as well get some more work done on the weapon he'd been labouring over, a bow capable of a hundred and seventy-five yards perhaps in the hands of a sufficiently talented archer; one way or the other, he would be thinking of Bill anyway.
And in the light of day, they'd see what hope truly was to be found.
Maggie's heart was in her throat for more than one reason as she approached the cave where Bedivere had moved the resistance when the latest crackdowns began. It had been difficult to find a suitable excuse that would neither alarm Catia nor their guards when she disappeared for a couple of days, and she still wasn't sure the ruse would hold up. But she'd had to come. They had to hear her news.
And she had to see him. Bill she could at least catch glimpses of from time to time, when she could slip away for an evening – but it had been months since she'd done more than catch Bedivere's gaze across the width of a crowd calling Vortigern's name.
In the early days of Vortigern's reign, the loyal survivors of Uther's council had scattered far and wide; but two in particular had stayed with her family for a time, a landed knight with the blood of Mordred's warriors still on his blade and the son of another of England's old families, mad with rage after the loss of his own people in those first purges. She'd been old enough to be betrothed then, but still too young and sheltered to really understand; she'd listened to their stories with stars in her eyes, and took advantage of every opportunity to be near them. After the situation had settled enough for them to move on – she'd made it clear to her father that she'd accept no betrothals to any of Vortigern's loyalists, politics bedamned, and found ways to keep helping the resistance however she could.
As she'd grown older, she'd learned to better appreciate the risks they took, and the impossibility of the situation; but the pattern was already set, and her heart already lost. The first time she caught Bill's gaze lingering on her when he returned to her father's castle with news, and the first time she'd realized what Bedivere's careful courtesy meant when he urged her to take fewer chances, had been dizzying moments indeed. Joining Catia's household, both for their sake and to keep Vortigern's eye from the rest of her family, had felt like a triumph. But one that had grown more and more wearing of late. It was growing ever more clear that the situation would soon reach a tipping point – one that some or all of them might not survive.
Her gaze went straight to Bill as she was led into the outer room of the cave, where the sun peeked in from gaps in the rock far above to illuminate the makeshift furnishings. Light briefly gilded his silvering hair as he looked up from his conversation with an unfamiliar man; he sucked in a sharp breath and rose immediately to his feet. "Maggie!"
Her escort melted away as well as she went to him, hands grasping his as they looked each other over. She could see the worry in his gaze, but her attention was far more on the lingering pallor behind it, and the careful way he moved; it hadn't been very many days since she'd overheard Lord Mercia berating Mischief John for letting the infamous Goosefat Bill slip through his fingers yet again even after being wounded and practically hand-delivered into their care. "William."
"Why are you here? Are you all right?" he asked, tensely.
"Well enough. But I have news – news you and Bedivere very much need to hear."
"He's out with Arthur," he replied, grimacing slightly. "He should be back very soon; but I'll send someone out to be sure. You can't stay here long if you hope to return before you're noticed."
Something in Bill's expression said he wouldn't mind at all if she didn't go back to the castle; neither would she, in truth, but they couldn't take that risk either. The moment Vortigern suspected her, any opportunity they might have to make use of what she'd overheard would be lost. But the cave wasn't all that far downriver from Camelot, particularly if she returned directly rather than taking the roundabout route along the shoreline and among the hills the resistance usually used to flush out and dissuade any followers; she could chance staying a few hours and still make it back before her cover fell apart.
He briefly let go her hands and said something aside to the man he'd been speaking with, who quickly left the cave; then he gestured her toward the table.
"I saw him," she admitted, forcing herself to calm down and take a seat. This wasn't the time to run her hands through Bill's hair, to seek out his wounds and bathe them with her tears, and hear every detail of his escape. They were so close to ridding the kingdom of Vortigern now – and she was very much afraid of what would happen if they didn't. "Arthur, when they brought him to the tower. And I saw the faces of the women they threatened to force him to cooperate. Do you think he can fulfil the prophecy?"
Whatever the details of the young man's background might have been, what he'd done and where he'd been in the years since he'd vanished from Camelot, at least one thing was clear: he knew how to inspire devotion. After twenty years of being ruled by fear, that seemed a hopeful sign.
Bill sighed, and gave her a wry look as he took his own seat across from her. "I think he's the man who turned me over to the Blacklegs, before either of us knew who the other was. But as you said, he had his reasons. I also think he's more capable than any of us had a right to expect; and certainly has no love for his uncle now. There's only one way forward from here, and he's as committed to it now as any of us."
Maggie knew very well how implacable Bill's hatred was, once roused; much as her heart seized at the thought of him bound and bleeding, she'd take his grudging praise, in despite of all else, for what it was: further reason to hope. The Born King had come. Now all they had to do was put him in his uncle's place ... before Vortigern became too powerful to stop.
He must have seen the consternation in her expression, for he reached for a cup to pour her a drink and went on. "But I'm sure our new king's character is not what you came here to discuss. What's happened, Maggie? Why have you come now?"
She took the cup, wetting her throat as the sense of urgency that had brought her there seized her again. "Vortigern's grown ever angrier of late – speaking curtly to his daughter, even cursing at Lord Mercia. Whatever you've been doing, it's definitely having an effect. He's decided to summon the barons to Londinium – and he plans to travel there by barge. Three days from now."
Bill's eyes widened, but not in surprise, she noted; with anticipation. "You're certain?"
"Yes. There won't be much of a window – but I think it's a risk worth taking. If you don't succeed, I'm afraid we won't get another chance."
His brow furrowed, and he studied her face more intently. "What's changed?"
Maggie swallowed, then set her cup back on the table. "He wasn't just allied to Mordred, Bill. We all knew it. But now I've seen it. I heard him say that once the tower is finished, everything else will be academic – and then he lit a candle only by looking at it. With all the mages gone, if Arthur cannot stop him...." A shudder moved through her. "I fear what he will become."
"It won't get that far," he said, shaking his head and extending a hand to her again. "It can't. We've been preparing for this for too long."
"It may not be up to you," she replied quietly, gratefully clutching his fingers. "I do not doubt your skill, or the conviction of our people. But if he has such dark powers on his side ... it took Merlin and King Uther both to defeat Mordred." Arthur had Excalibur, and might yet prove able to live up to his father's legend, but Vortigern himself had seen to the eradication of any mages who might have opposed him.
"And we have a mage, too. Truly, Maggie," he added as she sucked in a sharp, surprised breath. "She showed up at the workshop while I was in the Blacklegs' custody, just after the last time we met, and told Bedivere that she'd come to be Arthur's guide. She's the reason we were able to break him free that day at the tower."
After all this time. After all this time – Maggie pressed her free hand to her mouth until she had overcome the temptation to sob in relief, then offered him a tremulous smile. "Three more days, then."
"Three more days," he replied, nodding, a sharp glint in his eye. "Then I'll put an arrow through Vortigern's throat, and if we're lucky, we won't need her or the Sword for the cleanup."
She knew he had never expected to survive this war, never made plans beyond their next brief meeting or the next raid to conduct – but perhaps now they would finally be free to attempt them.
Her heart beat painfully in her chest – and then a voice from outside the cave's mouth crashed through the tension of the moment, and a tall young man, blonde and scarred and built like a warrior, entered with Bedivere on his heels.
She briefly registered that this was their new king; but her attention was all for Bedivere as his eyes lit on her face, full of care and worry. He was dressed down that day, in a loose white tunic with a grey jacket; it exposed his strong collarbones and the smooth skin of his throat, and the sight of him drew her to her feet as though a string had been pulled taut between them. It had been too long since they had all been together; since she'd had the chance to tangle her fingers in the greying hairs of his beard – and elsewhere – and coax him to let go all the tension of being the Leader of the Resistance in her embrace.
Twenty years since they had first met, all collapsing into this one chance, this one dangerous opportunity.
"Maggie," he exclaimed, stepping closer; then paused on the other side of the table, behind Bill, flanked by Arthur. "I thought we agreed that you'd never come here."
Bill turned, still seated, and lifted a finger to interrupt the flow of his concern. "You need to hear this."
Maggie took a deep breath, then drew her mind back to business and began her explanation once more.
They were still covered in the soot and dust of the tower's collapse and the bloody marks of their assault on the castle when Bill finally found a defensible, empty room within the walls to drag Maggie aside.
Bedivere was just behind them; he'd found the cells where Maggie and Arthur's young friend were imprisoned first, while Bill had been cleaning up the stunned Blacklegs behind Arthur's indiscriminate passage. He might be willing to admit that there could be Blacklegs somewhere without the blood of innocents on their hands, ones who didn't need killing – but none of Mercia's direct men were likely to be among them. The less encumbrances of that sort he left on the young king's hands at the beginning of his reign, the better – and he'd been too certain of Maggie's fate to even hope for her survival, at the time.
But Bedivere had found her nonetheless, strained from her ordeal but alive, and a tension that had been knotted in Bill's spine since the moment he'd realized the man on the docks was not Vortigern had finally let go. For whatever reason the malignant bastard had spared her – likely only biding his time for a far more public spectacle – the risks they'd taken hadn't got her killed, after all. He knew she made her own choices, but Bedivere's words of concern about Bill's recklessness endangering her had rung in his ears again and sank like a stone in his gut.
"Maggie," he said, turning to clasp her in his arms the moment the door was shut behind them.
Outside, the battle was all over apart from triaging the fallen. Arthur still had Percival and Wet Stick and the Mage with him to watch the new king's back in the event Bill had missed any Blacklegs playing possum, and there was nothing else they need do other than convince each other they were still alive.
Maggie's mouth pressed back against his, unbound hair framing their faces as her hands tugged desperately at the ties of his leather jacket, and he groaned as Bedivere stepped up behind her to assist. Bedivere's throat worked as he tugged at the laces of her worn blue gown, dark eyes heavy with emotion. It was the task of a moment for him to ease the fabric down over her shoulders and press his lips where gentle muscle curved up into her throat; she shuddered against Bill, and he broke away for a breath, hastily moving to assist her with his shirt.
In the morning, there'd be plans to be made; tomorrow, there'd be pyres and clean-up and proclamations; sometime in the coming days there'd be a coronation and Vortigern's allies to deal with and somewhere in there perhaps even an unusual request to their new King for an indulgence for polyandrous marriage. An unexpected boon of Arthur's unusual upbringing – he rather doubted the young man would object. But in this moment, all that mattered was that he, Bedivere and Maggie were all alive, free, and in the same place for the first time in years.
A finger of dawn light filtering in from a high window illuminated the soft skin of Maggie's breasts as she cast her head back against Bedivere's shoulder; dark fingers cupped them as Bill finally finished stripping off jacket and shirt. Bill dropped to his knees, pulling up the hem of her dress, and gloried in the sounds she made as he applied his mouth to her center.
It seemed no time at all before she was crying out, fingers tangled in his hair as she shuddered against him. After that, time dissolved into a blur of sensation – seeking out the nearest flat surface, undoing the fastenings of his trousers, Bedivere shedding garments in shades of brown and gold like drying leaves – and reconnection with the only two people he'd managed to hang onto, over the years.
Even returning to the cave to find Mischief John waiting for them over the corpses of their friends hadn't affected him as deeply as sending Bedivere off, alone, to trade Excalibur for the Mage; even the deep satisfaction of watching Mercia collapse hadn't balanced out the cold conviction that their urgency had just traded Maggie's life away for no purpose. He'd had little driving cause beyond being a weapon in Bedivere's hand aimed at Vortigern the last two decades, but those few moments he'd been able to take for himself, the light Maggie had brought to them when she'd joined the resistance, had probably been the only reason he hadn't snapped under the pressure long ago.
Bill didn't know where the future would lead them next; they were off the map now, beyond the limits of the prophecies. But he'd do it at their side ... and for him, that was enough.