They were in the town of Londinium, having spent the last few days filling their supply lists, and enjoying what passed as the comforts of civilization in this far-flung corner of the Roman Empire, before heading back towards their outpost in the wilderness of central Britannia. Today was the last day and Arthur intended to leave at daybreak in order to take advantage of the light. Winter was coming and the days grew short. It would be four wet, cold days before they reached their garrison near Hadrian's Wall.
Which was why Arthur was already waiting at the inn's dining table with bread and drink ready when his men dragged themselves, one by one, down the stairs a little after the cock crowed. Gawain came down first, bright-eyed and already dressed, dragging behind him a sullen-looking Galahad wrapped in furs and still in his shirtsleeves underneath. They nodded a greeting at Arthur as they sat down. Arthur nodded back and continued eating. The bread was cold but not yet stale, and Arthur sawed off another piece with his dagger and ate. Gawain followed his lead, then grimaced at the first bite and washed down the rest with the mead. "My god! This is as tasteless as Tristan's leathers," he exclaimed. "Have the bakers here not heard of salt?"
"A bit difficult to get the salt," Galahad muttered sarcastically as he snagged the mead jug, "what with the surprising infestation of bandits plaguing the countryside despite the best efforts of our beloved Roman legion." Arthur raised an eyebrow at Galahad's tone, but decided it was too early in the day to reprimand him. Galahad was simply being Galahad.
Meanwhile, Bors and Dagonet had come down together. Bors was rubbing his hands and grumbling. "Mithras' balls, but it's too cold to be up and out of bed when there's no fight to get the blood moving."
Dagonet didn't say anything, just poured a cup of spiced mead for Bors who downed it gratefully.
There was only one chair still empty. Arthur frowned, glancing at the stairs at the back of the inn. "Has anyone seen --"
At that moment, Arthur saw Lancelot descend into the room with a woman on each arm. One ducked into the kitchen as soon as she saw Arthur and his knights -- it was the innkeeper's yellow-haired daughter, Arthur realized -- while the other squealed when Lancelot kissed her at the foot of the stairs in full view of God and everyone. There was a mischievous glance thrown Arthur's way before Lancelot bussed the woman heavily on the mouth one more time and let her go with a squeeze on her backside. She left giggling.
Arthur rolled his eyes heavenward and prayed for forbearance.
Lancelot flung himself into the empty chair at their table, a smirk on his face. "Ah, Arthur, our indomitable leader! And where is your beautiful lady? Surely in a town this size even your exacting tastes could be met?"
"If you must know," Arthur said blandly, "I did spend much of last night with a lady. And I have been assured she's worth every denarius."
Lancelot, who had been in the middle of swallowing a bite of bread when Arthur made this pronouncement, choked a little.
Gawain, who had been there with Arthur and had actually rubbed down the 'lady' in question, laughed at the look on Lancelot's face. He clapped him on the back. "Never fear, Lancelot," he grinned, "Arthur may have finally found his lady love but you'll always be the prettiest to me."
"You always say the sweetest things, Gawain," Galahad drawled from behind his cup. "But no, this time I think even our Lancelot will be hard pressed to compete."
Bors, not in on the joke, frowned in bewilderment at Arthur. "You were with a woman? But you spent most of the night at the stables -- oh." Dagonet patted him on the arm as realization dawned on Bors' face. Bors grinned.
By now Lancelot realized he had been had. He too had recalled the mare Arthur had come all the way to Londinium to buy. Lancelot scowled at the ring of amused faces before him -- even Dagonet was smiling a little. Arthur smiled too -- he refused to call it a smirk.
"Don't we have someplace to be?" Lancelot said coolly.
But Lancelot's ire lasted only as long as it took them to finish breakfast and walk to the stables. The mare was a splendid beast, a bay with the delicate face, arching neck and high tail of the desert breed. Even Lancelot seemed to forget his embarrassment of the morning and spared a moment in his preparations to rub her nose. But he still refused to meet Arthur's eyes. Arthur glanced at Lancelot curiously as he checked the gear and bits and bridle of his own gelding; Lancelot usually took a joke better than this. But it was a busy morning and the thought was lost amid the many things that Arthur needed to do.
It didn't take too long before Arthur and his men were ready to ride, an ease that came with the experience of long campaigns. The sun was just coming up. In the courtyard outside the stables, the innkeeper's wife and daughters were hurrying about on their morning errands -- one blushed and ducked her head when she passed Lancelot, but this time Lancelot didn't even acknowledge her with a wink.
Arthur spared a fleeting feeling of pity for the young woman -- such was Lancelot's ways with women, almost cruel in his disregard once the night was over. The intense loyalty Lancelot had to Arthur and his fellow brother-in-arms was in sharp contrast to his treatment of his lovers. The difference perplexed Arthur. But then again, Lancelot had bemused Arthur ever since Arthur first saw him, sitting tall and sure on an army nag as though it was the finest warhorse in the Emperor's cavalry.
"We ride," Arthur gave the order, and together he and his men thundered out of the courtyard and down the cobbled streets of Londinium. The few townsfolk already out of bed and on the streets hurried out of their way. They went out the gate, out of town, down the road winding through fields emptied of their autumn harvest. The countryside of brown fields and gently rolling green hills stretched before them, waking with birdsong and the rising sun.
They rode at a moderate pace for an hour or so, taking turns leading the mare and the pack horse loaded with the garrison payroll, until hills gave way to forest. There Arthur reigned in his horse, and beside him Lancelot did so too. Gawain passed the two of them, spurring his horse to the very edge of the forest where the shadows of the trees fell thickest. "Where is that man?" Gawain said impatiently. "He better not have forgotten the time."
Arthur said only, "Tristan."
At his name, the man stepped out from behind the tree next to Gawain. Gawain swore an oath, a hand going to his sword in startlement. "Dammit man, act like a man, not a shade!" he growled. His horse, placid and unsurprised, nickered a greeting at Tristan. Tristan didn't say a word, didn't even smile, but Arthur could read in the slant of his eyes amusement at Gawain's expense.
Arthur smothered a smile and nodded a greeting at Tristan. "I trust you're well rested and ready for the road," he said.
Ever taciturn, Tristan only nodded. He had not gone with the rest of them into town, choosing instead to spend the past few nights outside with moss for his bed and a tree root for his pillow. It was his way, and Arthur was willing to humor this relatively benign eccentricity in his best tracker. Tristan whistled for his horse and swung onto the dappled gray that appeared. He fell into line beside Gawain and Galahad. With Bors and Dagonet bringing up the rear, and Arthur and Lancelot in front, they continued on around the forest.
With the men well-rested, and now all reunited, spirits flew high. Bors' raucous laugh flushed more than one brace of quails from the surrounding fields, and there was good-natured bickering between Galahad and Gawain. Lancelot rode in silence beside Arthur, but unlike that of the morning it was a companionable sort of silence which Arthur was loathe to break, for Lancelot was not a peaceable man. Now and then, Tristan spurred his horse ahead to scout the terrain.
The feeling of well-being lasted only until the sun breasted the sky at the zenith.
"Raider tracks, day old, eight or nine on foot," Tristan said shortly on the return trip of a scouting mission.
Arthur felt his face harden. The savages north of Hadrian's Wall were not the only danger in Britannia; this far south and close to the seashore, Arthur was certain the raiders Tristan had spotted were an altogether different kind of savage, though no less vicious. "Where does it lead?" Arthur said.
"A villa, two hills away."
Arthur's mouth tightened. It was too much to hope they were in time to stop the pillage, but duty demanded he try. Five men against nine. He'd had worse odds.
"Gawain and Galahad," he told the two men, "take the mare and the packhorse, and ride back to Londinium. Wake the captain of the town guard. Tell him raiders were spotted." Arthur was sure that was all the captain needed to be told; Londinium still had not forgotten the last time raiders had swept through it; some houses remained a burnt out husk and Arthur had seen the red-haired children, raiders get, playing in its streets. "If we're not back by tomorrow morning, head back to Hadrian's Wall without us."
The two men accepted their orders. Gawain nodded a short farewell to Tristan, then he and Galahad spurred their mounts back the way they'd come. Arthur gathered the rest of his men to him and headed for the villa at a gallop.
They came across the first casualty at the tracks Tristan had spotted. The body of a field-laborer sprawled in a half-harvested field, too mutilated for Arthur to tell if it was man or woman if not for the trousers still on one leg. Barley lay trampled and bloody around it.
Another field, another body. Then another and another, until Arthur lost count. The villa was still aflame when they clattered into the courtyard, but worst of all was the silence -- no human sound, only the cackle and pop of fire and the panting breathes of their mounts.
All that was human and living, raiders and innocents alike, were long gone.
"Arthur, don't --" Lancelot began, but Arthur ignored him and dismounted to kneel by the body of a servant woman cleaved almost in two from collar-bone to groin. Her brown eyes stared sightlessly up at him. Arthur closed them.
He breathed in, and nearly gagged on the acrid smell of burnt flesh, both real and remembered.
A hard hand on his shoulder drew him from the darkness of memory. Lancelot stared down at him. "Arthur," he said tightly.
Bors and Dagonet watched him too with concern drawn on their ash-streaked faces.
Arthur shook off Lancelot's hand and stood up. "Can you track them?" he asked Tristan brusquely.
Tristan looked thoughtfully at the sky, then swung down from his horse. He knelt beside a trampled topiary bush, and pinched a bit of soil. He brought the soil to his mouth and tasted it. Then he stood back up. He pointed eastward, across fields and woods.
"There are several fishing villages in that direction a day away by foot, a few hours by horseback," Dagonet told Arthur quietly.
Bors banged his sword against his shield. "We will have blood answer for blood," he growled.
Arthur felt Lancelot's eyes on him, but did not refute Bors' statement. "We ride for the woods," he ordered, voice hard.
They found the remnants of a camp not far off the main road. Lancelot pinched the still-warm ashes of the camp-fire between his fingers. "Not long gone -- a few hours at the most."
Arthur nodded, grimly scanning the road.
Just then Tristan swung down from the tree he had climbed to scout the horizon. "Smoke from a village, northeast."
They rode into chaos and fire.
Women screamed when they saw Arthur and his men ride into the village, mistaking them for more raiders. A man with a hoe brandished it at Arthur; Lancelot slammed the make-shift weapon out of man's hand and knocked him unconscious. Arthur spared the time to glare at him, and Lancelot gave him a narrow-eyed smile before swinging his horse around to engage with the actual enemy.
This was no organized battle. Blinded by the smoke, it seemed to Arthur that there were more than nine raiders. Men appeared like ghosts from the grayness, and Arthur was slowed by the inability to tell friend from foe. More than once he stopped his sword in mid-swing, barely in time to not behead the villager who had rushed him. "Friend! Roman cavalry!" he shouted at the man in frustration. In the distance, he heard Dagonet's curdling battle cry and Bors' answering roar.
The rain that began to fall cleared the air but turned the ground soft beneath his horse's feet. Before him, a raider was mounting a woman in the middle of the village square; he scrambled for shield and sword when he saw Arthur. With a cold-eyed calm, Arthur dismounted and brought his sword down on the wooden shield of the raider before him, splitting it and the raider beneath in two. Blood and bone fragments splattered across his face.
A whistle of steel through air, and Arthur ducked as Lancelot's twin blades swept toward him, toppling the raider behind him.
"Watch your back!" Lancelot yelled furiously.
It was fast work afterward to finish the rest of the raiders. Without the cover of smoke, the raiders were no match for Roman cavalry.
Finally there was only one man still fighting, crouched behind the bodies of his companions with bloody sword and bared teeth. He rushed Arthur with a high, fierce battle cry. Arthur stepped aside imperceptibly and the man fell, slipping on blood and leaves. Arthur walked over to him and kicked away the man's sword; he pressed the point of his sword under the man's chin. "Yield," he said. "Your men are dead or incapacitated. There is no point to further bloodshed."
Then the leather strap holding the raider's helm broke, and red-gold hair tumbled down. It was a woman. Arthur froze; he stared at her in dismay. She spat at him, and, quick as a snake, sank her knife into his side. Arthur hissed and backhanded her away from him. She was laughing even as Tristan's arrow felled her.
Lancelot was already running to him as Arthur's knees buckled beneath him. He felt hands catch him as the ground tilted up to meet him.
Lancelot's furious, alarmed voice followed him into the dark.
He waked to the laughter of children, distant and muffled, and the smell of the cooking fire. Straw scratched him through the bedclothes. He blinked at the crude, exposed wood beams in the ceiling above him. He began to turn on his side and hissed, movement aborted. Every breath was a bright flare of pain.
"Awake at long last?"
Lancelot's voice, but beneath the sarcasm Arthur heard the deep, underlying relief. Arthur dared the pain and turned his head. He saw the man occupied the stool beside him -- unshaven, with folded arms and dark, tired eyes.
Lancelot did not move. "You're in a village near Lindum. There's cabbage broth, if you're so inclined," he told Arthur.
"How long?" Arthur managed to rasp, ignoring the offer of food.
"Five days. You lost a lot of blood."
Arthur grimaced. Five days he had lain, abed and useless, in some poor man's bed. "How many wounded?"
"None, except you. Everyone besides me and you are already back north at the garrison. And you're very welcome," Lancelot said coolly. "It was an absolute joy to haul your heavy carcass here and then nearly have my head taken off when feverish impulses took you in the night."
Arthur ignored most of Lancelot's words. "And the villagers?"
Lancelot dropped his eyes. "Most of the women and children. Some of the men."
Arthur closed his eyes.
"They're grateful, if that salves your ridiculous guilt," Lancelot said sharply. "They know if not for you their entire village would have been razed to the ground and the women and children taken as cattle."
"And the prisoners?"
"There were none."
Arthur scowled. He was sure after the skirmish there had been at least three still living besides the woman. "It is dishonorable to kill in cold blood --"
He blinked to see Lancelot standing above him, face dark and furious. "I will not entertain this funny notion of honor, Arthur," Lancelot told him, voice as dangerous as any Arthur had heard, "when you lie bleeding out in a village square, stuck by some red-haired witch's knife because she had bewitched you with her shining red-gold tresses."
Arthur stared into Lancelot's eyes. He saw anger, he saw a heat, fierce and undecipherable, and underneath it all, absolute, stark, all-encompassing fear. Heart racing in his chest, the reprimand died unvoiced in Arthur's throat.
It would have been death, regardless, for the raiders, Arthur reminded himself. At least Lancelot gave them a clean death.
He lifted a hand to Lancelot's face. "I am sorry for worrying you, my friend," he said quietly.
Lancelot closed his eyes. He reached up and closed his hand around Arthur's wrist. His fingers were warm and calloused on Arthur's skin. Then he let go and moved away. He looked disarmed and vulnerable, before he quickly composed his face.
He said to Arthur without looking at him, "I've asked the washerwoman to bring a tub for bathing. The physician said it is fine to wash, so long as you don't wet the wound."
The water was warm and fragrant with herbs. Arthur lowered himself gratefully into it with Lancelot's help. The water stung where it touched his wound. Lancelot handed him a cup of bitter brew when he saw Arthur grimace. "Willow bark," he said. "Drink it."
Arthur almost lacked the strength to step out from the tub, but with Lancelot's help, he managed to stand and dry himself in the cloak Lancelot wrapped around him. He sat on the bed, half-unconscious, as Lancelot carefully rebandaged his chest. Lancelot's hands were sure and warm on his ribs, knowledge hard-earned on the battlefields they'd been on in years past. He cleaned off the blood from Arthur's stomach in brief, efficient swipes, and Arthur, beguiled by the languor of the bath, by the hard heat of the body braced behind him, let out a sound that froze Lancelot's hand mid-swipe.
Arthur woke to reality with a start. He tensed, ready to turn around, a mortified apology on his lips.
Then Lancelot's hand settled low on his stomach. "It's alright, Arthur," he said quietly in his ear. "Let me be this for you."
Hands on bare skin, spine pressed against a sinewy chest -- it startled Arthur how little Lancelot needed to do to bring him to full, flushing hardness. It had been longer than Arthur cared to count -- a widow in Eboracum, a soldier on the banks of Avon. Nothing like the women Lancelot left behind in towns across Britannia. Nothing like Lancelot.
Desire, fierce and destructive as fire. A breath across his cheek. His body strained against Lancelot's hold on it.
"Arthur," Lancelot said in his ear and Arthur shuddered apart in Lancelot's hands.
It took some time for the world to exist again outside the heat of his body; when it did, Arthur realized Lancelot still held him in a loose embrace.
"Thank you," Arthur whispered, "I needed that." And then because he didn't want to inconvenience Lancelot any more than he already had, he added, "You can let go now."
He felt Lancelot tense beneath him, then slowly lift his hands from Arthur's bare skin.
Arthur's eyes closed against his will. He struggled to stay awake; a sudden instinct told him he had missed something important. But Lancelot's hand on his chest pushed him gently back to bed.
"I'll stand guard. Go to sleep, Arthur."
Tired and thus given permission, Arthur let go and finally relaxed into sleep.
Lancelot stood by the bed and watched him sleep. After a long time had passed, he said quietly:
"Many years ago, when I was still a boy in Samartia, the wise-woman of my tribe told me I would die for love and a woman. I do not believe her. It is a sorry cause to die for, and I do not see it in me. I do not wish to die. I wish to live; I wish to see the end of my servitude to Rome, to ride in freedom across the plains of my homeland."
In his dreams, something soft and gentle brushed against Arthur's lips.
"But if I must, Arthur, I would be glad to die for you."