"He’ll have strongholds here," Lancelot clarified, spreading the map across the old, worn oak table. “Here,” he added, “and here. Rumor is he's already garnered an army."
"How strong?" Arthur asked.
"These will not be foot soldiers, my lord."
Arthur peered closer at the map, his face shadowed from the dark wood paneling and low light of the room. His hand brushed Lancelot's hand as he pointed to the last stronghold. "There's mountains here?"
"Yes, my lord." Lancelot caught Arthur's steady gaze. "Well enough to hide."
Arthur nodded once, and rocked back on his heels. "Anthony. How much do we have by way of allies?"
"Same as always." Anthony rustled through several papers he had in front of him, thumbing through the notes quickly. He sat in one of the old-fashioned, rustic-looking chairs, whereas the other two men stood. "France, the United Netherlands and Belgium, and the Yugoslov Kingdoms have all promised aid."
"And the Middle East?"
"Trans-Jordan's Kingdom has promised medical assistance. They are still the best." He stopped at another page. "Iran will still be a problem."
"Things have changed," Arthur muttered. "We'd never have worked with the Britons in the old days. Nor the Arabs."
"I believe they prefer French these days," Anthony answered, grinning slightly. "I have heard rumors, at least."
"Send messages. I wish we would all speak before we go to battle."
"I'll see to it."
Arthur nodded. He rubbed at his eyes. "War never changes, does it?" he murmured.
"Neither do men," Lancelot amended.
A smile peeked through Arthur's otherwise bleak expression. "Francis?"
"Yes," called a voice.
Arthur looked at the young man in question. "I want you to find Mer - the Prime Minister. See if he does not have some plan for us."
“He’ll be asleep, sir.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow, hand resting on a knot in the table. “Then wake him.”
“Of course, sir.” Francis stood, bowing swiftly and apologetically. "Shall I send your wife in, if I see her?"
"No need." Arthur answered, and he raised his voice. "Love, you might pretend not to listen."
"How else will I learn of what you discuss without me," retorted Guinevere, stepping into the room. She smiled at Francis as he passed, waiting until he closed the door behind him. "Gentlemen,” she said warmly, inclining her head just slightly. “Is it so grave?"
"Graver than I'd like," Arthur answered, holding a hand out to her.
She took it, stepping around the table. She rose on her tiptoes to brush a kiss on his cheek, running her fingers for a moment at the bags under his eyes. "You are tired."
"I shall sleep soon."
"I shall make certain you do," she answered, raising his hand to her lips to kiss it before letting go. She moved past him then, purposely brushing the back of her hand across Lancelot’s as she settled between them, . "You are so sure he will be hiding in the mountains?"
"It seems to be the most obvious course, mi'lady," Lancelot answered.
"Ah," Guinevere grinned. "And when, my lords, did the man we knew as Mordred choose the obvious course?" She ran her hand along the map. "Here," she said, tapping what looked to be a flatter terrain between the mountains and a valley. "A river should still run not far from here. He'll set up camp. He'll want to be near the water. He'll hide his men in the crevices of the valley. He'll expect us to come from behind. We'll need a stronger course." She tapped the map a few more times. "We start here," she finally said, pointing to another spot on the map.
"That is farther than we'd like," Lancelot protested. “My lady -”
"She is right," Arthur interrupted. "A course we had not considered. It might give us the element of surprise. Bedevere?"
"My Lord?" the man currently known as Anthony answered.
"Do we know Mordred's allies?"
"Suspicions only, I fear.” He leaned forward, steepling his hands over the table. “We can be almost certain of the Siberian Country. Alsace-Lorraine, has it truly broken free of both its kings. Spain and Italy both. The German Lands, most certainly"
"Neutral, I'm told. As is Switzerland."
"Very well." Arthur took in a deep breath. "We'd be perfect if you'd lead the men, my love."
Guinevere smiled, pressing one hand each to Arthur and Lancelot's cheeks. "Seven months pregnant, I should think not," she laughed. "I shall keep our heir safe in other ways." She kissed both men softly. "Bedevere, come with me," she said after a moment. She stepped around the two men once more, graceful still. Tucking her arm under Bedevere's as he stood, she extended her smile to him. "Let us leave these two to their business. You and I shall draft what messages we have need to." She inclined her head slightly. "Gentlemen."
"Lords," Bedevere murmured, bowing as well as he could.
Arthur waited until they were gone before he gave a sound somewhat like a laugh, and much more like a bark, as he dropped into a chair. He let his head fall backwards, closing both eyes. "I wish she would not do that."
Lancelot leaned on the table, stretched his long legs out in front of him. "You said she was right, my lord."
"She is," Arthur did not bother to raise his head. "That is not what I meant."
Lancelot chuckled. "She knows her tactics."
"She's a wonder," Arthur agreed. He tilted his head, staring at Lancelot through one eye. "We have men enough? Should our allies not come this time also? We have men enough?"
Lancelot frowned. "We have men enough, my lord. Mordred might have Morgan Le Fey, but we have Merlin. We'll be victorious."
"So, I wish." Arthur opened both eyes, continuing to stare at Lancelot. "I shall ride with you."
He caught Lancelot's hand. "This is not then. Our paths are not the same." He pulled Lancelot downward, closer. He let go of his Lancelot's hand only long enough to wrap it at the back of Lancelot's neck. Lancelot shivered from the contact. "I shall not have you ride alone."
"My lord -"
"I shall not," Arthur repeated, and he leaned upwards for a kiss.
"I'll consider it," Lancelot murmured, and he knotted his hands in Arthur's shirt, pulling Arthur up and closer. Arthur's free hand snaked around Lancelot's back, resting just at the base of Lancelot's spine. "My lord," he said again, voice soft.
"Please," Arthur smiled, touching his fingers to Lancelot's cheek. "We are for the moment alone."
Lancelot smiled a moment, before he sighed, and his head fell against Arthur's shoulder. He pressed a kiss to just where Arthur's collarbone peeked out from his shirt, and Arthur shivered, tightening his hands around Lancelot's frame. "I shall not lose you again, Arthur," he whispered against Arthur's neck.
"And you shan't," Arthur promised. He moved his hand, slipping his fingers under Lancelot's chin, raising Lancelot's head. He smiled, looking Lancelot in the eyes, pressing his lips to what skin he could: temple, forehead, mouth. "I shall promise you that. I have no intention of dying again. Least of all like that. In a fight against Mordred."
“We cannot be certain this man is in fact Mordred.”
“We must assume.” Arthur’s hand hovered awkwardly, before he finally placed it on Lancelot's shoulder. He played idly with the collar of Lancelot's uniform. "We will win, Lancelot. We have faith on our side. We have love."
"If it's not enough?"
"It shall have to be." Arthur said, pressing one more kiss to Lancelot's lips. "Now, come," he said, trailing his fingers along Lancelot's arms until he found Lancelot's hand. He laced their fingers together. "Even if you did not notice, my wife visited here in her nightgown. It is the middle of the night, and she is as observant as always. I have not been sleeping. She and Bedevere will be occupied for some time still writing their letters, bless them both. I believe we are both in need of comfort."
"I had noticed," Lancelot disagreed. “Quite distracting, if you’ll forgive my saying so.”
Arthur was puzzled for just a moment, before his bewilderment eased into true amusement. "Beautiful, was she not?"
"Always," Lancelot agreed, ducking his head. "You forgot one thing."
"Hope," Lancelot answered. "We have hope."
"So we do," said Arthur, squeezing Lancelot's hand. "So we do."