- Pursuit of or devotion to pleasure, especially to the pleasures of the senses.
- Philosophy. The ethical doctrine holding that only what is pleasant or has pleasant consequences is intrinsically good.
- Psychology. The doctrine holding that behavior is motivated by the desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain.
Arthur could feel the blood trickling into the waistband of his breeches. Just one more thing – one more thing on top of many others.
The pain had long since disappeared, leaving only the sound, the slap of the leather against his flesh, and the feel of the meat of his lip between his teeth. The wooden cross held in front of him swayed gently.
The knights stood loosely in a ring at the edge of the courtyard – he couldn’t see them, but he could feel their good presences and almost hear their thoughts. Bors would be swearing; Tristan marveling at Arthur’s idiocy; Galahad shocked; Gawain unbelieving; Dagonet impassive but understanding; Lancelot –
The whites of Arthur’s eyes showed, and he knew no more.
Two nights later, and he wasn’t able to lay on his back yet. He stared unmoving out the window, his own window, finally able to convince the medicus of his ability to get to his own quarters unaided. The man had looked at him skeptically, and watched with arms folded as Arthur walked like an old man down the hall, away from the strange smells and cries of sick men.
The door to his quarters opened and shut, letting in a brief burst of noise and light. A sigh came from the person who had entered; the bed dipped with the man’s slight weight.
Arthur felt his tunic being lifted and bit his lip again at the light breeze that touched his raw skin. He tried not to jerk when the linen cloth soaked in watered honey touched his back, but he saw starbursts from the pain and couldn’t help it. The hand holding the cloth shook, but stayed resolutely put, continuing to coat Arthur’s damaged body with the healing material.
“You’re a great, bloody fucking idiot.”
Arthur merely grunted in response as the hand moved over his back. The anger in that voice – it could break mountains. It was tightly controlled for the moment, but Arthur knew it, and had seen it erupt – and wasn’t in the mood to be flayed again, even if it was only verbally.
“Castus. You fool. The men who saw? The soldiers? They’ll never respect you now.”
Arthur bit his lip. He kept his mouth shut. He allowed the pain to distract him.
“Only an imbecile allows himself to take punishment meant for another. What the fuck were you thinking?”
Arthur finally spoke. “I was thinking that I could take what they wanted to dish out, and had it been you instead of me, they wouldn’t have been so kind. Or so light with the lash.”
Lancelot laughed bitterly, finally taking his instrument of tortuous healing away. Arthur sighed in relief as his tunic was lowered back into place, and unclenched his muscles.
“That was light?”
“You’re familiar with crucifixion? With the arena? With the ways we Romans have come up with for punishing our enemies?” Arthur stated, his emotions getting the best of him finally. “Do you think I cared to see you under some Centurion’s whip? I am your commander. I have the right to take whatever punishment is meant for men under my control. I chose to do it. So be it. Now let it go, Lancelot.”
“Arthur, you son of a bitch,” Lancelot gritted, moving around so the young commander could see him, “I may be a slave to the damn Empire, but I’m not your property. You cannot choose what happens to me! If you could, I have no doubt I’d be home in my families’ wagon train with a wife and a fat baby on my lap. So don’t even try and tell me that you have power over my future, or my present.”
Arthur heaved himself to a sitting position, and shouted back.
“I will do anything it takes to protect people that are important to me, Lancelot! I need you here, not dead in the fucking cemetery! What good would that do me? How would it be right to have you die for the mouth you so obviously cannot control? How would that look to your family? To your fellow knights? To me? I. Need you here. I cannot do this alone.”
His chest moved like a bellows from the strain of sitting, his breathing loud and harsh in the quiet room. The two men’s gazes locked, and just as suddenly as it had appeared, the fire died in Arthur’s.
“I cannot,” he repeated quietly. “Don’t make me have to. Please.”
Lancelot’s head dropped, and he rested his brow on Arthur’s trembling knee. “You – damn it, Arthur. I won’t.”
Arthur felt the angry wetness from the other man’s eyes dampen his thin trousers, but he didn’t comment. He lay his hand gently on Lancelot’s hair, and ticked his eyes once again to the sky.
Three years later .
Sweat dripped from Arthur’s brow, and annoyance shone in his eyes. Two days. Two whole days of discussion, and fakery, and the ass kissing he detested. Two days of trying to convince the visiting authorities from Rome why Camboglanna needed more recruits.
He had a bad feeling they wouldn’t be getting any.
The last influx of Sarmatian conscripts had been the group Lancelot and his current crop of knights belonged to – and there were no more infantry coming. Not for a year now.
The consul and his partner had raised eyebrows at Arthur when he had asked for increases in the trips the supply wagons made to their garrison, as a last ditch effort if the men wouldn’t consider more soldiers.
Rome was withdrawing from Britain. No one had officially said anything, but Arthur knew something was going on that was making the higher ups nervous around him.
“Look, commander,” one of them had said at last, his barrel chest wrapped in his fine linen tunic, “this place? Your Sarmatian bastard knights? A dying breed. I can see about the supplies,” he added hastily as Arthur had begun to fume, “but there won’t be anymore soldiers. Besides…don’t you only have a few years left on your term? Serve it, stay out of trouble, and return to Rome with fond memories of the old days.”
Arthur just stared at the older man until he had looked away, face and bald head flaming. Bureaucrats. Arthur detested the mere fact that they tried to act as if they knew anything about living the existence he did – but knew it was his job to do so, to kowtow and to scrape and act as if these men had the ear of God himself.
“Perhaps we should break for dinner,” he commented stiffly at last. “I’ll show you the rest of the Garrison tomorrow. We could all do with some sustenance.”
The men had nodded and departed quickly, leaving Arthur by himself in the large room, the standards flapping in the breeze from the opening door.
He allowed himself a moment of self expression and lay his head on his crossed arms on the table he had helped forge.
By his own hand, by his ideas, by his ‘teachings.’
He sat up, and banged his fist on the thing. Sometimes he hated it – sometimes sinking Excalibur into the dark wood with it’s intricate whorls of Briton and Roman design seemed the best idea he’d ever had.
“Not enjoying your role as diplomat?”
The smirk on his friend and fellow knights’ face annoyed him no end. He frowned. “Not at present. Please don’t add to it.”
Lancelot flopped his slender frame into the chair next to Arthur’s, taking up his goblet and sipping from the untouched thing. “Oh, Arthur,” he smirked wider, “how could I possibly do that?”
“Oh, Lancelot,” Arthur mimicked, rubbing the bridge of his nose tiredly, “by being yourself?”
Lancelot’s eyebrows rose. “My my. Someone’s snide today.” He dropped the smirk in favor of what passed for his real smile, the one only Arthur usually saw.
Arthur groaned and lay his head down again. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled through the layers of cloth on his arms, “these meetings have been – trying, to say the least.”
Lancelot drained the mug of wine and stood, tugging on Arthur’s sleeve. “Come on, Castus,” he said gently, “I think a knife throwing game might be in your future. We can put up drawings of the diplomats as targets,” he suggested, which drew a wan smile from Arthur.
“Only if I get first throw,” the commander answered, and followed the other man out of the round table room, leaving his annoyance and melancholy thoughts behind.
The post the next day brought correspondence from Rome, and a new set of scrolls Arthur had requested from a friend of his family. It brought a bright ending to a horrid day – the diplomats had gone finally, with assurances they would ‘try’ to increase the frequency the supply cart showed up at the fortress. Arthur had large doubts, but he had done the best he could.
It also included a short note that Arthur was determined not to think about. He would deal with it later. Much later, if he could get away with it.
“What’s this?” Lancelot asked him as the two men lounged about Arthur’s quarters, happy to have a relatively free night for once. Patrols would have to increase starting in the next few days due to the smaller number of soldiers, so Arthur was trying to take advantage of some of their scarce free time by reading. Lancelot had arrived a few moments after he had begun to get interested in one of the new scrolls, and was generally making a nuisance of himself as Arthur tried to concentrate.
“What’s what?” Arthur answered distractedly, his stylus in his mouth as he read through the same passage again, marking the things he wanted to remember for later.
“This,” Lancelot repeated, holding up one of the scrolls. “Not that heavy philosophy again? Surely you can’t find this rewarding to examine on your free night. Arthur,” he added, moving to the bed where Arthur was stretched out on his stomach, “isn’t there a more interesting activity you could do? Ride? Sparring? Visit the baths?”
This last suggestion was made in a deeper tone, and Arthur blushed to the roots of his hair. The last time they had visited the baths – well, neither of them had gotten much cleaner.
A husky laugh made it’s way out of Lancelot, who chose that moment to collapse on the bed, resting his head on Arthur’s spine, his hair tickling Arthur through the thin material of his shirt. He resisted the urge to swat the other man off – in truth he enjoyed the slight contact, so he left Lancelot alone.
“Perhaps,” Arthur conceded after a moment of silence, “I’ll consider it if you let me finish this.”
“Oh, Gods be praised,” the other man sighed dramatically, “finally I can fulfill my lifelong dream of getting you distracted enough to pay attention to me, instead of some dusty tome.”
Arthur turned his head around, and met Lancelot’s laughing gaze. “You’d better be joking,” he smiled, “otherwise what the hell have we been doing for the past few years?”
Lancelot snorted and rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “Yes…when you’re not distracted by duty, or reading, or Woads, or more duty, or God, or mmmpfff!”
Arthur grinned down at the other man, his shoulders pinned by Arthur’s ink stained fingers. He leant forward and bit Lancelot’s lower lip again, not hard enough to draw blood, but enough to bruise – and to remind Lancelot just who was boss around the garrison.
Yes , Arthur mused to himself, and if he believes that, I’m a Greek sailor.
“Oh, now you get interested?” the knight laughed, his tone husky and rough. He raised a leg, wrapping it around Arthur’s calf, and tugged so the other man was forced to collapse against him. Their bodies fit nicely, and Lancelot took advantage of the situation by rolling his hips suggestively, laughing again at the sound that came rumbling out of Arthur’s chest.
“Heathen,” Arthur commented, but lay out on the other man further, his hands dropping to and squeezing Lancelot’s slim hips. He smiled amusedly and dipped his head, his mouth and tongue doing things to Lancelot’s skin that soon had him shivering and moaning Arthur’s name.
“Now who’s interested?” Arthur smirked, but didn’t let up his torture.
“When was I not?”
Arthur rose up, resting his head on his hand, his elbow braced next to Lancelot on the bed. “Oh, when you’re sparring, or drinking, or showing off for the barmaids, or…”
It was Arthur’s turn to be silenced by lips.
Arthur found he woke more frequently during the night when Lancelot chose to stay with him. He had thought that having someone else there might settle his nervous mind, but in actuality the opposite occurred.
He sat on the window ledge, wrapped in one of the furs from his bed, and watched as one of the frequent autumn storms that plagued Britain rolled in.
Shivering lightly, he rested his head against the glass, and thought on the short note that had been in the post he hadn’t told Lancelot about. He hadn’t told anyone about it. It did nothing but bring up bad memories – and if he told the other man, he shuddered to think of the reaction.
“You don’t sleep well when I’m here.”
Arthur sighed, and levered himself down from the window, making his way back to the bed. He sat next to the sleepy Lancelot, who was scrubbing a hand over his head, making his hair spring up every which way. Arthur suppressed his urge to laugh, but only barely. Lancelot frowned.
“Nothing,” Arthur replied, succeeding in wiping the smile off his face. “I sleep fine when you’re here.”
“You always were a terrible liar,” the other man commented, and lay back so he was propped on the pillows. “Every time I end up staying here you wake in the middle of the night. And stay awake most of the time.”
Arthur didn’t like the guilty tone in Lancelot’s voice. “It has nothing to do with you,” he assured gently, “I’m not a heavy sleeper in any case. Don’t worry yourself.”
Lancelot just shook his head, then rolled over on his side, curling under the covers. “Well – come here? Perhaps I can help with that.”
A tiny smile decorated Arthur’s features, and he discarded the fur, laying next to the other man as close as he could get.
Lancelot’s eyes were closed, but he opened them and smiled when Arthur lay next to him, and pulled the cover up over both of them.
His hands rose, and ran lazily up and down Arthur’s arms, through his hair, across his chest and abdomen, drifting to rest on his shoulders. He grinned suddenly.
“Turn around,” he requested, “I have an idea.”
Arthur made the universal oh shit face, but did as asked, sitting up, Lancelot following suit.
The younger man’s hands were still slightly oily, and Arthur was a little nervous until said hands began to rub at the knots in his shoulders. “Oh, God,” he groaned, his head dropping forward, “that’s the best idea you’ve had all night.”
“Really? Seems to me you enjoyed some of the others,” came the snarky reply, but Arthur chose not to answer. Instead, he slowed his breathing and relaxed under the ministrations of the other man.
The question came through the haze of Arthur’s mind, so relaxed he wasn’t sure if he’d just imagined Lancelot talking to him.
“What else was in the post?”
“What else – oh, not much,” Arthur said sleepily, “just some supply orders, and one missive from …”
He trailed off, and twisted around so he could see the other man’s face. His expression became one of suspicion. “Why?”
“No reason in particular. I heard something in the courtyard,” Lancelot replied nonchalantly, “just wondering if it was true.”
Arthur took Lancelot’s hands and stilled them. “Heard what, Lancelot?”
The younger man was beginning to look sorry he had asked. “Nothing – forget it, Arthur. Nothing important. Turn back around – come on. I’m sure you’ve still got some-“
“Lancelot. What. Is it?”
A sigh; then a lowering of brown eyes that held a slight tinge of shame. “That some people were coming here. Some people I know neither you nor I would care to see again.”
Fuck. He already knew!
“Damn it, man, just tell me.” Arthur’s neck was tense again, and he still had a hold of Lancelot’s hands, which he gripped tightly.
Lancelot jerked his fingers out of Arthur’s, and pulled away, his body tensing and almost folding in on itself. “That monk. Pious. And General Titus Scaro. Happy now?”
General now. Time moves quickly.
A bitter laugh made its way out of Arthur, and Lancelot seemed to shrink back more. “Oh, yes, ecstatic. I’m so glad you found out this way, instead of from me,” he snapped, then ran a hand through his hair in frustration.
“Were you going to tell me?”
Just as frustrated, and more angry.
“I was hoping I wouldn’t have to,” Arthur sighed out, his hand dropping to his lap. “I was hoping they’d just be passing through. No such luck,” he laughed again, the sound reminiscent of breaking glass. “I’d hoped they’d be in Rome forever.”
Lancelot took in Arthur’s worried countenance, rigid posture, and miserable expression. He shook his head slowly. “Don’t worry, Arthur,” he murmured, moving back toward the commander, “we’ll make it. Everything will be fine.”
He ran a hand tentatively down Arthur’s back – and traced one of the long ridged pinkish scars that covered the white skin.
Arthur jerked like he’d been scalded, and leapt out of the bed. He tugged on the hastily dropped trousers and tunic laying on the floor, and scuttled to the door, toeing on his boots.
“I’ve – got to do some thinking,” he said hastily, and the door shut behind him with a bang.
His mind whirled with guilt for leaving Lancelot there with no word of true explanation, but in his heart he knew he really didn’t have to explain.
Those men – that monk, as Lancelot had put it – were the ones responsible for Arthur’s scars.
And they were coming to Camboglanna, to his garrison, to visit him, to judge him.
Arthur had a very bad feeling things would not turn out the way he hoped.
Arthur’s whip scars come back to haunt him – and Lancelot.
Arthur’s blood on his hands. Arthur’s blood pooling around Arthur’s lifeless form on the dirt covered ground. His own shock as Arthur managed to weakly grasp his hand, murmuring that it wasn’t his fault or his decision before passing out in Dagonet’s arms again, the big knight rushing the smaller man off to the valetudinarium.
Blood, everywhere. Lancelot stood, the knees of his leathers coated in the stuff.
The monk, staring at him, passive and silent, and that Centurion (now General) Scaro, flicking the end of the whip, handing it to a subordinate to clean the blood off, and oil it. To make sure it wasn’t tainted by the touch of the insane young Roman commander who had taken the punishment meant for the Sarmatian dog.
Lancelot had never felt like killing so strongly. Had Bors not been right at his side, meaty hand squeezing just enough on his shoulder, he would have done something. Anything. Another dead Roman would have been all right by him – even if it had meant his death. Especially for those two hypocrites.
But then he thought about what Arthur had done for him – and his shame made his hands and legs stop shaking. It would be the worst cruelty for Lancelot to end up dead despite Arthur’s sacrifice. So he said nothing, and watched as business in the garrison slowly began to work it’s way back to normal.
In the three years since that incident, Arthur and Lancelot hadn’t spoken about it more than the once. And Lancelot was mostly certain that Arthur wouldn’t talk about it; the man was annoyingly stubborn when it came to doing what he thought was right. The scars he carried – they spoke volumes.
Lancelot hadn’t ever touched them on purpose before – he knew Arthur would react like he had – and as he sat in Arthur’s bed and watched the door shut behind the older man, he knew he wasn’t going to like the result of Arthur’s ‘thinking’.
More like self flagelation, or hours of asking his God for guidance, which Lancelot was sure he would do. He sighed and shook his head at his own stupidity for bringing it up in the first place.
But what in hell were those two bastards coming back here for? He had to find out. He hoped it wouldn’t be at the expense of his and Arthur’s relationship, but…
He’d smooth it over. He always managed to. Besides, no one knew Arthur like Lancelot did – and no one else could work with Arthur like Lancelot did. At least he hoped that was the case. And Arthur didn’t know all of what had occurred the last time.
There was an element of security in Lancelot’s position, so he decided to hell with it, and got slowly out of the bed, making his way to the little desk where the post was still scattered about.
Relighting the lamp, he sat, thanking Arthur once again for forcing him to learn to read the complicated Latin most directives were written in, and began to search through the pile for the one small note he was looking for.
“Ah-ha,” he murmured a few moments later, finding the handwritten note in the middle of the stack.
“Bastards,” he added after reading the thing. “Just wonderful.” He forced his body out of the warm bed, dressed quickly, and followed Arthur.
Arthur was concentrating heavily – so heavily that he almost walked into Lancelot as he exited the chapel. “Jesu,” he breathed, his heart hammering. “Don’t do that.”
“Arthur,” Lancelot said quickly, “hear me out. I’m sorry I-“
The older man shook his head. “Don’t. It’s alright. I shouldn’t be so sensitive about them.” He flushed slightly, and looked away. “It’s not as if I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Oh, I truly wish that were the case, Arthur.
That was the most Arthur had said about the scars since he had gotten them. Lancelot merely stared, surprised, then shook his head briefly. “I know that, Arthur. I just – listen,” he said earnestly, beginning to walk – to almost pace – towards the small cemetary where he knew no one would be at this hour.
“I read the post. I wanted you to know. I couldn’t wait – if you needed my help with something, I had a right to know, Arthur!” Lancelot’s voice rose in volume and anger as Arthur groaned and strode away from him, past the graves of men he had personally helped bury. His hands suddenly shaking, he ran them through his hair for something to do – something other than punch the younger man.
“God forgive me for teaching you to read,” Arthur murmured, crossing his arms over his chest. It was chilly; his skin broke out in goosebumps under his linen tunic. He sighed, and rubbed his temple, which Lancelot was sorry to realize Arthur had been doing frequently. He approached the commander, his hand going hesitantly to Arthur’s shoulder. When that wasn’t batted away, he moved closer, and used the long fingers of the hand to rub at Arthur’s neck. “I was going to find out anyway,” Lancelot reasoned quietly as Arthur continued to stare at the graves at his feet. “What – did you think you would hide them from me? Send me on a few days patrol and hope to have them gone when I returned? I’m not that boy, Arthur. I can control my tongue.” If they can stay away from me and mine.
Arthur made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a snort, but refrained from the comment he wanted to make. Lancelot dropped his hand from Arthur’s neck, and rubbed slowly across the man’s back, touching the raised scars through the linen. Arthur tensed, then dropped his head, allowing the touch to continue. “Every day I wonder what idiocy made you choose to do this,” Lancelot whispered. “Every day I think it could be me out here under a pile of dirt, remembered only by a sword. Every day, Arthur, I think on just how lucky I am to know you – and despite my circumstance, despite the fact that I did not choose to be here, I know it could be worse. Much worse.”
Arthur turned to face him, his arms still crossed, his expression still somewhat broken. “I am your commander. I am responsible for you – and can decide to allow you to be punished, or hope that you’ll learn the lesson better through different means.”
Like watching me take it for you. Like I would do a thousand times.
As soon as he said the words, Arthur realized just how horribly cold they sounded. He was the commander, yes; but he was Lancelot’s friend, and more, before that. He raised eyes to the heavens, and caught the younger man by the sleeve as he turned stiffly to go.
“Oh, God,” he breathed, sorrow etching the lines on his forehead more deeply. “I’m truly sorry for that. But – “
“I understand, commander,” Lancelot said through clenched jaw. “I promise to not forget any lesson you choose to teach me.”
And he was gone.
Arthur shook his head at himself, flabbergasted again at his wonderful way of saying the wrong thing at the time when Lancelot needed support the most.
Responsibility. Duty. Choices?
And then there was that most elusive of things – love.
Arthur knew how much it bothered Lancelot, how many hours the younger man had spent mulling over the possibility that Arthur was his friend because of responsibility. He knew, because he had spent the hours himself.
Responsibility and duty to his charges first. But not so anymore. They weren’t the reasons he had taken that lash for the other man.
And now those who had done this to them both were coming to Camboglanna – again. Arthur forced himself out of his reverie, and hurried after Lancelot, hoping to catch him before the other man’s temper had had time to flare out of control.
Lancelot slammed the door to his quarters behind him. Damn him! Damn that arrogant, annoying, idiotic and selfless, thickheaded, dramatic Roman fool. Taking the lash for me – to make a point? It was certainly a painful one if that was the case.
And that monk. “Just passing through – wanting to visit your garrison to see the progress you’ve made.” What progress? Utter crap. Lancelot snarled, and kicked a small empty jug of wine that sat on the floor next to his bed.
Lancelot knew that Pious had been assigned to Vindolanda, far enough away for the evil little man’s influence to be minimal – Arthur’s Holy Father having put the monk there for ‘inspiration’ and for the Roman soldiers to look to for guidance. It wasn’t unusual for a priest or holy man of sorts to be assigned to a fort – it was unusual for one to take such personal interest in each knight, in each soldier.
Personal interest – Lancelot shuddered. He knew just how close the monk liked to get to the knights at each garrison.
The monks’ follower, his shadow (or perhaps now his leader?) General Scaro, always taking an interest in the reform of foreign conscripts, the ones that weren’t so eager feeling the bite of his ‘encouragement.’ Both of them, disgusting. Perfect examples of what Rome had come to mean to Lancelot – and Arthur, stuck in the middle, trying to mediate what he believed in his heart, and what Lancelot saw to be the truth.
The man lived for a Rome he couldn’t see was dying – or was perhaps dead already. It happened to all large empires. ‘Darkness comes before the fall.’ Hadn’t he heard that somewhere? Lancelot wasn’t sure, but it certainly described Rome to a tee as far as he was concerned.
The knock on his door was hesitant and soft. He sighed; calling “enter,” he moved to the small bed and flopped onto it, finding a wine jug that wasn’t empty, and uncorked it.
Before Arthur could open his mouth, Lancelot’s hand rose in the air. “Don’t even try, Arthur. I know you didn’t mean it the way it sounded. But damn it, you fucking fool. You can’t just go sacrificing yourself all the time! Don’t think I don’t remember what you did for me every day,” he stopped, and took a deep drink of his wine, “and don’t think it’s easy for me, owing you that.”
Arthur began to protest, but Lancelot sat up and silenced him with a look.
“I do owe you. But Arthur…here’s the thing. The punishment you took for me? The fact that I opened my mouth and made the comment I did? Those men were…are…just plain evil. Horrid, dark, evil men. And yet…I know, that deep in you somewhere, you have an inkling of agreeing with what that monk preaches. ‘Man is inherently evil, and must pray for forgiveness each day.’” Lancelot’s tone was sarcastic and taunting; Arthur merely sat at the edge of the bed and listened.
“I know you try to see goodness in everyone. Except for yourself. You took that man’s words to heart when it comes to yourself. You ask for penance and pray for forgiveness every day for reasons I cannot begin to fathom. You are the most genuine, most unselfish person I know – and I’ve never met someone who hates himself more.”
Lancelot finished his wine, and tossed the jug aside. Wiping his mouth roughly, he moved so he was sitting next to Arthur, whose face had drained of most of its color.
“You took that lash for me because you felt…you feel guilty,” he whispered, his breath suddenly hot on Arthur’s cheek. The commander wanted to squirm away, but if he did – he would be admitting Lancelot was right. And even if he was…Arthur would die a thousand deaths before he admitted it. Never.
“You took it because they were going to punish me for something you had initiated,” Lancelot continued, “and you couldn’t stand the thought of that. I’m right, yes?”
His arm rose, and his long fingers began to trace up and down Arthur’s spine slowly. He allowed his bearded face to nuzzle against Arthur’s, who was stiff as a board, but remained rigidly in place.
“I am right.”
He pulled back, and swung suddenly so he was sitting astride the surprised Arthur, their faces inches apart. “You bastard,” Lancelot sighed, the ugly word sounding pretty coming from his mouth, “you’ll never learn. It doesn’t matter who does what with whom, or who loves whom, or who knows it. The monk and the General are hypocrites, and they would have found a way to punish me regardless. The fact that you took it? All the better for them, for they could see the person they wanted beaten down just that way. I was defending you when I spoke,” his anger began to weaken with the memory, “but instead I damned you. Damned you in their eyes, and worse? In yours.”
He got off Arthur’s lap, and stood, his face pinched, his mind a riot of pain.
“And guess what, Arthur? Those men, that honorable Roman General and the noble monk? They may preach horrid things against debauchery and ‘unnatural behavior between men’ – but let me tell you – they definitely do not practice it.”
Arthur’s green eyes followed Lancelot as he stormed toward the door. They darkened, first filled with confusion – then popped wide with sudden shock and understanding.
“And you know this how?” came out of Arthur’s lips despite the jaw cracking stiffness of his facial muscles. He didn’t recall ever being this tense.
Lancelot paused, and looked back at him. A small, crooked smile decorated his face.
“You have to ask?”
And once again, he was gone from Arthur’s sight, leaving the commander sitting on the knight’s bed, head whirling with new notions and insights he didn’t care to have.
A monk that didn’t practice what he preached. And a Roman General to back him up, no less.
Sometimes Arthur regretted his naïveté – and sometimes he wished he could use it like a blanket, and cover his world until he suffocated from it.
Arthur’s whip scars come back to haunt him – and Lancelot.
“You know, your virtuous Commander Castus isn’t exactly the innocent man he claims to be.”
Lancelot rounded the corner of the stables, munching on an apple. He froze at the mention of Arthur’s name, and plastered himself to the wall, head peeking around at the monk, Pious, and the Centurion Scaro, watching as they spoke to one of the newer knights. Horrible bastards. Preach one thing, practice another. The night previous, after the little ‘speech’ the monk had made to the knights he had found drinking and throwing dice in the tavern, Lancelot had run into him shortly thereafter doing the very thing he had warned against – and had luckily backed away in time before the man had seen him.
“Euchhhh,” Lancelot murmured as he watched the monk and the centurion talk to … Ian? He wasn’t certain of the young man’s name. It’s one thing when it’s someone you love – it’s another thing entirely when it’s just fucking someone up against a wall. Especially someone you had just told not to do something like that.
Not that fucking some stranger up against a wall was bad in Lancelot’s book – but since he and Arthur had – become involved, his nighttime trysts had come to a halt. Mostly. It was strange to feel anger at someone doing the very thing he had spent much of his time the previous year doing.
Do I love him?
He shook his head, cast aside his thoughts, and leant in further to try and listen to the men, who were continuing their comments.
“You know Arthur, in all his greatness, is actually a practitioner of these things.”
The young knight’s face was shocked. Lancelot shook his head again, not sure he had heard the sentence correctly.
“Commander Castus? Surely you jest. He seems an upright and sincere leader,” the knight was saying. The monk laughed, his jowls shaking. “Oh, no, naïve young one. Buggery is rampant in these places. Who do you think the knights learnt it from? Certainly not their mothers.”
The centurion was laughing along with the monk as Lancelot burst from his hiding place.
“You shut your mouths, you bastards,” he growled, all three men turning in surprise. “Ian, get the hell out of here, and next time learn who to believe.”
The young knight scampered off, leaving Lancelot to face Pious and Scaro on his own. He stalked toward them, his face closed off, the only thing echoing on it the rage he felt. The two Romans, so shocked that a mere conscript would speak to them thusly, were frozen to the spot.
“You bastards,” he repeated, too angry to care about the consequences of his words. “How dare you badmouth him like that? Especially to one too new to know whom to believe. If a knight has no loyalty to his commanding officer, it’s oh so easy for that particular knight to get himself killed on the field.”
He stopped, and spat on the ground. “Call yourself a holy man?”
Lancelot barely saw the blur that was the centurion; the other man had him shoved up against the wall he just been behind before he could do more than yelp surprisedly.
“You shut your hole, Sarmatian dog,” the man gritted, his sour breath making Lancelot’s face screw up. “You know the penalty for speaking that way to a Roman? Especially this Roman?” He banged Lancelot’s head against the brick for good measure.
Lancelot laughed, and rolled his eyes, ignoring the water that came to them from the pain in his skull. “What do I care? My loyalty is to Commander Castus. Not some priest I’ve never seen before.”
The centurion shook his head, then whipped his hand across the knight’s face. Blood welled up quickly, but Lancelot just let it run down his chin.
The priest, whom up until now hadn’t said anything, walked up to them, and took Lancelot’s chin in his hand. Leaning so he was whispering in the young knight’s face, Pious spoke.
“Your loyalty is misplaced, fool,” he said calmly. “Castus has no real power. If you followed me, I could get you out of this pisshole. Reassigned, perhaps, to Vindolanda? Or Aque Sulis? Or even Londinium, where there is a modicum of civilization. Only an idiot would stay here, listening to a misguided, if handsome, youth.”
Lancelot growled at the man, and tried to lunge forward. Pious surprised him by not jerking out of the way; instead, his fat, shiny lips sealed themselves over the knights.
The priest did draw back then, wiping the new blood off his skin. Lancelot smiled, his teeth stained from the bite he had administered.
The outraged Roman opened his mouth to say something, when the distinct sound of hobnailed boots interrupted them.
“Father, Centurion,” came the greeting, the last word trailing off at the sight of Lancelot held by the centurion up against the wall. “What the bloody hell?”
Arthur’s feet made a scraping sound as he rushed forward, grabbing Lancelot and pulling him out of the officer’s grasp. He took in the blood on the knight’s mouth, then looked at the blood on Pious’ face. “What the fuck, Lancelot?” The rough word felt painful in Arthur's mouth, but it came before he could think.
Lancelot bit his already broken lip, and shook his head. “Not here,” he answered.
“Lancelot,” Arthur hissed, but the knight was adamant. He wouldn’t say another word.
Arthur turned to the two men, his face hot with confusion. “Gentlemen, what is going on?” He let go of Lancelot’s tunic, and rested his hand on Excalibur’s hilt. He marched forward, and faced them, questions fighting to get out. He had to bite the inside of his cheek in order to remain quiet.
“This dog insulted the Father, then bit him,” Scaro said, huffing loudly, matching Arthur’s stiff posture. Arthur tilted his head, shaking it. “My men know the punishment for insulting an officer, or a member of the Patrician class,” he answered calmly, “none of them would be stupid enough to do that.”
The priest looked at Lancelot, then Arthur. Removing a small cloth from the folds of his robe, he wiped his mouth. “Well, commander, that is exactly what he did. And since you are aware of the punishment – I would assume you’d be the first to condone it.”
Arthur could feel the anger burning off Lancelot, but he kept his back to the other man. He frowned. “Were there any other men around? Witnesses?”
Lancelot groaned internally as the Centurion’s face purpled. “Are you doubting the word of a Patrician?” he flung the title back into Arthur’s face. “A holy Father, no less? Castus, you are treading on dangerous ground.”
Arthur flinched, holding his tongue at the casual usage of his name from the stranger. “No – I’m merely wanting someone else to corroborate the…incident. No man in the service of the Empire deserves to be seen as guilty before he’s had a chance to explain himself.” He looked back at Lancelot pointedly, but again, the other man remained steadfastly closemouthed.
Arthur sighed, and turned back to the men. “Father – I am sorry this has occurred. I’m sure it was an unfortunate misunder-“
“Commander,” the plump man interrupted, his hand raising like he would clap it over Arthur’s mouth if he had the nerve to, “I sense that you don’t have faith in me. This man, your knight, bit me, unprovoked. He deserves to be punished. I’ll see both of you in the courtyard at dawn one day from now.”
Arthur’s mouth flapped as the centurion and the priest hurried away. He breathed slowly, counting to ten before turning around.
“What. Happened,” he said through clenched jaw.
“They said…things,” Lancelot answered finally, moving away from the wall, spitting on the ground, the saliva tinged red with blood. He wiped his face, and sat heavily on an overturned wine barrel.
Arthur crouched in front of him, grasping his forearm. “What things did they say, Lancelot?” The knight had never seen Arthur this incensed before, and the more angry the commander got, the more angry Lancelot felt. He had been defending the man’s honor, for pity’s sake.
“They were speaking to one of the new ones,” he said, his voice clipped and quiet, “and said things about you that weren’t true. It sounded as if they were trying to turn his loyalties.”
“And why in the hell would they want to do that? What would it gain them?”
“I don’t bloody well know, Arthur!” Lancelot spouted, and stood, clearly agitated almost beyond words. “I was horrified to hear it. I said something. The centurion hit me, and then…” he trailed off, looking up at Arthur, whose temper, when roused, usually flared, burnt bright, then faded as quickly as a brush fire. The commander was watching him, concern on his face – rage totally gone.
Lancelot winced inside. Without the anger to fuel his words, could he tell Arthur the truth? Could he dash the man’s faith in the representatives of his church to the ground? That would be unimaginably cruel. Arthur was nothing if not innocent about his faith and his God.
Arthur moved closer to the younger man, and touched his arm gently. “Lancelot. You know I have every belief in you. If you say you were provoked, and had a good reason, I’ll defend you any day. But you have to tell me the whole story…otherwise, things may not go so well for you.”
Those green eyes. They were full of hope, and trust, and affection. Gods. He couldn’t do it.
“…and then nothing. I was still angry, so I bit him.” Oh, good gods. I just condemned myself for sure.
“You. Were still angry, so you bit him,” Arthur repeated, shock making his voice sound strange. Lancelot shut his eyes.
“They were slandering you. I couldn’t listen to it,” he answered softly. “It was patently the worst thing anyone could have said. They were corrupting the mind of a new knight. I couldn’t just stand there.”
Arthur looked to the sky. His mind couldn’t quite fathom the momentous thing Lancelot had done – for him. It wasn’t right. Arthur wasn’t deserving of that kind of loyalty – he wasn’t that good of a commander. Or a man.
His head dropped; his fingers rose to rub at his temples. “I may not be able to do anything about this, Lancelot,” he whispered. “You know the penalty?”
“I’ve been under the lash before,” Lancelot replied, almost carelessly. Arthur’s head whipped up, his eyes burning as bright as his cheeks.
“Not like this, you haven’t,” he stated. He pinched the bridge of his nose, then looked at his shaking hands. “I – Lancelot. I have to see if I can sort this out. I’ll find you later.”
He disappeared around the corner, boots ringing again on the stone ground.
The day of the punishment had been overly chilly.
Lancelot kicked at the rocks under his feet; the damn battlements were falling apart. He sighed, his shivering more noticeable, his memory of the incident that had led to Arthur’s marks fresh and raw, like someone had scraped a trowel through his brains. That day had been chilly – and the men had been silent, until it had been done with.
Lancelot looked at his hands, imagining he could still see the redness on them, redness from the chapping strength of the wind, and from the blood of his best friend.
The centurion would have beaten you to death. Arthur – Scaro wouldn’t have dared.
So Arthur had whip scars on his back, and Lancelot was alive, standing on the battlements three years later, and not mouldering in some grave behind the garrison.
He blew out his breath, raked a hand through his hair, and remembered the rest of it.
“Arthur. No. Not in a thousand years would I let you do this. No!” Lancelot roared his disbelief and disgust at the top of his lungs. Arthur winced, and made a motion for him to keep it down. They were in the chapel, after all.
“I don’t care who hears us, Castus. I’m not some child you push around! I made my bed. I’ll lie in it. End of discussion.”
Arthur shook his head, the heavy stone walls of the small place hopefully keeping their argument secret. He knew no one else would ever think to look for them there – that was why he had chosen it as the place to tell Lancelot his plan.
His only option, really. That centurion – he had the blood lust. He would kill Lancelot for certain.
“You have no choice, Lancelot. I’ve already told them what I’ve decided. I’m your superior officer; I have that right. It’s done.”
Arthur’s face was full of resolve. Lancelot raged inside – despite his incredulity, despite his fury, despite his incredible overwhelming sadness, he wasn’t surprised. Not really. And he knew, he knew there was absolutely nothing he could do to change Arthur’s mind. The man was a stubborn idiot when it came to his beliefs about right and wrong.
And Lancelot knew intrinsically too, that he would die if the centurion were allowed to whip him. No one would fault the man; ‘Oh, I didn’t mean it, my outrage got the better of me.’ And there would be no one to mourn Lancelot, or to care that his punishment had gone just a little bit over the edge.
No one but the man seated next to him.
And that made him even angrier.
“You…you utter…blasted, unfair, fucking bastard. You know I can’t do anything about it. Gods DAMN you, Arthur! This is beyond the pale. I’m … Gods!”
“Don’t curse here,” Arthur answered solemnly, his eyes the only thing that blazed – his own annoyance and hopelessness about the situation having burnt off long ago. He would not be hurt – badly – and Lancelot would live to fight another day.
He would live to be with Arthur another day. And that was worth any pain.
Lancelot shouted, a nonsensical thing that didn’t really make him feel any better. He stood, and moved away from Arthur before he did something he would really regret, like hit the man, or try to snap his stupid, self sacrificing neck.
I could tell him the rest of it.
Lancelot groaned, and sunk his head into his hands.
And destroy his morality? The very thing that drives him – the thing that made him the man he is? The thing that makes him do this?
What kind of man would Arthur Castus be without his faith?
Lancelot didn’t want to be the one responsible for that scenario.
So he kept his mouth shut, and lived, and watched his closest friend take a beating meant for him. And now – that same friend…more now, a lot more, might be hurt again.
Because Lancelot knew those men weren’t coming here just to ‘check up’ on them. He had to figure out just why – and keep them away from Arthur. He had to make sure their behavior was pristine; he knew he couldn’t have been the only one that had overheard or seen the men’s duplicity. How Arthur never caught wind of it was another mystery he’d have to think on.
Decision made, he hastened down the stairs that led to the tops of the battlements; to apologize to Arthur, and to find a way to discover the truth about this visit.
Arthur’s whip scars come back to haunt him – and Lancelot.
“Not everyone has an ulterior motive. Not every person from Rome is evil – you yourself have seen it.”
Lancelot sighed, rubbing his temple, then stopped. He was picking up Arthur’s bad habits, and he was determined not to turn into the martyr his friend often was. “I realize that, Arthur. You – case in point. However…knowing these men, and knowing what happened the last time…there’s got to be a reason.”
“While I appreciate your concern, my friend,” Arthur stated carefully, not wanting to rouse his seconds’ anger any further, “I wish you’d just let it be. That’s the reason I wasn’t going to tell you in the first place,” he trailed off, his eyes closing briefly. God, but Lancelot could infuriate him like no other. Did the man have to question everything?
“Arthur – one of these days, your simple goodness is going to get you killed,” Lancelot answered plainly, standing, “and I will not be the one to bury you.” He moved to the door of Arthur’s quarters, opening it, the draft and the iciness of the night chilling him immediately – aside from the look in the other man's eyes. “When are they due?”
“Soon. Perhaps tomorrow or the next day.”
The reply was clipped and businesslike; when he turned, Arthur wasn’t looking at him. Rather, his gaze was fixed on the floor.
“Very well, then, commander,” the younger man said, “ask me what you wish, and it will be done.”
He shut the Roman’s door quietly, when he wanted to smash the wood to kindling. Keeping himself under control until he was sufficiently down the hall so Arthur hopefully wouldn’t hear him, he let out a shout, cursing in his native tongue loud enough to make the rats scurry away from his stomping boots.
Two days later. The sight of the small band of mounted men and their Signifer, the eagle of Rome flying high, made Arthur shiver slightly. Things could go well, or…he wasn’t going to even consider the other option.
“Commander Castus,” the (now) General Scaro stated calmly, his horse and armor making him tower over Arthur, even bedecked as he was in his Roman finery. “General,” Arthur answered, saluting smartly, inclining his head. “Welcome back to Camboglanna.” The man dismounted, staring around him in distaste. “Same place, I see,” he commented, then turned to the person seated on a brown mare next to him. “Father, are you certain about this?”
“General, all soldiers are my responsibility in the eyes of God,” came the answer, and suddenly Arthur was face to face with the man who was accountable for the welts that crisscrossed his back. He didn’t smile at the priest, merely bowing once.
“Father Pious,” Arthur said by way of greeting, “we have rooms for you and the General ready. I know you would like time to rest before speaking with me and my staff.”
The fat man stared at Arthur a beat too long, then nodded. “Yes. Vindolanda seems further than it did when I was younger,” he smiled through wet lips. Arthur had to exert control in order not to visibly shudder. The General laughed too brightly, and handed the reins of his stallion to a page, gesturing to the few men that rode with them to dismount. “We’ll see you and your knights for supper, Castus,” he said, and following another page, led the priest off.
Arthur saw to the care and settling of the extra men, then strode toward the baths. He needed to relax and think properly before dinner, and the bathhouse was one of the only places he could do that.
After allowing one of the bath slaves to scrape him clean, Arthur dunked himself into the hot water of the large tile lined tub, and rose, water streaming from his short hair over his face and down his neck. He shook his head, ran a hand through his hair so it wouldn’t drip so much, and leant back until he was resting against the rim of the tub.
Eyes shut, he thought back on the night he had found Lancelot, the Father, and Scaro in the courtyard, blood on both his second and Pious. Despite Lancelot’s words, he found he never truly thought the younger man had told him everything about the incident he had stumbled across. And yet, he had never tried to find out just what the other man was hiding. Some friend.
And God, but Lancelot knew him too well. Arthur had felt responsible, he had taken the lash for the other man for more than one reason – a few reasons Arthur wouldn’t even allow himself to think on for fear he would realize he wasn’t quite so ‘good’ as he would like to believe.
So what could the priest and the general possibly want now? To finish their ‘corruption’ as Lancelot swore it was? To visit? To try and turn Arthur away from his position? To recruit more men for Vindolanda?
Corruption. Why wouldn’t Lancelot elaborate on that? Arthur of all people would be most interested in trying to stop corruption, especially in his own garrison. So why…
“God,” Arthur murmured, fingers squeezing the bridge of his nose, “help your stupid child understand the influence of evil around him.”
Arthur started when he heard the door to the large, steamy room slide open. “Jols?”
“It’s me, Arthur,” Lancelot’s voice wafted through the mist. “You mind?”
“Of course not – did you find someone to-“
“I don’t need a slave to help me bathe, thank you,” Lancelot retorted, slipping into the bath next to Arthur, hissing as the heat invaded his body. His expression was closed, but softened at the look in Arthur’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Arthur. I’m a bit – tense.”
“I as well,” Arthur stated quietly, his eyes shutting again, the warmth and the scent of Lancelot calming him slightly. “I wish I knew what they wanted.”
“I’ll find out. That I can promise you,” the younger man replied, his head disappearing once as he wet his hair, the dark curls plastering themselves to his forehead and neck. Arthur found the water dripping down the curve of Lancelot’s shoulder suddenly fascinating, his fingers going out without even thinking about it, resting at the nape of the other man’s neck.
Lancelot’s harsh expression softened even further; he turned somewhat so Arthur could reach him easier, a small smile crossing his face. “Don’t worry too much,” he said, his hand creeping to Arthur’s thigh and squeezing gently, “I know that trying to analyze things to death is your speciality, but for once, leave this to me. Alright?”
“Then I have one word for you,” Arthur answered, fingers tracing the skin under Lancelot’s neck, feeling the big pulse there, dropping to draw over his collarbone, “…tact.”
"You ask the impossible,” the other man said, then opened his eyes, winking once. “I won’t do anything to get you in trouble – or hurt again. I promise that as well.” He trained his brown eyes on Arthur, catching the commander’s gaze, focusing on getting his intent across.
“I promise,” he repeated softly, sliding over, one arm moving to touch Arthur’s scars slowly. The other man didn’t pull away, and Lancelot released a sigh he hadn’t known he’d been holding.
“Just,” Arthur said quietly, enjoying the touch on his back, “…just don’t get yourself in any hot water, and we’ll be fine. Just because you’re trying to figure things out doesn’t mean you have to go about it the difficult way. Promise me that, and I’ll believe you about the other.”
Lancelot laughed slightly, and continued to rub the other man’s back. “I can try. That’s the best you’ll get. But, for you, I’ll try really hard. How about that?”
Arthur smiled in response, glad to not be arguing with his friend anymore. “I’ll take it. For now.”
Dinner was an uncomfortable and strange affair. Arthur made sure Lancelot was placed on his right, away from the priest and Scaro, and kept the food coming quickly so they would all hopefully be so busy with eating that they wouldn’t fight or get into any kind of heated discussion.
As the knights gradually drifted out of the great hall, some going to quarters, others making their way to the tavern, Arthur found himself walking next to Pious, the night sky clouded and damp, mimicking his feelings.
“So, commander,” the little man began, “I see you have most of the same knights about you. How do they fare?”
“Well, thank you,” he answered, somewhat curious as to where the priest was going with this line of questioning, “…I only wish Rome saw fit to send us more men if they intend to keep us here longer.”
Pious laughed. “I’m sorry to say, commander, that is a distinct improbability. You’ll have to make do with what you have, I’m thinking. Besides, you do have some infantry here as well.”
Arthur nodded. “True. It’s better than nothing. And how is Vindolanda? I haven’t been that direction in some time.”
“Fine. So fine, in fact, that’s one of the reasons I felt it was time to revisit your Camboglanna. This place always seemed to need guidance to me.”
Arthur fumed silently, but remained mute. “Oh? And did you have something in mind?”
“Just to be a presence here. To let your soldiers know that God hasn’t abandoned them – even if it seems that Rome has.”
Arthur sighed. If only God had chosen someone else as his representative – then winced at that thought. It was an idea beneath him, and he apologized silently. God didn’t need to share his plans with mere mortals – nonetheless, Arthur hoped things would be different this time.
“I have to ask – how is your second in command? Has he learnt to control his tongue?”
Arthur smiled tightly, his back aching involuntarily at the mention of Lancelot. “He’s fine. The same reliable, remarkable soldier he always was. I have every faith in him.”
The priest paused in his walking. “Good – because one of my goals on this trip was to make sure you’re surrounded by the type of men that need to be supporting a commander of your talent. I’ll be glad to keep an extra eye on him for you this time.”
Arthur turned to face the other man. “Father,” he said in his gravest voice, “I assure you that I trust every single one of my men. Especially Lancelot. He is young,” he added, “and headstrong. But he knows his job, and performs it with aplomb. He should be the least of your worries.”
Please, just this once, let me be right.
Pious tilted his head, and nodded. Arthur relaxed visibly, a tiny smile gracing his face. “If you say so, commander. But please, if you should need anything, or any help with him, you need only to ask.”
“Thank you, Father,” Arthur answered. “I will. And speaking of knights,” he said, looking towards the tavern, where an echo of ribald shouting was heard, “I need to check on mine.”
The fat priest frowned. “They should be abed – or at prayers. Do you not have patrols in the morrow?”
Arthur mentally kicked himself, but kept quiet. “Yes. But I’ll make sure they’re where they’re supposed to be tonight – and in the morning.”
“Good,” the other man commented, “because I’m sending Scaro out with you.” He raised a hand as Arthur made to interrupt. “Just to observe, commander. I know you’re a good soldier; I’m interested in the skills of your men.”
Arthur nodded reluctantly, then bowed his head once. “Then I take my leave, Father,” he said quickly, and strode toward the tavern, holding his anger and surprise in check.
The priest watched him go, thinking hard. Whirling about, he made his way on short chubby legs to find the General – and to make sure they had their plans straight.
Arthur had to almost physically drag Gawain and Galahad out of the tavern – their knife throwing contest wasn’t quite over, they tried to explain, but the commander wasn’t having any of it. The only thing that worked was threatening them with latrine duty, which caused the two younger knights to scramble quickly to quarters, throwing hasty “goodnight, commander!”’s over their shoulders. Arthur sighed, raising his eyes to the heavens, almost walking directly into Tristan as he began his own trek to his rooms.
“I don’t trust them.”
Arthur knew the scout wasn’t talking about Gawain and Galahad.
“You don’t have to trust them, Tristan,” he answered, “you just have to tolerate them. They won’t be here for long.”
The tall man stared at Arthur for a pregnant pause, then finally nodded. “I hope so.” And he was gone in a flash of hair and whiff of earth.
Arthur watched him go, wondering for the hundredth time just what was hiding underneath Tristan’s enigmatic shell. He hoped he’d be able to find out someday.
Finally making it to his rooms, he shut the door behind him with an audible thump, and once again thanked Jols silently for having prepared everything for the night.
Sitting at his desk, he sipped slowly at his hot wine, and went over the paperwork from the day, using the activity as a way to keep his mind off other things, and off the priest and the general.
Lancelot watched from the shadows of the stable eaves as Arthur conversed briefly with Tristan, then moved on out of his viewing range, presumably to quarters. The younger man detached himself from the wall, then followed slowly, thinking. He wanted to be with Arthur, but wasn’t sure if right then was the best time, given the conversation the commander had had with Pious.
One of Lancelot’s talents was being able to find out almost everything that went on around the garrison whilst remaining invisible. He prided himself on knowing things almost before the party it involved, especially when it involved Arthur. So he was deep in thought when he rounded the corner of the barracks, and slammed into a hard torso with a grunt.
“Fuck – watch it!” he growled, then forced himself to calm. “General, excuse me,” he continued, stepping out of the way of Scaro, who grinned dangerously, and stepped with Lancelot so they were facing each other.
“Ah, the second in command,” the taller man commented dryly, “still in good standing with Castus? Or did he demote you after he took that beating for you?”
Lancelot gritted his teeth so hard he swore he heard them crack. “If you’ll excuse me, General, I need to see to my nightly duties.”
“You mean to Arthur? Is that what they call fucking these days? ‘Seeing to?’”
Knuckles folded into fists, but Lancelot held his hands at his sides. “I need to see to our men. Please excuse me.”
He pushed past the other man, and strode quickly down the hall, the torches on the wall guttering and throwing his shadow on the brick, the blackness an apt physical representation of his mood. He almost broke into a run to avoid going back to hit the other man.
“We’ll be seeing you in the morning, underling,” the voice drifted to him.
There was a small bench on the way to Arthur’s rooms, and as soon as the general was out of Lancelot’s sight, he stopped, the growl that had been building escaping finally, his fist shooting out.
The poor bench splintered with a loud snap. Lancelot left it there, the back rest broken in two, his knuckles bleeding slightly.
Knocking on Arthur’s door, he entered after wiping his hand on his trousers, taking a deep breath to compose himself.
We’ll be seeing you in the morning? Lovely.
He managed a smile at the commander, and shut the door, leaving the general and his confusing presence where he belonged – out in the cold.
Arthur’s whip scars come back to haunt him – and Lancelot.
“What happened where?” Lancelot answered Arthur, moving to sit wearily in Arthur’s abandoned desk chair. He sank into the leather and groaned, kicking his feet up. Arthur shoved them back off the table, and leant on it, his arms crossed, his face a scowl.
“What happened to your hand?”
“Christ, Arthur,” the younger man adopted the vile swear he heard Arthur use on maybe two occasions, sitting up straighter, “nothing escapes you, does it?”
“Not when you’re bleeding on my floor.”
The commander sighed, and grabbed up some of the ever present linen strips he had stashed by his desk – it never failed that he needed them the most when he didn’t have them. Forcibly grabbing Lancelot’s hand, he shushed the other man when he began to growl, and quickly cleaned and dressed Lancelot’s bleeding knuckles.
He dropped Lancelot’s hand when he was finished, their fingers grazing slowly, and went to sit on his bed, chin in hand, face lost in thought.
“Why is Scaro going to see us tomorrow?” Lancelot barked out with no preamble. He was past caring if Arthur found him abrupt.
Arthur looked up, eyes narrowing. “By God, but nothing escapes you,” he mimicked. Then, “Pious is sending the General on patrol with us. Says he wants to ‘test your mettle.’ Doesn’t trust me, doesn’t trust my word on my own men’s prowess,” he grunted, the annoyance clearly showing on his face. Lancelot noticed that Arthur’s face held the lines that appeared when he was angry or upset more easily now.
He stood, then sat next to the older man on the bed. Placing one finger over Arthur’s lips when the other man went to say something, he pressed his lips lightly against Arthur’s face, covering the spot between his eyebrows where the lines were worst. Arthur’s shoulders slumped; his right hand went out, resting on Lancelot’s thigh. Just when he thought he had the younger man figured out…
He made to speak again, but Lancelot pressed his finger harder against Arthur’s mouth, then took it away, his lips replacing the digit.
A trembling sigh escaped Arthur and he relaxed further, his mind telling him yet again what a sin this was, his heart shutting it up by reminding him just how much he loved Lancelot – and just how well the other man knew him, knew just what to do to make him feel better. Letting him in had been the hardest thing Arthur had ever done – and the best. He thanked God every day that he had the luck to have gotten this man in his command – and for his friend. And so much more.
The hand that had been resting on Lancelot’s thigh rose slowly, and threaded it’s way into the other man’s thick curly hair. Lancelot smiled against Arthur’s lips and tilted his head, and moved quickly so he sat upon the older man’s lap, knees to either side of Arthur’s hips. Arthur broke away after a moment, breathing heavy, heart racing, the free hand having found it’s way onto the small of Lancelot’s back. “Stop distracting me,” he whispered, his own grin echoing the other’s.
“I don’t see you doing much to stop me,” came the cheeky answer, the dark eyebrows raising in mock misunderstanding.
“I’m not quite as stupid as I appear,” Arthur replied, and dropped his face to Lancelot’s neck, mouth decorating the stubbled skin with small kisses, stopping when he found the other man’s pulse.
He sucked the skin there into his mouth, laughing silently at the ‘Fuck! Arthur,’ that got. “You started this,” he said quietly against the warm flesh.
“Didn’t say I wanted you to stop,” the breathless answer was hissed into his ear. Arthur bit down once on Lancelot’s neck, just hard enough to bruise, and turned suddenly, flipping Lancelot to his back on the bed. Grinning slowly, he lowered himself to lay flush against the other man, his hand returning to rest in Lancelot’s unruly hair. “What if I were to tell you that I’ve never seen a more welcomed sight?” the commander told Lancelot, eyes twinkling.
“What if I were to answer ‘no surprise there’?” Lancelot said, one leg rising to wrap about Arthur’s calves. “I have a way with annoyed Romans.”
“Romans?” Arthur squeaked, then cleared his throat. “I hope you’re joking,” he added, a little hint of insecurity creeping into his voice. Lancelot laughed, a deep, raw sound that had Arthur’s groin to attention quickly.
“Relax, Artorius,” he whispered, fingers pulling Arthur’s head to his, lips brushing Arthur’s cheeks, then mouth. “You’re the only one I can put up with for more than two minutes.”
“I’d certainly hope so,” Arthur answered, happily allowing the other man’s attentions on his skin, “otherwise the amount of time we spend together would be somewhat odd.”
“Consider yourself blessed to have me,” Lancelot sighed through nips of Arthur’s neck. The other man shivered, then swatted at Lancelot, who laughed and tried to move away. Arthur’s hands rested on either side of Lancelot’s shoulders, and kept him from squirming away. All of the moving, however, was getting both of them somewhat sweaty and not a little worked up. Lancelot’s hips rose, grinding against Arthur’s, who groaned slightly and bent over the other man again, lips brushing Lancelot’s once, twice, then sealing the kiss the third time.
The knock at Arthur’s door made him jerk his head up, the broken kiss making a popping sound as he did so. Lancelot growled and flung a hand over his eyes as Arthur stood and made his way to the door.
“Yes?” he asked as he hastily assembled his clothing before opening the door.
General Scaro scowled down at Arthur. “I was told to make sure you know I’ll be joining you in the morrow, commander,” he bit off, arms crossed over his heavily muscled chest. Arthur refrained from sighing in annoyance. “Yes, General, Father Pious informed me,” he answered stiffly, “but I thank you for your concern.” He kept the door cracked only slightly; all he needed was for the man to see Lancelot lying wantonly across Arthur’s bed.
“It’s not concern, commander,” the other man said, one patrician looking eyebrow raised. “I don’t want to be kept waiting if some of your knights are … sleeping in.”
Biting his cheek, Arthur nodded curtly. “We’ll be there. Good evening, General.” He shut the door in the man’s face.
“Ass,” he gritted, sitting in the chair at his desk. “I’m sure Pious told him I knew. He’s probably trying to catch me doing something wrong.”
Lancelot remained where he was; leave it to some other Roman to fuck things up. He and Arthur didn’t exactly get much alone time, and when they did, well, it was a chore to keep the older man’s mind off of duty, or to keep him from feeling guilty about any number of things. Lancelot wondered again just what it was that made him put up with Arthur.
“Arthur,” he said through his hand, “morning is morning. Now is now. Live for now, and come take me or by Mithras I’ll find some other bed to warm.”
The truly embarrassing part was that Lancelot knew it was an empty threat. Arthur shook his head, but obeyed, kicking his boots off, stopping to remove Lancelot’s as well. He snuffed out most of the lights, leaving only the oil lamp on his desk burning and the small fire in his corner brazier. Laying over the other man again, he looked into the brown eyes of his lieutenant after peeling the hand off Lancelot’s face.
“You’d be hard pressed to find one that wasn’t filled by one of your brothers,” he said quietly. Lancelot merely stared at him, then, rising up, removed his clothing swiftly and silently.
Neither man argued again, but neither man spoke endearments again either.
Arthur was awake and dressed with the sun, sipping at a cup of mulled wine, going over the most recent maps the foot soldiers at the garrison had provided his Turmae with. He spoke as Lancelot sat up, rubbing his eyes. “We need to be to the stables shortly. I’ve gotten you some food – and Jols has both our kits ready.” He took another sip of wine, still staring at the map, frowning at the paper like it was something he would rather not touch.
“You’re certainly efficient,” Lancelot grumbled, and got out of Arthur’s bed, pulled on trousers and sat at the desk. He bit into some bread with honey, and looked at Arthur over the food.
“What’s the assignment?” he asked. Arthur looked at him finally, and Lancelot winced internally at the bags under the man’s eyes. He knew Arthur had problems with sleeping, but it hadn’t shown this badly in a while. He softened his tone and expression, smiling slowly at the other man.
“Just general patrol,” Arthur replied, “but I’ve got to stop at the supplies market – I’m running low on some things I’m used to getting from the Army wagons.” He frowned more deeply. “That’s quite annoying.”
Lancelot hid his laugh by stuffing his mouth with more bread. When he had done swallowing, he took a swig of Arthur’s wine, and stood, part of his breakfast held between his teeth. He dressed, leather riding tunic, pants and mail shirt going on over his linen clothing. He pulled on his boots as Arthur drained his cup, tucking the maps and a small list he had made into his shirt.
The two men would get kitted in their armor when they arrived at the stables.
“Ready,” Lancelot said, wiping his mouth with one of Arthur’s towels, checking his reflection briefly in the small looking glass Arthur kept for shaving, which the other man had already done. Arthur’s cheeks were slightly red and extremely smooth, which Lancelot knew by experience wouldn’t last but half a day. He wondered why the Romans bothered, then snorted to himself at the thought.
“What?” Arthur said as he pulled on his own mail shirt. Lancelot made a face. He opened Arthur’s door. “Nothing you need concern yourself over, commander,” he answered, a bit more tartly than intended. He pressed his lips together, then met Arthur’s tired eyes. “It’s nothing, Arthur. Let’s go. The faster we get this done, the faster we can be back, drinking and resting on our laurels.”
That earned a snicker from the older man, and they exited Arthur’s quarters, the sun peaking over the horizon.
As promised, all of Arthur’s Sarmatians were in the stables, ready or getting ready to ride out. Arthur had to smile at the look of irritation on Scaro’s face; he was sure the general wanted a chance to dress Arthur down.
“Knights,” Arthur called out, and they circled around him, Lancelot to his right, all business attitude now. “Routine patrol. All the same, kit up and bring whatever weapons you choose. We’ll be stopping in the village on the way back, so bring coin if you so choose.”
The men nodded, and went back to preparing. Arthur made his way to Scaro; he tilted his head once in greeting. “Good morning, general,” he said amiably, “I trust you slept well.”
The other man scowled; Arthur was surprised he hadn’t fallen over under the weight of his decorated cuirass and traditional kilt. “As well as could be expected when away from home,” he answered. “I’ll be riding at the rear, Castus, to better see all your knights. Just pretend I’m not there. I’d like to get as accurate a picture as possible.”
Arthur wanted to snap back at the other man, but he merely nodded. “As you wish, general. We’ll be ready shortly.”
The ten knights rode out, Arthur at the head, Lancelot near the middle, and the frowning general Scaro at the rear.
After several boring hours of absolutely no enemy activity and plenty of checking and rechecking their length of the wall for breaches or needed repairs, Arthur called a short break to eat and piss.
The men dismounted, walked and watered their animals, then drifted off in different directions.
Arthur studied his map of the area, making a few adjustments on it since his last visit to this area of the wall. The general approached him, looking overly sweaty and flushed. “Are you unwell?” Arthur asked, surprised at the man’s appearance. “No, no,” Scaro answered, “I’m just warm. It’s a hot day today.” Arthur looked at the sky, where the sun was covered by clouds; he raised one eyebrow. “Indeed,” he answered nonchalantly. “Knights,” he bellowed, startling the general into jumping, “mount up. We’ll head to the village now.”
Lancelot appeared at Arthur’s side with both their mounts. He met Arthur’s eyes briefly, both men communicating their annoyance at having the general along, but thankful nothing had happened.
A scream pierced the area, and Arthur dropped his map, grabbing for and drawing Excalibur in one smooth movement.
Lancelot’s blades were unsheathed about a half second behind Arthur’s sword. Lancelot swore loudy, looking around for the source of the noise. All the other knights were similarly ready; Arthur took a mental head count as his eyes swept the trees nearest them.
Scaro was immobile; he had a strangely peaceful look on his face, and as armed legionaries burst from the trees, he smiled.
“Scaro! What is this?” Arthur yelled, dropping the man’s title in shock. A sizable group of heavily weaponed Romans engaged Arthur’s knights in battle as Arthur tried to see the general through the mêlée. The general was moving finally. He backed out of the way as more soldiers ran around him straight for Arthur.
“Practice,” he answered smugly. “None of them will draw blood, I promise, commander.” He grinned and moved further out of range.
Arthur growled and defended himself, ending up back to back with Lancelot as he so often did, the sound of steel on steel bringing the warrior in him to the fore, and his mental battle mask dropped into place.
Block, parry, thrust, defend. Protect the others.
“I need. To see. Father Pious now.”
Arthur’s face was flushed from the quick ride back to the garrison. He hadn’t said a word about what had happened, instead, he had just barked orders from horseback. Lancelot was white, his lips pinched shut as he nodded sharply at Arthur’s words. He took the reins of their horses and handed them to Jols, following in Arthur’s hard footsteps to the main hall, where the commander hoped to find the priest. The squat man was leaning over the round table, eating what looked to be beef, his lips stained red from blood and wine.
“What in the name of all that is holy do you mean by ambushing me and my men?”
The priest looked at Arthur, some juice from the meat trickling down his chin as he merely chewed his food. Arthur fumed silently, one hand on the hilt of his sword. Lancelot stood a few paces behind him, his fingers wrapped around the dagger sheathed at his waist.
At last the corpulent man swallowed, and sat back. “I told you, commander,” he said evenly, “I wanted to test the mettle of your knights. Had I warned you, that wouldn’t have exactly been fair, now would it?”
“How is it fair to attack unsuspecting knights using their own brethren?” came the clipped answer. Lancelot thought Arthur was being too kind by half; he would have slaughtered the pig of a man already. Good thing he wasn’t in charge. He also wouldn’t have referred to infantry as brethren, but ….
“Commander,” the priest answered, his eyes narrowing to dangerous slits, “I did what I thought was best. I will have a full report from general Scaro this evening, then you and I can discuss what needs to be done here at Camboglanna.”
“What needs – father, please excuse my bluntness, but you have no authority here.”
Pious stood and walked to face Arthur. Despite the height difference, the shorter man stared Arthur in the eye easily.
“I do have authority to make sure the best commanders are being supported by the best knights. I have Rome’s authority, and God’s. You should be flattered, commander, that I took you into consideration when I planned for this trip. If you were any less of man, I wouldn’t have. But remember this,” he paused, then tapped Arthur on the cuirass covered chest once, “you are not Uther Castus. Do not pretend you can push me around, or show defiance of any kind. I’m sure you remember what happened the last time one in your charge got out of hand.”
Arthur’s mouth was an angry white slash in the middle of a red face. Lancelot’s grip on his dagger tightened; he ached to kill the horrid little ass of a man for daring to say such things to Arthur. He bit the inside of his cheek til he tasted the coppery tang of blood.
“I remember every time I look in the mirror, father. I would do it again, as well,” Arthur answered, the only thing giving away his emotions the color of his face. His voice sounded as if he were conversing about the weather.
The priest snorted once, then moved back to the table. “So much the pity, then. Very well, commander. I understand your – surprise. But it was for the best, I assure you. I’ll see you this evening to discuss this further.”
With a wave of his hand, he dismissed the two men as if they were just lowly servants. Arthur sucked in two short, sharp breaths, then turned on his heel, striding out of the room. Lancelot followed, still itching for vengeance.
With rage that he hardly ever showed, Arthur threw a pottery mug at the wall of the loft, where it smashed against the wooden planks with a satisfying crash.
“Who the fuck does that man think he is?” he snarled, pacing around the enclosure. Some of the horses had stirred in alarm at the noise, but had gone back to eating and nickering quickly. Lancelot sighed, and scrubbed a hand through his hair, making it spring up. “He thinks he’s a Roman official, Arthur, which he is,” Lancelot said, the words tasting like ashes in his mouth. “I’d have slaughtered him the second he belittled us if I thought I could get away with it.”
Arthur flung his broad shouldered body onto the hay next to Lancelot, a frustrated breath bursting out of him. He wanted to laugh at the behavioral role reversal he and Lancelot were acting out, but he was too angry. The loft in the stables had often proved a good place for privacy, conversations and other things. The two men sat in silence for a moment, then Arthur finally sighed.
“At least no one was hurt,” he said quietly. “Aside from a few bumps and bruises.”
Lancelot shook his head. He still felt raw and angry, and was afraid of the words that might come out of his mouth should he not pay attention. “You understand my lack of respect for the Empire now, I would hope,” he spat, then closed his eyes. “That ‘practice’ made no sense. There are better ways of going about getting real results. Gods, Arthur, someone could have been killed.”
Arthur stiffened; his reply was quick and full of hurt. “Don’t you think I know that?”
Lancelot rolled his eyes at himself, then reached out a hand, smoothing the lines between Arthur’s brows with a finger gently. “I’m not blaming you, Arthur. I just have difficulty trying to understand your fascination and loyalty to a society that thinks it’s all right to do things like attack their own men in order to learn something.”
Arthur’s face was unreadable; Lancelot pulled his hand back slowly, resting it in his lap, and played with the buckles on his boots. Arthur turned his head at last, and stared out the small window in the loft wall.
“I wish I had an explanation for you,” he said quietly. “Men can do things that are inexplicably stupid and cruel. But we can also do amazing things, and I have to believe in that, Lancelot. My faith in that, and God, protects me. It makes me able to do my duty, and allows me to exist in this life, where one weaker would normally fold. I’m not saying I’m stronger than other men,” he went on, looking at Lancelot again, folding his knees so he could rest his arms on them, “I’m just saying I have things in my life that hold me up and allow me to look past evil men and their doings to see the light in the human heart. Rome is the source of that light for me.” He sighed, and lay his head on his arms. “It’s times like these, however, that make me question that. I don’t like it.”
Lancelot wasn’t sure how to answer that. On the one hand, he understood the need for something in one’s life to make the darkness and blood take a backseat. On the other hand, however, he felt a tinge of – jealousy? – that Arthur was so devoted to a concept that he couldn’t see, couldn’t touch, and certainly didn’t seem to be overtly kind to it’s followers.
Lancelot was also a little miffed that Arthur hadn’t included him in that speech. Which was petty; he knew Arthur cared for him a great deal. But Lancelot’s feelings for Arthur were a lot more than just general caring – all the things Arthur had mentioned about having something to stand upon, something that held you up when you faltered the easiest –
Arthur was that thing for Lancelot. He was the reason Lancelot put up with the life of service he had been forced into, he was the reason Lancelot still went into battle with the intention of coming out alive, he was the reason Lancelot woke each morning, still somewhat happy to be breathing, and almost okay with the fact that he was still in this horrible country.
Realizing that made Lancelot draw in an abrupt breath. Arthur looked up at him from his folded position. “What?”
Eyes narrowing, Lancelot stared back at the object of his contemplation. “I’m not sure,” he answered truthfully. He slid over so his body was touching the other man’s, and leaning to his left, rested his head on Arthur’s arms. One of Arthur’s hands twined it’s way into the short hair at the back of Lancelot’s neck, and he lay his own head next to Lancelot’s.
“You are included in that, by the way,” Arthur whispered, his nose mere centimeters from the other man’s.
“In what?” Lancelot’s eyelids fluttered; he always had a hard time not drifting into a small amount of bliss when this close to Arthur. It was embarrassing and not something he’d admit to anyone.
“The things that I use to hold me up,” Arthur answered, the corner of his mouth twitching upward once. “My faith is important – it’s been a constant source of mystery and pain and wonder. But you, my friend, you are nothing short of my own personal miracle.”
Lancelot snorted in laughter, but stopped when he realized Arthur was serious. “Arthur, you’re joking,” he smiled quietly, “I’m just a man.”
“Exactly,” the commander returned the smile. He wound his arm around Lancelot, pulling him close. They sat together in the loft, the place smelling sweetly of hay and horse, and waited for nightfall.
Arthur’s whip scars come back to haunt him – and Lancelot.
After a little while of sitting with Lancelot in the loft, Arthur admitted somewhat disappointedly that he did have some work to do before the meeting with the general and the priest. He touched his forehead to Lancelot’s briefly, smiling at him, then told him he’d see him later. Moving down the ladder to the floor of the stables, he hastened to his office, where he planned to gather large quantities of evidence that proved his knights were a capable, responsible Turmae, and that he was definitely qualified to lead them. Not that he considered himself the best of anything; rather, he knew that as a team he and his men worked more efficiently at the job they were ordered to do than any other unit he’d seen. He took some small pride in that, despite the fact that he knew it to be sinful.
The sun set before he was through. He looked up as a page knocked at his door, telling him General Scaro was requesting his presence in the great hall. He nodded at the boy, then tucked his notes and stylus under his arm. He realized he wasn’t properly dressed, but the simple leather pants and linen shirt/overtunic would have to do. He blew out the lamps in his office and, shaking his head free of cobwebs and concentration, went to meet the two despised men.
He heard raised voices as he approached the hall; speeding up, he rounded the corner just as Scaro was commanding some of his men to “arrest these knights!” Arthur’s brows drew together, and he dropped his papers, rushing forward to stand between the general’s men and Tristan, Bors and Lancelot, who were all fuming and looked ready to kill.
“General Scaro,” Arthur started, breath heavy, “What. Is going on?”
The general gestured again at the soldiers, who hesitated, looking from their general to the angry commander. Arthur didn’t move, merely crossing his arms. “Well?” he asked, voice tight.
General Scaro straightened to his full height, and brushed past Arthur. He spoke to his men, his words clipped and full of the promise of retribution if the soldiers didn’t do as requested. “What are you waiting for? Put these men in irons and take them to the quaestorium now.” The soldiers began to move, but Arthur placed himself between them and his knights again. He turned to face Scaro. “What is going on, General?” His tone was controlled, but his hand clenched at his sword hilt. “By what right do you attempt to discipline my men?”
“By the right of rank,” the general spat, “commander. Father Pious is dead. Poisoned. I’ve reliable evidence that your knights had a hand in it. So I’m compelled to take them and lock them up so I can question them at my leisure. Wouldn’t want them to get away, would we?”
Father Pious is dead. Poisoned.
Arthur felt dizzy with disbelief and anger. “General,” he answered finally, “rest assured my knights would never resort to subterfuge. They’re too fond of bragging about getting revenge, number one, and number two, they don’t hurt members of the Empire. Period. This is absolutely ridiculous.”
The general stared at Arthur for a moment, then barked at his men to move out. Arthur hesitated a moment, then finally stepped out of the way, meeting Lancelot’s gaze as he did so. The younger man’s eyes were dark and full of rage, but he just shook his head, and allowed himself to dragged off, albeit with a nicely placed foot in front of one of infantry men, who tripped over it and cursed Lancelot, then marched him off double time.
“Commander, follow me, please,” the General said in curt tones. “We must discuss this.” He turned and strode into the great hall, now empty and quiet. Arthur followed him on stiff legs.
What in the hell is happening in my own garrison?
Arthur watched the moon; it’s bright luminescence normally calmed him. This time, however, it was merely a distraction as he stood and rubbed his face, thinking hard.
Father Pious, dead by poison in his own wine. Early this evening, whilst I was in my office. Anyone could have done this. Anyone. But who had a reason?
He stopped that line of thought; he wouldn’t even go in that direction. He knew his knights hated the weasly, fat man, but they weren’t stupid. They wouldn’t do something this overt, for one thing, and they wouldn’t do something to put Arthur in any danger again.
He shook his head, cupping his chin in his hand. And oh, what joy it would be to explain to his men that they would have to stay put for a while. Arthur’s back twinged, and he rubbed at the muscles, wincing as his fingers trailed across one of his whip scars. No. Lancelot was loyal to him. The other man respected Arthur – well, most of the time – and wouldn’t do anything so foolhardy…
Arthur broke from his reverie, and made his way quickly to the quaestorium, where hopefully some answers waited.
“Gods damn it, get the fuck away from me,” Lancelot growled at the guard that had spent the last hour or so staring at him. The man acted surprised, then moved off to the door, staring out on the courtyard. “Fuck,” the knight sighed, and banged his head against the bars once. Bors laughed, poking at Lancelot’s shoulder. “Don’t do that, boyo,” he smiled, “you’ll ruin what brain you have in that pretty head.” Lancelot merely turned narrowed eyes on Bors, who laughed again and moved off to try and engage Tristan in banter. Good luck, Lancelot thought bitterly, but his angry thoughts were halted by the sound of Arthur’s voice shooing the guard out of the room.
From where Lancelot sat on the floor in the corner of the cell, all he could see of Arthur was the man’s boots until he hunkered down next to Lancelot on the other side of the bars. Lancelot looked at the commander; the other man appeared exhausted and angry, his eyes red, his mouth pinched. Lancelot raised an eyebrow, waiting for Arthur to begin his tirade.
Instead, he got quiet defeat.
“They’ve got a pretty solid “case” against you three,” Arthur said, voice controlled, but the sadness and helpless fury in the tone ate at Lancelot’s gut. He sat up straighter. “Arthur,” he started, “You can’t possibly think we had anything to do with this. Killing was too good for that pig,” he snorted, but stopped the noise at Arthur’s look, “but rest assured none of us had the luck to have done it. When Bors kills some enemy you know the garrison’s heard about it in three seconds. And which of us would stoop to using something so ignoble as poison? A man can’t even fight back.” He sighed, some of the fire going out of his tone.
“We don’t exactly want to end up at the bottom of the river or tied to a hangman’s noose.”
Arthur nodded, his eyes going out of focus momentarily. He spoke again, this time more quietly. “I don’t know what to think.”
Lancelot shook his head, certain he’d not heard Arthur correctly.
“What? Are you ill? Arthur, d’you think any of us would want you hurt – ”
“Who would have done this? We’re the ones who have motive, reason, opportunity,” Arthur answered, his head dropping. He looked at Lancelot, whose face was beginning to close in on itself. He hated being the reason for that look, but he pressed on doggedly, mouth running away with his thoughts. “They took you because no one would dare accuse me of anything. I just – I can’t believe the accusations. Something deeper is at the root here. It’s got nothing to do with you three personally. It can’t.”
If it does – well, then God take me, because I’m no judge of loyalty or heart at all.
Lancelot rolled his eyes. “King of the obvious, you are,” he said tartly. “I promise you, Arthur, we had nothing to do with this. Get us out of here, and we’ll help you find out what really did happen.”
Arthur’s neck and back hurt; he shifted his shoulders and looked away from Lancelot, who’s expression was bordering on the desperate. The hurt that had sprung up when Arthur had walked in and seen his men behind bars was rapidly becoming a swirling pinching in his chest. He knew how his men felt about being controlled – especially Lancelot. Arthur spoke, too quietly for Lancelot to hear, so the knight moved closer to the bars that divided them.
“Say that again, man.”
“You can’t say it again, or you can’t get us out of here?”
Arthur winced, and forced himself to meet Lancelot’s eyes. The younger man was on his knees by the bars, the metal pushing into his face, making Lancelot look oddly inhuman. Arthur’s lips worked, but he couldn’t get any words out.
A low, dangerous laugh rolled out of Lancelot’s throat, and he sat back, leaving one hand wrapped around a bar. “Ah, Artorius,” he sighed, his voice tight and flat, “is loyalty a one way street now with you? Because if that’s the case,” he went on, his words speeding up, his head shaking, “I’d have given myself to a Woad blade long ago. Honor, respect, loyalty. How many times have I let you pound those concepts into us? Into me? And how many times have I proved disloyal to you? Hmm? Well?"
Arthur didn’t answer, couldn’t answer. Lancelot waited, and when no response was forthcoming, he laughed again. Running a hand over his face and hair, he sidled back up to the bars again, touching Arthur’s knee once more. “You know the worst thing? I actually found myself believing it. Believing the concept. Not in the Empire,” he spat out, “but in you. And your idea that loyalty and honor help shape what a man can be. No matter what he was. Yet another thing I was wrong about.”
Arthur’s head snapped up and he spoke vehemently. “No, Lancelot. You weren’t wrong. This is just – a different situation. My hands are tied –”
“And yet here you sit, talking to me as if you think I’d give you answers, then be content to stay in this cell until your superiors decide it’s alright for the barbarians to go back to work. Well, fuck that,” Lancelot interrupted. “I’d rather sit here til I rot before I help some damn Roman official figure out his arse from his elbow, let alone who murdered a dirty, disgusting, lying piece of offal that passed himself off as holy.”
Arthur reeled as if hit. He tried to think of something to say, but for once, was at a complete loss.
“And how dare you get me to admit to believing in an arcane, ridiculous concept. May your God take you, commander.” Each syllable was punctuated with shards of chilly sharpness that made Arthur’s teeth ache.
The scars on Arthur’s back throbbed at Lancelot’s icy words. He shut his eyes for a long moment, allowing the pain that flowed from the other man into him drown him in it’s antagonism and grief. He deserved no less. When he reopened them, Lancelot had shuffled back into the corner of the cell, his own eyes closed, his arms crossed over his chest. Arthur stood, and spoke to all three knights.
“While I can’t have you released now,” he said, ignoring Lancelot’s snort, “rest assured that I will do everything in my power to speed up the questioning and will have you back in your quarters as fast as I am able. Do not doubt that I am on your side.” He turned and left before Lancelot could spout some sort of rebuke.
Bors and Tristan cast eyes on their cellmate. “What did you say to him?” Bors asked finally. “He’s usually not quite that hoity toity when it comes to mischief he thinks we might have been involved in.”
“Shut it, Bors, and let me think,” Lancelot snapped back, to Bors utter amusement. “We’ll get out of here. With or without the Roman’s help.”
Arthur kicked over an empty cask, and snarled as the few remaining drops of wine sprayed across the wall behind the stable.
May your God take you.
He didn’t think he’d ever heard Lancelot that angry. He didn’t blame him. If Arthur had been left in a jail cell with his supposed commander and closest friend unable to help or believe, he would feel betrayed as well. But damn it! He couldn’t get them out. Not yet. Not that he hadn’t tried, but no amount of debasing himself or begging would move a man like Scaro into seeing things Arthur’s way. The general had merely glanced at him and said “No. Not until I am certain of their non-involvement. We all know how the Father felt about your command, Artorius. Those knights are heathen barbarians. They would have as good a reason as any to get rid of Pious.”
Arthur had had to bite his tongue at that point, instead of running the general through with Excalibur as he had wished to. He shook his head, plopping down on the over turned casket.
I actually found myself believing it.
God! Arthur sunk his face into his hands, his groan of misery eaten up by the night sky. He hadn’t meant to hurt the other man like that. One of these days his so called golden tongue would prove to be a major problem. If it hadn’t already. He knew what a giant step it was that Lancelot actually trusted him, trusted Arthur to do right by him, and by his knights. Arthur wasn’t sure if Lancelot would ever trust him again after this. Arthur believed the knights, that was the trouble. He knew what Lancelot had said was the truth. They’d never stoop to using poison. Despite being conscripts, the men did have a warrior’s sense of honor. And that was the trouble. Who in the hell else would want the man dead? Arthur wasn’t sure – but he was damned if he would let his men rot whilst the machine of the Empire’s “inquiry” rolled on slowly.
He stood, purpose renewed. He would find out the real story behind the murder – the murder that had occurred right under his nose, in the very fort he lived and worked in and for each day. That in and of itself was an insult of the greatest magnitude. And secretly, he didn’t feel as sorry for Father Pious as he really ought to. That thought he pushed away, not ready to face that guilt quite yet. He would find out the truth, and he would make things right with Lancelot. Yes.
The alternative was too horrifying to contemplate.
Arthur’s whip scars come back to haunt him – and Lancelot.
Three days and as many attempts to get out of the quaestorium later, Lancelot had to admit he was running out of ideas. The gods damned Romans wouldn’t let any of the other knights into the cell block, and Arthur had only been back once, stony and formal, his few words of “hope” only making Lancelot angrier. The commander had sworn he was trying day and night to find out what had really transpired; Tristan had caught Lancelot’s eye after Arthur had strode away and nodded at him once.
“He wouldn’t leave us here without good reason.”
“Believe what you like, scout. I’ll get us out of here. And I’ll show Scaro just how much I respect the power of the Empire once I do.” Lancelot spat his words like they burned his mouth. Tristan merely stared, then shrugged his shoulders, turning to sleep again in his small corner of cell.
“Bah,” Lancelot made a noise of annoyance, and folded his knees up to his chest, his forehead resting on his clasped hands.
Wish I had killed that bastard. For what he did to Arthur, for his backstabbing, lying ways, for his false piety, for anything.
He shook his head and closed his eyes, determined to get them out of the cells in a way that didn’t result in one of them being beaten – or one of their deaths.
So far he only sported a broken finger and black eye. The guards and the general would have much worse when he was through with them.
Arthur rubbed his face for the umpteenth time, blinking his bloodshot eyes at the papers in his hand. Surely what he had just read wasn’t really the case? Surely the general hadn’t ordered more of his troops transferred to Camboglanna?
One good thing about missives – it took a while for them to be sent and received. And it always helped to have a man willing to find a “copy” of certain ones.
Transfer of men could only equal one thing. A possible transfer of power. That idea opened up a whole world of possibilities in terms of what had happened to Father Pious, but the idea that had been swirling around Arthur’s mind was so blasphemous that he didn’t even want to think it. Besides – the many times he had seen the general and Pious together, the men had been thick as thieves, whispering and plotting together.
Could the general actually be responsible…
No. Despite the fact that Arthur thought the man was an argumentative, loud mouthed, short tempered braggart, he was a general, a representative of Arthur’s home, and he couldn’t possibly be as devious as all that. Then again, this was the same general and representative of Rome that had had his men ambush Arthur’s cavalry for training purposes.
“God,” he sighed, his fingers stuck in his hair, the dark curls standing up in crazy whorls as he dropped his hands back to the desk.
“I’m getting them out. This is ridiculous.”
What if the general is using my men to get rid of me?
There. He had thought it. Standing, he strapped on his light cuirass and Excalibur, wanting to look as official as he could, blowing out the oil lamp as he left.
The general be damned. This was still Arthur’s garrison, and he would put his men wherever he saw fit, no matter the charge against them.
“I knew he’d do it!”
Bors slapped Arthur on the back as he followed the stiff necked commander as they made their way to the barracks. Arthur didn’t answer, but nodded in response.
Four guards followed as well, but guards in Camboglanna’s employ; therefore, Arthur trusted them to do what they were told.
Arriving at the rooms designated for Bors and Tristan, he turned to the two men. “I cannot let you out of here just yet. Your meals will be brought to you, as will anything else you need. And before you even ask it,” he held up a hand, “no weapons.”
Bors made a rude sound as Tristan just watched Arthur’s expression.
“You’ve discovered something.” The scout spoke quietly, but his words carried.
“Perhaps. I need a few more days to decide if I’m right.” Arthur turned his gaze on Tristan, who cocked his head.
“You know where we are if you need us.”
A short harsh laugh rattled Arthur’s throat. “Indeed. And I would appreciate it most kindly if you would still be here when I come to find you.” Raising an eyebrow, Tristan executed a small bow. “Wouldn’t think of anything else,” he responded, and disappeared into the rooms to light the fire. Bors began to move, but Arthur stopped him with a hand. “You’re staying here. So you can keep an eye on each other.”
The guards took up their posts on either side of the door as Bors gawped at Arthur. “Commander,” he grated, “surely you must be joking. That fruit eater and I will kill each other within a few hours. He’s too quiet,” he went on, tone almost whiny. Arthur widened his eyes and placed one hand on his hip.
“Fine,” Bors acquiesced, but not without much posturing. “Just be glad I’m in no mood to climb down two stories to get out.”
“Bors, if I find you’ve even opened that window, I’ll be certain you have stall duty for the rest of your term of service.” Arthur smiled as sweetly as possible.
“Yes, commander,” the bald man said through clenched jaw. He turned and slammed the door a bit harder than necessary.
“No one in without my say so. No one out, either. I hope you both value your heads, especially in terms of keeping them attached to your necks.” The two guards looked at Arthur. The young commander was stiff and serious, his face devoid of any emotion save controlled anger. “Yes, sir,” they both chimed in unison. “Excellent,” Arthur replied in a clipped tone. “I’ll inform you when their food will be delivered.”
He turned and faced the last two guards and Lancelot, who was wearing an expression of incredulity – mixed with pure rage that Arthur knew would be unleashed on him the moment they had a second alone. Which is why Arthur was determined they wouldn’t until he was sure about what he was doing.
“Follow me,” he gestured to the guards, Lancelot slowing slightly when they reached the door to his room.
Arthur kept going, the guard prodding Lancelot in the back with his pike slightly. “Don’t touch,” the knight warned in a deep growl, and followed Arthur’s swishing red cloak, the guard trailing after.
They stopped in front of Arthur’s rooms. “Oh, I don’t think so,” Lancelot started, unbelieving smirk on his face. “Arthur, no. Surely you can’t be – ”
Turning his back on Lancelot (which he knew he’d pay for later), Arthur spoke in low tones to the guards, who took up positions on either sides of the door. Arthur opened the thing and unceremoniously pushed Lancelot inside, shutting the door behind him.
He had intended to only stay a moment, but once he caught a glimpse of Lancelot’s face, he had a sinking feeling it might be longer than that.
“What in the hell do you think you’re doing, Castus?”
Arthur winced at the loud bark that came from Lancelot. He looked up and met Lancelot’s eyes once, then crossed to his desk, removing his cloak. “I’m getting you out of the quaestorium, that’s what. Would you prefer to stay there?”
Lancelot’s booted feet rang on the stone floor, and Arthur turned as he felt heated breath on his neck. Lancelot’s nose almost brushed his. “I’d prefer to be free, in my own quarters or wherever I chose. I know you doubt us, commander,” he spat, “but I promise you, the retribution I plan won’t tarnish your name or your hide again.”
Lancelot wondered whether he had gone too far with those words, when Arthur interrupted his thoughts, face darkening in rage.
“I’m not worried about my name!” Arthur roared back at the younger man, who to his credit didn’t move a fraction of an inch away from Arthur. “Or my hide! I’d do it again. You ought to know that,” he continued, his voice dropping slightly. “I think I’ve figured out what’s going on here – and I don’t want to be wrong. I don’t want you to end up dead because I insulted the wrong official.”
He sighed, and turned away from Lancelot’s eyes. They ate at him and made his stomach ache. Closing his own, he rested his face in his hands. “This is delicate, Lancelot. The wrong word, the wrong action, hell, the wrong look and you could swing by dawn. I will not have that on my conscience.”
“Your conscience? Is that what you’re worried about?” Lancelot laughed, a deep, angry chuckle that made the hair stand up on the back of Arthur’s neck. “Well then, allow me to apologize, commander. Forgive me for causing you so much anguish – if you’ll just allow me to leave, I’ll save you the trouble and get my justice my way. If I end up dead, so be it. One less conscript to bother your conscience.”
Lancelot was suddenly slammed against the wall next to Arthur’s desk. Arthur’s hands were on his shoulders, and Arthur’s dark red, infuriated face was in his.
“Don’t you ever. Say something like that to me again,” he hissed, “you smirking bastard. I’m doing this for you. To keep you alive, to keep you with me. You know how I feel about you – that’s why this is bothering me so much! It’s why my conscience is coming into play! If I didn’t care, I’d let you hang! Christ!”
He spun away from Lancelot, crossing to the window, where he stopped, breathing hard.
Lancelot was at his heel. “I know how you feel about me? I know you like to fuck me into the bed – I know you like my loyalty and service – and I know you like my sword skills at your back. Do those things equal love? I don’t know, Arthur. To me, they mean little save this is what you desire to do during your time here.”
Arthur’s back stiffened and he didn’t draw breath for a long moment.
That hurt. More than he could say.
Lancelot noticed the stiffening in Arthur’s body and heard his intake of rough air. As soon as the words had left his mouth, he wished he could take them back. It was true, Arthur did seem to like all of the things he had mentioned, but… Arthur loved him. Of that he was relatively certain. He had flung the statement at the other man because he was hurt and more angry than he’d been in as long as he could remember.
“Arthur. I didn’t mean – ”
Arthur rested his forehead on the glass of his window and counted to ten. He raised a hand.
“I deserved that.”
At those words from Arthur, Lancelot’s mouth clicked shut. Arthur moved at last, striding to his desk and picking up a few papers he had left lying there. He turned to look at Lancelot, but his green gaze went right through the other man instead of focusing on him.
“I’ll be back shortly. Your food will be delivered soon. Please – I ask you with all respect – please stay here. You will be vindicated.”
He nodded once and opened the door, exiting quickly and shutting the thing quietly behind him.
When he was gone, Lancelot swore violently and flung himself into the ledge of Arthur’s window, where he could watch as the commander made his way out of the barracks and crossed the courtyard. Lancelot could see the woodenness Arthur’s stance and could tell he was upset, even from as far away as he was.
“Brilliantly done, idiot,” he muttered to himself. “Next you can just run him through with Excalibur and have done with it.”
I think I’ve figured out what’s going on here.
In his anger Lancelot had barely heard Arthur’s words. He pulled at his goatee, thinking. “Power games between two powerful men,” he mused. “Let’s hope Arthur proves to be more powerful than Scaro.”
Otherwise I’ll have to get us out of this mess, one way or another.
Arthur’s whip scars come back to haunt him – and Lancelot.
In using Camboglanna and Vindolanda as locations, I have played with them totally at my whim, for my story purposes.
Without any preamble the large doors to the round table room were flung open, and General Scaro barged in. Arthur met his angry gaze with aplomb, raising one eyebrow. “General?” he responded in a calm voice.
“You broke your knights out of the quaestorium?”
The other man’s breath was practically steaming up Arthur’s face, so he leaned backward in his chair. “No,” he said, “I took them out of there and placed them where I thought I could control them better. So I can get answers out of them without them being intimidated by a guard detail they don’t trust.”
Scaro stared at Arthur, his mouth working but no words coming out. At last he huffed a snort out of his nose, and flung his long limbed body into a chair next to Arthur – the one Lancelot normally occupied. Arthur felt his hackles rise, but he kept quiet. He gritted his teeth when the general placed his dirty, booted feet on the table in front of him.
“I see your point,” Scaro admitted begrudgingly, “but I don’t like you going over my head – ”
“With all due respect, general,” Arthur stated, “this is still my command. Or am I mistaken?”
The general took his feet off the table and leaned forward, all muscle and sinew and tight shoulders. Arthur thought perhaps he should have been a bit more tactful, especially when a large shiny smile spread over Scaro’s face.
“For now,” he said, “but be advised, Castus, Father Pious and I did have another motive in coming here. In light of the recent – event – I’m even more inclined toward the thinking that brought us here in the first place.”
Arthur crossed his arms and regarded the other man. “Indeed. Perhaps you should enlighten me as to what exactly you’re referring to.”
The general gave Arthur another insincere smile and stood. “Not yet, commander. My investigation isn’t complete, and I’m still not sure of my final plan. Things have changed now that the Father, rest his soul, is dead. You’ll have to be patient. In the meantime, I’d keep an eye on my men, especially the ones not already locked up. The Father was right about some things.” He made an embarrassed noise through his teeth as he moved toward the doors. “Uncouth barbarians, the lot of them. How the Empire decided they were worth conscripting, I’ll never understand. But maybe you can explain that to me later, hm?”
The doors banged behind him as he strode from the room.
Arthur rose from his chair and slowly moved to Lancelot’s. He looked at the pile of dirt that the general had left on the table from his boots.
In one large, angry gesture, he swept the leaves and mud onto the floor, then slammed his fist down on the wood.
Lancelot was trying to pry a corner of the glass that sat in Arthur’s window loose when a light knocking made him jerk his head up.
Tristan smiled at him from the outside ledge, his nimble fingers and knife sliding into the crack Lancelot had been working at for the last two hours.
“You tricky bastard,” he swore at the scout, who lifted the pane and set it inside Arthur’s rooms as he squeezed in through the hole. “How long did it take you to get out?”
“Longer than I wanted,” Tristan answered, sheathing his knife in a hidden place at his waist. “We’d better hurry. I don’t think Arthur will be gone much longer, and from what I’ve heard, things aren’t going the way we’d want them to.”
Lancelot took the extra dagger Tristan offered him and slid it into his boot, frowning at the other man. “How so?” he asked as they both sidled out on the ledge. Lancelot wasn’t afraid of heights, but he didn’t relish falling to the ground and breaking his neck before he could break General Scaro’s.
Tristan moved quickly to the corner of the building, where some scrolling stone decorations formed the perfect handholds. He lowered himself the one story to the ground, and waited for Lancelot to follow, albeit not as quietly as himself. “The general wasn’t too pleased to hear Arthur had us moved,” he said, “and I’m not sure whatever the general has planned for Arthur is what Arthur wants.”
Lancelot cocked his head at Tristan as they made their way silently towards the armory. “How do you find these things out?”
Tristan merely shrugged. “I’m the scout for a reason, Lancelot.”
He went inside the dark building as Lancelot stood guard outside, emerging moments later with his curved sword and Lancelot’s blades. They armed themselves, then moved to a dark corner to discuss plans.
“What about Bors?” Lancelot asked. He had just realized the older man wasn’t with them.
“Couldn’t fit through the window,” Tristan smiled briefly. “I told him we wouldn’t be gone long and to try and distract Arthur if he returned.”
Lancelot snorted at the image of Bors trying to squeeze his bulk through the window, then sobered. “So – ideas?”
“I’m hoping Arthur left something we can use in his office. You can read Latin, yes?”
“Enough to get by,” Lancelot answered, “it depends on the author. But that’s a good starting point. Let’s go.”
Arthur’s neck and back ached and his skin was prickled. He stood outside the general’s quarters, his cuirass and cape exchanged for a linen tunic, leather pants, and Excalibur, the clothing black as the night so he wouldn’t show up too easily as he snuck around. He couldn’t believe he was actually spying on someone. Granted, a someone who was a danger to him and his men, but nonetheless…it wasn’t a behavior he regarded with much respect, unless it involved Woads, and then his opinion changed slightly. Currently the general was discussing something in low tones with one of his men; Arthur wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but he had caught his own name and Pious’ a few times, so he knew something was being planned that he should be aware of.
Scaro moved to the open window and Arthur took a few steps back into the shadows, hoping the man would stay there and talk some more.
Taking a sip out of a flask, the general sighed and stared out at the garrison. He turned his head slightly, and spoke to the unnamed person in his rooms. “D’you think this place can be whipped into shape before the Empire abandons it fully? I’d like to have a good looking career before I get recalled.”
The reply was murmured, but Arthur was frankly too distracted to hear it even if he had been able to. He knew it. Those annoying consuls from Rome had been telling the truth.
“Jesu,” he whispered. He had been hearing rumors of the sort from passing infantry and cavalry as well, but he had been choosing to think of the stories as just soldiers talking out of their asses as they were wont to do from time to time.
“I don’t know about that,” Scaro was answering the person in his rooms, “he seems a bit too close to his knights, if you get my meaning. Oh, don’t even start that,” he went on as Arthur crept forward a little more to hear better. “You know all of that was a ruse. That man wasn’t any more holy than my bollocks. He was merely the means to an end.”
A little closer.
“Castus has to be gotten rid of. I can see the fire of the Caesar’s in him. Rome doesn’t need that – Rome needs men willing to do whatever needs to be done for Rome. Men without guilty consciences.”
A laugh from the general. “No, I don’t think he’ll come around to our way of thinking. Besides, d’you think after all the effort I had to go to in order to rid myself of the corpulent Father, I’d bring another person on board? Especially a person I know won’t see things my way?”
Oh, great Christ.
“I knew it!”
Arthur’s collar was jerked roughly by unseen hands just as the general stuck his head out of the window.
“What?” he asked the unseen person. “No – I just thought I heard something. Only the wind, it would seem.”
Arthur flailed about as hands clamped his arms to his sides and he was rushed around the corner to a darker place, forceful fingers covering his mouth. At last he was unceremoniously dumped onto the ground, where a glowering Lancelot and an amused Tristan stared at him.
“What the bloody fuck do you think you’re doing?” Lancelot hissed at him, hunkering down so his face was level with Arthur’s. “If he had caught you, you’d be finished here.”
“I may be finished here already,” Arthur snapped back, then cocked his head. “Wait. How did you two – never mind. I don’t want to know. Has anyone seen you?”
“No one we didn’t choose,” Tristan answered. “Bors is still in the rooms, no doubt keeping the guard occupied. Don’t worry, Arthur. You’re safe with us.”
Arthur stood, taking Lancelot’s outstretched hand briefly, then dusted his breeches off. “Things are progressing more rapidly than I had hoped,” he said quietly, ignoring the way his skin tingled from the short contact with Lancelot’s hand, “and I do believe the good general had more to do with Pious’ death than he’s admitting.”
“I thought you said they had a ‘strong case’ against us,” Lancelot said stiffly. Arthur met his eyes evenly, but winced internally at the expression there before Lancelot moved his eyes away. “Things can change,” Arthur replied, “so can people.” He waited until Lancelot looked at him again, showing a tiny smile when the younger man didn’t immediately start yelling at him. Lancelot stared for a moment, then shook his head. “One day, Arthur, my loyalty to you may be something I regret.”
He said it quietly enough that Tristan didn’t overhear him, and then he was gone, following the scout, leaving Arthur to trail after them.
“I found this in your office,” Tristan offered the paper to Arthur as the three men sat together in a corner of the stables. The noise of the horses would cover up any noise they made, and Arthur stuck out a hand, taking the note. “I’ve seen this,” he said. “You said you found this in my – Tristan, did you break in? What else did you ‘find’?” He frowned. “All you had to do was ask. I would have told you – and damn it, I told you I was trying to make sure I was right. I would have filled you in as soon as I was sure.”
Lancelot made an angry sound in the back of his throat, and Tristan’s face closed in somewhat. Arthur sighed. “I know I’m slower than you care for me to be. But like I told Lancelot,” he jerked a thumb at the knight, “this is delicate. I’m not in a position where I feel comfortable confronting the general just yet. I refuse to let you swing just because I didn’t have enough information.”
Tristan just cocked an eyebrow. “We’re grown men, Arthur, and not as stupid as you would assume. If you trusted us as we trust you, you’d know that.”
Arthur stared at the scout before lowering his eyes, shame heating his cheeks. Tristan was right. He owed them the truth, and he owed them his trust. They had proven many times over how loyal they were. Damn him for forgetting that.
“I’m truly sorry,” he said quietly. “Forgive me my stupidity. I should have trusted you.”
Tristan nodded once, and Lancelot uncrossed his arms. “However,” Arthur added, “you can’t fault me my method. It’s not like the infantry or the general or his men would let you just waltz in and speak to a man of his rank.”
“True,” Lancelot spoke at last, “but it’s our necks on the line here, Arthur. You’ve got to let us help in our way. Besides, we may be able to save your job as well.”
Arthur started. “How did you know –”
“He’s not the scout for no reason,” Lancelot smirked at Tristan. “Regardless, we need to do something. Trouble is, how do we fix this without us dying or you being transferred?”
Or something worse, Arthur thought, but kept that idea quiet. He bit his lip as he pondered their situation. “From what I heard, Scaro and the Father had other motives in coming here,” he voiced slowly. “I also have a feeling that the Father didn’t imagine himself dying as part of those plans. I think the general may have decided to go with his own desires once they got here. I hate to admit it,” he continued, “but I can see why he’d want this command. We’re bigger and more fully active than his garrison. And a successful general with two legions and a cavalry under his thumb? Rome would look generously on him upon his return.”
He didn’t mention the comment he’d overheard about the Empire pulling out of Britain; he wanted to think of good way to explain that one before having to fight about it.
“He’s using us as scapegoats to get rid of you,” Lancelot said. “That’s a pretty good plan for a Roman.”
Arthur snorted, then rubbed at his face. “If I can’t think of a way to get us out of this, I’m going to have to admit it’s a very good plan.”
Tristan stood. “I’m going to see if I can’t overhear anything else. You two stay put. I’ll be back before light.” And he was gone.
“Where does he get off, ordering me around like that?” Lancelot grumbled to himself, eyebrows drawing together. His bottom lip stuck out in a pout that Arthur was used to seeing; this time, however, he couldn’t seem to take his eyes off it.
Lancelot looked up after a moment. “What?” he asked a bit grumpily.
Arthur blinked and raised his eyes. “Nothing,” he answered hastily, hoping his blush couldn’t be seen in the gloom of the stables. “You should rest,” he said, “I can watch for a while. I’ll wake you when I’m tired.”
Lancelot merely laughed. “Oh yes, Arthur. I am as gullible as all that. You think I’ll allow you to let me sleep, then sneak away when I do? Gods save me,” he sighed, “from bad liars.”
“I’m not a bad – damn it, Lancelot,” Arthur’s sigh echoed the other man’s. “Just try and get some sleep, alright? I promise I won’t leave.”
Lancelot glared daggers at him until he threw up his hands. “I swear it. On my word as a," he paused, thinking on a concept he'd been mulling over, "knight of the round table, and as your friend. I will not leave.”
Lancelot actually cackled. “A ‘round table?’ Do you mean that beat up old relic we inherited from four legions before us? Arthur.” He lowered himself to the ground, and bent his knees, curling his arms around them. “However – I will trust you. Don’t take advantage of it.” He closed his eyes and forcibly relaxed.
Arthur watched until Lancelot’s breathing evened out, and his posture became less rigid. He stood and went to the door of the stables, poking his head out. It wouldn’t matter if anyone saw him there, but he’d rather not have to deal with the general at present if he didn’t have to.
After watching and pacing for a few hours, he returned to the corner where Lancelot was curled, Lancelot’s hand flung out onto the straw covered floor. The garrison was completely quiet; Tristan hadn’t come back yet, and Arthur didn’t want to wake the other man, especially after all the things he’d gone through recently. Sitting next to Lancelot, Arthur leaned his head against the wall and contemplated the sleeping knight’s face. So much confusion, and anger, and hurt. And so much love, too. It was truly frustrating, annoying and perfectly wonderful.
Arthur’s hand snuck out and took up Lancelot’s. The other man stirred slightly, turning his body toward Arthur’s, who moved so Lancelot could lay his head on Arthur’s lap.
“You’re an ass,” Lancelot mumbled sleepily, then curled more tightly into Arthur’s hold. Arthur smiled briefly. “So you keep reminding me.”
“Well, who would if I didn’t?” Lancelot yawned. Arthur just shook his head. “Sleep,” he commanded softly.
“Perhaps,” the younger man smirked, a halfhearted and worried move of muscles, and then dropped off again. Arthur knew they had many things to discuss still, but for now, it was nice to not be arguing for once.
Too much pain. He’d have to remedy that, one way or another.
Tristan’s voice in his ear woke Arthur from a dream, and he jerked his head up, having to untangle himself from Lancelot’s arms and legs. The other man woke as well, scrubbing a hand over his sleep-bleary face. “What is it?” he asked before Arthur could say anything.
“Troops. A hundred at least. A few leagues from here.” Tristan squatted next to where Arthur was now seated.
“Fuck,” Arthur rasped, his voice still thick with exhaustion. “From Vindolanda, I take it?” Tristan nodded.
“Shit,” Lancelot added his own outburst. They all stood, Arthur shaking his head to get rid of the remaining cobwebs. “Well,” he sighed, “I guess we’ll either be victorious by tonight – or dead. They’ve forced our hands.” He fastened his sword belt back on from where he had left it next to his sleeping spot. Pulling Excalibur from the sheath, he examined it, then slammed it home.
“Let’s go save our necks.”
Arthur’s whip scars come back to haunt him – and Lancelot.
In all probability Vindolanda as a fort was larger than Camboglanna; I have reversed this for story purposes.
Arthur had forgotten just how noisy armed infantry could be en masse. He waited, seemingly patient, arms crossed and face calm as the men from Vindolanda marched closer.
“Waiting for your end, Castus?” Arthur didn’t look at Scaro; he merely breathed slowly and counted to ten before answering. “Waiting to see what you have planned.”
The general barked a small laugh. “Not much you haven’t already figured out, I’m sure. These men coming here are my men, Castus. They’ll believe what they want to believe, or rather, what I want them to believe. So I wouldn’t do anything too rash. I do have a few tricks up my sleeve still.”
Arthur swore he wouldn’t play into the general’s little attempts to get him riled up, but he couldn’t help an internal groan at the sight of more of his knights bound and held at sword point by some of Scaro’s guards. Thankfully, Lancelot and Tristan were not among them. Not that he wanted anything to happen to the other men, but with Lancelot and Tristan free, there was a slight chance things might go their way.
Then again… .
“Scaro,” Arthur said in clipped tones, dropping the man’s title. He didn’t care. “Do you think this whole garrison will let you do this? Kill me, kill my men?”
Scaro lifted one eyebrow. He looked haughtily down his nose at Arthur. “This garrison is mostly infantry, Castus. Infantry that will be on it’s way home sooner than you think. Do you think they care? Do you think anyone cares about your mongrel conscripts except you? Fodder for the cause, Arthur. Things happen way out here in the wilds of the Empire. No one will know. And when they do find out, well, I’ll have things so well in hand it won’t matter.” Arthur bit his tongue in fury. He shook his head. “I think you underestimate the strength of Men, general. But that will be your undoing.” He stood still as another guard came up behind him, and placed his pike at Arthur’s back. The gates creaked open, and a score of men entered, one on horseback, the others following on foot.
“General Scaro,” the mounted one said, saluting briefly, “we received your orders. Where are these men that have butchered the holy Father?”
The guard at Arthur’s back shoved him slightly so he’d walk forward. Caught unawares, Arthur stumbled and almost fell into the dirt, catching himself at the last minute. He shot a look at his bound knights as they made noises of anger.
“This is the cavalry commander, Arthur Castus,” the general said to the infantry officer as he dismounted and removed his helmet, wiping some of the road grime off of his face. “This man is responsible for the behavior of the knights that killed poor Father Pious. He’s to be removed to the quaestorium for further questioning. We’re missing two knights,” he frowned, “but they will be found soon. Especially when they hear their leader is locked up.”
Arthur tired rapidly of the lies told by Scaro – and in front of him, no less. “Captain,” he said to the officer, “my knights had nothing to do with Pious’ death. Neither did I, but I’m willing to do whatever it takes to find out who did. Hear me out, and you’ll see I’m right.”
The young man narrowed his eyes as he looked at Arthur. He had heard nothing but good things about this man, so when General Scaro had informed him that it was the famous son of Uther Castus that had caused the death of the fat priest, he had been somewhat shocked. Orders were orders, however.
“I’m sorry, commander. Please, allow the guard to do their job. This will be much less painful if you don’t fight it.”
“Captain. Surely you can’t believe I’d sabotage my own garrison,” Arthur tried to reason with the young man even as the guard pushing him was sticking his pike into Arthur’s back. Arthur could feel a small trickle of blood beginning to slide into the waistband of his leathers.
“Guard!” Scaro shouted over whatever the infantry man was about to say, and Arthur was shoved again, in the direction of the holding cells. He kept his mouth shut. He’d figure a way out of this, without any deaths or further jailing of knights.
The moon was high when Arthur woke to a sharp sensation in his shoulder. Raising a hand in irritation, he hit at whatever was causing the pain, which returned as soon as his hand dropped. His eyes sprang open in annoyance, but that quickly changed to surprise at the sight of Lancelot’s face peering at him through the small window at the top of the cell. He rapidly withdrew the stick he’d been poking Arthur with.
“Lancelot – this isn’t the best idea you’ve had,” Arthur hissed, standing to get as close as possible to the bars of the window, trying to speak as quietly as he could, not wanting to wake any of the other men in the quaestorium.
“Well, if you’d like I can leave you here. I’ve heard they serve a wonderful breakfast,” the other man snapped, eyes rolling. “I can’t get you out yet, Arthur. Tristan and I are still trying to figure that part out. I’d rather not be caught again myself.” Arthur nodded. “What’s going on outside?” Lancelot shook his head angrily. “Scores of loud, idiotic, smelly Romans have filled our courtyard and tavern and stables and anywhere that has space. Scaro has called a general assemblage for the morning.”
The wall clunked softly as Arthur rested his forehead on it. “What are we to do? If I can’t get the garrison to listen to me,” he trailed off. He raised his head and met Lancelot’s eyes, which were tight with tension and worry.
No backing down. Look at him, and remember why.
Ashamed of his outburst, Arthur colored slightly, which hopefully Lancelot couldn’t see in the gloom. “God is on our side,” he sighed at last, which made Lancelot snort. “Lovely. Then I’m sure you’ll be spared from the noose for a few moments longer than the rest of us,” Lancelot replied, his expression closing down. “Arthur, you cannot leave your fate in your god’s hands. You of all people should know what happens when you trust in faith only. Action is what we need – and action is what you should be thinking of.”
Arthur found himself touching his back – the ridged scars from the whip standing out more so than normal, it seemed. Faith was the backbone of his life – but God worked mysteriously. Sometimes you had to trust that God would understand the workings of your own mind, and forgive you if what you did was opposite to what He wanted.
And sometimes what was right and true couldn’t be seen by just anyone.
“We are in the right, Lancelot,” Arthur said. “I will convince the garrison that Scaro is doing this for his own advancement, and was responsible for the murder of Pious. Once they’re assured of that, things will turn in our favor. I am sure of it.”
Lancelot laughed, a dark sound. “I’m glad one of us feels that way. You are indeed a man of miracles if you accomplish all that, Arthur.”
He shot out a short breath before affixing his eyes on Arthur’s again. He trusted Arthur, trusted him with his life and more, but he just wasn’t sure this time. Things were larger than either of them could control, and with Arthur believing his faith and talent with speech would save them…Lancelot tried not to despair, but it was getting hard. He noticed Arthur rubbing at his back unconsciously as they spoke, and flashed on the commander, bloody and broken at his feet, skin in strips from the whip Lancelot had been meant to take.
“I’ll follow you. Just don’t make me sorry,” he whispered at last. “I’ve got to go.”
His head disappeared, and Arthur remained at the window until the moon was giving way to the sun.
Blinking against the brightness of day, Arthur tried to stay upright as best he could despite the painful way his arms were caught behind his back by a large infantry guardsman. A platform had been erected in the courtyard, ostensibly so Scaro could address the men. Arthur was determined that the man would let him have his say before whatever dishonorable death the general had planned for him.
The courtyard was filled, and the excess men spilled out into every nook and space the garrison afforded. The stairs and the battlements held soldiers of every size and shape. Arthur closed his eyes and sent another prayer heavenwards, then opened them as he was pushed forward onto the platform. The general was there, along with the mounted officer Arthur had seen the day previous, as well as the other knights the general had placed in the holding cells. Also –
Oh, great Christ.
Tristan stood next to Bors, arms bound and face impassive. Lancelot stood apart from the others, held by two men.
His face was swollen almost beyond recognition; in truth Arthur had passed over him the first time he’d looked around the platform. Blood caked the edges of his nose and his right arm was held at a strange angle by his left hand. His tunic was torn and bruises showed at his collarbone.
Though his hands trembled, Arthur showed a calm face. Sweat sprang out on his forehead, and he followed the man leading him numbly, his feet walking by instinct alone. He passed Lancelot, the knight’s eyes dark with pain and anger, and Arthur thought he’d never seen anyone so bold – and so strong. Lancelot caught his glance and smiled, teeth bright through the red, and he was rewarded with another cuff to the head. Arthur sucked in a breath, but didn’t say anything, knowing if he responded it would only be worse.
Scaro’s men were mixed with the men from Vindolanda and the infantry that were housed at Camboglanna. All in all there had to be two hundred people watching. Arthur saw Bors’ woman Vanora off to the side as well, face pinched and arms around her children, standing amid the many tavern workers and slaves that also called the garrison home. He shuddered to think of her actions were something to happen to Bors.
Without any preamble, General Scaro grabbed Arthur’s arm and dragged him level with himself and the officer.
“This man,” he started, voice loud and ringing, “this man, a commander in the Empire’s employ, has shown the worst kind of leadership. He and his conscripts are responsible for the death of a noble man, a holy man, that came to this garrison only to represent God and the Church. Father Pious, an innocent man of God,” Arthur heard Lancelot laugh and clutched his hands together as the second blow sounded. “An innocent man whom many of you have relied on for your confession and for guidance in matters of the soul. But where is he now? Flat on his back in the valetudinarium, cold and dead. Because this man, this commander,” the word held contempt, “this son of Rome and his knights had him poisoned.”
A murmuring was heard from the crowd, and Arthur opened his mouth to speak. Scaro glanced at him and spoke over whatever Arthur was going to say.
“Many of you have heard the rumors that Rome is withdrawing her troops from Britain. I’ve kept silent on this mainly because we can’t know what exactly Rome is planning. However, I’ve also brought a contingent of my men here to Camboglanna in response to those rumors. Camboglanna is the bigger fort – thus, the strongest, and the easiest to defend. The Father and I had originally intended to just be here a short time,” he glanced at Arthur, “but obviously things have changed. Due to lack of proper leadership, I’m going to take this fort into my command with the men I’ve sent for. You, Castus, will be put where you belong, in the ground with your Sarmatian dogs.”
The murmuring of the crowd was getting louder, and Arthur despaired that it was too late to turn the tide. Nevertheless, he had to try. If he couldn’t save his men, what kind of leader – what kind of friend – would he be remembered as?
“Soldiers, please,” he shouted over the noise, and Scaro actually growled at him. The eyes of almost two hundred infantry and cavalry turned to Arthur. The general stared at Arthur a moment longer, then made a sweeping bow, the gesture mocking in its formality.
“What the general says has a ring of truth to it,” he started, and he could hear the knights behind him suck in pained breaths. “Rome does seem to be pulling troops from Britain. However, how does this fact make it right to blame my men for something they had nothing to do with? It seems a bit convenient that the Father was killed and my knights accused right at the time the general and Pious had chosen to visit here. This same general,” he looked at Scaro, who was seething with anger, “this same representative of the Empire – who was able to have a score of men here within a few days of Father Pious’ murder? To control ‘poor leadership?’ Why would I ruin my own career or the lives of my knights in order to exact revenge on one sorry priest? Why would they – ”
A blow to Arthur’s knee with the butt of a pike and he went down on one, his speech silenced by the yelling of the people in the courtyard.
“How does the legion punish its own for insubordination?” Scaro shouted over the crowd.
He shook his head in agreement, eyes bright with crazed rage. “What do you see here?”
He pulled Arthur to his feet, beyond proper behavior now, and jerked Arthur’s black tunic up to reveal his scarred back.
A collective sigh was heard from the crowd; Arthur bowed his head, knowing he was lost. Of the men present who remembered the whipping, only a few knew the real reason behind it. And if any of the soldiers from Vindolanda had been listening to him, surely they wouldn’t believe him now. As for the others, what could they do but follow the orders of a man who had higher rank than Arthur – they certainly wouldn’t risk being beaten themselves. Especially men that didn’t serve Arthur directly.
His eyes met Lancelot’s again. They clashed then held fast; Arthur looked away first. He had no words or looks of comfort for Lancelot. He had tried. He didn’t know what else he could do. Not only was he to die, which at the moment he really didn’t care about, but he would be responsible for the deaths of a entire contingent of Sarmatians that had the distinct misfortune to have been loyal to him.
He’d burn in Hell and belong there.
“What say you? An eye for an eye? Death for the men responsible for the death of Pious?”
Arthur did take comfort in the fact that the people watching didn’t cheer and scream for his death – rather, they nodded silently. That was the way of the Empire. Death was the only option for someone who had done something like what Arthur and his knights had been accused of. Order and civility were the answer when faced with the destruction that was murder. He was walked quickly to the edge of the platform, his hands bound behind him, and seated on his horse. A rope dangled above him from the large tree that grew in the yard. He couldn’t feel the scratchiness of it through his leather collar.
“No! Let go of me, you bastards!” Lancelot was screaming in fury, struggling with his guard, bucking and tearing at them like a wild dog. Arthur tried to get off his mount on instinct, but he was held in place and could only watch as Lancelot was knocked to the ground by a punch. To his credit the knight stayed conscious. Arthur choked back a cry, feeling tears burn his eyes and his throat, a rage so wild rising it threatened to tear his mind apart.
“Lancelot. Don’t,” he finally managed, his tone thick with phlegm and anger and worry and unshed tears and everything he could never manage to say aloud to Lancelot. The other man looked up, blinking through blood, his expression one Arthur cared to never see again.
He laughed at the thought. He wouldn’t see it again.
He couldn’t let it go like this. He opened his mouth, calling out Lancelot’s name again. Their eyes met.
“I lo – ”
The sound of arrows whistling through the air caught Arthur’s attention; he watched in shocked surprise as one slammed into the throat of General Scaro just as the man was turning to give the order to have Arthur’s horse pushed out from under him. Gurgling in disbelief, Scaro collapsed, blood pouring from his mouth. Every soldier in the courtyard was suddenly moving; and Arthur saw the flash of blue painted bodies amid the milling men.
How in the hell did Woads get in here?
The men guarding him took one look at the band of wild natives and let Arthur go; one of the men slashed through his bonds so he could ride. Ripping the noose from around his neck, Arthur spurred his mount, checking first on his men who were being released by their guards as well. Strangely enough, no one was going to the aid of the general, who still lay bleeding and gasping on the platform. Arthur dismounted, and strode up to the man as the chaos raged around him. Kneeling, he slid a hand under Scaro’s head so the other man was forced to meet his gaze.
“Arth – urrrrrr,” was all the general was able to manage; his hands grasped weakly at Arthur’s shoulders. Arthur narrowed his eyes and leaned in close, so Scaro could hear him over the fighting. “You are the worst kind of man,” Arthur whispered in even tones, “one with power who has no idea what to do with it. I do this because I know it’s the right thing to do. May your realize how lucky you are.”
He pulled the general’s dagger from the other man’s belt, and shoved it hard into Scaro’s chest, angling upwards so the tip would pierce the other man’s heart. Scaro gave one last heavy breath and collapsed.
No matter the man, no matter the offense, Arthur doubted he could allow anyone to die a long and painful death. There had been a moment there, however, looking into Scaro’s eyes, when Arthur hadn’t been able to see Arthur Castus. He had seen an unnamed warrior who only thirsted for revenge.
His hand had tightened on the general’s hair, and he had bared his teeth for the briefest of seconds.
Arthur stood, his long fingers closing Scaro’s eyes, his anger and fear focusing on the battle – ah. There in the thick of it were Lancelot, Bors, and Tristan, all armed with extra weapons from the infantry and making short work of the unfortunate Woads who had encountered them.
Arthur managed a short inhale and exhale of relief, and moved to join his men, grabbing a dropped blade along the way.
Arthur’s whip scars come back to haunt him – and Lancelot.
Arthur stood in the courtyard, watching as the last of the contingent from Vindolanda rode back toward their own garrison. Gaius Martius, the young infantry commander, waved one last time as his horse trotted through the gates. Arthur nodded at the men on guard, and the large wooden doors swung shut. Rather than moving back inside, he strode to the battlements that surrounded the fort, mounted the steps two at a time, and followed the long column of men as they marched away with his eyes. Pressing his lips into a thin line, he crossed his arms, glad to be rid of the infantry, and the bodies of General Scaro and Father Pious. He’d agreed readily when Martius had suggested he take them back to Vindolanda for burial. He didn’t want those men in the same cemetery as his men or his father.
The Woads that had managed to get into the garrison while everyone had been watching Scaro accuse Arthur of murder had been dealt with rather quickly. It had been a small band – quick to fall to chaos and quick to die. Arthur wondered at his fortune, but didn’t question it too much. He didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. Luckily for him as well, once he had told the head of the infantry assigned to Camboglanna exactly what had occurred with the priest and the general, things had settled back to normal. Thankfully, the man didn’t question Arthur’s explanation. Considering it was the truth, Arthur didn’t know what he would have done had the other man not believed him. His next duty would be to figure out a way to keep the men happy now that they knew the end of their terms was in sight, and that the Empire was withdrawing troops slowly. That would require a miracle in and of itself.
As the dust kicked up by the marching men slowly returned to earth, he sighed and relaxed, and rubbed his face wearily. His knights were recovering nicely; Tristan had been the first to get out of the hospital – Bors right behind him. Lancelot had been the last – his broken arm had kept him in the medicus’ care a few extra days. The knight had howled and argued with Arthur about staying in bed, but in the end had just sulked and stayed put after Arthur had threatened to tie him to his cot.
They hadn’t spoken since the other man had been released; Arthur thought briefly on the words he had said as the noose had tightened around his neck.
I love you.
Had almost spoken. The Woads’ attack had cut off most of it. He wanted to ask Lancelot if he had heard, but in truth, Arthur was more afraid of that answer than he was of the prospect of dying. Not that he hadn’t said it before, but he’d never said it in front of others – and without stigma or sex attached to it. That was horrible to admit – but it was the truth. Did it take life threatening situations for him to admit his feelings? Could he not just be content with life as it was? Was living day to day versus always worrying about the future not enough for him?
He stayed on the battlements until the very last sound of the retreating infantry was heard, then he made his own exit, the sun sinking below the horizon quickly.
The moon had risen and was halfway through its course before the knock came at his door. Arthur stood, the old tunic and bracae he wore wrinkled and musty, and opened the door. Lancelot brushed past him, taking up his usual place in the window seat before Arthur could even open his mouth.
“I’m very fine, thank you for seeing to me earlier,” the knight groused, his arm wrapped up stiffly at his side so he couldn’t injure it further. “Did you have many important things to do?” Arthur shut his door and leaned against it. He cocked his head, eyeing Lancelot warily. “Not too many, no. I just thought you might like some time to yourself.”
A small laugh echoed in the dark room. “You were afraid to see me.”
“No, Lancelot,” Arthur protested, moving to sit on his bed. He crossed his legs, still watching the other man with a sense of caution. “I was just – ”
“Afraid to see me,” Lancelot interjected. “Afraid of what I’d say.” His dark eyes appeared to get even darker, and Arthur almost had to grasp his own chin in his hand in order to not look away.
“I’m not afraid of you,” he answered, his tone just as black as Lancelot’s. “I wanted to be sure the infantry and the bodies were gone.” Lancelot snorted and turned to face Arthur fully. “And they are?”
“Yes,” Arthur replied tersely. “I didn’t want either of those men here for any longer than they had to be. Better they are buried somewhere else. Not here.”
Lancelot sighed, his shoulders relaxing somewhat. “On that, I’d have to agree with you. However,” he added just as Arthur was getting a tad more comfortable with the way the conversation was going, “We need to talk.” Lancelot's tone was firm and terse. He never had been any kind of verbose, except for when it was inconvenient. Now was no different. Sighing, Arthur rose and stood at his desk, staring at his small, plain cross and Excalibur, which were mounted on the wall next to one another. “Lancelot,” he said wearily, “I’m not in the mood to fight.”
“More’s the pity, then, Arthur, because I have some things I need to say to you,” Lancelot stated, leaping nimbly down from the window despite his injuries. His bruised face was tight, his eyebrows drawn together as he faced Arthur across the desk.
“I know what I did was wrong – ” Arthur began, but shut his mouth as Lancelot glared at him.
“Wrong? Arthur, you got yourself captured and almost killed for something you had nothing to do with. For the second time,” Lancelot added, voice deadly and sibilant. “First the whip. Then the noose. When will you stop your idiotic martyring ways and realize it’s better for all of us if you stay alive? You may want the crown of Laurel your god will surely place upon your saintly forehead, but the rest of us would like to live a little longer. Only with you around can we do that. And do you know how hard it was to realize that? To understand that your existence counts on one man’s protection?”
Arthur winced and kept silent. He knew from experience it was better to allow Lancelot to finish before he tried to offer his own opinion.
“And aside from all that,” the other man hissed, taking the few steps that separated them, “the fact that you took the lash for me, you allowed yourself to be almost hung for me, - don’t look at me like that - taking the blame once again for something you didn’t do – it’s beyond stupid, Arthur. It’s infuriating and maddening, and it almost makes me sorry I - ” he paused, rubbing his face. He met Arthur's eyes, and the storm that was normally between them abated as Lancelot shook his head and spoke plainly, quietly. "Sorry I let you into my heart and accepted you for who you are. Sorry you mean more to me than anything I can think of, now. Sorry I feel the way I do. Futete," he added harshly, the Latin breaking with his poor pronunciation. Fuck.
“I didn’t take the blame – I had no choice!” Arthur shouted, then sighed. He slumped onto the edge of his desk.
“You’re sorry?" he asked in a small, exhausted voice. He noticed Lancelot hadn’t said anything about Arthur admitting his emotions out loud as the rope had been dropped about his neck. Arthur also noticed he himself didn’t bring it up.
Lancelot gritted his teeth and rolled his eyes. “I said almost. That word is important in that sentence. And don’t yell. You always have a choice, Artorius. You just choose the way you see as righteous – and a lot of the time it’s not always the way that’s best. For you or your damn god. Or us.” He shook all over, wincing and holding his broken arm, and then tiredly cupped Arthur’s cheek, his palm softer than his words. “I’d rather you alive than a dead fool. I’d rather you think before you leap. I’d rather you consider both sides, all sides before deciding that god wants you to sacrifice yourself for the ‘good’ of others. Sometimes, Arthur, what’s right in your world does not equal right in anyone else’s.”
Arthur pulled away from Lancelot’s hand, his arms crossing over his chest. “I don’t see it that way,” he answered tightly. Lancelot chuckled. “I know you don’t, you fucker. And for some reason, that’s one of things that endears you to me. Despite the annoyance of it. Despite the lack of wisdom you so frequently show.” He sat next to Arthur on the desk. “Stop doing stupid things for me. I can’t bear to see you suffer for it.” He bit the inside of his cheek, but then placed his slender fingers on Arthur’s back under the other man’s tunic, his skin warm on Arthur’s scars. Arthur huffed a breath and canted his eyes to watch Lancelot’s face. He could feel the tightness of Lancelot's frame, but it was a battle ready feeling, and despite Arthur's sadness and knowing he caused it, he was familiar with it, loved it, and wanted anything, any feeling that Lancelot would give him.
“Now you know why I do,” he said quietly.
They sat there for a time, saying nothing. Arthur had a feeling they’d never come to terms with things, and he would either accept that, or have to let go of how he felt for Lancelot. And in the moment, that was not a choice he could make. In future, he’d have to hope he managed to convince Lancelot of the rightness of his actions. And that would take all of his orating and convincing and leadership skills, and Arthur highly doubted it was a thing that would ever happen.
Lancelot’s uninjured arm moved and his hand touched Arthur's neck, fingers warm and alive, perhaps thanks to Arthur's idiotic behavior. He'd never be sorry for that. Arthur leaned his head against the other man’s good shoulder, and Lancelot's grip tightened on him, moving across his back, holding fiercely, desperately.
“We all bear scars,” Lancelot said, the timbre of his words not matching the ferocity of his grip on Arthur. “I don’t want yours to carry my name.”
Arthur slowly reached for Lancelot's injured arm, and touched the hand gingerly, at last hooking his fingers around Lancelot's slender, strong ones. He kept his opinion to himself. He’d bear his whip scars with pride – even though he’d never admit it to Lancelot. His love for the other man was a source of almost unbearable confusion for Arthur – and the physical nature of the marks on his back made it a little easier for him to deal with.
To have a reason beyond just love for what he did, for what he’d do again –
Arthur pushed that away. He was who he was, and Lancelot was who he was, and Arthur couldn’t worry about whether or not God thought him a sinner or a hedonist. He’d face his Maker when that time came, and in the meantime, he’d try to accept the nature of his relationship with Lancelot as time passed. No matter the challenge, and no matter how hard that might be.
Looking at Lancelot's fingers touching his, he shook his head and shot out a breath, and he prayed that his life might be as wonderful as it could be, as he'd secretly dreamed it would be, if he could actually achieve that.