you look at me
and I remember the day
at the riverbank
when we were gods
(never let me forget that)
you smile at me
and i feel warmth
(it consumes me)
you kiss me
and i forget all else
and remember that i
would follow you anywhere
(living or dying)
The camp of the humans under King Arthur is easy to find. It sprawls for acres in fact, land that has been cleared of trees and made into a nearly modern city. A wall of spiked wooden planks forms a secure fence around the settlement, with tall scouting towers for guards to keep watch on anyone approaching, the structure swarming with people. There are tracks in the ground that serve well enough for a road, and this is what Zeldris takes as he approaches Camelot warily.
He is challenged when he approaches, eyeing the two guards as they regard him in return. "State your business," one demands.
"I am here to join the army," Zeldris replies.
The soldiers exchange a glance, and then one guard says, "Take off your cloak. We need to check if you're a spy."
With a cold, unchanging look Zeldris removes the garment. Both men look at him with huge eyes, making him smirk internally. He had drawn in his power, keeping it tightly locked away in case any of the humans had skill themselves for reading the energy of others. He had heard of human knights in Britannia who could do such things. Yet despite the lack of dark magic Zeldris is still intimidating: dark clothing, powerful frame, and the curved sword at his side that is covered in jewels.
"Seen enough?" he finally asks.
They rouse themselves and let him through. Inside the gates more people working, talking, leading horses, checking supplies. He weaves his way around the bustling crowd and sets off for the training field as directed by the guards.
When he arrives, there is someone standing on a cart giving orders to three dozen or so men. "After we take your information, you'll be tested and then placed accordingly. Any skill you may have is useful, so be sure to tell your examiner all they need to know." He folds his large arms and gives the group a stern look. "Everyone works around here. Even our king. So don't go thinking because you're a soldier you get to lounge around until the fighting starts. No one is exempt from daily work. Anyone found not pulling his own weight will be tossed out."
"Now Gawain! Don't make it sound all bad!" The crowd's attention is taken by another who hops up onto the wagon, laughing as he slaps the begrudging man's arm before turning to grin down at the group. "You are all welcome here! As of today, you will join my army and become free men!"
A cheer goes up, but Zeldris can only stare at the beaming young man. This must be the King Arthur he seeks, but how? Escanor had said he was young, but this is barely a man out of puberty. His cherubic face and wild ginger hair sets him younger than twenty years, certainly, as well as the dusting of freckles and the shining violet eyes. He is dressed in leather and thick cloth, not unlike any other officer, but the demon notes there is no sign of the mysterious weapon.
Zeldris looks at his face to regard him closely and is again struck by his youthfulness. But what is more, there is a glow about him, as if the sun were to shine directly from the king, his subjects bathing in his light. He leans in to say something to Gawain, whose quip in response causes the king to throw his head back in a laugh that causes a stir of laughter among the crowd. Zeldris can see why this one has had such success in amassing an army to challenge a god. Men must flock to him like moths to a flame.
"You'll be broken into groups of two," Gawain says as the talk dies down. "Just a light spar to get a sense of your sword handling. Then we'll move on to other skills. No need to hurt your opponent."
Once more the men begin to chat among one another as they find partners. Zeldris remains silent, however, scanning the crowd to assess their levels. All are average for humans, a handful a bit higher with the potential to wield some magic; none come close to the demon.
He is so occupied with his assessment that he does not see the king approach until Arthur is practically on top of him. "Hello there," he says cheerily. The king stands with his hands on his hips and looks the demon up and down. "I've never seen you around before. What is your name?"
The friendliness is so unexpected that it takes the demon a moment to respond. "Zeldris," he replies, ensuring his voice is even.
Arthur arches an eyebrow. "You're a serious one. What brings you to my kingdom?"
Demons do not lie; it is against the nature of a god to debase himself in such a way. So Zeldris decides on a half-truth. "I'm looking for someone."
"Looking for someone?" Arthur chuckles and gestures to the crowd. "Did you find anyone you like?"
Zeldris does not reply, wondering what the point of this banter is. Never has he heard of a king so forward with his subjects. Certainly Meliodas is not that way, even with his own brothers. He decides it is a product of his young age and says, "Not yet."
At that Arthur gives a laugh. "Well I do wish you luck with your search! But you are welcome to my army in the meantime." Without breaking their gaze, he nods in the direction of the others. "It seems as though you are the odd one out. But I'll be happy to spar with you, if you'd like."
Zeldris looks over at the others; sure enough, they are already paired and beginning their exercises. "Fine," he mutters.
They step to the side where there is a bit more room. Zeldris removes his cloak and sets it aside as a page brings Arthur a sword. The weapon does not seem remarkable in any way, so the demon concludes it must not be the one Escanor had mentioned that is the source of his power. He does not draw his own as he watches Arthur test the grip and give a few swipes in the air, remaining stoic when the king smiles at him. "Ready then?"
Before he can nod the king moves in a flash, his sword glinting for just a moment as it is thrust at Zeldris. The demon has no trouble avoiding the blade with a step to the side, but marvels for a moment at the sheer speed on display. Their eyes connect for a second before Arthur swipes again, forcing Zeldris to take a step back. The parry goes wide, missing his chest by an inch.
"You're fast!" Arthur laughs, pausing to give the demon an appreciative look. "Will you draw your sword?"
There is something wrong here, but Zeldris cannot pinpoint it. Perhaps it is because he is not using his dark power and relying on his strength alone; perhaps it is because this king is so unconventional. Regardless, there is more to King Arthur than Escanor let on, and now Zeldris grows curious about why the gods have taken such an interest in him. Escanor had said that the king could rise to the level of deity, but the raw talent is still exceptional.
Arthur cocks an eyebrow, waiting for a reply, so Zeldris says, "I will draw when I need to."
The king does not laugh this time, but his mouth does quirk in a bit of a smile. He advances once more, dipping to the right in a feint that Zeldris sees coming, but then turns on his foot unexpectedly to force the demon to weave downwards to avoid the blade. Immediately Arthur counters again, moving around him with another quick slash. Once more Zeldris avoids him but grits his teeth in frustration as the sword grazes his shirt. He looks furiously at the king while jumping back; Arthur returns a knowing smile and takes a defensive stance.
Zeldris straightens, noticing that the men around them have stopped to watch. Internally he debates what to do: he feels confident that he can best the king, but would that do well for his task? Deciding on something in the middle, he draws his sword, watching with a bit of satisfaction as Arthur nods approvingly.
"Quite a weapon you have," the king jokes. "I've never seen a curved blade quite like that before."
An unwelcome and startling bit of heat surges in the back of Zeldris' throat. Arthur is getting under his skin, and he must stay focused on the task. He nods at the king and they both advance. Their swords strike in a blur, both concentrating fiercely to get the upper hand; but the demon is shocked to see that without the use of his dark magic, the two are nearly evenly matched. One swipe after another is countered, their footwork swift, one maneuver after another flying. Both move nearly in sync, as if they had done this time and again.
Arthur gives a breathless laugh as he dodges the demon's elbow, which nearly connected with his chest. "Not quite!" he teases, egging him on even more.
It is a bit difficult, if Zeldris is honest; defending against the unusual parrying and quick movements of the king takes some strategy. His muscles are burning in a delicious way, beads of perspiration forming on his skin, his mind racing as he tries to stay a step ahead of his opponent. The demon begins to forget why he is there, and simply enjoys the action. He has spent millenia in the Underworld doling out punishments to the unfaithful, with only his brief time with Gelda providing any respite. Is it any wonder that now, in the fresh air and under the warm Britannia sun, that he is savoring this bit of fun, sparring with the king?
The thought of Gelda, laid out on the grass under the sun, breaks his concentration and he stumbles. Arthur takes advantage, finally getting in a hit on his shoulder. It does not hurt, as the king did not intend to harm him; but it is enough, and Arthur pumps his fist in the air in triumph. "Finally!" he shouts, and the others watching begin clapping and cheering their king.
Zeldris glares at him, feeling foolish, but Arthur simply claps him on the back. "Back to work everyone!" calls the king, nodding at the group. "Gawain, I leave them in your hands."
Then Arthur turns to him and says, "Will you come with me? I'd like to speak in private."
His skin burning with exertion and discomfort, Zeldris nods. He follows Arthur through the training field and back towards the main buildings. The king replies to calls of greeting and pauses briefly, once, to admire a horse being taken for shoeing. But soon enough they are entering a stone building, the largest in the settlement by far, but not nearly as grand as Escanor's palace.
"This way," Arthur says, leading him up a staircase. They enter another room, and as the king moves to light the lamp Zeldris takes in his surroundings. It is obviously the king's quarters, but once again it lacks the lavishness of Escanor's private chambers. The small hearth is lit with a pot of water already warmed; the simple mattress has a modest blanket and a few pillows. There is a rug on the floor, two chairs at a small table, and another larger table covered with maps and papers and an inkwell.
This is the perfect opportunity to do away with the king. Zeldris had noted that he had given his sword back to the page before they went on their way; with no weapon, he is sure to take his head. He turns to do just that, but pulls up short to see the king peeling his shirt over his head and tossing it onto a stool. Arthur pours water into a basin, then splashes his face a few times. Zeldris watches with somewhat fascination as the drops run in tiny rivers down his neck and into the deep creases that carve his arms and torso. Another splash and Arthur pours some over his wild hair before smoothing his palms over his neck and arms.
He looks over at Zeldris as he shakes the last of the water from his hands. "You can put your sword away," he chuckles.
Zeldris swallows thickly and nods. He should slice through the king—but the nagging feeling returns, and he cannot help but think there is something more at play here. Anything that has to do with Merlin should be handled with care, he argues to himself, so as the king moves to the table he slides his weapon into its sheath at his side.
"Do you need to wash?" Arthur asks, gesturing towards him. "There is fresh water, and then we can have a drink. I'd like to hear more about you."
He begins to pour wine, so Zeldris uses the opportunity to rinse his own face and hands. The water is warm and refreshing, and he feels as though he is better able to handle the situation. Arthur gestures to a chair and slides a goblet forward.
Zeldris sits and takes the cup. The drink is rich and flavorful, helping to settle his nerves. A strange silence falls, still but not awkward. His cup make a thud as he places it back on the table.
"Where are you from, Zeldris?" asks the king.
He meets his eye. "Nowhere you have been."
"Probably. I have never left Britannia." Arthur tilts his head. "What are you really doing here?"
"I told you, I want to fight," answers Zeldris evenly.
"That may be true. But it is not the entire truth." The king leans forward, propping his elbows on the table. "Who are you really? You're not a common man, that is plain. Your fighting style is advanced, your strength more than anyone I have met. I have a feeling you were holding back, just as I was."
That surprises him, and Zeldris' brows jerk upwards in response. Arthur's mouth curls up at the edges. "That's what I thought. Are you a warrior? An assassin?" Zeldris does not respond, so Arthur continues, "Are you a prince?"
Again he hits a bit too close to the truth. "Does it make a difference?" Zeldris asks, in hope of changing the topic.
"It does if it means a threat to my person." He picks up his glass, but instead of taking a drink he turns it carefully on the table. "What do you know about King Escanor?"
"I've met him, actually," answers Zeldris.
The demon meets his eyes in challenge, gauging his reaction. Arthur stills, his friendly expression melting as his gaze hardens. "Then you know I am trying to… relieve him of his throne. Did he send you here?"
Zeldris lifts his chin. "I do not take orders from Escanor."
It is true enough, and to his relief, Arthur nods. "Will you fight with me then? Will you help me deliver Britannia from his rule?"
"Why do you want this?" the demon asks curiously. "What has Escanor done that is so bad?"
"Nothing, actually," Arthur says with a bit of a chuckle. "He is not any more cruel or indifferent than any other king. But he did not come into the throne by honorable means. The stories of him say that his power is unchecked. One such as he cannot be trusted to rule fairly. Only those graced by the gods can rule. He is a tyrant."
Zeldris frowns. This explanation makes no sense, based on what Escanor had told him. He wonders how much is Merlin's influence, and what is the truth. "What gods do you worship?" he asks.
"I praise the gods of men," he answers. "For men are my concern. I value the day and the night. The cold and the heat. I believe in the earth and the sea and the good inside all men."
"And war?" Zeldris challenges. "Do you believe in that too?"
"I despise war." The king sighs, his gaze going downwards. "If there was a way to do this quickly and painlessly I would. But Escanor will not give up, no matter how illegitimate his claim."
Arthur takes a long drink from his goblet. "What makes your claim legitimate?" asks Zeldris.
The king grins again as he sets his cup down. Zeldris wonders if there is anyone in this world or the other who smiles as much as this one. "I have Excalibur," he says quietly.
Hearing the name sends a cold shiver through Zeldris. He once more remembers the fabled sword, and without even realizing it he lays his palm on the round hilt of his own hanging on his hip. "Excalibur," he repeats.
Arthur nods, his expression growing serious for once. "It is a sword gifted by the gods. It slays evil and banishes darkness. The one who can wield it is destined to rule Britannia. If Excalibur should fall, then Britannia will fall into darkness."
Fall into darkness. Those are the same words that Escanor had used; if this boy does not follow the god of shadows, then what is he doing here?
Zeldris stands, determined to go back to Escanor and demand more answers. He strides towards the door, but with a shout Arthur hurries around him, standing in the way. "Where are you going?" he demands in confusion.
"I'm leaving," says the demon, moving to walk past him.
Arthur sidesteps to block him again. "Please, stay. I don't know what I said that you disapprove of, but…" He huffs and looks around before running a hand through the wild auburn hair, and for a moment Zeldris wonders what it feels like.
He blinks the question away as Arthur continues, "I can see you are accomplished. If you are not here to kill me, and I'm sure you would have done so by now, then I could use your help." He smiles sheepishly. "I could use a fine swordsman, not only as a guard but as a leader. I want to make you an officer, and have you command—"
"No." Zeldris pushes past him, growling in frustration when once more Arthur stops him from leaving. His hand grips the doorknob as the king leans heavily on the door, and they glare at one another. "I'm not interested," he says finally.
"Let me make you a deal," Arthur says. "I will allow you to join my army and will make you a captain. You will work with Gawain and train my soldiers and assist with strategy. And in return, I will help you find who you are looking for."
For a moment Zeldris is confused, but then remembers the excuse that he had given the king. He opens his mouth to set him straight, but then Arthur says, "I know a powerful sorceress. She is descended from a god. I know that she can help you find your missing person."
Merlin. It must be her the king speaks of, and his hairs stand on end to think of the hated woman. But then, the idea intrigues him; if he gets close to Arthur, he will surely eventually encounter Merlin, and then find out what her game is and why he is involved in her schemes again. He imagines returning to Escanor will be futile anyway. If Arthur is a special interest for her, then Zeldris can use that to exact his revenge.
"Fine," he says. "I will stay, but only as long as it is useful to me."
Arthur laughs, shaking his head. "Of course, that is fair enough. Now come and look over my plans for our next movement. I could use a cunning set of eyes to find the errors in my strategy."
He moves back to the table, pouring more wine and rearranging the papers on the top. Zeldris watches with mixed feelings, unsure if this is the right course of action, but in the end decides to stay, at least for now.