the crowds of people scream my name
they say i will be remembered
that no one will forget
who i was.
yet all i can care for
is how to make you smile,
meet your next kiss—
return your next touch.
lest i die, and you forget.
The afternoon goes by with the two deep in talks, until the sun slips down the horizon. Arthur shares his plans for their continued march towards Escanor, pointing out the villages that are hiding supplies and explaining his strategies for the different squad bases along the route. Zeldris listens intently, never interrupting, until after each point—then he barrages the king with questions, pointing out the flaws and reviewing the scenarios from every angle until they are both satisfied.
But more interestingly, Arthur has an immense amount of fun. He is light-hearted and jovial by nature, a feature that had irritated his father to the point of being thrown out more than once for his jokes. Yet the king takes his role seriously, and uses his youth and his friendliness to take others by surprise and pull them off of their guard. It is an approach that has worked well for him for years… until Zeldris.
Perhaps that is why he is having such a good time. The man looks over his maps and notes intently, making his own occasional markings, his dark brows pulled sharply down in concentration. He seems like a wild thing, someone not of Britannia—he had said as much, but Arthur cannot help but wonder where exactly.
His knowledge of Britannia is impressive: the various types of soil and how it would affect their horses, or the best places to refill water and food. But his demeanor is something else, even otherwordly, almost. Zeldris was certainly raised among nobility, even if he no longer is a part of them. The only thing that is clear about him is that everything about him is a mystery.
Arthur takes dinner with his troops, as is his custom. He is distracted watching the dark-haired stranger, who sits alone and speaks to no one. The others talk and laugh and ask questions, which he only halfway follows, and his closest men notice. Afterwards he makes his way to one of the fires in the camp to think, warming his hands with the heat. The others seem to know not to approach, and he gazes at the orange glow, wondering why Zeldris is so on his mind.
"You are not yourself tonight, Your Grace."
Arthur looks up from the fire and sees Gawain standing with his arms folded. "Something troubling His Majesty?"
The young king snorts. "I must be in trouble for you to be so formal."
"Not at all." He sits on a log next to his own, and Arthur glances over as he tries to get comfortable. Gawain is taller, broader, and larger than the king, despite being only slightly older, and because of this often assumes a protective elder brother role. His first general and oldest friend, Arthur trusts him completely, and so cannot hide anything from him… which can prove to be a thorn in his side. "It's that new recruit, isn't it?" Arthur does not answer, so Gawain continues, "Interesting one, that."
"I suppose," he replies.
"Never saw a style quite like that. He's definitely been formally trained. Do you suppose he is some kind of mercenary?"
Arthur glances over. "You think he was sent to kill me?"
"Nah. Would have done it by now."
The king chuckles. "Glad to know you were concerned."
To his surprise, Gawain does not return his teasing. "There is something off about him. I can't put my finger on it." He folds his arms across his knees, and Arthur notices his movements have been stiff since his approach. Something is clearly on the general's mind.
"I thought you weren't concerned," Arthur prompts.
"I didn't say that," replies Gawain.
They sit in silence for several minutes, and then both speak at the same time. The two men laugh before Arthur says, "Go on, what were you saying?"
"Just that the recruits did well today," he replies. "We should be ready to move in three days. Our force will be large enough to start making some moves onto Escanor's land. The plan has not changed, I assume?"
Arthur feels a bit of heat on his ears, thinking of the subtle changes Zeldris had suggested, which included their route and the appropriate scouting measures. "Nothing much," he says, trying to sound nonchalant. "I went over a few things and adjusted some details. I can show you in the morning."
He risks a glance at his general, swallowing nervously when he sees the utter confusion on his face. But before Gawain can argue, the sight of Zeldris striding towards them catches his attention, and he scrambles to his feet.
The man looks absolutely furious, the flash in his eyes making his heart pound. "Arthur," he says, without any preamble, "there are raiders heading this way, and—"
"You dare!" shouts Gawain, jumping to his feet and stepping in front of him. "You dare address His Majesty in this way!"
Zeldris comes up only to Gawain's chin, but the height discrepancy makes no difference. He meets his fierceness with a scowl, and Arthur must pull on Gawain's arm to keep him back before the blows began. "It's all right," he tells his general, and then turns to Zeldris. "But perhaps you should use a bit more discretion when addressing me."
For a moment he sees something dark and dangerous flash across Zeldris' expression. Once more the idea that there is something uncanny about him comes to mind, but Arthur pushes it away. "Fine," Zeldris snaps. "There are raiders in the area, sir. Your guards are asleep on their feet. If you don't do something you'll find the thieves in your camp soon enough."
"We have three thousand men," Gawain scoffs. "I'd like to see them try."
"Three thousand men," echoes Zeldris. "And how many are actually ready to fight? How many have been in one at all?" He gives the general a look of disdain before turning back to the king. "They successfully hid from your scouts. It won't take much for them to get in: set a few fires, start a fight in one section to draw those who are still awake, and steal the horses and supplies in the confusion. It's what I would do."
Arthur peers at him closely. "How do you know all this?"
He watches as Zeldris works his jaw, his throat bobbing as he swallows. "I can go and gather information," he says in lieu of an answer. "I'll be back with their numbers and how they are armed so you can make an informed decision."
He turns to leave and Arthur scrambles to follow. "Wait! I'll come too!"
Zeldris throws a look over his shoulder just as Gawain protests, "Your Grace! You can't go alone. These raiders could be dangerous, let me—"
"I won't be alone, I'll be with Zeldris," he insists. "I need to learn these things first-hand. It's just a scouting mission, no fighting. You stay here and get the men ready to move and fight. I trust you to organize everything until I return."
His voice rings with authority, so Gawain has no choice but to nod at the orders. Arthur turns and strides towards the place the horses are kept, masking a smile when he sees Zeldris' expression. He looked almost impressed, and at the least surprised, and the king decides that is good enough for now.
"What do you see?" Arthur asks.
Zeldris presses his lips together as he peers through the darkness. "Fifty," he says quietly. "They are just standing around. There doesn't seem to be a leader, so they must be waiting for something."
He watches out the side of his eyes to see Arthur nod, his eyes squinting to look ahead. It would be impossible for the human to see what he sees—after all, the squad they are tracking is at least two miles off—but it is somehow charming for the king to try. "You have a keen eye," he says, grinning at the demon. "I can't make out anything in the dark."
Zeldris clears his throat, the compliment making him uncomfortable. "We should head back," he says. "There is still plenty of time before they would attack."
"No," answers Arthur. "Not until we know who the leader is."
It is the sort of rash decision a young, bold king would make. "It doesn't matter who the leader is," Zeldris argues. "What matters is the number, and that's what we have."
"Do you only care about strategy, Zeldris? After all, there is more to life than playing the odds."
The demon gives him a strange look, but the twist on Arthur's lips tells him that the king is teasing him. He opens his mouth to give a retort about the importance of information and that life is meaningless without it before promptly shutting it again. It has been a long time since Zeldris was around someone still fresh with the bloom into adulthood. If memory serves, lectures from elders do not often lead to the desired results.
So he turns to ignore him, deciding if Arthur wants to wait for the leader, so be it. It makes no difference to Zeldris anyway. If the king dies while they are scouting, all the better for him and this business can be done.
The air shifts suddenly, and before Zeldris can register something grazes his cheek. Heaving himself to the side, he hears Arthur shout, the two dismounting and drawing their weapons as more arrows sail through the air. "Get down!" Arthur cries, but the demon does not answer. He does not fear death, a servant of death himself; instead he stands upright, his brows drawing into a deep frown as he finds the source of the assault.
"Arthur," he hisses, "get on your horse and go."
"No!" The king looks at him, both confused and defiant. "I wouldn't leave a man behind."
Zeldris clenches his jaw. "I can handle this," he says, "Just go and-"
"No! I won't leave you!"
"You're surrounded!" A voice calls. Quickly Zeldris assesses the area, feeling ten in a careful formation. They are not completely encircled, but the fifty just out of range are now hurrying towards them. Without immediate action, he and Arthur will be trapped.
"What are you doing here?" the voice shouts. "Drop your weapons and any other valuables. You are trespassing on our territory."
He opens his mouth to answer, but before he can Arthur's voice calls out, "I am King Arthur Pendragon, the true king of Briannia and your lord. Put down your weapons and show yourselves."
Internally Zeldris groans. Why did he have to reveal who they were? Sure enough, the men in the shadows begin to laugh. "Nothing but a baby he is," laughs one. "Kings got gold though. Let's see what the brat has on him."
"Pretty too," says another. "I'll take 'im when you're done."
"Watch the dark one," warns a third.
All move at once. Zeldris is ready, his dark powers unneeded as he takes the heads of the first set to rush at him. His sword sings in the air, piercing, slashing, undeterred by the blows that land on him or the blood gushing from his body. A human cannot kill a god, so all of this is child's play; before it is done there is a pile of corpses on the ground whom he will meet back in the Underworld for their attack on a god.
He turns to see if the king is still alive, more than a little surprised that he is not only fine, he is winning. The young man has a face of a killer, which takes him aback for a moment. The violet eyes are flashing dark indigo as he thrusts his weapon, cutting through the men without hesitation or fear. Zeldris has seen violence daily since his sacrifice, but to watch this young man who has been nothing but radiant with life and promise kill so efficiently has him startled.
Soon the deed is done, with only a dozen or so men remaining. Those who were less skilled and hung back now shift nervously and look at one another, waiting for someone to call for the rally. Arthur holds his sword out and glares at them stonily. "You have a choice, so choose wisely," he says. "Join my army to reconcile your assault on my person. Otherwise, I will grant you a swift death."
They glance at one another as Zeldris surveys them before each takes a knee, one by one. He notes that Arthur's shoulders seem to relax, even as his tone remains authoritative. "Surrender your weapons first. Then head east for three miles. You will find my force there, organizing. Wait for my return."
The bandits get up and head east after dropping their weapons at the king's feet. Once they are gone, the forest returns to silence, and Arthur finally slumps a bit, glancing at Zeldris over his shoulder as he sheaths his sword. "For a minute there, I didn't know if they would take the offer," he chuckles.
The demon does not answer, but watches as he walks around, stopping briefly at each body. Most he stands and looks at sadly, bending once in a while to close a corpse's eyes, or to lay a hand on a head or chest. When he is finished, he draws his sword and plants it into the ground, kneeling before it.
"May the gods hear my prayer," he begins. "Guide these men's souls to the Underworld, where they can face judgment not by their deeds, but by their hearts. These men were good men, I believe it to be true. May they be granted the peace of Paradise."
Arthur pauses for a moment of silence, but Zeldris is simply stricken. He swallows uncomfortably as the king stands, once more putting away his weapon. "I do hate killing," he sighs.
"And yet you are exceeding efficient at it," Zeldris snaps. He is aggravated at the surprising way the human fought and then even more so by the ridiculous prayer. As if he could have any influence on Meliodas, could stop what was inevitable! "They may be good men but they have sinned," he continues. "And you have sealed them to their fate."
He expects Arthur to crumble a bit at the accusation, but instead he returns the demon's scowl with his own. "The fate of more than these are on my head," he answers. "And I too will face the king of the Underworld like all others. So what of it?"
Zeldris snorts a bit. "I thought you didn't believe in the gods."
"Believe, yes. Trust, no." Zeldris is taken aback but such a statement, but Arthur looks around with a sigh. "We must see that these men are properly buried. Otherwise their souls won't meet the far shore."
Another ridiculous claim. Where do these humans get these ideas? "I'll take care of it," Zeldris says, and Arthur looks at him in surprise. "You should find those men before Gawain does."
The king regards him for a long moment, and then nods. "Very well, if you're sure. I'll see you back at the camp." He moves to the horses and climbs on the saddle, picking his way carefully through the remains of the fight. "Will you come and see me when you return?" he asks. "For a debriefing?"
Zeldris nods, and then with a command Arthur is gone. The demon stands alone among the dead, and he wonders if they have arrived in the throne room yet, if the king has sent them right or left. He has little doubt most will go to the right, and that he himself will meet them again when he returns.
There is much work to be done still, so Zeldris shakes himself from his daydreaming. With a flick of his wrist he draws forth Purgatory fire, sending it to the ground. The flame quickly snakes among the bodies as the demon watches the clothes and flesh turn to ash. It matters not what happens to a body; once a man is dead, his soul leaves for its journey below. But it matters to Arthur, so he waits all the same to be sure that nothing remains.
Hours later Zeldris makes his way to the king's tent. The army had moved on from the fort once Arthur had returned, but he had had no trouble tracking them and joining the ranks once again. Gawain had regarded him with some suspicion, but Zeldris kept to himself, staying towards the back of the group. Ahead the new recruits were paired with one of the veteran soldiers, who had them walking in line with the others. It was well onto midnight by the time they had stopped and made camp, the soldiers quickly organizing supplies and animals and setting up their temporary living quarters.
The king's tent is in the center of the camp, and the largest. The two soldiers that guard it allow him in, so Zeldris knows he is expected. He expects to find the king readying for bed, but instead Arthur sits in a chair by a little table, filling a crude goblet with wine. A sweep of the room shows the rest, hastily assembled: a bed, trunks of weapons and clothing, another table for meetings, a toilette.
"Zeldris!" he calls with a smile. The demon frowns as he approaches. He can tell immediately that something is off, and by the ruddy cheeks of the king assumes it is the wine. "I'm glad you made it back. All went well, I suppose?"
He nods, stopping in front of the table. "You wished to debrief?"
"Have a drink first." Arthur gestures to the other chair, which Zeldris reluctantly takes. What is it with humans and their alcohol? It never led to anything good in his estimation.
Zeldris watches as he pours him a glass as well as tops off his own. "I would rather not," he replies.
"Nonsense. We must drink for the dead."
Arthur raises his glass, nodding to the demon. With a huff Zeldris snatches up his own and takes a sip as the king drinks deeply. "Their souls have moved on," he says sadly as the glass makes a thunk on the table.
"They were your enemy."
The king looks up sharply. "They were men with families. Men who were trying to survive."
"Men who threatened His Majesty's person."
Zeldris snorts at his joke, but Arthur tilts his head as he considers him. "Where are you from, Zeldris? Really?"
"I told you, I—"
"Am not from Britannia, yes, yes, I remember." Zeldris bristles a bit at being interrupted as Arthur leans forward, his elbows perching on his knees. "No one can fight the way you did," he continues quietly. "The way you move, the way you speak… there is something different about you."
His eyes drag up and down from head to toe, and Zeldris feels heat on his neck. "Believe what you want then," he says, standing quickly. "Is that all?"
"Are you even from this world?"
Zeldris pauses and looks down at the king suspiciously. "What are you talking about?"
Arthur takes his drink up again, draining it, and leans on the table to stand. He steadies himself with one hand as he steps around, moving to place himself directly in front of Zeldris. "I have been blessed, you know," he says. "All my life, I've been different. I don't know where I came from, who my parents are. The man who raised me was not my father—nor was he kind."
He sighs, and Zeldris asks, "Why are you telling me this?"
"I don't know," he chuckles tiredly. "I just feel that I can trust you."
His violet eyes are clear, despite the bit of hesitation in his words and the flush on his cheeks. "I've always been able to… read people. I can see a good heart, I can feel a threat. It's why I can fight. It's why Excalibur chose me. But you…" Arthur's gaze traces over his face. "I can't feel you, Zeldris."
The demon gazes back at him, and for a moment, he wonders what that would be like, being exposed and vulnerable to the king. If what he says is true, then it would explain the mourning over those they had slain; but how can he be sure?
"Then why do you trust me?" Zeldris asks quietly. "I could be anyone. I could be here to kill you."
"Will you kill me, Zeldris?" Arthur's hand reaches out, and he places it on his chest. The king smiles a bit and says, "I can feel how fast your heart is beating."
Electricity sparks from his touch, and Zeldris looks down in surprise. Arthur spreads his fingers and flattens his palm, spreading to cover his pectoral over his shirt. "Are you here to kill me?" he asks again, and slowly the demon's gaze raises to meet his. "Did someone send you here?"
He is getting too close to the truth. Yet he feels locked in by his gaze, something stirring that he has not felt in a long, long time. Zeldris lifts his foot to step back, but instead steps forward, his body pushing Arthur's hand back until it is trapped between them. "I won't kill you," he murmurs. "I can't tell you everything, but I am here to find someone. I am looking for the truth."
Arthur nods. His thumb caresses him lightly, and the corner of his mouth tugs up slightly. Zeldris can smell the wine that hangs about him, and he finds himself staring at the small smile the king wears, his lips parting slightly, as he feels the intensity of Arthur's gaze on him. His thumb is moving in small circles, each one sending a little flutter through his veins, making him confused. What is happening? Why is this so familiar, and yet so strange?
When he meets the violet eyes again, he remembers: blonde hair instead of auburn, soft curves instead of carved muscle, pomegranates in the grass instead of the heat of a tent. It is all different, yet the same, so when Arthur's mouth dips in towards his, all Zeldris has to do is close his eyes and surrender himself.