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Arthur had known from the very beginning that this would happen.

Well, alright, not from the very beginning – technically, that had been almost two weeks ago now, or most of a century ago depending on who you asked, when Goosefat Bill had chosen the wrong brothel to hide in. Back then, Arthur had been the somewhat-contented, kinda-respected, a little-bit-bored boss of a ragtag bunch of guys who thought they were some shit; now he was hiding in a cave. So life went.

He still hadn’t asked Bill why he’d picked Avalon: maybe it’d been the right brothel in the end. So not from the very beginning, but close enough.

That one, two, five moments in the brothel – long enough to see the blood dripping down his sleeve, catch the glint of his eyes under his hood, and make the not very difficult decision that the girls were more important than some rebel Lord – had, for some reason, burned themselves into the inside of Arthur’s brain, and meant that he recognised Bill’s silhouette as soon as he’d had the rope cut from around his wrists. Bedivere, holding court: Goosefat Bill, back to him, against the table. That was when he’d known he was really in trouble. Bill had been vicious, sharp-tongued, moved with casual grace; all the things Arthur liked in a man. He liked a man who thought about the rings on his fingers before he hit someone, too, mostly because Arthur always forgot shit like that.

He wasn’t the kind to keep away from things he wanted, and he suspected Bill wasn’t either: the only thing that surprised him was that it took two days for them to get to it.

Everyone had finished eating. Someone suggested music, but no one was in much of a mood for it. A part of Arthur felt a little guilty: the two men everyone was mourning had died to save him, after all, but he’d never asked for a sacrifice, and God knows he wouldn’t have lain down his life for any King, born or not, so he quashed the feeling and concentrated on the hot sensation on the insides of his wrists that flared whenever he felt Bill’s eyes on him from across the table.

“Well,” he announced to the room at large, throwing his spoon with a clatter into the wooden bowl (scraped clean it was, because London street rats never turned down a meal). “I’m going to bed. Long day ahead and all that.”

The Darklands. Did these people hear themselves? He eyed the Mage, who was seated apart, as she always was, as if separated by some hidden film of Unknowing: ate alone, she did, slept alone, pissed alone, probably fucked alone too, if at all. He added cheerfully, hoping to rile her into some reaction: “you should too, love. I’m excited to see what you’ve got lined up. Slaying a fuck-off big lion? Diverting a river? I’ll throw in Hippolyta’s girdle for free.”

She did not respond, only regarded him darkly, but instead Bill took the bait. Arthur’s pulse thrummed a little. He said: “you know your Euripides, for a man raised by whores.”

Arthur blinked at him, deliberately dull, a stupid giant, a guise that had always served him well but didn't stand up one inch under Bill’s grey-eyed – owl on his shoulder, he thought – scrutiny. “I dunno what you’re talking about,” he said, “I just fancied killing a lion.”

Bill didn’t smile, not exactly, but his mouth moved, and then he was turning to Percival and engaging him in conversation, and Arthur knew he had absolutely no interest in anything Percival had to say – nor did anyone – and so he notched up a point in his favour in his mental tally and grabbed a berry from the bowl in the middle of the table. He popped it into his mouth triumphantly. “Goodnight gents,” he said, “and a very merry revolution to you all. I hope one of you steals the Sword in the night, it’s all yours.”

Down the corridor to the right, ducking behind one of the heavy rugs. The alcove forcibly assigned to him by Bedivere was cool and dim, large enough for two men to stretch out in relative comfort, and four or five if times were hard. The whole cave was pretty fucking massive, actually; no one Arthur knew in London had this kind of privacy, not even him. He had a room of his own, but that was only because the madam had died two years previously, and they’d been paying for that occupational vacancy with reduced profits and a veritable flood of girls fleeing the nest. Gwin was good, but everyone knew no girl could be madam of the house she’d grown up in. They’d have to find someone else, and soon, before –

He caught himself planning and huffed in frustration. The brothel wasn’t his business anymore. He suspected not much would be, in a week or so, when Vortigern inevitably caught him. He couldn’t heroically swing a Sword that made him swoon like a girl, so the headsman it would be, and somehow he doubted the King would provide such a comfortable gallows a second time. Breaking on the wheel? he wondered, with morbid curiosity. Or something worse. The thought of Magecraft made the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. The wheel he could face: it was a power like that of the Sword that had woken him in a cold sweat every night since he got here.

Footsteps on the other side of the rug. Arthur rolled back his shoulders and heard them click, grinned into the darkness, and then assumed a surprised expression and pulled it back. Bill was there. Arthur had expected to feel predictably, smugly triumphant, a cat that got into the dairy, but in truth the sight of him, so close, and the promise of what was to come made him breathless, thumped in the stomach by greed. “What?” he said, and it came out more confrontational than intended.

He was stupid to think Bill could be intimidated. He was, Arthur thought with some appreciation, maybe twice his age; not much more. Old enough. He ducked neatly under the bridge of Arthur’s arm and into the alcove; he was carrying a candle, which he wedged into a high shelf that already bore wax from the previous occupant’s night-time excursions. Arthur wondered who had been ousted to make room for him, and if Bill had been here before, with someone else – then again, he suspected that Bill moved with this sort of familiarity even on entirely foreign soil. The light flickered. Knocked off balance, as he always was by Bill’s presence, he let the heavy material fall back into place, blocking them off from the rest of the world.

“Alrighty, then,” he said.

“Thought you might want some company,” said Bill.

“I don’t.”

He smirked. In the candlelight his face seemed to change expression as quickly as water moving under the sun. “Ask me to leave, then,” he said, and then he added: “my king.”

At that, Arthur really did almost ask him to leave. The title made him itch. But the thought was half-hearted and overridden by his cock, hardening in his pants without his damned permission, and the smell of Bill, something unfamiliar (some kind of varnish), chalk, and leather, close in the confined space. Instead he just said, gruffly, “I’m not your fucking King,” and started to unlace the front of his jacket.

Bill didn’t argue, but he did look at him, eyebrows raising in a flicker of disavowal, before he stripped. There was nothing romantic about it, but Arthur watched him, his hands stilling on the laces, as the other man sat on the rough bed of stone and straw mattress and fur and unlaced his boots, then his jerkin, and finally his shirt, pulled over his head in a billow of linen. He was slender, but his arms were surprisingly thick and strong. Archers’ arms, thought Arthur, appraising them automatically not as a man, but as a commander of men. An excellent archer, if  George had taught him properly. The breadth of his right shoulder was thicker than that of his left, and Arthur thought that if he took his right hand he would find the muscle at the base of his thumb thick, solid, and unyielding. Arthur himself had never mastered a bow; he didn’t like not being able to see his enemy’s face, that was the truth of it, soft as it was. And then Bill was standing, confrontation in every move he made, and Arthur snapped back to being a man again.

“You’ll have to be quiet,” Bill warned. His own voice was low; they could hear occasional bursts of laughter and chatter from the hall. Arthur scoffed, pulling off his own jacket sleeve by sleeve.

“I can be quiet,” he insisted. Bill’s face flickered again. “What? I’m only being snarky in there because they piss me off. Rich cunts, the lot of you, never done a day’s work – mmf.”

Bill pulled him down the couple of inches, a strong hand wrapped in the collar of Arthur’s shirt. His mouth was hot and insistent and as unyielding as muscle, and Arthur almost immediately buckled, crowding him against the bed and the wall, the angle unsatisfying. He wanted Bill on his hips, on his cock, but a much larger part of him wanted the opposite. Jesus Christ, he thought, examining his own body’s reactions as if they were those of a stranger. It was like that? Alright, then, it was like that.

There wasn’t much that could shame him. He’d seen everything, and experienced most of it. He was lucky – so, so lucky – in that he’d never been forced into bed with someone he didn’t like, not like every girl he’d ever known. He’d grown up too fast for that. Even before he’d taken adulthood with a flying leap, when he’d had skinny shoulders and a big mouth, there’d been something in his eyes that’d made the men with wandering hands think twice about sticking them down his pants and go after easier prey instead. Besides, he’d made Elwyn more money out of the bedroom, so she’d let him off. It was only when a client had caught his eye that he used to saunter over, easy rolling movements, and the girls would scatter aside for him, him with his confidence and the rough way he laughed and the knife games he could play, shocking those soft aristocrats into bed. And there – well, frankly, he could take it both ways, and be happy with either, because being picky didn’t pay.

Bill kissed with teeth. Arthur felt a groan building in his chest, being like this, pressed together, every inch, his hands on the bare skin of Bill’s back and waist, the steadily hardening line of his cock against Arthur’s thigh: Bill, with his tongue and the way he took Arthur’s lower lip between his teeth and bit down. He found himself grinding upwards like some inexperienced pup, snatching breaths around his mouth, but was gratified to find, as Bill’s hand dug hard into the tight knot of his shoulder, that he wasn’t the only one so affected. He smothered the noise he was longing to make through sheer stubbornness alone. Pulling away, he felt bright-eyed and flushed, and was glad that the candle was flickering too rapidly to expose him.

Bill was facing the light; it made the world behind him empty and dark. The hunger on his face was plain and vivid as scarlet silk. One of his hands was still tight in Arthur’s shirt, and he made a visible effort to relinquish the linen, several-times mended.  Arthur pulled it over his head in a rush and then his mouth was back on Bill’s and it was like cold water on a burn – no, it was like a stinging poultice, painful but healing. He kissed and sucked his way down Bill’s neck, unshaven and rough to the Adam’s apple; there was a scar that marred the column of his throat the size of a thumbprint, a long-faded brand, that Arthur sank his teeth into. The only noise Bill made was the soft hiss of air as he let out his breath, but his hands scrambled for purchase on Arthur’s arms, and then he gave up and sat down, heavily. Arthur, relieved that they were getting to the chase, went to press him down onto the furs, but encountered significant resistance. “No,” Bill said, but before Arthur could withdraw, he grabbed his wrist. Very, very quietly, he murmured, “not like this.”

“Like how, then,” asked Arthur, dumbly. He didn’t think there was much blood left in his body at all. He was supposed to be out of this phase, and yet he felt fifteen, like he would come over Bill’s fingers in a second if he’d just let him. Cock-drunk. It was something about Bill’s hand, tight around his wrist, and the absolute certainty in his face. Bill spread his legs, so that Arthur slotted between them, and pushed him down. Arthur said, understanding dawning, “ah.”

“Shh,” Bill commanded, and unlaced his breeches. Then he had his cock in one hand, and Arthur actually pressed his forehead to Bill’s thigh in an attempt to catch his breath. Bill raked his free hand through Arthur’s hair, and when he looked up, Bill’s head was back and his throat was exposed in a flash of white.

“Jesus,” Arthur swore bluntly.

“Shh,” Bill snapped again, and Arthur impatiently batted Bill’s hand away and took hold of his cock, tugged on it hard, and watched Bill’s mouth open in a silent curse. Then he took it in his mouth. There was something stubborn about him that always saw sucking cock as more of a challenge than something to be necessarily enjoyed or savoured – like a fucking sparring match, like a horse race – but then Bill’s hand was light on the nape of his neck, and he said, “good,” his voice rough, and Arthur just –

Well. It was something. He thrust his hand between his legs and ground up against his own palm. The problem was that sucking cock was like some kind of awful dual reality, a mirror held up to you and reflecting your own desires right back at you like a curse, where he had the salt and taste and weight of Bill on his tongue and the abrupt sensation of the head of his cock pressing against the back of his throat when Bill took him by the back of his neck and held him fast – but Arthur could also look up and see him, lower lip caught firmly between his teeth, and know exactly how that felt, to be fucking into the wet heat of someone’s mouth. He knew the ret-hot coal curling in the base of Bill’s stomach, and he knew what it would feel like if Bill came on his tongue. And then Bill pulled him off like he was light as a kitten and it made Arthur seriously think he might just come in his pants. “Fucking hell,” he gasped.

“Come here,” said Bill, much more quietly, as laughter broke out from inside the hall, “and lie down and shut up.”

Arthur wanted to take the piss, to salute, but he had the presence of mind to know that mockery only functions when you aren’t scrambling to obey. He stretched himself out in the alcove; it was too short for someone his size and he had to bend his knees to fit, but that was alright because, once Bill had kicked off his breeches proper and was actually, finally, fucking naked in front of him, his knees provided the perfect bracket for Bill to lean back against as he straddled him. Arthur was starting to get dizzy. He managed, through gritted teeth, to keep his voice down as he said, “are you gonna touch me, or what?”

He wanted to ask are you gonna ride me, or what? but articulating the thought aloud was a bit much, so he settled for wrapping one large hand around Bill’s thigh. “Only if you ask nicely,” Bill said, and Arthur’s mouth went very dry. Deliberately, he folded an arm behind his head as Bill settled himself down, bare thigh on either side of Arthur’s hips – Arthur’s cock didn’t care that this wasn’t what he’d wanted at the beginning of the evening, and was beginning to pulse. Bill bent to kiss him. He missed Arthur’s mouth, much to Arthur’s disgust, and instead focused on his jaw, the lobe of his ear, his throat and the place where the blood hammered, before he continued down to his collarbone, and then fastened mouth and teeth around Arthur’s nipple. Arthur very nearly exposed them both, and only saved them by biting the inside of his cheek. Still, it would’ve been obvious to anyone passing by to the sleeping quarters that something untoward was happening; Bill looked up, exasperated, and his mouth was wet. “You’re fucking useless.

Arthur was very close to just jerking himself off. “Just touch me,” he demanded.

Bill was a good weight across his hips, sturdier than he looked – but then again, Arthur thought, watching his shoulders move as he shrugged, first impressions could be deceiving. “Alright,” he said.

“What?” Arthur said, stupidly, and then Bill had a hand through the half-done laces of his breeches, and had a hand wrapped around his cock, and Arthur almost did go off all over his fingers. He would’ve sworn, but Bill had the presence of mind to already have a hand over his mouth. Organised, thought Arthur, a bit deliriously, always so damn on top of things, oh fuck.

Bill’s thump swiped over the tip of Arthur’s cock, gathering precome, his hand moving hard and fast and relentless, and soon Arthur was breathing narrowly through his nose, his eyes rolling back; he tossed his head to the side and stretched up his arm to brace himself against the back wall, trying to keep things together. He drew blood inside his mouth. Bill stopped for a moment that was almost blissful in its lack of sensation, but it was only so he could lick his own palm, a movement so filthy that it made Arthur buck up into the thin, empty air. In response, Bill’s arm flexed as he put more pressure on Arthur’s mouth, pinning his head to the cushions with one hand.

Arthur thought, Jesus, and then he didn’t think much more, because the new slickness made his brain go white-hot and empty. It was the opposite of accidentally touching a cattle brand (something he had, incidentally, done not just once, but twice): so good it was almost painful, so burning it was like your whole body was protesting, but so wonderful he thought he’d do anything to make it last. He couldn’t see Bill’s face – he had closed his eyes some time ago so as to better concentrate on not making a noise – but he could sense the laughing smirk that was inevitably etched all over it.

He said, into Bill’s palm, incomprehensibly, “oh Jesus fucking fuck cunt,” and came without any other warning, up his own chest, Bill’s hand, Bill’s wrist, his breastbone. He couldn’t breathe; he couldn’t see. He internalised all the noise he wanted to make into one ragged gasp, and later would realise he had grabbed Bill’s thigh so hard he’d left fingertip-shaped bruises like a star, deep and black. He didn’t much care.

Bedivere’s voice came close to the mouth of their corridor, but then drifted away, deep baritone. Arthur couldn’t do anything except watch Bill lick the come off his hand with a kind of fascinated horror. He threw an arm over his eyes and whispered, “oh, no.”

“I thought you were raised in a brothel,” Bill whispered back, amused. That made Arthur recover, at least enough to lift himself onto his forearms; he was momentarily gratified by the way Bill’s eyes tracked the movement, the slide of liquid, the ripple of muscle. His cock was hard and flushed and pressed to Arthur’s hip.

“Don’t fucking lie,” he said, voice rough, “that was brutal, and you did it on purpose.”

Bill’s smile slid onto his face; it never seemed to grow there naturally. “Maybe I did.” He wiped his hand on Arthur’s discarded shirt, which then joined the growing pile of clothes on the rushes. “Now, none of this is going to be elegant. It’s a very small space.”

“Everything I do is elegant,” Arthur disagreed, lying, and together they shuffled him out of breeches and boots, and then, finally, they were lying pressed skin to skin, and Bill kissed him, hot and wet and open-mouthed, and wrapped a hand around his cock. Arthur twitched and hissed in discomfort – but God, it was good.

“C’mon,” Bill murmured, so quietly that Arthur, who was close enough to take his cock in hand in turn and make him bite his lower lip, could hardly hear, “That’s right, you’re so good.”

“Oh, Jesus,” swore Arthur, whose body protested but flushed with arousal anyway, “oh, God.” He wanted to take their cocks in one hand and jerk Bill off – he wanted to watch Bill come, frankly, and wasn’t fussed how it was achieved, but Bill was setting the rules and the pace and he didn’t dare argue. He didn’t understand how Bill was still breathing; his cock in Arthur’s hand was hot and flushed and so hard it had to be killing him. Bill slid down the bed until he was cradled in the crook of Arthur’s thighs, and then hooked a leg over one of his shoulders, and a shudder lashed its way all the way up Arthur’s spine, and he said again, “Jesus,” in a rushed whisper, a real prayer this time.

Bill licked a wet stripe up the inside of his thigh, and then without preamble over the tight skin between his hole and the base of his cock; Arthur managed to turn what would’ve been a shout into a low whine by imagining Percival’s disapproving face, but the whine was loud enough. Bill’s face flashed and he, with what was automatic irritation, slapped the inside of Arthur’s thigh. They both froze solid: the slap had been much louder than the whine. Arthur, thigh stinging, managed to suppress a snort of laughter, but only just; Bill’s eyes sparked amusement right back up at him. “We’re dead,” Arthur breathed, accepting their fate, “may as well enjoy our last hours before they catch us.”

Bill inclined his head. It was disarmingly courtly, like a bow. Arthur wanted to fuck him so badly he could’ve keened. “An excellent motto,” he said, and set to.

Fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, two centuries later, and Arthur was so hard it made everything hurt and there was precome smeared on his stomach, and Bill had worked him open, excruciatingly slowly, desperately, with two fingers, and Arthur was chanting, silently, shit, shit, shit, shit, shit as his hips bucked up into nothingness. The candle had burned down so that it guttered. He gasped, “oh, god,” and Bill, without looking up, pinched the inside of his thigh. Quieter than a slap, and it made Arthur’s cock jump and his hips twist, and he swore silently, mouthing obscenities at the ceiling. Every time he moved a hand down Bill simply stopped the gradual thrust of his fingers, which was enough of a punishment that Arthur gave up and just wrapped his fingers in the furs of the bedcovers and concentrated on breathing through it. He was desperate for friction, for anything. Footsteps passed outside the rug, crunching on the ground, and faded away down the corridor, and Arthur said, in a rush, “fuck me now, oh my god.”

Bill said, mildly disapproving, “you have to sit a horse tomorrow,” and added the first joint of a third finger. It was painful with nothing but Bill’s tongue to aid them on their way; Arthur had never liked it more. Bill crooked his fingers and applied his mouth and Arthur saw stars.

“Oh my God,” he breathed, “oh my God, I’m going to kill you, fuck you, fuck my life –”

“Such language,” Bill admonished, as though he was a fucking priest, as though he hadn’t had his mouth around Arthur’s cock for the last god-knew-how-long. He wasn’t unaffected; that was comforting. His eyes were dark and hazy when he moved back up Arthur’s body, sinuous and endlessly careful not to brush his aching cock, which made Arthur want to scream but also commit murder. Bill kissed him, cautiously, gently. Arthur felt hollow and empty and twisted up without his fingers inside him. He said, in Arthur’s ear, “what do you want?”

Arthur desperately bucked up, needing contact with Bill’s cock, his stomach, his thighs, anything, but Bill reached down and held his hips, firm, to the bedclothes. Arthur subsided, panting. “Jesus,” he gasped, “I want you dead.”

“Ah, but that would be inconvenient.” His accent had thickened. Arthur craned his neck up to be kissed, and Bill obliged, and said, into his mouth, “what is it you want.”

“Shit, I want to come, Jesus, please.”

“You want to come?” Bill breathed, his breath hot in the hollow of Arthur’s throat, and then he licked the beads of sweat that had gathered there and Arthur’s hips moved again of their own accord, his cock brushing Bill’s hip; the slight friction didn’t help at all, and Arthur turned his head to the side and bit his lip and went completely silent, aware now that if he made any noise it would break the dam and the whole fucking resistance would be woken. Bill laughed, almost silently, a huff of air, a desperate noise. “Maybe I should let you.”

He ran a thumb down the thick vein that stood out on Arthur’s cock, and Arthur let out a harsh breath and tasted blood as he dug his teeth into his lip. Then, horrifyingly, wonderfully, Bill’s mouth was around the head of his cock and his hand pumped once, twice, his grip hard and fast, around the base, and his nail scratched just so and Arthur came, into Bill’s mouth, onto his tongue, in wracking, long spurts that had him clawing hard at the nape of Bill’s neck, his shoulders. He watched as if from a distance, from outside his own body, as Bill swallowed every last drop.

It was easy to be silent; there was no noise to be made that could encompass how he felt. It was as if he’d been wrung out, wrung completely dry. He twitched away, painfully sensitive, but Bill sucked him all the way into his mouth and Arthur cursed him to the four winds and back and kicked out at the wall and tried not to black out.

Afterwards, Bill opened him up again, that third finger with the help of some oil he’d dug out of his jacket. It was the mysterious third smell that Arthur had been unable to identify, but he couldn’t give less of a fuck what it was. He slipped in and out of a dream, only coming to truly when Bill lined himself up and pushed the head of his cock into him. Arthur reached up and gripped, hard, at Bill’s upper arm, arching towards him. He grunted, half in pain, half in pleasure, and then: “I’m not gonna break.”

“Oh, I know,” Bill said. He was framed by Arthur’s thighs; his face was hot with concentration, and Arthur, his cock soft and every nerve in his body sparking, was sickly pleased to see how much effort it was visibly taking him not to come as he pushed in, inch by inch. He leaned forward and Arthur arched up and held himself there, stomach tense and trembling, as Bill took him by the nape of the neck and buried his face in the crook of Arthur’s shoulder and groaned, by far the largest loss of control Arthur had seen from him, well, ever, and sank into him to the hilt. He groaned, “fuck, Arthur.” He was mouthing, unruly and hot and arrhythmic, at Arthur’s shoulder. “I’m not going t’last.”

Arthur said, “fuck me,” and then he added, “no, seriously, fuck me.”

Bill grinned, a flash of light. He grabbed Arthur’s hips and pulled him up so Arthur’s weight was pushed back onto his shoulder blades, and thrust in even harder, deeper; Arthur’s entire body lit up, and it took everything in him not to cry out. Despite himself, he found himself with his hand on his cock, which was half-hard in acknowledgement that desperate times called for desperate measures. Bill didn’t try and stop him; he was too far gone himself. He thrust again and again, forgetting all caution; the sound of skin on skin filled the room and likely the corridor beyond, and he threw his head back, one long beautiful helpless curve, and he put a hand on Arthur’s stomach and hooked a knee over his shoulder and Arthur’s body twisted away and towards him all at once as he found himself tightening and tightening. Every movement was lighting him on fire. It was like swinging the fucking Sword. “Please,” he was panting, with every thrust, except he didn’t know what he was begging for, “please, please, please, please –”

“Oh, fucking Christ,” Bill swore, bucking over him. Arthur let go of his own cock and reached behind him, gripping the sheets, wracked, wrecked, “fuck, yes,” and he reached up and thrust his fingers into Arthur’s mouth, and Arthur licked them, and then bit them, and then Bill slapped him, hard, and he came, half-sobbing with the pain and the rightness of it and felt Bill shudder and swear and spend himself deep inside him also, his hand still on Arthur’s cheek, cupping his jaw.

 

Afterwards, they both slept. It was more than a little bit disgusting: usually Arthur would never have done so, call it the whore in him, or just the businessman who knew how to look after his goods; it was bad practice all round. The fact was that he didn’t have much choice in the matter; he was unconscious before Bill had even pulled, carefully and cautiously, out of him. He woke up maybe three hours later – something told him it wasn’t light outside – with Bill tucked up close to his side, snoring slightly, one arm slung over Arthur’s chest, and both of them smeared in dried come. Every single muscle hurt. It was like the aftermath of a good, solid fight. Arthur snorted to himself and stretched indulgently, all the way down to his toes, hearing his back click. Bill woke up at the movement, growled something incomprehensible and furious at him, and went back to sleep

Arthur stood, pulled a shirt on – he grabbed it randomly, but it must’ve been his, because Bill’s would never have fit – and wandered out in the hope of finding some bread, which he did, and some water, which he didn’t until, grabbing his dagger from where he’d left it on the eating table the day before, he ducked out of the cave entrance and headed for the river.

There, he stripped off and dove in. The water was fucking freezing – perfect, really, and he lounged, and washed, and lounged some more. He’d always been a poor sleeper, could live on only a couple of hours a night: now he lay on his back and watched the stars rotate above him through the thick branches and felt the tug of the Sword like a fish-hook in his stomach, like a knife wound, like the beginning of an orgasm, insistent and impossible to ignore. Dawn lightened the sky above him. The water dragged him down; he wanted to let it cover his face and breathe in, which was his cue to get out the damn river. He was doing so when the Mage appeared.

He was unabashed: he stood, naked, and watched her watch him until, with a faint pink flush, she turned her back. He dried himself off with his ruined shirt. There wasn’t anything else to save his tender modesty. “You’ll have to cope,” he said, “I didn’t bring any clothes. Just a knife.”

She said, her accented voice stiff, “you shouldn’t be out alone.”

“I’m not alone, though, am I, love. I’ve got you.”

When she turned back around she fixed her eyes on a position about six inches to the left of his right shoulder, and Arthur grinned a little, to himself. So the woman had feelings after-all. She held herself strangely, almost as though hiding a wound. It reminded Arthur of Bill, which reminded him that the man was still asleep in his quarters. Oh, well, he thought, in a burst of anger: he was the King, wasn’t he? What was the point in being the King if you couldn’t fuck who you wanted. The Mage’s face was a carefully constructed clean slate. “We leave in an hour.” She gathered her deep blue cloak around her: it was cold, come to think of it. Arthur slung his shirt over one shoulder and picked his way back up the hill towards her. “Get dressed.”

He reached her. She still did not look at him, but she said: “and, Arthur?”

He said, “what,” flat and unimpressed.

“Don’t forget the Sword. You’ll need it in the Darklands.”