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All The Victory She Needs

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"Sure, an' you've an eye on you like a hawk, child," says the old teamster when she asks about the piles of stones she can see at the edge of the forest. "I don't know about those. Leftover from the times of the old Romans no doubt."

She considers the stones, moss-covered, time-worn, imagines the towering structures above them: forts and castles punching up into the pearly grey sky. "Father?"

Beside her, her father stirs from the silence that's surrounded him like a shroud. "Gwennie?"

"Tell me about the Romans."

All last winter and spring, there were stories told by firelight when Gwen settled down for bed. While the evening sifted down around them, her mother would spin lambs' wool as soft as downy clouds while her father would spin tales as wondrous and amazing as magic itself.

There've been no stories since the summer's end.

Gwen wants to hear stories again. She wants to listen to her father's voice, rough and hoarse from the smoky forge, tender with a love that's too big for even his hefty frame, whimsical with the dreams Gwen's always seen in his eyes.

"Once, long ago, before the five kingdoms were formed - or even dreamed of - the land was full of tribes and clans. We were a different people then, smaller villages and family groups, collected together by blood and relationships, not by the lord we served. We spread through this land and mined it, called it our own until the Romans came."

"Where did they come from?"

"From a city and a land far away - far south, on the side of a glittering sea that stretches as far away as Israel - the holy land where Christ once walked. They built a mighty empire and conquered all manner of people. We were just one more place for them to conquer."

"They built the roads." She overheard someone saying it once; she can't remember who.

"And many forts and walls to provide their soldiers with protection."

She watches the Roman ruins go by as the cart trundles along the road and thinks about soldiers invading her village - angry men with swords and bows, bringing death and destruction with their coming.

"Didn't anyone fight them?"

Her father smiles at her indignation. "One did, for a little while at least. A queen, too - of the Iceni, who used to live up in the east of Mercia, near the sea."

"Tell me about her."

"They say she was clever and cunning, with red hair down to her waist and a fierce thirst for blood."

"And she drove the Romans back?"

She sees the shadow cross her father's face, hears the caution in his voice as he admits, "For a while. Rome was an empire of soldiers, remember, and the Britons just people defending their own."

"So they didn't drive the Romans out after all?"

Her father sighs a little, and his fingers brush over the curling wisps that have escaped her kerchief. "My bloodthirsty Gwen. Sometimes resistance is just as important as victory."

She frowns at the road ahead of them, the dusty ribbon of it skirting the forests that lead into Camelot town. "I'd rather win."

Warm lips kiss the crown of her head and his laughter - the first in a long time - rings over the cart taking them and their possessions to a new life. "I'd hate to be an army up against you, my Gwen."

--

They called the farmers in from the fields, sent riders out as far as they could to spread the word. A forester's son was sent out four days ago, hoping to slip past the Frankish forces and get a message through to Arthur: Camelot will hold fast. And so will you.

"M'Lady Guinevere?" She's not a lady - not really. But with the Frankish army coming up from the south, and the unexpected death of the Lord Protector from an unfortunate chicken bone, Gwen's the one they've learned to look to. "The foresters are signalling the outrider columns."

Camelot has taken in the peoples who fled north, their stores becoming scarce beneath the mouths to feed. Still, among them, there are those who will fight with a sword in hand or a pocketful of slingshot. There are those who will fletch arrows, sharpen knives, design siege engines. There are those who will prepare the people for war with food and meat, grain and straw bedding.

The story of the burned towns of South Hampton and Salisbury will not be the story of Camelot; Gwen promises herself that.

"Signal the first watch and for the defenders to take position," she says, and bites back the reminder that the guard captain need not bow to her.

Instead, she thinks of the Iceni queen and her war; she thinks of the towns and people despoiled by invading army while the armies of Albion turn Mercia's grain-plains into a bloody mud; she thinks of her father, long dead and buried, who first told her of a queen who defied an empire.

Guinevere intends to defy the Franks.

She'd rather win, of course. But resistance here is all the victory she needs.