So, Deer and I went a teensy bit overboard again – the one time being an overachiever means anything truly positive, in my experience – and it looks like we have to make the siege another two- (or more) part piece. We've got a decent bit of the second half already done, but it could be weeks to months before we finish and edit it due to IRL troublesomeness - school for Deer and a whole bunch of medical/financial/family stuff for me (oh, my!).
Also, on a more personal note here: both Deer and I genuinely appreciate every comment, kudos, and read. We love the new ideas and perspectives you guys bring, and we're always really happy to hear how much you enjoy this thing that honestly started as a half-hearted joke on my part.
However, I would like to ask every reviewer one simple thing when writing out that much-appreciated review – either take that few extra seconds to add the word "both" when using "you" or omit the you entirely. It honestly feels like a lot of you guys forget that there are two names attached to this story, and that really, really sucks. I know not everyone does this, and I know that may paint me as petty to some people, but is a one-word difference either way truly too much to ask?
Warnings for depictions of gore and excessive violence and a smidgen of archaic, religious preaching (welcome to wartime in the Dark Ages).
Credit to ORBIS: Stanford Geospatial Model, for helping figure out some of the distances and travel time.
This chapter will make references to the four highways of Roman and Medieval Britain from this point on: Ermine Street, Fosse Way, Watling Street, and Icknield Way. Also on connecting streets such as Akeman Street, and other ancient trackways such as the Ridgeway.
Camelot Castle is still sited on modern Berkhampstead, but we are using a concentric castle floor plan for the interior modeled on Goodrich Castle.
Chapter X: Storm Breaking
Nobody expects a noble girl to predict a storm coming.
A farmer's daughter, or a fisherman's wife – that's different. If your crops might be destroyed by drought or hail or wind or lightning, you learn to tell when a storm is on the way, and when you'll need to haul buckets of water to the fields. If you're waiting on shore with nothing to do but darn torn nets and wait for your husband to come home, worrying over what's keeping him, you learn to keep an eye on the sky and the seas and an ear for the breeze, to tell you when to prepare for supper and when to worry for his absence.
But a noble girl? What need has she to learn life's lessons or the landscape's warnings, when her shelter is guaranteed?
Guinevere sighs, staring out the window at the sudden darkness. Soon, there will doubtless be thunder and hail – that's the usual sort of weather to expect with a midafternoon storm in late summer here. She can't see even a trace of light outside.
How far do the clouds extend? To where Arturia lies? Not likely, but where there is one storm, there may be others. Guinevere smiles, imagining the frustration: Arturia cleaning wet armor, trying to deal with rust before it can form, even as more rain spatters down and undoes her work.
The smile fades.
The public farewell to the King, the knights, and the soldiers should be a bittersweet memory. After all, it marks the first time the king looked genuinely pleased to see her in weeks, and did not flinch from her gaze or touch.
But instead, it is an entirely bitter memory, one that exhausts her all over again when she recalls it. Because of course Arturia wouldn't let her subjects know that anything was wrong with her picture-perfect marriage. Of course she could smile if there was an audience and an immediate escape route available.
The longer this fight goes on, the more Guinevere loses her appetite and her will to move around. Fighting with Arturia leaves her exhausted, with headaches if she cries, and dizzy with pent-up tears.
If they were both considered men by society, or were both men in actuality, they might solve this in the sparring yard, taking out their frustrations on each other with blows, and drinking afterward to reconcile. But women wage war differently, with words and with tears and with silent patience most of all. Confrontation with blows is not a method permitted to her.
Guinevere is grateful that Arturia's vows of knighthood, as spoken by the King and each knight she dubs, include promises to 'respect the honor of women' and to 'defend the weak and defenseless'. She only wishes that those vows also included a way for a woman to strike her own blows physically if needed.
But chivalry does not include a codified way for people to settle a grievance, man to woman; only man to man.
Fighting with Arturia leaves Guinevere as bitter and exhausted as an ancient hag, but it doesn't make her worry about her husband-king any less, or the knights, or the troops that went with them. For in the end, worry is all she can do. Worry and wait. There is no way for her to help them now but prayer.
There is a shuffle of feet outside, raised voices. She ignores it, eyes straining into the darkness beyond the window, trying to make out the details of the storm. It suits her mood more than weaving; she has no desire to imitate Penelope of Ithaca today.
The door opens behind her. "My Queen." Cloth and leather shivers against the floor. She turns, unsurprised to find one of the guardsmen kneeling a respectful distance from her feet, his spear left at the door, head bowed to shadow his expression.
While she's made an effort to learn the names of her people, this one escapes her currently. So she can only half-smile, as graciously as possible, and respond, "Yes? Is there news?"
Cleges would only send someone if there was news. The storm unnerved them all, but the spymaster was fussing the worst, worried about the weather's hindrance. Particularly when he explained to her that Gaheris had missed afternoon practice; he'd been somewhat relieved to discover the boy had permission to skip, if the grumbles about extra staff practice were any sign, but concerned that he hadn't come back at first sight of the storm.
The messenger bows his head. "My Queen, Sir Cleges sent me to tell you that we've seen a small… light-burst, for lack of a better word, over the city. Not a fire; it came and then it vanished. Sir Cleges plans to send a rider to the city wall, and see if it came from outside, but we are mostly certain that it appeared within the walls." He swallows. "It… may have been an enemy signal, though Sir Cleges is uncertain and does not wish to start a panic. However, he suggests you prepare yourself for trouble, my Queen."
'Prepare herself for trouble' is Cleges' barely disguised urging that she be ready to escape the city if the worst should come. That's… ominous, even if she grants that he has pleaded for her to consider such plans since after the King left.
Has there been a signal from the city wall? Cleges did not send any earlier message that a battle was being joined, or that a force of men approached the city. She actually expected the messenger to have come with news of Gaheris. Cleges apparently had another lesson planned for her nephew, and was heartily annoyed that she had enabled the squire to avoid it, if not to the point that he would waste sending a guard to seek out the boy and drag him back to the castle.
"What of my nephew?" she inquires, ignoring Cleges' plea for now. No sense in spreading rumors that anyone was considering an escape route. That would suggest that the trouble was sure to crush them, or that she had no faith in her people's ability to protect themselves and her. More immediately, Gaheris should have started back before the storm, or certainly at least when he saw the storm was coming. "Has he returned?"
But the guard shakes his head. "I have no word on that, my Queen. The search within the castle was interrupted when we spotted the light-burst. If he has not responded to the ruckus of armed assembly, I doubt he is here…"
Guinivere raises a hand, and the guard's voice trails off. In the silence, a babble of muffled voices rises beyond the door.
"Let me in! I have to see her!"
"Gaheris," Guinevere breathes. "Let my nephew in!"
The door bangs open. "My Queen!" Gaheris gasps, dodging past the startled guard, the pair from the door following him inside still trying to hold him back.
"Gaheris, thank goodness," Guinevere says, bending to set aside her needle and thread and the pieces of cloth for Arturia's shirts. "I was rather worried when the clouds came that you wouldn't make it back before the storm broke—"
Straightening, she takes in her nephew's pale face, patchy with darkening shadows that prelude bruises; his hands, scraped beneath stains of mud and something else; his belt, holding a sword he most definitely wouldn't have taken for a simple walk, particularly since it's too big for him; and his knees, clothes and hair stained and sticky with red-brown smears. Some of the smears are still drying.
"Someone get the physician, please," she says, trying to keep her voice calm while conveying the urgency of the situation. Cleges' messenger is already moving toward the door. Guinevere pushes her own chair forward.
"It's not my blood," Gaheris says, swaying on his feet, ignoring the chair.
She stares at him. That sounds even more ominous than her assumption that Gaheris had been provoked or trapped into a fight he wasn't ready for.
The sword is sheathed still, the belt adjusted so it does not drag the scabbard on the ground or interfere with Gaheris' movement overmuch; there is no way to tell if blood stains the blade. The stains on Gaheris' clothing have smeared too badly to easily suggest a spatter or a dipping pattern.
She may not know much of how to use a sword or spear, but she does know laundry and its stains, and what causes them. That much blood, even smeared, is more blood than a man could lose and survive. Gaheris is likely carrying only a portion of the ruddy spill in the stains; the rest will be around the now-corpse.
'It's not my blood?' Then whose is it? How did it get on you?
Did she leave Gaheris unsafe enough in Camelot that he had to use lethal force to defend himself? She should have sent a guard with him. It would be appropriate, for the son of an honored former hostage and present kin by blood and marriage. If she had sent a guard, he would not have needed a sword like this, a sword he could not use to best advantage until fully grown.
I must ask Gaheris for the truth of it, before I terrify myself further.
Before she can match action to thought, Gaheris is speaking again. Quickly, words tumbling over themselves like water in river rapids, getting them out as swiftly as possible as if to make more space for the next words coming behind his tongue.
"The city walls have fallen. The invaders have killed the guards, and taken their uniforms to dress themselves in. The blood is that of the gate sentry, William. I fell on his body when someone pushed me off the wall – he was already dead. I couldn't sound the alarm, couldn't get back up the stairs to it, and no one had heard my scream. Or if they did, they never got there to respond. I've been trying to get back here—" His head snaps up, terror in his eyes, and he grabs at her hands, his skin tacky like the inside of a glue-shop. "Tell me you haven't let anyone in from the wall!"
Guinevere stares at him, then snaps her head to the guards. "Tell Cleges what has happened. Start ringing the alarm bell. We need to get as many into the castle from the city as possible, without letting in our enemies."
One guard nods, and breaks into a run. The other hesitates, glancing at Gaheris. "Is there… anything else Sir Cleges should know?"
Gaheris nods. "I think they wanted the element of surprise. That's… not a storm out there. Not a normal one, at least. Fog and clouds, but they came out of nowhere, and the weather isn't right… And then they were there, less than a minute after it was dark and the wind was gone."
He swallows, clutching tighter at Guinevere's hands. She can feel the pulse in his white-knuckled fingers. "I don't think most of the city knows; I couldn't get to the alarm, and no one else rang it. I managed to barricade myself in a smithy at one point; I took a weapon and warned the smith there – he fought to cover my escape. They'd been chasing me since the wall, they'd almost caught up with me… He got their attention…" He swallows hard. "He's probably dead now, isn't he?"
For a moment, Guinevere cannot speak around the lump in her throat, nor see her nephew beyond the image he's brought to her mind. A large, tanned hand clenched around a hammer, at the end of a broken lump of bone chunks and muscle that was once an arm. A torso riddled with arrows. Grey eyes still open against the sky, mouth curled in a snarl of defiance. The same sort of thing she's been dreaming for days, but green eyes and blond locks against smoking forests and hillsides are replaced with skin darker than any sunburn might explain stretched out on muddy, bloody cobblestones.
She shakes it off, and manages a weak smile for Gaheris. "Let's not lose hope yet, shall we?" Even if he's right about his ally's fate, that doesn't mean the smith he met was Farran. There are other smiths out there in the world, and at least one must be as gruff and kind to animals, as ready to defend others. She will not assume the man dead yet.
"So, he distracted them, and you got away?" she asks, forcing herself to keep moving. "You've warned us, Gaheris. You've done your duty. Thank you. Now, I need you to keep doing your duty, and tell me the rest of it." She glares at the guard. "Take your message to Cleges, now, if you please. And send a page for the physician; I want my nephew looked over." She waits until he's out of the room before she turns back to the boy in front of her. "Will you sit down if I do?"
Gaheris stares at her, uncomprehending. No, not at her, but rather past her, Guinevere realizes.
"He told me not to stop running, no matter what I saw or heard," the youth half-whispers. "That he'd make sure they had other things to keep their attention on. He certainly kept his word… if I could see the straw on the roofs ahead of me in that flash, anyone looking directly at the light, whatever it was, probably went blind for a moment."
Guinevere frowns. "Light?"
Gaheris shakes his head absently, his speech stumbling worse than a kitten before its eyes open. "It… it was like… a lightning strike, without any thunder to follow it – a bright light that chased the shadows behind me… for a moment… just a moment…"
The neck is pierced at the pulmonary artery. Another enemy is dead, hitting his knees with one last gasp of gurgled blood.
The roof falls from beneath the killer's feet, replaced by cobblestones.
Archer wipes the arrow on his long-ruined pants, replaces it in his quiver. Fresh blood could make it slip against the bowstring. Dried blood could add enough weight to alter a shot's trajectory, turning a fatal shot into a crippling one at best.
"It's the smallest things that matter most, Sherou." That smile, equal parts tenderness, amusement, and exasperation—an "I love you" and a scolding in one—played across Luvia's lips.
What would she think if she knew he applied that sentiment to hell more than to their relationship? No, perhaps she'd always known—even if he couldn't pinpoint the exact moment those words stopped meaning forgiveness and started meaning resentment.
He hops back to the roof, to another—no time to daydream. There are always more prey.
And here he'd thought he escaped Cleaning duty.
Ah, there's the church tower up ahead. Perfect. He hops closer, carefully balancing on the ridge of the roof in a half-crouch as he inches closer to the tower, a sniper's tactics to avoid notice. Tactics he hasn't needed since he died and gained the ability to astralize his body. He'll have to climb as close to the tower as he can, but once he's gotten to the high vantage point, he'll have plenty of targets to search for.
No one walks abroad at night, save thieves and cutthroats and the city watch. Perhaps a doctor or a midwife, for babes never choose to come at convenient times, but those will come with guards and torches of their own if they can afford them. Theoretically, this should be easy.
Too bad these invaders had the good sense to steal the guards' uniforms after killing them quietly, so picking out targets is…challenging. Especially since his secondary goal is, if at all possible, not to get himself noticed or destroy anything else.
Not that he's ever really wanted to destroy anything. He's a protector at heart, not a berserker or assassin or any sort of killer. Ironically, the deadliest tool in his arsenal exists because he wanted to avoid hurting people. Most mages would have developed their Reality Marbles to become deadlier, but Emiya Shirou just wanted to sleep side by side through the night with his girlfriend without impaling her on iron spikes.
"Well, I'm glad to hear you have no objections to impaling me with your… other sword, hm? As long as we're both awake and consenting, Shero…" Luvia's memory-voice snickers, mispronouncing his name as usual. She always was a closet pervert.
Still, this isn't the time to lose himself in the half-remembered past of his lifetime. Particularly not when this cloud cover makes predicting shadows difficult.
Crouched in the shadow of the bell tower, Archer lets his eyes sweep the area - one last search for targets before he starts the climb. Below, a troop of four guards walk along, lantern held high, approaching the doors. Archer looks them over, then scowls. He can't spot any weapons other than the ones meant for the City Watch to use, no obvious Saxon hairstyles, no convenient blood stains or ill-fitting uniforms to give a clue. Blast. He'll have to follow them and wait for them to do something suspicious, if he wants to be sure.
After this, I am memorizing the entire guard roster, faces and names. It will be worth it to avoid dealing with this uncertainty in the future. And then I'll memorize the known guest list for every important event, and every member of the household. It will be worth it if I can stop any future infiltrations before they start.
Behind him, the bells toll. Vespers, perhaps? He's still learning the 'canonical hours', which aren't entirely the same as during his own era. And it's not as if he was a practicing Christian at any point, despite working with the Church when occasion called.
One of the guards pauses, turning to look at the bell tower with a frown.
Archer stills. His breath is as slow and shallow he can make it. He presses back into the stone. He is a shadow.
The guard glances higher, towards the deep chimes and the bells swinging.
The leader pauses, looking back at the slow mover. He coughs to gain attention. The first guard makes a motion toward the church. The leader nods. Archer strains his eyes on their lips, trying to make out the words.
They've turned to the church, marching confidently up the steps, weapons at hand but not about to be used.
Archer's eyes narrow. In a world lacking swift communication, light and sound are the best ways to communicate a swift emergency message, in the form of beacon fires or alarm bells. The guards might be coming to ask the priest to ring the alarm. But if that was the case, why debate it? Alternatively, invaders might be going to disable the bells and ensure no alarm could be rung, and raid the church for its treasures.
No time to waste. Stalking closer to the front of the church, he peers down at them.
Any clue, any clue at all…
One man lifts a gloved fist, and pounds on the church door. The layers of oak and iron echo with it. Perched above like a gargoyle, Archer grits his teeth at the vibrations. Inside, the whole church must reverberate with it. The bell ringer will be coming to answer, or perhaps the priest.
Archer is out of time. This may have to be knife-work if it comes down to it. Securing his bow against his back, he lets his feet over the roof to drop between inch-long protrusions of stone, as quickly and noiselessly as possible, eyes straining for a sign.
"Yes, yes, I'm coming! Why is everyone so hasty these days…" A middle-aged man's muffled voice echoes from the church.
The lead guard nods to his second, who bends toward his boot, tugging it straight.
If Archer's eyes weren't already pinned on the man, he'd likely miss the hilt of a boot knife slipping inside the guard's sleeve as he comes back upright.
The bolt is moving, the latch pulled free.
No more time.
Archer pushes out from the wall and drops, landing on one man's shoulders so the force of his weight bears the surprised 'guard' to the ground. His bow is in hand, one arrow going through a man's throat, the second through his comrade's eye. A swift knife thrusts through the spine of the man he's standing over and all the way to the front of the throat before he yanks it free.
One man left. But the door's half opened, the priest's eyes wide and mouth opening to scream, not seeing the glint of the blade in the guard's hands or that the point and edge is turned towards him, not the black-clad archer —
Yanking on his opponent's shoulder, Archer swings himself between the last infiltrator and the priest.
His right hand slaps over the priest's mouth; if the man lets off a scream, they'll draw every fighter from both sides within hearing distance to come near them, and Archer's arrows are a clear proof of culpability when he still has half a quiver left.
His left hand grasps a slender, short blade—a miséricorde, designed to slip between chinks in armor, or gaps in the helmet, to give the mercy stroke.
He's worked on the guards' armor for weeks, knows that the throat is protected by a chain mail gorget. The helmet protects the skull and the nose. But the eyes are vulnerable… and behind the eyes, there is the brain.
The guard's knife is already extended, blade above the fist in a 'saber grip'. A good move for a sneak stabbing, but not for a closely grappled fight or for a powerful thrust. It's a simple matter, with his own blade pointed downward, to parry, hook the blade arm away, even to stab or slash at the eyes.
One final squelch, and his hands are bloody and his sleeve ripped. The dying man was trying to block the knife, but got his sleeve with a too-slow reaction. Archer scowls at the corpse and the Saxon seax lying loose in its grip.
Behind him, there's a sigh both ragged and terrified, almost a cough. "Who...?"
He straightens up slowly, lest his rescuee think he's next, and sends his best imitation of King Arthur's prized blank mask over his shoulder. The priest is clutching the doorframe, knees clamoring together beneath his dark robes.
Any facial reaction could act as an emotional trigger, and time to explain in detail is a luxury he doesn't have. "Sorry, but I'm afraid we have some wolves in disguise among the sheep who'd rather keep their presence quiet. Raise the alarm. Don't trust any guardsmen that voluntarily approach you, got it?"
"Wolves indeed," the priest murmurs, and he glances up and down Archer in a way that makes it clear how much he dislikes what he sees: a tall outsider with skin dark enough for Carthage or Greece, clothing dark like an assassin's but clearly stained, well-armed and with blood still on gloved hands — especially in contrast to the clean uniform of the corpse in guard's clothing. "And a confident one, too, to announce yourself so boldly, and to accuse another of such status to excuse yourself from murder."
Archer had only meant to refer to Aesop's fable of the wolf wearing sheep's clothing. Now he abruptly remembers that, in the current form of English, 'wolf' is synonymous with 'outlaw', literally someone who is outside the law's protection and as such has his life forfeit to any man who wishes to claim it. To kill an outlaw is not murder. Right now, that sounds like a poor attempt at an excuse.
"Do you really think you'll get away with murder of a guard that easily? Spilling the blood of the innocent on the steps of the church? What a case of hubris, to request that I raise the alarm to justify your crime. I'll not give you an alibi against his comrades' revenge when they come to arrest you. I will speak to what I saw." The man's tone is confident, angered and sad. "And if I do not live to speak it, God sees all."
So much for getting out of here quickly. Unless Archer can offer proof that he is who he says, and that his victim was no guard, he's not going to escape persecution for this after the fight — and the priest certainly will not allow the bell to be rung in alarm.
Archer quells the twitch of a frown of his lips, but not fast enough; the priest's flinch in response is well-disguised but goes through his whole body.
Moving as slowly as he can, careful to maintain eye contact so the priest doesn't run for it, Archer crouches by the corpse and pulls the fingers away from the seax. Straightening, he offers the blade to the man, hilt-first. "Does this look like an ordinary guard's weapon to you, Father?"
The priest doesn't even glance at the knife. "You want to query over your opponent's weapon — a weapon that I saw him raise only in self-defense — when you are the one who spilled blood on the steps of the church."
Archer bites back his snarl; it will only entrench the priest further in his beliefs. Small words and pointed questions will serve better in convincing him to consider alternatives. "Yes, I will query it, when the blade is a Saxon seax! No Briton should have this except as a trophy, and no trophy should be on him when he's on duty!" He pushes the blade into the priest's hand, closing the man's fingers around it; maybe he'll be more willing to listen when he's not defenseless.
Stepping back, he gestures at the body, ready to argue his case. "Look at him. He's dressed in a guard's uniform and is carrying the city-issued spear and short sword, both of which have a longer reach and would have served better to defend him; as a guard, he ought to have trained for hours with both. Why, then, did he go for a personal belt knife, suitable only for close-range combat, grappling range combat? Why carry it at all when on duty, let alone use it as first choice of weapon? The only answer is that he was more familiar with it, or did not intend to use it defensively!" His whisper is loud, but still a whisper; he doesn't want to draw attention.
The priest's eyes are still on his hands, but occasionally flicking to the body. Good.
"Was I facing him when he drew the knife? No. I was behind him. You were facing him, and in range of the blade. I stepped between you afterwards. And no Briton would be carrying this blade — it's of Saxon make! His fellows have similar concealed weapons, none of them made alike in the hilts — this knife is not part of the uniform!"
This is how Gaheris must have felt, a scarce hour ago — no time to waste, and an immovable obstacle of a man to persuade to the truth. Archer turns, grabs the corpse and yanks it off the steps and closer to the church wall, talking as he goes.
"You've got wolves in sheep's clothing, quite literally, Father — Saxons in stolen guard uniforms, but still carrying their own concealed axes and knives. I don't have time to persuade you otherwise. I just hope you listen enough to barricade yourself inside and ring those bells — because there's no other way for the word to get out. I need to get back to killing wolves; you need to bar your door and warn the sheep with your bells." Pulling the last body into the shadows, he strips them of their helmets; anything that enables quicker identification is great. He needs to get back to searching.
"The guards are wolves, the people are sheep… I suppose that makes you the sheepdog?" The priest's tone is too carefully neutral to be scoffing, but still inherently skeptical. "On whose authority?"
Archer is careful not to smirk, or frown, lest the priest take it as evidence of lying or being an enemy, but it's so tempting when he's literally heard the perfect set-up for a punch line. "King Arthur Pendragon's."
Before the priest can sputter a reply, or more questions, he launches himself away, leaving only a burst of wind behind.
On the church steps, Father Baldwin glances around, then up — just in time to see a black figure vanishing over the rooftop above him. Crossing himself, Baldwin murmurs a prayer for the dead men's souls, then goes inside. The front gates and side doors he leaves unbarred; when the alarm bell rings, many will come here for sanctuary or specifics on what the alarm warns of, and he cannot bar their way. He will tell Thomas the bellringer to ring the peals, and to bar himself inside the tower so that no man may stop the warning.
Any Saxon or black-clad Archer that tries to come inside will have to deal with Baldwin himself. And he is not so long a widower or his holy vows so final that he has forgotten how to raise his old sword to defend God's children.
Scarce minutes later, the bells begin to swing back and forth, tolling a steady loud sound, ringing and ringing without end across the city.
Men jump from their beds and pull on shoes and hose, belts and tunics and coats and hoods and hats. Mothers garb themselves and their children, glancing out the window for signs of fire. Some 'guards' curse and turn their weapons and matches on the straw roof, then retreat near the wells to wait for a bucket brigade to come and be slaughtered; others keep up the act until challenged, when they turn the area around them into a slaughter and dye their tabards red-brown with blood.
Some blocks from the church, a black clad archer lifts his head to watch, looking at the walls. He might not be physically capable of counting individual nails in a bridge while standing on top of a skyscraper some miles distant — but he is more than capable of spotting a target at perhaps a third of the distance, especially if the target is moving atop the city wall and swiftly outstripping the small group of soldiers trailing him. A figure who began to move the moment the bells sounded, and is not dressed in the guard's uniform.
The man is following the walls toward the castle, so Archer makes for a midpoint between the castle and the figure; he wants a better look and a way to cut the runner off. Magic burns in his circuits and under his skin, ready to manifest.
He can make out more details as he gets closer. The oddest one is the fit of the armor — it's made for a burly build, but hangs somewhat loose on a wiry frame, like the man's lost weight or compacted his muscles to lie closer to the bones. A recent change, since the armor hasn't been replaced. Layers of cloth and fur do little to replace the bulk, instead serving to emphasize the lack.
The clothing itself is distinctly Britonic. Long trousers bound at the ankle over short boots, instead of the Saxon's leather straps to close-bind loose hose to the calves. Long sleeved tunic, reaching nearly to the knee — made for a cool climate year-round. An oddly shadowed cloak pin, a throwing-spear in hand, an axe and dagger swinging at the belt beside a coin-pouch. A cloak of cloth and fur, embroidered with runes that stink of magic like overbearing perfume in a too-small space. There is no helmet, merely an odd circlet to contain limp grey locks with an occasional streak of red, like dying embers in a layer of cooling ash.
Then the wall turns, and Archer gets the first look at the man in profile rather than just from the back.
Hair of lifeless, steel-lined flames among a crown of golden horns. A heavy brow, wide and overshadowed as the maw of a cave's mouth. Eyes of quicksilver, sharp for all they are yellowed and dull. Cheeks as hollow as an emptied skull, their bones jagged and the skin thinly draped as the paper-thin scales on a bat's wings. Under the remnants of a once-impressive beard, the man's chin seems the last remnant of his former physicality to match his air and stride: square as a meticulous statue and just as stubborn in its immovable place up in the air. His nose could've been just as proud and pronounced, if not for its twice-broken slant.
He might have been handsome and strong in his youth, and the ghost of good looks still remain even with time and battle prematurely aging the man. But madness and illness have devoured too much flesh to look even somewhat healthy.
It's not a ghoul's face, or a Dead Apostle's, but it does oddly remind Archer of some of the movie representations of living mummies — not entirely bones, but the remaining withered flesh isn't rotting.
The eyes are familiar for another reason entirely — a memory of a Grail War, far in the future, standing between his Master and a black-garbed, corpse-pale swordswoman, the color leeched from her skin and hair. Even the eyes were dull, sparkling green jewels changed to dull gold, dirty with corruption and poorly polished with rage and berserker's fury.
"Vortigern," Archer breaths.
The bells are ringing. Loud, methodical, ceaseless bleats of hollow steel send shivers of desperation through the air. Men fill the streets in a united, syrup-slow flood toward the church. Guinevere stands at her window, fingers bruising the crux of her elbows as she grits her shivering teeth.
It had to have been a trap that Arturia walked into. There is no other explanation. Tonight's raiders are either allies of their foe or a branch of said foe's larger forces, and they are dangerous whichever the truth. None but the most reckless of warriors would brave a brewing storm… a storm that came and went within minutes… a storm Gaheris himself said is unnatural…
"…Forgive me, my Queen, but shouldn't you be making ready to leave? This isn't the most secure of places."
He's just come across the dead body of a man he knew, and had to choose to run to inform us rather than stay and fight as he's been trained to do. You will not yell at him for having the same concerns as Sir Cleges, Guinevere reminds herself firmly as she turns to face her fourteen-year-old nephew.
He's changed into clean shirt, breeches and gambeson, scrubbed off his face and hands, and found his own weapons; the sword he carried through the city lies on a table next to her sewing. But there's more to blood than just the color and the sticky stain, and even if there had been water for a full bath and spare servants to heat and carry the water, it would not have helped overmuch. In the space of a few hours, her nephew has aged with guilt and responsibility, and Guinevere is not going to add to his burden, no matter how waspish her thoughts. She still wants a physician to look him over, and has sent for one.
"Leaving the castle would make it much harder for the physician to find us," she says coolly, "or the guards, for that matter. I may not be a warrior, Squire Gaheris, but I would not say the battle is yet so grave as to require that suggestion. I assure you, consideration would be as far as it would go, even then. I will not leave my people."
Not to their current foe. The queen is the last ruler standing, when the king is absent. Who knows if any of the army will return, or - No, Wart - Arturia - King Arthur is undefeated - Avalon makes it so.
Gaheris blinks at her. "Leave your… My queen, I would never suggest that at this stage! I meant to ask if we should move to the great hall, or somewhere else with all the women and children? It would be easier for the guards to defend one place only." He pauses.
Oh. Well. That's… a fair point, if she's ever heard one. Perhaps she should have let him finish, rather than assume. Not all men are the same, even if they all believe that women and toddling babes should be kept safely away from violence.
Guinevere shakes her head, frown lines deepening; she works to keep her voice light and reasonable. "It would be easier for the guards, Gaheris… but if I choose to hide, our people will see that as a sign of defeat. We must do everything we can to keep their spirits strong in times of crisis."
Now the boy is staring at her with polite confusion. "…Then, why are you up here in your tower room where no one can see you? My queen," he adds hastily, an afterthought of good manners.
Because a tower room is a good place to see the people. If I can't see everything at once, problems inevitably crop up in a blind spot. My vantage point is my only advantage; I can't give it up.
He's still staring, waiting for an answer.
I promised Arturia I would care for our people and city while she was gone. I won't break that promise. It doesn't matter if they see me watching them or not; what matters is preventing the worst outcomes, and where else can I see those but here?
Gaheris stares at her. His grey eyes pierce inside her skull, seeking answers. He's said nothing more, she hasn't answered him. Why is it so hard to find the words?
Because he's right, they're all right, and you're a foolish little girl who's too proud to admit it, playing dress-up with her husband's crown. And it took a child's common sense to make you realize the truth.
For an instant, she can see the brilliant advisor Gaheris will become as an adult, and she is ashamed of herself for standing on her pride.
"…You're right," she whispers. Picking her nephew's new sword up from the table, she moves toward the door.
Sir Lucan is waiting there, relief on his face, ready to escort her to a more defensible spot. To wait, until the doors are battered down, or they choose to escape. But Guinevere will not make that choice, not yet. She still has some pride.
The horses thunder into the courtyard, clattering to a slowed trot and then a halt; Arturia is already swinging her leg over the saddle and handing the reins to a waiting groom before the ground steadies. Ignoring the London garrison in front of her, she swings her gaze to their raven-haired second-in-command turned chief-commanding-officer.
Sir Agravain looks like he's had about as little sleep as her. His hair is limp, his eyes huge and shadowed. His armor is neat and polished, his posture filled with overcorrect stiffness to guard against slouching. The moment she came into his sight, his shoulders slumped in relaxation, only to instantly tense once more with every step she takes towards him.
He ought not to worry. She has little time to take reports, no time to make reprimands. "Sir Kay, Sir Gawain, Sir Ector! Exchange our wounded and most exhausted for fresh troops; have them ready to march in an hour. Fresh horses too. Leave everything that is not essential; we travel as lightly as possible. Hurry."
"Sir Agravain," King Arthur continues, suiting motion to words and gripping his wrist to drag him upright and away when he would kneel to her, "your report's details would be appreciated, in private. I presume you are in command here?"
He nods, stumbling into step beside her after a lighting fast moment of adjustment. "I have been acting commander since the discovery of Sir Pellinore's corpse. He should never have gone unguarded; I take full responsibility for not insisting—"
"Yes, yes," she interrupts, pulling him inside the doors, looking for a private room. "No tangents, please; every moment must be used."
Sir Agravain frowns. "As you say, your Majesty. I am acting commander; if you wish to name someone else, I have the commander's seal here ready to return to you—"
"You may continue to act on my authority for the present moment, Sir Agravain. Have there been any developments since your written report was sent? Do we have an estimate on the number of boats that passed without notice?" Procedure is well and good, but she needs information. If he hasn't mucked things up by this point, he can hold things together for a bit longer.
He blinks, moving his thoughts to the new line of conversation as quickly as possible. "Ah — impossible to give a firm estimate. Traces that we found could put the number of boats at anywhere between five or thirty vessels, and we must assume every boat was fully manned. Thirty is almost certainly an overestimate; there was only an hour's time range where they could have slipped through, and that's just after the watch changed. Unfortunately, we only found evidence of their passage as the tide shifted, and already partially erased when the water rose."
"Did no one see or hear anything?" They duck down muddied stone halls, through oak gates; the floor rushes need replacing, she notes absently.
Agravain grimaces. "I suspect they used the typical smuggler's tricks — cloth-wrapped oar paddles, handles, and oarlocks to minimize creaking, masts and sails stowed to minimize sightline, and everything painted to blend into the water. Add the fog that came in for a short while, and they had the perfect cover to sneak inside even in daylight."
"Yes, it came out of nowhere and left just as quickly."
Unusual weather — magic, possibly? "I'll ask Merlin to look into it. No other sign?"
The black-haired knight shakes his head in frustration, leading her around a corner. "No one of my guards has admitted to anything, nor has any local, but I am certain that bribery must have occurred, or someone is keeping their mouth shut about something they witnessed. To make it inside and upriver without noisily bumping a single rock, dock, or piece of debris — it's just not possible, not without local knowledge of the waters. Frankly, I'm just trying to figure out which of the locals they bribed — or kidnapped and killed once they were finished with him, but searching for missing people is damned hard right now."
Arturia clenches her fist under her cloak. "So how did you realize that they were there, if they were so quiet?"
A dark, triumphant grin flits across the knight's face — a moonbeam revealed through a slit in the clouds before hiding again. "Tides don't always behave predictably once you get into a new bit of territory. Somebody lost their oar over the side in the marshes — near the old causeway. One of the men living there found it, brought it here in case 'some damn fool city man' had been reported lost. Given there was no other sign, I suspect that it was only the oar that was lost — they likely disembarked somewhere near where the River Beane joins the Lea, and then marched over to St. Albans and hence to Camelot. But someone got their oar stuck in the marshes and lost it over the side in the process — and the wrapping is not cloth woven on a British loom. I checked with every cloth-seller and cloth-maker I could in the city at short notice to be certain of that. Certainly not with this emblem."
Pulling her into a small side room and locking the door behind them, he strides to a chest, and unlocks it with two keys. Pulling out a sodden cloth, he spreads it on the table.
"Hengist's symbol," Arturia breaths. Not a certain match, but a connection to Vortigern's father-in-law is the first certainty they've had beside rumor and words.
"You have a keener eye than myself, sire. I can barely make out the design pattern at this point." From another chest, Agravain pulls considerably dryer contents, spreading a map on the table, carefully out of reach of the sodden cloth. Black and green lines cover Britain's interior — roads and rivers, Arturia realizes after a moment.
"If they were going by land, up Watling Street, I'd wonder if they were retracing Boudicca's route. All they're missing is a burning Londinium behind them," Agravain muses idly. "I'll admit the river-valley-landing in the village of Hertford is a bit far west for that; they'd have a good twenty miles to walk or ride to the St Albans settlement, and not much in the way of a straight road. But still, it's not hard to guess their destination. If they just wanted fields to burn, they could stick near the coast; they want something else if they're going this far inland. St Albans, or some other abbey, is my best guess."
"Are you sure St. Albans is in their path?" Arturia would very much prefer him to be wrong.
"Well, there's few other settlements around that would require such numbers for raiding, and they can't exactly go much farther upriver without leaving the boats or running out of nearby targets. Besides, Vortigern is known for having good relationships with the fairies and spirits when he can manage it; he's more likely to target the site of a Christian martyr, in my opinion. Especially if his men need bribing with treasures left by pilgrims."
Arturia shakes her head in frustration. Is he blind, or merely inexperienced? "Don't play word games, Sir Agravain. If they reach St. Albans, they won't stop there." Her hand moves west five miles, tracing Akeman Street.
"As you say, there's little else in that area that's of interest or accessible a short walk from the water. If they get that far, why not go for the capital? Camelot is a bare five miles west from St. Albans. Vortigern's already baited me with another location elsewhere, which means he wanted me out of the capital." She steps away from the table. "I'll be taking fresh troops, and going to defend my city."
Agravain stares at her in disbelieving incomprehension. "But, sir, that's just over a good twenty miles from here to St. Albans, and another five to Camelot, even following Watling Street and Akeman Street! It would take you perhaps fourteen hours to travel the same distance, assuming good daylight and roads and under a forced military march or on a single horse – we'd need horses in relay to get your cavalry there in less time, and no way for your infantry men to follow, even if they weren't exhausted!"
She stares at him, waiting for the point of the calculations. Does he really think she hasn't considered such things?
"You've already fought one battle this morning and afternoon, then rode straight here – and now you intend to go again? Your will may be sufficiently stubborn to pull such a trick off, but your bodies will wear out before you manage such. Then, once you get there, you would have to battle? If the invaders take the path you are predicting, they will not only have arrived and had time to raid, they will also have had time to rest. Mortal men are not capable of the impossible, sire."
"That would be why I am taking fresh troops from your men here," King Arthur returns, spine straight.
"I can have the beacons lit, if you want to signal warning in time—"
The king shakes his head. "It is a good plan, and please do it. But we need to reinforce the capital. Now, please, arrange for the soldiers I leave here to be fed and allowed to rest."
Agravain shakes his head. "As you wish, sire, but what of you? I fear, at this point, the capital is likely lost, sire."
"I will not accept that before I have even tried to save my people." Green eyes flash a warning. "Do not question my orders in a wartime crisis, Sir Agravain. Question them in peacetime when we have time sufficient for reasoning to be explained."
Agravain shuts his mouth. A moment of struggle, then he gives a stiff nod. "The king commands, and I obey." He kneels, and brushes his lips over her gauntlet. "I won't pretend to like it."
"That's perfectly acceptable, Sir Agravain. I'm here to save my kingdom. Being liked is a secondary concern. See to it the forces are ready to depart within the hour. And thank you for your fine command in unexpected circumstances; carry on until you hear otherwise."
"And should I hear the worst?"
"If you confirm it with proof rather than rumor that all is lost… save my people. Cities can be rebuilt; but people will not live again once they die." Snatching the sodden cloth of proof under her arm, she turns to the door, barely acknowledging his last acquiescence before she strides off.
He probably doesn't mean her to hear the last words, but her ears have always been keen, and his voice is clear though hushed: "You are as mad as any of your line, Pendragon, but if this madness is the method to match and overturn Vortigern's madness – then I welcome it."
Four shots in succession – one for the throat, one for the eye, one for each foot. No noble phantasms needed; regular arrows from Archer's bow are plenty powerful enough to go through standard doors, let alone skewer Vortigern like a butterfly on a collector's pin.
Or at least that was the plan.
The shots to the feet solidly pierce the leather boots, but feet remain intact and the runner never slows. The shot to the throat rips his tunic and separates links of mail armor around it; but the arrow hangs trapped in the cloth rather than bound in the skin and muscle, and there is no impediment to shoulder movement, for the shot to the eye never makes it – a hand catches it bare inches away from the face, and crushes the shaft into splinters.
…A human with Servant-level reflexes. Wonderful.
Vortigern's still running flat out on top of the walls, absently yanking the ruined chainmail away with his free hand to get at the collar-lodged arrow. Metal links come apart like separated Velcro strips or buttons bursting loose as thread breaks. The arrow shafts stick out of the tops of his boots, but never impede his step.
Even without magical enhancement, the force of Archer's shot combined with the design of the arrowhead means his arrow is capable of penetrating a two-inch-thick oaken door. On a human target, it ought to have penetrated skin and muscle and lodged in bone if it didn't go straight through to the other side. His feet should be pierced to the sole and beyond. But they aren't. Which means something is blocking the arrows.
Please tell me this isn't a case of Achilles or Siegfried with invulnerable skin. I do not have time to search for the vulnerable spot.
The alternative is that Vortigern is just ignoring the problem, but options for that kind of strength and lack of response to damage aren't particularly great. Most of them involve an inability to feel pain, or an inability to register it as meaningful or debilitating. Another, worse possibility is that damage won't stop functionality.
Fortunately, a lot of the problematic options in such categories can be solved with decapitation.
Well, if ordinary arrows won't work, Archer's always preferred close combat as a method of keeping his cards to his chest. He's gotten his target's attention – he might as well take advantage of it.
The main downside are the other witnesses. Anyone in eyesight will be able to get a look at them fighting. But there isn't another option. Hopefully this display will at least silence any accusations of treason and espionage.
Slinging his bow on his back, Archer leaps forward, and draws the sword at his waist, visibly leaving himself open to attack.
When Vortigern throws the spear, he knocks it aside with his sword.
The king hoists the throwing axe, ready to split the bowman's skull one-handed.
Archer gets his blade up, just in time to block the weapon. The impact sings, metal striking metal. His shoulders ache, his arms tremble, his feet skid on the stone as the force pushes him backwards.
This strength… is comparable to a Servant's…
The tendencies of a berserker fighter? It would explain the immunity to pain, plus the displays of strength. But I would have thought this beyond any pure human no matter how enraged.
So far, what Vortigern's pulling off is comparable to a lower-level Berserker. Nothing like Heracles, not even close, but…
Then the metal fractures, and Archer barely manages to shield his eyes from the shrapnel in time, jumping backwards before the ax blow can continue its path towards his skull.
Except, it doesn't come.
The shaft of the axe snaps in two, the blade whirling back over Vortigern's shoulder to embed itself in the stone behind him.
And three shards of Archer's sword, the sword he forged in his shop, pass Vortigern's face, leaving thin red lines on the forehead, the corner of the eye, and the upper lip.
Oh, good. He can be cut. Question is, was that because my hand wasn't on the weapon?
Vortigern pauses, touching the wound; his fingers come away bloody. Golden eyes meet steel grey, and within the gold-madness lies the hypnotic fascination of a swaying cobra drawing nearer.
"Well, now, this is a surprise," the Usurper says after a moment, his voice deep and dark as a played-out mine. "I hadn't known that my little brother's legacy had tried to recruit fairies, or that any fae besides Lady Vivian was allied to him."
What? "I'm not a fairy," he says carefully. Warily.
"Well, you're certainly not human," Vortigern states. "No human could wound me."
Archer very deliberately smirks. "Looks like one just did." No human could wound you? That's… troublesome, in the implications. As much as I'd like to hope it's just arrogance, a vanilla mortal can't blade-catch my arrows.
"No mortal with mortal-made weapon could have made so much as a cut, no matter how determined," Vortigern says. For a moment, the madness almost seems tinged with kindness. "Child, do you not know what you are?"
Emiya Shirou might have engaged in the verbal sparring, or tried the decapitation again. Archer knows better than to risk it with an insane opponent. Instead, he jumps away, swings his bow off his back and lets another shot fly.
Vortigern doesn't bother to dodge it. Instead, he plucks the arrow out of the air.
Archer breaths in, eyes flicking through the dust cloud. Ordinary arrows pack a punch when it's his bow firing them; infusing them with even a small amount of his magical energy to create an explosion is the work of an instant. Particularly when his target insists on catching the arrows or letting them hit rather than trying to dodge.
It's not complete obliteration or certain death; that wasn't a Broken Phantasm, after all. Just an ordinary arrow Reinforced until it reached oversaturation of mana. But the power was enough to significantly damage a Servant at close range. Maybe enough to kill, certainly enough to knock unconscious. A human would need regeneration abilities to get out without a broken skull or neck.
Then a hand reaches out from the darkness, and he can't dodge in time.
Vortigern's cloak is dusted with powdered stone and shards. Splinters cover his hands. His eyes are flat with maddened rage; his mouth curves in a cruel smile.
His fingers grip Archer's collar, and yank him up to dangle in the air, knuckles pressing against the bowman's windpipe.
"This was… amusing, for a moment. But whatever you are… I can deal with it later, once this isle is cleansed. Your interruptions have become as mosquito bites. If you intend to be a gadfly, allow me to treat you accordingly."
Vortigern backhands him, and it's like a monster truck impacting him dead-on – if a monster truck were as tall as a three-story building.
There's nothing under his feet, or hands. No breath in his lungs. Wind's rushing past him.
The last thing he thinks before he makes impact is to try to shift his body to shield his head and internal organs, and to toss his bow to safety so it doesn't get crushed.
Then there's pain, and darkness.
…To be continued in another chapter, coming soon as we can manage!
In 'Easter and Wedding Preparations', Archer noted that Alaya had given him 'mission adjustments' that regressed his physical age, and also required him to eat. We have mentioned in the past to reviewers that the adjustments also affected his stats. Therefore, here are Archer's current stats:
Note that these do not put him at the level of a baseline human, but all stats with the exception of Luck are downgraded from his Servant form in FSN.
We also would like to offer you Vortigern's stats:
EDIT UPDATE: There have been concerns that Vortigern is overpowered. We promise that there is a justification for it, but we were trying to avoid spoilers…
Those of you who are familiar with Garden of Avalon probably remember that Vortigern did not battle Arturia in human form. He drank the blood of a dragon, and transformed into a black dragon, the avatar of the Isle of Britain.
That transformation isn't complete yet - but the blood's had enough of an effect to boost a few things. It's coming with a cost down the line.
In addition, consider Vortigern's goal in his own words: "If this island is to be defiled by human hands one day, then I will bring it back to its original form. I must turn Great Britain into hell. A paradise of darkness forever uninhabitable by man."
If Archer is Alaya's champion, Vortigern is Gaia's - even if he's self appointed to the job. That has consequences.
ADDITIONAL EDIT: Thanks for reviewers catching typos!
Forgot to mention something about longbows and their arrows. Even in the hands of a normal human, they pack a punch. Ewart Oakeshott's book "A Knight In Battle" recounts two instances of their power, as described by 12th century writer Gerald of Wales:
"[I]n the war against the Welsh, one of the [English]men of arms was struck by an arrow shot at him by a Welshman. It went right through his thigh, high up, where it was protected inside and outside the leg by his iron chausses, and then through the skirt of his leather tunic; next it penetrated that part of the saddle which is called the alva or seat; and finally it lodged in his horse, driving so deep that it killed the animal."
At nearby Abergavenny Castle, Gerald saw an oak door made of two-inch-thick planks. Four arrows had been shot into it, and the arrowheads were "standing an inch or more clear of the wood inside the door".
That's how powerful those arrows are, even without Archer doing the shooting or packing any mana into them.
Why not pull out UBW just yet? Remember, defeating Vortigern isn't the only goal; Archer wants to keep his cover intact and prefers not to reveal all his skills when this isn't the only enemy in the years to come. He'll be a lot more ready to use his full powers if he doesn't have to deal with witnesses afterwards. He hoped he could take out Vortigern without getting noticed too much; that backfired, so he'll have to up the game now. Convenient that Vortigern gave him a clue about his weakness, isn't it?