Genre: This is an Alternate Universe piece, set after the movie, in which Lancelot and Tristan did not actually die. Tristan because he's just that cool, and Lancelot because, well, you can't kill Lancelot before the real story of King Arthur and Camelot even starts.
Pairing: Lancelot/Guinevere, Arthur/Guinevere implied – you know, the triangle that was only subtext in the movie.
Disclaimer: I own none of the characters, but then, I don't really feel that Touchstone owns them either. People have been writing about Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere for centuries. Still, as these are the characters from the movie, these incarnations probably do belong to Disney. :)
Acknowledgements: I had three betas for this piece, sorchafeanor, myth, and cdnaliasfan. They caught things I missed on eighth, ninth, and tenth readings. The fic would not be what it is without their invaluable help.
It was Merlin who noticed first. He would, of course. He'd known her longer, better, and of them all, trusted her the least.
Not to say that he didn't trust her. But the shaman had a disturbing habit of perceiving the oddest, most significant eventualities, even if you yourself did not suspect them. He'd known before Guinevere that Arthur would prove the salvation of the woad people. He'd known, too, that she was destined to be Queen to Arthur's King.
So it did not surprise her that he knew her greatest fear, almost before she recognized it herself.
She spent a great deal of time riding, in those days. Escaping, really. Not the confines of the keep, for surprisingly, it wasn't the great stone walls that had her feeling trapped, nor her duties as Arthur's Queen. She was, after all, nobly born among her own people. She took to the role well.
No, she rode out into the familiar woods of her birth land because she knew that there, at least, she could hide with ease. From Arthur. From his knights. From the fear that grew worse with each passing day. But she had not counted upon Merlin. The hills and woods of Britain were as much his home as hers, and it troubled him not at all to find her in them, no matter how far afield she rode.
He came upon her as she hunted one afternoon, her horse left some yards back in favor of tracking her quarry on foot, bow in hand. She was dressed for it, garbed in the traditional leathers and paint of her people. She crept through the trees noiselessly, but Merlin was not a magician for nothing.
"You will, you know," he said loudly, from just behind her.
Her bow string snapped as she whirled, hunting knife in hand before her mind registered the familiarity of the voice. Her eyes fixed upon his scraggily face, and she grimaced, cursing him in their native tongue as she slammed the knife back into its sheath.
Unmoved, Merlin calmly watched as she threw aside the worthless string and swore at him even more viciously. She'd left most of her gear, including replacement string, back with her horse, a healthy walk from the track of the deer she'd been hunting.
She moved to shove past him, completely unwilling to entertain conversation here and now, but Merlin was not to be gainsayed.
"Guinevere," he said simply, and laid a hand upon her shoulder. She hesitated, then stopped. She bent her head, eyes on the ground rather than him, and Merlin sighed, his mouth thin with disapproval. "You cannot hide forever; it does not become you, in any case."
"I am not hiding," she said at once, her head snapping up defensively.
"No?" He folded his arms, cocked one bushy brow. "Then what do you here? Hunting? You've been hunting every day for the past fortnight."
Her jaw set stubbornly, and she looked him in the eye. "I like hunting."
"Yes," he agreed, "and it provides you a convenient excuse to be absent from the castle. Often. Often enough that Arthur is beginning to notice, and wonder."
She stiffened, then saw in Merlin's eyes that she'd reacted exactly as expected. As usual, he'd out-maneuvered her.
"Very well," she said ungraciously, "oh King of Manipulators. What do you believe I'm hiding from?"
"Yourself," he answered promptly. "You have, in your way, come to love your Roman King --"
"Half Roman," she snapped impatiently. "He is half Briton as well."
Merlin smiled slyly. "You leap to his defense too quickly. Perhaps out of guilt?"
"I have nothing to be guilty of." She looked away as she spoke, and thus missed the saddening of Merlin's features. He mocked her no longer, but spoke with an utter seriousness that chilled her blood.
"Not yet, perhaps. But you will. What you fear will come to pass."
She fell away from him, staggering back as if from a blow. Her heart beat a furious rhythm in her breast, and she fisted her hands.
"I will not!" she whispered fiercely. But there was desperation beneath the fury. Merlin merely shook his head.
"You have no choice, my Queen," he said, as he turned and walked into the trees. "Just as Arthur had no choice against the Saxons."
She made an abortive move forward, hand outstretched to stop him, but in the next moment Merlin was gone. The trees stood silent and alone, with only the wind to rustle their leaves. Heart still in her throat, Guinevere searched among them almost frantically.
And heard his voice, carried by the wind back to her.
"You will betray him."
Those words haunted her all the way back to the keep. They frightened her, but she would admit no truth to them. Magician he might be, but Merlin was still a man like any other, and Guinevere had reason to know the fallibility of man. Shaman or no, prophet or no, Merlin was wrong. She believed in Arthur. She followed him as much as any of his people. She loved him.
She would never betray him.
She did not slow her horse as she rode through the monstrous gates of Hadrian's Wall, but rode at a reckless speed into the stable itself, frightening the wits out of two stable lads and startling the horses they fed. They both muttered curses at her under their breath, stooping together to recover the spilled grain.
"Careful," said a laconic voice from the stable entrance, "what you say of our Queen."
The boys cringed away from the knight who strode past them, and trembled together in sudden fear. Thankfully, he spared them not a glance, his dark eyes fixed on the diminutive figure of the Queen as she dismounted. Fervently relieved at their luck, the boys scurried from the stables – and therefore out of Lancelot's direct line of sight – as quickly as possible.
Of all the Sarmatians, Lancelot was the most dangerous. Though not as large as Bors or Gawain, his leanly corded frame was surprisingly strong, and wielded a blade – any blade – with deadly skill. And while Galahad was the most hot headed of the knights, Lancelot's mercurial temper was unpredictable, at best.
Of late, it had been for the worse.
Dusk was beginning to fall, casting long shadows into Arthur's magnificent stables. It was one of the largest buildings inside the keep, the stalls and support beams fashioned of darkly rich mahogany. Lanterns hung from hooks on wooden pillars down the center aisle, but none had yet been lit.
That was perhaps why Guinevere didn't notice him immediately.
He leaned against the door of an empty stall and simply watched her. She had an interesting way of moving, uniquely her own. Graceful, yes, but not like any other woman. Her gate was smooth, gliding, but predatory. Lancelot likened it to a fox he'd once seen, ghosting through the wood. Swift, sleek, even elegant. But also deadly. Yes, Guinevere moved like that.
As he watched, she cared for her mount. She'd ridden it hard from the looks of its sweat dampened coat. Deft fingers unbuckled tack, and then the whip-thin muscles of her arms tightened as she hefted the weight of the saddle free. She turned with it in her arms to swing it over a railing. Instead, she saw him and stumbled, her eyes going wide with alarm. He had to stay the urge to step forward and steady her, remove the heavy tack from her hands. She wouldn't thank him for it, he knew. And so he stilled the chivalrous nature that had so often been beaten into him in his youth.
"Lancelot." She seemed to stutter over his name as she set the saddle down.
"Surprised, Lady?" he asked, keeping his tone deceptively mild. "Yes, I find I, too, am surprised to find you here at this late hour. I believe Arthur expected you back some time ago."
She turned away, taking a brush to her horse.
"Yes, I…lost track of the hour as I hunted. My quarry led me farther afield than I knew."
"Did it." It wasn't a question, and Lancelot made no attempt to hide his mocking tone of voice. "This must, then, have been the same quarry you tracked yesterday, and the day before that, and on back a full seven-day from this." He pushed away from the wall and strode around to the other side of her horse, picking up a brush as he went. "I find your sudden devotion to hunting suspect, Lady, as I'm sure Arthur must."
She'd been watching him warily from the corner of her eye, but her head jerked up at that statement, her eyes glittering with anger. A jolt went through her as she met his gaze, her heartbeat suddenly erratic. His eyes were shadowed, but even in the waning light she could see they were hard with suspicion.
"Arthur does not begrudge me the time I spend outside these walls, Lancelot. He knows I am no songbird to be kept in a gilded cage. I have always loved to hunt, and that has not changed since becoming Queen."
"And yet," he said, gesturing widely, "you return empty handed. This night and always."
Scowling, Guinevere threw aside her brush. "I have been unlucky," she snapped, and used the activity of stalling her horse and bedding the animal down for the night to prevent any further conversation. If she harbored hopes that Lancelot would give up the topic and leave in the interim, she was doomed to disappointment. He was waiting, practically looming, as she exited the stall.
"Is that what you tell him?" he asked with a sneer, "that you're unlucky?"
Trembling with anger, unused to holding her tongue, Guinevere longed to lash back. Yet her conversation with Merlin still rang fresh in her mind. Leashing her indignation, she tried to ignore the knight's accusations and push past him. But Lancelot would not be pushed aside easily. His fingers snaked around her arm, tightening into a painful grip.
"Arthur is not a stupid man, Guinevere. He remembers, as I do, how easily your arrows find their mark. A man is somewhat more difficult to kill than a deer, yet we've seen you kill many men, and to date, no deer."
Touching her had been a mistake. Her control snapped, Merlin's dire words pushed completely aside by a tide of rage.
"How dare you!" She leaned in, no longer trying to get free. Instead, she met his gaze steadily, her hunting knife in her free hand. "If you were any other knight, Lancelot, you would lose the hand you touch me with."
She wasn't aware he'd moved until pressure on her wrist had her fingers going numb. The blade fell to the ground, and he smiled coldly.
"You forget, Lady, it was I who saved your life on Badon Hill. Do not play at blades with me. Not you, nor Arthur, nor any other knight here will win." He paused, frowned. "Perhaps Tristan, on a particularly good day, but I doubt it."
He spoke simply and coolly, not with arrogance, but merely stating a fact. And he kept hold of both her arm and her wrist.
"So what do you think I've been doing with my time, Lancelot, if not hunting?" she asked, given no choice. If anything, she was angrier than before. Surely that was the reason for the rapid, staccato beat of her heart beneath her breast, for the blood she could feel pounding in her head. There was a scent to him, something of leather and wood and some unknown spice that distracted her. It had been distracting her, every time she was within an easy enough distance to catch a hint of it, for some weeks now.
"You tell me, Lady," he answered, not giving an inch. "Meeting your woad lover, perhaps."
Shock struck her mute, set her thoughts reeling. He thinks I have a lover, that I cuckold the King! She couldn't believe it. Of all men to believe that of her, of everything he might have imagined…
Surely Arthur's God, if he existed at all, had a fine sense of humor.
Surprising both herself and Lancelot, Guinevere laughed. There was an edge to it that might have been anger, might have been bitterness. When she was done, she leaned close. So close that her breath warmed his skin, so close the scents of pine and rainfall enveloped him. She always smelled like that, so different from perfumed ladies, or even the serving lasses who drenched their bathwater with rose oil.
"I am not betraying Arthur, Lancelot," she said, her voice soft like silk over steel, "and if I were, by some chance of Fate, I guarantee you it wouldn't be with a woad."
Her voice, her scent, her half nude body suddenly too close to his – the combination proved too potent for Lancelot, and he released her as suddenly as if she'd burned him.
Guinevere rubbed feeling back into her hand, smiling with a certain feminine satisfaction. Yes, if there was one thing she knew, it was the fallibility of man. As with most men, she could manipulate Arthur's favorite Sarmatian knight. Not as easily as some, but it could be done.
He hesitated a moment, then took a step toward her. She tensed, prepared for him to grab her again, but he made no move to touch her.
"I hope you speak the truth, Guinevere, for Arthur's sake if not your own. He is not a man to be made light of." He strode past her and out into the night, and Guinevere let loose the breath she'd been holding.
Yes, she could manipulate him. Even as suspicious of her as he seemed. Yet it wasn't his suspicions that made her uneasy. What unsettled her was the ease with which he affected her.
She could admit to herself, now, what she could not to Merlin only hours before. Lancelot was her greatest fear, the only thing which could chase her so often from Arthur's side. Oh, she'd been drawn to him from the beginning, the knight with the dark, watchful eyes. But she'd ignored that pull, as he had, in favor of Arthur. He, for the feelings of his friend; she, for the good of her people. They had both of them made their choice.
But she dreamt of him as she slept beside Arthur. Still. Now. Of his deadly blades, saving her on the battlefield; of his dark eyes watching her; of his body, lean and hard beneath her hands in forbidden passion.
And too often she woke, breathless, wondering if he dreamt of her in return.
She watched where he'd disappeared into the night, imagining she could still see his black garbed figure striding away.
"I will not betray Arthur," she whispered, though only she could hear. "I am stronger than any man, Merlin. Fate will not rule me."
Out beyond the wall, watching with eyes that no stone could shield against, Merlin shook his head.
"Foolish girl," he said, not without pity. "It already has."
Guinevere stuck close to Arthur's side after that. If Lancelot had suspicions, others might as well, and that would not do. So she accompanied him nearly everywhere. In the Great Hall, when he heard petitions from their people. In the chapel, where he bowed his head and prayed to his God, while she sat quietly, waiting. Rome might have shaken his faith, but it had not broken it.
She even went with him to the training yard, where he trained on sword and lance beside his knights. That alone of all her actions might have been in error. She watched them all, admired their skill, shared their laughter over mistakes, but to one knight her eyes were drawn again and again. Always, she felt his eyes on her as she walked in and took her seat on the wooden bench. She did not have to look, to know he watched, for she could feel the weight of Lancelot's gaze like the burning of the sun on her skin.
Once, he even spoke to her. After a fashion.
He sparred with Arthur that afternoon. Guinevere did not take her eyes from the two men as they moved, circling the practice grounds in a familiar dance of steps. She could see that this was not an unusual activity for them. Feint, cut, strike, block – the moves seemed almost rehearsed, the men tirelessly performing them as they must have done countless times before.
Even the other knights stopped what they were doing to watch. And squires still in the first stages of training stood spellbound.
The sun flashed off steel, for both men eschewed the wisdom of wooden practice blades. Lancelot's two swords moved with alarming speed, darting inside the King's guard only to be swept aside by Arthur's more powerful blade, or evaded by virtue of a single step. Guinevere found herself leaning forward, her hands tightening on the bench beneath her as her whole being fixed upon the dance of blades. She saw the moment the battle ended. Arthur slipped around Lancelot's thrust, his sword coming to rest on his friend's inner thigh, where a single cut would bleed a man to death in seconds. But the knight need not admit defeat, for his second blade lay beside the King's neck, where the slightest movement from either man would part skin.
"Perhaps," said Lancelot lightly, without looking away from Arthur, "Queen Guinevere wishes to share her skills in the ring."
It was only then that she realized she was standing; that, indeed, she had already taken two steps toward them. She stopped. Lancelot removed his sword from the King's neck, and Arthur turned and looked at her. She saw him frown, his blue eyes troubled.
"I had not thought…it is not the custom of Roman women to fight, and I --" here Arthur paused, walking toward her. "I assumed you would train with the woads, for their ways in battle are not ours."
He gestured here to his knights, all of them watching, listening. Lancelot was wiping sweat from his brow with a towel, but still Guinevere saw the smile that twisted his lips. For some reason, it angered her. She could find no wrongdoing in his words, yet it irked her unreasonably that he had brought this conversation to being. She looked at Arthur, made herself smile.
"Do not concern yourself, my Lord. I do practice with the woads, and here on your archery range when the mood takes me. If I wished to raise blades with your knights, I would ask." Deliberately, she lifted a hand, smoothed back a strand of Arthur's sweat soaked hair. "I enjoy watching you, my Lord," she said softly, and he smiled, for all the world as if they were alone, in their bedchamber.
She did not need to look to know that Lancelot's smile was gone. She reclaimed her seat, carefully not glancing at him. The rest of the afternoon passed without incident, though she felt his eyes upon her more than once. By the end of the session, she was unsettled, and far too keenly sensitive to Lancelot's presence.
The next day, she found something else to do when Arthur went to the practice yard, though he said later that more than one knight lamented her absence.
She did not ask him who.
The weeks became peppered with similar incidents. Encounters with Lancelot never went quite smoothly. Always, he goaded her somehow, always with that wry smile twisting his lips, a sardonic look to his angular face. It was never something anyone else would notice. Arthur did not see his friend acting any differently than he always did, making his small jokes at the expense of others. And since Guinevere fired back with sweetly worded barbs of her own, it never seemed a matter of concern. For Arthur. He even laughed, clapping his best friend on the shoulder as knights were wont to do.
"You are no match for my lady, Lancelot," he would say with a wink, "best not to even try."
In truth, Lancelot had had his fun over them all for so long, that Arthur and the others were rather pleased to see him taken down a peg or two. Bors laughed uproariously, and Gawain sent her winks on the sly, quietly shaking with laughter.
For herself, Guinevere was becoming desperately concerned. She avoided Lancelot at all costs. She stuck close to Arthur's side so long as he was not with his knights, and sought her own escape whenever he was. She never ventured onto the practice field anymore, but would seek the solitude of the woods, or even the archery range. At mealtimes, when she could not avoid him – for he sat at Arthur's left hand as she sat at his right – she took pains not to look at or converse with him whenever possible. Not a difficult task in the crowded and often raucous hall. The knights tended to drink with their dinner, and drink made them merry.
It wasn't the best solution, she knew, but it seemed to be working.
Or she thought it was, until she saw Merlin again. The shaman was one of Arthur's advisors, especially helpful when the new King dealt with his people in those first months, and so he was always in the Great Hall during petitions. It was after one such session that he caught her in the corridor after. For once the disreputable old man looked well groomed, his hair and beard glossy and brushed smooth. He wore robes of office instead of the rags she'd come to know him by, and walked with his gnarled wooden staff in one hand.
She'd tried to dart out swiftly enough to avoid him, having felt his attention on her during the petitions more than once. But Merlin was not easily diverted, and he caught up with her quickly enough.
"Do you really think you are successful?" he asked adroitly as he came astride of her. For an old man, he moved surprisingly fast. She shot him a look, and kept walking.
"Successful at what? Being Arthur's wife? Queen to my people? Yes." She deliberately chose to misunderstand him, and Merlin shot her a quelling look from beneath his brows.
"Foolish girl, you only make things worse for yourself. The Fates will not be gainsayed, and the more you try the more capricious they become."
She stopped suddenly, rounding on him with a furious whisper, thankful that they were alone in the hallway. "What would you have me do, old man? Cuckold Arthur? The man I love? King of our people?"
If she'd expected her frank words to deter him, she was wrong.
"You speak," he said mildly, "as if you have a choice. As if Fate is a whimsical mistress, and the things she asks of you are of no import. As if you, mortal woman that you are, know better." He shook his head. "And this love you speak of, Guinevere -- I have no doubt you do love Arthur, but then, how many of our people do not?"
Pale now, and frightened, she turned away and walked faster.
"Has he given you a child?"
The simple question froze her, stopped her in mid-stride. Merlin walked leisurely forward.
"I know, of course, that he has not," he said quietly. "And that he will not. Now or ever. I am not the only magician in this world, and his seed was stolen from him long before he met you."
"But he has – surely there have been others --" She fumbled the words, could barely speak past the fear that had turned her heart into a great block of ice.
"Indeed there have been, and he has even fathered a child upon one, vile witch that she is. Afterwards, she ensured that he would father no other children, though Arthur knows none of this. If he does not have a child, Guinevere, by you, this son of his will one day destroy him."
Desperate, she grasped what thin straw of hope he offered. "But, if sorcery made him sterile, surely you could --"
Merlin shook his head. "There is nothing that can reverse Morgaine's work that night." Gently, he reached out a hand, touched her hair in a gesture of comfort.
"Fate does not drive you for Arthur, Guinevere," he scolded, "just as it does not drive him for you. What you have done, what he has done, everything that you are, has been for Britain. Arthur will be a legendary King. People will remember him, will speak of him, tell tales of his deeds, for more centuries than any King before or since. And as they remember him, they will remember you. And Lancelot."
Breathing fast, she took two stumbling steps away from him.
"I don't want to hear this," she said. "I don't want to know this!"
"You already know it. You've known it since the pair of them pulled you from that pit in the earth. You've known it since the first moment you saw them, these two men who would be your life forevermore." He took a step closer. "Be grateful, Guinevere, that Fate has given you the precious gift of love to ease your pain. It will make what must be done easier, for both of you."
He was not, she knew, speaking of her and Arthur.
"I cannot hear this," she breathed, and fled from him, silk skirts rustling on stone as she flew down the corridor and away. This time, Merlin did not attempt to follow.
"You are leaving?" Guinevere heard the shock in her own voice.
Arthur glanced up at the tone, dismissed the squire packing his things with a flick of his fingers. The boy bowed quickly and left, pulling the door shut behind him.
"Well of course I would have to, eventually," he said after a moment, smiling to take the sting from his words. "I've delayed as long as I have to avoid being parted from you, but Merlin grows insistent, and I know he is right." He approached her, rubbed his hands down her arms.
"I can go with you," she blurted, knowing even as she did that it could not be.
"The trouble with being monarchs," Arthur said quietly, "is that one of us must always be in Camelot. I must go and ride the lands of our people, meet with town elders and military leaders alike, and you must stay here and govern our lands. We cannot both go, and we cannot both stay." He bent his head and kissed her brow. "I wish I could take you with me."
This could not be happening! She couldn't allow it to happen.
"If one of us must go, then let it be me," she begged. "I am of the people, they know me, I can --"
"That is precisely why you cannot go, Guinevere. The people need to know me. Yes, they've all heard of me, they all know the legend of the man who drove off the Saxons. But they do not know me."
She was sure he was quoting Merlin's words, just as she was equally sure that everything he said was true. Slowly, she sank down to sit upon the bed she and Arthur shared. Despair filled her. Arthur gone was a dangerous temptation, one she was not at all sure she was strong enough to resist. Unless…
"Your knights go with you?" she asked quickly.
His back was to her as he finished the packing job his squire had begun.
"Yes," he said.
Relief rushed through her, a painfully sharp thing in her breast. She was grateful to be sitting, for her suddenly weak legs might not have held her.
"Save Bors and Lancelot," he continued, and her heart seized. "Vanora is expecting any day, and I will not take Bors from her now, when he has missed the births of all his other children." He turned toward her, and she could summon not even a weak smile for him. She knew her face was pale, her mouth grim. "I am leaving Lancelot to aid you, for I trust no one as I trust him." He crossed to her, ran fingers through her hair, and Guinevere closed her eyes. "He will guide you when I cannot."
She wanted to laugh, but instead felt the absurd urge to cry. She had to try twice before she found her voice. "Did Merlin council you thus?" she asked.
"Merlin?" He seemed truly surprised. "No. This was my wish, my decision. I've already spoken with Lancelot, and though he is not happy to be left behind, he's agreed to aid you in any way possible. He did not protest quite so loudly as Bors, but they are both now resigned to staying here."
"Are they?' she said bitterly, opening her eyes. "I wish I could resign myself so easily."
Arthur sat beside her, pulling her into an embrace. He held her tight against him, and she clung, wishing with everything that she was that this would not happen, that he would not leave.
But he smiled, kissed her sweetly, and said, "You'll be fine, my love. I have every faith in you, and Lancelot. You'll probably do a better job running things than I."
And leave he did. She could feel the jaws of Fate closing around her. She watched him ride out from the window of their chamber. Lancelot and Bors stood together in the courtyard, watching the other knights go. Merlin, from his place beside Arthur, glanced up at her once, and she cursed the old man.
She knew that dark eyes watched her as the gates swung closed, their gaze burning against her skin, but she would not look down at Lancelot. She knew if she did, he would somehow see the tears that fell from her eyes.
Even feeling it as she did so deeply -- the inevitable march to her doom -- Guinevere could not give in so easily. She did her duties in Arthur's absence. And she avoided Lancelot absolutely. She began taking long rides again, just to get free of the castle, and any chance she might have of running into him.
It was cowardly, and not becoming of her, as Merlin would say. But she did it nonetheless. She should have known it would be the fool's path to take.
On the fifth night of Arthur's absence, she rode into the stables well after dark. The lanterns were already lit, and the stable boys long gone to bed. Only the soft wickering of horses greeted her as she rode in and dismounted. Ever alert for him, she'd searched the shadows for any sign of Lancelot on her way in, and was characteristically relieved not to find him. She made quick work of untacking her horse and bedding him down with fresh straw for the night.
She was beginning to feel just the smallest hope that she might succeed, after all. Almost a week had passed. Arthur would only be gone for another two beyond that. Surely, she could avoid one knight in all that time.
"Again you ride in late." His voice from the shadows of the stable entry startled her, dashed her hopes to shattered pieces, and sent a tremor through her gut. "You are making a habit of that, my Queen."
He strode into the light with that deceptive laziness he affected so well, dark curls glinting around his face. He wore his usual black leather, the color striking on him. He did not look at her, for which she was grateful. She knew her fear showed plainly on her face.
She sought refuge in indignation and anger.
"Yes, Lancelot, that is correct. I am Queen, and if I choose to ride out late, I may do so without censure from you, or anyone."
She walked quickly past him, stepping out of casual reach in case he decided to grab for her. He did not, but her pulse thrummed in her ears the entire time, her adrenaline already high. Part of her, buried deep, felt keenly disappointed when he made no attempt to halt her leaving. She was almost to the door when he spoke again.
"I owe you an apology, I believe."
She stopped, struck. She had never known Lancelot to apologize before, for anything. Indeed, he never admitted any wrongdoing to apologize for. She turned, truly curious, and took two small steps back into the stables. His gaze flicked up to search her face for a moment, and then away again.
"Yes, I…believe I do. I was wrong, some weeks past, when I accused you of…certain things, here in this very stable."
Despite herself, she found his words drew her forward. Incredulity had completely eclipsed her fear of Merlin's portents.
"You…admit you were wrong?" she asked cautiously. He looked up, firelight glinting gold in the depths of his black eyes, and did not flinch from her gaze.
"I do," he said. "I have watched you, these past weeks, with Arthur." Yes, she knew he had. Her skin burned with the memory, a phantom made fresh by the weight of his eyes upon her now. "I can only conclude that you do, in fact, love him. I cannot see you ever betraying him in so coarse a fashion."
For a moment, she couldn't speak, her voice frozen by such an admission, from him of all men! And then she laughed. A short burst of laughter that ended precariously in a sob, quickly muffled by her hand. His eyes widened, his expression startled, and then at once concerned. Guinevere could not seem to decide between giggles and tears, and so she swallowed both.
"Can you not?" she asked him, her eyes gleaming wetly in the light. "You, of all men, can never see me doing such a thing? How very ironic."
Clearly confused and unnerved, Lancelot crossed the space between them.
"I promised Arthur I would aid you in his absence," he said earnestly, "and thus far I have done a poor job of it. But I am determined to make it up to him, and you. Only tell me what the reason is for this response, and I will fix it." His voice rose passionately with each word. "Is it me? Have I offended you so horribly? Are others talking now, accusing you of unfaithfulness? Only name them, and I will see they never speak again."
Wordlessly, she shook her head. His scent surrounded her, all leather and spice, and when she looked at him, his angular face filled with such conviction, such devotion to Arthur, to her, she could not but feel a wave of desire for this man, this knight. Her tears spilled over, and she was helpless to stop them, just as she was helpless to stop her legs from turning to water beneath her. She sank to the stable floor, calling for the first time upon her husband's God.
"Ah, God, if you are indeed merciful, then spare me from this fate. Please!"
With an oath, Lancelot caught her, helped her to sit beside the lit brazier. "Guinevere," he said quietly, searching her tear streaked face, "please stop. Truly, I cannot stand to see you cry. Only tell me, what have I done to offend you so?"
She shook her head, wiped ineffectually at her face. "Nothing. You have done nothing, Lancelot." She looked at him, then, and let all her barriers fall. This close, he could not help but see the truth in her eyes. She reached out, touched his face with her hand, and felt his sudden intake of breath. Yes, he knew. He, too, had felt that jolt of power pass between them.
"Do you understand yet, Lancelot?" she asked him softly. "Do you know what horrid twist Fate has handed us? We two, Arthur's wife and brother, his most trusted of friends."
With an oath he was up and away from her, across the stables with his hand covering his cheek where hers had been but a moment ago. His lean body vibrated with tension, and when he spoke his voice was hoarse. He would not look at her.
"What do you here, Guinevere?" he asked. "Why do you mock me thus?"
She rose, her hands clenched together before her, lest she give in to the urge to reach out and touch him. To run her fingers through the hair that curled at the back of his neck. To offer comfort.
"I do not mock you, Lancelot. You know I speak the truth."
He swung around, all the need, everything he'd felt since first he'd rescued her that long ago winter day ravaging his features.
"What madness is this?" he demanded. "You know my feelings for you. Have known, since that night last winter when I watched you from afar. And if not then, since Badon Hill. And yet you choose now, when you have been Arthur's wife for half a year and more to tell me this? When he is away, you tell me you love me, that you cannot bear to be without me." He arched a brow. "Is that not what you are telling me, my Queen?"
He used her title deliberately, a sharp reminder of all that must keep them apart. She flinched as though he'd slapped her, but her eyes never wavered from his. She lifted her chin.
"Yes," she said evenly. "That is precisely what I tell you. And more, that you cannot bear to be without me." She laughed, short and bitter. "We have not been left with the will to choose, Lancelot, or have you not realized that yet? God knows I have tried, these past weeks. To no avail." Her voice softened with sadness. "I love Arthur. I would never do anything to hurt him, if I had the power to prevent it."
Bravely now, she crossed the space between them, trying to ignore the sudden trembling throughout her body. He could have moved away, could have left her there and stalked off into the night in disgust. He did not. When she reached him, she cupped his face in both her hands, threaded her fingers through his hair. Touched him, as she had so often before in her dreams. She saw his eyes darken, his breathing already ragged.
"I do not have that power, Lancelot," she whispered. "Do you?"
It was more sound than word, an anguished murmur that had her swaying in relief, in terror, in guilt. In the next moment, he kissed her, and all else was forgotten.
It was not like kissing Arthur, but then she'd known it wouldn't be. Arthur was always gentle, always chivalrous, as if the memory of the half-alive girl with the broken hand lived forever within him whenever he was with her. Lancelot was not gentle. Not brutal, either, but rough enough to match her mood, to fill the empty space within her. He held her face with both hands and plundered her mouth, his teeth scraping, his tongue entangling hers with strong, erotic strokes that flamed the need coiled inside her. It warmed her, that need, until she was burning up with it, her skin flushed and hot to the touch.
Her hands grasped his shoulders, pulling him closer, as close as his leathers would allow. His fingers threaded through her hair, pulled it free of the pins courtly ladies used, until it spilled over her shoulders and down her back in a cascade of midnight. He pulled away and she gave a cry of protest. He silenced her with a finger against her lips, his eyes roaming over her.
"Let me look at you," he said softly. "I've wanted to see you like this so often." He lifted her hair, let it fall through his fingers. "Just like this."
She laughed, amused, and arched a brow at him. "Well, I for one, have never dreamed of seeing you just like this," she said teasingly.
Lancelot was not easily offended, nor his pride easily dented. "Have you not?" he asked with a roguish grin. "Perhaps I should kiss you again, to remind your faulty memory of just how much you've wished for me."
"Oh, I've wished for you, there is no doubt. But never with you wearing quite so many clothes." She touched his belt as she spoke, gestured to the light armor he always walked about in.
He laughed, pleased that she would joke with him so easily. He moved to discard his belt, until the night breeze carried the soft murmur of distant voices to them, and a sudden shadow passed over his face. He glanced quickly at the wide open door.
"We cannot do this here, Guinevere," he said, taking her hands in his. "Come with me."
He grabbed a cloak from where it hung on the wall and flung it about her shoulders; anyone catching a glimpse of her would recognize the signs of a passionate assignation with little trouble at all. Her lips were swollen, her hair disheveled, her eyes brilliant. He almost gave in and kissed her again, right there, but a small seed of wisdom yet remained his. He took her quickly across the keep grounds, entering the castle via an entrance only Arthur and the knights knew about. It led to a secret passageway that could be used to either enter or exit the chamber of the Round Table. They would pass no inquisitive servants on the way, and with all of the other knights gone – or in Bors case, well occupied – it was the safest place he could think of.
When they came through the door, Guinevere stopped, looking around with unconcealed interest as Lancelot sealed the tunnel closed and twitched the heavy tapestry back in place to hide the entrance. She had been in this room before, but not often.
She turned to Lancelot. "Here?"
"Here," he answered, and pulled her back into his arms, into another hungry kiss. Her cloak fell forgotten to the floor.
He'd drunk mead earlier in the evening; she could taste it on him as her fingers fumbled to help his with his belt and the many, too many fastenings that tied his leathers in place. By comparison, her gown was a simple matter. Lancelot demonstrated as much when he grew impatient with the many little buttons down the back, and solved the issue by ripping them from the dress in one swift motion. She would have laughed, but his hands slid up the naked flesh of her back, then, and she shuddered. Her head fell back as he nipped lightly at her throat, teeth and tongue playing havoc with her senses until her head spun drunkenly.
The world tilted crazily, she felt the floor come up hard beneath her. Or was that the table, with her cloak thrown across it? She reached for him, for balance, and her hands encountered bare skin for the first time. His shirt was finally off, she realized, and all that muscled flesh hers to lay claim to. At last. Her fingers curled around his arms, slid up to his shoulders, trailed down the hard planes of his chest, over so many bumped and dimpled scars she couldn't count them all. She stopped at the newest one, marring the otherwise smooth flesh just to the right of his heart, and her eyes dimmed, just a little as she looked at him.
"Ssh," he said, already guessing her thoughts. "Do not think of it. I survived that day, and so did you. That is all that matters."
"I never thanked you," she said, troubled despite his words. "Not properly. For saving my life."
He stroked fingers down her throat, slowly pushing down the front of her dress as he trailed them over her skin.
"You couldn't possibly," he said. "It would be akin to thanking me for breathing. I breath that I should live; I saved your life that day for much the same reason." As he spoke, her gown slid down her legs to the floor, exposing her body to the cool air. "You have no need to thank me, Guinevere."
He watched her face intently as he stroked fingers across her breasts, thumbs over her nipples. The effect was instant, electric. Her back arched, her eyes closed, she bit her lip between her teeth. She never saw him dip his head, but suddenly his mouth was on her, replacing one of his thumbs with wet heat and a stroking tongue. She whimpered, cried out, her hands tightening on his shoulders to pull him closer, to wrap her legs around him. She did not like encountering the barrier of his breeches, and a sound of distress escaped her as she flailed her fingers to tug ineffectually at them.
But Lancelot would not be distracted. He caught her hands, pulled them away from him, held her still as he kissed his way down her body. His touch burned into her flesh, invisibly branding her as his for all time. She wanted to do the same to him, wanted and couldn't, because he held her so tightly. Guinevere was strong, stronger than most women from all her years pulling a bow. But she went weak the instant he touched her. A fact she suspected he knew. She opened her mouth to berate him for being unfair, and he kissed her inner thigh, his breath warming her skin.
His name sighed from her mouth, not exactly the blistering diatribe she'd meant it to be. He kissed the other thigh, just a light touch of lips, and still it made her weak. She tried again, this time avoiding his name.
"Damn it, I want --"
His tongue probed her slit, stroked, lathed, and the words fell away, forgotten. He was a skillful lover, using his tongue to illicit the most brazen responses from her. In the end, he let her hands free so that he could put his to better use, but she could no longer remember what to do with hers. She gasped and arched as he thrust first one finger inside of her, then two. A whimper worked its way free of her lips, and her hands fisted in the folds of the cloak beneath her. His tongue found her clit then, teasing it lightly as his fingers stroked in and out, a steady rhythm that was neither fast nor hard enough to grant her release.
"Please," she gasped, hardly even aware of what she did. In situations such as this, Guinevere was not used to being the one reduced to begging.
A third finger joined the first two, the rhythm suddenly harder, rougher. It was enough to take her over the edge, and she cried out, back arching off the table. When she came to herself, head still spinning, it was to the sight of him leaning above her, grinning smugly. She tried to catch her breath and berate him at the same time.
"I…you…I'll have you begging in your turn, Lancelot du Lac!"
His hands were on her hips, and without warning he thrust into her. A gasp choked off the rest of her words as her hips rose of their own volition to meet him.
"You were saying?" he said with a sly grin. She grasped his shoulders with her fingers, dug her nails lightly into his flesh. And smiled a sly smile of her own.
"I have dreams, you know," she told him. "And I will be fulfilling them, if it takes us all night."
Lancelot began to move inside of her. He gave a long suffering sigh. "If my Queen commands me, I must obey." She closed her eyes, urging him with her body to move harder, faster.
"Your…Queen…commands." Her fingers tightened on his back, and only the warmth of the flesh beneath her hands assured her that this was real, and not just another dream like so many others.
The pleasure was growing within her again, and her thoughts spiraled. She couldn't think with him filling her, moving inside her. With his hands on her. She felt him tense and shudder, heard him groan a few moments before the pleasure crested and spilled over, and she shuddered with him. They clung together afterward, breathing heavily. Enjoyed just being in each others arms.
Not that Guinevere was done with him. She'd meant every word. Lancelot would beg before she was through. She smiled at the thought, ran her fingers down his body.
He lifted his head, black curls damp with sweat and clinging to his forehead. "What?"
She shook her head. They had time enough. Tonight, perhaps many more nights in the weeks to follow. It would be enough. Her smile faded as she thought of what awaited them in the future.
It would have to be enough.
She would have to tell him, she knew. What Merlin had said about Arthur, about a child. But for now there was only this, only them. Lancelot and Guinevere.