"Surely," Guinevere says, "I haven't had that much to drink."
One moment, she had been sitting by herself at the table while the rest of the household filed off to bed; the next moment, Lancelot – Lancelot who is dead, Lancelot who is dead and burned – was sitting next to her on a stool, looking as hale and handsome as he did in life. Her heart hammers in her chest; he laughs, and the sound rings out through the quiet hall but not a single person looks up. The room is poorly lit and she is in an out-of-the-way corner of it, but if he were truly here, they would notice.
"You're dead," she says slowly. She wants to ask, What have I done to warrant you coming back to haunt me, but instead she asks, "What are you doing here?"
He grins. "Why, tormenting you, my Queen," he says. "And where is your loving husband?"
"Arthur," she says carefully, "is busy taking care of a boundary dispute, a day's ride to the east."
He raises his eyebrows. "Sounds serious."
"Well, it would be," Guinevere says, "if the boundary dispute involved someone other than two peasants fighting over where they fence off their livestock."
"Ah," Lancelot says.
She shakes her head helplessly.
"The man has no concept," Lancelot says, pulling a trencher of food in front of him, "of how to delegate. You'll learn that rather quickly." He pokes the potatoes rather mournfully, but he does not try to eat them.
"But that's not even it," Guinevere says. "He's just so good, and I am anything but. I love him, but it's harder than I thought it would be, being married to him."
"I can imagine," Lancelot says. He leans in close to add confidentially, "It was hard enough being his friend."
A bright bubble of laughter wells up in her chest, but she suppresses it fiercely; it's not right, to laugh about her husband with his dead friend. Still, a smile tugs at her lips, and he answers in kind with a flash of white teeth in the dim light.
It is so real that it tugs at her heart and she sobers quite abruptly, and remembers that he cannot truly be here, that she is talking to a dead man.
"You've had your fun," she says. "Now, go back to where you belong."
He settles back on his stool and puts his feet up on the rungs of the table.
"But this is so much more fun," Lancelot says.
"I don't believe in heaven," Lancelot says. "But if you represent what heaven is, then take me there."
Guinevere frowns; she is sure they've had this conversation before. But she forgets all over again as soon as he lowers his lips to her throat, kissing his way down to her shoulder, where he bites her softly, so softly; her hands fist in the rough fabric of the drapes that shield the wagon and she is certain that at any moment Bors or Galahad is going to ride past and pull the curtains aside and leave them both exposed to the world but for now – oh, for now she doesn't care.
She draws her hand through Lancelot's dark curls and his long lashes brush against her skin as he moves down her, hands rough in their haste; and wherever he puts his mouth to her, great dizzying spirals of indigo spread over her white skin till every inch of her is blue.
"Guinevere," Lancelot murmurs against her stomach.
"Mmm," is all she can say. She lifts her hand to stare at it and the blue is abruptly swallowed up by scarlet, and, horrified, she looks up to see that Lancelot is no longer Lancelot but Arthur, and her blood freezes in her veins –
"Wake up, Guinevere," Lancelot says more loudly this time, his voice maddeningly patient, and she opens her eyes to stare at him but she is no longer in the wagon, she is sitting slumped against a rock in front of a roaring fire and Lancelot's ghost is standing over her, roughly jolting her awake.
She blinks at him.
"You fell asleep," he says, looking at her as if she is an idiot.
She pushes her hair away from her face. What is he – oh, yes. Now she remembers. A scouting mission to the north, a trip made alone (and without Arthur's approval, though she'll think about that later) to attempt to broker peace with a band of Woads who have not yet accepted Arthur as their king – and then night had fallen and she was so, so cold and tired she thought she would just stop for a few hours before carrying on, and she had been trying to keep watch but the fire had lulled her to sleep – and, oh, that had all been a dream, hadn't it?
The blood rushes to her cheeks. She doesn't know whether to be disappointed or humiliated. But she hopes –
"Oh, I know exactly what you were dreaming of," Lancelot says. Cheerfully, he settles himself down on the rock above her, his black cloak pulled close around him. "But I won't say a word, don't you worry."
She glares up at him. "Shut up," she says.
"Oh, I forgive you," he says airily. "Or, I will, anyway. One day."
"I don't need you to forgive me," Guinevere says.
"Oh," Lancelot says. "Is that what you're pretending?"
She stares. The conversation has taken an abrupt turn, and now she knows they are speaking of something else entirely. She pretends to not realise, though; she tosses her head and says, "I did nothing wrong."
But her stomach twists and she thinks Badon Hill, Badon Hill and Lancelot lying dead on the ground under her hands and the look of devastation on Arthur's face –
"No," Lancelot agrees. He reaches over and lays his hand flat on her chest, fingers drifting intimately over her collarbone. "You did nothing wrong. But try telling your heart that, little Woad."
She slaps at his hand but he pulls it away before she touches him, and he laughs.
"Go away," she says. She curls back into her cloak and pulls it over her head, pressing herself into the skimpy furs that barely cover the cold hard ground and closing her eyes tight as though he is only in her head and he will disappear when she can no longer see him. He doesn't; she can still hear him shifting on the rock beside her, his sword clinking at his side as he leans over to poke at the fire.
And what if he is really here? What if she could reach out and touch him, just as he touches her? What if she could –
Guinevere presses the back of one hand to her hot cheeks. She cannot remain faithful to her husband, even in her own head. She is betraying him with a shade, a walking dead man. What kind of wife is she? What manner of woman is she?
She can feel Lancelot lay his hand lightly on her bare hair where the cloak has slipped away. She does not open her eyes but she exhales slowly, trying to keep down the jumping of her heart.
"Sleep, Guinevere," he says quietly, his lips just over her ear. "I will keep watch for you."
And so she sleeps.
And despite all this, nearly a year of life inside solid, safe walls has not made Guinevere sleep any more heavily than her days in the woods as a girl, always half over the edge of wakefulness. She pulls herself effortlessly out of sleep at the first whisper of movement in their bedroom; she pauses, and then she hears, more distinctly, a rustling beside her. Her eyes are open instantly, reaching over the side of the bed for the nearest blade, hands moving of their own volition.
But it is only Lancelot, or Lancelot's ghost, or the demons of her own mind returned to torment her. Lancelot looks as he did at Badon Hill, dressed in full armour, grimy with sweat and soot and dirt. There is a bolt lodged in his heart and blood between his teeth, and, improbably, he is smiling down at her.
"Hello," he says.
"Leave me alone," she hisses, throwing a glance over her shoulder at Arthur. He is sleeping like the dead – no, perhaps that is a poor comparison.
"Oh, believe me," Lancelot says, "I'm not here because I want to be. You called me."
"Of course," Guinevere says. She sits up, pulling a blanket over her shoulders. "Because clearly I want a dead man dogging my heels for the rest of my life."
Lancelot isn't looking at her, though, but at Arthur.
"How is he?"
Guinevere looks at her hands. "Better," she says. Lancelot sits down beside her on the edge of the low bed, and she would swear that she can feel him warm at her side. But she closes her eyes and shakes her head. "It's not healing right, though. And he won't rest, and he won't leave off riding out every day, and – you know how he is."
"I do," Lancelot says. "He'll be fine, Guinevere."
"I don't deserve him," Guinevere says. Her voice is unsteady.
"Maybe," he says, his dark eyes grave. "But he deserves to have you, so pull yourself together."
Her full eyes threaten to spill over and, furious with her own weakness, she presses the heels of her hands to her eyes. "Don't be so nice to me," she says, voice muffled. "I'm not – I'm proud of who I am, and where I come from. I am. But next to him I will never be anything but a screaming savage, and I fear I can see it in his eyes every time he looks at me."
"You're mad if you truly think that," Lancelot says. She pulls her hands away and looks at him. "Guinevere, I'd never seen him look at anyone the way he looked at you. That wasn't – pity, or fascination, or whatever you think it is. You're the bravest person either of us has ever met. He loves you with all that stupid stubborn heart of his."
She tries to smile, but it is more of a grimace. "He can love the woman who killed his closest friend in the world?"
Lancelot's face goes quite still. "Guinevere," he says. "You don't really believe that."
Her hands twist together, just once, and as if suddenly conscious of it she tears them apart quickly and sits on them, tucking her fingers under her knees.
"You could have left," she says. "You could have gone home. To the Black Sea. You didn't have to join the battle, you could have ridden away, you could have lived a long life at peace – but you came back anyway."
"I was never meant to have a quiet life," Lancelot says. He rubs his chin ruefully. "It is fitting that it ended the same way I lived it – rude and noisy and with too much bloodshed. And you, Guinevere, had nothing to do with that."
"But if I hadn't lost that fight with the Saxon?" she says. Her chin drops and her eyes fix on the bolt that pierces Lancelot's chest; she watches the red leaking up the wooden length of it, bright as a Roman cloak. "You wouldn't have come to help me, and he wouldn't have – have killed you – "
"That was my choice to make," Lancelot says gently. He rests one hand over his heart, to hide the bolt, and with his other hand he lifts her chin with two filthy fingers. "I was glad to make it then, and I'm still glad I made it now. Don't take that away from me."
Her lip just barely trembles, and she bites it hard.
"I don't blame you," he says. "And neither does Arthur."
He takes her face between his hands, thumbs pressing into the hollows of her cheeks. "You can let go of me now," he says, and she lowers her gaze as he kisses her forehead with still-bloodied lips and he lets one hand drop to grip her shoulder firmly, half-smiling as she meets his eyes one last time
and then someone is shaking her
She gasps and sits upright in bed. Arthur pulls back immediately, his hand falling away from her shoulder. "Guinevere?" he says. She cannot meet his eyes; she can still feel the pressure of Lancelot's hands on her, his lips ghosting over her skin. She shivers. "You were talking in your sleep."
She puts one hand to her chest, feeling the frightened rabbit-fast thrumming of her heart. "Was I?" she says stupidly.
He is watching her face closely. "What's wrong?"
"It was nothing," she says. She shakes her head – just once, as though to clear it of cobwebs – and smiles at him disarmingly. "Go back to sleep, Arthur."
He isn't fooled, but he lays back, mindful of the still-healing wound in his side, and tugs her with him. "I love you, you know," he says, mouth moving at the back of her neck.
"I know," she says, pulling the blankets with her. She holds her breath while he falls asleep behind her, warm at her back.
When she is certain he is sleeping, Guinevere passes her fingertips over her forehead and looks at her hand in the dim moonlight; she half-expects it to be smeared with blood and dirt. They are white and clean, and she is almost disappointed.
She closes her eyes, and she does not dream of Lancelot again.
(But she does not forget him.)