Disclaimer: I don't own the movie King Arthur, nor do I own the original legend.
Author's Note: This becomes graphic. Read, review, enjoy.
"I know how men in exile feed on dreams of hope."
Lancelot woke, unable to breathe or to remember where he was. The ground was hard and cold beneath him. He opened his eyes to find Lamorak nestled into his side. For a moment, he'd thought the boy was Laleh, and then he recalled that she was far away. He fished for the wooden sparrow he kept in his pocket, to make sure it was still there. He could feel the roughly hewn ripple of wings.
They were close to the sea. Lancelot had never been there before, but he knew that the tang in the air could only be from the ocean. His father had told him stories; terrible and great stories of men thrown overboard and storms that lasted for days and waters that stretched to the sunrise. It wasn't quite morning yet, though the stars had settled elsewhere. It was the rare, seldom viewed time just before dawn, when the sky was nothing but black.
The Romans had stopped them a few hours ago. A new village lay at the bottom of the hill they'd chosen to camp atop. Most of the soldiers had gone to collect the next batch of boys. How many would there be this time? Lancelot knew they would be back soon. He could see Cassiel circling the camp. He could run. He could slip away during this dark time, but it was too cold and his home was too far. Besides, the Romans would find him. Or worse, they would burn his village out of sheer spite.
Lancelot sighed. He tried not to think about escape. It brought no good. Instead, he rolled over, away from Lamorak's sour breath, and tried to sleep. There was no knowing when they would stop to rest again. The soldiers had pushed them harder the past few days, anxious to return home. Every bone in Lancelot's body ached. He could hear them grinding together. He'd lost too much weight, but none of the boys suffered more than Galahad. Every time they were given rations, Gawain gave more than half his share to the younger boy. They all tried to help where they could, even though none of them had much to give. Lancelot had taken to sharing Majid with Lamorak and Urry, the newest and youngest member of their band. His feet were more blisters than skin, but he didn't complain. All they had now was each other. Besides, it was what his father would have wanted him to do.
"Lancelot? Are you awake?" He had just been about to drift back to sleep, when Urry's voice reached him. Reluctantly he opened his eyes to see the young boy, just ten summers old, kneeling beside him. Urry's pale eyes were ghoulish in the dark. He was a head shorter than Galahad and even thinner. The Romans had been reluctant to take him. He was too young, but there had been no one else. Urry explained that most of the other boys had died from a terrible, unknown disease that past winter. It was the same disease that had claimed his three older brothers and his father.
"What d'ya want?" Lancelot muttered sleepily.
"I couldn't sleep and I was thinking…I've been wondering…"
"What?" Lancelot tried to be patient with the boy. He didn't talk to many of the others, but Lancelot admired him. He was so young, yet so much braver than most of them. When he'd been taken, he hadn't shed a tear and he hadn't done so since he'd joined them. Sometimes while they were settled around the dying fire, unable to sleep, Urry would repeat the stories his mother had told him. They were beautiful tales with happy endings, which none of the boys truly believed in, but they enjoyed hearing them all the same.
"Do you think my mother will be alright without me?" Urry blurted. It was an unexpected query. "She doesn't have anyone else. I've been thinking about who will fetch the firewood and who will hunt? She isn't very good with a bow and arrow. She doesn't like killing at all. Papa always had to skin and pluck the animals. Then I did. It just made her so sick. What will she do now?"
Lancelot sat up. He wasn't sure what to say and he felt guilty. This boy, hardly more than a baby, was worried about how his mother would survive without him, while Lancelot hadn't given any of that much thought. He was too encased in his own pain to think about how much his parents and Laleh must be suffering. Urry was a selfless creature. He reminded Lancelot of Laleh in that way.
"I'm sure your mother will be fine. The other villagers will help her, won't they?"
"I suppose," Urry said, though he didn't appear very convinced. He peered down to where the village lay hidden in the shadows at the base of the hill. "She can't even kill a rat, but I can. I can kill birds and snakes." He turned his ghoulish eyes back to Lancelot. "But I don't know about people."
"We'll do what we have to." It was a cold thing to say, but Lancelot could think of nothing else. It was the truth; plain and simple. He tried not to think of that either; the fact that someday he would be expected to kill, the fact that the swords his father had given him weren't for cutting wood or hunting.
"Do you think my mother will hate me when I go home?" Urry's voice trembled. It was just a tiny thread of fear in all of the darkness. Lancelot squeezed his shoulder and gently pushed him to the ground. He slid his cloak under the boy's head.
"How could she hate you? Mothers can never hate their children, no matter what they do. Now go to sleep."
"I just hope she'll be alright," Urry said through a yawn. "She doesn't…she doesn't have anyone anymore." Then he closed his eyes.
Lancelot lay down on the hard ground again, yearning for the hay-stuffed mat he used to share with Laleh. He felt Lamorak on one side of him and Urry on the other, both of them breathing deeply, in and out. He focused on that and nothing else. He focused on them and not the cold or the morning that he never wanted to see. Urry's mother may have no one, but he had them. Lancelot had to reconcile with the truth that these boys were his family now. His mother, his father, and Laleh were gone.
Lancelot closed his eyes again. Moments later they re-opened when the screams rose.
Bedivere stood outside of the mead hall. He'd left to escape the sounds of celebration inside, but they followed him into the night. What was there to celebrate? The Romans were coming. He could see their torches on the hill. All day the village had been in an uproar, a panic, since the troops had been sighted that morning. All day Bedivere had been locked in council, at his father's side, listening to old men bicker about what to do. Old men who had forgotten how to fight. Old men who had made decisions to protect their pride and not the lives of the villagers. Old men who had chosen war. Mordred remembered his father's words clearly.
"They will take no more of our sons! We will stand against the foreign demons and drive them from our soil once and for all! We will fight!" The words turned sour in Bedivere's mind. If only it were so simple. If only he could think and feel as the others did, celebrating and confident, singing songs of glory and valor. Yet he had never succumbed to false hope.
Bedivere was a rational man. Nearing his nineteenth year, he was wise beyond his age. The villagers teased their prince. They thought him dull, nothing like his younger brother, whom they all adored for his charming smile. No, Bedivere had always remained in the shadows, watching and learning, preparing for the day when he would take the throne and lead the once great Sauromatae tribe. He wasn't handsome like his brother, with his hooked nose, heavy, dark brow, and crooked shoulders. He wasn't pleasant in conversation. He wasn't loved, but he loved his people more than anything else, and for that reason he resented the decision that his father and the council of elders had made, because he knew they would fail.
The Romans would slaughter them. What chance did they have with farm tools against swords, and children and old men against hardened soldiers? He could see it all unfolding; the men cut down, the women and children left starving and defenseless, the village in ashes. Bedivere knew, but there was nothing he could do. His father's word was final. He had already tried to reason with the aging king in private to no success. King Morad had simply clasped his oldest son's shoulder and said, "I will not lose my sons."
Bedivere would gladly have gone with the Romans if it meant the village would be left unharmed. As he stood separated from the rest, he wondered if he should leave now. He wondered if he should give himself over to the Romans and plead they pass the others by. He could pack his bag and slip into the dark while the others celebrated.
Bedivere was just about to leave and carry out his plan, when the door to the mead hall swung open and his brother tumbled outside with a pretty girl tucked under his arm. The two of them stopped when they saw Bedivere brooding in the shadows. Kay flashed a sloppy smile, while his companion giggled into a bout of hiccups. Bedivere recognized the girl. He thought her name was Minu and he knew for certain her father wouldn't be pleased if he knew she was sneaking away with Kay into the woods for a late tryst.
"Brother!" Kay cheered, lifting his mug in a salute. "The party is inside, don't you know?" Bedivere's only reply was to frown. Minu, suddenly self-conscious, slipped out from Kay's arm. She gazed apprehensively at Bedivere through dark lashes. She really was very pretty. Bedivere pitied her. He knew his brother's ways with women. Kay had broken half the hearts of the village girls.
"Girl, won't your parents be looking for you?" Bedivere asked gruffly. Minu nodded her head.
"I should go back inside," she murmured. "Goodnight." Minu stood on her tip toes to kiss Kay's cheek chastely, before retreating to the warmth and commotion of the mead hall. Kay watched her leave and then turned to his brother with a shrug.
"Now I'll have to find another," he grumbled into his ale.
"I'm sure you'll have no trouble." Bedivere couldn't keep the bitterness from his voice and Kay, even slightly drunk, noticed.
"Oh, don't tell me you've been out here pouting all night when there are beautiful women inside ready to throw themselves at tomorrow's heroes?"
"Heroes?" Bedivere sneered. "More like corpses."
"Must you always be so dark?"
"I only speak the truth."
The two brothers fell silent, each watching the faint Roman torches with different thoughts. Kay sipped from his mug, anxious to return to the celebration and a warm woman to hold, while Bedivere felt his courage slipping away. He couldn't go to the Romans alone. It probably wouldn't do much good regardless. The Romans wouldn't be satisfied until they had destroyed everything, until they broke the Sarmatians completely and ground them into dust beneath their war boots.
"Do you really think we have no chance?" Kay asked quietly. He looked to his older brother for a shred of hope and found nothing. Bedivere's scowl only deepened.
"Would you have us remain their slaves forever?" Kay hissed, his temper flaring. "Would you have us stay their dogs?"
"Better slaves and dogs than dead." And Bedivere walked away from his brother and the false hopes of the others. He left to be alone in his dread for the battle to come, despite how very much he wished he could be like his brother for just once. He wished he could have hope. He wished he could believe that freedom was possible.
Kay watched Bedivere disappear into the dark. Then he chugged the rest of his mug before returning to the celebration, in search of a woman and another drink to lighten his mind. He quickly found Minu again. Tomorrow they would fight. Tonight, Kay was content to lose himself in pleasure. Who knew when the chance would come again?
Ostia Antica, Rome
The girl wouldn't stop screaming, so although Alberic hated to mar her pretty face, he brought his ringed fist hard against her cheek. Cailey felt as though she'd been struck by an iron club. She fell to the ground, whimpering, and pulled her knees into her chest. She wanted to be small, so small no one could see her. She wanted to be back on The Apollo, safe in her netted bed, with her papa reading stories, but no matter how hard she squeezed her eyes closed, she couldn't take herself there. She could still taste the tang of blood and dirt in her mouth. She could feel the man's hands on her skin as he lifted her up.
"Be a good girl now," Alberic growled against her bruised cheek. His whiskers scratched her skin. The smell of his stale breath made her sick. Cailey went limp in his hands. Fighting was no good. She was too weak, too alone.
Alberic pushed the child to her knees and began to unlace his breeches with an unsteady hand, while he cupped the other around Cailey's face. He pried her soft lips open with his dirty fingers. Cailey hated the taste of his sour sweat. She gagged, but it only made the man laugh.
"You're almost too pretty to kill," Alberic rasped. His breath came in short gasps as his breeches fell around his ankles. He bent closer to Cailey and buried his face in her lovely curls, taking in the scent of salt water and innocence. "Maybe I'll keep you," he murmured.
The thought sent chills down Cailey's spine. She thought of the slaves Wicek had mentioned earlier. Was she to become one of them? Suddenly it seemed better to die. She prayed to the gods that he would kill her. At least then she could see the sea again in the afterlife. Oh, if only she could hear the sea one last time. If only she could feel it drifting beneath her.
Alberic stood up straight and pulled aside his linen under-cloth. Cailey averted her eyes from his exposure. The sickness was rising within her, but Alberic curled his hand at the back of her head and pulled her against him. He moaned when he felt her skin brush against his throbbing arousal.
"Open your mouth, girl," he ordered. Cailey pressed her lips together tighter, so hard her teeth drew blood, but Alberic impatiently pried them apart. She closed her eyes instead as he directed himself into her mouth. Alberic pushed himself into her and growled. She was warm and slick inside. He slammed her head towards him and felt the girl gag. He felt her hot tears.
"That's right, pretty one," he gasped. "That's a good girl." Cailey couldn't breathe. She clawed wildly at the man, but he was too strong. His awful voice sounded as though it was coming from very far away. She wished she couldn't hear him at all above the blood pounding in her own ears. Her knees burned where they were scraped in the dirt. Her neck ached from the way he jerked it back and forth. Worst of all was the feel of him inside of her mouth. She could feel him pulsing against her tongue, like a living beast with a mind of its own. She couldn't keep from gagging as the bile in her stomach rose.
Alberic threw back his head and rammed into the girl's small mouth one last time before succumbing to his pleasure. His burning seed shot into her. It was too much for Cailey. It tasted of rotten fish and she could no longer contain the sick. Alberic leapt away furiously as she vomited. On hands and knees, her small body shook as everything spilled out of her.
"You cunt!" Alberic roared, looking at his soiled sandals. He gave Cailey a sharp kick in the stomach and the girl collapsed. Shivering, tears still streaming down her cheeks and sick on the front of her tunic, Cailey looked up at the man. Her vision was hazy, but she saw the glint of silver as he pulled a knife from his belt, and relief overwhelmed her. He was going to kill her. It was over. All of it was over.
Alberic crouched down and carefully lifted up the child's head, avoiding the rancid pool of sick around her. He gripped the knife in his hand. She was worthless. He wanted nothing more to do with her now. He would find another girl that could contain the contents of her stomach. Alberic held the knife to her pale throat, but a noise from the dark made him hesitate. He turned to look behind him, but never saw the source of the noise. He only felt pain and then the world was dark.
Cailey howled when a shadowy figure appeared and dug his dagger deep into Alberic's eyes. She scuttled against the wall and shoved her fist into her mouth as the shadow man drug Alberic away from her. Alberic flailed blindly. He screamed until the shadowy man sliced his throat. Blood bubbled between Alberic's fingers as he clutched desperately at the fatal wound. Gurgling sounds escaped his lips until he fell limp, never to move again.
The shadowy figure kicked the dead man out of the way and moved to Cailey. She whimpered and tried to scoot further away from the man and the bloodied dagger he still clutched in his hand.
"Cailey," the man whispered softly. And she recognized his voice instantly. Elias let his dagger clatter to the ground to catch his daughter safely in his arms. He held her tightly, determined never to let go again.
"Papa," Cailey sobbed. "Papa."
"Hush now," Elias whispered, cradling her in his arms like she was an infant. "You're safe. I'm here."
And he carried her back to the docks, leaving his dagger and the dead man behind. He carried his daughter back to The Apollo, silent tears streaming down his face, and made a quiet promise to himself to never let go of her again.