Here's the flashback chapter. It was an excuse to train myself in writing fight scenes. I liked it, so I might just pick random characters and have them face off as a sort of writing exercise in the future. This flashback takes place as the story that Arturia is telling Shirou, as a frame of reference. The following is the preceding quote from the actual chapter.
"After I subdued the bandits and raiders who preyed on Britain's coasts, I took my armies and sailed to Gaul. There I encountered the Roman Legions, but under a rebellious commander named Flollo who was resisting his emperor. He knew he could not defeat my army, so he retreated into Paris. My scouts told me he was attempting to gather more forces. Instead of giving him the time, my army besieged the town..."
"...and we are still waiting for word of his surrender."
The young knight fell silent and looked at Arturia expectantly.
"Thank you. You are dismissed." He snapped one fist sharply to his breastplate - a Roman salute, Arturia thought ironically - and left. When the pavillion flap fell shut she allowed the calm mask to crumble and slumped into a chair, face in her hands. The siege had been going for a month now, yet the town still stood strong.
'Strong' being a relative term.
The Briton army had closed around Paris like the jaws of a bear snapping shut, sealing the town and its terrified inhabitants off from the outside world after ravaging the countryside so thoroughly that no farms existed to send any sort of food. No trade went in or out, what fields there were had been burned, and her warriors had ruthlessly defeated any relief expeditions.
Arturia had been unsure of Flollo's reaction to the siege at first; his retreat to Paris and the reports that he was calling for reinforcements suggested that he wasn't in a position to take her army head-on, but all rumor said that he was a courageous fighter and inspired leader, and that kind of man would not allow himself to be besieged. Accordingly, she'd requested some few thousand more men from King Ban and was pleasantly surprised when they arrived with several thousand horsemen from Ban's brother Bors a week later. If Flollo was to attack, she would be ready.
But he never did, and then the suicides started happening. People began throwing themselves from the walls, falling dozens of meters to slam into an unforgivingly hard ground. Knights sent to investigate returned with tales of gaunt, emaciated individuals who looked more like skeletons than they did people. Even Kay, underneath his facade of apathy and contempt, was horrified.
As terrible as it was, Arturia had not let herself look away from the spectacle that she had caused. Though the knight cried out to relax the siege and end it in honorable combat, the king knew that if the price of victory was that the enemy died, then so be it.
She rarely wore the crown anymore, even at formal functions. She no longer needed to, because she felt its weight all the time.
"There you are! You haven't made yourself easy to find, my dear!" A flutter of dark green cloth preceded the voice. She didn't look up; he was the only one who could enter her tent without a hundred zealous knights raising hell.
"Merlin," she acknowledged the newcomer tiredly.
"I had no idea that you were in Gaul, Arturia!" The old wizard's voice was as cheerful as ever. "I come back from banishing demons and treating pretty women to dinner, and Camelot is as empty as poor Kay's head. Dear Guinevere told me you were off to beat sense into a band of ill-tempered, bad-smelling barbarians so I of course went to Scotland! But all I saw there were sheep and men and sheep dung and man dung. It wasn't exactly glamorous, so -" She lifted her face to glare wearily at him, and he hastily added, "I won't bore you with the details." The old man moved to stand beside her. "What's got my little king all depressed?"
"Paris is still holding out." Arturia replied dully. "We have cut off all their supplies and they cannot hope to drive us off, yet Flollo refuses to surrender."
Merlin snorted in a most undignified manner. "Simple-minded fool. There's no way out unless he has a magus, but the Romans never could train a magus capable of more than a brush fire." He spat in contempt. "Most likely he's determined to fight to the end, thinking you'll lose patience and end him with a sword instead of a famine. It's breathtaking in its boneheaded stupidity. Fortunately, the only person I know who would do something like that is Kay."
"Please stop insulting my brother, Merlin." Arturia reproved, but without heat. Merlin's eyes narrowed slightly.
"My, you are down in the dumps today." Arturia had no idea what the expression meant, but didn't feel like asking. "The idiot Roman isn't the real problem, is he?"
"No," Arturia admitted. The old wizard probably knew the real reason; no matter what her personal feelings towards him were, the stories they told about Merlin in Britain were all true. No doubt he considered her a personal investment and devoted a portion of his intellect and power to keeping track of her. She closed her eyes.
"The Parisians throw themselves off the town walls every day now." Her voice shook. "Most of them die when they hit the ground, and those that do not beg and scream for an end to the pain. My warriors disobey my orders and approach the town walls just to stop their suffering. What is even worse," to her great irritation she felt the surge of tears behind her eyes, "is that even when they come within bowshot and spear-throw there is no response. Derfel tells me that their soldiers are quartered within the town and given what food there is so that they do not starve, but that is scant comfort to the townspeople if their protectors cannot protect them."
She buried her face in her hands again when she finished, and for a long moment silence reigned in the pavilion.
"Sometimes, I forget how young you are." For once, Merlin's voice wasn't jovial or impish, bereft of the carefree brashness that usually characterized the wizard. He sounded sad, and for once weighed down with the burdens of his venerable age.
"I doubt that were I as old as you, this would affect me any less." Arturia summoned up the energy to retort acerbically.
"You'd be surprised." Merlin stepped away from her chair, turning his back. "Enough violence can wear down even the most virtuous of men and women, until all they know is war." He gave a brief, mirthless chuckle. "It's already happened countless times, and it will keep happening for as long as humans exist."
The wizard suddenly turned and looked at her. His eyes, normally so bright and vivid, were dull. "Someone very dear to you will suffer that fate, but you won't be around to see it."
Arturia looked upward sharply. "What - ?"
Merlin waved a hand dismissively. "My fault. He isn't born yet, and won't be for quite a while. Forget about it." Steel-grey eyes bored into her. "This is the duty of a king, Arturia. This is your destiny. I warned you about it before you drew Caliburn from the stone. It is hard and unrewarding and will cause you great pain, but -"
"- it is my responsibility." Arturia interrupted him before he could continue along that train of thought. "Like my father, I am the rightful king and must accept the life of a monarch. This was never in any doubt, Merlin. I am sure you saw that."
The wizard sighed, and she thought she saw the gleam of a tear in one eye. "Yes. I did."
"I am not wavering." Briefly Arturia wondered if she was talking to him, or herself. "I accept that this must happen, but that does not mean I cannot feel for those I have caused grief."
Merlin sighed again. "That is your choice, but I doubt it will lead to any good. Feelings will destroy a person just as surely as a blade will. Regardless..." he paused, then continued, "I didn't come here to second-guess your leadership, otherwise I might as well have taken the sword for myself. I came," he paused again, and his gaze was solid, "to tell you I have faith in you, and that I will continue to stand by you for as long as I am able. The burdens of kingship are heavy, but they do not have to be borne alone."
Touched, Arturia smiled at him. "Thank you, Merlin."
He winked impishly, and suddenly Merlin the irresponsible, roguish knave was back. "Glad that's done with! I'm off to find cheese! It's the only real good thing about Gaul, you know. Besides the wine, oh, and the hookers!"
Arturia had no idea what a 'hooker' was, but judging by Merlin's usual habits she could guess.
"Get out, Merlin."
"As you wish, Your Highness!" he chuckled cheekily before bending under the pavillion flap and disappearing.
Arturia had just enough time to sink back into her chair and close her eyes before the flap opened again and the same messenger rushed back into the tent, panting.
"My lord!" His face was red and flushed with excitement. "The Roman leader has sent word from Paris! He challenges you to single combat in three days!"
For a moment Arturia stared dumbly at the boy, unable to comprehend his words. Then, she nodded calmly, making sure to project the proper serenity into the movement.
A king should never reveal their true emotions.
"Fetch Hygwydd. I want my wargear prepared."
The dueling ground was flat and hard, a recent bout of drought having hardened the earth into a compact and solid surface underfoot. Nevertheless, Arturia tested it with one armored boot. The dirt refused to budge. She nodded, satisfied.
Hygwydd had outdone himself, feverishly working to make sure every plate was cleaned and Caliburn shone like the noon sun over-head. He had even insisted on polishing Rhongmyniad's spearhead, even though the terms of the challenge meant that it would not be used. He had checked over the lances obsessively to make sure the wood was strong and without flaws. As a result, her wargear had never been in better shape.
The challenge was to begin on horseback with lances, almost like a joust save one difference. According to Flollo's messenger, the battle was to continue until death. If Arturia carried the day, then Paris would open its doors and submit to the might of Camelot. If instead Flollo won, the siege would be lifted and the Britons would return to their own territory.
Arturia spared the ground one more glance, then looked across the field. An crimson tent rippled in the wind, the flag beside it proudly bearing the letters and laurel of the Roman empire. Even from this distance she could see the glint of sunlight on metal as Roman legionaries patrolled around the tent. She suppressed a smile at their diligence; the overwhelming numbers and superior equipment of the Britons meant that any attack would smash the Romans utterly, and whether or not patrols sighted them would make little difference.
It was, after all, why Flollo had challenged her to combat instead of trying a breakout.
Her own tent stood some distance behind her, surrounded by thousands of British tents. Unlike the Roman tents, which all bore the Roman symbol uniformly, her knights had chosen individual symbols and by looking at each tent she could see who called it home. There was Kay's silver wolf, the gold lion-like creature of Safir, Derfel's crimson griffon, and King Anguish's unicorn, among others. The symbol emblazoned upon her tent, of course, was that of a crimson dragon rampant.
She pushed aside the flap as she went in, letting it drop behind her. Hygwydd stood ready in the corner, her wargear resting on a stand and a table situated on either side of him.
In battle she normally wore plate armor, unadorned save for the fiery red dragon that decorated her breastplate. That particular suit was now in a sorry state, battered and bent from strong sword blows. A particularly vicious stroke from a Gaulish warrior had actually split the chestpiece so that the dragon had been chopped in two. There was no time or opportunity to repair it, but in anticipation of just such damage Hygwydd had brought along a spare suit of armor.
He helped her don it now, hands moving swiftly and surely to fasten buckles and pull new breastplate clicked slightly as it was placed over the chainmail hauberk she wore, and clicked again when Hygwydd fastened the breast and back plates of the armor together.
She pulled on the sabatons over her feet herself, and her squire then fastened the greaves over her calves. He placed the poleyns over her knees and tied them tightly so they sat easily against her legs.
"Comfortable, mi'lord?" he enquired. She nodded lightly.
"Carry on, Hygwydd."
The thigh guards went on after the poleyns, Hygwydd tying them to the knee guards and then fastening the straps around her calves. He tugged experimentally on each one, then did the same to the tasset that protected her torso and upper legs.
"Now the arms, sire?" All squires knew their jobs and Hygwydd was the best, but no one ever did anything to the Red Dragon of Britain without her permission.
The fitting of the arm plates went much more quickly than those on the legs. Hygwydd tied on the vambraces to her upper arms while she pulled on leather gloves and then her steel gauntlets, then fastened the couter to her elbows to connect the metal pieces. The pauldrons went over her shoulders, until all that was left exposed was her face.
It had all gone routinely, save for one difference. Unlike the steel grey of her regular armor, this suit was painted a deep crimson, as red as freshly-spilled blood. The pauldrons, gauntlets, and sabatons were picked out in brightest gold, as were the elbow and knee joints.
Crimson and gold had been her father's colors. She personally thought that they looked tremendously gaudy and much preferred her muted colors of royal blue and light silver. It had been the only other suit forged for her unique stature, but she had not expected to need it.
She was not her father, had not even known him before he died. Though his symbol was that of the family line, his colors were not. They would be replaced by her own, just as his fame would be eclipsed by her deeds.
And yet...she had never done him proper homage, from a loyal child to a father. She had never fought with him and earned his approval on the battlefield. She did not know, truly, if he would have approved of her today. It was unlikely; Merlin told her he had wanted a son.
But Uther had had a noted fondness for duels, often engaging in single combat to prove his worth and prowess over his foes. In this much, at least, she might have his approval. Wearing his colors during such an action seemed like a way to honor him, albeit reluctantly and with no other alternative.
Hygywydd went over the ties again quickly, making sure that the armor remained tightly fitted against his king's body. Finding no loose laces, he hurried away to the nearby table and came back with a thick gold cloak that he fastened to Arturia's shoulders. The easy task was made easier due to Hygwydd being half a head taller than his lord.
Arturia shifted experimentally, grimacing as the cloak weighed down on her shoulders. Fighting in the blasted thing would prove a real nuisance, but her advisors had urged her to at least enter the battle wearing it. The men of the Legions were soldiers first and foremost, but ostentatious in their finery, and they expected as much from their foes. Normally she could care less about ornamentation in battle, but this was no such thing. The duel was all about appearances and expectations, and unless she wanted to either resume the siege or murder every single soul in Paris, she needed to take heed of that.
"Something wrong, mi'lord?" Hygwydd asked in concern, standing with her helmet in his hands. Arturia looked up, then shook her head.
"Nothing at all, Hygwydd." She gripped the helmet and pulled it down over her head, dropping the visor as she did so. The metal sat heavily on her head and her peripheral vision was basically nullified, but she was accustomed to that. In a melee a helmet was an option, in a joust it was a necessity. The mass of her hair, even braided as it was, sat uneasily inside the confines of the helmet. Kay had advised her to get it cut, but she had refused. It was her one real vanity, and she did not much feel like getting rid of it for an affair that would last a few hours at the most.
Hygwydd brought forth Caliburn, laid reverently across his palms. The golden blade glinted gently even in the dimly-lit space of the tent. Her sword-belt was already buckled around her hips, so Hygwydd slid the sheathed blade through the leather loops of the belt until the sword's guard tapped against her waist.
Now, she was ready.
The area around the dueling ground was filled to bursting.
From her vantage point atop the restless, snorting white mare, Arturia surveyed the crowd. Across from her was arrayed the full finery and regalia of a Roman Legion, all crimson cloth and dull grey steel. Encased in their armor, the legionaries stood like statues, staring blindly ahead and only moving their eyelids to blink. Their heavy rectangular shields were grasped in left hands, but they bore no spears, perhaps a sign of Flollo's determination to stop a massacre.
Around her, on her own side, were gathered the British knights and men-at-arms. Unlike their opposing counterparts, each of her warriors was garbed in his own fashion and equipped with weapons of his own choosing. Leather breastplates and leg guards were common, though most of the knights and no few men-at-arms wore the new plate armor Merlin had designed. She glimpsed Safir, clad in armor of burnished gold, while Bedivere stood solemnly in simple grey plate. Kay disdained even that and wore only leather. Unconscious of etiquette as always, he fiddled with the hilt of his sword, though he was not so crass as to actually draw it. Arturia's eyebrows drew together, but before she could say anything, Cunedda, dignified in emerald and obsidian, elbowed the seneschal. Kay scowled blackly, but stopped fidgeting.
The brassy cry of trumpets cut through the hot, still air, and Arturia stiffened. The line of crimson-cloaked legionaries parted, and out cantered a magnificent stallion the color of night. It snorted and pawed the ground with one hoof, surveying the ground with baleful amber eyes. It was noticeably bare of the cloth finery some nobles liked to decorate their horses with, and a steel plate on its chest was the only armor it bore.
Its rider, however, was clad from head to toe in full plate armor. A crimson cloak, identical to those of the legionaries, hung from his shoulders, while the Roman aquila decorated his breastplate. Unlike Arturia's own garish suit, the Roman's was unpainted, the golden eagle its only splash of color. He wore no helmet, and his face was broad and flat. His head was shaved entirely bald so that the stark angles added to a piercing stare from dark eyes. A scar ran diagonal across his left cheek, another above his eyebrows. He was not a handsome man to begin with and the scars made him ugly, yet there was no cruelty in his face and only determination in his eyes.
This, then, was the Tribune Flollo, and the cheers that boomed forth from his men as they hammered fists against shields confirmed it. Flollo ignored them, hard eyes sweeping the field until they found Arturia and fixed on her. She met his gaze calmly, seeing the barely-controlled rage lurking in his gaze.
A priest from one of the nearby communities had been persuaded to oversee the duel. He stood between the two camps, his simple black gown contrasting drastically with the flamboyant colors of both sides. His hands shook as he clutched his long wooden staff, and one went to his neck to grip the small silver cross that hung there. He looked nervous, but began speaking, declaiming the ritual combat that was about to take place. Arturia tuned out the words, instead choosing to look into the Roman general's hate-filled eyes.
Privately, the king of the Britons admitted to herself that he had good reason. She had gone into Gaul intending to do battle with the Roman Emperor Lucius Tiberius, and had instead found a rebel Tribune who fought against him. There lay no quarrel between them, yet she was still bound to wrest territory from the Empire, even if those lands lay only nominally in its grasp. For that, she had besieged a city and reduced its inhabitants to human ruins and wreckage.
Her gaze swept the assembled lines of Roman soldiers. Tight and disciplined they might be, but the lines of red and silver looked paltry compared to the mass of Britons that waited before them. The fact that the British cavalry alone outnumbered the legions at least two to one meant that the soldiers of Italy would probably be smashed in a wild, headlong charge. What soldiers that were not dispatched by the mounted knights would be slaughtered by the heavily-armed foot soldiers who followed in their wake. The Romans would of course fight to the death, but their mail hauberks and rectangular shields were no match for battle-axes and two-handed greatswords wielded by the best warriors Camelot could offer. Flollo hoped to spare his people by defeating the British king in combat, but if Arturia lost her warriors would fall on the Romans like wolves pulling down a stag. There would be no mercy.
Therefore, if she hoped to spare the doomed Italians now so vigorously cheering for her death, she had to win. It was not a troublesome thought; she had not intended on losing in any case.
The priest had finished speaking, and he scuttled back to the relative safety of the British lines, nearly tripping over Kay's outstretched foot as he ran past. The seneschal chortled to himself until Cunedda's elbow lodged in his gut once more.
Despite herself, Arturia grinned. Flollo's eyes flashed darkly, and his lance lowered, poised for tilting. The black stallion beneath him snorted and pawed the ground, as if sensing its master's aggression. Feeling her own horse shift underneath her, Arturia couched her own lance. The long weapon swayed in her hand but she handled it with the ease of long practice. At the same time she raised her own shield, presenting the rampant dragon to her opponent. For a few long minutes they regarded each other over the rims of their shields.
From behind Kay's shoulder, the priest shouted the command to begin. It was perhaps not the most dignified way to begin a duel, but given the prowess of the two warriors involved it was probably the wisest.
Before the nasal yell died out, Arturia was moving, spurs pressed tightly to the sides of her mount. Her lance was poised and her shield was up. Of Flollo's, she saw only a blur.
The shock of impact nearly jolted Arturia out of her saddle, even though she had braced for it. Instinct set in, and she threw all her weight forward, focusing her strength behind the gleaming point of her lance.
Steel met steel with a blood-curdling screech. The lance moved suddenly, throwing Arturia off balance. She caught a brief glimpse of falling gold, and then her mare was past. There was a thundering cheer from the British side, and as she slowed her horse's gallop to a canter she saw why.
Flollo lay in the center of the dueling ground, struggling to get up. His horse was in a similar state, piled in a heap off to the side and emitting a high-pitched whinny. Its front leg leaked blood onto the parched soil; it was not going to be returning to the duel any time soon.
"Flollo!" Arturia shouted, catching the Roman tribune's attention as he finally pulled himself to his feet. "Yield! I would not spill any more blood!"
Flollo's eyes flashed with anger at this. He took the lance, which he had managed to keep a grip on despite his tumble, in both hands and angled it towards the British king like a spear.
"Romans do not yield, barbarian whelp." His voice was a deep growl, certainty and conviction lending strength to the bass rumble.
"Not even to protect their citizens?" Arturia yelled back, acutely aware at how thin and light her voice seemed beside his. "You would neglect your duty to your people? Continue to see them starve and wither?"
"Rome does not serve its citizens!" Flollo thundered, hefting the lance. "Its citizens serve Rome!" And with a howl of rage he cast the lance like a javelin.
Blood sprayed the air in front of her and for one panicked second Arturia thought she had been hit, but instead the mare beneath her neighed in agony. It reared up in pain, kicking the air, and dumped the British king gracelessly off its back. A deafening roar burst from the crowd; the Romans clashing fists against shields in encouragement, while the British bellowed in anger.
Arturia rolled once she felt her body hit the dirt. The impact jarred her body even through the plate, but she was able to get to her feet. Her left arm felt lighter than it should have been; she glanced at it and realized the shield had been lost in the fall. There was no time to retrieve it, either.
Flollo stooped to recover his own shield, pushing the laurel-decorated wood onto his arm. After a slight roll of his shoulder, he dropped his right hand to his hip and drew the sword that hung there, flicking away the sheath with his shield hand.
The helmet was hampering her vision; she tugged it off and cast it aside. Flollo frowned and stopped for a moment, looking at her.
"You...you are nothing but a child." The shock was clearly written across his face, which then smoothed into neutrality. "So in addition to being uncultured barbarians, the British allow themselves to be led by a mewling stripling barely out of his cradle?" He snorted.
Arturia felt her cheeks flush with anger. "I am more than capable of leading my country, no matter what my age would indicate." She flicked a narrow-eyed glance at her opponent. "But you did not come here for words, Roman."
Caliburn came easily out of its scabbard, the great two-handed blade glinting in the afternoon light. The British king assumed a guard position, tilting the point at her opponent's throat.
Flollo let out an ugly laugh, eyes lingering significantly on her two-handed grip. "The British king discards his shield? The Gauls thought the same way, charging naked at our legions while brandishing clumsy pieces of brittle iron." A smirk curved his mouth. "Or was that when Julius Caesar landed at Britain? I can never tell you unwashed barbarians apart."
Arturia ignored the twitch in her eye, choosing instead to respond calmly. "And I thought Romans were men of action and deeds instead of men who bluster and posture." She allowed a smirk of her own to turn the corners of her lips upwards. "A Roman tribune meets a beardless boy in a joust - and is thrown off his horse. Then, when he unseats his adversary, he stands motionless, choosing to use his mouth instead of his sword."
The smirk vanished from Flollo's mouth, and he moved, faster and more gracefully than his size would suggest. He thrust his shield out as he charged, aiming to use his momentum to bowl over the considerably smaller and thinner knight.
Arturia took one step to the left, and as the tribune rushed past her like an angry bull, Caliburn flashed down to slash down into his back. The angle meant Flollo's armor deflected the blow, and the impact sent unpleasant shocks up the young king's arms, but the tribune stumbled forward. Unable to stop his forward motion, he fell to the ground, head thumping painfully against the packed dirt.
Among the cacophonous cheer raised by the British knights, Arturia waited calmly, Caliburn held easily in both hands. She could of course, have pressed her attack and killed Flollo while he was attempting to rise. Plate armor was superbly balanced, but that did not mean it was no burden. Designed for a wearer who stood upright, it was tremendously difficult to move in other positions.
Like when the user was prone.
Flollo pushed himself to his feet, rising to his full height once more. He dwarfed her, his massive form making hers look as slender as a matchstick. This time, however, he nodded slightly to her as he lifted his weapons.
As soon as his shield was up, Arturia attacked. Instead of a headlong charge, though, she opted for another tactic: covering the short distance between them with a single bound. She landed right beside him, and when the tribune twisted to bring his sword into line, she swept Caliburn down at his knees. Flollo crouched and deflected the blow with his shield while aiming a vertical slash down. Arturia twisted her wrists and parried, slanting the strike aside so that Flollo was forced to step back or risk dropping the sword.
Flollo struck out with his shield again, clipping her face with its edge. She went with the blow, dropping back a few steps. Flollo followed relentlessly, chopping viciously with his sword. It was a typical Roman gladius, meant for the close, cramped fighting of the shield wall. It was about a foot shorter than Caliburn, but the shield negated that particular disadvantage.
Arturia blocked the first three blows and caught the forth with the edge of her sword. A twist of her wrist slid the blade aside, and as Flollo punched at her with his shield, she spun around him and delivered a vicious kick to the back of his knee joint. The tribune grunted in pain as a steel boot hammered his joint. He fell forward, already twisting around to try a retaliatory stroke.
Caliburn found the shoulder joint of his armor. Blood sprayed, and Flollo let out a grunt of pain. He caught himself with one hand, and before Arturia could step away, struck out with his own blade.
Arturia staggered backwards, the force pushing her but otherwise doing little damage. Flollo used the time to regain his feet for the fourth time in the duel. This time, instead of going after her he lifted his shield.
A faint smile graced Arturia's lips, and she attacked again.
Caliburn swept down in an overhand stroke that would have cloven Flollo in two, but for his shield. The blow slid off, though he grimaced in effort, and he tried a stab at her stomach. Arturia knocked the blow away with her pommel and rained strikes down upon the Roman tribune, slashing at his head and shoulders. He weathered the attack stoically, using his shield to bear the brunt of the assault.
Tough old wood deflected another blow, and Flollo stabbed out, but he grunted in pain and was a second late in withdrawing his arm. Arturia whipped Caliburn into another slash, aiming to split the limb. Instead, Flollo spun, somehow managing a graceful pirouette, and slammed the pommel of his gladius into her stomach.
Metal screeched, and pain blossomed in Arturia's abdomen. She gasped and wavered for a moment. The Roman smashed a booted foot into her face and she toppled backwards. A blind strike with Caliburn caught only air, and then she felt herself being picked up by her hair and flung.
Groans of dismay erupted from the British as the Romans resumed their clash of steel on steel. Arturia only dimly registered this as she rolled across the dirt. She stabbed Caliburn into the ground as soon as her momentum had bled off and hauled herself to her feet, doing her best to ignore the growing pain in her belly.
Across from her Flollo was already moving forward, gladius poised. In response, Arturia yanked Caliburn out from the dirt and settled it into a guard.
They crossed blades again, and this time Flollo's strength nearly knocked Caliburn from her hands. In fact, the Roman tribune seemed stronger than ever before as he rained blows down upon her, following every few strikes with a bash from his shield to prevent her from taking the upper hand.
She could feel the warm wetness of blood trickling down her stomach. Flollo's strength was tremendous; the blunt force of the blow had buckled the armor, driving sharp edges into her stomach. The pain gnawed at her, made it hard to think. She barely deflected a decapitating strike, but it drove her to her knees. It took her awhile to realize that Flollo was speaking, sword raised for a last blow.
"You put up a good fight, Briton," he was saying, voice flavored with something oddly like regret. "I have rarely felt the sting of a blade's kiss, even though I have fought in many battles with my men. But then again, the barbarian tribes have never been lacking in strength of arms. Your deficits are your lack of honor and your inability to keep your word."
"In my land, they say the same about you." Arturia gasped. "My elders tell tales of Carthage and Gaul, of Vercingetorix hauled away in chains and the fields of Carthage salted to ruin. Your legions enlisted the aid of the Thracians on the understanding that they would be defending their own villages, and yet your glory-hungry generals disobeyed their own orders and headed away to fight the Greeks." It hurt to breathe, much less talk. "You broke your bargain with the Thracians and left them to die."
She risked a glance up; the gladius hovered overhead like the sword of Damocles. Flollo's face twisted oddly, wrenching with something that might be pain. "There are only Romans and enemies of Rome. The latter do not deserve to be treated with honor. It is my duty to destroy my land's enemies, no matter what the cost may be."
"What of your duty to your people?" Arturia nearly screamed with frustration. The pain was getting too great; she took one hand from Caliburn to press against her torn armor. "Is that not the point of serving Rome, to protect your people? You let them starve instead of allowing them to keep their lives. Yet you obviously care, or you would not have challenged me to single combat at this late date."
Flollo did not speak for a long moment, his expression troubled. In his hand, the blade remained motionless.
"Rome does not serve its citizens," he murmured, so quietly she could barely catch it. "Its citizens serve Rome."
The sword flashed down.
And in that moment, Arturia gathered all of her remaining strength and struck. She howled in pain, in rage, in frustration, and as she did she rose to her feet and slashed Caliburn down with all of her might so quickly that Flollo had no time to block. The tribune's face disappeared in a sudden distortion of flesh and bone. His head crumpled inwards under the force of the blow and blood hit Arturia's face in a hot spray. His intended swing thumped harmlessly into the dirt, while the body tottered and fell to its knees.
Arturia pulled on her sword, but it only slid out a few inches with a disgusting squelch before refusing to budge. It took such an effort that when Caliburn finally came free of the corpse's cranium, it kept going in a backswing that scattered more droplets of blood and brain matter around the dueling ground.
Silence reigned over the king and the cadaver for a few breathless moments, then the British knights burst out in wild cheers. Swords slid free from their scabbards to be waved wildly around. Kay was yelling like a madman, gesturing so wildly with his weapon that he almost decapitated Cunedda, who gave him a displeased look and wrested away the sword. Not to be outdone, Balin had unsheathed both his swords and was hollering so loudly his brother Balan had moved away from him. A great grin had broken Safir's usually impassive mien, while Bedivere was clapping joyously.
Derfel stood in the front row of warriors, but unlike his comrades he made no show of joy. He caught her gaze and smiled sadly, before clasping his hands together and bowing his head in prayer.
Across the field the Romans let out a great groan of despair. Many men dropped their shields and fell to their knees, while others wept openly. Gradually, centurions in crested helmets began to emerge from the lines, shouting orders and shoving men into line with judicious uses of their batons. The silver armor of the legionnaires coalesced gradually into a single shimmering line, which then marched slowly towards Arturia, who leaned wearily on Caliburn and watched them come.
In the front of the long line was a Roman whose armor looked better-made than that of his soldiers. His helmet did nothing to conceal the sadness in his eyes when he looked at his leader's body, nor the bitterness when he lifted his head to gaze at Arturia. Sensing this, Kay and Bedivere closed protectively around her while Cunedda's men formed up behind them. Safir and Derfel stepped in front of her, the Saracen's hand resting belligerently on his sword while Derfel coolly returned the man's look.
Arturia sighed and gently tapped Safir on the shoulder. The Saracen knight moved aside and she stepped forward to face the Roman officer.
"What is your name, Roman?"
The officer's face twisted, but he met her gaze steadily. "Sub-tribune Flavius Hortensius Metellus Gallius."
From behind her, Kay snorted. "It's a little pretentious to be giving yourself that kind of agnomen, wouldn't you think?"
The officer's eyes narrowed. "I beg your pardon?"
Kay's expansive gesture encompassed the surrounding lands. "You Romans give yourselves third or fourth names depending on your deeds, do you not? Well, you clearly did not have Gaul under control even before we arrived, nor were you the most senior officer present in this sorry-looking rabble here." The legionnaires shifted and growled at this, but Kay continued blithely. "It seems rather pretentious, but what else could we expect from Italians-"
"Kay," Arturia did not quite snap. The seneschal offered the Roman a chilly little smile and subsided.
"Sub-tribune Gallius, then," Arturia continued, ignoring Kay's snort. "The duel is concluded. Do you wish to dispute the outcome?"
For a moment Gallius looked like he wanted to, and damn the consequences, but his eyes strayed to the still-bloodied sword in the young king's hand. Then all tension left his face in a sudden breath, and he bowed his head.
He knelt before her and offered up his gladius, the blade resting across both open palms.
"As acting commander of the V, XII, and XIII Legions, I, Flavius Hortensius Metellus Gallius offer my surrender."
Arturia arched a brow. "Three legions? What happened to the other commanders?"
"Legatus Scipio Kalarus Placidus was in overall command of the legions before the...change in leadership. He was also the governor of this province, and the legions were constantly marching to put down rebellions he incited by sanctioning mob attacks on the locals. He had an unfortunate accident and succumbed to his wounds," the sub-tribune responded blandly.
"Meaning he was an idiot and got stabbed a few times." Kay translated, nodding sagely. Surprisingly enough, Gallius' mouth quirked upwards in what might have been a smirk.
"Tribune Flollo, as the most senior officer in all the legions, took command after the legatus' death. Tribune Septimus Atticus Herculius of the Fifth refused to support the legions' new objectives and was slain. Tribune Publius Parcius Balabus of the Thirteenth died during the siege." Gallius bowed his head again, staring at the ground. "I am the ranking officer now."
"Tell me, Tribune Gallius, why did your commander rebel against his emperor?" Arturia enquired. Flollo had praised Rome's glories to the last, despite taking arms against it. Curiosity compelled her to ask why.
Gallius lifted his chin, pride gleaming in his eyes. "The Emperor believes he is Rome, but instead of viewing that position as a grave and solemn responsibility entrusted to him by our people, he sees it as a mandate for absolute power. The Tribune Flollo was outspoken in his condemnation of the Emperor's conduct and lost his family because of his beliefs. They were slain while he was here in Gaul, and after Placidus died he took command and set out to make the cur pay for his crimes." Sorrow gleamed in the Roman's eyes. "He announced his course of action to us, and added that any of us could leave without harm. None did."
Arturia nodded. She handed Caliburn to Kay, who took it reverently, and accepted the proffered weapon. She tied it carefully to her still-worn sword belt, and then gestured for the sub-tribune to rise.
"Go. Inform your people that the siege is over. I expect your legions to begin disarming themselves immediately, for they are now our prisoners. Your people may remain in their homes; Paris is now part of Britain, and as such they are now my subjects." She turned slightly. "Derfel. Begin organizing shipments of food from Camelot so that we can feed the townspeople and our prisoners. Until then, divide our provisions up appropriately."
The Saxon nodded. "Of course, Your Majesty."
Gallius watched her, a baffled look on his face. Arturia turned back to look at him.
"There is one more thing, sub-tribune. Your legions represent a substantial number of mouths to feed." At this, panic flared in his eyes, at which Arturia raised a hand. "Peace, Roman. I do not intend on killing your men, but nor can I afford to keep you as prisoners who do nothing but waste away in cells. I would normally not ransom you back to your Emperor, as you would no doubt raise arms against me again, but I doubt he is inclined to accept you in any case. Therefore, that leaves you two options.
You and your men may leave, after swearing oaths never to raise arms against it. I will provide you safe passage out of Gaul, and you may make your way back to Italy if you so desire. Unfortunately I cannot provide you with your weapons or armor, so the journey will be long and dangerous."
She paused, watching the Roman's mouth work in frustration for a moment.
"Or you may remain here." She let out a small smile as he stared slack-jawed at her. "You can swear loyalty to Camelot and become my subjects. I bear you no ill will, and if any of your men want land for farming I will grant it, in Gaul or in Britain. Those are your choices."
Gallius was silent for a long moment, and then nodded once. "Will I have time to discuss this with my men?" he asked.
"Yes. I will come for your answer in three days."
As the tribune stepped away and began ordering his men to surrender their weapons, Bedivere stepped closer. "I wonder about your offer, Your Majesty." he said quietly. "If they stay, the men will take a dim view of their food being reduced to feed enemies."
"If they stay, they will then be providing food for themselves and more importantly, the kingdom." Arturia responded, steel etching her voice. "The men are welcome to express their grievances, so long as they accept the consequences of any acts of disobedience."
Bedivere glanced at the messy corpse, to which flies were already gathering. "Of course, Your Majesty." He departed quickly.
Kay coughed meaningfully, catching her attention. He gestured at Caliburn's bloodstained blade. "I'll just get this cleaned up, shall I?"
"Yes. Thank you, Kay."
He offered her a little smile and followed Bedivere. Safir excused himself immediately, muttering something in the Saracen language she did not understand, and Cunedda offered her a solemn bow before also disappearing. Soon she was left alone in the bustling chaos of the dueling ground.
Several Romans collected Flollo's corpse and carried it off, undoubtedly to bury it with full honors. The British men-at-arms watched them warily, but Derfel appeared briefly, speaking softly, and they relaxed.
Victory was hers. She had captured a major city and disposed of a sizable force of enemy troops, all without losing a single warrior. She could hear the beginnings of song from around the camp as her men expressed their jubilation by engaging in the traditional British pastime. She had every right to be happy.
Yet she was not. Victory had been gained, but at a terrible cost to the people of Paris. Affiliated with the Roman Empire they might have been, but they were almost certainly concerned with living out their lives instead of invading Britain.
Even the Legions themselves were not enemies, truly. They had rebelled against the Emperor in Rome, and only fought her because she had come for Roman territory and found only insurgents.
This did not feel like a victory.
"With that attitude, they never will."
Merlin's voice washed over her in its smooth tenor, but Arturia lacked the energy to be surprised.
"I killed many who did not deserve to die." She looked up into the weathered, craggy face of the man to whom she owed her kingdom and saw an unusual solemnity in his eyes. The old Druid returned her gaze steadily.
"That usually happens when you rule a kingdom, though most of those aren't nearly so dramatic." Merlin shrugged. "It's one of the reasons anyone with half a brain doesn't want to rule. Too much responsibility. And before you ask," he leaned forward, "it's difficult enough to ensure your own followers' safety. Today was as great a victory as you could ever hope for."
Arturia let her gaze fall. "Would that it was not so."
Merlin nodded. "Indeed."
They spent a long moment in silence. Then,
"I will make a world where that is possible."
Merlin shook his head. "That in itself is impossible. It's good to have goals; keeps one motivated. But what you seek to do is to defy human nature and the way of the world. When conflict arises, those who do not deserve it suffer the most. There is no way to change that."
"Has anyone ever tried?" The young king asked, not looking up. "Rulers who seek to better the lives of their subjects are few and far between."
"This is not just 'bettering the lives of subjects''." Irritation swept across the ancient wizard's face. "You want to upend the natural order of things. You do realize how many people ended up dead because they wanted to challenge fate, right?"
"None of them had as wise an advisor as I do, though, did they?" Arturia allowed a smirk to curve her lips.
For a moment Merlin's eyes flared hot and she braced herself for an explosive outburst, but then the old man simply sighed and leaned on his staff.
"You stubborn child. You're going to be the death of me. Go then, establish your utopia. I'll be around to make sure reality doesn't hit you too hard in the gonads."
"I am so glad I have your blessing." Arturia replied dryly. Merlin waved his arm.
"Yes, yes, you don't need to be so droll about it. Well, that's all the philosophy I am willing to deal with right now. I think I'll pay a trip to Ireland; the women there are quite...mm, striking, and there's some things I need to do to put a lovely young royal on her proper path." He took his weight off the staff. "I'll leave you to your violence and righteous smiting; give that arrogant old ass of a Roman a good hiding from me. I never liked him."
Arturia stifled a smile. "Sometimes I wonder which one of us is the ruler, Merlin."
Merlin smirked. "Well then, stop wondering. I don't care nearly enough to govern a bunch of lackwits and deal with Kay on such a daily basis."
With that, the old rogue left, his stride that of a much younger man, and Arturia was left to ponder the path she had just set herself on. It would be long and hard, she knew, and there was no guarantee of success. It was probably impossible.
But what was the worth of a king who did not strive to make their kingdom a better place than it was when they received it?
For the sake of her people, for the sake of her country, she would try.