Arthur Castus offered his steed one last pat of gratitude before turning toward the group of slumbering men surrounding a nearby fire. His turn at watch was over, and the safety of their encampment now depended upon the expert eyes and ears of his loyal knight, Tristian.
The Woads, native fighters from the North, were once again threatening a section of Hadrianís Wall. Posted to the south of Britain two years previous, Arthur and his knights guarded the land now ruled by the great Roman Empire. Winter was fast approaching, and he could only pray the repeated skirmishes with Merlinís blue demons would cease until spring.
Arthur spared a fleeting look and nod for the man tending the fire. Food and drink were offered to him by his faithful servant, Jols, but Arthur declined. Monthsí old weariness lay heavy upon his shoulders, and the only nourishment he required was that of blessed sleep.
Seeking a spot away from his men but still within the reach of the fireís light, Arthur spread his cloak upon the ground and knelt in its center. For a moment his exhausted mind rendered the image of the cape as if it were a pool of blood with his body sinking beneath its surface. His imagination was easily snared, and it took a sharp, biting pain to yank him free of the illusion. The suddenness of which his focus shifted left Arthur struggling for breath.
"What?" Glancing down at the source of his discomfort, he was amazed to see fresh blood staining the cloth he had earlier wrapped around his hand.
In his haste to return to the warmth and welcome of his men, Arthur had stumbled over an unseen pile of rocks while gathering the reins of his horse. His left hand had suffered the brunt of his weight when he fell, and his palm was slashed open by the razor-sharp edge of a rock. He had bound the wound as best as he could in the dark and had basically ignored the pain until now.
He turned toward the fire, fully prepared to call Jols to his side, but the rumbling sound of Borsí snoring distracted him, and once again his injury was forgotten.
Bracing his back against the tree he had spread his cloak next to, Arthur made himself comfortable and attempted to ignore the aching muscles protesting his refusal to lie down and rest. He bit back a groan that spoke of too many days and nights in the saddle, and once again cursed the Woads for the chaos visited upon the territory assigned to him. Clasping his knee to his chest, he spent precious sleep time examining the faces of the men assigned to his command.
Most of those who lay before him had been with him for nearly a decade. Each one a Sarmatian, indebted by their forefathers to serve the Roman Empire for a total of fifteen years. At the end of their servitude they would be declared free men and allowed to return to their homelands far to the East.
Warming his hands with his breath, Arthur lowered his head so that his chin rested upon his bent knee. Minutes passed while he gazed fondly at every man whose face was turned in his direction.
As Pelagius, his beloved childhood mentor, had instructed him, Arthur had taken the solemn oath to protect, defend and value above all others the lives of those assigned to his care. His men had become exceedingly important to him, taking the place of his lost family. So important were these knights that Arthur had repeatedly sworn to God his willingness to sacrifice his very own life if it meant they would live. And if one should die, he would live his life gloriously in honor of their memory; this was the second pledge he had shouldered at the request of his mentor.
Arthur closed his eyes briefly, and the sigh that escaped his lips was tainted with extreme sadness.
Too many of his knights had died protecting the captured lands of Britain, protecting a wall that had been built three centuries before to prevent an invasion by the rightful owners of the wild and beautiful country Arthur had once called home.
Another sigh that closely resembled a sob nearly escaped his control, and he clenched his jaw shut to keep the sound from shattering the silence. He was beyond exhausted and thoroughly tired of living his life gloriously in memory of those who slept beneath the surface of the cold, hard earth. It tore at his soul every time he rode by the cemetery that lay beyond the walls of their fortress. The small plot of land was populated with far too many friends, and Arthur wept for each and every one he had been forced to bury there.
Opening his eyes, Arthur gazed upon the handsome features of young Gawain. How many times had he wished he was in Rome, living with these men at his side, not as indebted servants to the Emperor but as friends and comrades, as men enjoying the liberties and freedom granted to each and every Roman citizen? Men living the life they so desired.
"The life they so desired," Arthur whispered to the darkness.
Shifting his gaze, he sought out the one man who was much more than a brother-in-arms. He sought the face of the one who knew him better than any other living soul, the face of the man of whom he would have warming his bed and his heart if he was pursuing the life he so desired.
From that moment ten years ago when their eyes had met across a grassy field green and lush, Arthur had fallen under the spell of the mystery that was the foreigner named Lancelot, son of Saulos, conquered citizen of Sarmatia. The dark, brooding eyes, filled with passion and burdened with loneliness, had pulled him to Lancelotís side. Those eyes had looked into his soul, discovered his secret and answered his longing with a passion that even now left Arthur breathless with wonder.
Eyes shut in memory, he recalled their first moment of intimacy, the kiss that had laid claim to his heart and his future.
A longstanding disagreement over religion had brought the two of them to blows. It was a friendly fight they had entered into on numerous occasions. Only this time the tumble that sent them to the floor of the empty stables had placed Arthur squarely on top of Lancelot. The struggle for conquest was swiftly forgotten when Lancelot spread his legs, inviting Arthur into the welcoming heat of his desire.
Long denied yearnings had caught fire, erupting into a blaze that eroded Arthurís control. He had touched his lips to those of Lancelotís, rejoicing when they were met with a passion that equaled his own. Time flew as their eyes devoured unspoken emotions, and their mouths clung to each other, seeking, finding what they had only imagined in their dreams.
Hunger ruled their young bodies, groin grinding against groin, hands grasping, clutching, releasing bindings that restrained the heat threatening to consume them both. Victory was achieved swiftly and cries of completion greeted the mutual spilling of their release.
Arthur pressed his injured hand to his groin and growled when his manhood reminded him of the exhilaration that had raced through his veins when his body had first come into contact with Lancelotís lean frame. Their climax had been swift and fiery and had left them clinging to each other with grins of amazement on their faces.
A similar smile took shape as Arthur explored the darkness for those captivating eyes and sumptuous mouth that tortured him on a daily basis. His search widened to include the breadth of shoulders and narrowness of waist that would identify his lover.
His smile quickly slipped into a frown when he could not find Lancelot within the firelightís perimeter. Concerned for his missing companion, Arthur pressed his hands to the ground and was rising to his feet when stabbing pain reminded him of his wound. Hissing, he dropped back down and lifted his hand to his mouth, tearing at the bindings with his teeth.
When the last of the cloth was torn away, Arthur held his arm toward the light. His examination of the wound halted when his hand was cradled within one that was as familiar to him as was his own.
"What damage have you inflicted upon yourself this night, Arthur?"
Eyes the color of deep sorrel sought his, and Arthur struggled to remember the culprit responsible for his injury.
"Artorious? Is the pain so great that you cannot speak?"
The tender heat of Lancelotís lips touched his palm, and Arthur grew short of wind and hard of flesh.
The lips that were tending his wound curved in a knowing smile, which only increased Arthurís physical distress.
"Shall I call Jols, Arthur? Have him anoint your wound with salve and wrap it with fresh bindings?"
"You . . . you . . . ."
Arthur swallowed the lump of lust threatening to strangle him and glanced over Lancelotís shoulder toward the fire. "Jols has retired for the night." Extending his right hand, he tangled his fingers in the curls that framed Lancelotís face. "Will you tend to your commander?" he quietly asked.
Keeping hold of Arthurís hand, Lancelot rose to his feet. A reflection of the fireís flames danced in his heavy-lidded gaze, and Arthur offered no protest when his Samartian lover pulled him forward and cradled his head within the valley of his groin.
"As long as I draw breath, Arthur, I will forever tend to your needs," Lancelot replied, his voice rough and laden with emotion.
Arthur tilted his head back and lost his breath when he saw the look of devotion and love on Lancelotís face. Whispering his loveís name, he slid his hand up Lancelotís arm, curving it over his shoulder and exerting enough pressure to coax the man to kneel before him.
"My needs are great, my friend, and short is the night."
A sly grin bordered by the barest outline of a beard answered Arthur, followed seconds later by hands skilled in the task of disarming. Without a single word, he was guided behind the tree and soon found himself half-naked, hard as the steel of his fatherís sword and hoarsely begging for the mouth that repeatedly called his name.
"Arthur, Arthur, Arthur."
"Love me, Lancelot," Arthur ordered, opening his arms to the man hovering above him.
"I am yours to command. May your god take notice and never remove me from your side."
Lancelot flowed forward gracefully, lowering his slighter weight down upon Arthur and seeking out his lips with a kiss that communicated much more than physical need.
Sighing with contentment, Arthur welcomed Lancelotís ravenous mouth while offering up a silent prayer that echoed his loverís petition.
"Take notice, my Lord. I beg Thee, take notice."