He came at last, wounds scabbing and scarring, bones stiffening, hungrier and weaker by the day, to the monastery. She should have been the abbess, he thought bitterly as the porter fetched a woman her inferior in birth, piety, and sheer bloodyminded skill at running things. But a woman who flees to a monastery in disgrace cannot be its abbess, even if she was the daughter and wife of kings. Especially if she had been the wife of his king.
It was clear he had been in a battle, probably the battle, but the abbess was careful not to ask which side. Clever enough to know the danger of choosing a side, not skillful enough to choose the right one. And anyway, who would the right one be, now, with Arthur gone and the Table having killed each other and – and his own place as Arthur’s best man gone. He had thought he was used to the looks, the change in the very core of what he was – a renegade, a man in disgrace, a man bearing the guilt of splitting the Table. Of, perhaps, even bringing down Arthur.
But he is still Arthur’s man, will always be Arthur’s man, has been anointed to it like a man is anointed a priest. It is his being in a way no outbursts or anger or confusion can absolve from him. And after this, after all his greed and Arthur’s vengeance, he wants to kneel before him and rest his face in his lap and breathe the smell of him in fealty and repentance and devotion at first, while Arthur’s hands wind in his hair and they both weep. But then he knows Arthur would grow stiff and he would nuzzle forward, Arthur’s hands on his head, needy.
But instead the porter comes back with the abbess, and they make their pious welcomes, and he casts himself upon their mercy and they lead him to the guest house. When he has had soup and bread and beer in front of the fire, when he has bathed and been taken to the infirmary to have his wounds salved and bandaged, he sleeps. He wakes once and sees her in the corner of the room, talking to the infirmarian and desperately tries to rouse himself, but by the time he surfaces she is gone. He must have been making noise, because the infirmarian drugs him and he only wakes two days later with the end of a fever.
Where is she, where is she, he cries. The infirmarian shuffles and looks away, and dimly he knows that there cannot be a nun and a vagrant who were once lovers in the same monastery. If he doesn’t shut up, one of them will have to go, and he cannot inflict that on her and he cannot survive out there. He is an old man, and ruined in battle. She is an old woman and would be hunted down by the whole country, so he binds up his heart in silence. If this is the only, the last, way he can serve them, he will do it.
Where now are the horses, where now are the warriors, where are their seats, those heady evenings of flashing colour that vanish from his mind when he turns to look at them, where is his lord? Camelot stands in ruins, frost cracking the walls one stone from the next. Moss takes over, and grass springs up over the last of the corpses and the bones. No one goes there.
Lancelot cannot stay in the monastery, so close to her. Maybe a hero could, but he is not a hero. He is a man who desires, fierce and hot, and speaks selfishly and draws his sword even more selfishly. Either he wanders and dies, faithful to his lord and respectful of his lady, or he finds him and loves and serves him without fear. If he stays in this monastery any longer he will only ruin her shelter.
And so he goes, desolate as winter, across the land that is desolate with war and winter but beginning to forget both. He sleeps cold and hungry and in fits, waking with her taste in his mouth and the feeling of her breasts in his hands, and he forages for food and wood and cooks it over small smoky fires and walks on. Listening to his memories like a bard’s song will not feed or warm him, only drive him mad.
He keeps walking south and west until he comes into Arthur’s land, though what he will find in a dead man’s home he does not know. He sees very few people on the way, and those he sees do not acknowledge him as if they did not see him, as if he were not real. Is he so much an outcast?
And so he comes at last to a sod house with pigs and sheep and goats in the yard, and as he watches from a safe distance the door opens, showing yellow firelight from within, and a stooped, bearded man comes out. Lancelot’s heart stutters and stops for a moment, because he would know that man anywhere, even in the cold rain in what feels like another world. Without thinking about the possibility that Arthur might not want him back, he cries out and breaks into a stumbling run.
Arthur turns to face him and stands still, but when Lancelot crumples to the ground at his feet he folds over him and holds him to his chest. They stay there on the ground for a long time, rocking each other and weeping, while the sheep bawl for their dinner. Then they pick themselves up, brush off the mud, feed the animals, bring wood inside, and close the door behind them. It is all so strange to see Arthur confidently busy with animals, and Lancelot trails slightly helplessly around the yard after him, but when the door is closed he reaches up and cups the side of Arthur’s face in his hand and rests the other on his hip. There is a moment of tense desirous silence as they stare at each other, and then Arthur takes his face in both hands and pulls him in to be kissed.
It is a desperately hungry thing that feels like fire in his chest. He leans into Arthur’s hands wherever they run and aches for him. He will never have enough of this, but after some time the desire for another thing is sharper, and so he rests his head on Arthur’s chest, mutely asking his question. After a moment, Arthur grants him a kiss on the forehead. It is an easier thing to be lovers than lord and knight, and so it is what Lancelot has longed for above all.
Arthur heats them both a bath, and they sit almost uncomfortably tangled in his wooden tub. Weeks of grime slough off Lancelot along with the grief and fear. Maybe they will be back later, but for now his lord’s presence is all he needs to keep them at bay.
Lancelot relearns Arthur’s body, worshiping him with hands and mouth and cock. He spreads him out on his bed and kneels over him. He licks up his neck and down his chest, his lord bucking into his touch and gasping his name. He rests his head in his lord’s lap the way he dreamed of, taking his cock in his mouth and reveling in the way his cockhead presses against the back of his throat. And as he dreamed, Arthur twists his hands in his hair.