King Arthur: The Eve of Battle



It was unnatural, Lancelot had decided long ago, to be tied to a land not one’s own, to be forced to serve any master but oneself. For fifteen years, he’d chafed in service to the Romans, fighting their wars alongside his compatriots, rendering unto Caesar the service their fathers had promised him generations ago. In those years, he’d seen countless good men die violent, painful deaths —to what end? Despite the flattery the Romans used when speaking of the Sarmatians’ service, they all knew the truth: Britain was a failed experiment. His Sarmatian brothers who died in conflict died in vain, for Rome was withdrawing. With the ever-present threat of the native Britons now compounded by the threat of the Saxons invading from the north, Rome had admitted defeat and turned tail in order to protect its more valued territories, not wanting to waste more time, energy, or men on a sure disaster.

Today, he and his fellow Sarmatian cavalrymen had the papers guaranteeing their freedom and safe conduct across the Roman Empire in hand. Lancelot felt the weight of the scroll pressed against his side, where he had tucked it between his hauberk and his shirt. Freedom felt different than he’d expected when he’d fixed his mind on the subject during dark, rainy British nights with only the smell of dank wood smoke to accompany his thoughts. In his mind, freedom had been liberating, a delicacy he could relish in honor of those who had died before they could taste it. He’d also anticipated a good deal of drinking and wanton behavior involved. In reality, his freedom did nothing to abate the heaviness in his heart.

Instead of feeling liberated, Lancelot felt akin to the thick black smoke rolling against the green British plains in anticipation of the Saxon attack. Villagers fled on foot and in wagons; the Sarmatian knights accompanied the procession on horseback insofar as it took them toward Gaul and the rest of the Roman Empire. Arthur, however, stayed to fight the Saxons. Arthur and Guinevere rallied the Britons and planned to defend this land against its invaders. Thinking of it now, Lancelot laughed aloud at the irony that, here at the end of things, one who’d been a member of the Roman invaders chose to stay and fight to protect the Britons against a new invasion.

At the sound of Lancelot’s gruff laugh breaking through the thick air, Gawain glanced at him curiously from where he rode nearby. Lancelot shook his head. Gawain shrugged, turning his gaze forward once again.

When he was honest with himself, Lancelot fully acknowledged the fact that Arthur had been as much a slave as he, forced to serve at the mercy of the Empire’s whims. But Arthur was half Roman and, for no reason Lancelot could ever understand, truly believed in the Roman cause. In Arthur’s eyes, the Roman armies were missionaries as much as militants, spreading Christianity to the heathens of foreign lands. But Lancelot had never believed that any more than he believed in Arthur’s God. The Romans were not missionaries; they were plunderers who took what they could and left decimated native cultures in their wake, channeling all wealth and knowledge back to Rome.

Now Arthur, too, was free of Roman bonds. He had rejected them for service to a higher cause—God, perhaps, or the right of all men to live free in the land of their nativity, or the hope of uniting the Britons under his kingship. Arthur would make a good king, the knight mused as the sound of two of Bors’ children shouting imposed on his thoughts. Arthur’s unshakable beliefs and compassion made him a beloved leader and friend to the men he led. And people without a leader were doomed—if the Britons did not unite against the Saxons, they would surely face defeat. Merlin was revered, but he was not a military strategist. Against the Saxon hordes, his men would die. With Arthur, they had a chance of survival, of victory. A slim one, granted, but a chance nonetheless. A greater chance, Lancelot thought grimly, than any of his Sarmatian brethren had of finding their families or reestablishing the home lives to which they had told themselves all these years they wished to return. They were not family men now; they were warriors. He didn’t think they could ever erase that from their blood. Perhaps some of them could, he conceded —Galahad, especially, had struggled to maintain a sense of normalcy amidst the bloodshed. But him? No, he had no pretensions of truly returning home. Even if he could find his tribe, he had been young when he left; surely much had changed and the reality of his family—if any still survived—was no better than the memories nursed in his mind to survive long days and nights after battle and slaughter.

I will die in battle. Of that, I am certain. But hopefully a battle of my choosing.

When Arthur appeared through the smoke on the crest of that distant hill, Lancelot’s own words from their fight came back to him, unbidden. Arthur had chosen his battle. It was time now for the rest of them to choose theirs. Freedom lay both before and behind them now, differing only in quality and kind. And so it was that, at Arthur’s silent call, Lancelot turned back his horse along with his compatriots, because if he had no greater cause of his own, no family, no religion, no hope beyond the rush of battle and the clash of swords, then at least he could die in the service of a friend. ♥



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