Some people are made for knighthood; others have knighthood thrust upon them. Sir Rodney of McKay was one of the latter sort.
He'd been packed off for fostering and later for squiring because, well, it was what one did. His father was a big stickler for tradition, the family honor, and all those things that Rodney didn't really care about. Given the choice, Rodney would have happily stayed cloistered with his books and natural specimens and bubbling experiments in glass beakers that his sister had sent him from her husband's home in Spain. He'd tried very seriously to talk his father into sending him off for the monastic life, not out of religious fervor but more the hope of solitude. However, despite the most convincing arguments he could muster -- "A priest in the family, it's very honorable!" -- his father wouldn't hear of it: Rodney was going to go out and kill heathens like every other man in the family, and that was that.
After a series of disastrous squirely experiences, he'd managed to achieve full-fledged knighthood mainly by cheating. His father would have had him flogged if he'd known, but Rodney was good at cheating; it was what happened when you grew up as a small bookish boy in a family of macho manly men whose hobbies ran to quaffing, belching and stabbing innocent woodland creatures. There was a good reason why his sister had positively jumped at the chance to marry Sir Kalebi of Catalonia and flee as far away from the family estate as she could get.
Rodney didn't particularly want to be a knight, especially if it meant going out and killing heathens, which he rather suspected he'd be very bad at, besides having nothing against heathens in the first place. But it beat being a squire for the rest of his life and having the knights heap abuse on him. And so, with a little help from a source he tried not to think about these days, he'd constructed a veritable arsenal of spring-loaded jousting poles, trick saddles, suits of armor that dropped banana peels, and other specimens of what his father used to call "that useless boy's infernal devices". No one could figure out how he'd done it, but at least he wasn't a squire anymore.
Come to find out, though, being a knight didn't make him immune to scorn, abuse and practical jokes; it just meant that the others had to be more subtle about it.
Like the horse they'd given him.
"Get up," Rodney said helplessly, as his horse browsed on Lady Kell's prize-winning rosebushes. The roses, imported from all over Europe, covered the bowers and gardens of the castle in cascades of white, pink and red. Rodney found them a prickly, useless nuisance, especially since the princess, Duke Kell's daughter, had a habit of hiding in them when Rodney had been dispatched, like today, to find the headstrong nuisance of a girl.
He couldn't imagine why the horse would want to eat the thorny, irritating things. Probably just to annoy him and get him in trouble.
"Get up, you ... heathen scumbag," he said again, and kicked the horse in the side. The horse rolled its eye sideways at him and went on munching. Its name was Warstrider Wolf-Stomper -- which had probably been more apropos twenty years ago in its heyday -- but it never responded to it. Either Warstrider was deaf, a definite possibility, or it just didn't like him.
"Look, you're going to be in trouble the same as I am if we don't find the bloody girl -- I mean, the Lady Guinevere."
Warstrider seemed unimpressed.
Rodney was hot, tired, thirsty and he'd been riding around the damn castle for what felt like days. As the low knight in the local hierarchy, he'd been assigned Guinevere-monitoring duty, which had sounded awesome at first -- she was, after all, supposedly the most beautiful woman in all of Britain, which sounded like a ludicrously romanticized exaggeration to Rodney, but she certainly was easy on the eyes, and being around her did squishy things to his insides. Unfortunately, her beauty was offset by her skill at ditching her guardians and running off to consort with washerwomen and other forms of peasant life.
And today, of all days ...! At the rate thing were going, Sir Rodney, and more importantly Guinevere, were going to miss King Pendragon's coronation. Rodney didn't think anyone would mind if he wasn't there, but if Guinevere didn't show up, her father would ... well, given the Duke of Kell's reputation for having his enemies put to death, he didn't want to think about what his own fate might be. Rodney had his own plans, and being summarily executed for losing the Duke's daughter on the King's coronation day was not part of that.
Rodney contemplated the wisdom of bellowing "Guinevere!" at the top of his lungs. He'd been calling her quietly, like a missing cat, all morning long, but that wasn't working. On the other hand, the last thing he wanted to do was draw attention to the horse's illegal activities.
Rodney kicked Warstrider in the ribs again.
Warstrider moved on from the pink to the white roses.
Rodney cast a nervous glance over his shoulder. Lady Elizabeth Kell wasn't exactly evil, in quite the same manner as her husband, but in her own way she could be more terrifying. He felt a cold trickle of sweat down his spine and decided to try a different avenue of attack on the problem. The stables were, so far as he could remember, right on the other side of this wall. "Stableboy!" he shouted. "Stableboy! Ahoy!"
After a few moments, something rustled on the other side of the wall and the head stableboy trotted around the corner -- a slight, nondescript lad in homespun peasant rags. Rodney tried to recall the boy's name, and drew a blank, even though he was fairly sure the boy had been around Kell's estate as long as he had. "Stableboy," he said, striving for a haughty tone of proper knightliness -- all he had to do was try to channel the way the other knights talked to him. "This horse needs to be, uh--"
"I can see the problem, my lord," the stableboy said smoothly, without so much as raising an eyebrow. Moving with fluid grace most uncommon in the peasantry, he took the horse's bridle and scritched gently behind its ear, murmuring to it. Warstrider pressed its head against him like a giant cat, drooling bits of prize-winning rosebush on his shoulder, and allowed itself to be led away.
"How did you do that?" Rodney demanded.
"Long experience, my lord." The stableboy led Warstrider away from the roses and then let him go; the horse stood, swaying a bit, which was basically normal for him. "Is there any other assistance you need, my lord?"
The stableboy's name finally came to Rodney -- Teylaval -- along with the recollection that Guinevere could often be found spending time with the kid's grandmother or aunt or whatever she was -- Charin, the old washerwoman who plied her trade in the millpond behind the stables. "Yeah, is Charin around?"
Teylaval hesitated for a brief, incriminating moment before nodding. "Yes, my lord, my honored grandmother is at the river. Shall I take you to her?" The stableboy rested a hand on Warstrider's bridle.
Rodney's slightly battered pride fought a very brief, losing battle with expediency. "Yeah. Uh, make it so."
The stableboy gave him a quick, shy smile and tugged gently at Warstrider's harness. Gentle as a lamb, the old war horse followed the boy around the end of the rose-infested wall into the stableyard.
Familiar smells assailed Rodney -- the clean smell of hay, the tang of manure and the musty scent of animals. The stable had been a haven in his childhood from the torment of his older brothers and fellow squires: a haven shared with one other person, the only member of his family who hadn't made his childhood a living hell.
He thrust it away. Kell had taken that from him. And Kell, eventually, would pay. But first, he had to find Kell's daughter before he ended up meeting the same fate.
Guinevere ducked her head, embarrassed, and moved her legs out of the way of the splashing water. "Sorry, Mother Charin. I'll remember that."
She was sitting on a sun-warmed rock at the edge of the millpond, her skirts tucked up around her, a basket of herbs in her lap. Charin crouched beside the water's edge, working as she talked, dipping items of laundry from her basket into the still surface of the pond and beating them on the rocks. Her hands and arms were as strong as any man's, worn down to whip-thin, corded muscle; Guinevere watched, impressed, in between sorting the contents of the basket.
"Are you sure I can't help you?" she asked, a bit shyly. "You shouldn't have to work so hard, at your age."
Charin shook her head firmly, slopping another piece of Guinevere's mother's linens into the water. "You are helping me, dear. And your father would have me beaten if he found his only daughter working like a common peasant."
"You're anything but a common peasant," Guinevere protested with quick loyalty.
Charin stood up and stretched, grimacing in pain as she popped her spine. "And you, my dear, have the makings of a fine healer. You have a rare gift." Her mouth opened as if she meant to say more; then she closed it and took another piece of linen from her laundry basket.
"You can say it," Guinevere said with a sigh. "It's a shame I have to spend my life as my mother has: married to a man I don't love, keeping account books for his estate while he runs off to pacify the barbarians in the north lands or some such thing."
Charin snorted a laugh and shook her head, gripping the linen in her strong hands. "I never thought to hear a girl complain about a betrothal to the King of all Britain! From all I've heard, he isn't even old."
"He's probably ugly and cruel," Guinevere protested. "Besides ..." But then she paused. No, she would not involve Charin in her plans, or any of her friends here. Her father would be very angry, but she hoped to make it clear that her actions were her own, and that no one at the estate was deserving of punishment.
She simply couldn't do as her mother had done: giving up all hope of happiness for a marriage to a cruel man. In Guinevere's experience, all knights and nobles, including her father, were much the same: crude, loud, violent, and generally fairly stupid. Many could not even read. Guinevere was well aware that her father relied on her mother to write his letters for him.
No. Not for her, that life. Her parents had made her the finest match in all of Britain -- to the Pendragon himself! -- but, she thought, one rude and loud noble was much like another.
Well, Guinevere thought, raising her head, perhaps not all alike.
Sir Rodney of McKay, probably the least capable but the most interesting knight she'd ever met, came around the corner of the stables on a staggering, ancient horse that looked half ready for the knackers. Teyla was leading it -- no, Guinevere reminded herself sternly, not Teyla,Teylaval. Guinevere had actually helped Charin come up with the deception in the beginning, when Charin's daughter had died of a fever and sent Charin's tomboyish granddaughter to live with them. An orphaned peasant girl had no good prospects, especially in a household run by Guinevere's father, but at least as a boy Teylaval could tend the horses that she loved, and she was safe from the knights' lusts -- at least, most of them.
Guinevere couldn't help envying Teyla her freedom. The two girls were similar in age, but Guinevere had to spend most of her time inside, learning from her mother the details of running the estate -- which she would one day have to apply to running her husband's estate.
Well, not if she had anything to say about it.
"Sir Rodney," she greeted him, setting the basket of herbs aside and smoothing down her skirts. "A fine day for a ride."
Teyla led the horse to the edge of the millpond and let it drink. Sir Rodney glowered down at Guinevere. He was red-faced and sweating. "You know perfectly well what day it is. I've been hunting all over this estate for you. Your mother is frantic, half the household has left already, and your father will have my head on a pike if we're late. Possibly literally."
Guinevere drew a deep breath and stood, brushing off dust. She hadn't realized how late it was -- the temptation was so great, to stay here in the place she loved rather than facing the unknown world. "I'm sorry, Sir Rodney," she said. "Please tell my mother I'll be along shortly."
"After everything I went through to find you? No way. I'm escorting you myself."
Guinevere sighed. Sir Rodney might not be the most effective knight in her father's garrison, by a long shot, but he was certainly stubborn. "Very well," she said, and then, impulsively, she flung her arms around Charin, not caring for the moment about propriety. "Thank you for everything," she whispered in the old woman's ear.
Rodney made an impatient sound. "Look, you're just going away for a few hours, okay? Come on, come on."
Charin's thin, powerful arms tightened around Guinevere and then released her. Stepping back, Guinevere turned away before she could see the expression on her friend's face; she did not know how much of her plan Charin had guessed. Using a lifetime's practice, she schooled her face to calmness. "Come, then," she said, and marched briskly for the main grounds of the estate. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Rodney struggling with the horse, attempting to follow her until Teyla took pity on him and led it by the bridle again.
Guinevere heard him ask plaintively, "You're coming to the coronation, right?"
"I suppose I shall be, to tend the horses, if the Duke wishes it," Teyla said.
"Praise God," Rodney muttered under his breath. "At least there'll be one person around that damned place who knows what they're doing."
Guinevere glanced over her shoulder to see Teyla blush in a most unboyish sort of way and look down at the ground.
The majority of the Kell party had already left for town, including Guinevere's father, but her mother remained, along with a handful of ladies-in-waiting and a very impatient-looking escort of knights and squires. Guinevere had spent the last two days being bathed and primped to within an inch of her life; now she submitted to yet another beauty regimen, and the interminable braiding of her long, golden hair.
"Mother, we're going to be riding," she protested, ducking a powderpuff. "None of the ladies at the coronation will look their finest. It hardly makes sense to spend hours putting up my hair if it's just going to fall down again."
Lady Elizabeth just looked down her nose at her daughter. "This will be the first time your betrothed will meet you, Guin. This is probably the most important day of your life."
"We've been betrothed since I was five," Guinevere protested. And she'd thought she'd dodged that particular sword-stroke, what with Lord Pendragon's entire family being mysteriously slain, only to have the boy of the family turn up living in some hovel in the forest and pulling a sword out of a stone or some such nonsense. Couldn't fight destiny, there was a lesson for you.
Well, her destiny was not to be Mrs. Pendragon. As soon as she'd gotten through the coronation nonsense, she planned to be off for the town cloister. All she had to do was get inside its walls and claim sanctuary; the nuns wouldn't turn her out, and even her father could not possibly be so rude and violent that he'd sack a nunnery. And then she could spend a quiet life ministering to the sick.
It won't be that easy, a little voice inside her head said, but Guinevere steadfastly ignored it. She had to take this chance; it might be the only time she'd be in town, with such a large crowd of people to lose herself in, until her own wedding.
By the time the remainder of the household rode out of the gates, Guinevere's scalp ached from having her hair pulled so tight, and she could barely catch a single glimpse of the countryside with all of her ladies-in-waiting jockeying for position around her horse, holding parasols over her to keep the sun from ruining her complexion. Or at least that was their intended purpose whenever her mother looked over. In reality, they took every opportunity to quietly jostle her horse with their own, under the pretense of merely having difficulty navigating the rough road. Most of them were third and fourth daughters of various minor nobility, and all of them were massively jealous.
I'd trade places with any one of you, Guinevere thought bitterly, and then with a bit more interest, Perhaps I could trade places with one of you? She frowned at the girls around her, all of them avoiding her glances. Most were entirely wrong -- short, dark and pudgy, or tall, skinny and redheaded. But there were a couple of blondes. Guinevere made a mental note to speak to one of them as soon as possible after the coronation. She hadn't been able to figure out how she was going to give her father's men the slip, but that idea had definite potential.
The trickiest thing would be getting out from under her mother's scrutiny. Guinevere frowned at Lady Elizabeth's straight back as the woman rode in front of her and her group of serving women. It was easy to forget, sometimes, that her mother was not really that many years older than Guinevere herself, and had in fact been very young when she'd married Guinevere's father. Guinevere had been her first and only child; it was said in the castle that this was because the birth had been difficult, but Guinevere had seen her mother asking Charin for herbs to brew up special teas ... teas Guinevere was not allowed to taste. Charin had never answered her questions about it, telling her sternly that a healer's business was strictly between herself and her patient. But Guinevere had recognized some of the ingredients -- mistletoe, for one, and birthwort -- herbs whose purpose was to prevent or end a pregnancy.
I will not be like her, Guinevere vowed, watching her mother's stiff back. I will not live my life as a prisoner in a cruel husband's house.
While she contemplated plans of escape, they left the fields behind and rode through the streets of the town. Crowds bustled around them, and Guinevere wished they could stop and buy one of the sweet-smelling pastries that hawkers around them were selling, but her mother hustled them through, straight to the gates of the towering Pendragon castle. Unlike her father's sprawling and not very defensible estate, the Pendragon ancestral home was a fortress, built on a cliff overlooking the town. From all she'd heard, it had lain empty after the slaughter of the Pendragons -- some said under a spell, too -- until the return of the rightful King.
She could almost hear Sir Rodney scoffing at this. Superstitious nonsense, he'd say. Guinevere smiled; she liked discussing such things with Sir Rodney. Unlike the other knights, he was intelligent enough to make good conversation, and unlike her ladies-in-waiting, he didn't simper and tell her only what she wanted to hear. In fact, he'd usually get carried away and then apologize profusely for being a little more blunt and honest than was really seemly when talking to a lady.
Guinevere only wished she knew more people like that. Perhaps marrying Sir Rodney wouldn't be so bad, she thought, looking around for him, but now that they were inside the Pendragon grounds, he'd vanished off somewhere with the other knights. A groom in dark brown and silver Pendragon livery took her horse and bowed to her. Guinevere saw her mother talking to a servant, and then they were all hustled from the courtyard into the castle.
Guinevere had expected some sort of dining hall, so she gasped aloud when they emerged into a huge open amphitheatre in the rock. She could tell immediately that this was used as a tournament ground, like the open fields near her father's estate, but right now it thronged with people and there wasn't a horse in sight. She and her mother were led up to a dais at one end of the great open space and given a place to stand. Her father was already there; he shot her a quick scowl, as if to say, Don't embarrass the family. In her entire life, she could not remember seeing a soft expression on his face.
Feeling like the center of attention, Guinevere forced herself not to reach for her mother's hand like a child. There was a lot of talking, and then a young man in brown Pendragon livery came out, walking softly, his head held high. A murmur spread through the crowd.
Guinevere stared. This was Ronon Pendragon, the long-lost heir to the throne? Why, he was so young, barely older than she herself. His hair was long, tied back from his face and wound into loose mats, and he looked as if he'd rather be anywhere other than here. His eyes roved over the crowd like a trapped animal's. When they reached Guinevere, she drew together all her courage and offered him a quick smile of sympathy and support.
He didn't smile back with his lips, but his eyes smiled, a flash of warmth that made her belly go hot. None of the knights or squires that she'd met had ever made her feel like that, not even Sir Rodney, although he was sweet and much gentler than the rest.
Perhaps this marriage thing wouldn't be so bad, she thought weakly. But, no, she had plans, and not even an unexpectedly young and, wow, very attractive King was going to change those plans.
While she was distracted, there had been some more talking and a simple circlet of gold was placed atop the King's braided head. Then people were coming forward to talk to him, and Guinevere's father took her arm in a grip like iron. "Be polite," he hissed into her ear, in a voice meant only for them.
What am I going to do? she wondered, but she was far too afraid of her father to protest; all she could do was stumble along and try not to be dragged like a sack of potatoes, until she found herself standing in front of the young King.
"My daughter, the Lady Guinevere," the Duke of Kell said in a low, fierce voice. "Your betrothed, my liege." And, a bit slowly, he went down to one knee.
Guinevere looked up at the King -- and up, and up; he was shockingly tall. His eyes were fixed on her father warily, but as he lowered them to meet her own, his fierce gaze softened. Guinevere's stomach did that warm glowing thing again.
"Lady Guinevere," he said. He had a deep and commanding voice, a voice she could feel all the way down to her toes.
Guinevere curtsied as flawlessly as she knew how. "Highness," she said, and realized that she was trembling as she held out a hand. The King took it -- his fingers were rough and callused in a way that she recognized from spending time with Charin and Teyla: not sword-calluses such as the knights bore, but the calluses of a lifetime's hard work.
He lifted her hand, and she felt his lips brush lightly across her knuckles, his beard tickling her skin. When she took back her hand, she could feel the heat mounting in her cheeks, and as she turned away she was glad for the first time that her father was there to seize her arm once again in his stony grasp. Otherwise her knees might have failed and she would have spilled on the ground in front of everyone.
I'd better get myself to a nunnery as quickly as possible, Guinevere thought as she took her place beside her mother, while more nobles came up to swear fealty to the King. I am beginning to have very unladylike thoughts.
He hated these get-togethers. On Duke Kell's estate, everything was fine (well, as fine as it could be, considering that he was forced to do a killer's bidding, but he kept telling himself it was only temporary). But whenever the knights and landholders of the different baronies and duchies got together, there was too much of a chance that he'd run into someone he knew. Rodney usually tried to beg off from this sort of thing, and in fact, he'd tried to put feelers around to see if he could get himself left behind to guard the castle. No such luck, and so here he was, trying to keep his head down and wishing desperately for a helmet to hide his face. His father was definitely here -- Rodney had heard his father's name called some time back, and had hidden himself behind a particularly tall knight even though he was so far in the back of the crowd that he couldn't possibly be seen. And if his father was here, then his brothers probably were too.
A surge of bitterness at the thought of his brothers rose up, choking him. Rodney turned his face away and sought to calm himself. He'd had plenty of practice at choking back bile -- he lived on Duke Kell's estate, after all, and saw that hated face almost every day.
And a fat lot of good you're doing there, he thought. As it turned out, a revenge quest sounded very noble and fine, but he'd spent several years now with the target of his hatred within his reach on an almost-daily basis, and had yet to actually do anything about it. He'd come up with lots of plans, many of them involving highly complicated devices, but still hadn't followed through with any of them -- though he'd built a number of small working models.
If Duke Kell ever searched his room, Rodney suspected he'd be headed for the gallows. The thought made a cold sweat break out across his body.
But, when you're a very lousy knight who can barely even handle a sword, you can't exactly walk up to a much better knight and lop off his head. And the idea of even trying made Rodney feel queasy.
Coward, he thought. At this rate he was doomed to serve Kell until he died. Well, maybe he'd get lucky and someone else would kill the bloody-handed murderer for him.
His mind was far away, not paying much attention to the interminable ceremony until a sudden shift in the crowd's movements got his attention. After a final round of cheering, they began to break up and drift around in clumps. Great, Rodney thought with a sigh. The really boring part of the afternoon was over; now for the so-called "entertainment": grown men dressing up in washtubs and riding around on horses until they beat each other senseless. He stepped back, turned around -- and found himself looking one of his brothers in the face.
He might have been able to salvage the situation, too, if one of the Pendragon servants hadn't come up to him just then. "Sir Rodney of McKay?"
"Yes," Rodney said with an inward whimper, seeing his brother's eyebrows go up. "Do you want something?"
"The tourney will be starting shortly, my lord, and I need to make sure that everyone knows the location of their respective pavilions." The servant pointed out a set of flags in the Kell family colors on the far side of the amphitheatre.
"Yes, yes, thank you, now go away." Rodney turned and tried to lose himself in the crowd, but his brother closed the distance between them with a few quick steps, blocking his retreat and backing him into an alcove. No one paid attention to them; the bustle of the tourney preparations went on around them.
"Sir Rodney of McKay?" His brother's lip curled. "What's that supposed to be, somewhere in Scotland?"
"Go away, David," Rodney hissed. He didn't really have a least favorite brother -- they were all more or less equally bad, and there were five of them. David was one of the middle ones. If he was here, they probably all were.
"Ashamed of us, are you?" David grinned nastily. "Wait until I tell your new liege-lord about the real you. The Duke of Kell, is it?"
All the work he'd done, building a cover, blown instantly. He'd never get near Kell again. "You wouldn't dare," Rodney hissed, and just like that, he was ten years old, always smaller, always trying to defend himself from bullies' fists with inadequate words. His hands curled up at his sides, balling into fists.
David grinned maliciously. "Oh, you're going to fight me now? That ought to be good. Guess you have to fight your own battles now, since Dad's bastard isn't around to defend you, huh? Oh wait, he can't; he's dead."
The voice that emerged from Rodney's throat barely sounded like his own. "Don't you dare talk about him."
"Killed by a jealous husband, I heard," his brother went on gleefully. "Of course, what kind of conduct can you expect from a chambermaid's son? Good thing Father never formally acknowledged him -- it would have been a dreadful stain on the family honor. We're all better off without --"
He broke off, stumbling backwards, as Rodney took a clumsy swing at him. David jumped away, laughing, his powerful muscles flexing under his chain mail. "This ought to be good," he said, cracking his knuckles. "Too bad Father's busy getting ready for the tourney; I'm sure he'd love to see what you've become -- a common brawler, hardly better than the bastard."
"His name," Rodney hissed, "was John," and he threw himself at David, swinging wildly.
The crack of David's fist across his face sent him staggering backwards, falling to his knees as stars exploded in his vision. This, he thought woozily, steadying himself with a hand on the ground, was why he didn't do this kind of thing -- no pain threshold, and lousy reflexes to boot.
"John always stood up for you, heaven knows why," his brother snarled, moving forward as Rodney tried to gather his scattered wits. "And he thrashed me a time or two for trying to give you your just desserts. I think it's payback time, Rodney."
Rodney blinked, feeling completely useless; all he could do was raise his hands to protect himself.
"Stop!" a voice cried, and a small shape darted between the two of them. Rodney blinked woozily at the back of someone in undyed peasant's clothing.
"Get out of my way, boy; don't you know you're talking to your better?" David snapped.
Rodney realized that the peasant was Teylaval just as the stableboy kicked David in the crotch, small toes unerringly finding the gap between his leggings and the tail of his chain-mail shirt. David turned red, then white, and keeled over, gaping.
Rodney gaped, too. It was death for a peasant to strike a knight. But, glancing around, he saw that no one in the preoccupied crowd was paying attention. The only witnesses were the three of them.
Teylaval silently offered Rodney a hand getting to his feet. Teylaval's hands were small, but he was strong for his size -- it came of working with horses, no doubt.
David sat up slowly, shaking, getting his breath back. "Kill you," he gasped. "I'll have you strung up in front of the whole town --"
"I don't think so," Rodney said, flexing his sore jaw and shrugging off Teylaval's steadying hand. "Unless you really want to tell everyone that a little peasant boy so easily felled a proud lord of the Sheppard family with one blow? And in such an embarrassing way, too! I'm sure that'll do wonders for your reputation."
David's lip curled, but he remained silent, one hand pressed to his groin.
"I wouldn't tell Father about seeing me, either," Rodney added, deciding to go for broke and push his luck while he was ahead. "Unless you want the story of David Sheppard's Embarrassing Adventure to be spread in every tavern in town. One-Kick David, they'll call you --"
"You'll pay for this," David said blackly. "You and that boy." With a final hate-filled glower, he turned and limped off into the crowd, leaving Rodney and Teylaval standing awkwardly in the shadows. After a moment, Teylaval tilted his chin up.
"If you wish to punish me, my lord, I will accept whatever you deem appropriate."
"Punish you? Whatever for?" Rodney rubbed his jaw; it felt like some teeth had been loosened, but he didn't think he'd lost any. "You might have just saved my life. At the very least, you kept me from getting my teeth knocked in." It should have been difficult to bend his pride and admit that he owed a favor to a commoner, but the only person who had stood in his corner throughout his miserable childhood had also been a stableboy. "Thank you," Rodney added sincerely.
Teylaval blushed, and Rodney found himself wondering how old the kid was. Not more than twelve or so, he'd thought from the height, but after seeing the boy's calm self-assurance in the fight, he was starting to wonder. Peasants were often short from bad food, weren't they? John had been much slighter than any of their other brothers, even Rodney himself.
Rodney scanned across the top of the crowd to make sure that his father's banners were far away from Kell's -- all the way on the other side of the tourney grounds, he saw with relief. Some of the competitors were already coming together with a great clash of iron, sending cheers up from the audience. "Well," he said with a sigh, "let's go over to our pavilion and watch the idiots beat each other into chopped meat."
"You do not enjoy the tourneys?" Teylaval asked in surprise, falling into step a pace behind him. "I find them very exciting. I have rarely had a chance to watch."
Rodney snorted. "There's not much to watch. Morons in metal cookpots beating on each other with sticks."
"Don't you fight in tournaments?"
"Not if I can help it," Rodney said. He hadn't actually been tapped as a champion in a very long time -- ever since Kell's household became aware of his appalling fighting skills, in fact. No one wanted their side to lose, and asking Rodney to fight on your behalf was the best way to do that. If he ever did have to fight, he had a whole chest full of nasty, highly unchivalrous little surprises for his opponent -- at home, in his chambers. Luckily, with so many more qualified knights around, he couldn't imagine that anyone here would expect him to do anything.
A roar went up from the crowd. Drawn by a vague sort of curiosity, Rodney squinted past the milling crowd to see a knight in black armor, riding a coal-black horse, circling a fallen rider in Sheppard family colors. Good, he thought nastily; he hoped it was one of his brothers, and hoped the bruises hurt.
"The Black Knight is here!" Teylaval said in an eager tone.
Rodney glanced at him. "The who?"
"You have not heard of the Black Knight?" Teylaval paused, clearing his throat and remembering his place, "... sir."
"I don't follow the tourneys," Rodney mumbled, rubbing his hand across his throbbing jaw.
"No one knows who he is," Teylaval said as they circled around the tourney field. Another cheer went up from the crowd, along with a few boos, as another champion went down under the Black Knight's lance. "He appeared a few months ago and has been undefeated since."
"Publicity stunt," Rodney scoffed, ducking under the edge of the Kell pavilion. A few nearby squires and waiting-women glanced at him without much interest and then went back to watching the festivities. "Someone's hireling, no doubt."
"That would be unchivalrous," Teylaval said. The stableboy was sober-faced; Rodney couldn't tell if he was entirely serious or making a deadpan joke.
"Chivalry," Rodney said bitterly. "This bunch talk about it, but I don't think any of them knows what it is."
The crowd roared and Teylaval leaned around Rodney eagerly to watch another knight bite the dust. This one had to be dragged off the field. Rodney sighed and looked around to see if anyone had brought a book. The women often did. Maybe someone had something interesting.
"House of Kell!" the Pendragon crier called, to cheers from the crowd. "Send forth your champion!"
"Fun," Rodney muttered, surreptitiously rooting around in one of the ladies' sewing baskets; they often hid books underneath the balls of yarn.
"Sir Rodney of McKay," a clear voice rang out across the field. Rodney stiffened and dropped the basket, which earned him a dirty look from the nearby women -- and curious glances from everyone else.
He knew that voice.
David Sheppard. You ass. I should have told Teylaval to beat you to a pulp.
Rodney ducked out of the pavilion to find himself the center of attention as David called his name a second time. "Send forth Sir Rodney!" David shouted across the field. "We've heard of him. We want to see how he fights!"
Duke Kell glowered at Rodney with a brow like a thundercloud. Then he looked out across the field at the Black Knight, patiently waiting, unbeaten. And he smiled. It was not a nice smile.
"I think that sounds an excellent idea," he said, stepping back. "Your mettle is unproven, Sir Rodney. Why don't you show this household a demonstration of your fighting prowess?"
A few of Kell's other knights looked irritated, no doubt having hoped to get their own shot at stupid glory, but most looked entertained. Rodney was aware that he hadn't made any friends here -- he hadn't exactly been trying, and Kell didn't attract a particularly good class of knight anyway -- but the ring of unfriendly faces made his stomach drop to his toes. The only person who looked sympathetic was Teylaval, along with a few of the women who gave him pitying looks.
He cast a quick look around for Guinevere. She liked him, at least. She wouldn't want to see his neck broken. He might lose face, but at least he'd still be alive. But Guinevere was nowhere to be seen.
Rodney thought he might throw up. Maybe he could convince them that he was sick, possibly contagious --
Kell clapped his hands. "Well, what are you waiting for? Have his horse and armor brought!"
From the row of proud warhorses, a couple of the boys dragged Warstrider, who appeared to be more interested in browsing on a patch of vines growing up the side of the amphitheatre. Kell's armsmaster came forward with an armload of Rodney's patchy, ill-fitting armor. He couldn't even remember the last time he'd worn it.
"You need a squire to help you," the armsmaster murmured.
All of the assembled squires took a hasty step backwards. Rodney was obviously going to lose the joust -- a point that even Rodney was willing to cheerfully concede, especially if it would get him out of it -- and it was equally obvious that none of the boys wanted the shame of Rodney's no-doubt-crushing defeat to ricochet back onto them.
Rodney looked across the assembled boys -- and behind them, to Teylaval in the shadows of the pavilion, watching quietly with ill-concealed excitement shining in his dark eyes. The expression was familiar but it took Rodney a moment to realize why -- and when he did, grief crushed his heart in an iron fist. That was the expression that John had always worn when he'd watched the tournaments -- the expression of a boy who wanted desperately to become a knight, but, being of low birth, had no hope of ever doing so. It had been one of the cruelest twists of their respective fates: Rodney wanted nothing to do with knighthood, but was forced to make that his life's path; John wanted nothing more, but could never touch a weapon or ride a horse unless their father acknowledged him ... and that had never happened in John's lifetime.
"Him," Rodney said, pointing at Teylaval.
The armsmaster blinked. "My lord, that's -- the stableboy."
"So?" Rodney said sharply. "So he knows horses! I'd much rather have him than one of these ... these pampered mama's boys." All of the rebuffed squires, who just moments ago had been vying to avoid being chosen, now glared at him with bitter enmity. Well, served them right; they reminded him unpleasantly of the pack of status-conscious twits who used to bully him during his own squire days. "Well, boy? What are you waiting for? Get up here and help me prepare my horse!"
Teylaval stood for a split second, frozen in place, and then raced past the other boys, practically glowing. Having had no squire training, he had to study the pieces of armor for a moment, but quickly figured out where everything fit. At the armsmaster's impatient urging, several of the other boys came reluctantly forward to help; the Black Knight still waited with no sign of impatience, but the crowd was beginning to murmur restlessly. Getting mounted was just as unpleasant as Rodney had expected, and his armor pinched in various places.
"Good luck," Teylaval said, smiling up at him.
"I'm totally going to die," Rodney whimpered, and he kicked Warstrider repeatedly until managing to coax a wobbling trot out of him.
The Black Knight, naturally, was riding a gigantic jet-black charger that looked as if it could eat Warstrider in two bites -- or, at least, flatten him into a thin paste in a couple of passes.
"Hi," Rodney called weakly across the space between them.
The Black Knight sat his horse impassively, looking as if he could do this all day
They were as alone as two people could be while surrounded by several thousand screaming tournament groupies. With the crowd roaring, Rodney knew that no one could hear anything he said out here, which meant he had nothing to lose (except a gruesome death) by taking the coward's way out. "So, uh, I think we both know I'm going to lose, and I just wanted you to know that I'll be happy to, you know, jump down and save us both the trouble of knocking me off my horse. I'm going to end up on the ground in any case, and we may as well do it in the way that's the least trouble for both of us."
The Black Knight didn't move or acknowledge him in any way.
"Can you hear me at all?"
No response. He had a sudden, creepy fear that there was nothing inside the black armor at all -- but, no, he could see the small shifts in the way that the knight sat his horse, the little movements designed to calm the high-tempered animal. Luckily this wasn't a problem with Warstrider, who stood so still that Rodney had a brief concern the horse might have died and was simply too lazy to topple over.
"Well, then, if throwing the fight is out, do you suppose you could do me a favor and, um -- try to hit me kind of gently? Because I bruise very easily. I realize I'll probably break my neck when I hit the ground, because I've never been good at falling, but I'd like to hurt as little as possible before then, if you don't mind."
Still no answer. The Black Knight sat like a statue, his only movements the small twitches that kept the horse in place.
"I'd really like to not die here at all, actually, if it's all the same to you." Rodney's voice cracked; his throat was so dry that he could barely speak, and over the crowd's noise, it was very likely that the knight couldn't hear him at all now. He could barely hear himself. "See, I have to live," he said. "I have something to live for. A quest ... kind of thing. A revenge quest. That's something you understand, right? You look like a very honorable sort of -- uh, faceless suit of armor. Maybe you could let me live so I can accomplish this?"
No response, and the crowd's noise was beginning to get impatient, turning angry. They wanted to see blood. In a few moments, he'd have a riot to deal with on top of everything else.
"You see, it's just -- it's my brother," he said, and to his absolutely horror, his throat started to close up. Okay, this was ridiculous; he absolutely was not going to burst into tears in front of everyone he knew, even if they probably couldn't make out what his tiny figure was doing out in the middle of the field. Blinking rapidly, hoping that the Black Knight couldn't see anything through that impractical-looking visor, he went on as quickly as possible, forcing the words past the unmanly lump in his throat. "Duke Kell had him killed, and I -- I'm going to kill him for it. Kell, I mean. I probably won't survive, because, well, look at him, which is why it's taking me so long -- I have to get it right on the first try, since I obviously won't get a second shot. But I -- I really have to do that, and I'd really rather not die here today, because then I wouldn't be able to do that, see? I'm not really asking on my own behalf -- well, all right, I'd kind of like to not die in general, but I imagine that Kell is probably going to kill me eventually, or if not him, then his men will. But I'd like to have the chance to take him with me when I do, because I owe my brother a lot and I never got to tell him when he was alive and this -- this is all I can do, so -- please don't kill me?" he finished in a squeak.
For another moment, the Black Knight remained statue-still, while the crowd began a heartening chant of "BLOOD! BLOOD! BLOOD!" Then the knight lowered his lance until it rested at his horse's side, pointing at Rodney like an arrow at his heart. The black horse brought its head around, obviously recognizing that it was time to attack.
"Gee, thanks for listening to my deepest darkest secrets and not caring at all," Rodney said bleakly, lowering his own lance.
The Black Knight gave his horse a slight nudge with his knee; needing only that small cue, it broke into a smooth, ground-eating gallop.
Rodney kicked Warstrider as hard as he could in the stomach. Startled, the horse bolted into its top speed: an arthritic, wheezing canter.
I am so dead, Rodney thought, and, violating all his jousting teachers' training, he squeezed his eyes shut. At least he wouldn't see the blow that killed him.
A deafening clang, like a dropped stack of washtubs, snapped his eyes open. He was so thoroughly expecting to be knocked off the horse that he almost overbalanced and fell off anyway, before he managed to wheel Warstrider around and get the ancient warhorse pointed the other way.
I unhorsed him? What the hell?
The Black Knight's well-trained horse had stopped a few steps beyond its fallen master, and turned around to trot back to him as he staggered stiffly to his feet and offered Rodney a salute with one mailed fist.
"You threw that," Rodney protested weakly, saluting back. "There's no way -- I didn't even touch you!"
But his protests were drowned out in the victorious roar of the crowd. Teylaval was at his horse's side a few steps ahead of everyone else, grinning so broadly that the boy's face looked as if it would split in two.
In all the excitement, the Black Knight simply vanished into the crowd. Rodney was too busy to even think about him, until he realized that having won that round of the tourney, he'd be expected to advance to the next round.
"Oh, no way," he groaned when he saw who was waiting for him on the field: Ronon Pendragon, astride a snow-white stallion at least as big as the Black Knight's horse.
Ronon's visor was upraised and he grinned at Rodney. "It's an honor to fight the man who defeated the Black Knight!" he called, raising a fist above his head.
"Yay," Rodney muttered. "Try not to hurt me too badly."
As bizarre as this day had become, he halfway expected the King to throw the round, too -- but, of course, that wouldn't have been a kingly thing to do. The blow was gentle, though, as these things went, and Warstrider wasn't going above an amble anyway. Rather than breaking all his ribs and his breastbone, it just felt like it broke some of his ribs, spinning him around in slow motion and sending him crashing to the ground.
Rodney blacked out briefly, and came to when a giant hand engulfed his, helping him to his feet.
"Nicely done," Ronon said, pounding him on the back hard enough, from the feel of things, to break a few of the ribs that had managed to survive the fall.
"You too," Rodney croaked weakly.
Teylaval helped him back to the pavilion and began peeling him out of his armor with hands that were deft and gentle -- probably from fixing horses, but it felt good to have someone doing something nice for him, for a change. Rodney looked around to see if Guinevere had caught his big moment, but she was nowhere to be seen.
She'd found a member of her retinue who was willing to switch with her: Sora, a quiet and bitter girl from one of the outer baronies. They were almost of a height, and Sora's long, waving blond hair could pass in a pinch for Guinevere's. While the crowd cheered the knights, Guinevere retired to the back of the pavilion, pleading exhaustion, and slipped behind a privacy curtain, where Sora was waiting for her.
"I'll be in trouble when they find out," Sora said in a toneless voice as Guinevere hastily did up the other girl's hair in a loose approximation of her own braids. There was no way that she could match the complex style that her mother had plaited in just a few minutes, but at least it should pass inspection from a distance.
"You don't have to. I'm not ordering you, Sora," Guinevere protested, her heart sinking at the idea of her father's wrath coming down on her retinue -- even the members of it that she didn't particularly like. She'd seen bruises on the serving girls sometimes, and had tried to protect them, but without her ... For the first time, she began to seriously consider the effect of her departure on the household. It wasn't a happy picture.
"No," Sora said firmly. "I want to." Her eyes gleamed with an avarice and jealousy that startled Guinevere.
"You aren't missing much," Guinevere said, combing her fingers through her hair as she hastily undid her braids. Why, oh why did her mother have to put her into such a very complicated hairstyle today?
Sora gave an unladylike little snort. "And what's waiting for me at home? I have four sisters whose dowries have bankrupted my father. He can't afford to marry me off too; I'll die an old maid after spending the rest of my life serving people like you." Her lip curled in a sneer. "I may as well experience life on the other side for a little while."
"Just tell them that I forced you to do it, if they ask," Guinevere said, helping Sora into her dress and trying not to be bothered by the other girl's bright, covetous eyes as she spread the rich fabric around herself. Sora had been wearing a plain blue dress that made her hair look pallid. The rough fabric felt stiff against Guinevere's skin after the soft material of her own dress.
But it was the feeling of freedom. She reminded herself of that.
"You're absolutely sure ..." she began.
Sora folded a fan over her nose and fluttered a hand in a passable princessly imitation. "Just go."
Keeping her head down, not meeting anyone's eyes, Guinevere walked quickly out of the pavilion and away into the crowd. No one looked at her. Someone on the tourney field did something that met with the crowd's approval and a deafening roar went up from a thousand throats. Elbows jostled Guinevere rudely, startling her. She'd never been touched without her permission before.
But I'm not Guinevere of Kell anymore, she reminded herself. I'm just a common woman now.
She left the tourney grounds, walking swiftly, trying to look as if she knew where she was going. No one tried to stop her. It was a strange, heady feeling, at once exciting and a little odd. She'd always been noticed, everywhere she went; now she was just another person in the crowd. She tried to blend with a stream of servants going somewhere, but ended up getting turned around and found herself in the kitchens. A large woman in a plain grease-splattered dress glowered at her. "Help ye?"
"No, no, I'm sorry. I'm just looking for the way out. Can you tell me --"
"Stop wasting me time; I'm busy," the woman snapped, and shoved past her, hauling a huge kettle filled with steaming water.
Guinevere stumbled out of the way. Intellectually, she had known that she'd be stepping into a different role in society, but it was a very strange feeling to have it actually happen to her -- everyone around her was bustling and busy, each of them having a task to do. She felt very out of place -- and looked out of place too, she realized, looking down at herself. The dress that had seemed so plain on the tourney grounds made her absurdly overdressed among the scullery servants.
"Sorry," she mumbled, and hurried away, a flaming blush heating her cheeks.
The place was a maze. She could not find her way out, and several times discovered that she'd circled back around to the tourney grounds, having to duck away quickly. She wondered if her absence had been noticed yet.
Eventually she found herself in a narrow set of stairs, going up. This was probably not the way to the outside -- the town would be down, would it not? -- but perhaps she could get an overview of the whole place, some idea of how it all fit together. Her calves began to ache from climbing; she'd always considered herself in very good shape compared to the other noblemens' daughters that she knew, but anyone who climbed these stairs on a regular basis would have to have calves of iron.
She emerged suddenly onto a small balcony open to the sky. Surprised, Guinevere paused for a moment, and then walked to the edge, peering between crenellations to the river far below. She was on the far side of the fortress from the town, after all. No wonder she'd been getting nowhere.
"You like the view?" a voice rumbled from behind her.
Guinevere jumped. She recognized that voice, and didn't dare turn around. "Majesty," she managed to say.
"Nah," the King's voice said. "Just Ronon, really. You're with one of the parties here for the coronation, right?"
"Yes, my lord," Guinevere said, and forced herself to turn around, where she froze in shock. The king was undressed. Or, rather, he was stripped to the waist, showing livid bruises purpling beneath his skin -- an ugly one splashed across his ribs, and more on his arms. "M -- my lord ..." Guinevere managed through stiff lips, because this was not appropriate, not appropriate at all. She caught herself looking wildly around for a chaperone, but there was no one up here but the two of them.
The king joined her at the crenellations, moving cautiously with obvious stiffness. "The tournament's in my honor; guess I gotta compete," he said, glancing down at the bruises. "Things are winding down, so I came up here for some air before the banquet." He frowned at her. "Did I meet you at the tourney?"
Guinevere swallowed. Her mouth was very dry. He was so close; she could even smell him, a rich musk of horses and leather and sweat. "I ... I do not believe so, my lord," she said, trying to sound convincing.
He still frowned at her, then shook his head and looked away. She must look different without all the braids, and of course, he'd probably met a lot of people today. "No need for all the 'my lord' stuff," he said, looking embarrassed. "Till a couple of weeks ago I was just ordinary Ronon, a woodcutter and warden. Still not used to it." Glancing at her, a bit shyly, he asked, "You?"
"I, um ..." She tried to remember if she'd been introduced by name. A variant of her name came to her that she'd encountered in a book, a Cornish misspelling. "Jennifer," she said.
"Pleasure," he said, making a little bow, then paused. "You a lady or something, Jennifer? Titles? Rich father?"
Guinevere swallowed, and shook her head.
Ronon laughed, and she saw him relax. He looked younger, less kingly, and much more comfortable. "Good. Rich men have been throwing their daughters at me all day. Kinda tired of it, to be honest. Back in the village, girls hardly gave me the time of day."
"But ... aren't you betrothed?" Guinevere ventured cautiously. "I mean, that's what I heard."
"So I'm told," he said carelessly. "Just met her today, though. Didn't even get to talk to her. Pretty, I guess, but so done up I could barely see her." He shook his head. "Doesn't seem real, all this happening to me."
Seeing him so human, so unkingly, just like one of the squires relaxing in the sun, made it surprisingly easy to relax. "Did you really pull a sword out of a stone?" she asked, feeling bold.
He laughed again. He had a nice laugh, rich and deep. "Guess so. Wasn't much to it, though. Everybody freaked out, but I imagine any of them could have done it if they'd put their minds to it. There's nothing special about me."
That's what you think, Guinevere thought, a blush climbing her cheeks. She had difficulty keeping her eyes away from his shoulders. Chopping wood apparently did excellent things for the muscles; who would have guessed? But his cuts and bruises kept distracting her. "You should have a healer take a look at those," she said.
He lifted a shoulder in a small shrug, and grimaced. "Eh, there's a court physician, but I don't think much of him. Not like the old herb-women in the village back home."
Guinevere cleared her throat. "I ... I know a little about it. There was a woman like that, um, where I grew up, and she taught me a lot."
"Really?" He looked hopeful. "The doc here, he's a good guy but he's got all kinds of strange new ideas. Bloodletting and leeches. Don't really want to let him near me, to be honest."
"Get me some warm water and bandages, and I'll take care of you," Guinevere offered eagerly. The panic-inducing fact that she'd be touching the king's bare skin receded in her happiness to be able to finally put her training to use. She'd had opportunity to help out a little around the sickrooms back at the castle -- it was one of the women's tasks, after all -- but there were many women, and few patients in need of tending. This time, it was just her: an opportunity to see how much of Charin's teaching she remembered.
She expected him to take her down the stairs, but instead he said, "Through here," and walked to what appeared to be a natural stone wall. Only when she looked closely did Guinevere see the faint outline of a cleverly concealed door that sprang open at his touch.
Inside was a small, cozy room, with rugs on the floor and even a brazier with banked coals. Ronon stirred it up and poured water into a large bowl from a pitcher on a table by the door; he worked so quickly and smoothly that Guinevere had no opportunity to help him. Clearly this was not a man accustomed to servants waiting on him.
"Whole place is full of these little bolt-holes," Ronon said, seeing Guinevere looking around. "Guess my ancestors were a paranoid bunch. This one's my favorite. I had the servants make it up for me so that I could come up here between bouts at the tourney."
There was a small window, a mere slit in the rock; Guinevere peered out and down the dizzying drop to the river. "Did you live here, when you were a child?" She tried to remember all of the rumors about Ronon Pendragon's early life.
"For a while," he said shortly. "Water's warm."
He sat by the brazier, silent and uncomplaining as she worked with a warm wet cloth, gently cleaning his injuries. "Sorry about getting snappy with you," he said finally.
"That's all right. I wasn't upset." She'd found the silence companionable, actually. None of the women back at the castle seemed to know how to be quiet, except for her mother, and those silences were anything but companionable.
After a moment, he said, "You mind if I talk? You're easy to talk to."
"Sure, I don't mind." She moved on to his other side, wondering sadly if he'd still find her easy to talk to if he knew she was Guinevere, nobleman's daughter, and not just a nobody in town from the country for the tournament.
"My family was killed," Ronon said tonelessly, staring into the coals of the brazier. "Everybody knows that, I guess. Lots of different rumors go around -- some say it was robbers, some say it was barbarians from the north, or enemies of my father sacking the castle. I wouldn't have survived myself, but my old nurse smuggled me down one of these hidden tunnels -- the whole family and our trusted servants knew about 'em. She took me out to a village where some of her friends raised me."
"I'm sorry," Guinevere said at last, quietly. It seemed so inadequate, but she didn't know what else to say.
"Long time ago," Ronon said softly. "I was just a little kid. I barely remember my real family; the life I know is in the village."
"It must be strange. All these people, expecting you to tell them what to do."
He gave a soft little laugh. "You don't know the half of it."
He looked so young, so alone. More alone than I am, Guinevere realized. She, at least, had friends and family: her mother, Charin, Teylaval, Sir Rodney. People who cared about her; people she trusted ...
... people she might never see again. A wave of homesickness washed over her. She tried to steel herself against it. If she went back now, she'd probably never get another chance to slip away, to live her own life rather than the life her father had chosen for her.
But Ronon was not at all the rude, boorish prince that she'd expected.
"I -- I really must be going," she said, drawing away from him. If she waited any longer, her resolve would surely crumble -- or, worse, her parents would notice her absence and raise the alarm.
Ronon glanced away from her. "Sorry. Didn't mean to go off there."
"No, no, please! I don't mind. I'm the one who's sorry; it's just that I must be going now. But you can talk to me anytime," she added, and in a fit of utter, careless boldness, as brazen as the commoner she was pretending to be, she leaned down and placed a kiss on the side of his face. Or, at least, that was her intent -- she was aiming for his cheek, but he turned his head at the last minute and she found herself planting it on the corner of his lips.
Ronon pulled back and looked at her, startled at first, then smiling hesitantly. "Where should I look for you if I wanted to find you, Jennifer?"
"The nunnery," she said, and saw his eyebrows climb.
"You're a nun?"
"Not yet," she admitted. "I, um --" Remembering Sora's problem, she improvised quickly. "I have a lot of sisters, and my family can't find a husband for me. I like to work with the sick, so we had planned for me to stay behind when they return to our, um, to our village. In fact ... I really don't know the way. Can you tell me where to go?"
"Your family just went off and left you behind?" he said in surprise.
"They had to leave early. We can't leave our farm for very long. Bandits, you know." Luckily, one side effect of her mother's interminable lessons on running the estate included quite a lot about the day-to-day workings of the peasants' lives, at least as they related to supplying food and other goods for the castle. She was fairly sure that she could improvise a successful cover story, at least as long as she didn't have to actually perform any of the tasks that she talked about.
But Ronon didn't ask any more questions. "Sure," he said. "Down the stairs ..." and he gave her detailed directions to get out of the fortress and navigate the maze of streets in town. "I'd take you myself, but I gotta get back to the tournament before my handlers come looking for me," he said, rolling his eyes. Guinevere laughed.
Ronon walked her down the stairs until they got back to the more populated areas of the castle; then he pointed her down the hall and she nodded. "Nice meeting you, Jennifer," he said, leaning so close that she could feel his breath on her skin. "Thanks for the patch-up."
Guinevere smiled ruefully, looking at her makeshift bandaging job. "I guess I need a little practice," she admitted. "I could have done better if I'd had some herbs. Next time --"
"Next time I'll be sure and get hurt near an herb patch," he said, smiling at her.
She smiled back, hoping the corridor was dim enough to hide her blush, and turned and hurried away without looking back.
Who would have expected that a king could be so nice? I could go back, she thought. I could say I got lost, and go ahead and get married, just like my family wants ...
But, no, she could see where that road led -- she'd watched her mother walk it, one gray and dreary step at a time.
As she hastened down the corridors of the fortress, Guinevere found herself wondering, not for the first time: Exactly why does my father hate my mother so? Because he did; she'd been aware of it ever since she was too little to put a name to the loveless emotion she saw brooding in his eyes when he stared at her mother. He really does hate her. That's why she's so miserable. But what did she do to make him hate her?
The Lady Elizabeth did not often speak of her early life. All Guinevere knew was that her parents had been married when her mother was very young, younger than Guinevere was now. Mother was probably not older than her mid-thirties even now, though time and pain had left their marks on her face. All else was kept locked behind the shutters of her eyes.
Lost in her thoughts, Guinevere soon found herself completely turned around in the winding city streets. It was evening, and as dusk purpled the sky, the streets bustled with festival-goers coming back from the tourney. Guinevere's mouth watered at the same smells of frying dough and meat that she remembered from earlier, but whereas before there had been no time to buy anything, now there was no money. Her stomach rumbled.
I should have taken some coins with me; what was I thinking? Most of the merchants would probably take items in trade as well, but she didn't have anything, not even a hair ribbon.
Still, it was hard to get worked up about it. Surely they would feed her at the cloister. Alone and unescorted for the first time in her life, Guinevere wandered from street to street, hoping to find something that matched the directions Ronon had given her, and, in the meantime, staring around her in wonder.
Gradually the streets became darker and more sparsely populated, and she began to smell fish and mud. The river, she thought. She tried to backtrack, but got lost in a maze of narrow alleys.
There was no one around at all now, and Guinevere felt very conspicuous with her loose blond hair and bright blue dress. The sound of clopping hooves made her jump, and she turned to see a horse and rider behind her, silhouetted against the fading light in the sky. She tensed to run, but there was nowhere to go, and besides, the rider would be able to outpace her easily. Instead, she waited boldly as the rider clopped up to her: a knight in full armor, visor lowered.
Guinevere stared up at the Black Knight. How in the world could someone so conspicuous ride around the town? Surely somebody would notice!
"You look lost," the Black Knight said, and held down a gloved hand. "Need a ride?"
"I'm fine, thank you." Guinevere crossed her arms to stop her shivering. She was acutely aware of her cold and hunger. Suddenly her escape plan seemed very naive and foolish.
"I'm sorry, you misunderstand," the Black Knight said. "That wasn't a request."
"Oh," Guinevere said, and she spun on her heel and begun to run.
Down the street, around the corner -- and into a dead-end alley. Her breath came in short gasps; she was already exhausted from walking all day. Panting, she looked wildly around the alley for anywhere to go, but only blank brick walls presented themselves to her.
"Oh, really," the Black Knight said, clopping into the alley. "No need for that."
"Don't come any closer!" Guinevere warned. "I'll ... I'll ... I'll kill myself to defend my honor!" Though, admittedly, she had only the vaguest idea of what her "honor" entailed.
"Don't worry, your honor's not in danger." The Black Knight extended down a hand again. "I promise you won't be harmed. And I'll feed you. You're Guinevere, right? Kell's daughter?"
Guinevere looked up at him, her mouth open. Apparently she was not as well-disguised as she'd thought. "How do you know?"
The Black Knight laughed softly. "I've been watching you for a while now," he said. "You saved me from having to do something foolish, going off on your own like this. Come on, let's go for a ride."
Guinevere closed her eyes, said a silent prayer and traded sanity for foolishness. His cold, mailed hand pulled her up into the saddle in front of him; he gave a soft grunt of pain as he did so.
"Are you hurt?" she asked warily, wondering if it was wrong to extend her healing skills to miscreants.
"Not bad. Couple of cracked ribs, probably. Had worse." He urged the horse around and trotted down the street. A woman leaned out of an upstairs window to dump a chamberpot, saw him and hastily drew her head in.
"You're a little ... obvious," Guinevere said, looking around the nearly deserted streets. The few people that she saw looked shifty and not at all inclined to respond favorably if she tried to scream for help. Not that she'd decided if she needed to yet.
"I know," the Black Knight said. "We aren't going far."
The streets opened up around them suddenly into an expanse of star-spangled night sky -- above and below them. After a moment's disorientation, Guinevere realized that they had reached the river; the stars were reflected in its placid, slow-moving surface. The horse's hoofbeats changed from clopping on cobblestones to squishing through mud, and then splashing.
"Um ... where are we going?"
"Secret," the Black Knight said tersely.
The starry night sky was replaced by a deeper blackness, and the horse's splashing began to echo. Guinevere guessed that they'd ridden underneath one of the long piers -- she had visited them once with her family, and marveled at the long expanses of wood, bustling with men loading and unloading bales of goods from the riverboats. They were supported by stone columns underneath.
The horse left the water; its hooves crunched on sand or dry beach grass. Then the horse stopped; Guinevere felt the knight lean forward and do something. She heard a soft click and then the horse walked slowly forward in the pitch darkness, and stopped again. Another click, and a very final thunk, as of a door closing. The air smelled damp and stale.
"It's a secret tunnel," she said.
"Good guess." The knight twisted around in the saddle; there was some rummaging, and then he struck a spark, dazzling in the darkness. After a few more tries, he got a torch going, and held it above his head. As Guinevere had thought, a smooth-sided stone tunnel stretched in front of them, sloping gently downwards into darkness. The floor and walls were damp, clotted with algae and mold.
"It floods occasionally." There was something different about the knight's voice. Looking over her shoulder, Guinevere saw that he'd taken off his helmet. He was very tired-looking, and a little gray in the flickering light of the torch, with the skin drawn tightly around his green eyes. He appeared to be about the same age as her mother or Sir Rodney.
"You're letting me see you?" she asked warily. She had listened to the epic poems about kidnapped maidens, and this was never a good sign. "Are you supposed to do that?"
He gave her a tired, lopsided smile. "Don't worry, it won't matter soon." As soon as the words left his mouth, he winced.
"That's not comforting!" Guinevere tried to hit him, but only succeeded in bruising her hand on his armor.
"Stop that, I said I'm not going to hurt you." He urged the horse forward, and it began to walk down the passage, placing its feet carefully to avoid slipping. Obviously it was used to this.
"You do this often," Guinevere mused, and then, looking around, connected what she was seeing to what Ronon had told her earlier in the day. "This is one of the secret tunnels in the fortress, isn't it?"
"Well, under it." The Black Knight sounded surprised. "Not many people know about them -- at least not many who are still alive."
"I have sources," Guinevere said loftily. "How do you know about them?"
"I learned from a friend of mine, one of the Pendragon family's stableboys, when I was just a little kid. Long ago. He's probably dead now, along with everyone who worked for them." He sounded a little sad, a little wistful. "Victims of your father's ambition."
Guinevere twisted around in the saddle to stare at him. "What does my father have to do with the Pendragons being killed?"
Rather than answering, the Black Knight shifted uncomfortably in the saddle. "Listen, as soon as I can find a good place to get off this damn horse, I'm going to take my armor off; you mind?"
"You're the kidnapper; why are you asking me if I mind anything?"
"Just 'cause I'm a kidnapper doesn't mean I'm impolite." He guided the horse over to a rockslide that had dislodged from one of the walls -- not a very reassuring indicator of the state of the whole tunnel, Guinevere thought. "Here," he said, handing her the torch, "hold this," and very carefully dismounted onto the rockfall while she clung to the horse's mane and tried not to set it on fire.
"Aren't you supposed to have a squire or two for that?" she asked, watching him struggle to remove the armor by himself. If she were going to run, now would certainly be the time -- but there was nowhere to go. He obviously knew these tunnels, and she wasn't sure how he'd opened the hidden door to the riverbank.
"I'm used to it. I've been doing it by myself for a while." He peeled himself out of the armor, piece by piece, emerging in a simple, loose peasant's tunic. Guinevere watched him packing the armor away into sacks and stowing it on the horse.
"So, you just ... ride around the countryside, pretending to be a mysterious knight and challenging people to duels?" she asked as he climbed back onto the horse, very slowly, with obvious exhaustion. "That's kind of odd, if you don't mind my saying so."
He laughed quietly and took the torch back from her. "It's all to get your father's attention. That was my plan -- get close to him, get into his employ. But I had to move up my timetable."
"Why?" Guinevere asked.
He fell silent, and she wasn't sure if she'd overstepped the unspoken bounds of this strange conversation before he said, "Because someone is planning to do something stupid, and I need to stop them before they get themselves killed. I don't have time to continue my original plan. And you presented yourself so temptingly as a kidnapping target, I couldn't resist."
"You're not going to hurt me," she reminded him nervously. "You promised."
"Don't worry. I don't plan on it."
The horse's hooves splashed through hock-deep water now. "Um," Guinevere said, looking around at the torchlight flickering on the walls of the tunnel.
"We're going under the river. This is as bad as it gets."
Sure enough, the tunnel sloped up again. The Black Knight paused and extinguished the torch. Blinking, Guinevere realized that she could see faintly, and then they rode out of a cave into open countryside under a half-moon.
"We really did cross under the river," she said, twisting around to look over her shoulder at the ruddy glow of the town on the far bank. "So that's how you get in and out without being seen."
He didn't answer, and Guinevere fell silent too, the rocking motion of the horse's movement threatening to lull her to sleep. I should scream, she thought. I should run. But there was something so incredibly non-threatening about the knight. She couldn't believe he planned to hurt her.
So why does he want me, then? And what did he mean about my father?
They'd left behind the civilized reaches, and were traveling through wilderness now, following narrow paths with trees close on all sides. The horse plodded along, apparently as tired as the humans on its back. Finally it trudged into a clearing and stopped.
"End of the road," the Black Knight said, and gave Guinevere a hand down before dismounting himself.
They had to be in the very deep woods. She'd never been anywhere like this before; she'd rarely even been hunting along the outskirts of her father's woodlands. She didn't like to see things hurt and killed. And this was a much wilder wood than her father's well-kept forests. Standing in the diffuse moonlight, Guinevere flinched at the sound of unseen things skittering in the underbrush, at the distant cry of some unknown creature meeting its fate.
"You know how to stir up a fire?" the Black Knight asked her, dragging the saddle off the horse.
"I -- I suppose." Her mother had made sure that she knew how everything around the castle was done, but again, it was very different to watch someone else do it than to do it herself.
"Cave over there. Home sweet home. Fire should still be banked, and there's bread and dried fruit. Spring in the back of the cave."
He went back to tending the horse.
The cave was so well-hidden that, even though he'd pointed her in the right direction, Guinevere had to grope around before she could find it. Inside, she blundered around in the dark until she located the fire (by almost falling into it) and scuffed some of the ashes off the coals. She knew that she probably didn't do a very good job, but she did manage to get it burning from the pile of wood next to it. She found a pot, and put water on. By the time that the Black Knight stumbled in from outside, she'd also found the food and laid out a small meal, with tea brewing. She was feeling quite proud of herself.
The knight staggered in, paused, and shook his head. "That's kinda nice," he said, and slumped down by the fire.
The bread was coarse, dry and old. At home, Guinevere would have had it sent back to the kitchens. But hunger was a good leavening, and she was surprised to find herself enjoying the rough meal.
"You live out here by yourself?" she asked him, looking around the cave. "How do you manage?"
"I get by," the Black Knight said vaguely. "I do odd jobs for farmers in return for food, things like that. It's a living, I guess. But I'm looking forward to ending it."
He looked up at her; his eyes glittered in the firelight. "You're my way out of this."
Guinevere's disappearance had been discovered shortly before the coronation banquet. Sora had been threatened with a beating, but at some point Lady Elizabeth intervened and distracted Duke Kell, and the focus turned to finding Guinevere.
Rodney had gone from being the hero of the hour to suddenly finding himself held responsible for her disappearance -- mostly, he thought, because the Duke still suspected him of cheating in the joust against the Black Knight. Half the knights hated him for winning, and the other half hated him on general principles, so while all of them (and the squires too) had been sent out to search for her, Rodney had gotten the distinct impression that his life wasn't going to be especially pleasant (and possibly short) if he came back without her.
So rather than enjoying the banquet, he was stumping along over cobblestones, developing blisters and scanning the crowds for golden hair. He hadn't even been allowed to take his horse. Instead, he had Teylaval. As far as Rodney was concerned, the stableboy was his squire until someone told him otherwise, and a peasant might be useful in his search. Weren't commoners supposed to be streetwise and schooled in the ways of the common man? Or something?
Teylaval looked more nervous than anything else, and stayed close to Rodney. "When was the last time that you were in town, anyway?" Rodney asked, pushing impatiently through the bustling people in the streets and ignoring the cries of "Hey, watch where you're --" and "Ow! My foot!"
"A long time ago," Teylaval said, sliding along in his wake without ruffling a single lady's dress. "When I was just a small g-- a boy, a small boy."
"What, don't they ever let you off the farm?" But come to think of it, he'd never really seen the peasants go anywhere. Most of what they produced in the way of crops and crafts was used to supply the Kells and the local village.
Teylaval shrugged. "I am a stableboy. I stay with the horses."
"So you've never really been to a festival or anything."
"Not in a long time," Teylaval said, and though his voice was calm, he was looking around him with fascination.
And Rodney thought, Screw it. They had no idea where Guinevere had gone; they weren't going to find her by deliberate searching unless they just happened to run into her running around in the crowd. Kell had sent them out with a definite subtext of "don't come back without her". Since this basically meant that they'd been ordered to wander around the town all night scanning the crowds, they may as well have fun while they did it.
As much fun as one could have, at least. Rodney had always disliked festivals. His brothers, of course, had loved them (the more noise and drinking, the better, as far as they were concerned), but Rodney would have much preferred to stay home with his books and experiments, safe from his brothers' bullying while they were out bothering the local women and picking fights with other nobles' sons instead.
But there had just been one problem with that: John loved festivals, but the only way he was ever allowed to go was if Rodney could come up with some sort of excuse to drag him along with the rest of the family. And usually this meant that Rodney had to go too.
He'd despised the noise and bustle, the stupid games and the cheap trinkets, and above all the jousts. But somehow, running around the crowds with John had been ... sort of fun. His father and his brothers had paid little attention to what the bastard stableboy and the bookish little black sheep of the family got up to, so they could usually vanish for several hours and run unsupervised, locating their family again when it was time to go home. While his father and brothers got drunk and placed bets on the jousts, John and Rodney had explored the far more interesting peasants' side of the festival, with games and loads of greasy food and interesting things like people slaughtering live chickens.
He hadn't thought about it in years. And, since he had actively been avoiding tournaments whenever possible since becoming lieged to Kell, this was the first time he had been to an affair of this sort since John's death.
And now he was getting ridiculously maudlin. "Come on," Rodney said brusquely, and caught Teylaval by the wrist. "Are you any good at games?"
Teylaval, it turned out, was ridiculously good at games -- throwing games, catching games, juggling games. He won all of them. "How do you do that?" Rodney demanded, collecting his winnings after Teylaval beat a local street performer at a juggling competition. He was turning a tidy profit by betting on the unassuming stableboy.
Teylaval lifted a shoulder in a slight shrug. He was flushed and panting, but looked happier than Rodney had ever seen him. "There is a lot of time in the stables when there's not much to do. I taught myself."
Rodney used some of his winnings to buy food and clay cups of dark beer from a sidewalk vendor, then poured most of the rest into Teylaval's hands. "There. That's yours."
"Are you sure you do not want it?" the stableboy asked, staring at the money in shock.
"You're the one who earned it."
They sat on a low stone wall surrounding a fountain, and ate while the crowds thinned out around them. Despite his bruises and his aching legs and the fact that his feet seemed to have swollen to the point where he'd never get them out of his boots, Rodney realized (a bit reluctantly) that he was enjoying himself.
Lights began to wink out around the square. "I do not think they will find her, you know," Teylaval said.
Rodney had been half asleep, leaning back against a carved stature bending over the fountain. "Huh?"
"Guinevere. She may not wish to be found." In the near-darkness, Teylaval's shape was so slim and graceful that he might almost be mistaken for a girl.
Rodney sat up, leaning forward. "If you know anything --"
Teylaval shook his head. "No. But I did know her. She used to come by the stables often; we frequently played together when we were younger. I had no idea that she planned this, but I know that she was not happy with her father's decision to wed her to the king."
Rodney laughed; he couldn't help it. "That idiot, what's wrong with her? Her father married her off to a king! Isn't that what all women want?"
Teylaval's lips tightened, for some reason. "Not all women," he said shortly.
"How do you know? An expert on women, are you?" A sudden suspicion crossed Rodney's mind. "Wait, are you telling me she was in love with you?"
Teylaval flailed and almost fell off the wall. "No!" Recovering his composure, he said calmly, "It is simply that she had no interest in being wed to someone she did not desire. Would you?"
"At the rate I'm going," Rodney said gloomily, "I'm never going to be wed at all. Not like my father's ever gone out scouting for marriage prospects for me." Not to mention the likelihood of dying at Kell's hands; no point in getting married when she'd just be a widow shortly.
For some reason, this made Teylaval's lips tighten even more. "Sir Rodney, may I have permission to speak plainly?"
Ever since he was a little boy, Rodney had always hated people sucking up to him. No one was ever honest. The servants, peasants and serfs bowed and acted polite, but John had related some of the things that they said about the lords and knights behind their backs. And the nobility were even worse; you couldn't trust a word they said. For some reason, maybe just the stress of the day, that frustration flowed over, and he snapped, "Don't do that. You're my squire now. I said so, didn't I? I know most of the other knights just expect their squires to polish their armor and carry their sword, but I can polish my own damn armor and what I really need from you is someone to, to --"
To talk to, he thought in surprise. It had been so damned long since he'd been able to have a friendly conversation with anyone. John was really the only person he'd ever been honest with, and been able to expect honesty back in return. And John had been gone for a long time now.
"So, yeah," he finished wearily. "Just tell me what you're thinking. If I yell at you for it, it's only because I think you can probably take it, and you have permission to yell back." That was probably the thing he hated most about the servants. Rodney liked yelling at people, but he hated yelling at people who thought they had to stand there and take it. He'd even told his cleaning maid that she had permission to throw things at him if she wanted to, but she just looked stunned and fled at the very idea.
He thought for a moment that Teylaval might do the same, because the stableboy blinked at him for a moment with a slightly stunned look, before saying, "Very well. You are an adult, Sir Rodney, and you have been for some time. I think that it is time to stop blaming your father for your misfortune."
Rodney gaped at him. "What?"
"It's not your father's fault that you aren't married," Teylaval said. "It's not your father's fault that you live like a poor relation in Duke Kell's household. I may be just a stableboy, but it is an excellent position from which to watch people, and I do watch, and I remember. I do not understand you, Sir Rodney. You are very intelligent, and yet you do not seek to better yourself in the Duke's household, like the others do. You allow them to saddle you with a broken-down warhorse, to use you as the butt of their jokes, and you do nothing in return."
Rodney realized that his mouth was still hanging open, and closed it. "I do that?" he asked in a small voice.
"You do," Teylaval said, "and I do not understand it, because you're better than they are, Sir Rodney. Most of them are just brutes who drink too much and like to fight and terrorize peasants. If you wanted to, you could have them in your pocket and they would never even know what happened to them. I do not understand why you continue to let them make a joke out of you."
Rodney just continued to stare at him. Of course he knew that he was smarter than the rest of Kell's rabble of rude, unpleasant, tournament-obsessed knights; that pretty much went without saying. Mostly he'd spent his years in Kell's service keeping his head down, trying not to be noticed, and coming up with complicated and impractical ways to kill Kell. The thought had never occurred to him that -- aside from Kell being a murdering bastard, of course -- he'd basically brought the whole situation on himself. Anger and defensiveness warred with the depressing, creeping suspicion that Teylaval was right. He'd asked for honesty, after all, and honesty finally won out in return, as well.
"I'm just not interested in it -- the whole thing, the fighting and the jousting and the lip-service to chivalry." It was a relief to admit it out loud. "I hate those games. It's a stupid waste of time. I'd much rather read, and, well, build things."
Teylaval had tensed at the end of his speech; now he slowly, visibly unwound, apparently realizing that Rodney seriously did not mean to retaliate for the un-squirely honesty. "Build things, such as what?"
"I improved the mill efficiency back home by twenty-seven percent, give or take," Rodney said eagerly. "Not that anyone cares, but you wouldn't believe how much of the water's movement was being wasted in an extremely inefficient arrangement of grinding stones. I could probably do the same for the mill here, except Kell won't let me near it. I've also got designs for a mill that's powered by wind; the Greeks built such things, and no one really knows how they did it, but I think I've worked out a design that might be practical. Or maybe an auxiliary wind-powered system that could be used with the existing mill to power it during times of low water or in the middle of winter. Would you like to see the plans?"
Teylaval nodded. Rodney had no paper on him, so they ended up lying on their stomachs on the cobblestones while Rodney sketched with a piece of charcoal from someone's hearth dumpings. The thinning crowd of late festival-goers stepped around them with baffled stares -- those who weren't too drunk to notice -- but Rodney ignored them; he was used to that sort of thing.
And Teylaval got it. He'd expected that the stableboy would quickly lose interest after making a polite noise or two, but he seemed to be able to understand the drawings once Rodney pointed out which parts were which, and even made a few useful suggestions to shore up Rodney's admittedly somewhat rickety and unstable design. Teylaval also had a few ideas of his own for ways to improve on horse harnesses and saddles to make them less inclined to cause saddle sores. "No one has ever listened to me before," he said in surprise.
"Why wouldn't they? You live with horses; of course you'd know what works best on them. The saddles we use were probably designed by knights," Rodney said dismissively, "and of course they don't care a thing about the horses."
The last lamps and torches in the little square were extinguished, plunging them into darkness. Rodney raised his head from the suddenly invisible drawings. "Oh. Uh. Guess we didn't find Guinevere." He rose creakily, accepting Teylaval's hand up.
"I suppose not," the stableboy agreed. "Perhaps we should continue looking."
"We'll never find her. There's no point. It'll be dawn soon; may as well fall back to the palace and see if anyone else had any luck." Privately, Rodney hoped that she'd gotten away. It might be a cruel and unfortunate world for a girl on her own, but at least one person had gotten out from under Kell's thumb.
"I hope she is all right," Teylaval said quietly.
Rodney glanced at him. "You're absolutely sure there's nothing between you two."
Teylaval bit his lip in a decidedly unboyish way, glanced at Rodney, glanced away. "No," he said firmly. "Nothing."
Rodney felt something twist, deep beneath his breastbone. It definitely wasn't jealousy. That would be ridiculous. And if it was jealousy, then surely it was for lovely, blond-haired Guinevere. There was no reason on earth why he'd be jealous of a stableboy.
Lady Elizabeth of Kell leaned out the window of the room she'd been given in the Pendragon fortress. Below her, the sheer wall fell away to a narrow ribbon of uninviting land along the river. The first touches of dawn had begun to paint the wall.
She draw a comb through her long dark hair, long since brushed to silken softness. She had not slept.
Why didn't Guinevere come to me with this?
But she knew why. She hadn't been Guinevere's ally for a long time. She had done all that she could to protect Guinevere from the poor child's overbearing father and his vicious temper, but in the end, it had come to nothing. Guinevere did not trust her. The betrothal, which she knew had gone against Guinevere's wishes, had been the final nail in the coffin of the close mother-daughter relationship they'd once shared.
It's an excellent match, Elizabeth thought defensively. And she remembered her own parents saying the same thing when she'd protested her marriage to the Duke of Kell. It was a good match, it was her duty to the family to be a good wife, and she had done her best to be a dutiful wife to a man she loathed more with each passing year.
But Guinevere wasn't stupid. She knew her mother was miserable; who could blame her for being afraid of her own marriage when this was all she had to look forward to? Perhaps there were other factors at work as well -- could the girl possibly have a secret lover somewhere? -- but Elizabeth strongly suspected that Guinevere had run away to escape the marriage.
It'll come to nothing, Elizabeth thought, gazing out the window. Her father will have her dragged back, no matter where she's gone, and she'll be wed whether she wants it or not. At least she'll get out of his house.
She laid the comb on the windowsill and held up her own hands, studying them in the growing light of dawn. She'd always believed that she'd done the right thing: trying her best to run the household and to use her own influence to mitigate her husband's cruelties to the household staff and the peasantry. And in doing so, she'd thrown away her own happiness and that of her daughter. But what else could I have done?
The sound of loud footsteps in the hallway alerted her to her husband's presence in enough time to compose herself and turn back from the window before Kell stomped through the door.
"Useless batch of layabouts," he snarled. "And they dare consider themselves knights! Couldn't find their asses with both hands."
Elizabeth picked up the comb again, and ran it through her tangle-free hair. It helped to calm her. "I take it you've had no luck."
Kell stripped off a glove and threw it at the wall. "She planned this, the little wench. In front of everyone, she pulls something like this. I'll beat her bloody when we find her."
Elizabeth concentrated on the strokes of the comb: one, two, three ... "She may be in trouble, my lord. Kidnapped, stolen, injured."
Kell flung the other glove to join the first. "She's nothing of the sort. She planned this to make me look a fool. I should have drowned her at birth. I would have, if you'd ever given me a son."
The stroke of the comb stuttered and smoothed. "I know," Elizabeth murmured under her breath.
There was a tap at the door. "Yes, yes, what?" Kell snarled furiously over his shoulder.
The door swung open to reveal none other that the king himself. Kell cleared his throat. "Majesty."
Ronon looked at him as if Kell was something that he wanted to grind beneath his boot heel, but he held out a slip of paper sealed with wax. "Message," he said. "Came this morning from an innkeeper. Said he'd been given a coin last night by a stranger to wait 'til this morning and then bring it to the palace, and woe betide him if the seal was broken, he said."
Elizabeth's brows went up. A king who hand-delivered messages to his subjects, rather than dispatching a servant? Truly, the last of the Pendragons is no ordinary king, she thought.
Kell took it from his fingers and opened it. His lips moved as he puzzled over the words. Elizabeth slipped down from her seat at the window and came quietly across the room. Kell ignored her, but Ronon inclined his head to her in a small bow. "Lady Kell."
"Majesty," she murmured, dropping a small curtsey, and extended a hand to Kell. He was a terrible reader -- barely knew his letters, and couldn't write at all. "May I, my lord."
He all but threw the paper at her. The seal was plain and unstamped, but as soon as Elizabeth saw the handwriting, her fingers trembled. No, she thought; it cannot be. It's similar, that's all. Keeping her voice steady, she read, "I have your daughter. If you value her life, meet me alone at noon in the glade by the river where -- " She paused. The color must have drained from her face, for out of the corner of her eye, she could see the king looking at her in concern. "I am sorry, Highness. This is a private message for my husband and myself. May we be excused?"
To her surprise, the king took her hand in his and kissed her fingers, looking distinctly shy about it in an oddly boyish way. "You need any help getting your daughter back, Lady, my household and all my garrisons are at your disposal."
"Thank you," she said quietly. "We shall certainly inform you."
He did not release her hand. His eyes, a rich golden hazel, caught and held her own. "You need any other kind of help, Lady, you just ask."
She searched his face for any sort of attempt at seduction -- he was her daughter's fiancé, and little more than half her age; it would be most improper -- but she saw only honest concern. Very gently and politely, she disentangled her fingers. "Thank you very much, Highness. I shall certainly do so."
As soon as the door closed behind the king, Kell snatched the missive and crumpled it, flinging it to the floor.
"... in the glade by the river where you killed your wife's lover," Elizabeth finished, and was proud of herself for keeping her voice steady.
Kell seized her by the collar of her dress. "Who did you tell?" he snarled, his mouth so close that she could smell his wine-sour breath.
She forced herself to stand firm. He'd hit her before, but surely he would not be so bold under the king's roof. "No one," she said quietly. "I was not entirely certain that it was you until this moment."
Kell released her, pushing her so hard that she stumbled against the door. "It doesn't matter," he said in a harsh burst, turning his back on her. "If it's him or someone else, I'll take enough men to wipe him from the face of Britain."
Elizabeth recovered her balance, holding fast to the door. She felt as if the world had gone adrift beneath her feet. She'd long suspected that her husband had had John murdered, but to have this casual confirmation -- and the handwriting; she'd always thought that she'd know that bold hand anywhere, but surely he couldn't have survived ...? And John had been a good man; surely he wouldn't threaten her only daughter, even if Guinevere was Kell's daughter as well ... "My lord," she said at last, managing to find her voice. "The person who wrote this message said that you must come alone, or Guinevere's life is forfeit."
"I do not give a bloody damn about her life. This miscreant dared to threaten me; he'll be punished, and punished severely."
In Elizabeth's head, a column of balances was being quickly and quietly totted up. In her too-long years as Kell's wife, she'd come to be in possession of a number of damning facts about him. She had no evidence, and surely to press any one of her legitimate grievances against her husband would bring severe repercussions later. Kell was not a forgiving man. But if he persisted in this course of action, her daughter's life was in terrible danger.
"My lord, may I accompany you? I believe I can --"
Kell laughed. "A woman, on a war party? This is man's work." Shoving past her, he marched out the door.
A shiver of impotent rage went through her -- an emotion that she'd had a good deal of practice at suppressing over the years of her life. "Do not do this!" she shouted after him.
He ignored her, letting the door fall shut behind him.
Elizabeth stood alone in the middle of the room. She drew a few deep, calming breaths, then knelt and picked up the crumpled letter, smoothing it in her palm, reading once again the damning words.
No more, she thought. No more.
Alone in the royal suite, Ronon approached the window and peered over the edge, down the sheer drop to the frothing river far below. He'd dismissed his attendants ... again; he kept trying to get rid of them and they kept coming back. This whole monarch thing was a bit difficult to get used to, after growing up in a small stone house in the forest.
Noon. Lady Guinevere.
Ronon had not been especially impressed with Lady Guinevere when he'd met her; quite attractive, yes, but like all the noble ladies, she seemed very artificial. He much preferred peasant girls like the one he'd met in the tower, straightforward and simple, with their hair falling loose about their shoulders rather than done up like the decorations on a holiday cake...
But he would likely never see the peasant girl again, and the Lady Guinevere, his future bride, waited in a ruffian's hands for her useless lout of a father to rescue her.
Still, he'd offered his support and had been rebuffed. There was no further way that he could help in an official capacity without implying that Duke Kell could not handle his own household's affairs. While he could take charge of the rescue -- he was the king, after all, and it was his future bride's life at stake -- he supposed he would probably make a powerful enemy. His parents had been brutally murdered; there was no sense in courting destiny.
Which left one other option.
These days, Ronon had a featherbed and a swarm of servants to do his every bidding. But before that, he'd had a lifetime's experience at sneaking around in the woods.
The Black Knight had spread out a blanket for Guinevere on the floor of the cave, and to her own surprise, she'd slept. When she woke, the knight was kneeling by the ashes of the fire, tying off the mouth of a large, lumpy bag. He wasn't wearing his armor, just a loose woolen tunic. Without the armor, he looked so much more human -- vulnerable and tired, just a man and not a legend. He moved stiffly, as if his ribs pained him.
Guinevere cleared her throat and offered, "I can probably find some herbs to help you if you're in pain."
The knight looked up at her and smiled, making smile lines crinkle around his green eyes. Guinevere reminded herself that he had abducted her in a most improper fashion, but it was difficult to keep in mind when he was so disarmingly nice. "I'd love that, but there isn't really time. Got a busy day ahead of us. There's bread and cheese; better eat something." And he lugged the bag out of the cave. Guinevere heard the jingling of horse harness.
She found the small bag of bread and a hard cheese of the sort that peasants ate, along with a small knife to cut off chunks, and then followed the knight out of the cave.
The sun had just begun to rise, touching the treetops with rose and gold. A fresh, cool breeze stirred her hair. Guinevere thought of mornings at the castle, rising early to run down to the stables, eating an apple to stave off hunger pains while she took an early-morning lesson with Charin before she had to go off to learn French and history from her regular tutors.
"Ah, good." The Black Knight swung astride the big black warhorse. His armor was tied on behind the saddle, along with several suspiciously lumpy bags. "Come on up."
Guinevere accepted his hand, as it seemed she had no choice, and he swung her onto the horse's neck in front of the saddle.
They rode through a wild and primeval forest dappled with early morning sun. Guinevere sat uncomfortably on the shoulders of the powerful horse, with one of the knight's strong arms around her.
"This is not very comfortable."
"Sorry," he said. "I'd offer you another horse if I had one."
Definitely a strange man. He spoke like one of the lower class, but his manners were those of a gentleman.
"What's your name?" Guinevere asked. "I can't keep calling you the Black Knight."
She felt, more than heard, a soft laugh vibrate in his chest. "I guess you can call me John."
Guinevere couldn't help smiling; it was just her luck to be abducted by a rogue knight with such an ordinary name -- not like something out of a story at all.
John reined in the horse at the top of a bluff overlooking a winding, wild river. He dismounted and offered her a courtly hand down, then began to unpack the bags behind the saddle, producing heavy ropes, axes and other tools.
"Are you going to torture me?" Guinevere asked, staring round-eyed at the heap of gear and revisiting her general impression of her abductor.
"What?" He stared at her. "No, no, of course not. Do you know how to tie knots?"
And so she ended up helping him make nooses and scavenge the nearby woods for fallen sticks and logs. At first she wasn't sure what he was doing, but when he began to string up his contraptions in the trees, she realized that she was looking at traps.
"Oh, that's very clever!"
"Thanks," John grunted, hauling on a rope. "Here, hold this line while I tie off, would you?"
"Although," Guinevere added as she leaned her body weight against the rope to avoid being pulled off the ground, "I don't think this is very chivalrous."
"Chivalry is for people who aren't massively outnumbered. Okay, you can let go now."
Guinevere frowned and stepped back, looking up at the net, weighted with chunks of deadwood and rocks, dangling above their heads. "Are you planning to kill people? I don't believe I can be a party to that."
"Not trying to. None of this is supposed to be lethal, as long as no one panics. Just a deterrent and a way of keeping them busy." He tied off another rope and moved on to the next trap.
"Who do you think is going to show up?" Guinevere asked, following him.
He glanced over at her, and seemed to think a moment before answering. "Your father, and most of his men."
Guinevere blinked. "What?"
"Here, hold this rope, I need to cut it." He leaned around her as she obediently stretched it out for him, her mind whirling. "I sent your father a message that I'd kidnapped you, and told him to come alone. Naturally he'll show up with an army. I wouldn't have a chance if I didn't play dirty."
"But what if he does come alone?"
John shrugged. "Then I'll fight him one-on-one. But ... tell me the truth, Guinevere." He looked at her over the top of the deadfall he was rigging. "Do you honestly think that he'll show up without a small army?"
Guinevere swallowed, and lowered her gaze. She'd grown up with her father, after all; she tried not to think about it, but she'd heard many stories of the things he'd done, whispered among the servants and her childhood friends. "No," she said quietly.
"I'm sorry." When she looked up, John was watching her intently. "I really hate to get you involved in this. But I promise you won't be harmed, and hopefully none of your father's men will suffer anything worse than some bruises and a few blows to their pride."
Guinevere stood, and came over to examine his handiwork. "Where did you learn to do this?"
John laughed as he tied off another rope. "My brother used to make this kind of thing. Scrappy kid; lousy fighter, but he made up for it with brains. We used to build traps like this to play practical jokes on our other brothers, who deserved every bit of it, let me tell you." The wistful expression on his face made him look younger and disarmingly innocent. Shaking his head, he turned back to the trap. "Long time ago, but I'm a quick study."
"Is he dead?" Guinevere asked quietly.
"Who? My brother? No, he's okay. I just haven't seen him in awhile. Long story."
"I have time," Guinevere offered.
John gave a little snort and stepped carefully away from the balanced deadfall. "It involves some not-so-nice things that your father's done."
"I've seen him do not-so-nice things. I'm not a child."
He looked her up and down. "No, I guess you're not. If you really want to know, Guinevere, I fell in love with his wife, your mother, a long time ago."
Guinevere's mouth fell open. "Mother?"
John laughed at the look on her face. "Your mother's a beautiful woman, Guinevere. Very beautiful and very intelligent. She doesn't deserve ... well. Anyway, we met, many years back, when I saddled a horse for her. She was one of the few people who ever saw me, and not my station in life. I used to work in the stables, and daydreamed about being a knight, but it wasn't really possible for me."
Guinevere cleared her throat and looked pointedly at the warhorse browsing next to the pile of armor in the edge of the woods.
"Also a long story," John said, looking embarrassed. "Very long story. In any case, where was I? Oh, yes -- well, without getting into details, Elizabeth and I ... rendezvoused whenever we could, over a period of years."
"I can't believe Mother never said anything about this." Mother had had a secret lover? Guinevere's entire impression of her was having to be rewritten.
"What would she have said? She was married to a very dangerous and jealous man, and you were small; she didn't want to do anything to endanger you. Or me."
"But Father found out," Guinevere said quietly.
"Yes, he found out. Hold this rope, please?" As she took it, he continued quietly, "I guess it was naive to think we could go on forever without being discovered. But, well, he challenged me to a duel on this riverbank. And, like a fool, I accepted. Back in those days, I still thought he had some measure of honor."
"He cheated," Guinevere whispered.
John gave a small laugh. "He showed up with twenty men. Had me bound, stabbed and thrown in the river. The only way I survived -- well, when you have brothers like mine, you learn a lot of tricks. I'm really good at playing dead, as well as a few little things I know about letting myself get tied up in such a way that I can get loose. Still, I almost died, and it took me a long time to recover from that and the subsequent fever. And I wasn't sure what to do next -- I had no money, no men, no weapons, and I didn't want to risk the only friend I had left, the one brother of mine that I get along with, by getting him involved." He looked over at the warhorse. "To make an extremely long story short, however, after a few quests, a handful of unlikely coincidences and some training in the forest with an elderly wise man, I'm back for revenge. Sorry to tell you all of this about your father," he added. "It must be a blow."
Guinevere was silent for a long moment, thinking hard -- about her mother, her mother's bitterness and the scenes that she had witnessed between her parents. Finally she said, "Not as much as you might think. Let me help you with that rope."
Rodney hated the wilderness in general. It was full of wild beasts, which he would be expected to kill, and ruffians, which he would be expected to fight, and flowers, which he was allergic to. He hadn't thought that anything could make him hate the wild lands more than he already did. Come to find out, though, he'd found something that did the trick: riding through the woods on a recalcitrant, ancient warhorse that just wanted to find a nice patch of sun and take a nap, surrounded by all of Kell's most vulgar and violent knights and their even more loutish squires, riding off to kill some poor bastard who was going to be outnumbered thirty to one.
The only bright spot was that he had Teylaval with him, so at least he knew that he could depend on one person to have a measure of brains and common sense. Teylaval had gotten stuck with a long-legged pony, but rode as if he was born to it, though he shifted his seat occasionally as if he found the saddle uncomfortable; Rodney thought the stableboy was probably used to riding bareback. Teylaval soon took up a position at Warstrider's head, grabbing the old warhorse's bridle whenever it decided to take a detour for some grazing.
Rodney might be generally out of the loop, but he'd caught enough of the gossip among the knights to know that they were riding off to apprehend the ruffian who'd abducted Kell's daughter (in which case "apprehend", Rodney suspected, knowing Kell and his knights, was a euphemism for "brutally murder"). And Rodney was not exactly the foremost student of human nature, either, but even he could pick up on the fact that Kell seemed to be much more concerned with the slight to his honor than his daughter's safety.
Teylaval dragged Warstrider out of yet another patch of thornbushes. "Thanks," Rodney said. He'd given up on keeping to the usual knight-squire formalities, because, frankly, Teylaval was a whole lot better at this than he was, and trying to maintain his own supremacy in the face of his squire's clearly superior skill just made him feel like an idiot. Also, he didn't want to risk annoying Teylaval and being left to guide his horse himself, because Warstrider would probably wander off a cliff and break both their necks.
"That's quite all right." Teylaval dropped back to keep pace with Warstrider (not exactly difficult, even for the pony; they were at the very back of the column of knights). "If you don't mind my saying so, if you straighten your spine and seat yourself more like so --" he demonstrated by slouching and then straightening " -- your horse will respond more efficiently to you. They are used to someone who rides with an air of command."
"I have an air of command," Rodney said indignantly.
The corners of Teylaval's mouth turned up.
"Well," Teylaval said in a voice that sounded as if he was choking back laughter, "perhaps it would be a good idea to convey that air of command to your horse."
As they rode along through the flower-infested forest, Teylaval prodded Rodney to sit up straight, turn his heels down, tuck his elbows in and stop shifting his weight around in the saddle. He couldn't tell if it actually made a difference to Warstrider, but he had to reluctantly admit that it made him feel a little more manly.
"How can you spend all your life riding horses and continue to be so poor at it?" Teylaval inquired, nudging the small of Rodney's back in an attempt to correct his posture yet again.
"You've really taken this honesty thing to heart, haven't you?" Rodney grumbled.
"Yes," Teylaval said, smiling.
"I hate you."
He watched the squire out of the corner of his eye for reaction, but Teylaval merely smiled wider and then rode up to wrest Warstrider's head from a particularly tasty patch of clover. Rodney's eyes widened as he realized that he was staring at Teylaval's really quite nicely shaped fundament on the saddle, and wrenched his gaze back to watching out for low-hanging branches. He'd heard of knights who harbored an attraction for their squires, but he'd never been tempted before --
He was jolted out of his contemplations by a sudden yell and some kind of scuffle up ahead. Teylaval seized Warstrider's bridle and dragged him along as the knights converged on ... okay, that was weird. Through the crowd, Rodney couldn't see a whole lot, but it looked like several of Kell's knights and their horses were entangled in a large ... net?
There was another scream as one of the knights, trying to turn his horse around, ran afoul of a rope strung between two trees at chest level. He was flipped off his mount and landed on his back with a resounding clang.
Rodney stared. He'd seen a trap like that before. He'd set a trap like that before ... for his brother David, nearly thirty years ago, in retaliation for David's bullying of John.
"Stand firm, you children!" Duke Kell shouted. Horses and men were now milling around in the forest, no one sure where the next attack would come from. Someone shrieked, somewhere off to the side, and there was a loud crash.
Rodney leaned over to slap Teylaval on the arm, catching the squire's attention (and almost falling off in the process). "Come on," he said, and urged Warstrider into the bushes. For a change, the geriatric warhorse seemed to be happy to comply.
"What are we doing?" Teylaval asked, ghosting after him on the pony.
"We are staying out of the way," Rodney said firmly. "Obviously someone has set traps in the area, and while the Duke's men are apparently perfectly happy to charge around until they break their necks, I'd say it might be a better idea to wait and watch."
"Hide," Teylaval corrected him.
Rodney glowered at him. "We are not hiding, we are observing from cover. There's a difference."
"Shouldn't we warn them?" Another crash and scream punctuated Teylaval's words.
"And they'll listen to us?"
"Excellent point," Teylaval sighed, and then twisted around in the saddle, pointing down. "Watch your horse's step. Another trap."
"Good eye." Rodney leaned from his horse, looking down at the leaf-covered noose that Teylaval had noticed. "Someone's been busy around here." And this, too, was a booby trap that he and John had rigged up to catch their well-deserving brothers, back when they were young and this sort of prank seemed like a good idea.
But John's dead.
"Hey!" Guinevere protested when John tied her to a tree.
"Sorry," he said, and he sounded genuinely apologetic. "But I can't have you running off and warning anyone. You'll be all right here."
She glared at him. "What if all of you kill each other and no one's left to untie me? Am I supposed to stand here until wild beasts come to eat me, or until I fall over from thirst?"
"Hmm. Good point." The Black Knight rubbed his stubbled upper lip thoughtfully, then took out a small knife and laid it on the ground near her feet.
"How is that supposed to help me?"
He grinned at her. "You're an educated woman; I'm sure you can contrive a way of getting it. As long as it takes you a while."
Guinevere fruitlessly stretched and strained at her bonds, trying to reach the knife with her toe, while John strolled across the clearing and began donning his armor. She was sweating, frustrated and panting by the time that he rode the horse back over to her. "How's it going?"
"Wonderful," Guinevere reported through clenched teeth. After a night in the cave and the trek through the forest, her hair was a tangled mess, and now sweat plastered it to her face; she could barely see.
"I told you: think. Your brain's your most important weapon. At least, that's what my brother always said." John wheeled the horse around and trotted out of the clearing, clanking.
"This is unfair!" Guinevere shouted after him, but he'd vanished into the sun-dappled woods.
When it became apparent that he was not coming back, she sighed and contemplated the knife lying in the dirt. It was just out of reach beyond her toe.
Think, John had said. What assets did she have? Staring at the tips of her shoes under the edge of Sora's gown, the thought occurred to her that she might be able to snag it with one of those. Carefully, she toed out of one shoe and hooked her bare toes over the lip, using it as an awkward scoop. After some more contortions, she retrieved the knife and, bending and twisting until the ropes dug painfully into her stomach, managed to transfer it from her toes to her hand.
Cutting oneself free of tightly knotted ropes sounded much easier in the stories than it turned out to be in real life. Trying to hold the knife at an angle to the ropes set her wrist on fire.
She was resting between attempts when a soft rustling in the forest made her jump.
"Hello?" she began warily, and then stared when the King himself slipped quietly from the shadows, dressed all in soft, patched brown leather.
Ronon had given an excuse about feeling unwell after the previous day's feasting -- not entirely unbelievable; half the court had been carousing until all hours and were nowhere to be found this morning -- and, after securing a promise not to be disturbed under pain of royal wrath, had slipped away down one of the secret tunnels, pausing only to obtain a few things from his stash of emergency escape gear.
It wasn't that he was paranoid. Much. But when your parents have been murdered in their beds and you suddenly find yourself in a hotbed of conspiracy and intrigue after living on your own in the forest for a number of years .... well, it just seemed natural to keep a few stashes of food, clothing and weapons hidden in the tunnel system.
Alone in the sun-washed green wilderness, he was relieved to find himself slipping back into his old habits, like shedding an ill-fitting skin of satin and jewels. The familiar, supple leather conformed to his body, more comfortable than the finest robes, and he barely stirred a twig as he ghosted from sun to shade.
No special woods skills were necessary to find the trail of Duke Kell's party, though -- the broken branches and churned earth of the horses' passage blazed a veritable highway through the forest, and the distant jangling of armor and raised voices could be clearly heard. Ronon stood in the crushed vegetation and stared after them. A slow anger kindled in his chest. If you value her life, meet me alone, the ransom note had written of Kell's daughter, Ronon's betrothed. Yet here was Kell with a war party.
With a short bow against his side, his sword lashed to his back so that it would not entangle his legs, he ran swiftly through the forest, pacing and eventually outpacing the war party. In the dense trees, a lone man could move faster than the laden horses. Before he reached Kell's men, however, Ronon veered off and slipped through the brush, staying close enough that he could be aware of their movements but not near enough to be seen or heard -- if they could hear anything over the noise they were making.
Ronon saw the first trap in advance of the riders, and stepped over it carefully: a noose covered with leaves. He scanned it with an expert's eye -- he was very familiar with the design of similar traps from his childhood. The peasants often used them, in smaller versions, to catch birds and rats; he'd set hundreds of them himself.
Apparently Guinevere's kidnappers were not entirely unprepared for a double-cross.
This thought had just crossed his mind when a tremendous commotion erupted: horses squealing, men shouting angrily, cracking tree limbs and sudden sharp cries of pain or shock. Ronon smiled to himself. As little sympathy as he had for the fate of Guinevere's kidnappers, from what he'd seen of Kell's knights he had even less for them.
With silence no longer as much of an issue, Ronon strode quickly through the trees, skirting the noise, dust and flying twigs that let him know where Kell's war party were currently thrashing around in a line of traps. He skillfully avoided a few more; the unknown person or persons who had kidnapped Guinevere had seeded the forest with them. They're close, Ronon thought, all his senses alert.
Over the sound of the struggling horses and men, and Kell's furious cries as he tried to regain control of his men, Ronon could hear the sound of the river. He caught glimpses of sunlight and sky through the trees -- the open country around the water.
Meet me alone at noon in the glade by the river, the note had read. And Kell had clearly known where he was going. The kidnapper or kidnappers, and hopefully Guinevere, would be nearby. Ronon moved from shadow to shadow, and paused at the edge of a clearing overlooking the river.
Across the clearing, bound to an oak tree, was a slender shape in a blue dress, long golden hair falling across her face as she struggled. Ronon stared, doubting his own senses. With her head down, she looked so much like the peasant girl that he'd met in the palace --
The girl raised her head, exposing a long curve of pale throat as she arched her back, stretching and struggling with her bonds. It was her. Jennifer.
Various possibilities occurred to Ronon, most of which were equally unlikely. Still, she was clearly a prisoner, and probably bait as well. He cast a look around the clearing, but could see no sign of enemies watching. Still, someone canny enough to prepare those traps would likely have a plan for Jennifer as well.
Ronon the woodcutter, the huntsman, would have remained hidden, crept around the edges of the clearing. For a long moment, he was tempted. But he was Ronon the king now. Drawing a breath and throwing back his shoulders, he assumed the invisible mantle of command and stepped from the woods, into full view of whoever might be watching the clearing.
"Hello --?" Jennifer began, then sucked in a breath when she recognized him.
Shoulders tense, back prickling, he scanned the trees rapidly, all his senses on full alert. She had to be a decoy; why else leave her tied here?
Jennifer attempted a small curtsey, as best she could while tied to the tree. "Your Majesty."
"Right," Ronon said absently. No arrow winged its way from the still and steadfast trees to bury itself in his chest; no ruffian burst from the bushes, waving a sword. Crossing the clearing swiftly, he knelt to cut her bonds, pausing briefly when he saw the small knife clutched in her hand.
"I, um, thought I might cut myself free ..." Blushing, she opened her hand and let the knife fall into his palm; he slit her bonds.
"Harder than it looks," he said, offering her a hand. She took it shyly, eyes downcast.
The sun lit her downturned features -- the outline of her nose, her slightly parted lips. Strands of tangled hair clung to her cheeks, but the demure pose told him what he had not been able to believe when he had first seen her in the clearing. For a moment he saw both of them overlaid: the chastely downcast face of his betrothed, the loose bright hair of the peasant woman who had bandaged his wounds. Two women ... but really, only one.
"Guinevere?" he said, and as her eyes came up to meet his own, Ronon realized that he'd fatally allowed his attention to lapse -- an instant before the soft jingle of harness behind him let him know that he was not alone.
"Highness," a quiet voice drawled behind him, with the slightly muffled and hollow quality that came from speaking through a closed visor.
Ronon's hand twitched towards his sword.
"I wouldn't," the voice said. "My quarrel is not with you. Turn slowly, Highness, very slowly."
Ronon did so.
In the bright, sun-drenched clearing, the Black Knight looked shockingly out of place, like an inkblot on a lady's white lace sleeve. He held a long sword, extended, the tip quivering near Ronon's neck.
"You must know who we are," Ronon said through clenched teeth. The accent of the peasant classes, acquired during his long exile and so recently lost through deliberate effort, slipped back, and he forced his tones to those of the king he had become. "This is a grave insult."
"Like I said," the knight said lightly, "quarrel's not with you. Didn't mean to get you involved, Your Highness. But that's the bait for my trap that you're setting free, there."
Ronon moved to place his body between the Black Knight and Guinevere. "That's your future queen, miscreant. If you've hurt her --"
"I haven't harmed a golden hair. Ask her. I am not your enemy, Highness, and there's nothing to be gained by --"
"You!" a voice bellowed across the clearing.
Looking somewhat the worse for wear, Kell came charging into the open, flanked by a ragged phalanx of knights -- plus, Ronon saw, one squire on a pony.
The Black Knight turned sharply; his sword lifted from Ronon's neck. And Ronon moved, drawing his sword in one swift motion. He could only blunt his sword on the Black Knight's armor, unless he got a lucky strike, so instead, he brought the sword forward, slicing the Black Knight's saddle straps.
The Black Knight was already in motion, swinging back around towards Ronon with sword in hand. Momentum swept him off the horse, saddle and all. He crashed to the meadow grass with a tremendous clang and a startled cry.
Shoving Guinevere towards the trees, Ronon closed with his fallen opponent, ignoring Kell's shouts.
"There's another one," Teylaval said, pointing, and tugged on Warstrider's bridle, leading him around another noose half-hidden under a scattering of leaves.
Teylaval had dismounted and, leading both horses, was skirting the edges of the trap-riddled area, eventually working their way around to the front of the scattered column of riders. Rodney saw, peering through the trees, that Kell's knights were in shambles. As far as he could tell, no one seemed to be dead, but men were down with broken limbs and injured horses; others had become thoroughly tangled in nets and nooses, their terrified horses struggling and plunging while their fellows tried to extricate them.
Through luck or caution, Kell himself seemed to have avoided the traps, though he was missing his helm, with leaves in his hair. "You, over there!" he bellowed in Rodney's direction. "All, to me! The bastard's probably laughing at us now -- and escaping while the lot of you stand around tangled up in your drawers!"
Rodney urged Warstrider forward, and for a change, the old warhorse actually cooperated. "M'lord, my squire can lead us through the traps."
Kell shot a hard glare over his shoulder. "Can he now." He looked past Rodney at Teylaval, swinging lithely up onto his horse. "Show me."
So it was that the three of them, plus the handful of Kell's knights who were not currently tangled up with their enemy's traps, burst out into the meadow just in time to see the tableau spread out before them -- Guinevere in a peasant's dress, with her hair spilling over her shoulders; the Black Knight with his sword at the throat of a tall huntsman in drab brown.
After his initial glimpse of the scene, Rodney was temporarily distracted, trying to keep Warstrider from picking a fight with the other knights' stallions -- so he missed whatever happened next in the meadow. He heard Kell shouting and cursing, and then a very loud crash that he instantly recognized from the jousting fields. Looking up, he saw the Black Knight on the ground; the huge black stallion wheeling, bereft of rider; the huntsman with a huge longsword in hand and -- wait, good God! His eyes tracked back to the huntsman, taking in the startling height, the unfashionably long hair; was that the King?
The unhorsed Black Knight had regained his feet rather shakily, and now he was facing off against the rangy figure in brown. Even Rodney could see that the knight in his heavy armor was at a tremendous disadvantage in speed and agility against the King in his light leathers. The armor was not meant for this sort of fighting -- it was exhausting to move in, and vulnerable to precisely targeted strikes in close combat.
Kell's frustration was obvious, but he could not presume to interfere with his monarch. No one seemed to know what to do. The horses and their riders milled helplessly. Teylaval moved in close to Warstrider and seized his bridle again, trying to keep him from wandering off into the woods and taking Rodney with him.
The King had drawn blood, sinking his long sword into a gap in the Black Knight's armor. His blade glistened oily-dark in the sun as he sidestepped and parried the knight's counterswing. Rodney had never been better than mediocre at fencing, like all the rest of his father's war-sports, but he recognized that neither of the combatants were extraordinarily skilled. The King's technique was rough and unschooled; the knight's was somewhat hesitant, as if he'd seen it done and was now trying to follow through by rote.
The King drew blood again, blade meeting flesh in a vulnerable spot under the knight's arm. The knight was visibly tiring; under the King's onslaught, he was driven back to the lip of the hill falling away to the river.
"Sir Rodney!" Heedless of the mounted knights and their restless, tetchy horses, Guinevere ran in her peasant's skirts to Rodney's side and seized his stirrup, tugging on it. "Sir Rodney, you have to stop them. He'll be killed!"
Rodney looked out at the impromptu field of battle, where the Black Knight was barely managing to stand his ground. "M'lady, I don't think your fiancé is in danger."
"Not him! J-- the Black Knight," Guinevere protested. "He's not the sort of man they think. He was kind to me."
With a sudden ringing clash of swords, the Black Knight regained the upper hand, forcing the King back a step. Rodney looked up, as did the other spectators; he was aware of Guinevere, tense against his leg.
It was clearly the Black Knight's last-ditch effort; with the heavy armor weighing him down, he could not possibly have the strength for another such attack. But, as he strode forward, he gave a piercing whistle.
The large black stallion, generally ignored by the knights, had wandered to the edge of the woods. But at the ear-splitting sound, his head went up and he wheeled around.
The King didn't see him until it was almost too late. The great black animal bore down on him like a charging boar. At the last moment, he saw it coming out of the corner of his eye and spun to avoid the horse, but one of the powerful shoulders clipped him, sent him spinning, his hair whipping around him. And the Black Knight was on him. For an instant Rodney's view was obscured by the horse's great body as it cantered to a halt and turned about; then he saw the King on his back, looking up at the knight standing over him. The sword lowered to the King's throat trembled slightly from the fatigue dragging down his arm.
For a moment, no one moved. Then, "Highness!" Kell bellowed, spurring his horse forward, as Guinevere cried, "Father, no!"
The Black Knight turned, but, slowed with exhaustion, he only partially avoided the powerful blow that Kell struck with the flat of his sword. It glanced off his helmet, ringing like a bell. Stumbling back, he stepped directly into the path of another of Kell's knights, who struck him in the sword-arm. The broadsword fell from his fingers into the grass.
"No, no!" Guinevere shrieked, and struck Rodney's mailed leg with her fist. "Sir Rodney, they mustn't!"
Rodney himself couldn't help feeling sorry for the Black Knight, surrounded and harried by Kell's riders, like a fox at bay. It was more than his life was worth, though, to interfere with them -- and, worse, it would be the downfall of all his plans, his hopes for vengeance. Kell would not suffer such an insult lightly, particularly in front of the King.
"He is a good man." Guinevere sounded near tears.
"She is correct; it is not right," Teylaval said in his light, quiet voice. "I will stop them, Sir Rodney."
And Teylaval made to ride forward, into the fray. He's a peasant; Kell will kill him -- Rodney thought, and his hand whipped out, almost without his conscious command; it was his turn to grip the bridle of Teylaval's mount. "Idiot!" he hissed. "You're nothing to him; he can strike your head from your shoulders for interfering with his sport, and no one will stop him!"
"I am not nothing, Sir Rodney," Teylaval said bitterly, meeting Rodney's eyes with his brown ones. "I will not stand by and witness this cruel excuse for justice."
The Black Knight had been forced to his knees on the churned earth. Kell himself struck another ringing blow to the Black Knight's helmet. There was no cry of pain, but the knight swayed and fell to catch himself on his hands.
"Then protect the Lady Guinevere," Rodney said, trying to sound bold and commanding, and kicked Warstrider viciously in the ribs. The warhorse tottered forward to meet his more aggressive brethren.
Ronon allowed one of Kell's men to help him to his feet. Silently, he watched Kell's baiting of the Black Knight. It was cruel sport and he wondered if he ought to stop it, but he was not sure enough of his authority. This was a lonely place, and he had no one that he trusted at his back. This would not be a good place to press his ability to control his vassals.
So he watched as the Black Knight was forced to his knees at the feet of Kell's stallion -- supporting himself on one hand, his other arm dangling uselessly. His warhorse had been captured and hobbled; something in Ronon's heart twisted to see them both brought low.
Kell looked down at the prisoner, sneering. "So this is the mysterious Black Knight. Let's see who you are. Take off your helm."
The Black Knight said nothing, though the angle of his head shifted; he was listening.
"Do you speak? Are you deaf? Dumb?" Kell glanced in the King's direction, and then leaned forward; Ronon thought that he probably hoped to keep his words private, but Ronon's ears had always been sharp. "For defiling my daughter's honor, I could strike your head from your shoulders right now, and none would gainsay me. But I would know how you know my business."
After a moment, the Black Knight pushed himself up to his knees, and pulled off his helm. Dark hair spilled free, tangled and matted with sweat. Ronon was near enough to see the knight's face -- pale, bruised and unfamiliar to him. Despite the Black Knight's obvious exhaustion and pain, his piercing green eyes glared up at Kell with quiet enmity through a tangle of disheveled hair.
Kell recoiled, his own face going pale. He said nothing at all, his lips pressed together in a hard white line as he drew back his sword for the killing stroke.
Rodney had managed to bully and cajole Warstrider into the circle of knights when the Black Knight removed his helm, and the bottom dropped out of Rodney's stomach.
It can't be. He knew that face, the face of the boy who had defended him from their brothers, who had been his partner in boyhood petty crime, his only friend and ally throughout his childhood.
But John was dead. He was dead ...
Kell drew back his sword and Rodney's vision whited out in a blinding rush of rage. He kicked Warstrider in the ribs, and miraculously, the old horse leaped in the right direction -- straight ahead, colliding with the shoulder of Kell's horse, throwing off his swing. Kell's sword-swing went wild, slashing a shallow red line across John's forehead.
And that was the last thing Rodney saw before he lost his balance in the collision and fell off his horse. Stars exploded in his vision and he found himself flat on his back, staring up at the sky. Somewhere far off, he heard Teylaval cry out, "Sir Rodney!" and hoped that the squire would have enough sense to stay back.
Rodney pushed himself painfully to his hands and knees to find himself facing a ring of swords. Looking up, he froze as the tip of Kell's sword hovered under his nose. Beyond the furious-looking knight, he saw the King watching the scene with an unreadable expression, arms folded. Teylaval had circled around and and was approaching the King, with Guinevere riding on the saddle behind him. At least the kid wasn't charging to the rescue and getting himself stabbed.
"Nice rescue, Rodney," John's voice drawled at his shoulder. Rodney's chest lurched, and, all thoughts of Kell momentarily blanked from his mind, he turned his head to see the familiar, sardonic green eyes watching him.
"You bastard!" he burst out, still on hands and knees, staring.
The corner of John's mouth quirked. His face was pale, bruised; blood trickled into his eyes from the gash across his forehead, and he blinked it away. "Still the master of stating the obvious, I see."
"You -- you're -- dead!" Rodney began, his stomach curling into a tight hot ball. "You complete ass, how could you let me think --"
Kell's boot connected with the side of his head, sent him sprawling. John shouted something, wordless and furious, and when Rodney opened his eyes and the world stopped spinning, it was to see John in his black armor, injured arm trailing, crouching over him, blocking Kell's blows with his own body.
"Useless," Kell snarled, out of sight somewhere beyond John. "What is he to you?"
John didn't answer. "Brother," Rodney croaked, pushing himself up on shaky arms. "He's my brother." It wasn't as if there was any point in hiding it anymore.
Kell laughed, and Rodney didn't think he'd ever hated anyone so much in his life. "Is that so? Are the two of you in this ridiculous conspiracy --" His eyes widened suddenly, and his triumphant grin broadened. "So," he said quietly, and then he struck John in the side of the head with the flat of his sword; John dropped like a rock, falling across Rodney's legs.
Rodney's throat seized up. "I'll kill you!" he forced out, scrabbling to get upright.
"You'll say nothing, do nothing," Kell said, leaning forward and dropping his voice, "or I'll kill him."
"You're going to kill us anyway," Rodney snarled back at him. John's face was ice-white under the bruises, and shockingly open in his unconsciousness, shockingly young-looking despite the fine lines that had gathered at the corners of his eyes since Rodney had last seen him. Rodney laid an arm across John's chest, a fragile and futile defensive motion.
But he could feel Kell's stare on him, assessing. Kell wasn't a subtle man, and up to this point, Rodney would have said that he wasn't a smart man, either. Duke Kell was very much of the "stab first and ask questions later" school of diplomacy.
But he didn't like the way Kell was looking at him. He didn't like it at all.
"Not necessarily," Kell said softly. "Depends on what you do."
Rodney tightened his arm across John's chest, feeling the rise and fall of John's shallow breathing. His brother was alive. He tried to hold onto that.
Teyla's heart battered her ribs. Sir Rodney was right; Kell would never listen to her, and she could not possibly take on a trained, armored knight. But the King might listen. She did not know him, did not know what sort of man he was, and nothing in her life had given her any reason to believe that those of the moneyed classes cared a thing for the affairs of those below them. But she liked the monarch, and she hoped that if anyone would listen to a call for leniency, he might.
Plus, there was Guinevere. And when Teyla looked down and met her friend's cornflower-blue eyes, she saw her own desperation reflected there.
Teyla extended down a hand, and pulled Guinevere up behind her. "Will the King listen to you?" she asked over her shoulder, coaxing her mount forward. The small, docile creature did not want to approach the warhorses, but for once, Teyla had much more on her mind than the horses' welfare.
"I'm not sure," Guinevere said softly, lacing her hands around Teyla's waist. After a moment, she added meekly, "I can try."
Teyla glanced over her shoulder at Guinevere's bowed, golden head. The subdued manner was very much at odds with her friend's usual eager energy. She wondered what had happened after Guinevere had run away -- how she'd come to be in the Black Knight's company, what changes it had wrought in her.
But there was no time to worry about that now. Teyla had little attention for anything but Sir Rodney, down on the meadow grass with Kell's sword at his throat. She could not understand how the arrogant, incompetent knight had managed to get under her skin so thoroughly. But he looked at her as a person, not as a piece of furniture -- and the idea of watching him die here, on the green grass of the field, caused something inside her to wither and die.
"Your Highness," she said, bowing as best she could on horseback. The King turned towards her, his brow wrinkled in a frown.
He was so shockingly tall. Even on horseback, she looked into his eyes without dipping her head. She could not help noticing that he was a very handsome man.
"I -- We don't know you," the King said. As someone who had practiced a deception most of her life, Teyla could see him visibly drawing into himself, collecting the fragile shell of kingliness that he wore around himself. He was not, she thought, a man who enjoyed the power that he wielded. It made her think better of him.
"Teylaval, Highness," she said, bowing again. "I am Sir Rodney's squire." And that was as far as her brain would take her; to her frustration, the words balled up in her throat. Rodney's life hung in the balance, but what did you say to a king to convince him of a disgraced knight's merits? Sir Rodney was far more than he appeared at first glance, but everything she could think of to say in his favor came out like an extremely back-handed complement at best.
Guinevere slid off the pony's back in an unladylike flurry of skirts, but made a nice curtsey once she was on the ground. "Highness, you must stop them," she said without preamble. "This is not right. Sir Rodney is my friend, and the Black Knight was never less than courteous to me."
Ronon's eyebrows lifted. "He tied you to a tree," he pointed out.
Color flamed in Guinevere's cheeks, but she met the monarch's level stare, tilting her chin far back to do so. "My father once wronged him greatly, and that is where his quarrel lies. He never meant any harm to me. He fed me and treated me well."
Ronon looked back to the circle of knights; Teyla's eyes were drawn there also, her whole body tense as a bowstring. Sir Rodney was still alive, kneeling with his arm defensively thrown across the Black Knight's body.
"Usually it's best to let people work out their own business," Ronon said. In other words, I will not interfere. Teyla's heart sank.
"But you're here," Guinevere pointed out. "Why did you come?"
"I came for you. You are my business," he said, faltering a bit. To Teyla's surprise, a blush climbed his cheeks. "I mean, you're my future wife, aren't you?"
Guinevere seemed to consider this, then took a deep breath, drew back her shoulders, and pointed to the knights with the same air of authority that Teyla remembered her using as a child when she wanted a favorite toy. "Then, future husband, I demand that you call off my father and his men."
Teyla had never been so proud of her friend. She held her breath, as the King stared at Guinevere as if he'd never seen her before.
But Kell acted before Ronon could do anything, wheeling his horse, turning to his monarch. "Highness, I suggest that these miscreants should be locked up until justice can be meted out."
The King raised an eyebrow, then turned his head to his betrothed, a slight smile curving his lips. "And does that meet your approval, Lady?"
Guinevere opened and closed her mouth. "I suppose," she said at last, and the look she gave her father was a suspicious one.
All the way back to the palace, Guinevere wondered what her father was up to. Because he was, clearly, up to something.
She rode behind him on his horse, as he was the only person in the group who wasn't an unrelated male -- well, except for Teyla, but of course no one else knew that Teyla wasn't a man. The former Black Knight, still unconscious and now bereft of his armor, was lashed across one of the other knights' saddles, while Rodney sat hunched and miserable on Warstrider's back with his hands bound before him.
Guinevere found herself leaning away from her father. She told herself it was just the unpleasant feel of his cold armor, and its tendency to pinch her hands.
It just didn't make sense. From what John had said back at the river, her father had every reason to kill him. Letting him live would merely give John the opportunity to ruin him. And, even in her girlish innocence, she had never known her father to be a merciful man. So why was he taking him back for trial? The King had even offered the palace dungeons, and Kell had accepted with unusually good cheer.
He was definitely up to something.
At the palace, the Duke of Kell handed Guinevere down to the cobblestones, with a firm and impersonal grasp, delivering her into the waiting arms of her serving maids. Guinevere could only watch, past her fluttering maids, as the horses and prisoners were taken away. Teyla cast a sympathetic look over her shoulder, and then went with the rest of the men.
Guinevere was hustled off to her family's suite of rooms by the twittering maids. Sora was conspicuously absent, but the others were excited and envious and solicitous, begging for details of Guinevere's adventures.
Guinevere just wanted to be left alone to bathe and eat and sleep. Well, no -- more than that, she wanted to be wherever John the Black Knight and Sir Rodney had been taken. She didn't even know if she could help, but it seemed entirely wrong that they should be in danger, injured, suffering -- while she was being primped and pressed, cleaned and changed, her hair done up so that she looked like a proper lady again.
"Where is Mother?" she asked, futilely pushing away a maid with a tortoiseshell comb. "I need to speak to my mother."
"The Lady Elizabeth has suffered an attack of nervous exhaustion, milady. She is prostrate with worry over you, and was taken back home to recover under the care of her personal physician."
"What?" Guinevere slapped away the comb. "No one told me!"
"A messenger has been dispatched to let her know of your safe return, milady," the maid said hastily.
"Out, out. Please. I -- I need to -- to rest."
She unceremoniously chased out the maids, leaving her alone to pace anxiously. Worry for her mother gave way slowly to wondering if her mother, too, could be nursing plans of her own. The Lady Elizabeth had never suffered an attack of nervous exhaustion in the entire time that Guinevere could remember -- she simply was not that kind of woman. But wherever Elizabeth was, whatever she was doing, Guinevere could not rely on her for help.
"But I need to tell her about John," she said aloud, wringing her hands. Now that she was dressed in her usual garments, back in familiar surroundings, the stories that John had told her of her mother's youthful exploits seemed distant and strange, like tall tales told in childhood. Had it all been a lie, designed to get her cooperation? Yet he'd seemed so earnest, so easy to trust. "Or I could talk to the King again. He seemed to listen to me --"
The door opened; Guinevere jumped. Teyla slipped in and closed it behind her.
"Teyla! How are they?"
"Shackled like common criminals. They are not in the dungeons; they have been imprisoned in one of the towers." Teyla ran her hand through her boyishly short hair. She crossed the room to the basin of water that Guinevere's attendants had left under the window and splashed it on her dirty, tired face. She smelled of leather and horses; Guinevere hadn't noticed it in the woods, but here, where the only smells were those of perfume and rosewater, it stood out sharply. "But alive," she added. "For now."
Guinevere sat down on the window seat, kicking her heels at the floor with restless anxiety. "My mother might be able to help, but she's gone home. I don't know why."
Teyla ran her wet hands across her face, and sat down next to her friend. "I would help if I could, but I am powerless here." Frustration laced through her tone.
"You? Powerless?" Guinevere looked at her in shock. In the forest, she'd felt so helpless, so envious of Teyla with her boys' clothes and her confidence in the world of men and fighting. Throughout their childhood, she had often wished to be more like her bold, unflappable friend, and had envied Teyla's freedom from the ladylike behavior that Guinevere's parents and tutors expected of her.
But there were different kinds of power, weren't there? In the world of courts and intrigue, Guinevere was the one with the advantage of birth and training. Looking at her friend, Guinevere wondered if Teyla sometimes felt as she herself had today, helpless in the woods in her heavy skirts and soft, impractical shoes.
"You know why I ran away, don't you?"
Teyla looked up, met her eyes. "You did not want to play the role in which your birth had cast you," she said simply. "I am much the same."
"I thought that was it. But now I think it was fear." Guinevere's hands tightened in her lap, small fingers working over the top of each other. "I feared living a life like my mother's, and I looked down on her for her own fear -- for supporting my father despite all that he did to her. I thought that I was the strong one to leave." The moving fingers stilled, grew firm. "But in the end, Teyla, I think that I was the one who was weak. Sir Rodney, and you -- I put my friends in danger, because of the things I did. And my mother -- all my life I've thought she was a coward, taking my father's abuse. But I've begun to realize that she's been protecting me, and the servants, and keeping my father's temper and profligate ways from causing our ruin."
"Sometimes it takes more courage to stand than to run," Teyla said gently.
Guinevere nodded, her eyes on her lap, feeling small.
"That went well," Rodney said. "Hold still."
He was bandaging John's wounds crudely with strips torn from his tunic. John had regained consciousness in fits and starts on the trip back to the castle, but he remained somewhat dazed and woozy.
Shackles dragged at Rodney's wrists and ankles, a weight that reminded him of their terrifyingly precarious situation every time he moved.
"Seriously, what kind of revenge plan was that?"
"A plan that didn't figure on royalty showing up and picking fights with me," John retorted, ducking his head in an attempt to avoid Rodney's clumsy ministrations, but all he managed to do was jar his injured arm, and a pained breath hissed through his teeth -- Rodney was pretty sure that it was broken, but John wouldn't let him look at it. "At least I wasn't ... okay, what were you trying to do, anyway, over the last few years?"
"Get close enough to kill him," Rodney said sullenly, giving up on trying to bandage his recalcitrant patient and retreating to his corner of their cell. His head still throbbed abominably where Kell had struck him in the meadow.
John opened his mouth as if to say more; then his eyes softened, and he closed his mouth and looked away. After a few moments of silence, he said, "So, who was the pretty girl with you?"
Rodney gave him a sharp look. "What girl? You don't know who Guinevere is? You're the one who kidnapped her!"
"Not her. The one in men's trousers, riding the pony."
"That's Teylaval," Rodney said in disbelief. "A boy, John. A boy."
To Rodney's utter annoyance, John laughed. "Rodney, she's a girl. She's very obviously a girl. I can't believe -- seriously, you didn't notice?"
After a few minutes of silence, Rodney said in a very tiny voice, "Really?"
John kicked his leg in an affectionate sort of way. "Yes, you idiot."
"Well," Rodney said thoughtfully, "that does make a lot of things clearer."
The sudden clank of a key turning in the lock made him stiffen and John snap to attention. The door opened, and Rodney was vaguely aware of John rising to his knees, supporting himself on the cell wall, when the Duke of Kell entered, alone. He closed the door behind him and regarded them in silence for a moment.
John was the first to speak. "My lord," he drawled in a voice heavy with sarcasm. "How's your lady wife? Does she still have the little mole under her --"
Kell lashed out, kicking him viciously on the side with the injured arm. John curled forward, gasping; Rodney rose up onto his knees, his hand twisting in his chains.
Kell's lip curled. "I see that you haven't learned a thing. Badly bred gutter trash. I don't know what she ever saw in you."
John straightened his body with a slow and deliberate effort, glaring up at Kell through his ragged fringe of dark bangs. "I didn't treat her like a slab of meat. You should try it sometimes."
Kell just snorted. He stepped out of reach of both of the chained men, leaned against the wall and folded his arms. "There's one reason you two are still alive," he said casually. "That little display out there at the river made me realize there's a thing you could do for me, John of Nowhere. And I think I've got just the way to make you do it."
"Right," John said. "Because I'm all about doing things for you."
Kell grinned, showing cracked, yellow teeth. "You're going to kill the King for me."
There was a long, startled silence. Rodney was the one who said, "What?"
"See, it's simple," Kell said, and drew his sword with a groan of scraping metal. "The two of you are a problem for me. But it's not every day I find a couple of people who are so easy to control. You're going to kill the King, or ..." He lowered the sword until it touched Rodney's shackled wrist. "Or I'll cut pieces off him."
John gave a violent yank at his chains, while Rodney tried to flatten himself into the wall. "You try and I'll --"
"You just think about it for a while," Kell said softly, sheathing his sword. "I'll come back in a while. Maybe if you want to take me up on my offer, I'll see about getting some food and water sent down. Otherwise ..." He shrugged. The door closed behind him with a hollow thunk. Rodney heard the sound of the locks being set, the bar falling across it.
"You okay?" John said after a while.
Rodney's breathing had finally settled down to a more-or-less normal rate, at least enough to enable him to talk. "No! I'm trapped in a cell while a crazy and power-mad knight threatens to cut pieces off me."
"Sit down." John leaned back against the wall, holding his injured arm. "Think," he added. "Why in the world does he want the King dead? The King is marrying his daughter. Not that he's the sentimental type, but I'd think he'd be in it for the power."
"The marriage was arranged when they were little kids," Rodney said, sliding down the wall and pressing his head back against the cold stones. He searched his brain for the various bits of gossip that he'd picked up from Guinevere during the years he'd been with Kell. "I think it was set up by the old King -- this one's father. It wasn't Kell's idea."
John leaned forward. "That's more or less what Elizabeth said, back when -- you know. The marriage was arranged because the former King wanted control of Kell's lands. A large portion would have gone as her dowry. I don't know if that's still true?" The sentence ended on a questioning note.
"Right, because I pay a lot of attention to that sort of thing."
To Rodney's surprise, John laughed -- that oddly nasal laugh that Rodney always used to tease him about. Tired, sleep, deprived, hurting and filthy as he was, Rodney found himself caught between laughing back, and bursting into tears. His emotional control in tatters, he had to look away, blinking rapidly.
"So," John said quietly, and Rodney stared at the floor for a moment longer before he was able to look over at his brother. "What have you been doing all these years?"
A somber mood hung over the fortress of the Pendragons when the Lady Elizabeth rode again through its gates, accompanied only by one of her husband's elderly retainers. She would have come alone -- she did not like the idea that the man would shortly be running to report her comings and goings to her husband -- but the hue and cry that she would have created by vanishing from the Kell estates without an escort would have been considerably more problematic for her plans.
She took leave of her escort in the courtyard, handing him the reins of her palfrey and ordering him to see to the horse's welfare. Temporarily unencumbered and unwatched, she hastened towards the King's rooms and requested an audience, only to be rebuffed by attendants who told her the King was not seeing visitors.
"I have important information for him. It is vital that I see him."
But she was turned away, leaving her at loose ends, frightened, furious. It was long past noon, but no one knew anything of Guinevere. Her husband was somewhere in the palace as well, she assumed, and the last thing she wanted was to meet him here, now. Under her traveling cloak, the packet of papers that she carried felt as if it burned like a torch -- a blazing fire of suspicion that he could not help but see.
She'd fled the palace under the excuse of illness, traveling home at all due speed and vanishing into her chambers. But what she wanted was much more pointed -- to search her husband's correspondence in pursuit of the thing she'd suspected for years. What little she had unearthed was not precisely a red arrow of guilt pointing at him, but perhaps it, along with the letter from Guinevere's kidnapper, would be enough to convince the King that she was not a madwoman.
And she'd needed to make one other stop at home, too. A small bundle, obtained from the old herb woman Charin, had been tucked into her dress. She touched her side occasionally, ensuring that it was still there.
Though she feared meeting her husband in the halls, she couldn't hide indefinitely, and resolutely she turned her steps to her family's guest quarters in the palace.
As soon as she stepped into the sitting room, she froze in shock at the sight of her daughter sitting on the window seat with Teyla in her boys' clothes -- Elizabeth knew of Teyla's deception, had been a willing accomplice to it in fact, but at the moment she only had eyes for Guinevere.
"Mother!" Guinevere exclaimed, jumping up. "Where have you been?"
"Where have I been?" A laugh tore from Elizabeth's throat; only a lifetime of plastering over her emotions enabled her to stop herself from running to fling herself onto Guinevere's neck. Instead, she crossed the room with a careless stride and gripped her daughter's hands. "How are you? Are you well? Were you hurt?"
Guinevere looked startled but did not pull away. "No, no, I'm fine. Very fine. Mother --"
"Is your father here?" Elizabeth interrupted anxiously.
Guinevere shook her head. "No, I'm not sure where he is. Mother, so much has happened, I have to tell you --"
"Softly, Guinevere, softly," Elizabeth said, looking to Teyla.
Defensive of her friend, Guinevere moved to intercept Elizabeth's stare. "She must stay, mother. She is a part of this, and my most trusted friend. She knows all that I know."
Elizabeth looked back and forth between them. "Knows all that you know about what?"
Guinevere's hands tightened on Elizabeth's own. "Mother," Guinevere said quietly. "I know about John."
A furious heat, anger and something else, rose in Elizabeth's chest. Her first, insane instinct was to deny it, but her emotions must have been stamped plainly on her face. Wrenching her hands free of her daughter's grasp, she took a fast step backward, breathing hard, her iron self-control shaken apart.
"You cannot know," she said helplessly. God above, they had been so careful. After all these years, how had so many people learned of this? A terrible suspicion gripped her. "Guinevere, please tell me you were not responsible for the letter." Did her daughter have enough guile to fake her own kidnapping? No wonder Duke Kell was nowhere to be seen at the moment, if his own daughter had managed to fool him.
But Guinevere only looked surprised. "What letter?"
"Never mind. Never ..." Elizabeth rubbed her forehead with the palm of her hand. She had not slept, but her exhaustion went deeper than the flesh. It was a very old thing.
Guinevere's mouth opened and closed. She glanced at Teyla, who rose in a single fluid motion. "Lady, let me take your cloak," the stable girl said gently.
"Not just now." Elizabeth's hand closed firmly over the packet of papers at her side. She had not allowed it to leave her person.
"Mother," Guinevere said, reaching out to touch her as one might gentle a frightened bird. "Are you well? They said you'd taken ill. I didn't believe it, but looking at you now --"
"I am well, Guinevere." She'd spent her life protecting Guinevere from her father, but the Duke's crimes had caught up with them anyway. Guinevere was no longer a child, no longer something to be sheltered and protected. Elizabeth looked into her daughter's eyes, and then brought out the packet, wrapped in one of her best scarves. She laid it on the window seat and spread it out. "Guinevere, Teyla, come here."
"Mother, I'm sure this is important, but I really must tell you what's happened," Guinevere said.
"It's more than important. It is your life." The letter from the person claiming to have kidnapped Guinevere, with its spiky handwriting so like John's, lay atop the pile. Elizabeth put it carefully to one side.
"Mother, what is all of this?" Guinevere picked up a letter, crumpled and flattened.
"This," Elizabeth said, "is the best circumstantial evidence I could find that your father was at least partly responsible for the murder of the Pendragon family, twenty years ago."
The room went deathly still and quiet. "Regicide?" Teyla whispered.
Guinevere had gone pale, but, Elizabeth saw, she did not protest or deny it. Not a child anymore, not at all. "Mother ... are you sure?"
"I am sure, but my proof is very weak." Elizabeth ran her hands over the letters. For many years, she'd acted as secretary for her semi-illiterate husband. But she had been too afraid, for a very long time, to save evidence of the conspiracy among some of the nobles to eliminate the Pendragons' threat to their sovereignty. What she had wasn't much. She only hoped it would be enough.
"But ..." Guinevere floundered. "Why?"
"Power, my love," Elizabeth said gently. "The Pendragons did much to unify Britain from a collection of small warring states into a nation. People like your father didn't appreciate that; they didn't like to yield total control of their lands and pay taxes to the King. Your betrothal to the King's son was secured at a time when the old Duke of Kell, your grandfather, had to go to the Pendragons with his hat in hand, needing their help to muster a large enough army to repel an incursion from one of his rivals."
She tucked the precious papers back into their packet. "But neither he nor his son ever forgave them for it," she went on. "The old Duke died, and as time went on and your father began to realize that I might never give him a male heir, he saw that your marriage could cause all the Kell lands to slip into the Pendragons' hands. I still do not know if your father spearheaded the conspiracy, or went along with it when someone else suggested it, but I do know that he was closely involved, and may even have struck some of the killing blows himself."
She looked up to see the effect her words had had on her audience. Both of the other women were silent and still; she could see them processing it in their own way. Teyla was the first to speak, direct and practical, as was her way. "My lady, have you spoken to the King?"
"I have not." Laid out bare as it was, Elizabeth found herself shrinking from her own cowardice in waiting so long. "Though I do not know what will happen if I do. He may think my accusations against my husband to be the ravings of a madwoman. It is fairly widely known that my marriage to the Duke is not a happy one."
Guinevere's face was set in stubborn lines. After a moment, Elizabeth realized why it was so familiar -- she'd seen it in her own mirror. "He'll believe you, Mother," Guinevere said loyally. "He's a good man. And I'll stand up with you."
"No, you certainly will not! Why do you think I've hidden this for so long? The last thing I want to do is make a target of you."
She'd expected Guinevere to fight and rail, maybe to throw a tantrum, but instead there was only a pensive silence. She is, indeed, no longer a child, Elizabeth thought with both sorrow and pride.
When Guinevere finally spoke, the question that she asked was not at all the one Elizabeth had been expecting. "Did you ever tell John? Does he know?"
Even after all this time, the sound of his name still took a sharp bite out of Elizabeth's fortified heart, particularly hearing it on her daughter's lips. "No. John never knew; I would not have put him in that much danger. And, for a long time, it did not seem to matter -- no one knew that one of the Pendragon children had survived." After a pause to strengthen herself, she said, "You still haven't told me what happened to you, and how you learned of John."
"He told me," Guinevere said simply. "About you," and then, as Elizabeth stared at her in honest bafflement, Guinevere caught her hands. "Mother, he's imprisoned in the palace right now, along with Sir Rodney. He's the one who took me, to lure Father out where he could fight him, but it all went wrong and now Father is going to kill him."
Elizabeth could feel the pieces of her world coming apart in slow motion beneath her feet. "John is dead," she said blankly.
"No -- no, Mother, he had to pretend to be dead," Guinevere said with the impatience of the young, not so far removed from nursery stories where such things were commonplace. "So that Father wouldn't finish the job of killing him. But now he's being held in one of the towers, I don't know which one --"
"I do," Teyla said, breaking in with her quiet tones. "It's heavily guarded, though."
Elizabeth tried desperately to gather the rumpled rags of her composure about her. "This is John Sheppard you're talking about?"
Guinevere shot her an exasperated, "adults are idiots" look of the sort that comes naturally to teenagers. "Yes, Mother; I just said so. He was injured, and I don't know how Father has been treating him, or what he has planned."
Teyla spoke again when a short pause fell. "I could talk to the prisoners. Perhaps take them some food as well, because I do not expect they are being treated well."
"You can get into the tower?" Guinevere asked, her surprise visible on her face.
Teyla inclined her head in a small nod. "I have ways."
"Your life is very strange," Rodney said. He was lying down, his head pillowed on his arm. "And I'm starving," he added plaintively. "I'd almost like to see Kell again, as long as he brings food with him."
"Right, and then he'll cut off your fingers until I play assassin for him," John said in a strained voice.
Rodney sat up abruptly. "Did you do that?"
"I thought I heard a clatter. Oh, God." Rodney pulled up his knees to his chest. "I don't do well with pain, John. I really, really don't do well with --"
"Rodney!" a voice hissed.
"That's Teylaval!" Rodney looked wildly around before a shape blocked the light coming in from their single small window. Dragging his chains, he approached as close as he could get, placing his hands against the slimy stones of the wall. "What are you doing? How did you get there?"
"I climbed," Teylaval whispered through the slit in the wall.
"You climbed?" Rodney repeated in disbelief. "You climbed the tower? You're clinging to the wall right now?"
"I am good at climbing," Teylaval said defensively. A small hand waved through the gap, carrying a bundle. "I brought you some food. I wasn't sure if Kell would be feeding you."
"Food," Rodney said reverently, stretching to take it. Their fingers brushed, and Teylaval's lingered just a bit, and oh, damn, John was right. "Teylaval?"
"Yes?" he -- or, perhaps, she -- said immediately. And, yes, that was a bit of a high-pitched voice for a boy, wasn't it?
"Are you a girl?" Rodney asked, and then winced. Nice going, Sir Tactful. John aimed a kick at him, a hard one this time, but was too far away to hit him.
There was a very long silence from outside the window. Finally Teylaval said, with disturbing formality, "What makes you say that, Sir Rodney?"
Oh, crap. Feeling one of the only friendly relationships in his life slipping away, Rodney floundered desperately in unfamiliar verbal waters and what blurted out was: "Because I, um, you -- you're very pretty and if you're not a girl, then I'm, I probably think there's a reason my father never married me off, beyond the fact that he hates me and thinks I'm useless, of course --"
His hands were still stretched above his head, resting against the wall, and a sudden brush of fingertips ghosted across his hand before Teylaval said quietly through the window-slit, "Yes, Rodney, I am a girl. Please do not tell anyone."
Something inside Rodney bent and snapped and relaxed, and he stretched as far as he could, reaching up so that her small, strong fingers could close around his bigger, colder ones. "Of course I won't tell anyone. Who else knows?"
"Guinevere has always known, and my grandmother, of course. And John, apparently, now, if he is in there with you," Teylaval added with a slightly sharper note in her voice.
"Hi," John said from somewhere near Rodney's knee.
"He already noticed," Rodney protested. "Really. No big deal. At least, I don't think it's a big deal. He's my brother; I can beat the crap out of him if he tells anyone."
This time John managed to connect with his shin, albeit glancingly. Rodney winced and shifted his lower body out of reach.
Teylaval's fingers still hadn't let go, and Rodney nerved himself enough to ask, "Is Teylaval your real name?"
She laughed softly, and squeezed his hand. "It is Teyla. Just Teyla."
"Oh. Teyla. Really? Um. That's --" Weird. Disconcerting. Kind of nice.
Teylaval -- Teyla -- gave his hand a gentle shake. "There is no time; I cannot stay long, so I must let you know what is happening. The Lady Elizabeth came to see Guinevere and myself today."
Rodney heard John's soft intake of breath at Elizabeth's name. "Yeah, about that, Teyla," John said from his position near the wall. "The Duke's plotting against the King. Don't know if anyone will listen, but Elizabeth and Guinevere might be a good place to start."
"I know about the Duke," Teyla said.
"Wait, what?" Rodney peered up, but couldn't see her face. "You know? How?"
"The Lady Elizabeth believes that the Duke was involved in the murder of the Pendragons." Rodney felt Teyla's grip shift as she sought a better position on the wall. "How do you know?"
"The Duke wants me to kill the King," John said. "Threatened Rodney to get my cooperation."
Now it was Teyla's turn to suck in a breath. "What did you tell him?"
"Didn't give him an answer. He's supposed to come back anytime."
"I will tell Lady Elizabeth. She and Guinevere are trying to intercede with the King on your behalf. They must know that this is a matter of urgency."
"Yeah," John said. "Rodney's not much to look at, but I kinda like him in one piece."
"Will you stop making jokes!" Rodney snapped over his shoulder. "We're in a little bit of trouble, if you hadn't noticed!"
John's eyes glittered at him in the dim cell. "Don't lecture me about danger, Rodney. I haven't exactly been having a picnic in the woods for the last five years, all right?"
"Rodney," Teyla whispered through the bars, giving his hands a sharp squeeze and drawing his attention back to her. "I should not stay much longer. Is there anything else I should know before I go?"
"No, no, just ... just be careful doing crazy things like climbing towers, okay?" The terrible urgency of his situation held him in its grasp; what could he say, not even knowing if he'd see her again? "Teyla," he said, just to test it out, just to say it and to have her hear him say it.
And once again, words deserted him. "That's -- that's a pretty name."
"Do you really think so?" Her fingertips stroked across the top of his hand.
"Yes. Really. You've probably been around me enough by now to know how terrible I am at lying, right? And it's close enough to your, um, your boy name that I could kind of, maybe, slip and call you that in public sometimes and it wouldn't be a big deal, right? Okay, now I'm babbling. Sorry. I babble."
"Maybe sometimes, Rodney." Teyla stretched a little more, so that she could reach his thumb and run her own thumb over the base of it. Rodney dropped the bundle of food on the floor with a soft thud and reached his other hand up to curl over hers.
"Sometimes I babble, or sometimes I can call you Teyla?"
"Sometimes both," she said quietly, and for an eternal moment, they stayed that way -- Rodney stretched as far as he could, his hands curled around hers, slimed with mud and grime. He could feel the rough calluses on her fingertips and the stickiness of blood and mud from climbing the wall.
Leaning his forehead into the stones, he closed his eyes and held on.
Teyla was the one who pulled away first. "Rodney, I am sorry. I have to go before someone sees me here." He could feel the reluctance in the fingers brushing down his thumb, the back of his hand, his knuckles and fingertips. "I must go," Teyla said, so quietly he could barely hear her. "I wish I could do more to help."
"Thank you," Rodney said against the wall. "You did a lot. Please don't come back. Don't risk yourself." And strangely, terrifyingly, it was true -- he was more afraid for her, crouched on the wall, than for himself, in the prison cell and Duke Kell's power.
"I do not promise that I won't come back, but I will be careful." Small scuttling sounds marked her retreat. Rodney stayed flat against the wall, eyes closed, listening until she was out of earshot. Then, and only then, he slid down the wall and leaned against it to unwrap her package.
"Told you she was a girl," John said softly, nudging his ankle with a toe.
The bundle contained not only food -- fresh crusty bread, apples, chicken -- but also a wad of soft, clean cloth that Rodney realized was meant to be used for bandages, and a wicked-looking, long-bladed knife.
"Quite a girlfriend you've got, Rodney," John said when Rodney held up the knife to show him.
"She's not my -- Look, just for that, I'm not giving you the knife."
"Right, because I'm sure you're excellent with hand-to-hand knife combat."
"Jerk." Rodney handed it over, and even remembered to do it hilt first.
The first time Guinevere had found her way to the King's hidden sanctuary at the top of the fortress, she'd done it by accident. This time, she sought it on purpose, accompanied by her mother. By the time that she found the narrow stairs, the day was growing late; she and Elizabeth emerged onto the high balcony in the ruddy light of a low-lying sun. The King was nowhere in sight.
"There's a banquet tonight," Elizabeth said. "He is probably preparing for that."
"Banquet?" Guinevere echoed. "Why?"
Her mother's voice was calm and dry as she said, "May I recall you to yesterday's festivities? It's the second day of feasting in celebration of your impending marriage and the King's coronation.."
Oh, right -- the wedding! Guinevere tried to remember what it had felt like to have the betrothal as her biggest, her only concern. She couldn't even relate to that person anymore. She felt as if she'd aged a year in only one day.
"We can try at his quarters, then."
But the King was still refusing to take visitors, even when Guinevere tried to use what clout she possessed, as the prospective bride and one of the guests of honor. His Highness was tied up with important matters of state, they were told.
"Will you take him a message for me, then?" Guinevere asked. She was brought ink and paper, and there she hesitated, wondering what she could say about such sensitive matters in a missive that would no doubt pass through many hands. Finally she wrote, "Meet me tonight where the peasant girl came to you. It is important. -Guinevere of Kell."
Frustrated and dispirited, she and her mother returned to their rooms to dress for the banquet. Teyla was waiting for them, and Guinevere, who was watching her mother, saw Lady Elizabeth's calm demeanor drop away for a moment, revealing the naked worry underneath. "What word, Teyla?" Elizabeth asked, regaining control of herself.
"They are both still alive," Teyla said, and drawing a deep breath, "I believe your suspicions about your husband are correct. He is attempting to blackmail John into killing the King."
Guinevere's hand flew to her mouth.
"I see," Elizabeth said heavily, and she sank down onto the window seat. Her hands curled into fists atop the packet of papers in her lap.
"Now it's even more urgent that we talk to the King." Guinevere tugged on her mother's arm. "Mother, come. If we tell the guards that there's a threat to the King's life, we'll surely be believed."
Elizabeth stared at the floor for a moment, and when she raised her head to look at Guinevere, her face was composed and her eyes strangely blank. "Here," she said quietly, and held out the packet of papers. "You should do it. He already knows you, and I think that you have a fair chance of getting to him yourself."
Guinevere fumbled with the packet of letters. "But -- but, Mother, I don't know what to say. You're the one who has first-hand experience with my father's crimes. You're a witness. I can't --"
"You can," Elizabeth said harshly. "You are a woman, Guinevere, and the King's bride. If he won't listen to you, then he surely won't listen to me. Go, quickly. Warn him."
Guinevere started to run for the door, then turned back and looked over her shoulder. "But what are you going to do, Mother?"
"I must take care of some things that should have been done a long time ago," Lady Elizabeth said, and this time her voice was gentle. "Godspeed, daughter. Go warn the King."
As Guinevere ran from the room, she could not help looking back once more at her mother, sitting by the window as the last rays of the setting sun gave way to cold moonlight. Then she gave her feet wing, running down the halls.
After Guinevere left, Elizabeth sat in silence for a few moments, staring out the window as the moon rose above the fortress. Her fingers worked back and forth across the small package that Charin had given her. Beneath the lacings of her dress, her heart beat out a steady rhythm: No time, no time, no time ... But still, she did not rise until Teyla spoke.
Elizabeth jumped. She had forgotten that her sister's friend was still in the room. "Teyla," she said, and was surprised to find her voice steady, and her legs as well, when she stood up. "Teyla, do you think you could show me to the tower room where my husband has imprisoned John?"
"And Rodney," Teyla murmured. "Yes, my lady, I can."
"Very well." Elizabeth turned and looked out the window once more. Then she drew a deep, fortifying breath, and folded her fingers around the little twist of cloth in her hand. "Please, Teyla, let us make haste."
"Well, hello," the King said as Guinevere stepped out onto the high balcony. He was standing by the edge, looking down at the river far below, his long hair whipped by the wind, silvered in the moonlight.
Guinevere had hoped, but didn't dare expect, that she'd find him here. Quickly she dropped into a deep curtsey.
"Get up, get up," the King said, crossing the space between them to pull Guinevere to her feet, gently, by her hands. "We're going to be married, aren't we? I hope you don't plan on doing this every time."
He'd changed out of the leathers (to Guinevere's secret disappointment) and back into more appropriate clothes for his station, finely tailored of beautiful cloth. A slim sword hung on his hip; Guinevere, having grown up around weapons, knew enough to recognize it as a ceremonial blade, but after seeing the King in action in the meadow, she had no doubt that he could wield it with deadly purpose.
"You're making me late for my own banquet," he added, leading her by the hand to the doorway into the hidden room.
"It's my banquet too," Guinevere found the nerve to point out.
"Hmm, good point." Ronon closed the door behind them. "I heard you were looking for me earlier. Sorry. I go away for a few hours and the place falls apart. Seems like someone's always got something I need to put my seal on, or an argument they just can't settle without me."
"It sounds difficult, being a king." A single candle burned on the table; Guinevere looked around for more, found a pile of tapers and lit a few. They would need light.
"Not exactly as glamorous as it's supposed to be." Ronon sat at the table, straddling a chair in a most un-kingly fashion. "What's that you've got there?"
"Something very important." Guinevere spread the papers on the table. A sudden, horrible thought occurred to her. "Uh, can you read?"
Ronon gave her an amused look. "Not much else to do in long winter evenings in the forest, and I did have a pretty good education when I was small. Later, when I was in town to sell firewood, I used to scour the market for books -- Latin, Greek, stuff like that."
"Oh! Have you read Hippocrates?" The urgency of Guinevere's mission was momentarily lost in her delight at finding a kindred soul. Most of the other young ladies at the Kell estate had no interest in studying long-dead scholars. Guinevere found them fascinating, particularly the medical books.
"Sure. It's a little dry. Homer, now, there's some good stuff."
"You must have many books here, in the palace."
"Lots," Ronon said, and his eyes warmed.
For just a moment, Guinevere fell into those eyes; then a rush of sorrow and regret pulled her out of them. When Ronon learned what her father had done, he might want nothing to do with her anymore.
No more than a day or two ago, she would have loved to have such an excuse to call off the engagement. Now the thought hurt her to the bottom of her soul.
"What's wrong?" Ronon asked.
You are a woman, her mother had said. And sometimes women had to do things they did not wish to do.
"Come here," Guinevere said quietly, as she unfolded the first letter. "You need to read these."
The sunshine slanting through the small window of the prison cell had faded into bone-white moonlight. John had been sitting in a brooding silence for hours, while Rodney entertained himself by throwing leftover crumbs of bread to the lively population of rats. He was on the verge of naming a couple of the more amusing ones when the key once again clicked in the lock.
John rocked forward onto his knees and climbed to his feet. His injured arm was awkwardly tied against his side; the knife had been secreted away in the bandaging.
"You're planning something," Rodney hissed. "What are you doing?"
The door opened, shafting torchlight into the cell, then closed behind Kell's hulking figure. "I imagine you're getting a bit hungry by now, and water surely wouldn't go amiss," he said pleasantly. "Have you considered my offer?"
"Yes," John said immediately. "I'll do it."
"What?" burst out from Rodney.
"Well, that's very reasonable of you." Kell smiled unpleasantly at Rodney, toying with his sword. "I thought you might see it that way."
"Why not?" John said, his voice light and pleasant. "I don't owe the King anything. Now, I'm definitely going to want to get something out of it on my end, as well."
Kell snorted. "You're hardly in a position to be making demands."
"It's not a demand." John's voice remained light. "I'm merely suggesting that holding threats over a man's head only goes so far to retain his loyalty. If I'm to risk my neck for you, I'd like some compensation of the monetary sort."
Kell drew his sword and swept it through the air over Rodney's head in a contemplative sort of way. Rodney tried not to cower in too unmanly a fashion. "What, his safety isn't good enough motivation for you?" Kell inquired.
"Like I said," John said pleasantly. "Threats only take you so far. For a purse of money and the return of my horse -- and my brother's freedom, of course -- I'll do your dirty work."
Kell scowled. "I don't think so."
John rested his good hand against the wall in a casual kind of way. "Well, then, perhaps we won't have a deal after all. I'm not asking for much, considering the magnitude of what you want. I might be willing to forgo the 'Rodney's freedom' bit if you throw in more money, as well."
Rodney felt the sword whisper past his ear. "You don't care if I cut pieces off him?" Kell asked.
"Of course I do, but, to be blunt, I care about my own freedom more," John said shortly. "Naturally, I'd rather not see my brother harmed, but it seems that you're set on killing one or both of us, and given the choice, I'd rather it were him." Over Rodney's high-pitched protests, John went on, "Which brings us back to the whole 'threats are a lousy motivator' thing. Tell you what. You keep Rodney as a hostage against my good behavior, so long as I keep up my end of the bargain, and then perhaps we can renegotiate that part later. But I want the promise of money now. One gentleman to another." Taking his hand from the wall, he wiped off the slime on his ragged shirt and held it out.
"I see exile hasn't been good for your morality," Rodney said darkly.
Kell said nothing, just struck him across the jaw with one mailed fist, slamming him back into the wall. The cell went black for an instant and he came back to himself lying on his side, tasting blood.
"No reaction? You seemed a bit more worried about him back in the field," he heard Kell say above his head.
John's reply came back from a little farther away, in that same light, pleasant tone. "That was before I spent most of a day locked in a cell with him. It's definitely gone a long way to remind me why we never got along as children."
"Then you don't care if I kill him?" Kell asked, and Rodney felt a line of cold steel touch his neck. He might have whimpered a bit.
"Of course I'd prefer not to see him dead," John said sharply. "We are family, after all, regardless of whether I like him or not. But there's no need for it, and he's more useful alive anyway."
Kell laughed. "I don't think he has a useful bone in his body."
"Hey," Rodney managed weakly.
"Shut up -- men are talking," Kell said, and a boot drove into his stomach, leaving him sick and breathless.
John's voice sounded a bit strained. "Like I said ... keep him as a hostage against my good behavior. No point in throwing away a tool if you don't have to. After the King is dead, we can decide what to do with him."
There was a pause, interminable for Rodney, during which Kell's sword continued to rest against his neck. Then it drew away. "I thought we might be able to come to an agreement, you and I," Kell said.
"Indeed," John agreed. "Shake on it?"
Rodney lifted his head to see Kell reach out a hand, bringing him within reach of John, chains and all.
And John moved fast, fast as Rodney had ever seen. Teyla's dagger was in his good hand even as he spun around and hooked one of his shackled ankles behind Kell's boot, tangling the other man in his leg chains.
The dagger was aimed at Kell's throat, one of the few vulnerable spots not covered by chain mail. But Kell, with reflexes surprisingly fast for a man of his size, managed to strike John's arm and throw off his aim. The dagger's blade glanced along Kell's stubbled jaw, and John was extended, open, unable to recover before Kell drove a fist into his side. More blows drove him to the floor, gasping in pain and curling to protect his broken arm.
The bloodied dagger, forgotten by the combatants, had fallen to the floor under Kell's boots. Rodney went for it, though he was at the very limit of his chains, and slashed at Kell's back. The razor-sharp dagger ripped through his tunic and scraped along the mail beneath. Kell swung a backhand blow at Rodney, who managed to duck only to meet the pommel of Kell's sword, striking his cheekbone and sending him, half-dazed, to the floor.
John spat blood and uncurled enough to look up. "Rodney, you okay?"
"Oh, I'm great," Rodney mumbled. He could feel his eye swelling shut, joining the ache in his head and jaw and stomach and just about everywhere else. "Nice plan, genius!"
"What is it with the two of you?" Kell sneered, planting a boot on Rodney's chest. Rodney sucked in his breath and held very still, looking up, up, up the steely length of Kell's very long, very sharp-looking sword. "Have neither of you any common sense at all? I was perfectly willing to make a deal with you."
"I don't like your terms," John said, pushing himself up on his knees and his one good hand. "And I don't trust you an inch. There's no way you're letting us go no matter what deal we make, no matter what you promise us. We know too much about you."
The muscles clenched in Kell's jaw. "Then there's no reason for me not to kill him right now, is there?" He looked over his shoulder at John; Rodney, daring to twist his head to the side, could see John in half-turned profile, his face pale and furious.
"Don't," John said.
"Beg for it," Kell said softly. The sword point tickled Rodney's neck. "I want to hear you beg for his life ... if you value it that much."
John's face twisted with hate -- and anguish; the depth of it startled Rodney. "You're going to kill us both anyway; what's the point?"
"I suppose you don't value it much at all, then," Kell said, and the sword point dug into Rodney's neck. It hurt enough to shock a small cry from him, and then he shut his eyes, focusing on the darkness behind his eyelids.
"Please," John said. His voice was quiet and steady. "Please don't kill him."
Kell laughed. "That's more like it. Now let's try it on your knees."
Don't, Rodney thought, sick with fury and shame as well as pain. He heard the rattling of John's chains as John moved -- and, at the same time, the scrape of the door grating across the floor.
"Hello, my husband," a low, woman's voice said into the silence.
Rodney's eyes snapped open. He knew that voice. He saw naked shock on John's face before he rolled his eyes as far as he could without moving his head, to catch a glimpse of Elizabeth standing in the doorway.
When Kell spoke, he sounded wary -- as well he might, Rodney thought, seeing the look on Elizabeth's face. "Elizabeth," Kell said. "This is no suitable place for you."
"Really? I didn't think you were concerned with my comings and goings." Elizabeth strode into the fetid cell in a sweep of long skirts. She spared barely a glance for Rodney, and did not so much as look at John. Behind her, Teyla appeared in the doorway, dressed as her male persona.
The sword withdrew from Rodney's neck, and Kell stepped back, out of reach of the two chained men, to grip Elizabeth's arm without gentleness. "Leave. Now."
"I merely came to tell you that all are gathering for a banquet downstairs," Elizabeth said smoothly. "A squire let me know where I could find you."
"I'm busy, woman," Kell snapped.
"People will talk if you miss the festivities, my husband." Elizabeth had been holding her hands tucked together in front of her; now she raised one of them, and Rodney, watching from his awkward angle on the floor, thought he glimpsed something -- a square of cloth or leather, hidden in the cup of her palm where Kell couldn't see it. Elizabeth raised that hand to Kell's face -- the side of his face that John had cut with the dagger -- and laid her palm against his cheek, stroking it in apparent connubial affection. Rodney, however, was near enough to see the hard set of her jaw, the way the tendons stood out on the back of her hand.
Kell drew his face back, hissing. "Be careful!"
"I'm sorry," Elizabeth said. "How very careless of me." Her face was perfectly smooth and blank as she stepped backwards, away from him.
Kell took a step after her, putting his hand up to touch his face. "That burns! What did you do?" He took another step, but this time his leg buckled under him and he went down to one knee. He was breathing hard and fast, his face turning purple. "What did you do to me?" he gasped, staring at her.
"Something I should have done a long time ago," Elizabeth said, her voice as bitter as wormwood. "Had I only been able to find the courage."
Kell fell forward with a strangled cry, still reaching for her, his fingers curling into vicious claws. "You bitch, you've poisoned me!"
"This is for everyone that you've hurt," Elizabeth went on as he cursed her, his voice becoming slurred and unintelligible as hers remained clear. "This is for all the times that you threatened to kill our daughter to make me obey you, for all the people you've harmed and killed, all the servants you've beaten and the serving women you've raped. You deserve this a thousand times over, my husband."
But she raised her free hand to cover her mouth, and her eyes hurt to look at, as Kell went into convulsions at her feet. Finally he was still.
Rodney sat up slowly and shakily, touching his throat and feeling the tackiness of blood where the tip of the sword had pierced his skin.
"Wow," John said, his voice weary and hoarse. "Remind me not to make you mad."
Elizabeth looked up, and the brittle, emotionless mask cracked and broke and fell away. Suddenly she looked years younger. "John," she said, in a voice that brimmed with more emotion than Rodney had heard from her in all the years he'd served Kell. "John. It's true. You're alive."
She went to her knees on the floor of the cell, gathering John into her arms with exquisite care for his injuries, and Rodney had to look away from both of them. Luckily, there was Teyla to look at -- short and boyish with her hair tied back, kneeling swiftly and quietly at his side to probe his bruises with mercilessly efficient fingers.
"Oh, you are a mess, aren't you, Sir Rodney?" she said gently, bracing her fingertips on his jaw and tilting his head to see his face in the torchlight streaming in from the corridor.
"I've been locked in a cell and beaten up. You wouldn't look that great either," Rodney muttered. "Ow! What are you doing? I don't need more bruises!" John, he saw over his shoulder, had Elizabeth fluttering gently all over him, kissing him with infinite tenderness -- whereas Rodney got to have Teyla mauling him like one of her horses. Life just wasn't fair. "Ow!"
"I need to make sure that you have no broken bones or internal injuries. Kindly stop complaining; you are not hurt that much. I have had much worse after being thrown from horseback." Her small hands gripped his own, spreading his fingers apart, checking each one with grave care. A few more bruises were discovered in the process.
"Gee, thanks for the sympathy. Ouch!"
Now she was checking over his torso with absolutely no sense of shame whatsoever. "You would not thank me if I overlooked an injury and you were to bleed to death in the night. I have seen it happen."
"Humans are not that different." She checked him all the way down to his ankles -- okay, now he really felt like a horse -- and then returned her attention to his face.
"If you start looking at my teeth, I'm out of here. Well. As soon as I get out of these shackles."
"Are your teeth damaged, then?" She touched his lips with her fingertips, brushing lightly over them.
"I think every part of me is -- Ow. Stop it. Did I mention I was hit in the face? My nose will never be the same --"
"You were very brave today, Sir Rodney," Teyla said, and he stopped in mid-complaint.
"Yes," she said, "very," and kissed him, very lightly, on the unbruised corner of his mouth, shocking him into temporary silence.
"Oh," he said stupidly, when his mouth managed to recover, even if his brain still hadn't. "Oh, um, you too, what with the climbing walls and --"
Teyla's eyes went suddenly a bit wider and she jumped away, bending over one of Rodney's ankle shackles and looking very busy all of a sudden. Rodney's brain was still processing this when the cell door swung a little wider to admit the King himself, sword in hand.
The King stood in the doorway and surveyed the scene, his face unreadable. "Who did this?" he asked after a moment, nudging Kell's body with his toe.
"Me," John said promptly.
"Highness, no." Elizabeth stood, and curtseyed politely. "It was me. I poisoned him. I stand prepared to receive whatever sentence you feel is appropriate."
"Elizabeth!" John hissed.
Ronon studied Elizabeth for a moment, then cracked a wan grin. "I came up here for revenge, actually. Your daughter told me what your husband did. He killed my parents and my entire family." He looked a bit depressed. "I was hoping to stick a sword in him, at least."
"I'm very sorry, Your Highness, but I've been married to him for twenty years," Elizabeth said briskly. "I believe I have a bit of a claim in the revenge department."
"I devoted my whole life to killing him," Rodney pointed out, giving Elizabeth a pointed stare.
"You should have been faster about it, then," Elizabeth returned sharply. "Where is my daughter, by the way?"
"Downstairs. She wanted to come, but I didn't think it would be a good idea to bring her up here." Ronon looked down at the body again. "Just as well, I guess. Those unconscious guards out there -- who did that?"
Teyla looked up from her studious scrutiny of Rodney's ankle chain, a bit shyly. "That would be me."
"They were men in my husband's employ, guarding this tower," Elizabeth said. "Teyla ... val disabled them on our way up here."
"Resourceful," Ronon murmured. He unhooked a ring of keys from Kell's belt and tossed them to Elizabeth, who knelt and hunted through them for the key to John's shackles.
Rodney managed not to say anything until Elizabeth passed him the keys; then, as he unlocked his own chains, he asked of anyone who'd answer, "So, are we in trouble? Because it's really not the best situation, but you know, we do have a pretty good explanation for it. Well, most of it."
Ronon laughed softly. "No," he said. "You're not. At least not as far as I'm concerned. I would've killed him myself if I'd got to him first." He still looked a bit disapointed that he hadn't gotten the chance.
Elizabeth was helping John to his feet. Teyla offered Rodney a shoulder. He didn't really need it, but took it anyway, because hey, he was hurt, if not particularly badly, and she certainly didn't seem to mind having him lean on her.
Quite the contrary, actually.
Epilogue: Two Months Later
In the ruddy light of a sinking sun, the two Sheppard brothers rode along the line of hills marking the farthest extent of the Kell lands. Warstrider had been put out to pasture and Rodney, this time, had the pick of the horses in the stable; he'd chosen a quiet bay mare, and John had to rein in his frisky black stallion to hold him back to the placid mare's speed.
Still, they rode side by side, the mare stretching her legs and the stallion prancing under John's deft control. John was the one who halted his stallion on a point of land overlooking the rolling valley; Rodney rode on for a few strides longer, before noticing that he'd suddenly become the only one. With a sigh, he guided the mare around and went back to rejoin his brother.
"The royal wedding is next month, and Guinevere's dowry goes with it," John said after a moment. "All the land from there to there" -- he gestured with one gloved hand, describing a portion of the patchwork quilt spread out at their feet -- "will belong to the King."
Rodney was silent for a while before he said, "Probably more than that. At Elizabeth's age -- no offense here, but, seriously ... it's not likely that the two of you will produce an heir. Even if ...." and he trailed off, realizing that he might be overstepping the bounds of tact and decency. Considering the respective difference in John and Elizabeth's social stations, Elizabeth seemed likely to remain the Dowager Duchess of Kell for the foreseeable future, though John was now informally living in her chambers and the two of them seemed perfectly happy with that.
John didn't take offense, though. "I know. I'm not in it for that." He gazed thoughtfully down at the dusk creeping across the forests and fields of the Duchy of Kell. "Guinevere and Ronon's kids can have it. They'll do well. I'd like to see this place in their hands, anyway." Glancing over at his brother, he added with a sly, crooked grin, "How's Teyla?"
"Still wears pants and can best me at nearly every knightly pursuit," Rodney said, a bit gloomily. "The only thing I was better at was swordfighting, since she wasn't allowed to handle them, being a commoner and all. Now she's rapidly surpassing me at that, as well."
He could feel a blush heating his cheeks, though, and hastily found a distant tree to stare at with feigned interest. Teyla, still thoroughly ensconced in her role as a boy, was blossoming under her military training in a way that Rodney himself had never done. In her off time, however, she'd been more than happy to prove to him that she was not only a woman, but considerably older than he'd taken her for, what with her short stature and unboyishly rounded, beardless face. And as if that weren't enough, between the two of them, she and Rodney had already built a working model of the new grinding machinery for the mill.
It was starting to appear that neither of the two disgraced members of the Sheppard clan were likely to take a proper wife, being satisfied as they were with the decidedly non-traditional arrangements that fate had chosen to throw into their laps.
Something small and hard struck Rodney in the head, jolting him out of his reverie. Looking around wildly, he saw the missile bounce off his stirrup and drop to the path under his horse's hooves. John, the cad, had thrown a pine cone at him.
"Race you down to the river," John said cheerfully. "I want to see this new mill you and Teyla are working on."
"On this trail? In the dark? We'll break our necks! You're mad!"
John's only answer was to lean over and slap Rodney's mare on her flank, jolting her forward. He kicked his own stallion and leaped forward, black on black, a flurry of tack and tail vanishing into the growing darkness.
Rodney almost succumbed to prudence, but another pine cone flew out of the dusk, sailing over the pricked ears of Rodney's mare and very nearly bouncing off his forehead. "Okay, that's it," he muttered, and nudged the placid animal into a canter, over the lip of the hill and down the reckless path to the river, chasing John's laughter through the summer dusk.