Guinevere made the switch while everyone else was occupied watching the Black Knight.
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."
As the night wore on, Rodney wondered what the hell he'd done to deserve his life.
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."