Winter Sunlight

SGA: Slightly Tarnished Armor (Arthurian crack, 1/4)

I ... have no idea how this got as long as it did. It started out as a little goofball bit of fluff that involved the idea of Jennifer and Ronon as Guinevere and King Arthur (the name Guinevere is a medieval version of Jennifer) and then things kind of snowballed. I figured it'd be a few thousand words, tops. Uh, not so much, really. I'm pretty sure there's not a single cliché that I didn't manage to stuff in here.

Title: Slightly Tarnished Armor
Author: sholio
Rating: PG or so
Word Count: 37,000 *yes, really*
Pairings: Ronon/Jennifer, Rodney/Teyla, John/Elizabeth
Warnings: Crack. God help us, the crack. Also, romance of the het variety, and complete ignorance of actual history.
Summary: Hear ye, hear ye! Hark to the tale of the heroic and marginally competent Sir Rodney of McKay, the Lady Guinevere the healer, her betrothed King Ronon Pendragon, and sundry other Heroes and Villains, in a tale of Classic Adventure, Tumultuous Peril, Base Treachery, Mistaken Identity, Heroes in Disguise and other Trappings of a Romantic Sort.
Notes: It should be obvious from reading the summary and warnings, but when it comes to historical accuracy, this is TOTAL CRACK, and while it was originally conceived as a sort of King Arthur AU, it no longer bears much resemblance to the Arthur legend, either. This is silly pseudo-medieval fantasy that has about as much to do with the actual Middle Ages as Monty Python's Holy Grail.

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.

* * * * * * * *

"No, dear," Charin said patiently. "The leaf of the raspberry is excellent for toning the blood, but only if it's fresh or dried; in the wilted form, it becomes poisonous. Oh, mind the spatters, dear; you don't want to stain your skirt."

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.

"Lady Guinevere!"

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.

* * * * * * * *

While the ceremony wore on and on, Sir Rodney tried to stay at the back of the crowd and not make eye contract with anyone.

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.

Part Two