The hot sun beats down almost unbearably on Kara’s face as she stands beside her sister, looking down on the unmoving form of their master. She wiggles her nose, a scrap of linen shoved in each nostril to block out the stench that seems to be coming from Sir Corben’s direction.
“Do you think he’s okay?” She says, somewhat nasally, and Alex rolls her eyes.
“Judging by the smell? Probably not.”
Flies buzz irritatingly around the motionless knight, and a few try to land on Kara before she swats them away. The sun, combined with the smell of Sir Corben and his horse, munching on grass nearby, and her own unwashed self in the sticky heat is starting to get to her. She frowns, gnawing at her lower lip and tasting salt.
“He said he just needed a rest. He’s due in the lists in two minutes - two minutes, or we forfeit,” Kara says, feeling panic start to hum at the edges of her mind. “We need this win.”
With a sigh, Alex hold her hand out, gesturing to Kara’s improvised nose-plugs. “Give me those.”
Kara hands them over, and Alex shoves them into her own nostrils before approaching the form slumped against a nearby tree. She squats next to him, reaching a reluctant hand under his helmet to feel for a pulse.
After a few moments, her hand drops in a very worrying way.
“Dead,” Alex calls flatly, and Kara blinks dumbly back at her.
Before Alex can repeat herself, Winn approaches from behind her, dropping his armful of newly-polished equipment onto the wagon. Equipment that Corben isn’t ever going to need again.
“Three points to none after two lances! All Sir Corben has to do is not fall off his horse, and we’ve won!” He sounds unusually cheerful, as if the promise of a tournament win – a rarity, these days, with Corben getting up in age and more miserable with every passing month – is lifting his spirits, and she’s a little sad that she has to break it so soon.
“He’s dead, Winn.”
She isn’t broken up about it, really. Corben was always a hard taskmaster, a decent swordsman but a mediocre jouster with a lazy streak which meant his skill declined quickly as soon as his body wasn’t in top shape. He got crueler to his squires the less frequently he won, and was liable to use their meagre winnings to feed himself and leave everyone else to starve. She won’t miss him.
But, they’re stuck in the middle of rural France, with no money, at a tournament they can no longer win. Corben’s purse is empty, the last of it spent last night on beer and female company at the inn, and now he’s not even here to win them a little of it back.
Without him, they have nothing.
“What do you mean, dead?” Winn asks, his grin starting to fade.
“I mean he’s dead, Winn,” Alex deadpans, standing up and taking the nose-plugs out. “Departed from this earth and bound for hell, probably. His spirit is gone, but his stench remains. Does that answer your question?”
“No, he just…he’s just sleeping!” Winn says, gesturing at the clearly-slumped form of Corben wildly. “We should wake him up, we’re going to be late –“
“Winn –“ Kara says consolingly, but Winn isn’t having any of it.
“I haven’t eaten in three days!” He says, his voice high and angry, and Alex’s temper breaks.
“None of us have, Winn!” She snaps, and Kara steps between them, holding her hands up placatingly.
“We should all calm down,” She starts, but Winn interrupts for the second time.
“No, he’s not dead!” He says, slightly manic, and he picks a stone up from the ground, throwing it at the body. It hits Corben’s dented armour with a plonk, before falling to the ground. “Come on, you fat bastard, you dirty old man, wake up –“
“He’s right, Alex,” Kara says quietly, as Winn throws another rock. “How are we going to eat? What do we do, now?”
Alex, who has never been without a plan in all the time Kara has known her, looks at a loss for the first time. Kara can tell that the lack of a tangible strategy is making her nervous, and Kara glances back at their former employer, the seeds of a crazy idea taking root.
Winn seems determined to bring the knight back by any means necessary. He grabs one of Sir Corben’s arms and wrenches it up, kicking at his lifeless body, and Alex snaps at him again.
“Winn, leave him –“
“Three days! I haven’t eaten in three days, you couldn’t wait an hour to die?! If you weren’t already dead, I’d kill you myself –“ Winn keeps kicking, and Kara and Alex can’t do much besides watch him take his anger out on the man who left them with nothing.
Distracted as she is by Winn’s display of mania, Kara almost doesn’t notice the page who rides up behind them.
At the unfamiliar man’s voice, Kara and Alex whirl around in tandem, both hurriedly stepping together to hide Winn and Corben from view.
“Er…yes?” Kara answers tentatively, the thunk of boot hitting steel worryingly loud.
“Sir Corben must report at once, or forfeit the match,” He says with authority, and Kara knows that it’s now or never. This is their last chance to come up with a plan.
Suddenly, Kara understands what people say about working under pressure.
Alex opens her mouth, likely to relate the news of his death, but Kara elbows her hard enough that she wheezes, doubling over.
“He’s on his way,” Kara says pleasantly as Alex coughs, still catching her breath. The page looks suspiciously behind them at Winn, who is still kicking violently at Corben’s form, but Kara’s most charming smile seems to be enough to send him on his way with a curt nod. When he’s ridden out of earshot, Alex smacks her on the shoulder.
“What the hell, Kara!”
“I’ll do it,” Kara says, with startling clarity.
The plan was only half-formed when the words left her mouth, but now it seems obvious. She knows how to ride, how to hold her seat, and she’s helped Sir Corben train since she was 14. She can do this.
And, she’s not too proud to admit, she’s had idle daydreams about this since before she even became a squire. Since she and Alex were kids, listening to the cheers and cacophonous noise from the stadium only a few miles from their hovel in London. The two of them used to watch the parades of knights heading to the field, their banners flying in a rainbow of colours, draped in finery and shiny steel, and Kara had thought – someday, that could be me.
The fact that her gender and the poverty of her upbringing made that impossible didn’t matter to her 7-year-old mind, so full of childlike wonder.
This might be her only chance.
She doesn’t even let Alex voice her predictably negative reply before she’s striding back over to Winn, pulling him off Sir Corben’s body.
“Strip his armour. I’m riding in his place.”
It takes Winn a surprisingly short amount of time to adjust. He takes Kara at her word, quieting and getting to work unbuckling the various pieces with skilled hands.
Alex’s voice makes Kara bristle, but it doesn’t stop her in her work.
“Kara, what’s your name?”
Kara doesn’t answer. She pulls Sir Corben’s helmet off, ignoring his pallid face and instead helping Winn with the pauldrons.
“It’s not sir Kara,” Alex continues, and Kara grits her teeth. “It’s not even Lady Kara.”
“I know that,” Kara grunts, hauling Corben forwards so she can pull off his chestplate. Together she and Winn pull at the padding underneath, and Alex continues, seemingly undeterred by their work.
“You have to be of noble birth to compete! And, have you not noticed the gender issue?”
“A detail,” Kara says firmly, wrapping padding around her arm and strapping the gauntlets on with dextrous fingers. “The point is, we have no money, Alex. Do you want to eat, or don’t you?”
Winn starts to buckle the overlarge chestplate onto her torso, and Alex’s reticence seems to melt into reluctant worry.
“If anyone finds out, we’re all dead,” She warns, finally uncrossing her arms. Kara grins.
“I won’t tell if you don’t.”
Alex grumbles her protests, but she hurries to help strap Kara into the armour nonetheless. It’s their only viable plan, and she knows it.
It’s not exactly how she’d always daydreamed her first real tilt, she thinks as Alex leads the horse to the field. Corben’s armour is too big for her, and the padding isn’t quite enough to compensate, so it jerks and rubs against her uncomfortably. It still smells awful inside, and she has to keep the visor shut lest anyone figure out that she isn’t who she pretends to be. And the whole way Alex is whispering to her under her breath, giving her advice that she doesn’t need.
But the crowd is cheering, stomping and clapping in a rhythmic chant, and as nervous and uncomfortable as Kara is, she can’t help but be buoyed by their enthusiasm. It’s infectious, the way they cheer for her. Sure, they’re really cheering for Corben and, even then, they don’t care who wins the tilt so much as they just want to watch the spectacle. But something inside her reacts to it, and she wants to give them a good show.
Through this realization, Alex is still talking quietly at her.
“Hold your seat, and brace yourself when the lance comes. You don’t have to hit him, and he might not even break his lance on you, his aim has been abysmal so far and he needs 3 points –“
“I know how to score, Alex. And I’ve tilted against Sir Corben before, you know,” Kara says irritably, her voice echoing inside the closed helmet.
“In practices, as his target!”
Alex grits her teeth, and her next words are more of a growl than anything else.
“Fine, Miss Expert. The landscape is, stay on the damn horse.”
Kara nods, as much as she can in the bulky armour.
The opening trumpets are already sounding, and there’s hardly any time at all for her to prepare herself before the marshal is yelling.
“Lord Philip! Stand ye ready!”
Her opponent raises his lance into the air, and Kara scrambles to grab her own before she’s required to do the same. Winn thrusts it into her gloved hand, and she holds on for dear life.
“Sir Corben! Stand ye ready!”
Kara hauls the heavy lance into the air, and then brings it to her side, trying to remember what Corben used to snap at her when she was holding it improperly during practice-tilting.
“Keep it in the cradle of your arm, lest you let it fall to the ground. And for god’s sake, girl, keep it straight, or there’s no use in practicing with you. No knight will tilt against me crooked.”
She tucks the lance into her arm as best she can, and before she knows it, the flag is raised and Alex and Winn have slapped the flanks of her horse. She’s careening down the field at top speed, the lance drooping limply from her inexperienced arm, and there’s a knight in full armour with a thick piece of wood and metal bound for her chest.
It’s the single most exhilarating moment of her life.
It almost doesn’t matter, when the lance falls out of her hand and hits the grass. It doesn’t matter, because she’s found her calling, and it’s this. She’s never enjoyed anything as much as she’s enjoying this single joust, as ineffectual as her own technique is. Riding out of control, with no weapon and barely any balance, with a crowd screaming in the background, is everything she’s ever wanted.
When her opponent’s lance smashes into pieces against her face, denting the metal so much that she can feel it push painfully against her nose, she stops enjoying it, because she’s blacked out.
When she comes to, everything is still dark – the helmet is still crushing her face – but, miraculously, she’s still in the saddle. She did it.
Somewhere to her left, Alex and Winn are screaming.
“She’s breathing! She’s alive – get off me, Winn -”
“We’ve won! God bless you, Kara, we’re eating tonight!”
Hidden under the helmet, dazed and tasting blood in her mouth, Kara smiles.
She’s still riding the high of her first tilt when she stands in a line with the winners of the other categories, waiting for the lord of this town to award her with her prize. Her helmet is still firmly in place, the slit in the visor so dented that she can hardly see, but none of it matters. She’s on cloud nine.
At least, none of it matters until the mounted joust prize is being awarded.
“Sir Corben,” The announcer says authoritatively. “Remove your helmet.”
Kara’s insides freeze.
She can’t remove her helmet. She can’t. It’s the only thing concealing her identity from the nobles sitting in plush seats in the stands before her, and god only knows how she’d be punished if they found out. She’d be put in the stocks, at the very least, if not hung. She feels Alex stiffen beside her, and somehow her sister’s panic makes her mind spring back into action.
“Unfortunately, my lord, the uh…final blow of the lance has…dented it…onto my head,” She says haltingly, deepening her voice and tapping the bent visor with her gauntlet for good measure. On her other side, Winn pipes up to repeat the message.
“She says, the final blow of the lance has – ow!” He recoils as Kara hits him with a sharp metal elbow. At the pain, he seems to realize his mistake, and he quiets immediately.
It’s a tense few seconds following Winn’s pronoun slip. Kara’s stomach twists itself into a knot, and Alex seems ready to bolt and drag Kara with her, armour be damned.
Thankfully, after a moment’s pause, nobody seems to notice the slip-up. She can see movement from the thin slot of the visor, and then Alex is grabbing her arm and holding it out to receive something – she grasps blindly at thin air, until finally something thin and delicate is in her grasp. She holds it up, and the crowd gives a modest cheer.
The relief she feels as Alex and Winn lead her back to their small campsite is unparalleled.
“I can’t believe we actually got away with that!“ Winn crows, as Kara finally wrenches the helmet off and hands it to Alex, breathing fresh air again. After the stifling heat of the closed visor, even the sticky outside air is a relief, and she wipes at the crusted blood under her nose with the wet rag Alex hands her. “God, after I said ‘she’ I thought we were done for –“
His celebration is cut off by Alex, who shoves him so hard that he skids and falls into the dirt.
“You almost got us all killed, you moron!”
But Winn’s good mood can’t be dissuaded, even by Alex’s anger. He just lays back in the grass, laughing.
“Push me all you want, I’ll have a full belly tonight.”
That, at least, Alex can agree with. She starts helping Kara to remove the armour, and with every piece unbuckled Kara can feel the happiness of the afternoon slipping away.
It’s over, now. Her one chance to change everything. To change her stars.
Now, it’s back to struggling every day just to eat.
As Alex barters with a travelling merchant over how many silvers they’ll get for Kara’s prize, an ornate golden peacock feather – 15 florins, in the end – Kara sits on the back of the wagon, swinging her feet back and forth and plucking at her filthy clothes, her tangled hair. They made 15 florins from a single tiny rural tournament, in a single category. How much could they make if they went to Rouen, or Paris? At the height of his career, Corben had been able to outfit them all nicely, feed them, keep his equipment in order. He sometimes won horses they could sell for a lot of coin, and he competed in two or three events. Sometimes they even got to wait on him at banquets, and they’d get to eat the scraps.
He was never good enough to win larger tournaments. But she could be.
“Five silver florins for you, Winn,” Alex is saying as the merchant leaves with the gold feather, dropping the coins into his hand. “Five for me, and five for Kara. We can sell the equipment in town, and then we’re going straight back to England.”
Alex, of course, wants to go back to London the second they’re free of their obligation to Corben. She’s yearned for home for as long as they’ve been away in France, ever since Eliza sent them away in the hopes that they would be able to make a better life than she could provide. Kara misses home too, of course – since her parents gave her up when she was too young to remember, Alex and Eliza have been her only family – but she also yearns for adventure in a way that Alex never has.
She’s not ready to go home yet.
Winn grins, pocketing the money and starting to pack the wagon up. “You guys can sell the equipment – I’m going straight to the pub. Steak and kidney pie, cakes with peppermint cream, and a good ale…god, it’s been ages since I’ve had a decent meal.”
Alex rolls her eyes, but Kara doesn’t budge to help. She’s too busy thinking. Thinking about how good today felt…and how they could do it again.
“What if we didn’t?”
Her comment garners almost no response from her companions.
“Didn’t what?” Alex says absently, gathering all the spare lances into a bundle to put on the cart. Winn already has the armour loaded, and is working on hitching their donkey to it. Both of them are set on Alex’s plan, and it’s going to take a monumental argument to convince them to abandon it. Kara reaches into her shirt and grasps the necklace that's always hung there - a bronze ring on a simple chain. She can feel the design on the front of it against the pad of her finger, the dragon inside a 5-pointed diamond. It was her mother's, she knows, the only thing she has left of her birth family, and it's always made her feel brave.
“Didn’t sell the equipment,” Kara says, already knee-deep in a proposal. “Didn’t leave. What if we…stayed?”
“Why in the sweet fuck would we stay here?” Winn says loudly, dropping the wagon hitch, and Alex elbows him. Kara, though, just continues with her idea.
“Look, give me your coins.” Kara grabs the money from Alex’s hand before she can protest, and then holds it out for Winn’s share. He looks reluctant, but he gives it to her.
Counting the coins out in her palm, she separates two of them.
“So that’s one for each of you,” She says, giving them each their coin, “And that leaves thirteen. Thirteen for training, and outfitting.”
“What are you talking about?” Winn asks frustratedly, and Kara sighs, her fist clenched around the 13 coins that she knows could change her life.
This is her chance to convince them.
“We could do this.”
“We’ve done it, Kara,” Alex says, warningly. “We have the silver, and now it’s time to go.”
“No, I mean…we could do this. We could be champions.”
“Champions…?” Winn asks, and Kara nods vigorously.
“The tournament in Rouen is in a month. In one month, we could be splitting a prize bigger than this. In one month, we could be on our way to glory and riches. No more struggling for coin, no more sleeping in the dirt. We could be champions.”
“In one month, we could by lying in a ditch like Sir Corben,” Alex says, swiping at Kara’s hand in an attempt to get the coins back. “I don’t want glory and riches, Kara. I just want to go home.”
Huffing in frustration, Kara spins on her heel, coins still in hand, and stalks off towards a nearby field.
“Hey – wait up!”
“You’re going the wrong way!”
She can hear Alex and Winn running to catch up, and it’s Winn that reaches her elbow first.
“You can’t even joust, Kara. We all saw you back there,” He says, and Kara waves in irritation.
“Most of it is guts, Winn. The constitution to take a blow, the strength to give one. I have that! And technique? I have a month for Alex to teach me.”
“For Alex to what?” Alex says breathlessly, but Kara doesn’t stop.
“And besides that, I’m great at the sword. Even Corben couldn’t beat me.”
“In the practice ring!” Winn practically yells, and Alex raises her voice too, harping on the point she can’t seem to forget.
“You have to be of noble birth to compete!”
“So we lie!” Kara says, exasperated. “How did the nobles become nobles in the first place? They took it! At the tip of a sword. I’ll do it with a lance!”
“A blunted lance…” Winn grumbles, and Kara could punch him in his stupid face.
But she resists.
“That doesn’t – look, no matter what, a person can change their stars. Alex…” Kara pleads, turning to her sister directly. Alex sighs, not meeting her eyes.
“Alex, Eliza sent us to squire for Corben because she wanted us to have a better life. To do great things. This is our chance. We can make her proud. We can make my parents proud.”
Alex looks slightly teary, and her mouth screws up into a tight line like it always does when she’s thinking something over.
“We’re peasants, Kara,” Winn says, his arms crossed. “We’re the children of peasants. We were never meant to be champions. But eating tonight? Sleeping in a real bed? That dream can come true.”
Kara pinches the bridge of her nose, the coins feeling heavy in her free hand under the impatient gazes of her sister and friend. She’s dangling on a precipice right now, holding on with her fingernails, and it feels like her whole future rests on Alex’s wavering stubbornness.
“Alex, please,” She says quietly, pleadingly. “With 13 silver coins, 3 people can change their stars.”
There’s a few beats of silence, where she and Winn both stare at Alex like she’s the judge in some huge cosmic trial, making her verdict. When Alex finally meets her eyes, heaving a heavy sigh, the twinkle in her eyes lets Kara know that she’s won.
“You’re lucky I love you, Kara.”
Kara whoops in victory, and beside her Winn groans.
Once the decision is made, Winn agrees to stick with them, and Kara isn’t sure if it’s because he’s her best friend or because Alex threatened him with dismemberment. But either way, he has one demand before they start anything – that they go to the pub, and get him fed.
While he buries his face in a bowl of stew and half a loaf of bread, Kara and Alex share a pint in the noisy tavern.
“I still think this is a bad idea.”
“If anyone finds out who you really are –“
“I know,” Kara says, taking a swig. Alex takes an even bigger one, coughing a little when she puts the tankard down.
“I mean, you’re a woman, Kara. How are we supposed to get past that?”
“I can cut my hair, bind my chest,” Kara insists. Alex might be anxious, but Kara has been thinking about this since she was a child. She has ideas. “I used to bind it anyways, to spar. I could pass as a man!”
“Forever?” Alex says skeptically. Kara waves her off.
“Just in public. Outside that, I can still be me.”
Alex sets her forehead on the table for a moment, taking a few deep breaths. When she raises it again, she looks resigned. “I just want to protect you. I promised Eliza that I would.”
“We’re going to be fine, Alex,” Kara says, with complete certainty. “Nobody will catch us.”
“You don’t know that.”
“And you don’t know we will get caught!”
With a weary sigh, Alex sets her head on Kara’s shoulder. “How on earth are we going to teach you to joust?”
“We’ve been watching Corben train for years. How hard can it be?”
It is, as it turns out, very hard.
They try to start out easy, at first. They still have Corben’s old training equipment, tilting dummies and practice lances and wooden swords, and the first thing they work on is just holding the lance properly. They take to the woods, setting up a small campsite with as much food as two florins can buy them, supplemented by Alex and Kara’s basic trapping skills.
It would easily be the best few weeks Kara has ever had, being with her sister and her best friend and learning to joust, if it weren’t for the fact that she’s not very good at it.
Over and over again Kara tilts, riding the horse at a slow canter to try to learn how to grip and thrust, and over and over again she misses the dummy by a wide margin, dropping the lance or occasionally even smacking the horse in the side of the head with it, much to his annoyance. More than once she even hits the dummy with her shoulder as she rides by, and it swings around faster than she can hurry the horse and hits her in the back.
She’d rather not admit the amount of time she ended up face-first on the forest floor.
Kara knows how bad she is. Every time she misses, Alex and Winn shout encouragements, assuring her she’ll get it next time, but she can hear them talking as she rides by, claiming that she’s actually getting worse.
Clearly, the dummy isn’t working. Alex, seemingly determined to see this plan through now that she’s committed to it and spent so much of their coin, recruits a protesting Winn to be the dummy instead, holding a large wooden shield up for Kara to aim for; but every time Kara rides close, Winn seems to panic and drop the thing, or else run until Alex drags him back to his place.
Alex seems to abandon this plan when, on one of Kara’s passes, Winn drops the whole thing onto her foot.
“Do you see how dangerous it is?!” He exclaims as Alex grunts in pain, and Kara knows they need to find another solution.
Alex’s next idea comes when they find a small, deteriorating boat near the river. After some basic patchwork, they attach a length of rope to either side of the craft and put Kara on it in full armour. Alex and Winn string a small wooden ring between two trees, give Kara a practice lance, and then pull the boat from either side of the river, shouting instructions as Kara gets closer to the target.
“Faster, Winn! She has to work on her balance,” Alex shouts, but Kara counters it.
“No, no, slow and steady, keep it even!”
It’s slower than a horse, and yet it still seems too fast. But finally, for the first time, Kara’s lance goes through the ring.
“I got it!” She shouts, throwing her free hand into the air. “I got it, I got it, I –“
Her victory is cut short when the ropes holding the ring up pull taut, and with her lance still hooked into it, she’s pulled off the boat and into the river.
For a moment, she couldn’t care less. She’s just had her first real victory in this whole endeavour – she actually hit a target, kept her balance and held the lance right and got it. Nothing can bring her down now, not even being wet. But as she kicks her legs towards the surface, she realizes she isn’t moving.
She’s in full armour.
It’s okay, she thinks to herself. It’s fine. I can just walk towards the bank. But the current is stronger than she thought, and her boots seem to be stuck in the mud at the bottom of the river.
This was a bad idea.
Just as she’s starting to feel a bit afraid, she feels two hands seize her arms and haul, and a few seconds later she’s surfacing near the bank, sputtering as water pours out from the bottom of her helmet. She pulls the thing off as she struggles onto the grass, and flops onto her back, coughing and laughing in equal measure.
“Kara! Are you all right? Can you breathe? Winn, go get some rags to dry her –“ Alex is saying, but now that she’s above water, Kara feels just fine. More than fine.
“Kara, hey! Look at me. Are you okay?” Alex looks panicked, and she’s completely soaked – she was clearly the one who hauled Kara out of the water. But Kara feels no fear.
“I’m great!” She yells, coughing up a bit more water. Alex looks at her like she’s grown a second head.
“I did it, Alex! Did you see? I can do it!”
Alex hangs her head, all concern leaving her and being replaced with mixed relief and irritation. Winn returns holding an armful of the rags they use to dry themselves after bathing, and Alex grabs one and thrusts it into Kara’s chest, looking exasperated by her happiness.
“Let’s get you out of the armour so we can oil it. If it gets rusty, we’re screwed.”
After that, Kara’s confidence is buoyed so much by her small victory that she decides she can handle the dummy again. After a few unsuccessful runs she finally breaks a lance on it, hitting it squarely and avoiding the swing-back, and before long one becomes ten, and ten becomes every practice lance they have. Time after time Kara hits even the smallest target, and for the first time since they started training, Alex seems to fully believe in Kara’s crazy plan.
Winn ends up carving more lances from nearby fallen trees as Kara and Alex move on to practicing for the sword event, which Kara is much more confident about.
“Switch, switch, switch –“ Alex wheezes, barely keeping up with Kara’s flurry of blows against her raised sword. The force of them makes her drop to a knee, leaning back against the trunk of a nearby tree. “Damn it, Winn!”
Winn doesn’t look up from his task, scraping down straightened tree boughs with their hatchet. “I’m busy, Danvers.”
With an adept flick of her foot Kara casts the wooden practice sword from Alex’s hands, and holds her own to her sister’s throat. “Give?”
“Give,” Alex mutters, knocking the sword away with her arm. “Get out of my face.”
“I told you I was good at the sword,” Kara says smugly, and Alex half-heartedly kicks a pile of leaves in her direction.
“Well, at least there’s one small thing we don’t have to worry about,” She grumbles.
“Alex, there’s nothing to worry about –“
“There’s a hundred things!” Alex explodes, whirling on Kara with a vengeance. “We have to permanently dress you like a boy, so they don’t find out your gender. We have to find a way for Sir Corben’s armour to fit you, when it’s far too big. We need to make sure you actually win something, so we aren’t wasting the entrance fee. We have no proof that you’re nobility, so if they ask us –“
“They won’t,” Kara insists, but Alex shakes her head.
“They might! I don’t think you understand the line we’re walking, here.”
Kara is relieved when Winn pipes up in her defense, handing Kara a newly-finished lance and standing at her side.
“We’ve put all this effort in, Alex,” He says, shrugging. “Shouldn’t we at least try?”
Alex’s jaw tightens, but as always, she gives in.
“…fine. We need to leave in a few days, so come here. We need to cut your hair.”
One week later Kara’s formerly long hair hangs bohemian-like around her collar, her chest is bound in linens, and they’re halfway to Rouen towards what she’s sure is her destiny.
The excitement of it, though, is a little marred by her travelling companions; Alex walking beside the cart and biting her fingernails until they bleed with worry, and Winn, who takes just about every oppourtunity to complain.
“How much longer until I get a turn on the horse?” He whines, jogging up beside Kara on said beast and looking up at her with a frown. “I’ve been walking for forever.”
“Winn, how do you think it would look if my squire rode and I was walking? We’re trying to blend in, here,” Kara tries, and Winn throws a pebble at her.
“What do I care? My feet hurt!”
“It is his turn,” Alex says, entirely unhelpfully.
“Ugh, fine,” Kara huffs, tugging the horse to a stop and swinging her leg out of the saddle. As her foot hits the dusty road, a figure moves between them and further up the path, which would ordinarily be unremarkable – however, since this figure is as naked as the day he was born, it warrants some confusion.
“Why, sir!” Kara cries, and even Winn is distracted enough by the man’s buttocks that he stops in his quest to mount the horse. The stranger turns to address them, and Kara winces, throwing a hand up to block her view of his fully visible genitals.
“Yes?” He asks, as if nothing is out of the ordinary. He’s handsome enough, if a little bedraggled – his hair is just long enough to tuck behind his ears and, Kara assumes, would ordinarily be slicked back. His beard looks as if it was once well-kempt, and he’s tall and decently built, if a little wiry.
The effect would be better if he was wearing clothes, but that’s another matter.
“What are you doing?” Kara asks, and the man turns towards them fully.
“Trudging,” He says, cheerfully.
“…what?” Alex asks, her eyes averted from him completely. He seems to pay her discomfort no mind.
“Trudging!” He repeats, and on their continued confusion, he explains. “To trudge – the slow, weary, depressed, yet determined walk of a man who has nothing left in his life except the impulse to simply…soldier on.”
It’s all said with the flair of a seasoned orator, loud and impressive but overly rehearsed. Kara chuckles quietly, gesturing to his lack of garments.
“Were you robbed?”
The man laughs loudly, putting his hands on his hips and looking to all the world as if he isn’t naked in the breeze. “Interesting question, actually. In some ways, yes – but at the same time, no. Definitely not. More a sort of…involuntary vow of poverty.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Winn asks, and the man regards him thoughtfully. Winn blushes under the scrutiny, very clearly trying and failing not to look below the man’s waist.
In part to rescue Winn from his panic, Kara speaks up.
“Who are you?” She asks, and Jack immediately comes forward with hand outstretched, shaking each of theirs in turn.
“Ah, of course! Jacob Spheer’s the name, my friends call me Jack.” There’s a few beats of silence, and he repeats himself. “Jack Spheer, the writer.”
At their blank looks, he actually looks almost affronted that they don’t recognize him. He sighs, his shoulders falling a little.
“Well, I suppose business has been slow lately,” He mutters. “And you don’t look like the reading sort.”
“Hey!” Alex protests, but Jack has already moved on, his demeanour brightening again.
“Well, for a penny I’ll scribble you anything you want,” He says, slapping his hand on his bare thighs. “Warrants, edicts, patents of nobility –“
Alex looks over at Kara sharply, a surprised and almost urgent expression on her face, and Kara curses her sister’s openness as she tries to inquire a little more tactfully.
“Did you say…patents of nobility?” She asks, and Jack blinks at their sudden interest in him.
“I did,” He says, and he looks them up and down with a more appraising expression. Then he smiles slowly, reminding Kara altogether too much of a predator in pursuit. “And, you gentlemen are?”
Kara almost jumps at the abrupt spotlight. It’s the first time she’s been called upon to really sell their little ruse, and her voice feels high and nervous, distinctly feminine in a way she’s terrified of.
“Right! I’m, uh. Clark. Sir Clark Zorelle, of…Kryptonia,” She says haltingly, trying to call to mind the story they created on that long walk from Angers. Kryptonia is a real place, Winn assured her, but so remote in the northern reaches of the known world that it’s unlikely anyone would be able to contest her limited knowledge on it. “And these are my squires. We’re heading to Rouen, for the tournament.”
“Rouen?” Jack says, his eyebrows raising. “Hm.” He looks amused, irritatingly so, like he knows something they don't. It sets Kara's teeth on edge.
“Is that all, Master Nude, or can we be on our way?” Alex asks irritably. Jack laughs, shaking his head.
“Well, you may, but I rather think you’ll be in for a surprise when you get there,” He says. His voice is amused, but Kara detects no lie in it. “They’re limiting the field at Rouen, and it’s soon to be implemented at all tourneys. Noble birth has to be proven for at least four generations. Patents of nobility must be provided.”
Patents of nobility. The one thing they don’t have. Kara has seen them before, of course – Corben had one, a thick scroll of vellum listing his family lineage in fancy illuminated letters, crests and shields and signatures lining the edges. They had considered trying to alter it, but none of them are handy with a quill, and it was too risky to try to enter a tourney using the patents of a dead knight.
Now, they might not get to enter at all.
“What?” Winn says, aghast, and Kara elbows him hard in the ribs. He wheezes, but quiets quickly.
“What makes you think we don’t have them?” Kara says, more cautiously. Revealing to a stranger that they don’t have the paperwork they need is a bad idea, and they all know it.
Jack shrugs. “Lucky guess. Do you, Sir Clark?”
He says it with an intonation that implies he knows the answer, and Kara bristles at the truth of it.
“Of course we do!”
Right,” He drawls, holding out a hand. “And I’m Richard the Lionheart.”
Kara’s heart leaps to her throat.
He doesn’t believe them. Their cover is blown, they couldn’t even make it past one lousy naked man in the French countryside, and without the patents of nobility that they apparently need, there’s no way they’re making it to Rouen intact. All the training in the world can’t get them past guards or patent offices, and this was all a huge waste of time.
Unless they get help.
Jack, unaware of her internal struggle, has continued on with his joke, apparently very pleased with his own sense of humour.
“No, I’m Charlemagne,” He says, laughing to himself despite Alex’s harrowing glare. “No, St. Jean the Baptist -!”
Her frustration boiling over, Kara finally loses it. She throws her arm hard into his bare chest, hard enough that he stumbles back, and when he tries to right himself she pushes the advantage and shoves him even harder. He ends up sprawling into the grass beside the road, scrambling back as she advances on him, a hand on the dagger at her belt.
“Hold your tongue, sir, or lose it,” She says lowly, and for the first time, he actually looks at her with respect in his eyes. He nods slowly, his hands raising.
“Now that, I actually believe. Sir Clark.”
“Oh,” Kara says, her hand dropping in surprise. “Right. Yes. That’s me.”
Jack rolls his eyes, the respect evaporating. “You’re really going to have to do better than that if you want to convince the entry committee at Rouen. You’re lucky you at least have me to do your patents.”
Kara blinks, rocking back on her heels. “Wait. So, you’ll do it?”
Jack looks at her thoughtfully, rubbing his overgrown chin. Behind her she can practically feel Alex seething with rage at the way he makes them wait, but finally he nods.
“Clothe me, shoe me, for God’s sake feed me, let me ride that horse a bit, and you’ll have them.”
Alex shakes her head, resolute in her resistance to letting anyone else in on their plan – but Kara holds up a finger to indicate that Jack should wait, and heads back to the cart. Winn and Alex huddle around her, and she shrugs.
“We need him.”
“How are we supposed to trust him?” Alex hisses, glaring at Jack over her shoulder. He’s whistling cheerfully, plucking at blades of grass and shredding them while he waits for the consensus. “We don’t even know why he’s naked.”
“Does it matter?” Winn says, glancing back over at Jack and then back at Kara with a blush. “I mean, we can’t get into the tournaments without patents. That’s the long and short of it.”
Alex huffs, arms crossed. “You’re just saying that because you think he’s handsome.”
“I don’t –“ Winn sputters, his face turning beetroot. “He’s not – I was just saying –“
Kara waves a hand to shut them up, and Alex and Winn both stew in silence as she makes her decision.
In the end, it’s easy. She turns back to Jack, nodding her head.
“Wonderful!” Jack says, clapping his hands together and rubbing them purposefully.
Decision made, Kara makes her way back towards Winn to dig through one of the bags on the cart and find some suitable clothes for Jack. Alex, on the other hand, approaches the naked man and kneels down in the place Kara just vacated. Slowly and menacingly she pulls a knife from her own belt, pointing it threateningly at his groin.
She speaks quietly, but loud enough that Kara can hear it.
“Betray us…and I will make sure that whatever children you might have hoped for will be but a distant memory.”
Jack smiles, the confidence never leaving him. “I have no use for children. I am however rather attached to that particular part of my body, and I’ll take you on your word. But you have nothing to fear from me. I can respect anyone trying to make a name for themselves – man or woman.” His eyes flick to Kara as he says it, and she gets the distinct impression that he knows far more than he’s letting on.
“Listen, pal, whatever you think you know –“ Alex starts, brandishing the dagger again, and Kara steps forward, putting a hand on her shoulder.
“Alex, stop. We’re trusting him, right? Just let it go.”
Alex steps away reluctantly, still pointing at him.
“Pain,” She says firmly. “Lots of pain.”
Kara shoves her towards Winn and offers a hand up to Jack, who takes it and pulls himself to his feet. She hands over the trousers and shirt she has in her other hand, and he takes them gratefully, pulling the linen over his head.
Once he’s dressed, Kara holds out a hand to shake. A clean slate.
“Let’s start from the beginning,” She says, swallowing her nerves. If he’s getting himself tangled in this, he deserves the truth. “I’m Kara. Kara Danvers, of London.”
“Kara,” Jack says, his shake firm and his smile genuine. “Nice to meet you.” He nods, and seems to take the revelation in stride.
“Right. Let’s get those patents started, hm?”
Their arrival at Rouen is a quiet affair. They work together to set up the tent with the rest of the competitors, and soon enough it’s time for Jack to bring their documents to the panel of three officials who get to decide her future. Jack has been working on it by the firelight every night since they picked up the materials he needed, and the finished product looks impressive – it’s even fancier than Corben’s was, bound in thick leather and lined with tassels, and Kara reminds herself to thank Jack for his hard work after all this is done.
While she sits astride her horse nearby, trying to copy the haughty, devil-may-care attitude she sees on most knights at tourneys, she watches Jack approach with the patents in hand, bedecked in the ostentatious fur-lined yellow coat he won in a card game with some passing merchants on the way here.
The men at the table don’t even look up.
“Patents and lord’s name, please,” The man in the middle says in a bored tone, and Jack responds with what Kara has come to recognize as his usual vigour.
“My lord, may I present Sir Clark, whose mother's father was Shilhard von Rechberg, son of the Duke Guelph of Saxony, son of Ghibellines, son of Wendish. Wendish inherited the fief of Lumberg –“
It’s clear that Jack could go on for ten generations or more, but he’s interrupted before he really hits his stride.
“That'll do, herald,” The man says impatiently. “Six generations is more than enough. Show me the patents.”
Jack hands over the carefully-faked documents, and Kara watches with her heart beating like a hummingbird’s wings. Her entire future rests in the balance, the difference between glory and prison, and she’s never in her life felt a relief like the one that sweeps over her when the man nods, adding the patents to a nearby pile and handing Jack a long stick.
“Indicate in which events your lord Clark will compete,” He says, scribbling something on a piece of parchment. Jack uses the stick to hit two shields that hang behind the table, each with a weapon indicating a tourney event – the sword, and the joust.
And then, it’s over.
“And you doubted my skills,” Jack chuckles as he rejoins Kara out of earshot. “No trouble.”
“You’re a wonder, Jack, truly,” Kara whisper-yells, clapping him on the shoulder from her place above. “They called you my herald - I hadn’t thought about a herald, but most knights have them, don’t they?”
Jack nods, indicating the next herald in the lineup choosing his lord’s events. “Most of them, yes. Did Sir Corben not have one?”
“We had a tight budget,” Kara drawls. “Look, I know Alex is going to complain, but…act as my herald, and you’ll get a portion of our winnings.”
Jack considers it for a moment, looking around at the bustle of activity around him. When his eyes turn back to her, he’s more chipper than she’s ever seen him.
He clasps his hand in hers, and immediately he’s disappearing into the crowd. “I’ve got something to see to, but I’ll be in the lists for your first joust!”
And then she’s alone, firmly on the other side of one of the biggest struggles of this whole endeavour.
It’s a happiness like Kara has never felt, knowing she’s successfully pulled off their ruse and bumbled her way into her first tournament. She’s full of restless energy, so buoyant that she’s sure she could fly, and she spurs her horse onwards through the crowd, reveling in the joyous squalor of the city. It reminds her of home. Of London, the tiny hovel in the cheapest part of the city beside the river where Eliza worked her fingers to the bone as a healer to support her and Alex. It was a hard time, but a good one, and she has high hopes for today as well.
It’s in this mood, as she meanders through the streets grinning at anyone who will give her a second look, that she sees an angel.
It’s the only explanation for the woman Kara sees stepping out from a nearby archway and onto the street. She’s dressed entirely in white, a daring feat considering the muddy streets she’s stepping onto, and it makes her pale skin glow in comparison to the dingy, dusty people that brush by. Her overcoat is thick, paired with a stylish cap over her dark hair, and Kara traces the sharp line of her jaw with a fascinated eye.
She’s beautiful. But beyond that, there’s something else about her, something that hooks Kara immediately, like this woman has reached a hand right into her ribs and tugged.
The woman stands for a moment, looking at the street around her with a sharp, interested eye, and Kara stares and stares until she’s sure that it must be burning into the side of that beautiful face. Look over here, Kara pleads inwardly. Look at me. She wants the heat of that gaze upon her, wants to be the object of her fascination even for a minute.
Only a few moments later, she gets her wish. The woman moves her head, their eyes meet, and Kara’s heart stops.
Directed towards her, the woman is even more startling in her beauty. Her brows are thick and even, her cheekbones stark under those eyes – and, God, those eyes. Under their scrutiny, Kara is startled by their colour – a bright, vibrant green, piercing even from 100 yards.
A thread between them pulls taut, and the woman turns away, falling into step with a taller woman that Kara guesses is her handmaid and slipping into the moving crowd.
Suddenly desperate for this not to be their only interaction, Kara is spurring her horse forward before she can lose sight of her.
“Excuse me, milady?”
She’s dutifully ignored, although the small, knowing smile on the woman’s face tells Kara that she’s at least been heard. She trots the horse closer, coming up on the woman’s left, and the handmaid looks over with an expression that says this is not out of the ordinary. She whispers something in the lady’s ear, and she’s waved off with an eye-roll.
It settles Kara’s mania, the knowledge that this poor woman probably gets propositioned more often than not; so she eases back a little, accepting that if she’s rejected, she needs to move on.
But she needs to try at least once. Even if there’s no chance of it going anywhere, given Kara’s lack of both nobility and male parts.
“I understand why you won’t speak to me, even if I wish it weren’t the case,” She says, and for the first time since they arrived she allows her voice to ease back into its natural higher and more feminine register. Even, and nonthreatening. As honest as she can manage, in the circumstances.
The woman actually seems to falter at that, the surprise showing on her face, but still refuses to look over even as she finally speaks.
“I’m surprised you ask. My sex are marked by their silence.”
The woman’s voice is low and rich and smooth, like that dark liquor Alex once had her try at a tavern in Lyon. It burned on the way down in the best way, and afterwards made her feel tingly.
And, it wasn’t a rejection.
Hope sparks in Kara’s chest. She knows well what’s expected of women, and she’s spent her life being told she’s wrong for not fitting into it. The last thing she wants is to put that onto another person. She’s just so fascinated by this person, so interested that she burns with it.
“Oh, I would hear you speak if it cost me my ears,” Kara replies, not bothering to keep the breathy earnestness out of her voice. The woman scoffs, sharing an amused look with her maid.
“That’s good – I have no interest in silence in my life. However, I also have no interest in the companionship of knights.”
Kara smiles. The woman is fiery in a way that makes her even more intriguing, and while she knows following her through the streets is untoward in a major way, she can’t seem to stomach the idea of not speaking to her.
“I am no ordinary knight.”
The woman only smiles at that, the same small, enigmatic smile she’s sported for most of the conversation. “A sentiment I hear from most men.”
“What’s your name?” Kara asks. The woman still refuses to turn and acknowledge her, speaking as if to someone ahead rather than to Kara, who lags behind.
“What does it matter, if I aim never to see you again?”
The woman’s handmaiden hides a grin in her hand, and Kara chuckles, sensing that they’re both enjoying having someone intelligent enough to verbally spar with, rather than the run-of-the-mill masculine thickheads these tourneys usually attract.
“If you aim never to see me again, why not take pity and give it to me?”
The woman smiles again, genuine this time if brief and quickly hidden, and Kara would give up a thousand victories in the joust to make it happen again. She follows the two of them under an arch, hardly caring of their surroundings as her horse’s hooves start to clack on stone instead of dirt. When she finally stops and turns towards Kara, her gaze is a blend of suspicious and appraising. She looks Kara over from head to toe, something in her gaze makes Kara feel as if this woman has some kind of magic power to see past her disguise – as if those green eyes can see who she truly is, behind the clumsy veneer.
Before she has a chance to confirm or deny the theory, they’re interrupted by a loud, booming shout.
“You desecrate the house of God!”
Kara startles so badly that she almost falls off the horse. The man doing the yelling is a Bishop, and the Bishop is present because Kara has, somehow, followed this woman unknowingly into a cathedral, beast and all. The man holds his hands above his head, his reddened face rife with indignation behind his bushy beard, and Kara starts to pull back on the reins as she’s shepherded out of the building by a line of priests muttering prayers in Latin.
“Please, tell me your name,” She pleads, backing further and further away until she’s almost at the door. “I would die to hear it.”
The woman laughs, crossing her arms. “And what would you do with my name? Call me a fox, for that is all I am to any of you. An object to be caught.”
“You are no object, but if that is what you wish, a fox you shall be until I find your name. My foxy lady!” Kara calls back, finally stepping out onto the street and cursing the priests still chanting in the doorway and blocking her view.
However, she’s always had superlative hearing – almost freakish, Alex has always said – so before she gets too far away, she hears that now-familiar voice speaking to her maid.
“He is certainly the most handsome hunter I’ve seen yet. In comparison to the rest, at least.”
This time, Kara does fall off the horse.
Kara’s first victory as Sir Clark is even more thrilling than her singular tilt impersonating Corben. She and her opponent both miss entirely on their first two runs – it’s a new environment, tilting in an open arena on sandy ground with stands full of screaming fans, rather than alone in the woods with Alex yelling at her. What the other knight’s excuse is, she isn’t sure, but by the third run, she has the hang of it. Her lance shatters on impact with her opponent’s torso, and his only glances her armour without breaking.
Alex and Winn are yelling and jumping as she rides towards them, and she throws the remnants of her lance down when she reaches the end of the track. The announcer at the podium nearby shouts her victory:
“Sir Clark Zorelle beats Roger Lord Mortimer, one lance to none!”
The banner with her crest on it – a shield with a stylized red dragon curled into an “S”, exactly like her mother's ring, backed by a blue field – is placed over Lord Mortimer’s shield, signalling her win, and she’s riding the high of her life.
“Yeah!” She yells at the crowd, pulling her helmet off and running a hand through her sweaty hair. “Thank you, thank you! I’ll be here all week!”
Alex tugs at the horse’s reins impatiently, guiding them to the stable, and Kara laughs.
“Give me a second to bask, Alex!”
“You’ve had your second,” Alex grumbles. “You’re due in the sword ring in a minute.”
Kara sighs, handing her helmet to Winn and dismounting. “Doing two events was a bad idea. I feel like I’m constantly late for something. Maybe we should withdraw?”
“But the sword is what you’re best at!” Winn protests. Kara shrugs, starting to fiddle with the straps of her jousting armour. A few pieces have to come off and be replaced with smaller, more agile ones for the sword, and she has about the amount of time it takes to walk to the arena to do so.
“The prizes are better in the joust. And the prestige, as well,” She says distractedly. Winn starts to help, handling the buckles on the other side of her.
“Yeah, and you’re up against knights who have been at this for 10 years.”
Kara rolls her eyes, but before she can take more than a few steps towards the sword ring, there’s a firm hand on her chest from a perfect stranger. It’s slim and feminine, and Kara follows the arm it’s attached to until she’s meeting the gaze of a very attractive (if severe) woman. Her dress is bright and slightly more revealing than Kara is used to, and the smile on her face is distinctly predatory.
“Sir Clark Zorelle?” She says, in a low purr.
“Yes?” Kara drawls, stepping back so that the woman’s hand falls.
“And I’m overdue in the sword arena,” Kara says, with a polite smile. She tries to sidestep the woman, but she’s stopped by a surprisingly strong grip on her arm.
“I must detain you on behalf of your herald.”
And for the second time in as many days, Kara ends up with an eyeful of a very naked Jack Spheer.
“So you really weren’t robbed,” She sighs, pinching the bridge of her nose. “You wagered your money away. And the second we helped you out, you did it again.”
“I have a gambling problem. I’m sorry,” Jack says, his eyes downcast. He looks, for the first time since Kara met him, genuinely ashamed. “And these people will…quite literally take the clothes off your back.” He gestures weakly to his current state of nudity, and behind him Roulette snickers.
“What are we supposed to do, here?” Kara says, barely hiding her frustration.
Roulette is the one who replies. “He assured us that you, his liege, would be able to pay his debts.”
Kara clenches her jaw. Roulette’s smug attitude grates on her nerves, and her treatment of Jack – no matter how angry she herself is at him – makes it even worse.
“How much does he owe?” She asks, refusing to meet Roulette’s eyes. She keeps them on Jack, who squirms under the scrutiny.
“Ten gold florins.”
Alex explodes, flying towards Jack, and she’s held back only by Winn throwing a quick arm around her middle.
“You son of a bitch –“ She shouts, and Kara steps in, pushing on Alex’s chest.
“Alex, calm down.”
“We trusted him, and he fucked us over!“
“Alex!” Kara barks, and Alex stills, although her eyes still say murder. “I’ve got this.”
She turns back to Roulette, her jaw still set tight.
“What would you do to him, if we refused?”
“We, on behalf of God,” Veronica drawls, holding up her elaborately decorated cane and setting it threateningly on Jack’s bare back, “Would take it from his flesh. So that he can understand that gambling…is a sin.”
“You’re the one who runs this gambling ring –“ Winn protests, but a sharp look from both Kara and Roulette silences him.
“Please, Ka –“ Jack starts, but he catches himself before her full name comes out, and Alex twitches beside Winn.
He swallows, correcting himself before Roulette can catch on. “Please, can you help me, my lord?”
Kara bites at her lip, but stops soon after, realizing that it probably takes away from her noble masquerade. Instead she inhales deeply, shaking her head.
“I don’t have the money.”
The defeat sweeps over him like a wave. He puts two shaking hands over his face, looking truly repentant, and Kara’s heart aches for him. He did help them – he made her patents, and kept her secret. Even here, in front of Roulette.
She wouldn’t be here, if not for Jack.
She sighs, looking to Roulette with all the lordly command she can muster.
Roulette raises a brow, and her cane seems to dig deeper into Jack’s back.
Kara draws herself up to her full height, crossing her arms and standing her ground. “Just…let him go. For god’s sake, give him back his clothes…and you’ll have it by tomorrow. You have my word.”
Roulette regards them both for a moment, before finally taking her cane off Jack’s back and nodding.
“Done. But don’t think you can leave this town without me knowing about it.”
Kara nods sharply, and one of Roulette’s armed guards tosses Jack his clothes.
“You lied,” Kara snaps as they leave the tent, and Jack struggles into his pants before jogging to catch up.
“Technically, I didn’t lie – I simply withheld the truth,” He says reasonably, shoving his hands through the arms of his bright coat.
“It’s the same thing!”
“Not exactly –“ He starts, but their arrival at the sword ring interrupts his justification. Before Alex can even wish her luck Kara is being shoved into the ring, her open-fronted helmet shoved onto her head and a sword thrust into her hands, and her opponent is waiting. The moment he sees her he shouts, swinging his sword wildly and bringing it down.
She manages to parry, barely – but she’d been in such a hurry attaching her armour that her right shoulder catches, the leather strap pulling taut and keeping her from deflecting his next hit. It clangs heavy on her armour, making her breath catch.
“Shit, shit, shit,” She mutters, scrambling to avoid another swing. She fails, and the second hits her lower back. “Stupid armour, stupid Jack –“
The announcer shouts the two hits in favour of her opponent, and Kara can feel the anxiety of a possible loss descending. Five hits from her opponent, and she’ll be out in the first round.
A third hit lands on her shoulder, and she’s forced to a knee with the impact. She can hear Alex shouting from the sidelines - “Stop letting him hit you!” – and she’s able to catch her breath as the opposing knight turns around, grandstanding to the crowd. He raises his arms, yelling his presumed victory, and Kara grits her teeth.
She won’t lose. She can’t. Not after all of this.
Heaving herself back to her feet, she hefts the sword in her hand and advances, and by the time he turns back around they’re on equal footing. He has the audacity to laugh when he sees that she’s back up, and the anger of it burns in her chest. Fuels her.
Her first swing is a palpable hit on his shoulder, and it takes only a few moments for her to get in four more – arm, torso, shoulder again, and then a pivot leading into the final blow to his head. He’s still reeling when her last one lands, and it happens so fast that it takes a moment for the crowd to catch up.
Jack seizes the moment. While the scorekeeper struggles to mark down her sudden victory, he jumps into the ring, seizing her gloved hand and thrusting it into the air.
“Behold, my lord Clark!” He shouts, his voice booming through the stands. “The rock! The hard place! Blown from his northern homeland in search of glory and honour! We walk…in the garden of his turbulence!”
It’s entirely too poetic a sentiment for the crowd of peasants that surround them. They’re met with a sea of blank looks, the quiet stretching out to an uncomfortable level, and it continues until Winn comes to their rescue.
“Yeah!” He shouts, throwing his fist up in the air, and almost immediately everyone around him follows suit. The crowd erupts into cheers, screaming their support for her win.
She could get used to this.
Her second victory is almost as quick as her first. Her third and fourth get consecutively harder, but she comes out on top, even with the shoulder of her armour still acting up. By her final fight she’s exhausted, but when she looks over and sees her friends cheering for her before the championship match, it buoys her.
“For the championship!” The announcer cries, sweeping his arms open to gesture at Kara and her opponent, who faces her in armour shinier than Kara has ever seen. It has an almost greenish tint, and the sun hits the crest on his chest and throws it into stark relief – a gothic “L”, encircled by a griffon. “Sir Clark Zorelle, to face Lord Alexander Luthor. Sir Clark to receive first!”
Luthor comes forward. He’s not much taller or broader than Kara, likely part of why he’s facing her for the championship – they’re both light, fast, agile rather than bulky. She avoids his first two attacks and parries his third, and she can see him grin, his face brightening at the introduction of a worthy opponent.
But Kara is stronger than she looks.
The moment he lets his guard down she pushes forward, landing two hits before he can parry and move away. The rest of the match is almost an even draw – he lands three attacks, and she lands two more – and he fights her like the devil on the last one, not giving up until she pulls out her hardest maneuver. She feints a hit to his torso, twirls when he tries to parry, and slams her blade into his other side.
Before the crier can even announce her victory Alex and Winn have leapt the barrier into the arena, and Jack follows them to half-hoist Kara off the ground. It takes all three of them, with the combined weight of Kara and her plate armour, but they manage, Jack yelling at the crowd all the while – “Champion of the sword coming through! Do you wanna touch him?”
As she’s carried from the arena, Lord Luthor catches Kara’s eye. His helmet is off, and he's mopping the shine from his bald head with a rag handed to him by his squire. He looks charming and haughty, but when Kara catches his eye he gives her a small, respectful smile, and inclines his head. An acknowledgement of a peer.
Her heart full to bursting, Kara nods back.
It’s the last event she has until her next joust tomorrow, and the high of her victory lasts until they get back to their tent and removes her armour. Holding it up to the light, Kara sighs, her stomach sinking.
A crack runs through the steel from the buckle of the shoulder down to the middle of the chest. Under the strain of her flurry of activity today and with her badly-secured shoulder piece, the decades-old metal finally broke.
“Shit,” Alex breathes, assessing the damage against the sunlight. “It was a matter of time, I guess. Corben’s had this armour as long as I can remember.”
“What am I supposed to do?” Kara huffs, throwing the whole thing down next to their campfire. “We can’t afford a new set. Can we get it repaired?”
“We don’t even have enough money for that, until you get your prize at the ceremony tomorrow,” Alex sighs. She rubs her face tiredly, picking the plate up again and running her finger along the crack. “And you’ll need the armour fixed sooner than that, if you’re going to joust tomorrow morning.”
“So, what do we do?”
The only thing to do, in the end, is wander the blacksmith’s district and beg. And blacksmiths, as it turns out, are famously resistant to doing work without money up-front.
“I can’t pay you now, but I promise, as soon as I get my prize tomorrow –“ Kara tries to argue to their third smithy, but he shakes his head. Gesturing wildly with his hammer and tongs.
“Cash first, not promises.”
He waves his hammer again, sending them away, and Kara has to struggle not to let her lip quiver. She’s never been one to shelve her emotions, but it wouldn’t exactly be noble of her to burst into tears in front of every smith in Rouen.
“Hey, we’ll find someone,” Alex assures her, but her voice is far from confident. Winn frowns, chewing at a fingernail.
“Maybe Jack could convince someone? He’s a good talker,” He says, but Alex rolls her eyes.
“I know you think the sun shines out his ass, Winn, but he’s far from perfect,” Alex grumbles. Winn kicks a puff of dirt at her, flipping two fingers, and Alex is about to shove him for it when one of the smithy’s assistants pauses in his task of dousing a piece of plate in water, wiping his brow.
“You might try the Ferrier, m’lord,” He says, tipping his head towards the stall across the street that Kara hadn’t looked at yet. There, in the midst of a plume of steam, is a woman hammering at a piece of iron.
“A woman?” Alex asks, clearly interested. “That’s unusual. She must be very good.”
“She took up the trade when her husband passed, sir.”
Kara nods, holding up her breastplate. “And, she does armour? I thought ferriers just did horseshoes.”
The assistant shrugs, picking up the piece of plate he’s working on and taking his leave. “No idea. But, beggars can’t be choosers, m’lord. Perhaps she’ll help.”
Before Kara has even fully crossed the street, the woman is shaking her head, not pausing in her task.
“I don’t work for free,” She says loudly over the clang of her hammer, and Kara deflates.
“And I can’t joust with broken armour!”
“Not my fault your armour’s shit.” Despite her tiny stature – she hardly comes past Kara’s shoulder – it’s clear that her will is as strong as the steel she works with, and a sort of panic rises in Kara at the idea that she might have to withdraw from the joust.
This is her last chance.
“No, it’s not your fault, but – I can pay you tomorrow. Please,” Kara begs, hearing her voice break dangerously on the last word. It sounds distinctly feminine, and the woman stops hammering at the horseshoe she’s working on as soon as she hears it. Her eyes track slowly over Kara this time, taking in every detail from head to toe, and her eyes narrow when Kara swallows nervously.
“Okay,” She says slowly, holding out her hand. “Let me look.”
Kara hands over the breastplate, her heart pounding. The woman looks it over, tsking at the dull, dented state of it.
“It’s hardly worth the steel to repair it,” She mutters, and Kara nods.
“Maybe. But it’s all I have.”
The woman purses her lips, and finally she nods. “Fine. But if you tell anyone I was this charitable, I’ll melt the whole suit.”
Letting out a laugh of pure relief, Kara holds out a hand to shake. “Deal.”
The woman takes it, her grasp firm and her hands as calloused as Kara’s.
“I’m Lucy,” She says, her expression unreadable. “Lucy Lane. And you are?”
“I’m, uh. Clark. Sir Clark.” Kara curses internally, vowing to practice her new name and story over and over tonight until she can say it without stumbling. Lucy just laughs quietly to herself, shaking her head.
“I’ll have it done by the end of the day.”
Lucy is true to her word, and by the next morning Kara is suiting up in the lists, vibrating with excitement at her next chance to prove herself.
“Lucy was right, you know. This armour is shit,” Winn grumbles, as he fastens the worn leather straps.
“Armour is armour,” Alex says. She holds the reins to the horse, which Kara pats on the neck affectionately.
“I’m just saying, maybe we should invest in some new pieces.”
“With what money?”
Kara means to interject, but their banter fades into the background of her mind when she thoughtlessly casts her eyes into the crowd, and they land on a familiar face. She’s dressed in blue this time, a dress that dips provocatively low without being completely indecent, and Kara’s body flares into high alert.
Her angel is here.
“Jack,” She whispers frantically, leaving Alex and Winn to argue and tugging on the sleeve of his yellow jacket. “Jack! I need your help.”
“Whatever for?” He asks, his thick brows furrowing. “I can’t teach you to be as handsome as me, you know.”
Kara ignores his snark. “You’re a writer, right? I need good words. Romantic ones.”
Jack clutches his chest, gasping in a way entirely too dramatic, as usual. “Kara Danvers, as I live and breathe, are you wooing someone?”
“Shh!” Kara hisses, flapping her hands in a way most unbecoming. “Don’t say my name here, you dummy!”
Jack makes a face, but he acquiesces. “Fine, my lord Clark. Is she here? Point her out to me.”
Making no mention of the fact that Jack seems to have immediately picked up on her sexual preferences without her ever mentioning it, Kara points into the stands.
“The lady in blue,” She says quietly, and once Jack picks her out he spins away, his face in his hand.
“Jesus, Kara, you aim too high.”
He’s right, Kara knows. This woman is far above her in every conceivable way. But she can’t fight the pull she feels towards her, and the idea of going over and talking to her again unprepared gives her cold sweats.
“I don’t know how else to aim! She’s an angel, Jack. I can’t stop thinking about her.”
“And what if she finds out about your little secret, hm?” Jack says, nodding his head towards her bound chest. “You can’t exactly get far without blowing this whole thing.”
“I know that,” Kara mutters. It’s been on her mind since she saw the woman in the street – no matter how much she flirts, how much they talk, there’s nothing she can offer this woman. Her knighthood is a farce, she doesn’t own property, and it’s doubtful that she would be interested in a woman underneath it all.
But in the face of her beauty, it’s so easy to forget.
“Alright,” Jack finally sighs, slipping an arm over her shoulder and talking quietly into her ear. “Okay. If you’re really bent on this, here’s what you should say.”