I. In which our hero gets called for duty
When the skinny bloke with the big ears looked William up and down, nodded and then smiled at him, with the kind of smile that people give you if they want something from you, William thought he'd either be asked for food or buggery. Well, what was he supposed to think? Everyone, including William, had had a hard year, what with the crops rotting away, and even if that got reversed after Prince Arthur defeated the evil sorcerer who had caused it, the new, restored grain didn't have time to grow to full size before the autumn came. People looking for spare meals in return for offering their help as farm hands showed up frequently in William's village, and the young man in front of him certainly looked as if he'd been through a famine of sorts. On the other hand, William thought, eyeing his visitor critically, such a twig of a boy was no one's idea of a farmer, so he might want to offer his hands for services unrelated to tending the fields.
Well, it had been a really bad year, and William could do with some cheering up. Tentatively, he smiled back. This resulted in being told about some nonsense about Prince Arthur and the upcoming tournament. William opened his mouth to say something along the lines of "look, I might be game without such a daft yarn, you're not that skinny", but then the boy produced actual coins, promised more, and a tiny part of William began to believe that he could be telling the truth. At least the coins were real. William knew, because he bit them. He decided that he had nothing to lose by coming to Camelot for a few days. If everything this self-proclaimed manservant to the prince said turned out to be true, then William would not only earn some direly needed money, but also the favour of the future king. If, on the other hand, as most of William still believed, this was all an elaborate way for a city boy to get a good tumble from an upstanding farmer, well, it wouldn't be that much of a sacrifice, either. Besides, he'd always wanted to visit the heart of the realm.
The house which the manservant, whose name was Merlin, had described to him, wasn't difficult to find, though William was distracted by the sheer number of people he encountered on the streets. Then the most gorgeous woman he'd ever seen opened the door, which was even more distracting. Suddenly he hoped fervently that Merlin had lied and it was all a design on William's virtue, to be carried out not only by Merlin but this goddess in a blue apron. It took much self discipline, but he managed to say "Err" instead of "Ravish me, please!". The goddess smiled, said "you must be William, please, come in" in a friendly voice, and he entered. Merlin was there already. So was a blond young man about the same height as William. He wasn't bad-looking, either, but going by the unflattering look of disbelief on his face, designs on William's virtue were definitely not on the table. On the bright side, the way he crossed his arms was so arrogant that he might actually be the prince, which meant easily earned money was still an option.
One can't win them all, William thought, gave the goddess a wistful look and settled for a few days of impersonating royalty.
II. In which our hero passes his first test
It didn't take William long to figure out the first rule of successfully playing a knight, which was to have someone to boss around, and do so without hesitation; Prince Arthur and Merlin were a really good example for that. On the other hand, that lesson was not useful when it came to other knights, and they were the ones he was going to be around with the most, as he realized once he had entered his name for the tournament and was told that knights errant without a liege lord would stay together for the duration of the tournament, in some rooms near the great hall. It also didn't cover how to keep the horse the prince had provided for him from throwing him off, which was something William was half convinced it would do on every step it made towards the castle.
"Goewin is a really nice mare. Well, if you don't have to brush her tail, that is," Merlin had said, which was less than reassuring, though he had also promised William wouldn't have to groom the horse. By the time William had successfully climbed off Goewin again and was inside the castle walls, he was soaked through with sweat. All the chain mail didn't help. He was used to a hard day's work, but it usually came in ways that allowed him to breathe instead of being stuck inside a lot of iron. That, William decided, must be the true reason why so many knights sneered all the time. Because they couldn't breathe properly.
As it turned out, there weren't that many knights errant there for this year's tournament, and so they all shared one chamber. Most of the participants were knights of Camelot, and a few came from other courts. "If they'd announced sooner the crown prince isn't participating, there'd be a whole lot more competition", one of the other knights errant said with a satisfied expression when they were all stomping to their chamber. "I wasn't sure myself whether I should come. Just my luck, I suppose, I only found out on the way. Who knows, I might have missed out an actual chance to win otherwise!"
"Me too," William wheezed, as he didn't quite have his breath back yet.
"So you wanted to test your mettle against Arthur Pendragon?" the other knight enquired, which seemed to be a fancy way of saying "who wouldn't jump at the chance of beating up the crown prince a bit?"
"Yeah," William said, and since he was curious about the chances that the prince would, in fact, get pummelled over the next few days, and thus maybe not in a mood to pay more money at the end of this whole enterprise, he asked as casually as he could: "So, do you think he's really a good fighter, or all talk and such?"
The other knight first looked mildly scandalized at the suggestion, then thoughtful. "Well," he replied slowly, "his valour has not been tested at tournaments in other courts, and were I a knight of Camelot, I would know better than to humiliate my liege lord."
"Aye," a third knight joined in, "but monsters give no such quarter, and did he not defeat the Questing Beast some months ago?"
"I wouldn't be surprised if that hadn't been a Questing Beast but some overgrown wolf", the second knight countered. "Some tales grow in the telling, especially if the bards who tell them are paid by royalty."
"He does pay then?" William asked interestedly, but the conversation had drifted towards general bard veracity, and he never got an answer to his question. He mostly settled for listening the first evening, and it only got awkward one more time when one of the other knights asked him directly whether he thought all the magical attacks on Camelot had been real or a product of King Uther's imagination. His poor cow screaming in hunger with no milk to feed her newborn calf, and the little one dying flashed in William's mind, and before he could remember instructions, he replied tartly: "You wouldn't ask if you held that rotting grain in your own hand. Bloody sorcerors."
"I thought you had never visited Camelot before, Sir William?" the other knight, whose name was Geraint, asked, sounding somewhat puzzled.
"Well, they did the same thing in Daira, too", William said, biting his tongue. "The sorcerors, I mean." Geraint opened his mouth as if to ask more questions, and William, in desperation, fell back on the first thing he learned about impersonating a knight. "Boy," he yelled at the next passing servant, "bring me something to drink!"
Then his luck turned, because the king's ward, the Lady Morgana, arrived in the great hall, and at once everyone talked about how the champion of the tournament would get to escort her to the celebration feast, and how she still wasn't married despite being the apple of the king's eye, beautiful and rich. The general opinion seemed to be that either the king intended her for himself or his son, or that she had some kind of not immediately obvious vice, such as a tendency to drink too much or what was carefully termed "loose behaviour". William eyed that bit of the Lady Morgana he could see from the very end of the great hall, which was mostly her black hair and one shapely breast, wondered whether "being her champion at the feast" was some fancy way of saying "getting a quick grope in" and decided the Lady Morgana could be loose with him any time she wanted.
He really hoped the prince wouldn't get whacked at the first day. Remote chances to "escort" the Lady Morgana aside, the food even at the lower end of the table of the castle's great hall was better than anything he'd had for years.
III. In which there is wine and good cheer for our hero
The reminder that everyone was in a better mood after a nice meal provided William with a brilliant bit of inspiration when it came to the task of persuading Goewin the mare not throw him off for the rid to the tournament field and to the tent. He kept an apple from the welcoming feast, and fed it to Goewin first thing in the morning, before getting on with the horrible task of climbing on her in full armour. It seemed to work, though there were some bad moments when she made little sideways steps while they were all listening to the king's speech.
Once he entered the tent and exchanged places with the prince, he slumped down on the little chair there in relief. Before long, though, relief gave way to boredom. The shouting and applause outside proved there were exciting things happening, and William had never seen a tournament. He wouldn't see this one, either, given that showing his face outside while Arthur was being Sir William of Daira would defeat the whole purpose of his job. Still, staring at the tent flap the entire time with nothing to do was boring. When Merlin showed up again for a while to watch the tournament from the tent entrance, it was a big relief.
"So", William asked conversationally, "is the prince good at pummelling people on his own?"
"He's having fun," Merlin replied, the corners of his mouth twitching.
William's mutinous impulse to say "at least someone is" was just successfully suppressed when the first round of the tournament was over, Arthur stormed in, and threw his helmet at William. Going out to wave at cheering people felt surprisingly good, and William beamed when he came back into the tent while the prince prepared for the next round. Arthur was smiling at well, which transformed his face from arrogant to surprisingly open and joyful. Since he was in a good mood, William felt emboldened to ask something he'd missed asking the day before.
"Err, Sire," he said, "are knights bad losers?"
"Yes," Merlin said promptly.
"No," Arthur said, elbowing his servant.
"Because if you keep winning, I'll be sharing quarters with a lot of people who think I threw them in the dust today," William said meaningfully.
"They'll celebrate you as a worthy opponent", Arthur said. "It would be dishonourable to do anything else."
"Like using enchanted snakes," Merlin muttered. "That never happens."
"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur said, but William didn't pay attention anymore; his imagination was too busy with snakes. He must have looked a bit green, because Arthur came to him and put an arm on his shoulder.
"There'll be no snakes," he said firmly. "The worst that can happen is that they'll toast you too often at the evening meal so you'll have a hangover the next morning and can't react fast enough."
"I'm ready to make that sacrifice, Sire," William said; Arthur laughed, put his helmet back on, and returned to the tournament. As it turned out, he was right. No sinister reptiles showed up anywhere, and a lot of people wanted to share a drink with William. One knight who wore the Pendragon arms and thus had to be a knight of Camelot, not a knight errant, ended up sitting next him, first expressing his admiration for William's skills and then cautioning him not to accept any more toasts.
"It would be a pity," he said gravely, "if a man of your talent were hindered in any way."
William, who was in a pleasant haze by now, couldn't help but notice that this was a very handsome knight, with his well groomed beard and blond curly hair.
"That's mighty generous of you, Sir…"
"Leon," the other replied with a courteous nod.
"Sir Leon." Some vague memory hit him. "Say, aren't we matched first thing tomorrow morning?"
"And I look forward to it, Sir William, after observing you today. Which is why my advice is to take your rest now. You have earned it."
A fair opponent and very handsome. Clearly, the man to be with in case anyone did get any snake-related ideas during the rest of the night.
"Sir Leon," William said, practicing the shoulder clasp move Arthur had performed on him today on Leon's well-endowed shoulder, "I'll follow your advice. How about following it with me?"
His memories of that evening would never be very clear, but he was ready to swear Leon looked as if he was about to agree this was a splendid idea when a messenger from the king stormed in and asked the knights of Camelot, but not any of the knights errant or knights from other courts, to assemble. Apparently there was some threat the king had to tell them about. Sir Leon bade William farewell, and William sighed, until the remaining knights errant toasted him again.
IV. In which our hero practices courtly conduct
Nursing a hangover the next day meant William didn't mind the interludes of solitude in the tent. Merlin, when he showed up to report on Arthur's progress and alert William that it was time to go out and acknowledge the cheers again, looked as if he had something of a hangover as well, or at least as if he hadn't slept very much.
"My mother used to make some great gingerroot brew for my father for the mornings after the harvest was in," William said wistfully, "and onion soup. I could give you the recipe."
Merlin took the hint, left, and came back half an hour later with something that passed for onion soup from the royal kitchen. In between, Arthur had shown up, which meant another deafening round of cheering for William, who was slightly less enthused about this, due to the echoes all the clapping seemed to make in his ears. Still, the smile on his face wasn't entirely forced, as Sir Leon came to him and insisted on clasping his hands to congratulate him personally. Nice and strong hands they were, too.
"So, I'll see you tonight?" William tried.
"It would be my honour to sit next to you again," Sir Leon smiled. William was about to elaborate that he didn't just mean sharing a meal in the great hall, but then he spotted Merlin with the soup returning to the tent, and decided broader hints would have to wait until his hangover was cured.
"Gwen says the ladies of the court are quite taken with you," Merlin observed when William was back in the tent, steering towards the soup. This was a surprise. He hadn't noticed the previous evening, but then, he'd been busy toasting other knights and being rescued by the handsome Sir Leon. For a moment, he felt a pang at the prospect of having missed out on the opportunity to speak to a beautiful court lady, but then he decided he did speak to a beautiful knight, and one should not be greedy.
Arthur looked a bit dubious. Whether this was because he wanted some of the onion soup William was sharing with Merlin himself or whether he was worried at the prospect of some noble lady forgetting herself with William wasn't apparent, but William decided to play it safe, just in case.
"I didn't speak to any lady," he said reassuringly. "Are you hungry, Sire?"
"Not at the moment," Arthur said with a quick shake of the head. He relaxed a bit and lost that dubious look, so William added: "How does a knight talk to a lady in an absolutely strictly honourable fashion, without giving offense?"
"If you find out, let me know," Arthur muttered, then harrumphed and said: "Be courteous if someone addresses you and make sure to tell them you'll leave immediately after the tournament and won't be back, so there aren't any false hopes. That should do it."
Then it was time for him to go out and joust again. After he had left, William turned to Merlin and asked: "He hasn't been laid for a very long time, has he?"
"This is really, really not something I want to discuss," Merlin said with feeling.
That evening, the feast was somewhat subdued. Sir Leon did come to sit next to William, but looked sad.
"I'm sorry you lost," William said sincerely. He was reasonably sure he'd have gotten another two golden coins anyway if Arthur had lost today, and a nice man like Sir Leon deserved the prize and the cheer.
"It is not that," Leon said. "A guard whom I had trained myself, a valiant comrade, was murdered last night, by a foul assassin. We're all ready to give our lives for Camelot, of course, but we hope to do so in open combat, where the chances are equal and fortune favours the brave. To be killed in the dark and put into a trunk like an animal – I would not wish it on an enemy, let alone a friend."
William was silent for a while, remembering his parents and older brother, who died of the plague that had come on Camelot and all the surrounding villages a little more than a year ago. He'd been alone on the farm afterwards, not knowing why a vile sickness had taken them from him until hearing that the plague had been another attempt by those who used magic to destroy the kingdom. He remembered the three days it had taken for his family to die, and how he had nursed them in the vain hope they would recover.
"Neither would I," he said before he could stop himself, "but at least it was quick. There are worse deaths." Upon Sir Leon's look, he tried to fall back on to his role as knight again, but could not quite manage to shout an order right now. "My parents died of the plague", he explained, because surely, that was something that could happen to peasants and nobles alike and would not give him away.
"Then I, too, am sorry," Leon said softly.
"Let's drink to their memory," William suggested, because toasting was the other knightly habit he remembered in the shaken state those memories had left him in. "And that of your friend."
Apparently, that was acceptable, and he and Leon clinked cups. William was about to change the subject, because he really didn't want to dwell on the worst days of his life so far, wanted to think of pleasanter things again and thought this would do Leon some good as well, when they were joined by another knight, who greeted William with a hesitant smile.
"May I present myself? I am Sir Ellinor. We shall joust tomorrow in the final. I just wanted to say that I feel honoured to fight such a worthy opponent."
"Likewise," William said, who felt he was getting the hang of knightly conduct at last. "I, err, much admired your skill today. Let's drink to that."
By the time they all ended up in their beds, bad memories were successfully banished, and he dropped the "Sir" in front of both Ellinor's and Leon's names without, it seemed, either of them minding. William suspected he was due for another hangover tomorrow, but really, that was a small prize to pay. Especially given that Ellinor had a nice firm grip as well, though not as nice as Leon's, when it came to finding one's way in the dark.
V. In which our hero gets his reward
After officially saluting the king without Goewin the mare making one wrong step, and getting off the horse without sliding in the least despite another hangover, William felt both proud and regretful that it would all soon be over. He had enjoyed the last few days, the cheering, the food, the wine, most of all the company, and going back to the farm would mean facing the fact that this was not something that would ever happen again. Still, he had known that from the start. Arthur was waiting in the tent, not looking anticipatory in the least, which was odd; after all, this was the final match, and by now William thought the odds were high the prince would win this one as well.
"William," said Arthur, sounding downright hesitant, "I…haven't thanked you for doing this, have I?"
William wondered whether this was an attempt to get out of paying the other two gold coins, but the prince didn't strike him as the thrifty type, and besides, a knight would probably regard something like that as dishonourable. So he shrugged.
"It was my pleasure, Sire," he replied and meant it.
"Why did you agree?" Arthur asked. Not even Merlin, who had made the original offer, had wondered about that, and William was so surprised that he answered honestly. Well, almost. He left out his hopes for a tumble.
"I had a bad year at the farm, Sire, what with the crop dying, and the plague before that. It sounded like easy money, and I can use it."
Now Arthur looked downright stricken, which was odd, because there really was no reason to. He was paying William more for three days of feasting and waving than William would earn in half a year of farm work, if it was a good year. He couldn't believe William was haggling for more, could he?
"I'm really very grateful," William added so there'd be no misunderstanding, and now Arthur looked positively ill, as if he had personally poisoned William's family and the cow and the crop for good measure, which was ridiculous. The last three days not withstanding, though, William wasn't relaxed enough around the prince to say something along the lines of "don't worry, I know that was all those bastard magic users' fault, I'm not one of those idiots who blame everything that's wrong on the crown". So he decided that Arthur was probably just nervous before the big final match and didn't know how to admit that, being the prince and all.
"Good luck, Sire," he said. Which turned out to be the wrong thing to wish, or fate just didn't listen to William anymore, because the next time Arthur came back to the tent, the match wasn't over yet, but he had received a bad wound on the shoulder, bleeding through the armour. How a lance should have pierced through it and still left the armour mostly intact was beyond William, but he didn't have time to wonder. The gorgeous Gwen showed up directly after the prince, and together they tried to staunch Arthur's bleeding. Sadly, they did not manage to instill some modicum of sense into the prince as well, because he insisted on finishing the joust. William watched while Gwen said with tears in her eyes that Arthur had nothing to prove, only to be told that he had, and decided that cheer and good meals not withstanding, this was why one should be glad not to actually be a knight. Clearly, the knightly code did not just demand fancy talk, bossing around servants, drinking matches with other knights, generosity and being in really good shape, but also insanity. If Arthur had been one of the village lads, William would have told him that if the alternatives were bleeding to death in a tournament or being fussed over by the divine Gwen in a cozy tent, the choice was really terribly obvious, and it wasn't like Arthur needed the prize money anyway. But you couldn't tell that to the crown prince.
Fortune apparently favoured not only the brave but the insane, because Arthur did return alive. William swallowed and realised he had felt oddly constricted in his throat at the prospect of Arthur dying. Probably because then, he couldn't have asked Merlin in good taste for those remaining two coins, but perhaps also because as princes went, Arthur wasn't a bad one. Besides, it would have made Leon even sadder than the death of the guard had done, and Gwen would have cried, which wasn't something to be wished on either a handsome knight or a gorgeous woman. William wondered whether Merlin would help him get out of that armour, which he most certainly would not miss wearing, when Arthur surprised him yet again by telling William to collect the prize.
At first, William thought he hadn't heard right, or that Arthur had meant carrying out the deception a bit longer and getting the money, then delivering it to the tent. But that didn't make sense. This was the moment Arthur had been waiting for, the only one where he could reveal to everyone that it had indeed been the prince who had been winning all those jousts. This was the moment Merlin had hired William for. There would not be another, so Arthur really had to mean it. William went through the motions, waved, smiled, and was so stunned that even the pleasant daze from the previous evening would not come. Only when the king had his ward hand over the key to the small trunk with the prize money did some disbelieving joy start to arise in him. This was real. This was actually happening.
William eyed the Lady Morgana, who smiled when her hand touched his. She really was a beautiful woman. And he would escort her to the feast tonight, sit next to her and dance with her. If these three days were a daft dream, where the impossible kept happening, why not crown it with the daftest thing of all?
Before he left the tournament, he remembered Sir Ellinor, and thought that he should tell the man he had fought well, because that was what knights loved to hear, and chances were Ellinor needed some cheering up now. But when he arrived at Ellinor's tent, there was a big commotion there, with more and more of the knights assembling. Leon was already there, and spotting William, he said in a low, grieving voice:
"Ellinor is dead. You were jousting against his assassin, the same man who also killed the guard. Had you not unseated him, he would have probably killed you, too, my friend."
William thought of Ellinor presenting himself and his shy smile on the previous evening. Perhaps neither Ellinor nor Leon would have given him the time of the day had they known who he truly was, but that did not matter to him right now. Leon had been right last night. Nobody deserved to die like this.
"Damn," William said helplessly. Leon nodded gravely, and clasped William's arm, in the manner the knights of Camelot all seemed to have adopted from their prince. William returned the gesture.
"I forgot to offer my congratulations on your victory," Leon murmured.
"Never mind," William said, and knew he would not be escorting the lady Morgana to the feast tonight. The time for asking for more and for daftness had passed. Besides, he really did not know how to talk to a noble lady. Instead, he would take his winnings, not try his luck any further, and leave. But not before…
"Leon," he said, "tell you what. Let's drink to his memory."