The Doctor-King of Gallifrey, they called him, and it had been a lovely title to boast until the Mistress of the Green Isles claimed he’d killed her daughter and heir with his potions. Both the Mistress and he knew he’d never laid eyes on the lass, but it didn’t matter. She wanted something from him he would never give her: the telescope he used to gaze at the stars.
Tradition granted her the right to make the challenge. Tradition denied him the right to fight in his own cause. Not that he would have dared fight against the Mistress’s champion, the gigantic Ser Cyber. Perhaps in his youth he might have been idiotic enough. And it seemed none of his fellow nobles were that idiotic, and neither were their sons and daughters.
Fear had stripped him of his allies, and so he stood in the mud of the field, before the array of nobles, afraid they would burn him after all.
And then she rode in, a stranger on a dappled horse: well-armed, confident, boldly offering to fight for him against the great Cyber. She dismounted and opened her visor, and asked him for his colors to wrap around her sleeve as she fought for him.
A page, perhaps, or a squire newly-made, that’s what she had to be. For she was too short for a full-grown ser-at-arms, surely. But she wore colors that she said were hers, and the herald whose business it was to know recognized them, and so he had his champion. Ser Clara of Blackpool, in red and black, brave beyond sanity. The Mistress of the Green Isles laughed in her face. The Doctor gravely took her gauntleted hand and bowed to kiss it. Cyber would, he thought, batter her into the ground where she stood, but at least he would not die without anyone standing for him.
No one, especially not the Doctor, expected that she would win, but it was difficult not to hope. He bit his thumb as he watched the horses gallop together, swing past each other, then around again. He bit his lip when she was unhorsed by a tremendous blow from Cyber’s mace. To his shock, however, once the combatants were on their own two feet, she ran circles around him. Literally. The giant’s heavy armor was useless against a fast-moving opponent who was canny enough to hack at the backs of his knees. Eventually Ser Clara drove a gold dirk into the breech between his gorget and his cuirass. To the shock of them all, the Mistress’s champion toppled to the ground, dead.
He turned to his enemy and bowed ironically. His life was saved. She was forbidden even to mention her cause for grievance or to bring fresh complaint against him for a decade.
The Mistress smiled at him with blood-red lips. “You win, Doctor. For now.”
He turned his back on her and strode across the sward toward his victorious champion, who stood over her vanquished foe.
Clara took off her helmet to reveal a messy shock of dark brown hair, soaked with sweat.
“Well,” she said, “that’s the end of him.”
And then she swayed on her feet. He caught her himself as she fell and ordered her borne off to the castle.
He tended to her wounds with his own hands. It was, after all, his skill. She looked even smaller once stripped of her armor, though she was muscular as any active ser-at-arms would be. Muscular, and youthful, and lovely. Dimples in her fair cheeks, and dark, dark eyes that smiled up at him. Lovely? That was understatement. More: it was an intelligent face, not a reckless one, and he wondered what had driven her to it.
“Why?” he said to her, as he washed the place where Cyber had driven her own armor into her flesh.
She shrugged and then winced. “It passes the time.”
“You saved my life,” he said to her. “Tell me how I can repay you.”
“Is it possible to repay somebody for their life?” Clara said.
He smiled ruefully. “Probably not. But I’d like to try.”
“I could use an employer. And a new horse, come to think of it.”
“Anything you desire. All of my horses. A place in my house as long as you want it.”
She grinned up at him. “An hour of conversation with you, every night that we are both under the same roof. And a horse.”
He blinked. No one had ever asked him for that before. “It is yours. But–”
She shrugged again. “Ask me again tomorrow and I might tell you.”