"Dinah! Dinah, my dear!" shouted the ageing man, as he walked through the corridors of the university, swinging his cane with reckless abandon. A young man dodged out of range and slipped into one of the classroom, taking a seat.
The class was filled with about twelve other youths, intently listening to the lecture and taking notes, all clad in simple black clothing, except for one. The lone girl in the classroom looked up from her parchment, a frown creasing her brow.
"Oh, dear," she murmured, standing quickly. The master looked at her, an eyebrow rising.
"My apologies, sir," she said, giving a quick, meek nod. "I can hear Father calling. Safir, would you mind lending me your notes afterwards, so that I don't miss out, if it takes very long?"
"You needn't even ask, Dinah," said Safir. "I'll catch you up at dinner."
The Doctor nodded. "Very well, Dinah, you may go. I expect you to be fully cognizant by tomorrow, mind," he added sternly.
"Of course, sir," she said, curtseying before she walked out of the door, hurrying down the hallway where she could still hear her father calling. "Dinah! Oh, for goodness' sake, Dinah!"
"I'm here, Father," she called, quickening her pace. She tapped her father on the shoulder, and the small, portly man whirled.
"Dinah!" Language Master Rufus O'Connor said happily, looking up at his daughter. "We have an invitation from an old friend of mine, to stay at Camelot!" he showed her a letter.
"Camelot?" Dinah echoed questioningly. "Why–what–who is the letter from?" she asked, wrestling her thoughts into a coherent train.
"Oh, a good friend of mine, Clerk Geoffrey. He has a wife and two daughters, one of whom is just a little older than you! What a lovely thing, don't you agree?" he asked.
Dinah was silent for a few moments. Camelot, of course, was the court of the magnificent King Arthur, who had united the land just five years ago. Camelot was where the knights were said to be the most gallant and courageous in all the land. That didn't sound too bad. Then her eyes widened.
Camelot was not only the court of the peerless knights and incredible king, but also of the most beautiful, elegant and fairest noble ladies in all the land.
"Er–I suppose so," she said. "Though…"
"Yes, darling?" her beaming father asked. She swallowed, but lifted her chin and said clearly,
"Father, I'm not entirely sure. You see, my friends are here. Safir, as well as my other acquaintances, Charlotte, Lady Lucas, Eliza."
"Oh yes, my dear, but I'm sure you can keep up a correspondence with them," her father said, still smiling at her. "I'm sure you'll make new friends at Camelot, among the other ladies." Dinah's heart sank even further. That pre-empted her argument that she would not be at all comfortable with the other ladies of the castle.
She made a final argument, clutching at straws. "But, Father," she argued. "Surely I can learn more here at Oxford, than I can at Camelot?"
Her father shook his head, still smiling. "Oh no, my dear," he said. "Camelot has some of the finest libraries in the Kingdom."
Dinah nodded. "When will we leave?" she asked, resigned.
"Oh, I think a good fortnight from now should be enough," her father said jovially. "Now, back to your lessons, child."
Dinah nodded, as she slipped back into the lecture room, taking the seat beside Safir. The Moor shot her a curious glance, but said nothing, simply sliding his parchment over slightly so that she could see it. She gave him a quick nod of thanks.
"Tell you after dinner," she whispered. Safir nodded, and they returned their concentration to the lesson. Dinah steadfastly ignored the few tears dripping onto the parchment.
After dinner, Dinah caught Safir's eye and nodded firmly at him. He blinked in acknowledgement, and she stood, slipping from the dining hall without a murmur, as she walked to the now secluded library. Safir joined her about five minutes later, and they seated themselves in the shadows of one of the grand bookcases. Dinah's slight smile widened, as she looked between them. They had formed a friendship out of necessity when Safir first came here, a few years ago, as Safir was shunned by many of the rather shallow young men for his dark skin, and she was either leered or sneered at, because of her gender. Yes, Safir was the only one that Dinah would truly call a friend, and she'd go far enough to call him brother as well.
"What happened?" Safir asked softly. He was close to invisible in the shadows.
Dinah swallowed. "Father's accepted an invitation from an old friend of his to visit Camelot," she said shortly. "We leave in a fortnight, and I don't know when we're coming back."
Safir nodded. "So, that's why you were crying."
Dinah glowered indignantly at him. "I wasn't crying!" she snapped, crossing her arms. Safir nodded meekly. "Whatever you say, Dinah. Two weeks, you say?"
"Yes. I've tried to persuade him otherwise, but you know how he can be. Will–will you write to me, Safir?" she asked.
Safir placed his chin in his hand as he considered this. "Well, actually, I was considering escorting you," he said.
"What?" asked Dinah, unsure she had heard properly. Safir shrugged.
"You know, safety in numbers. A party of three is better than a party of two. Let's be frank, your father's hardly protection, is he?"
"Of course not," Dinah said. "He's a scholar. A language master."
"Precisely my point, my friend. Your father wouldn't have an issue with it, would he?"
"Certainly not. The people at Camelot might, though."
Safir shook his head with a snort. "Nay, I think not. Arthur is a good King, and a gracious one. If people stare…" he shrugged. "Well, they always do."
Dinah felt a smile begin to grow on her face. She leaned over and tapped his hand lightly.
"Gratum, frater," she said softly. Safir's smile broadened.
"Nihil est, soror," he replied.
The next fortnight found Dinah throwing herself into her work more than ever. At last, the day she'd been dreading and anticipating dawned. She saddled her black mare and led her out of the University stables, into the courtyard, where Safir was already waiting with his bay stallion, before going back into the stable and taking out the packhorse, a nondescript mule. Between them, she and Safir managed to settle the load properly across the mule's shoulder, and she sighed impatiently.
"I wonder where Father got to?" she asked. Safir looked at her, somewhat confused.
"I thought you weren't happy to be going on the trip," he said. She shook her head impatiently.
"I'm not, but I've resigned myself to it, now, and there's nothing left to do but go on it and see what happens," she replied.
"Ah," said Safir. "Oh, hallo, I think your Father's right there," he said, nodding meaningfully at the stables. Dinah glanced over and she cringed.
"Please tell me he's not–"
"Yes, your father seems to have thought it would be a splendid idea to ride a lady's palfrey to Camelot," Safir said gravely, his lips twitching. "I – ah – I do believe he's neglected to replace the lady's saddle with something more comfortable," he said, his shoulders trembling with suppressed laughter. Dinah groaned, lifting her eyes to the heavens.
"Dear God, give me strength," she mumbled.
"Amen," Safir choked out, shaking his head with mirth. "Amen." In a superb exercise of willpower, Safir got his laughter under control, schooled his features into a pleasant expression and smiled at Dinah's father.
"Good morning, sir!" he said. "Have you anything else to attend to, before we need leave?"
"Oh, no, Safir," said Dinah's father jovially. "Are you coming with us, my boy?"
Safir bowed. "I am, Sir. I have often wanted to see Camelot, and thought to accompany you, if I may," he said formally.
"Of course, of course, dear boy! Got your horse?"
"Yes, the bay stallion," said Safir, mounting. "Shall I lead the packhorse?"
"Ay, that would be lovely, Safir, lad," said Dinah's father. "I don't think I could concentrate. For some reason, this saddle is very – very uncomfortable," he said, shifting his weight. Dinah was struck with a sudden coughing fit, and the man looked over with interest.
"I say, Dinah, are you all right?" he asked. Dinah took a few breaths, her chest heaving and then answered.
"Yes, Father, I think so. I must have just choked on some...some dust," she improvised. Safir hid a smile and her father nodded sagely.
"Ah, yes, of course. Let's set off, then."
It was a very enjoyable trip, all being told. They were well provisioned, which was just as well, as Safir was the only competent hunter among them. Dinah's father was nothing short of a liability when it came to setting up camp, but Safir had taught Dinah how to do it correctly, and together they compensated for Dinah's father's incompetence. Often, Safir would lead the packhorse and Dinah would play on her flute as they rode. She'd never realised before, despite their closeness, the disparity of knowledge between them; and that was not at all good.
The journey to Camelot could have been done in a week. It turned into a leisurely three-week trip and it was put to Dinah's new education, and she threw herself into it, in an attempt to suppress her rising dread. Safir showed her the Pole Star, for celestial navigation, and how to tell the time from the sun and the direction from it, how to ride bareback and how to make a snare.
"I need to learn to use a weapon," Dinah said, one afternoon as they sat, practising snare making. They would be at Camelot the next day, and she kicked herself for not thinking of this sooner.
"What?" asked Safir, looking up from his inspection of the snare.
"I need to learn to use a weapon," she repeated. "Not that I doubt your ability with a sword, but I think I should anyway," she clarified.
Safir shook his head firmly. "No, and that's that," he said. Dinah frowned at him.
"Hear me out," she protested. "Everything we've been doing is so that I would be able to survive on a journey if I was not in such capable hands, right?"
"I suppose so," Safir said.
"So, shouldn't learning a weapon logically be a part of that?" she asked, frowning at him.
"Dinah, do you know how long it takes to become proficient with a sword? Do you know how long it takes to acquire enough strength to hold one?" he asked. Dinah glared at him.
"I never said anything about a sword," she enunciated clearly.
"Well, what, then? You don't have nearly enough strength to wield a bow that's strong enough to protect you, for one. The same goes for nearly every weapon I know of!" said Safir.
"I can think of one that doesn't," Dinah said. "Have you considered the sling?"
Safir's eyebrows shot up. "The sling?" he asked disbelievingly. "You can't be serious, Dinah."
"Why ever not?" asked Dinah, standing, the snare lying at her feet.
"The sling – it– it's a poacher's weapon, Dinah! You're a granddaughter to one of the oldest families in Ireland!"
"This isn't Ireland, it is England," Dinah protested.
"That's irrelevant!" Safir snapped. "As is your protest that your father was the younger son, and so it shouldn't matter what his daughter does. Your uncle got himself killed last year, remember?" he said pointedly.
Dinah deflated. "Oh, yes. That's right," she said. She never did like the man she knew vaguely as Uncle John. She knew she'd met him once when she was small. As she recalled, he'd been very vain, much too proud of his title of Duke of Connemara, and the proverbial fool personified. No wonder someone had poisoned him. Probably his wife, Aunt Eryn, she thought wryly.
"Which then makes you the heiress of it, after your father," Safir pressed his advantage. Dinah nodded glumly. The O'Connor laws were very odd by most people's standards, and one of the things that made them so odd was the fact that the laws allowed a woman to inherit, so long as the woman was in the direct line.
Then she frowned. "But wait a minute," she said. "We've dragged off the subject. Listen, we've sorted out that I need to learn to defend myself, haven't we?"
"Well, is there an alternative way of me doing that without my learning the sling?" she asked.
Safir crossed his arms, as he thought for a few moments, and then threw up his hands in defeat. "Fine! But don't say I didn't warn you!" he said ungraciously. Dinah smiled at him.
"I shan't!" she said cheerfully, as he stalked off to gather wood for the evening's fire.