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The Tale of Lancelot Part I
The old soldier by the fire rarely spoke, but when he did, they all listened. For his stories of the old wars and the great betrayal, the innkeeper silenced the patrons at the bar. He even slid some cloths under nearby mugs to stop their clinks from making listeners miss a word. The old soldier would always cough, clear his throat, and rap his cup against a table for attention.
This time, it was an overheard conversation that started him off. Two Stormriders were at the bar, marked by their jeweled foreheads as a Hearthkeeper and a Scholar. They were arguing about what had really happened, back in the old days when their castes and traditions were new. Every now and then one of them darted a sly glance at the older, heavily scarred man by the fire, hoping he would chime in. Eventually, they got their wish.
“Alright, I’ve heard enough. You two don’t know what you’re talking about.” Clank went his cup against the soot-darkened stones; expectant silence swept over the room, as even a nearby drunk Warrior-caste’s eyes flashed in the firelight. She may have started her wine a little too early in the evening, but she would certainly stay awake now. It was time for another of the old Stormrider’s stories.
And from the sound of his throat-clearing and the rush of the innkeeper to fill his cup, it was going to be a good one. “So, then. You want to know how it all started? How the traditions of the Stormriders came about? You want to know how the first of our people came to know the king? Do you want to know why each of us must dedicate themselves to a cause? Do you want to know why we must show our devotion to the Rider’s Oath with binding and blooding, and why we must ride the storm?”
Without waiting for an answer other than a chorus of nods, the old Stormrider rubbed the mysterious, unrecognizable jewel in his forehead and began.
There by the lake on the edge of the town, the morning winds were a cold reminder of winter’s passing in the warm spring sun. Lance was an orphan, eating a breakfast of cold bread on an old dock on the lake. He was a very serious lad, having had to grow up at an early age, and didn’t smile even as his friends and fellows splashed, making the sun’s rays glitter on the water all around.
Elaine, another of the street urchins, was holding court with a story. Her child’s hands made gestures as she spoke, laughing at the humorous parts. It was a classic story of the town, a folktale that had lasted for generations. Though the older children had surely heard the story many times before, they laughed at all the same jokes over again.
It was a tale of the Lady of the Lake, spiritual guardian and caretaker of the village. Though this tale had its funny moments, Lance remembered that the ending was sad. He tried to still his shiver as he finished washing his face.
Elaine struck a pose with a wistful look on her face, as if the past few years since she had joined their little band suddenly weighed upon her. “As the Lady of the Lake goes, so does the town. But they say that in the Breaking, she disappeared, never to return. Unless she’s been in the lake the whole time!” Elaina punctuated this with a playful splash.
Somehow, in a way that made no sense at all to Lance, this struck the other children as funny, and they nearly collapsed into giggles. Maybe it was nothing more than the sunny morning and the cold water making them all giddy.
“But fear not!” Elaine held up a finger proudly. “For it is said that a warrior of great skill and courage will appear, and be blessed by the Lady!”
Lance grinned. Though he had never learned to laugh in his brief, hard life, Elaine somehow managed to make a powerful feeling of hope rise in his chest.
However, a silence fell over the other children. Instead of shouting proudly at the end of her story, they huddled closely together, as if a shadow had crept past. All in a moment, they looked like the street urchins that they were; lost, forgotten, and lacking a home. Lance turned around.
Walking by along the quays were some larger, lanky figures. Greasy-haired and dirty-looking, they pointed and laughed at the urchins in the water. Halfway still children themselves, to tell the truth, Lance thought, but much, much bigger than the young ones now washing in the lake. As they passed on their way to start the day’s labor, they roared with laughter and shook their fists to frighten the children.
It made no sense to Lance. They had grown up in this same place, among the same houses, by the same lake; surely they should understand the desperation before them. But the guffaws passed on unabated, the harsh and unpleasant sound barely forming words. “Water rats never get clean!”
Lance shook his head and helped some of the smaller children out of the water to begin drying off. It was time to find the familiar begging spots in the confusing jumble of the town, and pick out dropped coins from the cobblestones. He barely noticed Elaine’s hard stare, her round child’s face stiffening into a mask of hurt and anger. If he had looked more closely, perhaps he could have seen the thoughtful, crafty look in her eyes as well.
It was at one of the familiar corners of the town square that Lance found out what Elaine had planned. In the evening of the following day, the market was slowing down: the low sun’s rays glinted off the brightly colored awnings as the weary merchants began to roll them up.
Off to one side were the loud, annoying fishermen, pocketing their coins from the day. Lance looked up as a shout echoed through the square. He glimpsed Elaine scrambling away in the shadows, clutching a leather coin-purse in one hand.
She didn’t get very far. Their longer legs pounding over the cobblestones, one fisherman scooped her up in brawny arms with laughter quickly turning angry. “You little sneak-thief! I’ll teach you a lesson you won’t soon forget!” His voice was harsh, rasping across the square and making heads turn.
Elaine was a scrappy fighter, squirming and twisting to get away. She wasn’t afraid to throw in a few kicks and bites, either. However, as the burly sailors gathered round to snarl and hurl their jokes, it was clear there was only one way this fight would end.
The various merchants in the square, losing interest now that the small wastrel had been caught, continued packing up their carts and closing down for the day. A few of the other street urchins begged a few coins out of those who had done well. Lance could smell the spice merchant’s cart as he passed, and heard the man chuckling ruefully, apologizing that he feared to get involved with the fishermen.
Now Lance could smell the overpowering scent of sweat and fish guts. He looked up at grinning, unshaven faces. Somehow, he had done the most foolish thing: he had run across the square, fists clenched. Elaine’s face was dirty, or perhaps bloody. He could see her looking at him in the twilight.
A heavy backhand caught the boy hard on the head, almost sending him to the cobblestones, but he managed to keep his feet. Lance’s return swing connected with breeches, a calf muscle. He elicited a yelp from his foe, but the others just laughed all the harder. Elaine was dragged aside, the coin-purse retrieved. One of the fishermen stepped forward, towering over Lance.
“Come on, little man! You can probably reach my chin! Hahaha!”
“Let her go.” Lance kept his fists clenched and dove for a shot at the big man’s knee, but was clouted across the face. Pain exploded through him, shooting down his neck.
The ringing in Lance’s ears could have been laughter or simply his own head. He tried to turn slowly, stumbling a little. His hands were still fists, and he squeezed tighter. “You got your coin back.”
A grunt came from the splotchy darkness where Lance’s eye was swelling. “Oh yeah? What makes you think that’s all we want? It’s been a long day, I could use a laugh.”
The third fisherman came into Lance’s view, rubbing his leg with one hand and dragging Elaine with the other. The girl was crying silently. “Oh, you want this trash? She’s all yours. Just come at me again, little water rat.”
All three guffawed as Lance obliged, charging forward with his head down and hands swinging. The blow that hit him on the back of the skull was muted, blunt. The cobblestone ground was cool on his throbbing face. Pain roared everywhere.
More chuckling, which he could barely hear through the pounding sound in his ears. Brutal blows thudded through him. Were they continuing to kick him? Was that Elaine they had tossed beside him on the ground, or had they dragged her somewhere else? The fight had happened so fast.
Just breathe. In, out, again and again. He couldn’t tell how long he lay there, battered and bleeding.
Breathe, in, out, was the one thought he could hold in his mind for a while.
Strong fingers turned him over. Unbidden, he groaned and coughed, peering up into lamplight. In the evening shadow, he could barely make out a uniform. It had the style and insignia of the local Storm Watchers. There was a roughness about this figure that Lance somehow sensed rather than saw with his blurred vision.
“I was watching you, boy. You’re going to have to learn better than that if you want to pick fights with boys twice your size.” It was a woman’s voice, gravelly as though from years of shouting. Middle-aged and hard-faced, she peered down at him with a smile in her eyes that did not touch her thin lips.
An iron taste ran over Lance’s lips as he cracked them open. “You watched… and did not do… something?”
She snorted. “If I had, you would have learned nothing.” Pausing for breath, she lifted the lantern and looked about. “Besides, I am tired. Storm Watching is not easy.”
Lance shivered. It hurt. “Elaine…?”
“The girl you so nobly tried to save? She ran off while they were beating you. She wasn’t really hurt, much. Looked worse than it was. Maybe she’s learned a lesson too.” The woman turned back to Lance, studying him coldly as if he were a fish she wasn’t too interested in buying.
Lance winced. “Hurt…”
“Well, get up. I made sure they didn’t kill you, but I’m not going to carry you, boy.” For a moment, her iron gaze met his. “There’s a cold cheese and a warm bed waiting, if you can make it. And to be honest, maybe a bath.”
That sounded good. Maybe it would save his life. Lance stifled groans as he rolled over onto his knees, certain that all his joints would break apart.
She didn’t laugh as she watched him, never offering aid. Instead, she cleared her throat as she stood up. “You can pay me back in the morning.”
Lance heaved a breath on his hands and knees, wondering if any bones were broken. “I can’t pay.”
“Then you can pay with work. That is what I intended from the beginning, boy. Now come along.” She turned away and began walking, her lantern throwing light up the walls of the houses and shops that lined the square.
Struggling, Lance tottered after, grinding his teeth as each step shot pain through his torso, neck, and head. Breathe, in, out. In, out. One foot follows another.
The woman’s powerful voice came from the street ahead. “You may call me Ms. Lack. And what is your name?”
Trying to straighten, he wheezed a little. “L-Lancelot.”
The grizzled Storm Watcher turned and raised an eyebrow at him. “Lancelot? That’s a very fancy name for a street rat.”
“They call me Lance,” he offered, a little crestfallen despite himself as he hobbled along.
Ms. Lack grunted and shook her head, turning back to lead on along the cobblestone street. Over the sounds of laughter coming from a nearby tavern window, she said, “Then you should learn to use one.”
Lance tried to shrug, but it was too painful. He just followed as the woman went around a corner.
Looking up, he stopped in his tracks as he saw something glinting between two dark buildings.
A pair of piercing blue eyes peered from the narrow opening of a side street. He said nothing, and only barely glimpsed the small girl that turned and ran down the alleyway, knife clutched in her white-knuckled grip.
Thus ends part 1 of the Becoming story of the Stormriders.
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