Children of the Knight (THE LANCE CHRONICLES #1)
All Is As It Should Be
Once upon a time in the City of Angels, chaos was king and carelessness ruled. Street gangs roamed the city. Politicians bettered their own lives, not those of the people they were elected to serve. Police corruption ran rampant through Rampart and other crime-ridden districts. Neighborhoods declined to slum-like conditions. The Los Angeles school system stumbled headlong down the road to total Armageddon. And the most victimized segment of the populace? The children. The teens. The next generation.
Limited choices and often abusive or neglectful home lives forced hundreds, if not thousands of children, into the streets to join gangs, turn tricks, do drugs, sell drugs, drop out of school, get arrested and sent to prison for life, and in all ways subjugate their goodness in the name of survival.
All hope seemed lost. Until the mysterious “tag” appeared throughout the city, spray-painted on walls and over graffiti, obliterating gang markings without mercy, without favoritism, with impunity.
A “tag” that became the symbol of a revolution.
Lennox, a one-mile square unincorporated neighborhood between the cities of Inglewood and Hawthorne, much like Boyle Heights, seemed a magnet for Latino immigrants, both legal and illegal. Crime and poverty ran rampant in Lennox, with gunshots and police sirens practically a nightly ritual.
A small, lean Latino boy appeared at the mouth of an alley, and darted quickly into the protective shadows behind a large dumpster. A sheriff’s car cruised slowly past the mouth of the alley, and then continued on out of sight. The boy stepped from his hiding place and dusted himself off. Lance Sepulveda, a fourteen-year-old loner, warily glanced around him. Between avoiding gang members and cops, he lived a very cautious life.
The gang members liked to beat him up and the cops just put him in juvy as a runaway. There was no place in Los Angeles for runaway kids like him who didn’t commit crimes, so they had to bide their time in juvy to wait for yet another group or foster home to take them. Since Lance was at that ‘difficult teenaged stage’, most foster parents wouldn’t touch him. So it was group homes––which sucked big time––or the streets.
A smart, clever boy with unusually green eyes––which drew derisive comments from other Hispanics––Lance preferred the freedom of the streets, living for a time with this friend or that friend, having no set rules or curfews, no ties to anyone. Getting close to people meant getting hurt. Really hurt. He’d been there, and done that. Not for him. He mostly went to school because he could get food and use the bathroom, and it was something to do to kill time. He knew the high school would never drop him, no matter that his attendance was shaky, because it got money from the state every time he attended.
What a stupid-ass system, he’d often thought. Getting money just for a kid showing up. Didn’t matter if he learned anything or not. And the classes? Everybody had to learn the same crap––no choices at all. Who the hell ever thought everyone was the same anyway? And who the hell ever decided that everybody should go to college? That’s all he ever heard!
His plan was to be a pro skater and compete in the X Games. He had the gift, and he knew it. He was vastly superior to everyone he skated with, and he had the right ‘look’, or so guys at all the skate parks had told him. That’s why he kept his hair long. His hair was his good luck charm. It gave him strength, like that Samson guy from an old Bible story he’d heard as a kid. Not physical strength, survival strength.
Derisively nicknamed ‘Pretty Boy’, because of that long, flowing brown hair and soft facial features––not to mention the green eyes––Lance smirked at his easy evasion of the cops and strutted boldly along down the alley. Tonight there were no unusual sounds save the occasional plane practically landing atop Lennox on its approach into LAX.
Lance wore a pair of baggy overalls with the straps hanging down and a grey hoodie flipped up to obscure his face. He’d been given these relatively new clothes by a skater friend’s mom, who felt sorry for him and often let him crash at their pad. He lugged a bulging, ratty-looking backpack in one hand and an old skateboard in the other.
From the shadows around him suddenly loomed two large black youths. Dwayne and Justin were both sixteen-year-olds who ran the streets of neighboring cities slanging drugs for a pair of big-time dealers. Justin quickly snagged Lance from behind, gripping one strap of the overalls and spinning the much smaller boy around to face him. The skateboard flew from Lance’s grasp and clattered to the concrete. He gasped in surprise and fear.
Broad-shouldered, muscular Justin sneered at the fear flitting over Lance’s startled face. “What’s the hurry, Pretty Boy? We got business wit you.”
Reaching out one arm, he slapped the hood off Lance’s head, allowing the boy’s signature locks to tumble about his shoulders, and then snatched the old backpack away so hard it tore open with a loud ripping sound, scattering old clothes, candy and other wrapped junk food onto the ground.
Taller and built more for basketball than boxing, Dwayne sneered at the junk. “Shit, man, what a loser!”
Lance fought down his fear and glared at both boys. Justin grabbed him by the front of his shirt and practically lifted him off the ground. Lance fought and struggled, but he was no match for the incredibly strong boy. “Mr. R. says he had a talk with you about workin’ these streets for him.”
Lance struggled to maintain his composure. “Yeah, he did, and I told him no. I don’t want no part ’a that shit! I run myself.”
“No problemo, Mexicano,” Justin said mockingly, tossing Lance to the ground like a ragdoll. “’Cept Mr. R., he don’t like guys who know too much ’bout his business. Especially guys who won’t work fer him.”
Lance landed and rolled, leaping to his feet almost at once. Survival on these streets required the agility of a stuntman. He’d learned that early on. His heart thumped wildly, his green eyes blazing with equal parts fury and fear. “I don’t know nuthin’,” he spat angrily, visibly shaking with panic, “’cept you jerks slang that shit for ’im! Who would I tell? What could I say anyway?”
Dwayne whipped out and flipped open an evil-looking switchblade and pressed the razor-sharp point to Lance’s throat before the boy could even flinch. He chuckled.
“Ya could just say no––to life, ya little shit!” He began slowly pressing the knife into Lance’s throat, a wicked smile creasing his dark, tatted face.
A deep, harsh voice echoed from behind the three boys. “Unhand that lad, or forfeit thy lives!”
Dwayne whirled to look over his shoulder, while Justin whipped his head around, mouth hanging open in startled surprise. Lance’s eyes bulged with incredulity.
In the shadows, slowly, but confidently approaching, was a man on horseback! The three youths merely gaped in astonishment. None of them had ever even seen a horse before, much less one in this neighborhood. When the rider emerged from the darkness into a patch of streetlight, they gasped anew. He wore a full suit of knightly armor and carried a massive, gleaming sword that looked capable of slicing all three of them in half at the same time! The boys could not make out any facial features, as they were covered by a helm and mouthpiece.
The three stood frozen to the spot, Dwayne’s blade pressed against Lance’s throat as the knight halted his horse a few feet away.
Dwayne found his voice first. “Say what?” He couldn’t believe what he was seeing! He needed to stop sampling R’s stuff, that was a for sure.
“I do believe my intent be clear,” calmly stated the knight in a strong voice tinged with something like a Southern accent. “Unhand the boy or forfeit thy lives.”
He swirled the massive sword up and around so fast it caught all three boys unawares, its point coming to rest squarely on Dwayne’s chest. The big youth could already feel the point pricking him. But Dwayne was no stranger to street fighting and he hated being told what to do.
“Fuck you, asshole!” Dwayne screamed in fury, pulled the knife from Lance and pointed it at the knight.
With speed seemingly impossible underneath all that armor, the knight flicked his sword downward and across, and Dwayne’s pants dropped to his feet. Startled, the boy reached down to retrieve them and the knight swung the sword again, this time slicing open the hand holding the knife, causing Dwayne to cry out in pain and fling the blade to the ground.
“Shit!” Dwayne exclaimed in furious surprise.
Without pause, the knight just as swiftly swung the sword deftly back up, letting the point rest against Justin’s throat. The muscular boy whimpered in terror.
“Okay, you win,” he muttered fearfully, the point of the sword already drawing blood. He quickly stepped away from Lance. The smaller boy leapt hurriedly away from Dwayne, who fought a losing battle with his falling pants while also failing to staunch the bleeding in his hand.
The mysterious knight looked down at Lance, who stood gaping up at him. “Shalt I kill these two for thee, lad?”
Lance sucked in a sharp breath. He didn’t know what to say. He must be going crazy, he thought, still speechless.
Justin began keening with fear. This wasn’t the way tonight was supposed to go. Track the little shit and kill him. Those were R’s orders. Nothing about some crazy-ass dude on a horse! “Hey, man, ya’ll can’t kill us cuz my dad’s a cop!”
Dwayne also shook with fear, but he was too hard-ass to show it front of Lance or this nut with the sword. “Shut up, fool!”
The knight ignored them, focusing his attention on Lance, who still gawked like a fish out of water. “Well, lad?”
Coming back to his senses, Lance realized that the man wanted an answer. Shit, would he really kill these guys if I asked him to, he thought? He didn’t think he wanted to find out. “Let ’em go.”
Without pause, the knight pulled his gleaming sword back from Justin’s throat, but still gripped it firmly, ready to strike. He gazed down at the two black youths, who cowered before him. “Methinks we shalt meet again.”
Always the bolder of the two, Dwayne spat viciously on the ground in front of the horse, causing it to neigh in annoyance. “Like hell!”
Then he and Justin turned and bolted, Dwayne struggling to keep his pants from tripping him up. They quickly vanished from the mouth of the alley, swallowed by the night.
Lance gazed upward at the knight, still speechless, staring at the horse, the sword and the armor. His breath caught in his throat. He didn’t do drugs, so it couldn’t be that. So what the hell was going on?
The knight sheathed his sword as he stared down at the boy, his eyes shimmering slightly within the helm. “Hast thou no manners, to not thank me for thy life?”
That helm and those hidden eyes creeped Lance out something fierce. He always wanted to see into the other guy’s eyes. That’s how you knew what was really up. “Oh, yeah, sorry,” he stammered, his voice unsteady. “Yeah, uh, thanks.” He paused a moment. “Would you, would you really have killed them guys for me?”
The knight shook his helm from side to side, causing the metal to creak and squeak. “No. Not unless my life or thine be at stake. I wished merely to discern something of thy character.”
“Huh? You talk weird, mister.”
The knight ignored Lance’s comment. “What beist thy name, lad?”
Lance’s hackles instantly rose. On these streets you didn’t trust no one. “Uh, they call me, well, ‘Pretty Boy.’ I don’t think I am, neither, but I guess it’s the hair.”
The knight nodded creakily, gazing down at the boy, who stood beneath a sickly ally light attached to the wall above him. “Thou art a handsome youth, so the name appears to fit thee. Why doth thou dislike it?”
“Cuz they don’t mean it like a compliment,” Lance replied, still awed by the horse and the armor and that amazing sword. “They just do it to mock me.”
The knight nodded again. “If it displeases thee, I shalt not use it. Hast thou no Christian name?”
Lance normally told his true name to nobody. On these streets, knowing one’s true name could be dangerous. Yet somehow, this man’s commanding tone and presence rattled his usual composure, and forced his guard down. “Huh? Oh, uh, Lance. Lance Sepulveda.” It was practically a whisper. Then he felt his old boldness return. “What’s it to you, anyways?”
The knight reacted with surprise. “Thy name doth be Lance?”
The boy grew more suspicious. “Yeah, so?”
He squinted through the helm, studying the boy’s shadowed face. He could not discern eye color, but the hair looked right.
“Of course that beist thy name, lad,” he murmured, almost to himself, almost as if the boy wasn’t even there. “All is as it should be.”
Lance just stood warily gazing up at him, a shiver flitting up and down his spine at those mysterious words, as though everything really was as it should be. But that didn’t make sense. None of this made sense.
The man noted Lance’s scattered clothes on the ground and pointed one gauntleted finger. “Tell me, young Lance, are these all your worldly belongings?” There was deep sadness in that voice, a sadness Lance was too nervous to notice.
His initial surprise and concern about the knight having run its course, Lance bristled at the man’s comment. “What about it? I move around a lot.” He set about picking up his stuff and shoving everything into the torn backpack.
The knight sat atop his horse and observed the boy carefully. “I see.”
Lance retrieved his skateboard and stood staring up at the knight, uncertain what to do next. His breathing had calmed, his heart subsiding, and he found himself deeply curious about this guy, even though curiosity on these streets often got you killed.
“Hast thou a place to lay thy head this night?” the knight inquired in a very non-threatening tone.
Lance went rigid, his breath hitching in his throat, his heart pounding anew. He knew about grown men and what some of them liked to do to boys like him. He knew all too well. He stepped back, fighting for control.
“I always got places,” he announced firmly, his heart still racing, preparing to leap onto his board and jet out of there in a split second.
The knight made no threatening gestures, nor did the magnificent white horse even shuffle its feet with impatience. His body tight with tension, Lance still eyed the animal admiringly. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
“Come with me,” the knight offered. “I doth have a bed for thee.”
Lance leapt back warily, eyeing the stranger with suspicion, and his knife flew out of his pocket. It was small, and wouldn’t do much damage, but even that short blade gave him a tiny sense of security. Sweat broke out on his face as he gazed upward and gulped. “You queer or somethin’?”
The knight merely shook his head. “How odd that after so many centuries, some words doth still retain their more common meanings.”
Lance knew he was a smart kid––teachers had told him that since the first grade. But he didn’t have a clue what this guy was talking about. What kind of English was he speaking, anyways?
“Huh?” was all he could muster in reply, his heart still thrumming with fear.
“Be at peace, young one,” the knight assured him. “The answer to thy question be nay.”
Lance continued to eye him with great uncertainty. “Nay” sounded like “no,” and that made him feel more at ease, slowing his heart a bit. “You got food at yer place?”
The knight nodded, his helm creaking and squeaking some more. “Yes, lad, all thou couldst possibly eat. Now, if you get up on mine horse, we shalt be away.”
Lance’s extreme hunger did the deciding for him. Sure, he had the junk food in his pack, but real food was always better. “Okay. But if you try anything I’ll cut yer throat.”
“Agreed. Up with you now. We have a long journey ahead.”
The knight reached down with a gauntleted hand. Lance eyed it cautiously for a moment, then put away his pocketknife and reached up to do something he hadn’t done since he was six years old––he grasped the hand of a stranger.
With superior strength and ease, the knight easily hefted the boy up and onto the saddle behind him as though Lance weighed no more than a stuffed animal. He was caught off-guard by the man’s physical power and shook his head in admiration.
“Man, you’re strong!”
The knight glanced back over his shoulder at the wide-eyed boy behind him. “As will you be, Lance Sepulveda.”
The knight spurred his horse and the large animal cantered softly and quietly down the alley, rounding the corner and disappearing into the dark streets of Lennox.
The knight, with Lance clinging tightly to his back, stopped at the edge of the Los Angeles River and the two of them gazed down into the dry, concrete riverbed. The river was really more of an aqueduct and, depending on rainfall totals, seldom had much water coursing through it. The horse neighed approvingly.
“You weren’t shittin’ me about a long journey!” Lance exclaimed, sitting up to get a better view.
“Hold on tightly,” the knight intoned as he flicked the reins and the muscular white mare began her descent to the riverbed below. Lance felt nervous and afraid atop such a large animal, but somehow the presence of this strong, confident man eased his fear.
“Does, uh, does your horse have a name?” he asked trying to quell the nervousness in his voice. This descent was steep and he wanted nothing more than to plant his feet firmly on cement. He was a street kid, after all.
“She hath been given the name ‘Llamrei,’ after my first mount of long ago,” the knight replied, his tone wistful, filled with longing.
Something about his melancholy tone silenced Lance. The mare reached bottom without even the slightest misstep and began trotting along the riverbed, halting at an enormous entrance to the storm drain system, which wound underground throughout the Los Angeles basin. This cavernous maw looked large enough to drive a van through without hitting the top.
A huge metal grill guarded the entrance to the drain, but Lance noted that the aged lock had recently been broken. The knight reached out and grabbed one side of the grill, backing his horse to slowly ease it open. The metal screamed with disuse and the sound sent chills down Lance’s back. The dark, gaping orifice threatened to envelope him, and his stomach pulled up into his throat.
“We, uh, we’re goin’ in there?” He fought to keep his quivering voice steady.
The knight turned as best he could to the boy behind him. “Have no fear, young Lance.”
Lance instantly bristled, his pride winning out. “I ain’t afraid! It just don’ look like no home ta me.”
The knight merely nodded. “It doth be mine at present.” He gently spurred Llamrei forward into the dark, forbidding tunnel, pulling shut the grill as they entered, and sealing them within.
Lance watched warily as the knight extended a gloved hand outward, grasping an old, weathered torch from a small alcove. With his other gloved hand, he dug into a leather pouch hanging from the saddle and extracted a pinch of some kind of powder, sprinkling it atop the torch. Flames sprang instantly to life, causing Lance to gasp with surprise as its flickering glow cast weird shadows and reflections off the man’s armor. He gazed in wonder. That looked like something out of a movie! Who was this guy anyway?
The knight noted the boy’s wary look and smiled to put him at ease, forgetting for the moment that his helm obscured his features. “A mere trick, my boy, taught to me long ago by M––by an old friend.”
He turned forward again and spurred his horse into the darkness of the tunnel. The man’s quick change of subject was not lost on Lance. What had he been planning to say? All his street instincts told him to leap down from the horse and high tail it out of there and never look back. None of this made any sense, not here, not in his city, not in his sorry life. And yet he didn’t jump. He didn’t run. There was something about the guy . . . Growing up as he had, Lance had a good gut when it came to people. No, this guy wasn’t out to hurt him or kill him or . . .
No, don’t even go there!
No, he decided as they trotted along the dark, dank underbelly of the city, this guy would not hurt him. But if he didn’t want to hurt him, then what the hell did he want?
The two remained silent as Llamrei trotted fearlessly along the damp and drafty storm drain. There were no sounds save the clop, clop, clopping of her hooves against the lichen-covered concrete. It surprised Lance that the horse seemed so comfortable underground. He always thought most animals, himself included, preferred above ground to below. She must be used to it, he surmised, which meant the guy was telling the truth. He really did live here.
Suddenly, Llamrei stopped. Lance had been so lost in his musings that he hadn’t realized they’d left the tunnel to enter an enormous chamber.
“We doth be here,” the knight announced, drawing Lance back into reality. As the man deftly dismounted, Lance’s eyes bulged wide with wonder at his surroundings.
The immensity of the underground chamber awed him. It appeared to be some sort of central hub from which a multitude of tunnels branched off, disappearing into darkness. Lit solely by the light of numerous torches imbedded within the concrete walls, Lance gazed in amazement at what appeared to be the central hall of an old castle, the kind he’d only ever seen in books. What the hell? There wasn’t such things in L.A.!
He observed bedrolls lining the walls and disappearing down each branching tunnel, furniture like old tables and chairs, but all wooden and rough-hewn and not like any modern stuff he’d ever seen. There was even a big-ass throne of some kind with huge arms and a really high back set against one wall, like right out of a frickin’ old movie! What the . . .? And then his eyes fell upon the weapons, and his face lit up with wonder. Spread out before him were racks upon wooden racks of weapons––swords of all shapes and sizes, shields, short-handled dirks, knives, longbows and short bows and arrows and quivers.
Carefully, eyes pinned to the armory before him, he dropped slowly off the horse, allowing his skateboard and backpack to fall to the ground unnoticed. Heart beating wildly with excitement, he stepped forward into this wonderland, gaping in astonishment at the sight before him. He slipped the hood down, allowing his long brown hair its freedom. He just shook his head in awe.
“Wow!” was all he could think to say, hurrying to the nearest of the weapons racks and gingerly touching some of the swords. He gripped the leather-bound hilt of a large broadsword and struggled vainly to heft it over his head. The blade alone was almost five feet in length.
The knight turned to observe Lance grappling with the weight of the sword and smiled as he recalled his own first attempt ages ago. He couldst almost believe that time so long ago had been merely a dream, or that perhaps this time beith the dream. Yet he knew the truth––he’d known it the moment he’d awakened in this foreign land––both time periods were real, and once again he had a crusade to mount, one greater and more significant than his first. And this small, longhaired boy battling the weight of a sword nearly as large as himself . . . well,this boy was the key.
“Each doth be forged of solid iron, lad, and honed to a fine edge. One day soon, thou shalt be hefting the largest of them with ease.”
Lance fought the broadsword back into its place on the rack, watching curiously as the knight removed his gauntlets and laid them on an ancient-looking table. He then slipped the helm and face guard up over his head, revealing his face for the first time. His appearance surprised Lance, for he was a young man, probably not even thirty, with long brown hair cascading past his shoulders and a small, well-trimmed beard and moustache. Lance gazed at him open-mouthed, his hand still on the hilt of the sword.
“You be younger than I thought. How old are you, anyways?”
The knight smiled, a pleasant, reassuring sort of smile. “Much older than I look, I’m afraid.”
Lance spread his arms wide at the myriad weapons with an enormous grin breaching his normally stoic young face. “This place is bitchin’, man! What’s all this stuff for?
“A crusade, young Lance. Wouldst thou learn the use of these weapons?”
Lance’s face lit up as he grabbed for a smaller sword and cut the air with it.
“Hell yeah, but––” His smile dropped, his face clouding with suspicion. “Why me?”
“Methinks, young Lance that thou doth require nourishment. There be much we must speak of this night if thou art to understand.”
Lance grabbed one of the knives and held it in front of him for protection, sword in one hand, knife in the other. “Why me?” he repeated, hoping the hardness of his tone effectively masked the relentless pounding of his heart.
The young man sighed heavily. “T’were not by chance thee and I met this night, my boy, but by design.”
“Huh? You gotta start speakin’ real English or Spanish or something cuz I don’t know what yer saying!”
“It was decreed that thee and I should meet this night, for I didst see thee in a vision, young Lance, a vision for the future.”
Lance lowered the weapons, but kept them at the ready. “Who the hell are you anyways?”
The young man unsheathed his own large gleaming sword, gazed regally down at the boy, gripped the ornately jeweled hilt and raised the sword aloft.
“I am Arthur, once and future King of Great Britain, and this be Excalibur. Yours is a time and place of immense need, and thus, as t’was foretold centuries past, have I returned to right the wrongs that plague thy homeland. Amidst the squalor and barbarism of this city, I shalt rebuild my Round Table and change the course of history. And thee, young Lance, shalt be my First Knight. Art thou game?”
Lance’s lower jaw dropped open and his wide green eyes bulged with amazement. For the first time in his life he understood the meaning of the word ‘dumbstruck’.
“Huh?” was all he could muster.
Arthur merely grinned in response.