LANCE had not only agreed to Arthur’s plan, but had also accepted the job of teacher to this strange man who seemed to know little or nothing about twenty-first century Los Angeles. Hell, he’d never even seen a cell phone! The whole plan sounded nutty, yeah, but there was something so unusual about Arthur, something so rare that Lance felt, against all his street-born instincts, compelled to trust him. Arthur was genuinely sincere. And that was a quality Lance had never known in anyone, except maybe Ms. McMullen. Could they actually accomplish what Arthur had proposed? Lance wanted to believe they could, and in believing, finally become someone important in this sorry world. Someone worthy. Right now, he was nothing, and nothing was all he’d ever been.
He told his skater friend’s mom he had somewhere else to stay, and moved underground with Arthur. He had a decent bedroll to sleep on and plenty of empty tunnels to sleep in. Arthur never got too close, though Lance remained wary, nonetheless. His instincts told him Arthur was not to be feared, and yet caution always won out, and he remained ever on the alert.
Arthur didn’t have money, but he did have jewels and gold and other fancy stuff he’d called “the crown jewels,” so over the next few days Lance had shown him places where he could sell this stuff. Lance had a cell phone his skater friend gave him to use, and he’d tried to teach Arthur about using the Internet to sell things, but the man was mystified by the technology, so that option was out. Besides, the guy didn’t even know what a credit card was!
In any case, they seemed to be making enough money through jewelers and pawnshops to get by, and that’s all Lance had ever done anyway. There was enough money to buy food for the two of them, and after a few nights Lance had gotten accustomed to living underground with the rats and the dank smells and the drip, drip, drip of water. Hell, he’d lived worse than this before. He did manage to convince Arthur to buy battery-powered lanterns to use within the storm drains instead of the nasty-smelling torches that stung his nose and burned his eyes, and the king readily agreed.
They also purchased a first aid kit, nonperishable food, and a waterless toilet for use within the tunnels, even though Lance was accustomed to just using the bathrooms at school or at the skate park. But he figured the toilet would be handy to have for emergencies. As for Llamrei, Lance told Arthur to make sure she “did her thing” outside or they’d never get the smell out of those tunnels. And those tunnels smelled bad enough already!
Arthur recounted stories of “the old days,” which, if Lance believed him, happened hundreds of years ago. Hundreds of years? Lance knew the guy had to be making that part up, yet he loved the stories, nonetheless. Most importantly, Arthur taught him how to wield a sword, how to rapidly string a bow and fire the arrow before his intended target—usually a rat—even knew it was being stalked. In a matter of days, Lance already felt his upper-body strength increasing, his quickness and agility improving, his hand-eye coordination vastly better.
He was usually sore as hell, but he still got up most days and hopped the Metro to school as Arthur had instructed. The word had to be spread, after all. His conversation with Ms. McMullen had confused him because her version of the story didn’t seem to fit all the aspects of this Arthur. But rather than challenge the man, Lance did what he always did best—kept his eyes open, his guard up, and his taut young body ready for flight at a moment’s notice.
After the first few days of training and gathering supplies, Arthur wished to see as much of Los Angeles as possible, to learn “the lay of the land,” as he’d put it. So each night the two of them toured various parts of the vastness of LA, with Lance acting as teacher and guide. Sometimes they rode Llamrei if the neighborhood was quiet enough and they could keep to the shadows. At other times, they rode the Metrolink train or hopped onto a city bus.
Arthur, at first, balked at riding these “astonishing inventions,” as he’d called them, preferring the safety of horseback or his own feet planted firmly on the ground. When Lance finally convinced him that the city was too vast to see by horseback or by walking, only then did Arthur gingerly agree. After his initial trepidation wore off, he delighted in the speed of the train and even the ease of using the bus system.
“Such inventions ’twere not even dreamed of in my time, Lance,” he remarked as the Metrolink train sped through the night. His eyes roamed everywhere, at the dark windows, the other passengers, the advertisements papering the interior walls of their train car. “Methinks even Merlin had not foreseen such marvels.”
Despite Lance’s admonition that Arthur’s medieval-style clothing would make them stick out “like sore thumbs,” Arthur insisted on standard attire for these excursions: heavy leather pants, knee-high leather boots, and a billowy long-sleeved tunic. He’d wanted to carry Excalibur with him at all times, but Lance assured him they’d be arrested for carrying a weapon before they got five blocks.
“Hell,” he told Arthur, “I could get busted for carrying my little-ass pocketknife on the street, even though I could get killed without it. This city sucks!”
Arthur frowned at Lance’s use of language, not entirely understanding the boy’s modern slang, but sensing just by the words and tone that his speech was not appropriate for a knight. Ah well, he thought, the boy shalt learn. And, in point of fact, Lance had been incorrect—almost no one even noticed Arthur’s odd attire when they were out and about, except maybe some businessman-types aboard the Metrolink. This was Los Angeles, after all.
On one particular night, Arthur and Lance cantered through a bleak, ghetto area on Llamrei’s back. The storm drain system allowed them easy entrance and egress to and from many of the more troubled neighborhoods in the city. Lance had begun adopting a clothing style similar to Arthur’s. The man seemed to possess an endless store of clothing of varying sizes, but all of a type worn in his own time, the time of knights and squires.
He’d told Lance he didn’t exactly know how all these things, including the weapons, had ended up with him in this present time, but he knew why they had appeared, and that was what mattered. Lance wouldn’t wear the leather boots. He lived and would probably die a skater and always wore his skating shoes, in part because he’d often bring his board and skate alongside Arthur when they were walking. But he’d taken a liking to the billowy tunics and baggy leather pants, and the leather overcoats kept him very warm at night.
They kept to the shadows and mostly just observed life for these disenfranchised peoples. Arthur shook his head in dismay at the sight of homeless people dumpster-diving for food or other needed items, at the run-down, graffiti-covered, dilapidated homes and apartment complexes, at the prison-like housing projects. Small children running unattended in the streets at night disturbed him.
Tonight, several children, dressed shabbily, most without even shoes, approached Llamrei with caution, but mostly with delight painted across their dirty faces. Arthur smiled down at the children and encouraged them to pet the mare.
“It’s okay,” Lance assured them. “She don’t bite.”
The children gathered round and happily petted the silky white coat. Llamrei whinnied with approval.
“What’s his name, mister?” one little girl asked, giggling with delight at the horse’s reaction to her touch.
“It doth be a ‘she’,” Arthur replied, “and her name doth be Llamrei.”
“You talk funny,” a small boy, probably no more than ten years old, stated flatly, causing the others to laugh and Arthur to smile.
“That I do, lad,” Arthur agreed. Then he glanced back at Lance and nodded. Lance told the children about Arthur’s crusade, outlining in basic terms what they hoped to accomplish. They listened in wide-eyed wonder, in the end agreeing to spread the word. It sounded like great fun, they all agreed.
“It doth be about more than fun, young ones,” Arthur assured them. “It doth be about thy future and that of all the children in this city.”
The children nodded solemnly, then skittered off into the darkness to spread the news. Arthur looked at Lance.
“Well done, my boy,” he said reassuringly. “Thou hast a gift with children.”
Lance blushed and looked down. “Oh, uh, thanks.”
In silence, always alert for potential trouble, Arthur spurred Llamrei on into a different neighborhood that looked similar to the last, but peopled with African-Americans, rather than Latinos or Caucasians. Lance attempted to explain about the races and how some of them liked to be called.
“Art not all of these people we encounter ‘Americans’?” he asked as they trotted slowly down a dark and gloomy street.
“Yeah, I guess,” replied Lance. “They just—” He paused, uncertain how to continue. “They just want to separate themselves out, I guess, so, you know, every group gets to feel special. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Arthur glanced at the boy and smiled. “I doth believe thou just did explain it, Lance,” he said. “Alas, ’twould seem humanity hath not changed in all these centuries. When I didst first achieve the High Kingship of Britain by pulling Excalibur from the stone, the initial dilemma I faced was to unite the various warring groups. The Gaels didst hate the Galls who didst hate the Normans, and warfare ruled the land.”
“What did you do, Arthur?” Lance asked, finding himself really interested in the answer.
Arthur stopped Llamrei and turned to look at the boy. Lance’s eyes were wide with curiosity. “I didst do then what we shalt attempt to do now—I gave them all a purpose in life other than hating one another.” He smiled and turned around, spurring Llamrei on down the street.
Lance considered this response, having been given a vague blueprint of Arthur’s overall intent. He suddenly realized that the man had not yet told him how that intent was to be realized.
As though reading his mind, Arthur said, “All in good time, lad.”
Arthur paused his mount at a shadowy intersection, keeping her within the darkness of a nonfunctioning street light. They watched as women, obviously prostitutes, strutted seductively up and down the street in their short skirts and stiletto heels, signaling to passing cars their intentions.
Young men and teen boys lurked in the shadows here and there, waiting. Cars would pull up, and one of the young men would approach. Money was handed out the window in exchange for some kind of package. The cars quickly vanished into the night. After a couple of these exchanges, Arthur glanced at Lance quizzically.
“I’ll explain later,” Lance whispered. “Don’t want ’em to see us.”
Arthur nodded and then noticed a woman and a boy of about twelve meeting in front of a shabby, run-down single-story house with a dead front lawn and a battered shopping cart in the driveway. The boy handed his mother some change from his dirty pants pocket. The mother counted the money, frowned, and then slapped the boy hard across the face, almost knocking him to the ground.
“This is all you got, you little shit!” she hollered, loud enough for the drug dealers and prostitutes to take notice. “Get yer ass back out there and get me some real money or else no supper!” The young boy, hand to the cheek that was slapped, backed away from his mother and turned to run down the street. The prostitutes laughed and returned their attention to lighting each other’s cigarettes.
Before Arthur could react, the young boy had run straight in their direction. Lance touched Arthur’s shoulder nervously. “Let’s go,” he whispered, “before he sees us.”
But it was too late. The boy rushed into their shadowed hollow and stopped short upon seeing the horse and her riders. Afraid he would call out, Lance hurriedly said, “It’s okay, kid. We won’t hurt you.”
The boy looked anxiously up at man and boy, both with long hair, both dressed strangely, and then fixed his eyes on the horse. Gazing up at Arthur, the boy saw him smile kindly, and broke into a wide grin. “Wow,” he murmured, eyes huge with wonder, “I ain’t never seen a horse before.”
“Me, neither,” assured Lance, to calm the boy. “Not before this one. Her name’s Llamrei. I’m Lance, and this is Arthur. What’s yer name, kid?”
“Lavern,” the boy answered immediately, adding shyly, “Can I pet her?”
“Of course,” replied Arthur. “Ye canst do more than pet her. Ye canst join our crusade.”
Lavern turned his wide eyes from Arthur to Lance. “It’s cool,” Lance assured him. “Want to hear about it?”
Lavern ceased petting Llamrei’s soft coat and nodded. So Lance told him. The boy soaked up every word and smiled broadly when Lance had finished.
After leaving Lavern, Arthur and Lance rode on in this same fashion for several more hours before returning to Arthur’s “castle,” as Lance had dubbed it, to sleep.
Lance chose not to go to school the next day so he could practice his swordplay and archery skills with Arthur. He enjoyed these times more than anything in his whole life. It wasn’t just the strength and power he was gaining with his growing expertise; it was Arthur, himself. Lance had never met anyone like him.
Of course, if Arthur’s story about being from another time was true, there really hadn’t ever been anyone like him before. But it was more than that. He felt relaxed around Arthur, more than he’d ever felt around any grownup. Arthur was just… well… real.
After resting that afternoon, he decided to show Arthur the pantheon of glitz, glamour, and sleaze in Los Angeles—Hollywood Boulevard. They set out that night in similar tunics and leather pants, and both sported a leather strap tied around the head to keep their hair in place. To the casual passerby, they likely appeared as father and son, despite Lance’s skin being of a browner shade than Arthur’s.
Hollywood Boulevard, as always, teemed with nightlife, and it wasn’t even a weekend. Arthur walked alongside Lance, who rode his skateboard, and they navigated their way along the sidewalk against the press of bodies streaming in both directions, while the king’s eyes shifted rapidly from the endless sidewalk stars celebrating some celebrity, to the seething faces bobbing in and out of his field of vision from all sides.
Whenever they came to a fire hydrant or other obstacle, Lance deftly ollied over it, much to Arthur’s enjoyment. He found much less enjoyment in the odd mix of people they passed on the street, from punkers and heavy metal rockers, to a large number of tattooed and facially pierced teens and younger kids hustling and bustling, likely homeless or runaways. But despite all these people slithering about, no one even glanced at their odd attire.
“See,” Lance said, rolling up to Arthur and deftly flipping his board up and into his hand with ease, “I knew no one’d pay any attention to us here.”
Arthur, nodded, appalled and fascinated at the same time. He gazed open-mouthed at the steady stream of honking cars, the eclectic variety of people, the flashing traffic lights, and blasting music from passing cars or open storefronts. He could never in his wildest nightmares have conjured such a world!
The astounding progress of man on the one hand, and the astonishing degradation of human life on the other confounded him. How, he wondered, could humanity have come so far in its inventiveness, and yet place so little value on the human soul, on the human being in general? “Things” seemed in this world to be of much greater value than people.
Suddenly, he stopped and pointed across the street. “What doth they be doing? It be similar to last night, and ye promised to explain.”
Lance turned in the indicated direction. He saw a drug dealer selling a bag of something to a skinny blond boy with long, shaggy hair, who looked to be around fifteen, wearing dirty jeans and a wifebeater.
“He’s a pusher, man, same as those guys we saw last night.”
“A ‘pusher’?” Arthur repeated questioningly.
“Yeah, ya know, dope?” When Arthur gazed blankly at him, Lance tried again. “Drugs, man. Ya know, they mess up yer head, make ya act crazy and shit. Meth is hot these days. Always weed. So’s smack. It ain’t fer me. Gotta keep my head clear for skating.”
Arthur stared at Lance in horror. “Why hath no one stopped this?”
Lance merely shrugged. “How? It’s everywhere, man.”
Arthur turned and observed the dealer melt into the shadows of an alley as the shaggy-haired blond pocketed his purchase and sauntered off down the street, disappearing into the crowd. He shook his head in dismay, realizing anew the enormity of the task before him. How had humanity come to such a state?
They continued walking until Arthur stopped at an electronics shop with several flat-screen TVs on display in the window. The TVs were running different movies and stations. Arthur’s lower jaw dropped open at the images. What manner of sorcery is this? he thought. Merlin, my old friend, if thou couldst only see the marvels of this world! Thine own magic shouldst seem quaint by comparison!
Unable to pull his gaze away, he noted that one screen displayed a young couple preparing to have sex, while another showed a violent program with fighting and shooting, and the third presented some teens having fun smoking pot.
Finally finding his voice, Arthur asked, “What be these images, Lance?”
Lance finished a flip on his board and stepped to the window beside Arthur.
“Oh, that’s just TV,” Lance said matter-of-factly. “It’s mostly for kids, to keep us busy. It’s cool, I guess. Me, I’d rather skate, you know?”
Arthur looked askance at Lance and indicated the TV sets, his brow furrowed with dismay. “These images doth be for thine entertainment? For the entertainment of youth?”
Lance shrugged. “Yeah, so?” He looked at Arthur in confusion.
Arthur frowned and spoke his thoughts. “And if thou or other children do these things the images doth be doing, art thou punished by thine elders or the authorities?”
Lance considered a moment, and then realized what Arthur was saying. His mouth dropped open in surprise. “Yeah, we are,” he said, shaking his head. “I never thought about it like that before. They either punish us or put us in jail.”
Now it was his turn to look thoughtful as they moved away from the window and continued up the boulevard toward the Chinese Theatre. But now, as they walked, Lance began to see the world around him, his world, through Arthur’s very-foreign eyes, and suddenly it didn’t look so great anymore, all that street life and freedom he’d embraced for so long. Now, suddenly, it all looked pretty sad and sorry and… empty.
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Genre – Edgy Young Adult
Rating – PG13