“Good lord, child: You look like something the crows ought to be picking at.”
Grayson looked up and saw the face of a man, probably in his late twenties or thereabouts, looking calmly at him.
And this was unusual for a few reasons.
First of all, Grayson was an orphan without any sort of guardian or master, and people more often than not tended to look through him or past him rather than at him. The second reason was that Grayson was hiding beneath a partially-destroyed wagon, near to starvation and- perhaps more alarmingly to the better-off folk that came upon him- covered in blood and scratches.
Maybe it was the surprise of being spoken to by a Knight (for surely the man could be nothing else, given his armor), or maybe it was that near to five days without putting anything but water into his stomach was making him too weak, but Grayson could not bring himself to respond. He simply stared at the man and continued to dedicate what energy he had left to breathing.
The man sighed, and then held out a hand. “Come. I’ll see if I can’t patch you up and get you something to eat.” Grayson looked at the offered hand, and then up to the man’s face again. He must have looked confused because the man raised both eyebrows at him and said, “Unless, of course, you’d rather die and rot under this wagon.”
The part about dying seemed to penetrate into the tiny part of Grayson’s brain that was in charge of keeping him alive.
After a moment’s hesitation (in which he had to think a moment to coordinate his brain with his hand), he took the man’s hand and was carefully pulled out into the chilly, gray morning light.
The man wasn’t lying.
It was only once they’d traveled a ways on his horse that it had, dimly, occurred to Grayson that this could be a trick: He’d been on his own long enough to know that unscrupulous adults were more than willing to promise fine things to half-starved children to lure them in, then trap them and keep them as servants, or employees, or prostitutes. Grayson didn’t linger in cities because of the high likelihood of being snatched, and more than once he’d caught some man or woman leering at him like they might want to force him into their bed.
This man didn’t seem interested in that- Grayson had developed a sort of sixth sense for the predatory adults of the world- but for what other earthly reason would he want to help some bloodied orphan hiding under a cart?
“Do you have a name, son?”
Grayson flinched at the word ‘son’, but tried to speak regardless. “Grayson Frye” was what he tried to say, but it must not have come out loud enough, because the Knight shook his head.
“Never mind; we can get to that later. We’re nearly in London now.”
London? Grayson’s heart started pounding. London was a bad place for orphans- a good place to get snatched or knifed in a back alley.
But in fairness, he wasn’t sure anyone would bother him if he had a Knight with him.
The man brought him to a palace.
The Westminster Palace.
What on earth was this Knight doing?
It was the biggest building Grayson had ever been allowed into, and he marveled at it, even if he was a bit too dazed to take it all in. He stuck behind the Knight, following him into a small hallway, and then into a small room.
“Come on then,” He said, picking up a basin and rag off the table. “Let’s get you cleaned up.” He paused. “What is your name?’
Grayson cleared his throat and spoke carefully, but it still came out in a hoarse croak. “Grayson Frye, sir.”
“And how old are you, Grayson?”
He had to think about it for a moment. “Something like twelve, sir. I don’t know what year I was born.”
“You’re an orphan, then?”
“For how long?”
“Five years, sir. I think.”
“My name is Sebastien Malory,” The man said, wringing out the cloth. “My title is Sir Perceval.” He removed Grayson’s shirt and perfunctorily looked him over. “Good. It doesn’t look like there’s anything life-threatening here. How long ago were you attacked?”
“Few days ago, sir.”
Sir Perceval said nothing. He just started to clean off the wounds, the rag and the bowl of water becoming murky and red in quick time. Grayson withstood the cleaning without flinching; Perceval’s quick, unhesitant movements reassured him that this was not a man who’d picked him up to satisfy some sexual desire. If he had, the touches would be lingering and invasive.
Against his better judgment, Grayson began to relax a little.
“Dear Lord,” Perceval muttered, frowning as he prodded at a half-healed gash near Grayson’s ribs. “When did you last eat?”
“Nearly a week ago, sir.”
Perceval shook his head. “When we’re finished here, I’ll find you something.”
After a moment’s pause, Grayson nodded slowly. “Thank you, sir.”
Dear God, it was food, and more of it than Grayson had seen in a while.
Perceval looked at him sternly. “You must eat slowly,” He said. “Small bites. Chew well. Otherwise it will come right back up.”
Grayson nodded slowly, then carefully reached for the bread on the plate, tore it into pieces, and ate them bit by bit even though his watering mouth and growling stomach demanded that he move faster to make up for the days he’d eaten nothing.
“Now, Grayson,” Perceval said, leaning forward on the table, “You were attacked by a Lycan, weren’t you?”
Grayson paused mid-chew. “Yes, sir. How did you know that?”
Perceval shrugged. “The injuries on your body are consistent with Lycan claw-marks; probably a younger one, if I had to guess.”
“Oh.” Grayson started chewing again, trying so very, very hard to go slow.
“Were you attacked near where I found you?”
“A little ways away from there, sir.”
“More or less than a mile?”
Grayson wasn’t very good with numbers or estimation. “Less, I think, sir.”
A small smile flickered to Perceval’s lips. “I appreciate your manners, Grayson, but you needn’t finish off every sentence with ‘sir’.”
“What should I call you then, si-?” Grayson bit his lip, and Perceval chuckled.
“Well… In front of my fellow Knights, Sir Perceval. But when it’s just the two of us, Perceval will suffice.”
“Alright… Perceval.” Grayson chewed his lip for a moment, and Perceval raised an eyebrow at him.
“Something to say, son?”
Grayson put down the piece of bread he was holding and folded his hands on the table. “Why did you bring me here?”
“Was I to leave a starving, dying child to rot under a broken cart?”
“Others would. And have. But that’s not what I mean.”
Perceval thought for a moment, and then said, “I liked the look in your eye. It said you were strong. It said that you were willing to fight.”
“I couldn’t have,” Grayson insisted.
“Physical ability can be taught,” Perceval said, folding his hands under his chin. “But willingness has to come naturally.” He paused. “And if you’re interested, I have a proposition for you.”
Perceval was in need of an apprentice, and he wanted to train Grayson to be a Knight of the Roundtable.
Grayson could have fainted dead away.
In fact, he must have looked like he was about to, because Perceval had ordered him to finish his food and then return to the room he’d first brought him to in order to rest. “It’ll take more than one meal to restore your health, boy. You’ll need some rest, and time to recuperate. Think more on my offer, if you’d like.”
Grayson had already accepted it, but apparently Perceval wanted him to think on it more carefully.
But what was there to think of? Was Perceval somehow under the delusion that Grayson had something better to do with his time? Did he think Grayson had anything to do with his time beyond figuring out where his next meal was coming from and praying he didn’t run into anymore Lycans?
Grayson could not read, and numbers were nearly incomprehensible to him, but he knew who King Arthur and his Knights were. Most everyone in England did, and those who didn’t were either lying or had been hiding under a rock for the last few hundred years. He would be a true fool to turn down this offer; becoming a Knight meant joining a prestigious Order that was highly respected in his country.
Even more than that, it meant security. It meant being fed, clothed, and given quarters to live in. It meant having people again- people who were his by way of association. If there was anything about being a street-child that was worse than the hunger, it was the loneliness.
Grayson laid in bed (the first time he’d done so in years), heart beating wildly as he tried to comprehend his good fortune. He was almost grateful to that Lycan for attacking him; if it hadn’t, he might have never met Sir Perceval. He was so excited, he felt sick.
…Quite sick, actually.
Very, very sick-
Before he could stop himself, Grayson was retching loudly, painfully over the edge of the bed, coughing and gagging as, true to Perceval’s warning, the food he’d eaten earlier proceeded to come right back up.
The vomiting jag lasted a few minutes, each retch bringing up something new, and by the end of it Grayson felt dangerously dizzy. He got up, shaking badly and his head spinning with the dizziness and the panic. He should clean this up- did he have anything to clean it up with?
Before he could start looking, the door opened, and there stood Perceval.
He saw the mess on the floor, and his eyes widened. “Goodness!”
“I’m sorry,” Grayson whimpered, mortified.
“It’s fine,” Perceval assured him, gently patting his head. “Get back into bed, I can clean it up.”
“I ate slowly.”
“I know you did, son, I was there. Don’t worry- It’s hardly the worst thing I’ve ever cleaned up.”
Grayson pressed his face into the pillow and tried not to cry. Perceval had been kind enough to take him in, to offer to train him as a Knight, and he’d thrown up all over the floor like a baby. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d thrown up (probably because he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had enough food in him to throw up).
He heard Perceval come and go over the next few minutes as he cleaned up the vomit. Finally, he felt a hand on his shoulder. “Sit up, Grayson.”
Reluctantly, Grayson did as instructed, though he did not look at Perceval. Without warning, there was a wet cloth wiping his face.
It was terribly awkward, being cared for like a child when he’d been caring for himself for the last five years- six, really, if one included the fact that his father had been sick and in needing of what little care his son could provide him for the last strenuous year of his life. When living on the streets, one learned to care for themselves or die, and being thrown back into a situation where one had to be cared for again was jarring.
“It’s no harm done, Grayson,” Perceval assured him again. “And I promise you, if you choose to become a Knight, you’ll be trained so hard you’ll probably throw up again. Look at me, lad.”
Grayson looked up, forcing himself to meet Perceval’s eyes despite the intense humiliation in his heart. Perceval was smiling calmly.
“It only matters,” He continued, “That you not let it stop you, hm? No one ever died over a little embarrassment.”
“Not that I know of,” Grayson mumbled. He hadn’t meant for it to be funny, but Perceval laughed raucously all the same.
“That we know of! In any case, I promise you won’t be one of them. I think you’re a hardier lad than that.”
It was nice that Perceval had such faith in him, but Grayson was still embarrassed. “I want to be a Knight, sir- Sir Perceval. I don’t need to think about it anymore.”
Perceval’s eyes bored into his, like he was trying to determine the truth of the statement- the willingness of it. And Grayson tried to make sure there was all of the willingness he could muster in them.
“Very well then,” The Knight said, clearly pleased. “I’ll state my intentions to the Roundtable to make you my apprentice. For now, however, you need to rest. Do you think you’ll be sick again?”
Grayson’s stomach was flipping from the joy of that confirmation, the knowledge that he would be a Knight, and he was starting to feel a bit nauseous again. “I don’t know, sir.”
“I suppose that’s not shocking. Your body doesn’t look like it’s been too friendly with food for a while now.”
“Not really, no.”
Perceval chuckled and repositioned himself so that he was leaning back against the wall. “Well, lie down and try to rest.” He waited for Grayson to do so, and then folded his hands on his lap. “I don’t suppose you’d like to hear how I became a member of the Order, would you?”
Grayson’s eyes widened. “Yes, sir, I would.”
Perceval smiled again, and said, “Well, my father was the original Sir Perceval, and I took the title once he passed, when I was fifteen. After that, I was…”
Were Grayson not so delighted to hear the story, he might have realized he was more or less being lulled to sleep like a child much smaller than he was.
Because Sir Perceval was not a father, but he was a man who was exceptionally good at knowing the needs of his men, whatever their physical age; and as of this moment, Grayson was officially one of his men, even if his current needs were quite a bit different than the usual.
And though he didn’t say so out loud, he was as happy as Grayson was to have a person to belong to, even if that person was a sickly, skinny orphan boy.
With a distraction from his churning stomach and the renewed hunger that had come after being sick, Grayson slowly began to fall asleep, lulled by the sound of Perceval’s voice.
A Knight, he thought, before he drifted off.
I’m going to be a Knight.