By Mariner

When I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to be a knight. You know, the shining armor kind. Slaying monsters and rescuing fair maidens and wearing a helmet with a bunch of ostrich feathers on top. The book case in my room was crammed from top to bottom with story books: King Arthur and the Round Table, Charlemagne and his knights, Ivanhoe... I couldn't get enough of the stuff.

My folks thought it was funny, but they indulged the fantasy. I had a plastic sword and shield, a huge white rocking horse for riding to tourney, a model castle I built myself, even a toy helmet with a visor that went up and down. No ostrich feathers, though. For my tenth birthday, Dad gave me a framed print of a painting of Sir Gawaine fighting the Green Knight. My old room at home is a guest room now, but the print is still there over the bed, and old friend to greet me when I visit for the holidays.

At the playground, I wouldn't play cowboys and Indians, I wanted to play crusaders and Saracens. When Bobby Taylor called Susie Cortland a gimp for having a brace on her leg, I blacked his eye. Susie was only a stinky girl, but a knight has to defend a lady's honor. I said so to my dad after Bobby's mom called him. He walloped my butt anyway, but took me out for ice cream afterwards.

In sixth grade, I tried out for the part of Sir Lancelot in the school's production of Camelot. That was how I found out that I couldn't sing. Or dance. Or act. The drama teacher took pity on me and let me be one of the guys who marched in the back during the crowd scenes. My whole family came to the play, and clapped like crazy every time I came on.

As I got older, the fantasy receded. The toys went into the closet; the books passed on to my sisters, who declared them "stoopid" and drew silly mustaches on Roland and Sir Lancelot; the rocking horse retired to the attic. At school I learned that the Middle Ages were a time of dirt and poverty, that chivalry was invented by poets, that most real knights were little better than thugs. Sometimes, when I brought a girl home, my Mom would drag out the old Halloween pictures of me in my little Sir Lancelot costume. It was always good for a few embarrassed laughs.

Still, the dream never quite went away. When I was a senior, my school's basketball team played for the state championship. The day of the game, I asked Beth Lindsey, who was my fair maiden at the time, for her hair scrunchie to wear around my wrist while I played. Beth thought I was crazy, and Bobby Taylor said I looked like a fag, but I didn't care. A knight should always have his lady's favor to carry into battle.

We lost the game, but I had twenty-three points and six rebounds.

Given all that, it was no surprise I joined the Army. The recruiter who came to the school didn't even have to try hard, he had me half-way through the pitch. Okay, so a BDU isn't exactly shining armor, but the basic principle was there. And I was going to live up to that principle. I was going to serve my country, and be noble and good and true.

The Army was good to me. I did well in boot camp, better at the Officers' Candidate School, better still in Special Ops training. All my officers said I'd go far. Then the Initiative came along, and gave me real monsters to fight, not quite like in the story books, but close enough. For a while there, I had everything I ever wanted.

I don't know where it all went wrong. How I ended up here, in a hospital room that feels like a prison cell, wondering where the battle lines are, and whether I might be one of the monsters. I look at Buffy's scarf, and try to remember how her eyes looked when she wrapped it around my hand, how her voice sounded when she told me to rest, how her fingers felt when she touched my cheek. I don't know where she is now, and when I might see her again. I don't even know if I'm ever leaving this room. There's a long, hard fight ahead of me, and I'm not at all sure I can win it. But I will not go quietly, and I will not give up. Ever.

I have my lady's favor to carry into battle.

The End