Prompts: written for lj user="rupertyoung"'s fic challenge #1 and lj user="100-tales" prompt 048 "Past"
Summary: Sir Leon reflects on his past and the guilt he carries, the ring a bittersweet reminder of the innocent he couldn't protect
Prompt pic from rupertyoung challenge: "what is the story of the ring Rupert/Leon wears?"
"No, you have to rub it gently," someone said, innocently.
"As the cleric said to the milkmaid," another man chimed in, causing widespread laughter amongst the knights.
Sir Leon laughed uproariously and clinked his goblet against the other man's, spilling some wine in the process.
It had been a good day; they had driven out a group of bandits who'd been attacking villagers on their way back from selling their wares in Camelot, and none of the knights had been hurt, nor badly injured.
As Leon leant back in his chair, he noticed that Sir Cale was sitting quietly, staring into his wine. The younger man had only been in Camelot for a few months, and knighted just two weeks ago. He was a brave and skilful warrior, but somehow all the valour and courage he showed when armed disappeared when he wasn't fighting or practising fighting. This had led to several knights learning the hard way that the softly spoken Cale fought like a demon, seeming to be everywhere at once, and giving no quarter.
"Not enjoying the festivities?" Leon inquired.
Cale met his gaze and forced a smile. "May I confess something?"
"Yes," Leon said, though he knew if it was something damaging enough he would have to report it to Arthur. "You must always speak up if something is troubling you."
Cale took a swallow of wine. "I find I miss my homeland," he said quietly. "More so at times like these. We would all gather in the feasting hall and tell the old stories, both true and mere myth, and I knew every person in my small town, and they me. Sometimes it would get rowdy, but never quite like this."
Leon nodded in sympathy. He understood. He picked up his own goblet once more, clutching it in both hands so that the ring upon his little finger pressed reassuringly into his skin, a comforting presence.
"I came to Camelot many years ago," Leon told Cale, "but I too grew up in a small village. It does take some getting used to."
"There was a girl," Cale said suddenly, his green eyes suddenly wider. "I cared for her, but she would not have me. She would marry a farmer, she said, someone honest and earthy; she had no time for men of violence."
Once again Leon thought of how unassuming a man Cale was. Violent was not a word to be applied to the knight, for even when he fought, there was a precision about his blows, a necessary ferocity, but never was his fighting chaotic or uncontrolled.
"Yet you chose to travel to Camelot and become a knight." Leon flicked a loose strand of his brown hair behind one ear.
"My uncle was a farmer and when I was ten years old I saw him beheaded by a brigand," Cale said, his tone still so gentle that he might have been talking about the weather. "My other uncle had been a guardsman until an injury sent him home to us and I begged him to teach me to defend myself and my loved ones. I would never again stand by and watch innocents slaughtered."
The tale was coming far too close to his own experiences for Leon to be comfortable, but he had initiated the conversation and felt compelled to continue it, at least for the moment.
"If this girl cannot see that you are protecting the innocent then she is not worthy of your attention," Leon said.
Cale nodded and determination showed in the set of his jaw. He picked up his goblet and held it towards Leon. "To protecting the innocent," he said and Leon touched his own goblet to Cale's.
A short while later, Leon excused himself from the table and went outside. The moon was a pale waxing crescent and the night sky clear which meant the air was cold, for summer had turned into early autumn.
Leon twisted the ring upon his finger. It was more than an ornament; it was a good luck charm, a promise, a memorial, a keepsake. It was all he had of Eleanor.
Leon grew up in a small village, just as he had told Cale. Farming and livestock were the mainstays of the economy and the sale of their fertile livestock's offspring and the plentiful root vegetables at local markets ensured there was enough money for taxes.
Lord Coby, Leon's father and the man responsible for the village, made sure everyone paid a fair share into the fund and that this fund held enough money to pay the Camelot-levied tax – even making any shortfalls up from his own coffers.
Leon didn't understand why they had to pay tax to the city, so far away it seemed more like a myth than reality. His father explained that Camelot needed to train and equip many soldiers to guard both the city and the surrounding lands, their village included.
Coby hadn't enjoyed life at court and had been happy to marry Leon's mother and move to her estates out here far from the hustle and bustle of Camelot. Leon's mother had died when he was very young and his eldest sister had married a nobleman from Dumonia and he hadn't seen her for the last three years.
Coby said being of noble birth was no excuse for laziness, and Leon had to tend their horses as well as fetch the water from the well, patrol the area, and generally give assistance to the people of the area.
The nearest cottage to the impressive townhouse occupied by Coby and Leon was owned by a widow, Hester. Hester's eldest son had left the village to be apprenticed to a blacksmith, but her younger son, Jack, and her daughter, Eleanor, lived with her still. Jack tended the crops while Hester took care of their few cows and chickens. Eleanor, only six, did whatever jobs her child's strength could manage.
Bereft of female nurturing, Leon often found himself talking with Hester and doing odd jobs for her, enjoying her warm praise and occasional grateful hugs.
Eleanor adored Leon; he was eleven and a far better big brother than ten year old Jack, who was always too busy to play with her. Leon adored Eleanor, too, for she was a sweet natured child. He would take her out riding on his horse, share slices of warm pie freshly baked by Coby's cook with her, and help her carry water to Hester – playfully splashing each other the whole time.
Eleanor would sit and watch if Leon was chopping wood. She would bring vegetables to peel, or knitting, and do these tasks badly, so busy was she watching him work, blue eyes fixed on his strong muscles. He would take off his shirt, his skin gleaming with sweat, and Eleanor would tell him he looked like Hercules of the old stories her grandmother knew.
When Eleanor was eight, and Leon thirteen, she twisted in the saddle as they rode his horse, Aren, and said, "When I am older, we can get married, and I will be the Lady Eleanor and help you and Lord Coby run the village."
Leon bit back a laugh. He had begun to notice girls by now, but he still wasn't ready to start courting. Besides, Eleanor was so young, and practically his sister. Eleanor was deadly serious however. She held up her hand to show him the ring that sat on her right index finger; it had belonged to her grandmother and was her most precious possession.
"You won't even have to buy me a ring," she said. "I will wear this one on my ring finger, because my hands will be bigger then."
"Bigger," Leon repeated, grateful that he need not put her off now, simply wait until her young crush turned itself elsewhere, something he was sure would happen.
When Eleanor turned nine, two months before Leon's birthday, he gave her a young colt that Aren had sired. His father didn't mind the indulgence too much, for the foal was the weakest of that year's batch. Eleanor adored the horse as much as she adored Leon.
A year later, Leon had been out riding and was on his way back with a brace of hares, when he heard a commotion from the village. He sent Aren into a gallop and rushed home to find the people in a panic. Two men lay dead, carts were overturned, some of the livestock had gotten loose where fences had been cut down, and the air was filled with cries and screams.
Leon dismounted quickly. "What happened here?" he demanded.
At first everyone seemed too in shock to explain. Finally his father came forward, blood streaming from a gash in one cheek.
"Bandits," Coby said weakly, leaning on one of the overturned carts for support. "Maybe ten of them, well armed. They took money, some of the livestock…and…."
"And what?" Leon asked.
Coby looked down at the cobbles of the square. "Matilda and Eleanor," he said, voice tight with emotion. "We tried to stop them…but there were too many."
Leon mounted Aren again. "Which way?" he bellowed. "I'll catch them up!"
"No," Coby said. "You will be killed. You are outnumbered."
Ignoring his father, Leon spurred Aren on, the stallion stepping daintily around the people and animals until they reached the relative quiet at the other edge of the town. There were some tracks visible, and Leon set off on the trail.
About three miles away, the trail split off; possibly to elude pursuit. Leon followed a trail to the left and lost it at the river. Returning to the fork of the tracks, he went right, following the trail over hills and skirting a deep ravine, finally losing the trail when it headed into a wooded area.
Leon urged Aren into the trees anyway, but the dry ground held no footprints, and while he searched the path he thought a horse rider would most likely have taken, there was no sign of any riders.
As night fell, and he emerged at the other side of the woods, he was forced to admit defeat. The bandits had too great a lead on him now, and he was approaching the borders of the outlying reaches of Camelot; the king of the neighbouring province was no friend to Uther Pendragon and if the bandits had fled into his lands, there was little chance of the king putting any effort into finding the rogues, nor handing them over if they were caught.
Angry, grief-stricken, and weary, Leon turned Aren about and made the journey back home. It was a slow journey, for Aren was tired too, and they had to detour to a water source to quench both their thirsts. Leon allowed Aren to rest, and lay down by the meagre shelter of a bush, dozing for only a few brief minutes.
Dawn was breaking when Leon approached the village once more. In the early light something glinted, almost hidden within the lush green grass. Leon pulled his horse to a halt and dismounted, running aching fingers through the dew-laden greenery. He closed his hand around the object and lifted it up to better see what it was. There, in his palm, was Eleanor's ring.
Leon wept, not caring if anyone saw him. Eleanor had trusted him, loved him, and he had let her down. She was maybe dead, or worse, and he would probably never see her again.
When he once again gathered his senses, he slipped the tiny ring onto his finger; the little finger of his left hand was the only one small enough for it to sit on comfortably.
"Where were the famed knights of Camelot to protect us?" Leon shouted. "Nowhere to be seen!"
"Calm yourself," his father said. "Word has been sent and knights will search for our missing daughters."
It was a hopeless search and everyone knew it.
"Camelot would send more patrols if they had more knights to keep the city safe," Coby said. "Uther hates those who murder and pillage just as much as we do, but he will only accept knights of noble birth, and the battle at Edwine claimed too many young lives."
"More knights," Leon said. "Is that so?"
The next day he began his journey to Camelot. He was physically active, strong and agile, and a fine horseman, though his swordsmanship needed work. Still, he was accepted into the ranks of Camelot's guards and soon earned a knighthood.
For a time he joined the patrols of the outlying regions, proving his worth, and searching for any word of the bandits that had taken Eleanor (without success).
Soon, however, he had shown such leadership that he became invaluable in Camelot itself, finally becoming Arthur's second-in-command.
He'd never forgotten Eleanor, still wore her ring, though he tried not to think of her too often; the grief was still there, as was the guilt. He'd never really given up the faint hope he might one day find her.
His past was what drove him to succeed, to protect the innocents of Camelot, and he believed it was his destiny to help bring about peace and prosperity throughout the whole of the island of which Camelot was just one kingdom amongst many. And, if the fates were kind, he might even be reunited with Eleanor and replace the token he had worn so long back on her finger, where it belonged – maybe even upon her ring finger, as she had requested so many years ago.