RUNNING THROUGH A DARK PLACE (Children of the Knight II)
If you have NOT read Children of the Knight and plan to, be advised that this excerpt contains
major spoilers relevant to the conclusion of that book.
Once upon a time in the City of Angels, a boy fell . . . and the city fell with him . . .
The cheers rose into the clear night sky, strong and resonant with youthful energy and exuberance. Atop the white mare Llamrei, viewed from above by the piercing green eyes of the mural-Lance, Arthur’s hands enfolded those of young Chris, and together they gripped the hilt of Excalibur. The fabled blade pointed heavenward as though beseeching God for a miracle.
The cheering subsided, slowly and gradually, as the enormity of this night settled over the hundreds of youth and local citizens. Chris’s long blond hair was matted with sweat, his soft features streaked with drying tears as his light blue eyes tilted upward along Excalibur’s length, while Arthur gazed down at the boy and marveled at the resiliency of youth.
Less than twenty minutes prior, Chris, and the world, had watched their beloved Lance slip away from them. Arthur’s tunic was yet stained by the blood of his son, a miraculous gift of a boy who had saved the king’s life at the cost of his own.
Arthur suddenly became aware of the silence around him. He lowered Excalibur and gently removed it from the small hands of the little boy before him. Sheathing the sword, he gazed out at the crowd. All eyes focused on him, eyes that were by turns expectant, uncertain, eager, and sad. Many heads yet gazed upward at the amazing mural Arthur’s knights had created, a mural celebrating the gift to them all that had been his chosen First Knight.
But Arthur knew the road ahead would not be as simple as he’d moments ago laid out for his children. They were lost, and it was his job as the adult to guide and comfort them.
But he knew the truth. Without Lance, how far could the crusade continue without collapsing in upon itself? He recognized the vacuum that losing Lance created, a vacuum impossible to fill with anyone else. Still, he had to push onward. These remarkable youth had already come so far, had accomplished so much, had devoted their very lives to his cause. He had to find a path forward.
He turned and glanced over his shoulder at Jenny, the woman who had stolen his heart. She offered a sympathetic smile of support, but it did little to mask her own sorrow. Her softly pretty features were clouded with sadness, and a light breeze wafted her long blonde hair in small wisps across her eyes.
Then Arthur looked at the officials standing on the steps of City Hall. They were eying him with uncertain caution, knowing he had the power over this assembled multitude, and their faces reflected a deep fear that he would use it against them in some fashion.
But Arthur was a man who believed in using might for right, who sought peace and justice over all else. Never would he incite his youth to anarchy, even against so corrupt a mayor as Villagrana, who eyed the king with an expression Arthur couldn’t quite discern. Normally the man’s face showed nothing but contempt. But now it was different, as though what happened to Lance had somehow broken through the prison walls around his heart and released some of its dormant humanity.
Chris tugged on Arthur’s tunic, not even caring that drops of Lance’s blood stained his small fingers. “What’ll we do now, Arthur?”
Arthur looked into those soft blue eyes, now wide and questioning, and wished for the right words to soothe the child, but they didn’t come. Before he could think of any, he heard, “King Arthur.”
He looked down at the thin, middle-aged paramedic who had tried, with his partner, so desperately to save Lance. The man’s face was shadowed as he looked upward. “As the boy’s father, I need you to accompany the body, sir.”
Chris flinched at the word “body,” and Arthur embraced the boy comfortingly, nodding at the paramedic before turning to Jenny. “Jenny, wouldst thou remain and guide the children back to their homes?”
“You won’t be long, King Arthur,” the paramedic said cryptically. “It might be best for all if they awaited your return.”
Then he turned and strode toward his vehicle and the cloak-covered body beside it.
Jenny raised her eyebrows uncertainly, and Arthur shrugged. “Keep them calm, Jenny, until I return. Perhaps Sergeant Ryan may assist you.”
She nodded, and then leaned in to kiss him gently on the lips, pulling back and gazing at him with a mix of love and sympathy. “I’ll take care of them. Go with Lance.”
Arthur nodded and slipped down off the back of Llamrei. He reached up for Chris and gently deposited the boy on the pavement. Then he assisted Jenny.
Jack stepped forward. “Arthur, I heard what the guy said.” The boy looked devastated with grief. “Can I go with you? Please?”
Arthur looked into those wide, sad brown eyes. He recalled how Jack had said goodbye to Lance, and now understood how much the older boy had truly loved his son. He placed a hand on Jack’s beefy shoulder and nodded. “Of course, Sir Jack.”
Jenny took Chris’s hand and walked him over to where Sergeants Ryan and Gibson stood with Reyna, Esteban and the other silent, expectant knights. As Arthur passed them, Reyna placed a hand lovingly on the man’s arm as a show of comfort.
Everyone stood in reverent silence, and the world watched on live television, as the two paramedics loaded the covered body onto a stretcher and hefted it up and into the back of the boxy red vehicle, its overhead beacon still slashing the night with strobes of blood red light.
The older paramedic instructed the younger to remain behind and assist the wounded until more help arrived. Incoming sirens indicated that help was not far from the scene. Then the man ushered Jack into the back with the body. Jack didn’t even hesitate. He leapt up and sat beside the boy he loved, the double doors slamming shut behind him. Then Arthur ascended into the passenger seat as the paramedic got behind the wheel.
Jenny watched the vehicle pull slowly away, working its way through the crowd, which parted in waves so the emergency vehicle could navigate its way down Temple Street. Jenny turned to Ryan and Gibson. The two men stood soberly watching the vehicle take Lance’s body from the scene, their faces displaying a sense of loss Jenny found oddly touching. That two such hardened detectives, who’d no doubt witnessed horrific acts of human brutality over the decades, could have been so moved by Lance actually amazed her. It was yet another testament to the power that boy had over people, the charm and grace and gentle goodness that had literally won over the entire world.
What will become of us now, she asked herself? Can Arthur sustain the momentum he’s created with these kids without Lance at the forefront?
She honestly didn’t know.
Arthur sat within the cramped interior of the emergency vehicle, gazing at, but not really seeing, the vacant expressions of the stunned crowd as he passed through them. Moments ago, he had energized them. Now, once again confronted with the reality of what had transpired, they looked lost and fearful. Exactly how I feel, he told himself. Who can possibly replace Lance, he thought, as the crowds parted and they passed slowly through?
Esteban and Reyna had both displayed excellent leadership skills, as had Justin. But none of them had all the necessary qualities a true leader must in order to command effectively. None amongst his thousand possessed them. Only Lance. And Lance was gone. Arthur sighed, the heaviness of his heart pressing him down into the seat and nearly stopping his breath.
He vaguely noticed when the paramedic made a left turn onto Spring Street.
Traffic was decidedly light, no doubt due to the congestion on Temple with so many people gathered there who had witnessed the shattering of his heart as it was broadcast across the airwaves to the world.
So lost was Arthur in these thoughts that he barely registered the U-turn made by the driver and didn’t even notice that the vehicle had stopped, right in front of the Spring Street entrance to City Hall. Confused, he turned to the driver, his face scrunched into a question mark. The driver merely whispered, “Hurry, King Arthur, before it’s too late,” and then popped open the door and dropped down to the street.
Mystified, the king flung open his door and alighted quickly to the pavement. Cars cruised past, but the driver had killed the flashing red and engaged the yellow flashers before exiting the vehicle, so most drivers paid them no mind. Arthur hurried around to the back of the emergency vehicle just as the older man flung open the double doors.
“Quickly,” he told Jack, his voice flush with urgency, “help me with the stretcher.”
Arthur hesitated a moment and Jack gazed at the king with wide eyes and an uncertain look. Arthur eyed the paramedic as the man reached in for the back of Lance’s stretcher, a vague wisp of memory surfacing.
Something in the voice, in the tonal quality of that voice. Something . . .
Rather than search for the recollection, Arthur nodded to Jack and then helped the paramedic drag the stretcher through the open double doors so it rested half in and half out of the vehicle. Jack leapt down to the pavement, his uncertain young face reflected in the yellow of the flashers, the breeze wafting his dark, curly hair in every direction.
Arthur and the paramedic took the back end while Jack grabbed hold of the front. The boy was big and muscular and so hyped with adrenalin that hefting Lance’s body felt as light and airy as lifting a cloud.
The paramedic indicated City Hall with a nod of his head and the three of them carried the stretcher down a long walkway, up some steps, and approached the double glass doors. Normally guarded, all the action on Temple Street had drawn the attention of even the night security staff, and the interior lobby appeared to be empty.
The paramedic pulled on the door handle, and it swung outward with ease. Leaning his foot against it for a prop, the paramedic and Arthur pulled Lance’s stretcher in through the doors, Jack propping the door with his own foot until he’d passed through after them. Then the doors closed with a near silent click.
Arthur and Jack exchanged another perplexed look as the paramedic glanced around the lobby. To the left was a door marked ‘Board of Public Works’, and to the Right ‘City Council Chamber’. The paramedic nodded to the latter.
“In there,” he urged, already beginning to walk sideways in that direction. When they had stopped before the large, ornately carved wooden double doors, Arthur reached out and pulled the handle on the right. The door opened out and the dimly lit emergency lights vaguely illuminated the chamber within. They scuttled through the door with the stretcher, and the door closed behind them.
The crowd on Temple milled and murmured and glanced everywhere with questioning looks, making Ryan increasingly more nervous. This many people, no direction, no focus, no one to lead them. That was a recipe for trouble. He approached Jenny once the mayor began wandering helplessly around attempting to chat with the public, and Helen began interviewing knights and citizens alike, getting the personal side to the death of Sir Lance.
Eyeing the restless teens apprehensively, Ryan stopped before Jenny and Reyna. “Any word from Arthur?” he asked quietly, not wanting everyone to overhear their conversation.
Jenny shook her head. “I don’t have my phone. Reyna?”
The usually poised, cool and collected girl stiffly reached out a hand to Esteban. The stoic boy understood her silent request and slipped his phone from the pocket of his leather pants. He pushed the side button and the screen lit up. Glancing quickly to see if there were any messages, he found none.
“No,” he told the sergeant, his deep basso voice cutting the uncertain air like a knife.
“Why did he leave with the paramedic?” Ryan asked in the standard detective voice he used when interrogating witnesses.
Jenny shrugged, still in shock over everything that had happened. “He said the man requested he accompany Lance’s body.”
Ryan frowned, creasing his craggy face even more, giving him a troll-like appearance. “That’s not standard procedure,” he announced, rubbing his chin absently with stubby fingers. “The boy was dead. He should’ve been taken by the coroner.”
He paused as Jenny, Reyna, Esteban and Chris all gazed at him uncertainly.
“Whadda you think it means, Sergeant?” Esteban asked, since he seemed to be the only one in control of his emotions.
Ryan eyed the boy discerningly, a thoughtful expression on his face. “I don’t know. Can you call him?”
Esteban glanced over at Jenny, and she nodded, brushing wisps of blond hair away from her eyes.
Esteban speed-dialed Arthur and put the phone on speaker mode. They all heard three rings, and then Reyna’s voice came on: “You have reached King Arthur’s cell. He is unable––”
Esteban touched the ‘end’ button and eyed Ryan expectantly.
The sergeant looked worried, something that surprised all of them.
“Something’s wrong,” he said. “Call it a gut reaction. Would you be willing to give me his number? I can have our guys at headquarters triangulate on his phone, find out where he was taken.”
Esteban and Reyna exchanged a look, and then both turned to Jenny. Her brows furrowed with worry.
“Do you really think something could have happened to him?”
Ryan nodded, his face deadly serious. “Somebody just tried to kill the man, and failed. Then he gets mysteriously whisked away by a paramedic I just found out started on the job only yesterday? Yeah, I do.”
Jenny shuddered with fear, nodding toward Esteban. He quickly recited Arthur’s number and Ryan typed it into his own phone. Then the sergeant swept his gaze over all of them.
“Move amongst these kids, will you? Calm them, keep ’em from getting out of hand. Assure ’em Arthur will be back soon. I’ll get on this trace.”
All three of them nodded, and even Chris agreed to help. Ryan nodded his thanks and turned back to where Gibson still stood beside Justin. Phone to his ear, the sergeant called Parker Center to start the trace on Arthur’s cell.
Jenny directed Reyna and Esteban in two different directions, asking them to alert the other team leaders to also move amongst the throng in a calming, reassuring fashion. Then she took Chris’s hand and started off into the crowd of restless people.