Knightfall's Letters to Gilwen - #1

My dearest Gilwen, I found it so touching that you thought I should record my life story, as if I am someone anyone would care about it. But, since it was obvious that you wanted to know (and faddish to do such things), I was more than pleased to hire a scribe to write my account. The story is mine and is true but the words may be the scribe's.

*** Scrivener's Note: Indeed, I have recorded the life history as told by Knightfall Boxpopper, and if I am any judge of character, these accounts are true and unembellished. Except where needed, grammar and pronunciation have been corrected, and local slang and idioms have been converted to Common, as is proper.***

Until the year before my arrival in Kelfour, I have no memory of anyplace but the Squire Bluff Home for Orphaned Boys in Elanthia. Orphans never left the woods and forest surrounding the compound, not even to go to town. The Home was the only world we knew. We grew our own food, hunted and fished, made our own clothes, and had our own school. Inside lived sixty to eighty boys (up to age eighteen) and ten or so adults we called keepers. Most keepers were men who remained past the age of departure because of physical infirmaries that kept them from entering the outside world, or the occasional widow that would move in. There was one notable exception, Gull Wing.

Her father, who had been raised at the Squire Bluff Home, was a fisherman who was lost at sea and presumed drowned before she was born. The widow had no family either, and had come to work at the Home. She had her baby a few months later. She named her Gull Wing because of her belief that her father would be there in spirit for them and would send his love through creatures that fished like he had. The name served two purposes. It reminded them that whenever they saw the sea gulls from the ocean, that her father's love was being carried to her on the gull's wings, and it hid her gender from the other keepers. You see, Gull Wing was raised a boy, for if her mother had not been allowed to stay she had no where else to go. And Gull Wing grew up happy, for she knew all the boys were envious of her having a mother and sharing a private cottage. And she also believed her father still loved her and was happy that she lived in his boyhood home.

In time, the secret was discovered, but they were allowed to stay and continue to work. It was never recorded if Gull Wing fell in love, but there was no need in her life, as she loved every boy that lived there. In time, Gull Wing, more affectionately known as Gulwin, became the head Keeper and the Home thrived under her care.

Not that the Home was ever rich. Anything resembling a luxury was rare. Simple necessities such as food and clothing sometimes were stretched to the point we would go to bed hungry and ill clothed.

I was more fortunate than most, for I lived in the front cabin, by far the nicest of the cabins. It was common knowledge that the orphans who lived there were related in some way to people of wealth or power. Most commonly, they were the product of a "Lordly tryst", and conscience money was a major source of funds for the Home. An actual "family visit" was rare, but it paid to have such patrons find their favorite wards in the nicer facility. The orphans of farmers or soldiers could make do with an extra blanket in the Winter. No one seemed to mind, for the nice cabin held only twelve, and the patrons did help pay the bills. No one knew just why I was living in the front cabin, but there were a couple of times that I was told there was a visiting patron who had paid close attention to me whenever I was not looking.

Gulwin had been grey haired and bent over ever since I could remember, but she was still young at heart. Even though she had far more duties than the other adults, she was never too busy to show some much needed love to one of her boys. She was the only keeper that regularly had a smile or a hug for us.

She was the closest thing to a mother most of us ever knew. Every morning, she helped make enough breakfast to feed an army. And at night she was still mending clothes when we fell asleep. There were two things I most remember about her. Whenever there was a Southeasterly breeze, she would stop whatever she was doing, head for the eastern garden and pause there to search the skies for sea gulls. Every boy loved those warm breezes, for you knew that if you silently approached her, and the birds appeared, she would wrap you in her arms and hug you until you could just reach out and feel the love.

There was only one thing that was better than that. Every day at dinner, she would give two or three boys a white feather. Not one of us had ever seen a sea gull up close, but we had no doubt as to the origin of the feathers. The lucky recipients would use the feather as a ticket to her cottage after vespers. You never got to go more than once a month and no one was ever left out. In her cottage, for a couple of fleeting hours, you felt like you were the member of a family. Gulwin shared cookies and milk, and told stories, and led singing, and encouraged each boy to talk about himself, and held each boy as long as was it was humanly possible for a boy to stay still. For the only time in your life, you felt loved. Then she'd walk us back to our cabin, long after the cabin mates had fallen asleep. I can still remember how she tucked me in. Though it was very late, I'd struggle to stay awake, enveloped in the feelings of love and contentment and would try to hold onto those memories that would have to carry me for a whole month.

When I was about ten, an elven boy of about five came to live with us. 'Lillandrani's parents had been killed by karnelins, and everyone was quick to point him out to me. You see, until then, I had been the only boy with elven blood in the home. Now, everyone assumed that I was what an elf looked like , even though I am only one quarter elf. 'Lillandrani, or 'Lil Andy as everyone called him, for I was the only one who could pronounce his name, was three quarters elf. In most ways, we were nothing alike, for I was the biggest of my age, and though he was always the tallest, he was also the slightest. I was dark, and Lil Andy was blonde. I was quiet and still, and he was gay and active. But we grew to be like brothers. In a short while, our precious night with Gulwin was shared together and she told us stories of elven lore, and we grew proud of our heritage.

I now know most of her stories were more fancy than fact, but they held elves in a good light and challenged us to be good half-elves.

They told of magic, something that was rare in our realm. There was little healing magic. As far as I know, there was only one node in the whole land, and it was weak by Kelfour standards. Clerical magic existed but was primitive and costly. More than once, a noble was resurrected only to succumb to the same malady. But when we heard Gulwin's stories, we believed in magic, and dreamed of magic lands. It became my life's ambition to one day learn to do magic feats like a real elf, and we yearned to one day fight in someplace like Dyari or Kulthea.

I grew up not knowing where I came from. My name had been Knightfall for as long as I can remember. My last name came from a Home tradition. When a boy turned twelve, if he did not yet have a last name, one was given to him. Mine came from my favorite prank. I would fold a sheet of scrap paper into an open-ended box, sneak up behind someone, place it on the floor, and then stomp on it to create a loud popping sound. Always good for a laugh (and a beating if done to a keeper or bigger boy), I was the best at pulling if off stealthily. I was quite good at the sneaking up part, and caused many near heart attacks. In fact, my biggest difficultly was that whenever I touched a paper box, several boys would begin to snicker loudly in anticipation of the prank.

I remember the day when Cratchet Sourdough, our least favorite keeper, was being meaner than usual in school. Everyone was having a tough time of it, we were almost out of food. Breakfast had been a slice of bread each. Now Cratchet had always told us that he was the inventor of the paper box trick. He would brag that there was not a man alive who could startle him with a box. Cratchet was going up and down the aisles, checking to see if any of the boys had a raw potato or a piece of jerky he could confiscate. As he passed me, I quickly pulled out the biggest paper box you ever did see. I quietly got out of my seat and all the boys started snickering. Fortunately, Cratchet had just spied a sack that 'Lil Andy had. He was sure that the giggling was because he was about to find a hidden snack. I quickly placed the box directly behind him, when I could tell Cratchet was having second thoughts. "Is this some kind of trick?" he asked himself and proceeded to open the sack gingerly. Just as he peered into the sack, I stomped and produced the all time Squire Bluff Home for Orphaned Boys Record Pop, and Cratchet jumped out of his shoes, stiffened and passed out cold. 'Lil Andy was able to share the hegheg root he had put in his sack with us later for lunch. It was a few weeks later that Gulwin named me Boxpopper, and the name stuck. Rest assured, I was not raised to be a thief, though the name has certainly been professionally appropriate.

There was actually very little done to prepare us for the outside world. Mornings were spent in school but nothing was taught. I guess the keepers taught as well as they knew how, but the time was certainly boring. Afternoons were spent on chores, and in playing in the woods behind the complex. We had no organized games like I see here in Kelfour but played war games with sticks as weapons, providing me with the one useful skill I got from the Home. Most boys preferred to use a sharpened stick as a spear or a sword, but I got used to using a club.

We had one simple rule, never seriously hurt anyone. We would routinely leave massive bruises, but if you broke someone's arm, you were in serious trouble. The bigger boys always seemed to want to duel with me and I usually lost in a straight fight. Out of necessity, I developed my own fighting style. I would stalk my soon-to-be victim, and then ambush him, placing a carefully measured blow from my club on their head. I had a good touch, for the poor boy would be unconscious until nightfall. In fact, as they wandered home at the end of supper, rubbing their heads, you could see the boys snicker and whisper that so-and-so had been nightfalled. I guess they all knew it was me, but no one ever once saw me ambush. With one exception, I never cracked a head open, and that time he deserved it.

There was a bully named Harcourt a few years older than me. The keepers could never get any work out of him. He spent his afternoons lying against a large shady tree out in the woods. Occasionally, a new arrival, usually a younger boy, would come running up to him under the tree. Harcourt would take immediate offense, and proceed to pummel the innocent kid. He beat me up more times than I care to remember, but the last few years he had been woozy upon arriving late to supper an equal number of times.

There was one time when 'Lil Andy and I were walking through the woods. Almost too late I heard a rustle in the bushes we had just passed. I saw a crude windek sword whack 'Lil Andy across the back, felling him. I was able to parry a similar blow aimed at my head. These boys never did learn to prepare for elven quickness. I promptly cold-cocked 'Lil Andy's attacker, only to have a third boy jump out and thrust me with his spear, deeply bruising my ribs.

'Lil Andy had rolled with his blow, and was not badly hurt. As he regained his feet, I yelled, "Run 'Lillandrani, run!" He quickly escaped, while I stayed to trade blows with the two remaining attackers. After about ten good strikes each, we decided to call a truce (some day soon to be broken by an ambush of my own) and I left to track down 'Lil Andy.

Poor guy, he had the misfortune to have run upon Harcourt, and had just stood there with his hand on the tree trunk, trying to catch his breath. Harc must have turned livid. He beat 'Lil Andy mercilessly, then dragged his unconscious body off. 'Lil Andy appeared dead when I found him. I quickly picked him up and toted him to the compound. He did not wake up for two days and was in bed for two weeks.

I spent that entire time planning revenge. I would have taken my revenge immediately, but suddenly, Harcourt was always keeping a few friends around. When 'Lil Andy was able to play outside again, I put the plan in action. When the time was right, I had 'Lil Andy run over to Harcourt and shinny up his tree. With elven quickness, he was soon dancing out on a limb. As soon as Harcourt began to climb the tree, 'Lil Andy just lit out on one branch, grabbed onto the end of another, and lightly settled onto the ground. With a quick laugh, he paused as Harcourt jumped down, then ran off into the woods. Harcourt grabbed his oaken claidhmore and left his friends as he ran in pursuit.

'Lil Andy led him straight to a place we called tangle weeds. He was able to shimmy through a spot that only an elf would call a trail, just before Harc's claidhmore crashed into the weeds behind him. Harcourt tried to push through, then decided better of it, but it was too late, for he was already partially entangled. As I raised my club, I quietly stepped out from hiding and said, "Think of this tangle weed as my tree." It was the first ambush where my victim knew for sure who hit him, it was the first time that I saw the facial expression just before I landed the blow, and it was the first time I was hoping to kill someone. I felt honor bound not to hit him more than once, so I swung as hard as I could, hoping once was enough. It almost was. I took the claidhmore and hid it where I knew it would rot. Harcourt did not come home that night.

A search the next day turned up his unconscious body, with the biggest bump on the left side of his forehead you ever did see. By this time, I was glad to see that he was still breathing, but I was quite proud of my work. Oddly enough, no one thought it was me - too messy and not the neat little bump right on the back of the crown. Only 'Lillandrani, Harcourt and I knew the truth.

Harcourt did behave himself from then on. But I cannot take all the credit because in a few months, he turned eighteen, the age of departure, and had to leave for good. I used to wonder where he went and if he had really changed.

I guess 'Lil Andy was my only close friend at the Home. He lived in the front cabin also, though if he had a patron, like me, we never knew it. He had a nervous habit of twisting ropes or string or wire. He could make the worst knots. I was always untangling his shoe laces, or getting baling wire off his wrist. These daily tasks helped me to develop the high degree of manual dexterity that I use today, but at the time, I cannot say I appreciated all that 'Lil Andy was trying to teach me.

When I was fourteen, Gulwin began to take to her bed more. She sometimes skipped the nightly sessions. She would even fail to show when the Southeasterly breezes brought the sea gulls. One day, Cratchet Sourdough informed us that he was now the Head Keep. >From that point on, we saw less and less of Gulwin. And the Home suffered for it. Not that you could tell from the outside. The Head Keep had a large new home built for himself, even though the barn was falling apart and funds were needed for several projects. Meals became tasteless, as seasonings were used less and less. Some orphans were even turned away, unless the presenters were dressed well enough to suggest a potential donation.

One evening after supper, Cratchet came to me and told me I should be proud, for I had reached the age of departure. When I told him that I was not even seventeen yet, he said that since I was big for my age, it was time for me to go. I nodded quietly that I understood. Then he told me I would leave in the morning.

"Where will I go?" I asked him.

"Outside" he answered, "wherever you wish."

With that, he turned and left. I followed my cabin mates back to the front cabin for the very last time. As I packed my sack, everyone knew what was happening.

"I will go with you," stated 'Lil Andy.

"No, my brother, you will stay. It is a hard world out there, and you need to wait until you are older."

"Like you?" he asked.

"Yes, 'Lillandrani" I replied. "Or maybe even older," I thought to myself.

When the lights were turned out, I lay on my bed, feeling numb. I wondered what became of boys who had no one, did not know a skill, and had never been anywhere. When I left the compound in the morning, should I go left, or right, or straight ahead? Hopelessness overwhelmed me. Then, when I was sure everyone else had fallen asleep, for the first time that I can ever remember, I cried. Deep sobs, but quiet, for I did not want anyone to know that I was scared, more frightened than I had ever been in my life.

And at that moment, I hated my life, and the elf grandparent that had made me different, and the parents I had never known, the Home and everyone in it, and even the gods for allowing such cruelty.

After a long while, when I had cried myself empty, I heard someone entering the cabin. It was 'Lillandrani, I must have woken him up, though I had never heard him get up and leave.

"It will be all right, Knight, it will be OK," he said. "Step outside and see. I owe you for lots of things. This is partial payment."

I sat up and looked at him quizzically. "What is it?" I asked.

"Shush," he said. "Go outside and see. I'll miss you. I love you Knightfall."

We had never said such words to each other. "I love you too, 'Lillandrani, I love you too." Tears again began to stream down my face. With a quick hug, I then turned to step outside.

When I stepped outside, there was someone waiting for me.

"Oh Knightfall!" murmured Gulwin. "So much has changed here at the Home. I never expected you to be leaving so soon!" She took me in her arms, and I cried again as I realized that this too would be for the last time.

"There are things about you that I have never told you. Perhaps I should have told you sooner, and perhaps I should never tell them to you.

"Here. Take this." She said, as she placed an envelope into my hand. "Go to the Sea Gull Inn in Squire Bluff. Ask for Fedros Gullwatcher. Give him the envelope and wait there."

I started to ask her what it said, and she said, "It is hope. I wish I had more to tell you, but I will see you again. We will talk then. Now, one more thing before you go to bed, you scamp. Eat your cookie." With that, she handed me my favorite, a chocolate chip cookie. I accepted it and now held the cookie in my hand. I took a bite. "Mmmmm just like Gulwin used to make" I thought. And had to smile. "Thanx" I said.

Suddenly, I noticed Gulwin looked very tired. "Be a good boy." she said. "I mean, do us proud, Mr. Boxpopper." She turned and left, looking old and weary, something I thought I would never see.

I returned to my cabin and stopped at 'Lil Andy's bunk to thank him. He was deep asleep, with cookie crumbs on the corner of his mouth. Before sleeping, I found the shoes he had kicked off, tightly knotted as expected, and quickly undid them so they would be ready in the morning. Then I climbed into my own bunk, and fell asleep, wondering if I would ever love anyone as much as these two.

Morning came too quickly. I woke up hungry, and quickly got dressed. I then noticed that everyone was watching me.

"Take care guys." I told them. "Look me up when you get outside." I was not being witty; that was the standard Day of Departure speech. "And guys, thanx for everything," I said, looking straight at 'Lil Andy as I said it.

He and I walked to the meal hall silently. I thought of a hundred things I wondered if I should tell him. We never said a word as we finished our cold baked potato and hot tea.

"Time to go to class. You coming?" asked 'Lil Andy hopefully.

"No. If I knew what things to say, I would find a way to spend more time with you. You are on your own, 'Lillandrani. Remember, I was, from the first day I got here. You can do it too."

"I know, but I will miss you. It's not fair! First they took away my parents, now you."

"We're orphans, nothing for us is fair. We are supposed to be grateful for anything we get, remember? Forget that, and you are lost here." I said bitterly. "Be grateful that we got to know each other, and that Gulwin lived long enough for us to know her."

"Knightfall, do you think we will ever meet anyone like her again, ever?"

"I do not know, lil brother. It's a big world out there and I have no idea who is out there."

"I think there is someone perfect for you out there, Knight, and I think that you will find her." And with that, 'Lil Andy hugged me, and ran out of the dining hall.

"Do you think so, 'Lillandrani, do you really think so?" I asked out loud, as I stood alone. After a long pause, I snuck into the kitchen to steal a potato for lunch, started to grab a second, then thought better of it. I went to my cabin, got my sack and headed by Cratchet's cottage. There were fresh muffins within reach of the window. It had been a long time since a breakfast had filled me up and I smiled to myself, thinking that maybe, just maybe, this was not going to be so bad. At least, there were some things I was happy to leave behind. And grabbing a kitchen knife that would serve as a dagger, I now felt ready to leave. First I took a detour by Gulwin's cottage to drop off the sack of sugar I had also taken, just perfect for the making of cookies for lonely little boys. And after that, I headed out the gate and down the road they say leads to Squire Bluff.