Disclaimer: Absolutely awful. Do not read if you are not in a good mindspace.
The sound of birds chirping was disrupted by the crunches of grass being stepped on. Lancelot didn’t have to look behind him to see who it was. He already knew. He could tell by the uneven pace of her footsteps. His sister always placed one foot a little further than the other when she moved, making her walk just a little skewed.
She was late.
“How many birds did you count today?”
“Sixty-four,” Lancelot replied, looking at the flock around him. “Seventeen were red and twenty-two were yellow with a blue tail.”
James called them blue jays, cardinals and tanagers, but Lancelot could never remember which was which, so he didn’t use any of their titles. Telling them apart by colour was much less confusing. It made things easier. Lancelot had tried to do the same with people, but after calling the King’s children yellow and black, James had gotten very cross with him.
He didn’t do that anymore.
“Did you name any of the birds?” his sister’s voice rang out from behind him. Lancelot shook his head in response.
“They don’t need names.”
With a soft thud, Leliana sat down beside him.
“Lance. Let’s play the faces game.”
Lancelot pivoted to the left, turning away from her as he dropped his gaze to the ground.
“I don’t like the faces game.”
“I know you don’t,” she responded softly. “But we have to practice. Just… indulge me, okay?”
The two of them rose to their feet, dusting off the grass and dirt from their clothes. Leliana always made him play this game when she visited. He never wanted to. But she said that it was important. Lancelot looked up at his sister, crossing his arms as he waited for her to begin. She flashed him a smile in response.
“What does that mean?” she asked. Lancelot frowned.
“Happy. Like when we eat dinner and they add cabbage, or when James lets me walk around in my nightwear all day and I can eat all the vegetables I want.”
“Good. And this one?”
“…sad. Like when you go away to the estate.”
She then made a number of different faces, twisting her mouth and eyebrows into a multitude of expressions.
But Lancelot didn’t know what any of those meant.
“You need to practice reading people more, Lancelot,” Leliana scolded him softly, looking out over the serene lake.
“I don’t want to. People are hard.”
“I know. But you need to try anyway. I drew you a reference chart with faces on it the other week- have you studied that?”
He had. After losing his patience with the faces game, Lancelot had gotten Leliana to draw him as many expressions as she could fit on a piece of parchment. She’d written down next to each of them what they meant. Lancelot had brought it with him on his trips into the village, keeping it in his pocket and taking it out when he didn’t understand what someone was saying. But it was very difficult to decide which of the drawn faces resembled the face a person was making the most, because their expressions kept changing.
After two days, one of the village boys had taken it from him and thrown it into the river.
“I lost it,” he muttered to his sister. Leliana let out a soft sigh.
“All right. I’ll draw you a new one. Just make sure to practice with it, all right?”
“Why?” the boy asked.
“Because you promised me that you would. And very soon I won’t… well, I won’t always be around, Lancelot.”
“You said you would be here forever. Father said that the Duke of Nemeth doesn’t live that far from here. I calculated it. It only takes a day. You could come visit.”
“I… yes. I could. But you still need to learn to be with other people, too. Do you understand why?”
“So I can go to the estate?”
“Pah! You’d be wasted up there,” she scoffed, leaning against him as she looked up at the sky. “The old coot would just try turn you into a royal squire, or a lackey for the Pendragons. You can do much better than that. You could train to be a general, or a lorekeeper, or go to Essetir and become a famous scholar.”
“I don’t want to be a scholar or a lorekeeper or a general,” Lancelot replied. “I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to stay here. With you.”
Leliana didn’t answer. She turned away from him, hiding her face behind her hair. She always did that when she was sad, or upset with him. Lancelot couldn’t tell which one it was. He was about to open his mouth to ask her, but she beat him to it.
“I can’t stay here, Lancelot,” Leliana muttered. Lancelot didn’t like that.
“You said you would. You promised.”
“I know I did. I want to. But things have… changed. Sometimes we’re not given a choice.”
“You said we always keep our promises,” Lancelot protested, not accepting her answer. “I kept mine. I’m practicing how to read people. I know three expressions now. I went to the village and looked for the other kids again yesterday so I could practice on them.”
“How did it go?”
“They don’t like me. They called me weird again and wouldn’t count birds with me. But when I left and eavesdropped on them, they talked about a water faerie that lives in the lake.”
He wasn’t supposed to talk about faeries. He wasn’t supposed to eavesdrop, either. Leliana had told him not to. But she didn’t scold him this time.
“Yeah. They said that she has magick and can choose to grant wishes to people, if they ask respectfully.”
Lancelot didn’t really understand what that last word meant. Leliana had explained it multiple times – she said that it meant to say please and thank you, and to do what older people told you to do. But James and father were both older than her, and she never listened to either of them. The last time Lancelot saw father, Leliana spent twenty-four screaming at him about a hand, before he dragged her back to the estate.
Lancelot didn’t like it when people yelled. It was too loud.
“A lake faerie, huh,” Leliana thought out loud. “If you met her, what would you wish for?”
Lancelot thought on that for a while.
“Nothing,” he eventually shrugged. “I don’t need anything.”
“Not even cabbage?”
“I can ask James for cabbage. And you’re already here, so I don’t need anything else. What about you? What would you wish for?”
It took her a while to reply. Leliana dangled her legs over the edge of the tree trunk, looking down into the water below. When she finally answered, her voice was a muttered whisper.
“That makes no sense. You’re not in a cage.”
“It’s metaphorical, Lancelot.”
“I don’t get it.”
“I know you don’t. Don’t worry about it- just promise me that you’ll practice reading people more, all right?”
“I already did that.”
“Right. You did.”
A short silence fell. Lancelot scooted closer to the edge of the tree trunk, dangling his legs out over the water in the same way as his sister. Together, the two of them looked out over the lake, and the waterfall that fed it.
Eventually, Leliana’s voice rang out. It was a different tone than normal, although Lancelot couldn’t place it.
“…hey, Lance. Have you ever gone all the way up the cliffs?”
“No. James says not to, because it’s dangerous. I see the village kids jump off the cliff into the waterfall sometimes. They’re dumb.”
“They jump off?”
“Yeah. They’re not careful. I told them where the safe spots were, but they don’t listen to me.”
“You calculated it?” Leliana asked softly. Lancelot gave her a single nod.
“Yeah. I measured. The highest cliff point is thirty feet and three inches. They can fall safely from that as long as they land in running water. The water stops two feet and twelve inches from the dead tree at the top of the cliff. After that, the fall is fatal. I told them that, too.”
“And let me guess,” she continued, her mouth pulling into a grin. “Instead of listening to you, now they are swinging from the tree branches, getting as close as they possibly can as a challenge?”
“Yeah. That’s exactly what they did. How did you know?”
“Because most children are dumb,” his sister chuckled.
“Definitely not. Don’t worry, I’ll let the mayor know to keep them away from there.”
“Well done, Lancelot. Keep using that head of yours.”
“I always use my head,” the boy said, a confused frown spreading across his face. “I can’t not use it. It works on its own.”
“Right, sorry, sorry. I meant that you’re smart. It’s a compliment.”
That night, Lancelot finished his cabbage-stacked dinner by himself. His father and mother never dined with him – they were rarely in the same mansion. He didn’t mind, though. He liked the silence. Lancelot never had to change out of his pyjamas and into formal clothes when it was just him and James.
But Leliana was here today. He wanted to share dessert with her. The young noble wandered the halls of the lower floor, looking for a sign of his sister.
It did not take him long to find one.
“…and donate the clothing in the east wing to our cousins. They will be able to use it for a few years, at least.”
“Yes, my lady.”
“The books, too. I’ve separated the ones that Lancelot likes from the rest. Do what you wish with what remains. They are yours if you like.”
“Thank you, my lady. Shall I send for the carriage to collect you in the morning?”
“…no. Cancel the carriage, James.”
A short silence fell. Lancelot watched as James slowly raised his head, his usual blank expression having changed into something else. He had seen that one on the chart. Lancelot wracked his head, trying to think of which one it was.
“My lady?” James asked. Leliana let out a huff in response.
“You heard me. I will not be returning to the estate.”
“…Your wedding is-”
“I know when my wedding is. I have no intention of being present.”
“They will send for you, Leliana. The King himself has a hand in this union. You can’t defy them. They’ll take you in by force-”
“No, they will not. I will guarantee it.”
“…You have no intention of marrying Louis, do you? Forgive me, but it sounds… it sounds like…”
“Like what?” Leliana said sharply. Lancelot had never heard her use that tone before. He involuntarily took a step back.
But his sister cut him off.
“I will not be used as a bargaining chip, James. Not by Uther, and certainly not by Lot.”
The next moment, her shoulders sagged. Lancelot could see his sister deflate. When she spoke, her voice had softened to a tired mutter.
“James. Please. You’re the only one I can trust. The only one who looks after Lance. I know I’m asking for a lot – you’ll be well compensated, I assure you. But I need your help.”
“The young master will be sad.”
“He’ll be fine. He won’t understand.”
She straightened her back, lifting her chin as she looked her family’s longest-working servant in the eyes.
“I trust in your discretion, James. I am counting on you.”
“But I am leaving one way or another. No matter what.”
Lancelot had heard enough. He hadn’t understood half of what his sister and James had been talking about – but the little bits that he did understand, scared him to the core.
Leliana was leaving him.
Not for a few days, or even a week, like she normally did. This was forever. She was going to live in Nemeth and from the sound of it, she wasn’t going to visit him again. Lancelot had never heard his sister take on a tone like that before. She had to be very cross. She had to be very cross because he hadn’t kept his promise. Lancelot hadn’t realised that there was a time limit on learning to understand people. But there had to be. That was why Leliana had been pressing him to practice so much lately. She’d said that promises could never be broken. She had reminded him of that multiple times.
But months had passed, and Lancelot still only knew three faces. She had finally gotten cross with him about it. Even if she didn’t show it to his face. Lancelot could tell by the tone of her voice when she was talking to James- and now she was about to leave.
He could not let that happen. Not while there was still something he could do about it. As soon as Leliana had left and James had gone to bed, Lancelot snuck out of the house. He knew where to go. The young noble was certain – if he learned how to read people properly, then Leliana would no longer be cross with him. His promise would no longer be broken and she would decide to stay. He just had to prove it to her. Before she left.
That meant that Lancelot had no time to lose.
The young noble finally knew what to wish for.
Silently, the boy made his way across the fallen tree and towards the edge of the lake. The chirping of birds had made way for a heavy silence, broken only by the occasional owl hoot. Lancelot was used to the quiet. He preferred it. Their family’s second mansion was so far away from populated areas that they only saw the people from the village during the day – and none of them ever visited the lake at night. It wasn’t safe, they said. You had to stay away from the water. If you didn’t, the nymphs and kelpies would find you and drag you under.
Lancelot usually listened to their advice.
He didn’t listen to any of it today.
With quick, determined strides, Lancelot waded into the cold, dark water. His shoes and trousers immediately got soaked. He could feel the weight of them pulling him down. The young noble shivered; even though it was early Summer, the water was still a lot colder than he thought it would be.
Lancelot waded in until the water reached up to his waist. He knew how far he could go. He had calculated that years ago. In exactly three feet, the sand bank would end in a steep drop and he would not be able to stand anymore.
Lancelot gulped. The dark depth ahead made all the hairs in the back of his neck stand upright.
Slowly his hands balled up into fists. Lancelot was afraid of deep water. He hated not knowing what was happening underneath him. The dark centre of the lake had always frightened him, and he had never gone past a certain point. Even now, the young noble had to swallow down his fear and resist the urge to run back.
But he didn’t know what else to do. In a small voice, Lancelot called out.
He jumped In surprise, scaring himself with his own voice. It sounded wrong. Too loud. Almost deafening against the heavy silence that hung in the air around him. Lancelot gulped.
“Hello? Water lady?”
Lancelot stood frozen, looking out over the still surface of the lake with his hands balled into fists. His knuckles were turning white. The water slowly grew darker, cast in shadow as the moon above him hid behind the clouds.
A minute passed. Then two. Then three.
But no answer came.
He didn’t know what else to do. Lancelot did not know what else he could do to make his sister stay with him – this was his last option. He could think of nothing else. This had to work.
But no faerie appeared.
Leliana was going to leave him.
Lancelot sniffed. He could feel a heavy, almost suffocating feeling in his chest. The young noble began to turn back-
At the same moment that something flitted into his peripheral view. Lancelot’s breath got stuck in his throat. He instantly turned back around, almost losing his footing, and falling into in the murky water.
A single blue sprite floated past him. Lancelot had never seen one of those before, though he had looked at illustrations in the books that Leliana brought him. He hadn’t realised that they could glow. The young noble watched, mesmerised, as the creature danced over the water surface without making a single ripple.
From the depths of the lake, more sprites appeared. Lancelot counted two. Then three. Then five. They danced around him, touching his exposed fingers and brushing against his back. They felt strange to the touch, like they weren’t really there. Lancelot watched as they flitted between him and the depths of the lake. They kept gathering in the same spot. The young noble peered down, squinting and trying hard to look through the dark water-
And immediately found what he was looking for.
Lancelot watched, stunned, as something rose up from the watery depths of the lake. He could see dozens of droplet lift from the water surface, detaching themselves and beginning to float around on their own. He could hear the sound of a tail swishing through the water, which was progressively growing colder the longer he stood in it. The scent of freshwater around him mixed with salt. Lancelot took an involuntary step back as a large, blue shape rose up in front of him, breaking the surface while barely making a ripple.
It took him a moment to realise that she was speaking to him.
“It has been a while since I have been summoned. And by a child, of all creatures.”
“What is it this time, mortal? Do you yearn for everlasting life? Eternal riches? For the love of someone unattainable, perhaps? By now, I’ve heard it all befo-”
The Lady of the Lake abruptly fell silent as she made eye contact with Lancelot. Her entire body froze up. The water particles around her stopped moving. She stared at the child in front of her, baffled, as her eyes widened in confusion- and then changed into something else. It was an expression that Lancelot had finally learned to recognise.
“You… you cannot play.”
“Are you the lake faerie? I’ve come to make a wish.”
“Oh, you poor unfortunate creature. I cannot help you.”
The blue lady took a step away from him, sinking back into the water. Had he said something wrong? Lancelot did not understand what that look in her eyes meant. Fae were not any easier to read than humans were. He could feel the frustration building in himself. He had tried to hard, even gotten a chart – but it seemed that no matter how hard he tried, he simply couldn’t do it.
But that was the problem, wasn’t it? He was the problem. If only Lancelot could read people, if only he could understand, then all of Lancelot’s problems would go away.
He needed to do this.
“I… I need to understand people. I don’t know why I can’t. But it never works. I need to fix it.”
“You seek insight,” the blue lady said softly. Lancelot gave her a nod in response.
“I just want to understand. Can you help me?”
A silence fell. For a moment, Lancelot was convinced that she would reject him. He could see the blue lady take another step backwards- but when she spoke, it was not with rejection in her voice.
“I… can,” she muttered, slowly putting her hands up, as if to push him away. “But not in the way that you want.”
“I don’t understand,” Lancelot said, shaking his head. His teeth were beginning to clatter from the cold.
“I know. I will not deceive you, child. But your spirit is not the same as ours. It does not connect to you in the way that it connects to us, and others of your kind. Tampering with it will have consequences. If I try to force wisdom, it will invite suffering in equal measure.”
The Lady of the Lake nodded.
“Yes. Magick comes with a price, child. And so does insight.“
She let out a sigh, taking a single step towards him. Lancelot could feel the water getting colder.
“I will not trick those who are unable to play. I tell you this freely. If I force insight, you will not be able to regulate it. You will understand every emotion that motivates those around you, even if you wish that you did not. You will not be able to tune it out- and I will not be able to take it back even if I wanted to. Understanding is its own curse.”
At some point, Lancelot had stopped listening to her. He didn’t understand how any of this connected to being able to read people better. But he didn’t need to. Understand now. She’d said that she would help him. He could know later. In his mind, the young noble had no options left.
Lancelot straightened his back, looking the blue lady in the eyes.
“I’d like to make my wish now.”
“Child. I must advise against this.”
“Do… do you refuse to help?” Lancelot asked softly. The creature in front of him shook her head.
“I cannot. I have promised to aid your kind.”
“Then grant it. Please,” Lancelot added, remembering Leliana’s instructions on how to be respectful. The blue lady let out a sigh. For a moment, she seemed to hesitate. Then that moment passed. Lancelot watched as the sprites flitted to her side, swirling around her form in a clockwise motion.
“Understand that there is no going back. I cannot undo this.”
Lancelot nodded, and closed his eyes.
“I wish to understand people.”
He could feel the water around him drop to freezing temperatures. He didn’t know what was happening, or what he was about to do. So, he did nothing. Lancelot stood frozen, firmly holding his eyes closed as he could sense the creature in front of him draw closer. He hoped it wouldn’t hurt. The young noble flinched as he felt a cold pair of hands lock around his shoulders. Lancelot balled his hands into fists, expecting pain-
But instead, the boy felt the sensation of soft lips pressing against his forehead.
“Forgive me. If I could stop you, I would.”
As the Fae held onto him, wrapping her arms around his body, Lancelot could feel the cold sensation around him fade. A strange surge of warmth coursed through his body, spreading through his chest and reaching all the way to his toes and fingertips.
As he looked at the creature in front of him, his perspective changed. Lancelot could feel a wave of negative emotions flood into him – an overwhelming sense of pity, paired with frustration and remorse. Lancelot had never experienced any of those before. He could feel them getting absorbed into his mind, as if he was feeling those emotions himself. For a moment, the young noble could feel a glimmer of relief.
He’d done it. He finally understood. Now he could show Leliana, and she would…
“I am leaving one way or another. No matter what.”
“They jump off?”
Back then, Lancelot still did not understand.
He was soon to learn.