Chapter 1

The gust of wind hit me in the face like the proverbial 'ton of bricks'. Dust, dirt and an assortment of grime flew around from things blowing around. The outside walls of the apartments were all white. There were a lot of them, all looking quite the same, white since Californians seemed to distain most other colours.

My name was Ray. I had moved here after watching a DVD of an old TV series. One line said that 'California was the place to be'. Since my arrival I thought I could think of a few better places to live than LA.

Marge and Gene Magnusson had finally retired. For 43 years work had been Gene's life. In many ways it had been Marge's also. They had one boy, Ray, and if I remembered correctly, the family never took a trip more than ten or fifteen minutes away from home. Gene had made that business a success though, at least by his own measure. Ray would have preferred a father.

Well, now things were going to be different. On advice from the family lawyer, when Dad sold the business, part of the proceeds were placed in a trust for Ray. Each year, a nice sized lump sum would be deposited into his account. He would not be rich but he also could live on this annual money for the rest of his life. He then remembered something. His life. When his parents were gone though their money would be his too. It was a sobering thought.

He wished his parents well, a 'Bon Voyage' of sorts as they started that long awaited retirement freedom. Dad talked about getting a new car. He decided against that since he never had anywhere he wanted to go further than a few miles away. They would spend hours shopping at the stores, check and recheck prices, buy things, then take them back saying they had found the same things elsewhere at a lower cost. People around knew all about them. Well, if it made them happy, no harm, no foul.

Ray never had much of a social life, Hell, he had none; and it was something that he expected not to be any different now. Piedmont High School was about as social a place that Ray could remember. He had graduated about the same time Gene put the business up for sale. He had thought of College. Yep, he thought when Hell froze over would be a good time to get his higher 'edumacation'. Military and government service quickly followed on his checklist, noted as things not to do.

There were some things he was very good at, too good quite often. Math, numbers, equations were like his own personal playground. He would look at the things his father got in his numerous reports and charts, and see trends and projections a lot differently that the 'experts' advising his Dad on courses of action that would cost a lot of money, but worse, were products or technology that had long since been replaced with newer things. He would not say much bad about them but was certain to 'advise' his Dad to check out 'this or that' new thing first. Often, when comparing old and new, Gene saw the light himself and made the right decision.

Ray became his fathers son. At home it was an hour or two each night discussing the business. That and the fact that Ray had told his parents that he had no intention of following in Gene's footsteps.

If there was something called Fate or Destiny, then it had reached Ray one day. He had been looking at cars. John, the lawyer had advised getting one in California since they were so much different there. Money was not a real issue. His father had provided an extra addition into the bank. He had also provided for several funding options both from his or Ray's trust for 'extraordinary' purchases. A business or house was what he envisioned Ray might want.

Neither man had any thought that a girl of woman would see Ray as a 'meal ticket'. Just to be certain, John had already drafted a pre-nuptial agreement for Ray. All thought it would not be necessary but...

Fate, ah yes. Fate works in mysterious ways. While grocery shopping near his rented apartment at a small store; Ray noticed a large and crudely written note handing well below the posting bulletin board. Upon closer examination he determined the letters had been made with a crayon or marker. There were misspellings and what looked like words and letters crossed out then rewritten. The message was clear though. 'We need help at the farm. Will trade room and board for help. Mama is sick and can't do much right now. Please come.' Then it gave an address.

Now Ray was not religious but he had been taught that sometimes people needed help and that those that could should help out, if they could. That message seemed to be written just for him. He likened it to doing a 'good deed'. When he was checking out, the clerk gave him some idea where that address was at. By car it was less than one hour away and a bus line ran several times a day(4) right along there.

He had a day or two left on the rental car so decided he would drive on out and see what things might be like. That experience was to change his life in ways he would not imagine.

Dust, dust and more dust seemed to be the only thing on the road to that address. He had filled up in the town and gotten better direction. The gas station attendant had referred to it as the 'Preserve'. When Ray asked why, he was told the owners made jams, jellies and preserves, the likes of which had no equal. She also never seemed to want to sell any land, in fact had been a land buyer nearly 20 years. He was not sure the size now but her Daddy left her over 123,000 acres when he passed.

He finally reached 121 Rogers Way. A big sign rested on the left of the drive proudly proclaiming it 'The Preserve'. He turned in.

It was a long driveway. There was not much to look at until he reached a row of giant trees. They lined each side, several hundred feet between them and the girth of their trunk was immense. They were the giant Redwoods the West Coast was once noted for. There was a majesty and maybe some magic in them. As he drove further he felt he was going back in time or at least someplace he would not find anywhere else.

At the end of the line of tall trees he entered a clearing and saw the outline of the house. No not just a house, it was more like a small castle, complete with moat and drawbridge. He drove up further and parked in a area left of the drawbridge.

"Hello the house" he called out as he got out of the car. There was no immediate response, so he began walking over the moat.

"Halt, Identify yourself, are you friend or foe?"

At this point Ray might have turned and ran away, but he saw the person that had issued the challenge. Unless he was badly mistaken it was the same person that had written and left the Ad. He barely saw the little girl. She looked more like a Pixie and stood at the end of the drawbridge waiting for a reply.

To Ray she looked nine or ten. She acted more like the Queen might have in medieval times. Ray had his reply ready.

"Milady, I am just a homeless knight, come here to do your bidding in exchange for sustenance and a place in the barn to sleep." He reached into his pocket, withdrew the crumpled note and held it out for her to see.

She ran to him like a whirlwind was behind her. She launched herself at him, hugging him close, her tiny legs getting purchase on his hips. "My Prince, I knew you would come!" and began to sob.

Ray did not know what to do or say, so, he held her close and tried to wipe away her tears.

"So my Princess, must I slay a dragon, defeat an Ogre or protect your kingdom from an evil sorcerer?

"Kind Sir, please help us. I have tried but it is too hard for me alone. Come, Mama needs to hear of your quest and give you leave to now protect the Castle."

This kid was really good. I started to think I was really going into a Castle and pixie was a Princess. We entered and that thought now seemed not only real but that there could be no other conclusion.

We went up a winding staircase. How and why a child would take to a complete stranger, trust him to enter her home, excuse me, her castle and seem to have no fear is beyond an adult to understand, yet that is what she did.

We came to a room and entered. There was a very large and ornate four poster bed in the middle of the room. On the bed lay a lady.

"Mama, everything will be fine now, my Prince has come and he will help us."

The frail looking woman could barely rise up. "I, Queen Leslie Rogers bid you welcome. Wilt thou protect this castle, my honour and that of the Princess Daphne with your very life?"

This might have seemed too much, but to me, it was that which had always been missing in my life. I was needed and would have a purpose. I readily said, "My Queen, I swear my fidelity, loyalty and very life to you and the Princess, pledging that no harm shall come to you while I live!"

It seemed to flow, just seemed to come out of my mouth without me thinking. Now I knew their names.

"I shall be yours my Queen, the name I will use will be 'The Black Knight'. It shall strike fear in the hearts of your enemies and hope in the minds of your subjects Milady."

One thing I noticed was the Queen was soon shivering and fell back into her bed. I looked at Princess Daphne and she spoke. "It is time for her medicine. The doctor left some but I have not been able to get more, they said I was too young. I posted my sign and just hoped you would come."

This child had more heart and common sense than anyone I ever knew. She told me what she had done when the doctor had left. She had cool water nearby to bathe her with, blankets and clean bedding and nightclothes to change into. Soup, water, tea and two kinds of juices already in glasses. She made a kind of pallet by the big bed and had slept close by. Outside of the medicine, there was not much more anyone could do better.

One minor convenience came into play now. I called the emergency number, gave them my name, the address and tried to instill in them that 105/106 degrees was a serious fever.

It was much longer than I thought it should have been but Doc Williams showed up two hours later. The emergency line notified him. There was not a hospital of medical centre nearby.

He made his exam of Leslie, shaking his head he said that she had an infection and a high fever that had to be brought down. Gee, a medical degree seemed to work as well as a ten year old mind, would wonders never cease. I was about to ask him if he was going to bleed her with leeches or tell us to pray for her soul.

We had a slight disagreement about medicine. He was not used to being told what needed to be done. I was not used to incompetence, at least not when a life was at stake. He called in to town and ordered what I wanted. He gave me some of her history, allergies, and if she could take the drugs I had asked for. My little Princess was left to run the Castle while I went into town to get the medicine. While there I stocked up on soups, crackers, ginger beer, juice, fruit cups and that cure all, ice crème. Remembering we had some well people there too, pizza, a bucket of finger liken-good chicken, eggs, bacon, bread, milk, cheese and blessed coffee rounded out my purchases.

The ride back reminded me of troops coming home after a victorious campaign defending the realm. Seeing Daphne at the upstairs window, a bright smile on her face could only mean that things with Leslie were a lot better.

Cleanup up, washed, medicated now and nearly swamped in fluids, one thing was called for next' sleep. Rest, rest and more rest would make all the difference now.

The Princess and I retired to the banquet hall. The kitchen really and I presented her with our feast. Her eyes lit up like she had not seen food before. From what I had seen, she probably had not eaten much while Leslie was sick. We devoured our feast.

Clean up was a snap. Two pizza boxes one chicken bucket and a half-dozen containers of sides were thrown out or put away in the refrigerator. We were done with things now being all ship shape.

It was time for bed. I held my nose, sniffed and heard. "Sir knight, your Princess will bathe now."

Sleeping arrangements had not been discussed but any immediate problem concerning that was easily solved. Princess, may I assist you up to sleep in the bed with the Queen? I will stay by your side on the pallet near you."

The smile on her face said it all. I don't think her head hit the pillow before she was fast asleep.

What was strange was all this felt so normal.

The next morning should have had this dream ending; instead I awoke to a pounding on the front door. Somewhat confused I went towards the sound. I found and opened the door to be greeted by what must have been the local cop.

"Who are you? Where are Mrs. and Miss Rogers and What have you done with them?"

All this and I had on boxers, a torn T shirt and nearly both eyes opened. I tried to be civil. "I was hungry and they made a tasty snack." He started to reach for his sidearm, as I opened the door more and invited him in.

"That asshole you call a doctor left Leslie with a 106 degree fever. If it was not for Daphne doing everything right we would need the coroner for her now. I am not sure if they are up yet but come on in, I'll make some coffee, get human and see if she or Daphne will see you. My name is Ray and I joined this household to help and protect the ladies."

My six foot three inch frame, near 185 pounds and rugged features made the role of bodyguard very believable. I did not realize at that time how much Leslie meant to the entire town nor the lengths that all would go for her.

"I'll call Emma, she'll come down with some help and get things straightened up for you all."

My little Princess strode in about then. Stretching her arms, barely looking awake, she told Ralph how we had everything under control.

This Ray here feller said he joined the household. Is that right Miss Rogers?"

"Yes Ralph, he is our 'Protector', anything Mama or I could do, Ray can also. Without him here yesterday, Mama could have died."

"Well OK by me Miss Rogers. I'll be sure to let everyone know about Ray here and just let Mrs. Rogers sleep. As long as everything is OK I'll be on my way." He handed me his card, took it back and wrote something on the back. "My home number is there too Ray. The whole town will be pleased that you will look after the ladies."

Ralph left. I poured him some coffee in a cup. Since we were up, the logical thing was food. "Will Milady and the Princess deem eggs and bacon a fitting repast?"

I got a giggle that only a ten year old might muster.

"I dare not speak for the Queen, but when I left her she had only two question, who undressed me and where is my makeup?"

I might have mentioned that you were good looking and would stay here forever to protect us."

Princess, unless you and the Queen desire something else, I never want to leave you. How old did you say you were?"

"I didn't, Sir knight, a lady has to have some secrets you know!" in a Mae West imitation.

Purpose, I had been seeking that most of my life. In a few hours here, everything I wanted shown itself to be here. A flash hit me. What would I feel or cope when they asked me to leave. Worse yet, how could I take pixie growing up and being a normal girl. I never felt these emotions before and had no answer.

Leslie, I mean the Queen finally descended to the banquet hall. She obviously took this opportunity to truly look like a Queen.

"Princess Daphne has told me of your vow to protect us. Is this true Sir Knight?"

"You Majesty, I will be called 'The Black Knight' and as my namesake will defend you and this house with my very life. So mote it be!"

"Sir knight, we have waited for your coming a long time, a very long time. With your help 'The Preserve' and this town shall once again be filled with happiness and smiling faces. Evil banished and our enemies defeated in battle. We have all waited."

I had a busy day ahead of me. I took stock of all the things we needed, Daphne added to the list then Leslie finished it up. I took it into town. I was somewhat surprised that no matter where I went, everyone knew who I was. Some showed a real deference too. All acted as if my list was some kind of command and assured me things would be delivered to the Castle that day. I went to see Ralph to ask if someone sold cars here. I had the rental to return and would rather support the town now. He asked what kind of car I wanted. I told him an Audi Quattro or a Mercedes Wagon/Utility. He told me it would be taken care of and then drove me back to the Castle. Strange I thought to myself.

We pulled in to be met by little Daphne, only Daphne now did not appear to be very little. She looked like a woman, a very attractive woman and her standing there had the appearance she knew we would be there.

She took my arm and I escorted her inside. We went to a room I had no idea was there. It was a large room, mostly decorated with tapestries and hangings depicting ancient feats of valor. One could easily see, Humility, Charity, Honour, Justice along with Mercy and Humility. The walls bore books of all sorts, all in dark red leather bindings. All of them looked old, very old. Leslie was there when we walked in.

"There is much that I will tell you Sir Knight, some will be told in time. We, like you also swear to hold you to protect and bid us honour. We too vow to be yours and yours alone, sharing this house and ourselves."

This did not quite sink into my head. Was she saying what I thought she was saying, and why did it seem so right?

"We need to begin!" came from Daphne. It was a voice that no child could have. Everything started to spin around, soon all was black.

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