PRW Runner-up Tour: Lady of the Lake by Summer Wier
The sun hung high in the sky, pressing beads of sweat from my brow. If only I had a hat to shield myself from the oppressive heat, perhaps I would be more productive. If I was more productive, I could earn two handfuls of rice instead of only one. I dug my fingers into the dirt, pulled up thick clumps of roots, and tossed the plant into the basket in front of me. A single serving of rice was hardly enough to sustain anyone after a full day in the field.
I shouldn’t complain; I was fortunate to have any work at all. Had my departed father not been one of Master Sura’s best workers, I would be fighting the rats for my meals. I knew what happened when boys like me—the smallest and weakest—were abandoned. The world was not kind to those who had no one to look after them. So I was grateful to be under my master’s care, even if it meant clearing land for new fields from dawn until dusk.
A clump of weeds slapped against the back of my head before sloughing into my basket. I twisted around, the movement—and lack of water—making me dizzy.
“Sorry, Len Sunt,” the boy behind me said, though his tone sounded anything but sorry. The smirk on his face proved he wasn’t. “I’ll aim better next time, but I can hardly see your head over my basket!”
Laughter and jeering filled the air as the boys working around us encouraged my tormentor. Another ball of dried mud and roots flew by my head.
“Djaya!” One of Master’s foremen saw the movement and sprung to our row. “You waste time!”
I snapped around and hunched over another shrub, wishing myself invisible. The taskmaster’s reed sliced through the air and cracked as it bit into the skin of the boy behind me. Through the space under my arm, I watched the man whipped Djaya twice more. He winced but made no sound, an effort expected from a young man of his stature.
“Anyone else feel like wasting Master Sura’s time today?” The man circled his reed over our heads, a promise of what would come should we shirk our tasks again.
An industrious rustle passed between the workers as we resumed our work, more determined to evade the pains of a heavy beating.
The rest of the day wore on in silence, and when the sun dipped low on the horizon, a resounding gong released us from our duties. We filed down our rows, hauling our baskets to the place where brush was discarded and burned. After emptying my load and collecting my single serving of rice, I stepped quickly from the group, not wanting to bump into Djaya without the protection of a foreman.
I stashed my basket in the base of a hollow tree outside of Master Sura’s palace gate and hurried through our village on route to my secret fishing spot. Gentle tides pushed the last fishing boats to shore, their passengers jumping into the sand and pulling their cargo to safety. I stole along the beach until I reached an area overrun by the jungle. Weaving through thick vines, I climbed over fallen trees, all the while hoping my nets had been filled.
My mouth watered at the thought of adding soft, flakey fish to my dinner. The oily, full flavor of its juices added a savory edge to ordinarily bland rice pellets. But this week alone, my fish had been stolen three times. I hoped tonight I’d find a feast waiting.
When I reached the edge of the lake, three woven traps bobbed atop obsidian waves, weighed down as if they held a treasured snack. I waded into the water, eager to claim my catch. To my dismay, the first trap contained no fish but had been robbed of bait and partially loaded with seaweed. I moved it aside as I surveyed the second one. Also not empty, but robbed of bait and loaded with muck. As was the third. Someone had tampered with my traps and stolen my fish. Again.
I huffed in disgust, because I’d lost my meal. As I cleaned the decoyed loads from my traps and loaded new lures, I scolded myself. Whoever had stolen my fish must have been worse off than me. Still, I would have gladly shared my spoils if only asked. After resetting the snares, I retreated to the cover of the jungle to wait, hoping to catch the thief in action.
Under the cover of large leafy palms, I settled against a fallen tree. The moon floated higher into the sky, casting ample light over the shoreline and onto my bobbing traps. I waited in darkness as the nighttime sounds of the jungle lulled me to sleep.
As I drifted in and out of consciousness, I dreamt many impossible things. I imagined I was as strong as Djaya—stronger even. So strong that I lifted a large rock and crushed a tiger with it. I dreamed I was a skilled fighter, unmatched by any soldier with any weapon. In my mind’s eye, I saw myself traveling by boat to a faraway land. In this strange world, I lived among kings and was as respected as one.
In the last rays of wishful slumber, I saw the face of a woman more beautiful than any I had ever before seen. I held her in my arms, and she whispered a name I did not recognize. Her touch both stung and melted my heart—to even look upon her was an action punishable by death—but I could not deny our love.
A snapping sound awoke me, and I flew to my feet. I held down an over-sized fern leaf and scanned the banks. Ripples flowed back and forth around a silhouette in the lake. I emerged slowly from my place of hiding and crept across the sand until I reached the water’s edge. Before I had a chance to call out to the shadow, a woman’s voice sounded in my head.
My back stiffened, and I stood erect. “Who…who’s there?”
The figure turned around, revealing the woman’s face. Her skin was as pale as the moon and shimmered like the stars around it. Eyes like that of solid stone bore into me with a look that held the past, present, and future.
“I’ve been waiting for you, Len Sunt.” Her lips never moved, but her voice echoed through the air like it carried around the inner coils of a shell.
My voice caught in my throat as if it was a fish in one of my traps. “Are you the one who stole my fish?”
Soft laughter distorted in a gust of wind. “And if I was?”
“You could have asked,” I answered meekly.
The ocean swirled around her as she moved closer to the shore. “Len Sunt, only son of Sayong Pinang Sunt, I am not here for your fish, but to change your destiny.”
I squinted and tipped my head. “My destiny? I am but a servant. And sons of slaves are destined for the fields.”
“Spoken like a man who knows his place.” She grazed her fingers over the water’s surface, leaving tiny whirlpools in their wake. “You are scrawny and weak, but your heart is that of a lion. You can resign to live among the servants, or you can rise to greatness.”
“Who…Who are you?”
“I am hantu air, a spirit of the water, the lady of the lake. Many seek me for gifts and fortune, but only to the true and humble do I appear.” She floated closer, and I realized her silky gown showed no signs of dampness. When she’d almost reached the shoreline, she stopped. From the shallow sands a tide of bubbles grew. She dipped both hands into the roiling pool and withdrew two red stones the size of coffee beans. Displaying them in her palm, she offered them to me.
“What do I do with them?” I asked.
“Swallow them, and they will bring you strength, bravery, and freedom.” She raised her hand, again motioning for me to take them.
I lifted them from her palm and studied them in my own. Whether or not I believed her words, they gave me hope. With strength and bravery I could work harder in the fields, perhaps even become a foreman one day—a form of freedom I never would have dreamed possible. I closed my eyes and brought the rocks to my mouth then swallowed them in a single gulp.
When I opened my eyes, the woman was gone.
The sun hung high in the sky, pressing beads of sweat from my brow. I wiped my arm over my forehead as I returned from emptying my fifth basket of underbrush and weeds. My productivity had not gone unnoticed. My peers whispered all around me. Under the foreman’s scrutiny, I tried to blend in, as usual, but I couldn’t help the spring in my step.
Somehow, I’d woken up in my hut this morning, though I couldn’t remember walking back from the lake. When I stood, my head almost touched the thatched roof, and I had to duck considerably when I passed through the door. My stride was longer, and each step up the hill to Master’s Sura’s palace was more powerful and sure.
Such energy felt strange, as if I’d been sick since the day I was born and was now healed of whatever infirmity ailed me. I plucked plants and saplings from the dirt like they were flowers gathered from a garden. By the time the sun ushered in late afternoon, I’d filled ten baskets—a first for any gatherer.
Word of the weakling turned strong spread like untamed fire over dried grass. When I’d filled twelve baskets, those around me—both worker and foreman alike—no longer hid their curious whispers, but had stopped to watch me work. Before the day ended, Master Sura himself rode out to the field to observe me.
I didn’t slow my pace, but pressed on with more determination. All I wanted was to complete a job well done, to earn a second serving of rice. To bring honor to my family’s name. With the gifts from the hantu air, I would follow in my father’s footsteps. I would be one of Master Sura’s best workers.
When the gong sounded, I ceased my labor. I blinked sweat from my eyes and stood to survey my day’s work. The field we’d been working on for a week was now flat and barren—completely cleared—not one plant missed. I’d been so focused in my tasks that I hadn’t noticed the other workers had stopped hours before. The foreman gawked in disbelief, forgetting to drive the slaves back to their duties.
Master Sura dismounted a large, black steed and walked to my side. His gaze traveled from my face to my hands as if he might identify the source of my strength. “Never have I seen such effort as this. What is your name?”
“I am Len Sunt, son of Sayong Pinang Sunt.” I pressed my arms to my side and bowed.
My master’s eyes lifted at the mention of my father’s name and he stretched his hand before us. “Escort me back to my palace, Len Sunt.”
We walked through the dusty field. Master Sura clasped his hands behind his back as if he was deep in thought. I trailed slightly behind him, as was my place. When we reached the steps to the outer garden of the palace, my master turned to face me. I stared beyond his fine silk robe in a partial bow, for it was forbidden to speak until addressed.
But it was not my master’s voice that I heard. From the edges of the jungle, mere paces from where we stood, the low growl of a hungry beast emerged. I lifted my gaze and Master Sura slowly turned around while the head of a tiger pressed through the palms. It crept toward us with sleek, powerful movements, each muscle shimmering under a coat of striped fur. Its nose and whiskers twitched as it circled to the right, blocking our retreat to the palace.
Out of the corner of my eye, the large stones lining the walkway to the garden shifted into focus. The image from my dream flashed through my mind, and I realized our only hope of survival rested in the fulfilling of that vision.
I darted to the path, a movement that both startled my master as well as the beast. But the skillful hunter, already poised to attack its chosen prey, lunged in my direction. I stretched my arms around the stone and lifted it into a shot-put cradle. My ribs squeezed my lungs in a vice of terror. If I missed my target, the tiger would not miss his. When the creature moved within a body length of reaching me, I hurled the stone directly at its head.
The rock landed with a crack and a thud.
The ferocious tiger crumbled to the ground. Dead.
Master Sura started at me, his expression petrified with fear and astonishment. His guards streamed from the palace, their voices excited and tense as they observed the scene before them. Bodies filled around Master Sura, but his gaze never left me. I waited, in a partial bow, as if nothing had happened.
Master Sura snapped from his bewildered stance and opened his arms, quieting his guards and clearing a path at the same time. “Leave us,” he commanded.
The men looked back and forth at each other, confused, but hastily obedient. They bowed and returned to formation, marching back into the palace. I stood my ground, awaiting orders, my heart pulsing adrenaline and anticipation through my chest.
My master ushered me to a stone bench, just within the garden wall. “Come, Len Sunt. Tell me how it is that you have done such wondrous things.”
In the quiet refuge of the garden, I revealed the story of how I’d received strength from the hantu air.
“And what do you hope to gain from such strength?” He asked.
“I am your humble servant, Master Sura. May my actions bring prosperity to your house and honor to my father’s name.”
He straightened proudly, indicating my answer pleased him. “And so they shall.”
On that day, my master rewarded me with a place in his house. Following intensive training of strength and skill, I earned a position among his personal guard. I grew in skill and rank, like no other soldier before me. My strength was unmatched and not a single warrior could best me with any weapon. After ten years of valiant service and unwavering loyalty, Master Sura granted my freedom.
My life continued to unfold, as if the hantu air had seen my dream and created my destiny from it. After my master granted my freedom, he arranged for me to see the world with him. We sailed the ocean on one of his finest ships, until we’d crossed more water than I ever knew existed. We anchored off the shores of a land unlike any I had seen before. Though the colors of life sprung forth like that of my native island, the chaos of the jungle was replaced by fine grasses and trees like soldiers—tall and uniform.
Master Sura had sent a word of our travels weeks before, heralding our arrival to one of his dearest friends and allies. At our landing, a convoy of knights awaited and escorted us through an empire of hills and forests, our destination a great castle secured by massive stone walls and wooden gates.
We dismounted our horses in the courtyard, and two of the knights lead us up a grand staircase. After passing through a narrow hall lined with flags and lighted torches, we paused before the entrance to the king’s throne room. One of the knights nodded to the soldiers standing guard, and they pushed opened the doors.
The court buzzed with excitement but fell to a hush as we strode to make audience with the king. When we reached the thrones, the knights knelt and bowed.
Upon rising, the taller one spoke, “Your Majesty, your guests. May I present Master Orang Kaya Nira Sura and Len Salung Sunt from the islands of Malay.”
Master Sura imitated the knight, falling to one knee and bowing. I did the same.
The king left his throne and stepped before us, bidding us to rise. “Welcome, it has been too long.” He threw his arms around Master Sura and patted his back heartily. He nodded slightly, acknowledging me, then opened his arms to the young man sitting in the throne next to his. “Allow me to introduce my son, Arthur.” The prince returned greeting with a regal nod, and the king continued. “Arthur, this is my dear friend, whom you may remember as Sir Owain.”
I held in a chuckle at the nickname the king had assigned to my master, his smooth accent gliding strangely over each syllable. The king stepped in my direction, and I forced my lips into a line as he looked me over.
“I have heard tales of your strength and bravery. Sir Owain speaks very highly of you. As such, I would be honored if you will train with my best knights.” He paced around me and his gaze shifted from me, to his knights, and to his son. “Even my son could benefit from an opponent such as yourself.”
I nodded in agreement, and honor soared within me.
The king placed his hand on my shoulder and smiled warmly. “And from this day forth, in the courts of Camelot, you shall be known as Lancelot.”
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