I finally put this story on FF.net because I need the feedbackssss! Gets my brain storming and stuff.
Anyway, why did I start this story? I saw this cute little comic featuring Pantheon and Leona, and I decided to try writing something serious for once. It seemed like it would be both fun and challenging to try to expand further on their relationship. This post is the first part of the story. You will notice I drew a lot of tidbits from the existing lores/judgments of Leona. I could not find an official judgment for Pantheon, so yeah.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Part 1: this page, first post
Part 2: this page, second post
Part 3: http://na.leagueoflegends.com/board/...1#post33846469
Part 4: http://na.leagueoflegends.com/board/...1#post36596972
Part 5 (three consecutive posts on page 6, you gotta find them!): http://na.leagueoflegends.com/board/...2518771&page=6
Part 6 (the second and third posts on page 8): http://na.leagueoflegends.com/board/...2518771&page=8
Part 7 (two posts on page 9, you gotta find them!) http://na.leagueoflegends.com/board/...2518771&page=9
Part 8 (first two posts on page 10) http://na.leagueoflegends.com/board/...518771&page=10
Also, here's the comic if anyone is wondering:
START OF PART ONE
The outcome of the fight had never been in doubt. She was by far the superior warrior, and within two short exchanges of blows, her opponent crumpled to the ground with a shrill cry, clutching at his side where surely a broken rib or two now resided. It was almost a mockery, so uneven the fight was. Practically a sparring session between a seasoned weapon master and a fresh-faced novice. But this was no sparring session of harmless consequence. It was the mortal opposite. This was the Rite of Kor, a duel to the death between Rakkor children who were on the cusp of adulthood.
The matchup between Leona and Molik was unfair, and everyone knew it. The other children, the parents, and the elders of the tribe, all watching from the edges of the blood-soaked dirt clearing. They all knew. For the ugly unspoken truth about the Rite of Kor was that the elders always matched the weak students against the strong ones. This way, it was ensured that the strong ones always moved on. All of them. No wasted potential slipping through the cracks. The weak were merely stepping stones along the way, lambs to be sacrificed for the greater good of Rakkor.
Other than Leona's hand-wringing parents off to the side, there was only one other spectator who was nervous for Leona. Her closest friend, someone she had known for as far back as she could remember. Leona usually called him by his birth name, Markus. When she wanted to press his buttons, she called him by his pet name, Rabbit. Others, however, called him by his tribal name: Pantheon.
It was not a name he was yet used to, for tribal names were earned through the Rite of Kor. And he had earned the name no more than an hour ago. His hands were still somewhat slippery with blood, but now the palms were also cold and sweaty. Nervous. Not about the fight itself. Leona would win, that was a given. No, he was nervous about what she would do after the fight. For while everyone knew that Leona was a staunch defender of those less fortunate, and that she absolutely loathed violence and bloodshed which she deemed unnecessary... pretty much everyone assumed that she would kill Molik and take her place among the Rakkor elite. For if Molik did not die, she would be the one to die. Simple as that. She was as headstrong as a team of oxen, but even an idealist like her would have to accept the reality of the situation. That's what everyone thought, anyway, as they waited for Leona to deal the final blow.
Pantheon knew better than that. Yes, she could be incredibly stubborn about the smallest issues and trifles. But in those situations, it was still possible to sway her with reason. When it came to the big things, however. Issues and questions of morality that she held dear to her heart? She was absolutely immovable on such things. Would not hear of anything else. Would not act in any other way. She had her own particular set of convictions, she always followed them to the letter, and that was that.
And six years ago, when the childrens' instructors first informed them about the Rite of Kor and the grisly nature of its completion, Leona had been the first and only child to respond to the shocking revelation when she abruptly stood up with trembling fists of balled-up fury, her eyes burning holes into those of her superiors.
“I will never do that. Never.”
Back then, her instructors had allowed her insolence to pass. After all, she was one of the most promising talents of the village, and such talent was too precious to stamp out at an early age. Pantheon did not share their relative indifference, however, because he knew that tone of voice. Her words were not a cry of outrage. They were a solemn oath, words she would never go back on, words she would carry with her to the grave. She would never kill a comrade. She would never complete the Rite of Kor. Never.
Nonetheless, during that split second where Leona towered menacingly over Molik, her feet firmly planted on the murky reddened ground, Pantheon fervently wished with all his might that she would just lash out with her sword and finish off Molik. Or maybe Molik would be so ashamed of his defeat, that he would lunge forward and run himself into her sword before she could react. Or maybe that ****ing Molik, being the feeble warrior that he was, maybe he would keel over dead from internal bleeding or a punctured liver or something. Anything. Pantheon didn't care how it ended. All he wanted was for Molik to bite the dust, and for Leona to live. Just ****ing die already, Molik.
Then Pantheon's heart dropped to his stomach, as Leona both tossed aside her shield and sheathed her sword in one practiced motion. And she said quietly but firmly to her watching instructors: “No.”
By the gods, she really was going through with it. She was going to let that little rat live, and she was going to die by the hands of her own people. He gritted his teeth madly while cursing under his breath, “Goddammit, Leona, you stupid stubborn donkey! You stupid stubborn braying donkey, by gods, just kill the little **** and be done with it!! KILL HIM!!”
He could not believe this was happening. Did not want to believe. This had to be a dream. Yes, like a dream, the air about him was now surreal and hazy, shimmering, everything suddenly so luminescent. He could feel his hearing being muted. Tingling crawled all over his skin. He realized that he could not control his breathing.
The clearing was silent, the air heavy with dread and anticipation. A sharp voice now cut through, jarring Pantheon out of his momentary stupor. The leader of the tribe, Jagen, was speaking.
The words were crisp, uncompromising, deadened. “Finish it.”
Her response was swift, resolute, final. “I refuse.”
Now that she was openly defying their leader, the crowd finally began to stir. Mumbles of disbelief, mostly. A muted sound of grief from her crying mother, and a curt choking sound from the throat of her tight-lipped father.
Although he could have done so right then and there, Jagen did not issue the death sentence just yet. Leona was easily the strongest Rakkor woman to come about in the last century; he had no doubt that she would bring them great victories on the battlefield, and give birth to great warriors from her bed. They could not afford to lose a woman of such prowess and genetics, even if she was suffering from a bout of temporary insanity. They had to make her see the light, somehow.
They did have one card to play: her best friend, Pantheon. As children, the two had started out thick as thieves, virtually joined at the hip as they ran up and down the streets in endless footraces and clobbered each other over the head with wooden swords. They did become a bit more distant as they outgrew the silly contests between themselves, but as Leona matured into a full-fledged woman, rumors started to abound that she took quite the fancy to her strapping childhood friend. Of course, she tried her best to hide it whenever she interacted with him, but the sharp eyes of the village crones saw all; it was very hard to fool a woman's intuition.
Her preference pained the hearts of all young men not named Pantheon, but the elders were delighted with her choice. With the strongest man of their generation together with the strongest woman in recent history, the future of their tribe would be secure for decades to come. But for all this to happen, she first had to pass her Rite of Kor.
Jagen and the other elders shared a nod, then Jagen looked to Pantheon.
Pantheon was by her side immediately, and he hissed angrily, almost desperately. “You need to do this, Leona.”
He tried to make eye contact with her, but she refused to reciprocate. Her eyes stayed zeroed in on Jagen, as she replied to both the elder and her friend. “I will not.”
Perhaps she avoided his eyes because she was afraid she would lose her resolve. Or more likely, she was simply showing her defiance of Rakkor tradition to the very end. Or perhaps, it was a bit of both. Either way, the reasons did not matter to Pantheon; all he knew was that his best friend was going to die if he could not change her mind.
Even worse, he had no idea what to say. He was a soldier, not an orator. Solving problems with his tongue had never been his strong suit.
Then a wild notion flashed through Pantheon's mind, and his helmet slowly rotated towards Molik.
Molik was up on his knees now, slowly coming to grips with the possibility that he might survive his Rite of Kor one way or the other. But now, he looked up to see Pantheon's steely helmet focused squarely on him, the warrior's face indecipherable behind a mask with bottomless shadows.
Molik stared back at Pantheon in confusion. Then Molik's bladder lost all control, as he suddenly realized that he was now closer to death than he had ever been during his fight with Leona. He was too terrified to move or speak. A blessing in disguise, actually. If Molik had uttered even one word at that moment, any word, Pantheon would have rammed his short sword through that pathetic mewling mouth.
From behind him sounded a sharp draw of breath, and Pantheon snapped out of his murderous daze. He looked back to see Leona's beautiful face warped in fury, her eyes blazing as she emphatically told him without words: “NO.”
Pantheon knew that she was right, of course. His killing Molik would not solve anything, and it would not complete her passage to adulthood. A new opponent would be put in front of her, and she would have to go through the same ordeal all over again. The only difference being that Pantheon would no longer be watching, because he would be dead. Death was the penalty for interfering with a Rite of Kor.
As it was, Pantheon was already precariously close to violating this particular Rite of Kor. He had asked her, she had refused, and he should have left the clearing by now. For every moment Pantheon continued to dawdle by Leona and Molik, Jagen's lips drew tighter and tighter. It had not occurred to Jagen that Pantheon would even entertain the crazy notion of interfering with a Rite of Kor. Pantheon had always been the disciplined one, straight as an arrow despite his penchant for jumping over tall buildings for the lark of it (hence why Leona liked to call him Rabbit). Leona was the troublesome one, questioning everything at every step and turn, insisting that bloodshed was not the final answer to everything.
The light seeped through the face of Pantheon's helmet now, revealing his confusion. Her face softened for a moment, and their eyes met. Then Pantheon finally realized something that he should have noticed from the beginning: she was not afraid.
Everyone else thought that her calm and composed face was a facade, a conscious display of her open defiance of Jagen. But when Pantheon stared into her eyes, all he saw was conviction. She was convinced that what she was doing was right. More than convinced, even. She knew. She simply knew that this course of action was the right one.
Her conviction was contagious somehow, and an odd yet welcome peace settled over him. His indecision faded away, as his imagination fancied the whispering of muted voices somewhere in the back of his head. Do not fear for her, the voices told him. For she is righteous, and she walks the path of the gods.
And where she walks, her people will follow.
The dreamlike haze was back, stronger than ever. His mind in a fog of whispers, Pantheon stepped away from her, his feet moving on their own. Even when the executioners stepped in at Jagen's command, he did not panic for Leona, because he somehow knew that they would not reach her. As she stood there with distant eyes gazing out to the horizon, not even acknowledging their presence, he realized that she was beyond them.
The rest was history. When the pillar of light shot down from the heavens, walling off Leona from her would-be executioners, Pantheon was the only one who did not utter a cry of shock. When the pale-faced Jagen hastily called off the execution and sent off his swiftest messenger to summon the Solari, Pantheon knew that she would no longer be living in their village. The sign from the heavens was clear. She was a chosen one, and the chosen ones always resided on Mount Targon's peak, where she could be closest to the gods and the sun.
Amid the chaos and hubbub which ensued, which consisted mostly of people falling onto their knees in an impromptu mass prayer to the gods, Leona made it a point to find him in the crowd. It would not be long before the Solari arrived to claim her. Her eyes were misty, but her voice was strong, as she grabbed him by the hands and held them close to her chest.
“I will return,” she told him with a strange urgency. “Stay safe until then, Markus. Please.”
Pantheon was caught completely off guard by the familiar way with which she touched him. Sure, they hugged countless times before. They held hands before as little children, when they walked wide-eyed throughout the village during the fireworks festivals. They wrestled full contact on many occasions, their bodies twisting and turning against each other in ways that might be construed as erotic by someone who had no clue about combat training. Not once did he think of her as anything other than his best friend.
All that changed in an instant. Her femininity surged to the forefront now, and it called out to him like a siren's song. Beckoning. Yearning for his touch.
Under the watchful eyes of the elders and the jealous gazes of Pantheon's male peers, her body remained proper, and all she did was minutely rub her thumbs against his. But it was enough to set his loins afire, as a nigh uncontrollable desire consumed all rational thought.
My god, he thought to himself as he enveloped her hands within his. Has she really been hiding this from me the entire time?? It was just as well, perhaps, because Rakkor society frowned mightily upon sexual relations before the age of eighteen. If she had behaved like this with him any earlier, he was positive he would not have been able to keep his hands off her.
He tried to think of something tender and romantic to say, or at least something witty. But before he knew it, his stupid tongue was waggling on its own. “Stay safe?? Hah, there is no glory in staying safe! I shall decorate my mantle with the helmets of our enemies, and when you return, Leona, I will describe to you in great detail the battle for each helmet! Ha ha ha ha!”
His laugh ended up sounding more nervous than boisterous, but his words soothed Leona's anxious eyes, nonetheless. She knew him best, and she knew what he was trying to say in his own roundabout way. She simply smiled in delight, and her thumbs began to rub against his thumbs once again...
Even while he was lost in her dazzling smile, Pantheon was forever on alert, and his ears pricked up at the sound of approaching horses. He had the sharpest eyes and ears in the village, and to him, it sounded like about three dozen horses, going hard, full gallop. He had a pretty good idea who rode those horses, as he turned his head slightly to his right, so that he could watch the horizon of the village's main road.
Leona picked up on the horses a moment later, and her smile faded, as she turned to see where Pantheon was staring. The rest of the village did the same moments afterward, for they also had sharp ears.
It was a contingent of the Solari, the largest peacetime group Jagen had ever seen of the reclusive clan. Their faces were solemn, and their armor was a brilliant shiny gold, functional but far more ornate than standard-issue Rakkor armor. Pantheon had never seen any Solari before, and he felt like his eyes should be hurting from the unnatural brightness of their shields, but they did not. A magical light, he assumed. It seemed they also bore relic weapons of some sort, similar to what the Rakkor used.
The leader of the Solari was an older man at the front, and he was the first to dismount. While the other Solari followed his example, he and Jagen exchanged brief bows of the head.
Jagen said, “How did you get here so fast? You were already on your way?”
The leader nodded. “Our seers told us that we must bear witness to this generation's Rite of Kor. We did not understand at first, but now we know why the gods directed us so.”
Then he looked straight through Pantheon, his eyes focused only on Leona.
“She is the one?”
Jagen nodded. “Yes.”
“It is truly a blessing to have a chosen one among us during these dark times,” the Solari leader said.
Jagen could only nod, very conscious of the fact that he almost had her killed an hour ago. He would have to double down on his nightly prayers for the indefinite future, lest the gods be angry with him.
The leader said in a gentle voice, “Leona, do you understand why you must join us?”
She had let go of Pantheon's hands by now, and she stepped forward with a nod. “Yes, I understand.”
“Thank you for your understanding,” the leader said with a subservience that surprised Leona, Pantheon, and all the other Rakkor. “Further enlightenment awaits you, chosen one.”
Then he yelled loudly and clearly: “Kneel, my fellow brethren! Kneel before her, for she is our sun!”
The Solari dropped onto their left knees as one, heads bowed deeply before their anointed champion. The shocked Rakkor quickly followed suit, Jagen being the first to hit the ground. The most shocked of them all was Leona, her eyes and mouth wide open as she looked all around herself. Nothing but broad backs and bowed heads for as far as she could see. All in deference to her.
And although Pantheon was the closest one to her, as he stared at the ground before him, he could not help but feel so far away. This feeling was far too similar to when he watched the would-be executioners close in on Leona. Not only was she beyond them, she was beyond him. Above and beyond all of them.
For she was their sun.
TO BE CONTINUED
START OF PART TWO
Leathery lips and cheeks pulsating with each puff on his pipe, the grizzled heavyset man reached up to scratch his salt and pepper sideburns with flour-coated fingers. His ruined left eye was grayed over and unseeing, framed by ugly and considerable scar tissue. His right eye was still as sharp as ever, however, scouring the early morning horizon for anything of interest as the sun began to peek over the edge.
There was nothing of note in the distance, of course. It was just another quiet uneventful morning, the latest of an endless line, for the town baker, an older retired warrior by the name of Ralmor.
Well, at least there was a fresh new face around to keep things interesting, Ralmor reminded himself, That young boy named Markus was coming around every early morning now for the past two weeks, seeking to learn the tricks of his trade. Odd behavior indeed, since baking was considered to be one of the most menial of trades among the Rakkor. A necessary occupation, to be sure, but so far removed from the glory and honor waiting to be won on the battlefield. There was a reason why the Rakkor left such trades like bakery and butchery to those ex-warriors who had been chewed up and spit out by the dogs of war; men and women no longer capable of wielding a deadly sword had no choice but to brandish other tools to keep themselves productive, or else become some useless vestigial fringe of society.
Thus, the battle-worn Ralmor had been surprised when this fresh-faced snot-nosed brat showed up a couple weeks ago and demanded rather pompously that Ralmor teach him the ways of the baker. Ralmor knew who he was, of course, because Markus was already acquiring quite a name for himself within the village, even at the age of eleven, as some sort of prodigy warrior boy. And Markus knew that Ralmor knew, because Markus had made his request to Ralmor with an expectant face and tone, as if Markus was doing a big favor to this lowly baker by gracing him with his presence.
The impertinence of the little brat almost made Ralmor want to smack him over the head with a wooden ladle and send him on his way. But in the end, Ralmor let him stay, for baking was a lonely profession. And the early mornings, which started earlier for a baker than most other people, were quite boring, where the biggest peril one faced was usually something along the lines of a rat getting into the grain stores. At the very least, having the brat around would be an amusing diversion.
He took one last puff on his pipe, set it down on the porch railing, and limped back into his bakery. The boy was inside with his back to Ralmor, his shoulders and arms wiggling away as he furiously kneaded an extremely large ball of thoroughly floured dough. Several other balls of dough lay nearby on the table, already kneaded, ready to be cut into pieces and molded into their final baking shape. The old man nodded silently in approval to himself; a brat this boy may be, but he was a hard worker with tireless energy. And something of a perfectionist, which was good, because baking was a much more exact science than other forms of cooking.
Now if only that boy would stop wearing that damn oversized helmet all the time. Ralmor understood that the helmet had belonged to his father, and it was part of Markus' grieving process for his parents, who had died on the battlefield before he was even old enough to remember their faces. But seriously, that boy never went anywhere without his helmet, which was two sizes too big for him right now anyway. And to this day, Ralmor was still not quite sure what Markus' face looked like. He heard that other children used to make fun of Markus' helmet-wearing ways, until Markus started to hunt them down, one by one, and drag them out onto the streets so that he could administer a very brutal and public beating for all to witness.
Ralmor asked in his raspy grumble of a voice: “Are the ovens ready?”
“I swept out the embers and ash not five minutes ago. The ovens are still too hot, though. Maybe fifteen minutes from now, this batch of dough can go in.”
“Good.” Ralmor stuck his hand into the wood-fired oven to test the heat himself. Yes, fifteen minutes felt about right. “Go bring in some more grain from the shed, then get your ass out of here. Don't be late to your morning training on my account.”
Markus snorted as he gave one final smack to the last ball of dough. “I am never late to the morning training sessions, old man. Quit worrying about me, lest you lose what little hair you have left on your head.”
Ralmor grinned as he flicked a stray grain of wheat off the side of Markus' helmet with a loud sharp ping. “Just go get the grain, you little cur, before I slap your impudent mouth shut.”
Markus wiped off what excess flour he could from his hands, then went out the back door to do as Ralmor asked. The outdoor wintry air was chilly, biting, and sterile, a sharp contrast to the comforting warmth and aromas of the bakery, but he paid no heed as he pulled out a rusty skeleton key from his apron's pocket to open the padlock of the grain shed's doors. He fancied himself to be a soldier of Rakkor already, and soldiers did not let such minor things as cold and weather bother them.
Besides, who had the time to be bothered by mere cold and weather? When there were nuisances such as these three unwelcome boys walking up to him right now?
While his hands automatically undid the padlock, Markus turned his head to watch the boys' approach. A grim chuckle issued forth from his helmet in the form of an icy puff of breath, a very adult sound from such a young boy. “You know, when you take three weaklings and put them together, you still end up with a bunch of weaklings.”
“Shut up, Markus!” The leader of the three boys wore the bravest face, his anger currently overriding all the fresh memories of Markus boxing his ears in just last week. “Joseph said there were rumors of you doing such stupid lowly things at the bakery, and they turn out to be true?? Just wait til we tell everyone, Markus! Everyone is going to laugh at you, you stupid weirdo!”
“Do I look like I care? Go ahead and tell everyone, Gregory! Tell whoever you want! If they think that baking makes me any less of a warrior, they are welcome to test my mettle whenever they want! Now get out of my sight before I decide to make you squeal for mercy again, you fat clumsy pig.”
Gregory's chubby cheeks turned a rosy red at Markus' goading, and his chubby fingers turned into little buttery balls of trembling fury. “Why you! You think you're so special just because you're the top of the class! You and your stupid helmet, hanging out with that half-blind peg-legged cripple of a baker! You shame the name of your father by embracing the duties of mere commoners aiiiieeeee!”
Gregory squealed in pain as Markus fired the padlock off his forehead with disturbing violence, and the dazed boy crashed to the ground, clutching his badly bleeding face. His two friends immediately sprung for Markus, but they were greeted by a handful of wheat grain flung into their eyes. Their purposeful movements quickly turned awry as they began to stumble. One of them hurtled right by Markus, totally blinded. The other boy's charge came to a screeching halt as Markus tripped him onto his face and subdued him with a swift brutal punch to behind his ear, all in one swift motion.
Markus now heard a piggish scream of pure fury from behind him, and he turned just in time to duck under a wild swing of a fist from Gregory. The bloody-faced boy could hardly see straight, he was so angry, and his vision so obscured. Unfortunately for the big-boned Gregory, he had forgotten that he was nowhere near the fighter that Markus was, and he swiftly came to his senses, in a manner of speaking, when the light-footed Markus landed a pair of precise blows to his jaw and dropped him like a stone.
The only non-grounded boy had jumped back into the fray, having removed what husks and grain he could from his watery eyes. He was a bit more nimble than Gregory, but he still moved in slow motion compared to Markus, as Markus easily absorbed his takedown attempt with strong quick hips. Markus actually cackled under his breath as he used his leverage to ride the would-be tackler into the ground, stick a knee into his attacker's neck, and grind the boy's screaming face against the pebble-strewn dirt.
“The most important tactic when facing multiple enemies?? Take out the weakest one, hahaha! The only problem is, you're all so weak, I don't know who to take out first!” He paused for a moment as he straightened up to catch his breath and savor his opponent's mewls for mercy beneath his legs. “Well, I guess I'll start with you - ”
A girl's loud voice growled from behind him: “MARKUS!”
He blinked at the unexpected warning. Then he instinctively reached up to shield his head as he uttered, “Uh oh - ”
The loud ringing sound of big wooden stick impacting against burnished steel helmet echoed throughout the alleyway. And Markus was sent rolling onto the ground beside his fallen opponents, yelling in pain as he clutched at his helmeted head.
“Ow ow ow ow!” He fought back the tears of pain that were welling up in his eyes as he sat up to yell, “Leona! What the hell was that for!”
His childhood friend, Leona, towered above him like the goddess of punishment herself, and she had her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face. “What are you picking on these three boys for, Markus!”
“Me picking on them?? What are you talking about! They started it!”
“Oh, come on, you and I both know that they stood no chance against you! You didn't have to be so violent with them!” Leona knelt down to poke at the one boy whom Markus had punched behind the ear. “This one is just now coming to!”
“Hah! When a man starts a fight, he should be prepared to finish it! Or else his enemy will finish it for him - ”
“Owww! Stop hitting me!”
“Then stop talking so big like you know anything!” Leona dragged Gregory to his feet now. “And you, Gregory! Stop coming back for more, you big dummy! Why can't you just let bygones be bygones! Honestly, can you even remember the original reason why you and Markus started fighting in the first place??”
A shamefaced Gregory shook his head and mumbled an unintelligible apology as he gingerly felt his rapidly swelling jaw and helped his semi-conscious friend to his feet. He was joined by his gravel-faced friend, and the three mumbled more apologies, mostly to Leona, as they scurried away with their tails between their legs...
It should be noted that the boys' show of subservience to Leona was not some form of chivalry or woman-coddling gallantness. They allowed her to admonish them and whack them over the head because of the simple fact that she was bigger than they were. A precocious young girl in many ways, she was already sprouting into a woman at age eleven, and she was almost a full head taller now than her dear friend Markus. And she found herself reminding him of this fact on a near daily basis, mostly when he got a little too big for his britches.
Leona sighed as she watched Gregory and company trudge off into the distance, then sighed again as she turned her head to look down at her sour-faced friend. “Stop pouting, Markus. You know I'm right.”
He grumbled, “You didn't have to hit me so hard.”
“I have to hit you over the head because you never listen to anything I say!”
“I'd listen to you if you said anything worth listening to! Turn the other cheek, you say! Be the bigger man, you say - whatever the hell that means! The bigger man is the man who beats down the other man! That's who the bigger man is!”
He lapsed into silence now, grousing and brooding inside his oversized helmet. After a moment, Leona smoothed out her pants and took a seat next to him on the steps leading up to the bakery's rear entrance.
“Did they say something about your father again?”
“Yeah, they did.”
“You know they don't seriously mean that. They are just looking for an excuse to fight, nothing more. Your father would be very proud of you right now, everyone knows that.”
“Yeah, I know. It just feels better when I beat their faces in, that's all.”
“They wouldn't be so angry with you if you showed more restraint in the first place. Showing them your superior strength is one thing. Humiliating them in front of everyone else is another.”
“I didn't do anything that they didn't already deserve!”
Leona rolled her eyes. “Last week, did you really have to rip off Gregory's pants and drag him around by his ankles for half an hour?”
“Well...” Markus adjusted his helmet, a habit of his when he was unsure of himself. “Okay, maybe that was going a little too far... but he's still a little prlck! In more ways than one, mind you!”
“Ewwww!” Leona shoved her friend away from herself, in case his crude tongue was somehow contagious. “Markus, you can be so disgusting sometimes!”
“Eh heh heh heh!” He let out an impish laugh as he clapped his hands together in a cloud of flour. “What can I say! My eagle's eye sees everything, both big and small!”
“Was that supposed to be funny, Markus? Because that was so not funny... hey!” Leona noticed the flour on his hands for the first time. “What's that stuff on your hands?”
“Huh?” He looked down at his powdery hands. “Oh, it's uh... um...”
Leona finally realized that they were sitting behind old man Ralmor's bakery, and she instantly put two and two together. “Is that flour on your hands?”
For all his bluster earlier about not caring who knew of his baking hobby, Markus found himself fumbling for words as he stammered, “I, uh... so what if it's flour! What's it to you! I like baking bread, and there's nothing you can do about it! So there! Hah!”
He then obstinately crossed his arms and pouted some more, bracing himself both physically and mentally for the inevitable torrent of teasing from his best friend...
But to his surprise, Leona was simply sitting there and staring at him. He tried not to look at her as he kept up his mean hard face and his wiry arms crossed, but her silence proved to be most unsettling for him, as he finally said out of the corner of his mouth, “What? What is it?”
“So this is where you've been in the mornings for the past two weeks,” she finally said in an almost astonished voice. “I was wondering what you were doing before morning training.”
“Huh? What do you mean? I'm always on time for morning training!”
“No, you were always early for morning training. Now, you are merely on time.” Leona's face broke out into a big impulsive smile as she started to laugh. “That's so funny, Markus! I didn't know you would like to do something as common as baking!”
Her laughter was good-natured, hardly the derisive tone he had been expecting, and he relaxed a tiny bit as he tried not to smile with her (it was very important to him that he keep up his mean hard face). And he asked her, “What... what's so funny?”
“Oh, nothing, it's just that, I don't know... you're the last person I would expect to be a baker, that is all.”
“Well, it's pretty simple, if you think about it. I like to eat bread. And bread tastes best when it's fresh! So, you know, I thought to myself one day, it would be so awesome if I could make fresh bread whenever I wanted to!”
Leona was no longer laughing, but she was smiling wide now. And there was something different about her smile this morning, as she giggled and nudged him with her shoulder. “You're so weird, Markus!” She paused. “But it's ok, I like it that you're weird!”
He didn't know why, but something about her seemingly innocuous words and smile made his ears go aflame with red. And his tongue and brain became incredibly hamstrung as he started up a fresh bout of stammering and protesting. “I – I'm not weird! You're weird, not me! Stop being a weird girl who says weird things, you... you weirdo!”
And with that, he jumped to his feet and, not sure what else to do, he reached down and snatched the ribbon out of her hair. “I dunno about you, but I'm going to morning training! See ya there, slow poke!”
Leona howled in outrage as she grabbed for her hair ribbon, but he was far too quick as he was already scampering down the road with his new yellow silken trophy in hand. She may have been bigger than everyone else her age, but he happened to be quicker than everyone else. And he could already jump tall fences with a single bound, a harbinger of things to come for the one who would bear the tribal name Pantheon.
“Markus, I swear! When I get my hands on you...”
The red-headed girl's voice trailed off into nothingness as she disappeared around a corner in futile pursuit. Then Ralmor stuck his head out the back door with a wry grin on his face, having heard every word uttered by the two children.
“Silly kids,” he muttered to himself as he then limped out to the grain shed and it's still-open door. Oh well. It looked like he'd have to bring in the grain himself this morning.
TO BE CONTINUED
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