PART I: A Feast to End All Feasts
The boys were bored.
From the grassy slope atop which they sat, they had a clear view of the nearby castle. That was where the boys were looking, and each of them looked for reasons of his own.
Gehry’s eyes were aimed at the castle’s upper corner, where the library was located. But the castle’s library was no ordinary sort of book-having place. The high-ceilinged room held the largest collection of books, manuscripts, and important papers in all of the Realm.
If only I could go in there, Gehry thought. I could pluck any book off the shelf, and sit there all day and read and read and read . . .
Kinsmere sat next to Gehry, and he had his sights trained on the castle’s lower floor – on the windows, to be precise, behind which the Realm’s youngest knights took up dulled swords and practiced their combat. It happened to be a quiet, breezy day, and even from way up at the top of the slope, the gorgeous sounds leaping out of that room could now and again be heard. There were the slices and clanks of blades striking blades, plus the rattle and clatter of armor being put on and taken off, then put on again for another round of mock combat.
If only I could go in there, Kinsmere thought. I could show them a thing or two about swordsmanship . . .
Bruce, the last of the trio, sat beside Kinsmere, and his gaze was fixed on a row of small holes at the very bottom of the castle’s outer wall. Most people would never – and had never – noticed these tiny apertures. But Bruce had long ago learned that the little, dinner roll-sized gaps led directly into the kitchen. They were vents, those holes, there to let out heat and steam so the cooks and servers didn’t faint away while preparing a feast. But the vents also let out smells. Magnificent, mouthwatering smells. The best smells in all the Realm. Smells of fried meat and boiled vegetables, of spiced cakes and seeded bread and, occasionally, a new dish, too, a strange, recently discovered flavor or combination of tastes that the chefs – not to mention a hungry boy for whom the castle’s kitchen was off limits – had never before dreamed of. Bruce opened his nostrils wide and tried to catch a whiff.
If only I could go in there, he thought. I could eat and eat and eat until my stomach burst . . .
A breeze blew by.
Bruce opened his nostrils even more.
Kinsmere turned his head to try and hear those slices and rattles and clanks.
And Gehry closed his eyes. He called to mind a passage from the book the boys had studied during their last lesson. It was the tale of a famous knight-to-be. Remembering the words, turning them over in his head, Gehry swapped the young man out for himself. And there he was – Gehry, seated atop a magnificent horse, the animal’s coat the pure, perfect white of a field of fresh snow. They rode hard, him and the horse, the wind whipping up off the land and crashing across Gehry’s face as he galloped away from the castle, out into the further reaches of the Realm, to find his very first adventure.
“I know,” Kinsmere said.
Gehry and Bruce both looked over. They watched their friend pluck a small stone from the ground. Rubbing the dirt off its ragged surface, Kinsmere tossed the stone into the air. He let it drift and hang for a moment, then snatched it up again.
“Let’s see who can hit the tree,” he said, pointing to the lone oak that sat on the opposite side of the slope-top. “Bet you I can do it three in a row.”
Gehry got to his feet.
Bruce stayed seated. “Thanks but no thanks,” he said. “Think I’ll just sit.”
“Of course you will,” Kinsmere said.
Bruce frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means,” Kinsmere said, “that you know you don’t have a shot against me, so there’s no use even trying.”
Bruce considered this. He knew what Kinsmere was doing, that he was only teasing him in order to try and lure him into playing the game. And Bruce knew, too, that as a knight-to-be, he was not supposed to turn down any kind of challenge, nor let any insult to his character go unanswered.
But he was so comfortable, sitting there with his backside planted in the soft, sun-warmed grass. Besides, he was hungry. And while he was handling his hunger well enough sitting down, if he stood up and started throwing stones and getting all sweaty? Well, that would surely get his stomach roaring and growling.
So Bruce shrugged his shoulders and, shimmying to one side, planted his backside a bit more firmly in the grass.
Gehry, meanwhile, had already gathered an armload of good-sized throwing stones. He carried them over to where Kinsmere was standing and piled them at his friend’s feet.
“I guess I’ll let you go first,” Kinsmere said, tossing his stone up and snatching it out of the air again.
Gehry took his time picking a stone from the pile. Once he had found the perfect one, he spent a moment bouncing it around in his hand. He rubbed his thumb over the stone’s smooth parts, flicked a fingernail on its rough edges. Finally, squeezing it hard against his palm, he reached back and sent the thing flying.
The stone sailed straight, and struck the tree in the very center of its trunk.
This wasn’t the sound of Gehry celebrating. It was Bruce. He threw his head back and laughed up at the sky.
When he looked back down, he found Kinsmere glaring at him. Bruce flinched, thinking his friend might throw a stone at him.
Instead Kinsmere spun around and, without more than half a second’s preparation, hurled his stone into the distance. It was a good throw, and though it didn’t hit the very center of the tree’s trunk, it came close.
“One to one,” Kinsmere said.
Gehry went next, and nailed the tree.
Kinsmere did, too.
But on their third turns, both boys missed their target. Which meant, of course, that the contest started over again.
It dragged on like this for some time. One of the boys might hit the tree twice in a row, but never three. They were constantly starting over, and several times had to run over to the tree to fetch their stones.
All the while, Bruce stayed put and kept quiet. But as his friends were coming back from gathering their stones for a fifth time, he said, “You think something’s wrong over there?”
“Over where?” asked Gehry.
“The castle,” Bruce said.
Gehry and Kinsmere both turned toward the castle. It looked fine. The same as ever.
So Kinsmere said, “No.”
Gehry asked, “Why?”
“It just seems . . . ” said Bruce. “Well, shouldn’t they have called the feast by now?”
Kinsmere shook his head. “Is all you ever think about feasts and feasting?”
Bruce considered the question seriously. At last he said, “No. I also think about naps. Naps I like almost as much as feasting.”
Gehry laughed harder.
Kinsmere said, “With an attitude like that, you’ll never become a knight.” He shook his head again. “Think about how fun that would be. Bruce Richards, ninety-year-old knight-to-be.”
Bruce thought about what such a life would be like. He imagined a single day as a ninety-year-old knight-to-be. He would wake up, make his way to the dining hall, and have himself a nice, long, leisurely breakfast. Then, seeing as he would be exhausted from all that eating, he would go back to bed. He would get up from his post-breakfast nap in time for lunch, of course, after which he would go out to the slope to sit a bit, and maybe snooze, before dinner.
These thoughts brought a dreamy smile to Bruce’s lips. “Sounds lovely,” he said.
Kinsmere whirled around and chucked a stone. He watched it smack the trunk of the tree before turning back to Bruce. “Sounds terrible.”
Gehry threw, and hit the tree, too.
Kinsmere nodded, acknowledging the nice toss. Then he wound up, threw, and knocked the tree so hard he broke off a chuck of bark. It landed in the grass several feet away, and left a bare, whitish-brown spot on the trunk.
“Whoa,” Gehry said. “Good one.”
Kinsmere accepted the compliment with a little bow. “That’s two for me,” he said.
Gehry threw, but his stone went wide.
Kinsmere grinned. He picked a stone from the pile at his feet and then tossed it up a few times, getting a feel for its weight and shape.
“Prepared to lose?” he asked Gehry.
Gehry grinned back at his friend. “First,” he said, “you’ve got to win.”
Behind them, Bruce clapped and laughed. He was enjoying himself immensely.
All of a sudden, as if he had been whacked by the wand of a wizard, Kinsmere’s grin disappeared. It was replaced by a look of fierce determination. He narrowed his eyes and glared at his target as he rolled the stone around in his fingers, searching for the perfect grip. He found it at last, and pulling his arm back – was startled by the ringing of the feast-bell.
The stone flew high and wide. It missed the tree by a dozen feet in either direction.
Bruce laughed so hard he toppled backwards and rolled several feet down the slope.
Kinsmere hurried after him, and crouching down low, shoved his friend a few feet further.
“Stop it!” he shouted at Bruce. “That one doesn’t count!”
But Bruce couldn’t have kept the laughter from coming had he tried. Which he didn’t.
Gehry came down the slope after his friends. When he reached Kinsmere, he clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he told him. “We’ll play again tomorrow. And anyway, you had the nicest throw. That one that tore the bark off the tree? Amazing. Never seen anything like it.”
Kinsmere’s scowl softened, but only slightly. He was still upset. He hurried down the slope to where Bruce lay, still laughing, and gave the boy another push. He did it again, and then again, his mood improving considerably each time.
Thanks in large part to the scent of fried meat that had begun to pour out of the castle’s kitchen, Bruce finally managed to get his laughter under control. Kinsmere, by way of apologizing for all the pushing and rolling, helped pull his friend up onto his feet. Along with Gehry, the boys headed toward the castle.
On the way, Bruce said, “What do you think it’s all about anyway?”
The feast had been announced a few days earlier, despite the fact that there were no holidays on the horizon. The day of the announcement, the boys had spent a solid hour speculating about what the feast might be in honor of. But even with all three of them thinking their hardest, they hadn’t been able to come up with a satisfying answer.
Now, Kinsmere grinned over at his friend. “You’re not complaining about a feast, Bruce, are you?”
“Course not,” Bruce said. “The king could hold a feast every evening and I’d only think him all the greater.” He turned to Gehry. “Speaking of – maybe you could put a word in with your dad, hmm?”
“Give me your dessert tonight,” Gehry said, “and I’ll think about it.”
“Bruce Richards give up his dessert?” Kinsmere said. “Gehry, I’m pretty sure the sister moons’ll rise before we see a thing like that.”
Bruce ignored the comment. “I’m serious,” he told his friends. “What do you think it’s for?”
Kinsmere said, “Maybe there’s going to be a tournament.”
The boys considered the suggestion. It wasn’t a bad one. There hadn’t been a tournament in some time, and if the king was planning on hosting another before the end of the year, it would be wise to do so soon, before the season changed and the cold weather blew in.
“Or maybe,” Bruce said, “it’s for a marriage.”
“A marriage?” Kinsmere said. “Whose?”
“I don’t know,” said Bruce. “Maybe the queen found a bride for Gehry here.”
“No way,” Gehry said. “Mom and Dad would tell me that before they told the whole Realm.”
The boys fell silent as they reached the bottom of the slope. There, the smells of the feast were so strong and alluring that even Gehry and Kinsmere tipped their heads back and breathed in deep. Flame-charred meats and roasted root vegetables, sugar-crammed cakes, giant loaves of steaming bread, and hundred-pound blocks of cheese – the boys sucked the scents up greedily, their stomachs growling like a gang of double-crossed trolls.
By the time they made it to the castle’s front gate, the boys were so eager to stuff their faces that they forgot all about the question of what the feast was for. They never could have guessed that the formal meal and all-night celebration was, in fact, being held in honor of them. The announcement that the king planned to make would forever alter the course of the boys’ lives.
Text copyright © 2020 by Jarrett Lerner
All right reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.