Bruce had a Top Ten List. Top ten feasts, that is. Rankings were made using a system that Bruce had devised himself. First, each feast was rigorously analyzed based on a number of factors, including the variety of selection, the size of the portions, the availability of seconds, the type and quality of entertainment, and the mood and behavior of the servers and guests. Once a decision was reached regarding the greatness of a particular feast, it was compared to all the other great feasts that Bruce had been lucky enough to attend. And though it sometimes took him days of agonizing decision-making, sooner or later Bruce always slotted a new list-worthy feast into his rankings, waving a bittersweet goodbye to the not-quite-as-great – but still pretty darn excellent – meal that had previously occupied the Number 10 spot.
It was within two seconds of stepping into the dining hall that evening that Bruce realized he was looking at his new Number 1. Because this feast – it was spectacular. He stopped just past the doorway and stared in astonishment at the tables upon tables overflowing with food.
There were platters piled high with every kind of meat imaginable, plus what appeared to be three of four whole farms’ worth of vegetables. There was cheese galore, enough loaves of bread to fortify a village, and countless cakes covered in spices and seeds and doused in delicious, sticky syrups. Bruce wouldn’t let himself get too good a look the cakes, though, fearing he might faint and not get to enjoy a single bite of anything.
Gehry and Kinsmere were equally stunned by the extravagance of the feast. But there was a hint of nervousness to their expressions as well. It was as if the boys could somehow sense the momentous purpose behind the gathering.
Kinsmere was the first of the boys to find his voice. “I guess we should . . . eat,” he said.
Once they had each piled their plates with some of everything, the boys crossed the hall to the far corner, to the so-called kids’ table. That was where the sons of knights – the knights-to-be – sat. At some point, every knight-to-be was sent off from the castle in search of adventure. If, during his travels, the boy performed great deeds and behaved valiantly, he would be properly knighted upon his return, and could then move his seat twenty feet to the side and eat his meals along with all the other adults.
But for Gehry and Kinsmere and Bruce, that day was a long ways away. The boys were many years younger than all the previous knights-to-be had been when they had embarked on their first adventures. For now all the boys had to worry about was showing up to their lessons and attending feasts – a pair of tasks that Bruce, for one, found plenty fulfilling.
“Hey.” It was Kinsmere, who had glanced at Bruce just as the boy was preparing his first forkful – a carefully crafted, delicately balanced tower of beef, broccoli, and brown, grain-busy bread.
“What?” Bruce asked.
“You know what,” Kinsmere said. “A knight’s not supposed to start eating before the king’s delivered his address.”
“That’s true,” said Bruce. “And since I just so happen to not be a knight . . . ” He brought his attention back to his fork.
But Kinsmere wouldn’t leave him be. He reached across the table and snatched the fork right out of Bruce’s hands, the beef and bread and broccoli dropping, untasted, to the floor.
“You’ve got a long way to go if you ever want to be a knight,” Kinsmere said. “No harm in getting a head-start.”
Bruce glared at his friend. “I could say the same to you. You – you – you fork-snatcher.”
“What’s so funny?” Bruce said. “If it’s un-knightly to have a bite to eat before the king’s given his address, then stealing another knight’s fork has got to be un-knightly, too.”
“Lucky for me,” Kinsmere said with a grin, “you just so happen not to be a knight.”
Bruce’s face twisted up with frustration and fury. “Give it back,” he demanded.
Kinsmere gave a single shake of his head.
“No way, ogre-nose.”
Bruce pounded a fist down onto the table. Then, keeping his eyes locked on Kinsmere – if he didn’t, he knew he might lose his plate, too – he appealed to Gehry. “Gehry,” he said. “Make him give me my fork back.”
Bruce got no answer, and so he tried again. “Gehry,” he whined. “Gehry, please.”
Again Bruce got no answer, and this time, desperate, he turned to face his friend, risking the loss of the lemon poppy seed cake that he knew for a fact was one of Kinsmere’s favorites. “Geh – ” he began. But he made it no further. He went quiet as soon as he saw the strange, blank look on his friend’s face.
“Gehry?” he said.
Kinsmere, hand poised over Bruce’s lemon poppy seed cake, froze when he heard the sudden shift in the boy’s voice. It had gone from sounding whiny to sounding concerned, even scared. He looked across the table at Bruce, then turned toward Gehry.
“Hey,” he said. “Gehry. What are you looking at?”
It took the boy a moment to answer. And when he finally did, he spoke too softly to be heard. He barely even moved his lips.
“Huh?” Bruce said as he and Kinsmere began to look around the hall.
At that point, however, there was no need for Gehry to repeat himself. Because no matter where the boys looked – at the king and queen up front in the seats of honor, at the adults along the hall’s other couple dozen tables, even over at the servers stationed near the heaps of food – every pair of eyes stared right back at them.
The feast-bell clanged, and clanged, and clanged again. By the end of the third clang, every knight, lady, damsel, and dog in the dining hall had made it to their seat.
And as soon as his guests had quieted down, King Beribahn got to his feet. He was a tall man, and strong even in his older years. His beard had gone gray around the mouth, but otherwise his hair was as dark and red as it had been in his adventuring days. Back then, rogues of every kind spoke in frightened tones of the “flame-headed knight.” If he came knocking at your door, they would say, you knew your days of lawlessness were through.
The king reached for his cup, raised it high above his head, and shouted, “To the Realm!” After which he attempted to drink his wine as fast as humanly possible. In the Realm, this was a nearly sacred tradition, and though a fair amount of the purplish liquid ended up dripping into the king’s beard and onto his shirt, no one batted an eye. Spilling all over oneself had always been an important part of the tradition, too.
Having guzzled and spilled expertly, King Beribahn set his empty cup back down on the table. There was a smattering of applause, which the king patiently endured. Only once he had complete and utter silence did he throw his arms out to his sides and let loose a king-sized belch. It caused the crowd to leap to their feet. They cheered madly, and everyone who was able to sent belches of their own wafting back at their beloved ruler.
The king watched all this with a big, bright smile. But shortly after his gassy subjects had settled back down into their seats, that brightness vanished. The king’s expression turned solemn and dark. He strode back and forth across the front of the hall, his eyes aimed down at the toes of his boots.
“Friends of the Realm,” he said at last, glancing out at the crowd but continuing his pacing. “I address you this evening as your king – Beribahn, eldest son of Galaghand and Handelhar, who was daughter of Baghagelbisn, overseer of the Great Siege of Curnaffleflaffer and son to the one and only Todd, brother of Ferghelwergel, otherwise known as the Giant Slayer, and also sometimes Fungi Foot, who led the uprising at Yarlamik, and once met Penlaghel, also known as the Crazed King, at a party.”
The king paused by his seat to have a drink of water. Then he got back to pacing, and back to speaking, too.
“Many of you – no, no – I dare say most of you know the reason why I’ve called this feast.”
Gehry, Kinsmere, and Bruce peered around the hall. Every head was nodding. It was clear that the boys were the only ones in the place who had no clue what was going on.
“The Realm,” the king said, “has seen happier days than these. Days when the few foes we had were cowardly, weak, and easily done away with, if not simply ignored. Those times, I am sad to say, have passed. We have lately seen a surge in violence, in brutal, treacherous acts committed by rogue knights who have established themselves along the fringes of the Realm.
“It is therefore more important than ever for us to remain strong and true, and to reinforce the ties that bind us to one another and to the Realm at large. For it is not just our lives, but our way of life – our culture and beliefs, our values, our understanding of right and wrong and good and evil – that is at risk.
“These past few months, we have been more vigilant and vigorous than ever, not merely defending ourselves from active threats but venturing forth to prevent such threats from materializing in the first place. We have had many successes. Great deeds have been done, and glorious adventures have been had.
“I remind you of this so that I can thank you, every single one of you, for your service to the Realm. For whether or not you’re one of those who has ridden out from the castle, I assure you, you have played a part in defending the Realm. Without the help of each of you, of all of you, we would not be – and could not in the future remain – who we are today.
“But I have gathered you here for another reason, as well. I have gathered you, friends, in order to make an announcement. An historic announcement, no doubt, and one that – for reasons both personal and professional – deserves a celebration unmatched in the great and glorious annals of the Realm.”
The king paused for another sip of water. This time, however, he didn’t immediately return to his speech. He held onto the cup, and gazed down into its depths with a dreamy, faraway look in his eyes. Around him, the hall was silent. You could hear the rumbling of empty stomachs, the hopping of fleas on the backs of the dogs. And the air – it felt as taut as a harp string. Move a muscle, or even think too hard about moving one, and you would make it sing.
“We need more men,” the king said at last. He set his cup down firmly and turned to face the crowd, his expression once again solemn and dark. “That’s what this all comes down to. We need more men. I can say it no simpler than that. But a simple thing it is not. To become a man, a knight both brave and true, is no easy task. It can take years. It can take a lifetime’s worth of grueling effort. It is a labor of love – of love, first and foremost, for the Realm – but it would be foolish to assume that it is therefore a purely joyous and pleasant experience. It is not. But we need them. More men. We need them desperately.
“All of which is to say that I, King Beribahn, with my fellow knights among me, have decided to break precedent in these unprecedented times, and send forth – ” The king had to pause to clear something from his throat. “ – and send forth our youngest, dearest, our most-cherished boys, our knights-to-be, to seek adventure and overcome whatever obstacles they may encounter, and to one day return to this castle worthy of being knighted, of sitting here among us as those same brave defenders of the Realm that we so desperately need.”
Chairs scraped back against the floor as every guest – except, of course, for the boys – jumped to their feet. The crowd cheered and hollered and roared, then reached for their cups and guzzled their contents as quickly as they could. Men drenched their beards and soaked their shirts, ladies stained their dresses and ruined their jewelry, and all of this in the name of honoring Gehry, Kinsmere, and Bruce. Thoroughly soiled, the adults turned to the boys and conveyed their love and appreciation along with their belches and burps.
It wasn’t long after this that the king threw his royal cup up into the air. The cup was made of fire-hardened clay, and had been intricately and exquisitely decorated by one of the Realm’s finest artisans. Throwing it, the king made sure it soared high. It hung there a moment, frozen beneath a heavy wooden ceiling beam. Then the cup came tumbling down. The instant it hit the floor and burst into pieces, the band in the corner broke into song. Somewhere, an artisan wept. But the feast had officially begun.
Over at the kids’ table, the boys sat in silence. Not one of them had been expecting the king’s announcement, of course. But their reactions to the news couldn’t have been more different.
Kinsmere was thrilled. Grinning, baring every one of his teeth, his cheeks were as red as a pair of raspberry-rubbed rubies.
Gehry was solemn. His expression, in fact, wasn’t all that unlike the one his father had worn while delivering his address. The boy’s heart beat rapidly, but inside, he felt cool and supremely focused. It was how he felt sometimes during his lessons, if he was asked to recite a particularly long passage or answer a complicated question.
Bruce, meanwhile, was panicking. He scanned the hall frantically, his eyes bouncing from face to face, desperate to find the one that would assure him this was all an elaborate gag, a joke of King Beribahn’s.
There was, however, no one to do so.
Kinsmere reached across the table and set Bruce’s fork down beside his plate. “Eat up,” he told his friend. “This’ll probably be your last feast for a long time.”
Bruce looked down at the plate he had so ambitiously heaped with meats and veggies and cheeses and breads. He looked at that delicious lemon poppy seed cake, at its creamy, yellow, black-freckled skin. But for the first time in his life, Bruce didn’t feel the least bit hungry.
King Beribahn let his guests eat, drink, and belch in each other’s faces for a full hour, at which point he rose to make another announcement. This one was brief. It was merely to inform the boys that it was time to confer with their fathers, something that all knights-to-be did the night before setting out on their quests. And so the boys abandoned the kids’ table, each of them heading off in a different direction.
Gehry, of course, headed for the front of the hall. On his way, several guests clapped him on the back or stuck a hand out for a shake. One very old man even grabbed Gehry by the shoulders and, leaning in close, said he knew that one day the boy would make a king as great as his father, and then belched repeatedly in Gehry’s face. And though Gehry knew that this should have been among the proudest moments of his life, the old man’s words and burps barely moved him. The boy remained solemn and serious. He still felt focused – though on what, exactly, he wasn’t sure.
He continued toward his parents, pausing finally a few feet in front of their seats. There, just as he had learned to do in his lessons, Gehry bowed low to the ground. He remained in the bent position for several seconds, and when he looked back up, the queen waved him forward.
Gehry went, but he didn’t greet his mother with a hug, as he would have done that morning, or even just an hour before. Instead he took the queen’s fingers lightly in his own and placed a gentle kiss atop her knuckles. It was as if the boy were a knight already.
The boy’s show of manners pleased the king. He beamed at Gehry, his one and only child, smiling wide enough for the whole hall to see the tooth he had lost years ago, as a young man, while wrestling Urgurgle the Ogre. (The ogre had also lost a tooth, in addition to his life.)
“There’s not much we have to say to you,” King Beribahn told Gehry. “We know you’ll do well out there. We know you’ll make us, and the Realm itself, as proud as we could ever hope to be.”
Gehry bowed again, dipping even lower than last time and holding the pose for an extra couple seconds.
Nearby, Kinsmere had just reached Sir Colton’s seat. For a full minute, no words passed between father and son. Sir Colton simply studied Kinsmere. He narrowed his eyes and moved them methodically over the boy’s face, back and forth and up and down as if looking there for something he had lost long ago.
Finally Sir Colton said, “If you’re half the man I was at your age, you’ll be fine.” He reached for his cup. He drank long and slow, his eyes searching his son’s face once more from over the rim. “Don’t be cocky,” he continued, returning the cup to the table. “Don’t be foolish. And don’t do anything to make me regret agreeing to send you out there in the first place.”
“Yes, sir,” Kinsmere said. “I aim to make you proud, sir.”
Sir Colton gave his son a curt nod and, without another word, turned back to the knights and ladies seated at his table. He laughed at a joke someone had just finished telling. Apparently, the father-son conference was over already.
Kinsmere headed back to the kids’ table. On the way, he passed by Bruce, who was still looking for his own father.
“How was it?” Bruce asked him.
“Good,” Kinsmere said. He smiled, too. “Great, actually. Really, really . . . great.”
Bruce was too anxious to notice how unconvincing his friend sounded, too distracted to see how fake the boy’s smile was. He gave Kinsmere a nod, then scanned the crowd again for his father. Spotting him, he said, “Well, wish me luck.”
Kinsmere did. “You’ll do fine,” he said, and patted Bruce on the back as the boy took off.
For that, Bruce was grateful. But the small burst of confidence given to him by his friend faded within a few steps. Bruce began to sweat, and sweat how he always did, which was profusely. His forehead and armpits, his back and thighs and knees and chest and feet – his entire body, essentially, went from being bone dry to sopping wet in a matter of seconds.
Sir Brent sighed when he saw his son. “I already spoke to your mother,” he told Bruce. “She knows not to expect you home again.”
“Not to – to – ” Bruce stammered.
“Please,” Sir Brent hissed. “There’s no need to make a scene. You and I both know you won’t make it more than a fortnight out there. And that’s if you’re smart, and let your friends do the heavy lifting.”
“Yes, sir. I – ”
“And I mean that both figuratively and literally. Don’t try and carry anything too heavy. Let your friends do it, or put your things on your horse and walk alongside her. You hurt your back and you’re done for. A rogue knight’ll smell you from a mile away, and pick you off faster than you can say ‘cake.’”
“Yes, sir. I – of course I – ”
“Now go wipe yourself down,” Sir Brent said, turning from his son. “People are starting to stare.”
“Yes, sir,” Bruce said. “Sorry, sir. I . . . sorry.”
With that, he went. He returned to the kids’ table, where Gehry and Kinsmere were waiting for him. Neither of them asked Bruce how the conference had gone. They didn’t need to. The pain and shame were plainly visible on the boy’s face.
Text copyright © 2020 by Jarrett Lerner
All right reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.