None of the boys got much sleep that night. Gehry and Kinsmere stayed up late together. First they practiced their swordsmanship (Kinsmere’s idea), then they packed their bags and made sure their horses had been well-fed (Gehry’s). Bruce, meanwhile, slumped about his bedroom, trying to think of a way to get out of joining his friends without heaping any more shame on his family. He couldn’t.
Morning came, and between them, the boys had slept a total of six hours. However, when they mounted their horses and strode through the castle gates, they didn’t look the least bit tired. There was too much excitement in the air – and, particularly in the air right around Bruce, too much terror – for that. Men and women, boys and girls, dogs and sheep and even a larger than normal contingent of flies had gathered on the lawn that stretched out before the castle, every one of them there to see off the Realm’s youngest knights-to-be.
Up on his horse, Gehry thought about his posture. He focused on his back and shoulders, on keeping the one stiff and the other straight. Now and again he looked down at the crowd on either side of him, but mostly he kept his chin tipped up and his eyes aimed forward, mimicking the posture of the knights he had read about in his favorite books.
Kinsmere was more relaxed. He waved and smiled and winked – and even blew a few kisses – at the damsels who, up until the previous evening, had ignored him completely. But this morning, they saw him in a new light. He was no longer a mere boy, but a boy on his way to becoming a man – to becoming a knight – and one that they might someday be lucky enough to marry.
Bruce brought up the rear, and refused to so much as glance at the crowd swelling around him. Doing so, he knew, would only increase his terror, and he had delayed his friends plenty already. It had taken Gehry and Kinsmere nearly twenty minutes to calm Bruce down enough to get him up on his horse. The animals could sense fear, and would toss a nervous rider before they took a single step with one on their back.
As soon as the boys had made it past the last of the onlookers, a cheer rose up from the crowd. People threw hats into the air. They threw shoes, then sticks and stones. One lady threw her baby up over her head. And once the belching began, a handful of especially enthusiastic well-wishers even threw up their breakfasts.
“Can you believe it?” Kinsmere said to his friends. “This time yesterday, we never would’ve believed that we’d be setting out like this. Not now. Not today. Probably not even a year from today.”
“But here we are,” Gehry said.
“Here we are,” Kinsmere agreed.
The boys waited. They were both hoping Bruce would echo the sentiment.
“Bruce,” Kinsmere finally said. “We’re kind of trying to have a moment here.”
There was no answer.
Gehry and Kinsmere both looked behind them. They found their friend in a heap on the ground about forty feet back. The boy’s horse had dumped him, and was now trotting back toward the castle. A few of the braver men from the crowd of onlookers intercepted the animal before she could get all the way to the stables. They spent a couple minutes calming her down, then helped Gehry and Kinsmere get Bruce back up into his saddle.
The boys rode for several hours without incident. They passed through one field after another. In some fields, the grass grew a bit taller than in others. Sometimes, the ground was soft. Other times, it was not-so-soft.
And rode and rode and rode.
It was, in a word, boring.
Every few minutes, Kinsmere looked back over his shoulder. He did so in the hopes that Bruce had been tossed off his horse again, not out of any animosity toward his friend, but just so that the boys would have something to do to break up the monotony of the fields and the thumph–thumph–thumph of their horses’ hooves beneath them. Alas, Bruce seemed to have gotten his nerves under control. His horse clomped along, pulling up mouthfuls of grass whenever they passed a particularly tall patch. Clomping, chewing, she seemed content.
“So,” Bruce said after yet another, incident-less hour had passed. “Do the adventures just . . . come to us? Or is it more like a we find them sort of thing?”
His friends didn’t have an answer for him.
Eventually, however, Kinsmere said, “You know, for all the stories I’ve heard about knights and their adventures, I’ve never really understood that.”
“Me neither,” Gehry admitted.
Kinsmere chuckled. “Isn’t that weird? They always say, ‘He rode forth, and found adventure.’”
This last part the boy said in a deep, booming baritone, the kind of tone favored by the Realm’s most dramatic storytellers. The imitation was a good one, equal parts accurate and silly. It got Bruce giggling.
“They never say, ‘He followed the directions given to him by the other knights,’” Kinsmere said. “Or, ‘He rode north, as everyone knows you’re supposed to do.’”
“Yeah,” Gehry said. “But maybe that’s part of it. Maybe figuring out where the adventures are is the first, you know, obstacle.”
“Maybe,” Kinsmere said, but he didn’t sound convinced. “It just seems like a really slow way of doing things. Especially if what your dad said is true, and the Realm needs more men so badly.”
“Hey. About that,” said Bruce. “I was gonna say . . . ” He bit his lip, as if he wasn’t sure whether he should go on. “Doesn’t it seem just a little bit, well, foolish?”
Both Gehry and Kinsmere turned to face him.
“Foolish?” Gehry said.
“What is?” Kinsmere asked.
“Sending the three of us out here,” Bruce explained. “Making us the ones who are supposed to defend the Realm against all these rogue knights.”
Gehry frowned. But then, gradually, he began to nod. “I guess we are a little young.”
“But think about it,” Kinsmere said. “What other choice did they have? It’s basic arithmetic, really. Say the Realm’s got x number of men. They need to add to that number, right? But where do the men come from? It’s not like they can do anything with the men they’ve already got. So they send their non-men out to become men. They send us. And once we’re done out here? Once we get back? The Realm’s got x + 3 number of men.”
Satisfied with his little lesson, Kinsmere grinned. And Gehry – he was nodding again. After all, Kinsmere’s math was accurate, his logic sound.
Bruce, however, didn’t buy it.
“Not so fast,” he said. “Because as soon as you add some flesh and blood to that equation – especially my flesh and blood – it breaks down. I mean, the likelihood of a few kids surviving out on the fringes of the Realm, all on their own, jousting and sword-fighting and whatever else-ing with men two or three times their size?”
“Wha – ” Kinsmere began.
But Bruce started up again before he could get any further. “And say, on top of all that, they – these kids – say they run into some even worse characters. You know, witches and ogres and demons and stuff. Say they’ve got to try and fend off spells and enchantments and all sorts of big, strong, dark, scary forces. Say they’ve got to go up against that.”
His grin long gone, Kinsmere swallowed hard. “Say they do,” he said. “Say they do.”
Bruce shrugged and said, “It’s just not very likely, that’s all. I mean, nothing against your dad, Gehry, but like I said, it just doesn’t seem all that thought out.” He bit his lip again, but only briefly. “If I’m being totally honest, it actually seems kinda . . . ”
Kinsmere said, “Kinda what?”
“Well,” said Bruce. “Kinda dumb.”
Neither Gehry nor Kinsmere had anything to say to this. They didn’t seem angry, though. Deeply confused? Yes. But not angry. And so Bruce kept talking.
“And since we’re on the subject?” he said, his voice higher than normal, as if it were proceeding carefully, on its tiptoes. “Isn’t the whole entire thing kind of dumb?”
“What whole entire thing?” Gehry said.
Here, Bruce came close to telling his friends never mind, to changing the subject, maybe saying something about how this flat expanse of grass was so much prettier than that other flat expanse of grass they had just rode across. But he couldn’t do it. He had lived alone with these thoughts for far too long. And every day, it seemed, they took up more space in his brain. They grew bigger, and stronger, and fought harder to be heard. Just now, Bruce could feel them climbing up his throat, throbbing on the tip of his tongue.
So he said it.
He said: “Knighthood.”
Bruce’s horse bucked. It was as if she had understood what the boy on her back had said, and as if she simply refused to carry such a traitorous idiot for another instant.
Somehow, Bruce held on. He clung to his saddle until the irate horse calmed down. Looking up, he found his friends staring at him. Their horses, too. Four pairs of eyes, big and blinking, waiting for some kind of explanation.
“Hold on,” Bruce said. “Just listen.”
“Holding,” said Kinsmere.
“Listening,” said Gehry.
“It’s just – ” Bruce paused to let out a long, heavy sigh. It had been in him, that sigh, building and building, for months, maybe even years. “I guess I just never understood how it all added up. Like, you go out and find a random guy who happens to not be as big a fan of the Realm as you are. You find him, and you don’t even bother talking to him first. You don’t get to know him at all. You don’t hear him out and then maybe help him see, maybe get him to a point where he’s like, okay, yeah, maybe the Realm’s not so bad after all. Nuh-uh. You just whip out your sword and fight the guy until one of you is dead. And, I mean, if the Realm really needs more men, then why not try and get some of these rogue knights to just stop being so rogue? You know? Talk about arithmetic. Every guy you got to renounce his rogue-ness would actually be worth two guys. You’d have one less enemy, and one more friend. I mean, I don’t know. It’s just – it’s always seemed to me like no one’s ever sat down and thought this whole thing through.”
If you’ve ever scarfed down a bowl of chilled pudding immediately after it has been brought up from the depths of a cool cellar, then you’ll know how Bruce’s words left Gehry and Kinsmere feeling. It was as if their brains had been replaced by blocks of ice. They couldn’t think. Their skulls pulsed with a cold, dull pain.
If not for the boys’ horses, they might have gone on sitting there forever. But after a moment, Gehry’s horse started off again across the flat expanse of grass before them. Bruce’s and Kinsmere’s animals were quick to follow.
Fifteen minutes passed before another word was spoken. That word was, “Hey,” and it was Gehry, still riding at the front of the pack, who spoke it. “I think . . . I think we found it.”
“Found what?” Kinsmere said.
“Adventure,” Gehry told him.
Kinsmere and Bruce nudged their horses forward and fell into step on either side of their friend. They looked ahead, to where Gehry was pointing, and saw a sign – a wide, flat piece of wood that had been nailed to another, taller and thinner piece of wood. Several symbols had been painted onto the sign. There was a horse. A sword. A spear. A steaming kettle. A crooked stick. A dragon. A goblet. A shield. And also, in the lower corner, what appeared to be a hunk of smelly cheese.
It was hard to tell for sure, but based on its positioning, the sign seemed to be pointing the boys toward a small patch of trees in the distance. They set out in that direction, and soon found a path. It was faint, nothing but a thin band of grass that had been trampled a bit more than the rest of the field around it. But it was clear enough that dozens, if not hundreds, of other pairs of feet had previously traveled that very same route.
It took the boys half an hour to reach those trees. Which, as it turned out, weren’t so much a small patch as they were the start of a large, gradually widening forest – the Forest of Egergrel. This was according to another sign, a thin strip of painted-upon wood that had been nailed to the trunk of a tree.
“Who’s Egergrel?” Bruce asked.
“If you haven’t heard of him,” Kinsmere said, “then I definitely haven’t. You actually paid attention during lessons.” He turned to Gehry. “What about you, bookworm? You know who he is?”
Gehry gazed into the woods. “I think he’s a giant. Or no – a troll.”
Kinsmere smiled. “Or maybe a giant troll,” he said.
“Or,” Gehry added, “a troll-giant.”
He wasn’t trying to be funny, but Kinsmere found this humorous enough to laugh.
Bruce said, “Let’s hope he’s none of the above. Let’s hope Egergrel’s just a nice old nonthreatening man whose hobbies include providing food and shelter to weary young travelers.”
A low, soul-shaking growl rose up from somewhere deep in the woods.
The boys’ horses all skittered backwards, away from the trees. Kinsmere’s even reared up onto her hind legs. Shrieking, the creature’s forelegs churned the air, swiping and slashing as if fending off an invisible beast. It was several seconds before Kinsmere managed to calm the horse down. The incident left the boy’s face, open and laughing a moment before, stricken and pale.
“Don’t worry,” Gehry told his friends. He urged his own horse forward, toward the trees. “That . . . ” he said. “That was just a – a bird.”
It was no bird. Gehry knew it, and so did Kinsmere and Bruce. Gehry also knew that Kinsmere and Bruce knew, and Kinsmere and Bruce even knew that Gehry knew they knew. But the lie gave the boys the courage to press on. It kept them from turning back or going around. It got them plunging forward into the dark, forbidding heart of the Forest of Egergrel.
Text copyright © 2020 by Jarrett Lerner
All right reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.