It took another hour, but the boys finally made it out of the Forest of Egergrel. After spending so long in that tree-covered darkness, the sun seemed cruelly bright. Standing at the forest’s edge, they squinted and groaned and even swatted at that distant star.
Kinsmere was the first to fully open his eyes. Looking around, he saw a large, flat field, much like the ones the boys had crossed to get to the Forest of Egergrel. But it couldn’t have been the same field, Kinsmere assured himself. He was mentally retracing their steps, trying to figure out if they could have taken a wrong turn somewhere, when he spotted another sign. From the back, it looked similar to the one that the boys had seen before: a wide, flat piece of wood nailed into another, taller and thinner piece of wood.
Grinning, feeling giddy, Kinsmere hurried around to the front of the sign. There he saw several painted symbols, just like he and his friends had seen on the other sign. There was the horse. The sword. The spear. The steaming kettle. The crooked stick. The dragon. The goblet. The shield. The hunk of smelly cheese and – Kinsmere’s heart picked up speed – an arrow.
The boy’s eyes leapt back and forth between the sign and the direction in which that arrow seemed to be pointing.
Slowly, his grin shriveled.
“What is it?” Gehry said.
“Another sign,” said Kinsmere. “It’s like the one before, and it’s telling us to go right back into this stupid forest.”
“Ah,” said Bruce. “Interesting. Say, you wouldn’t happen to mean the forest that belongs to the troll-giant you just crossed, would you?”
Kinsmere whirled around to face his friend. “Will you quit it already with the crossing the troll-giant stuff? We’ve got more important things to deal with right now.”
“Right,” Bruce said. “Such as the fact that we’re gonna have to go back in there” – he threw a hand toward the Forest of Egergrel – “if we want to find your oh-so-precious swords and spears. Because crossing a troll-giant isn’t enough for you, is it, Kin? And losing our horses and all our supplies? That’s not enough, either. No, no, no. We’ve also got to lose our lives. We’ve got to – ”
“Stop it!” Kinsmere spat. “You’re just hungry,” he said. “You’re hungry and grouchy because you haven’t eaten in the past five minutes.”
“Minutes?!” Bruce said. He tossed his head back and sent a bark of laughter up at the sky. “More like the past five hours. I haven’t eaten, and I probably never will eat again. Not if things keep going like this. I’ll be a troll-giant’s lunch before I get a bite of my own.”
Kinsmere smirked. “Let’s just hope you’re plump enough to satisfy the guy. Then maybe Gehry and I can get away.”
Bruce’s eyes popped open wide. His breathing grew heavy and erratic, and his nostrils flared like a teased and taunted bull’s. He let out a roar and charged Kinsmere, aiming to use his “plumpness” to tackle his “friend” to the ground.
But Bruce never made it over to Kinsmere. While still several feet away, he abruptly stopped, almost as if he had run into an invisible wall. Flinging his head back, the boy then began to turn and turn in small, tight circles, all the while gasping for air.
Bruce carried on like this for nearly a minute, at which point he came to another abrupt stop. Lowering his head, looking at his friends, he told them, “Cheese.”
Kinsmere, who had crouched down low in anticipation of Bruce’s attack, stood up straight. “Cheese?”
Gehry rushed to Bruce’s side. “Where, Bruce?” he said. “Where?”
Bruce went back to spinning and gasping. He did so more slowly this time, and it only lasted a few seconds. He came to a stop with his back facing the Forest of Egergrel. Lifting his arm, he pointed to a spot straight ahead of him and said, “There.”
All three boys peered into the distance.
“Oh,” Gehry said. “You mean where that little castle-shaped thing is?”
It was small, a pebble perched on the horizon, but very clearly a castle.
“And hey,” Kinsmere said, aiming a finger at a spot off to the side of the distant structure.
There were three brown lumpy things standing in an especially lush portion of the field. The front halves of these four-legged lumps kept dipping down to the ground and yanking up hunks of grass.
“Well,” said Bruce, “at least our horses are getting some lunch.”
The boys set off, first to fetch their mounts and then to head to the castle.
It was a few minutes into the walk that Kinsmere said, “Someone should really fix those signs.”
With every step the boys took, the scent of cheese grew stronger. After a while, the air was so thick with the odor that they could nearly taste the stuff.
“I’m pretty sure this is torture,” Bruce said shortly after they had reached and remounted their horses. “Is torture something knights-to-be are supposed to experience? Cause, yeah – I think we’ve got that part covered right here.”
A few minutes later – the castle was now the size of a radish, and the boys could see a flag flying from its tallest turret, white with a big orange dot in its center – pies began to fall out of the sky. The first few landed forty or so feet in front of the boys.
“Those aren’t . . . ” Gehry said. “Are they?”
“It looks like it,” Kinsmere said as another pie-like object splattered to the grass.
This one landed close enough to startle the horses. The animals planted their hooves and refused to go any farther.
Bruce, however, could not, and would not, be stopped. He tossed aside his reins and hurled himself out of his saddle. He crashed to the ground, belly-first, with an, “Oof,” but was on his feet a beat later, running toward the nearest pie. Once there, he bent down to investigate, which of course didn’t take long, Bruce being an expert in all things dessert. He sprang back up almost immediately and, arms thrown high and triumphant over his head, he did a happy dance.
“Pies!” he sang, “Pies, pies, pies!” as another, and then another, splatted down around him.
Once the miracle had been properly celebrated, Bruce dropped to his knees in front of one of the juiciest-looking pies. “It’s peach!” he called to his friends. “A peach pie! Heaven-sent!” He dug a hand down into the smashed-up pastry and scooped a flaky, goopy handful toward his mouth.
This was Gehry, now hopping off his horse and rushing over to Bruce.
“How do we know it’s not poisoned?” he said. “Or enchanted? Or – or worse?”
Bruce blinked up at his friend. Then, very slowly, he finished bringing his hand to his mouth. He pushed the smooshed peaches and bits of piecrust past his lips and carefully chewed. Once he had swallowed the last of it, he sat there calmly, doing nothing. He was giving the poison a chance to kick in, the enchantment a moment to take hold of him. But nothing happened. And so Bruce scooped up a second handful and shoveled it down his throat.
Gehry and Kinsmere dug in, too, and for several minutes, the boys ate in silence. Or not exactly silence. There were plenty of sounds – moans and grunts of pleasure, the sucking of fingertips, the smacking of lips – just no words.
Until Kinsmere said, “Look at that.”
The other boys looked, and saw a pie flying high overhead. It sailed higher, and higher still, and hung there in the air so long it was as if it were considering becoming a star. When at last the pie came down, it was such a long ways away that, despite the quietness of the field, the boys couldn’t even hear it splat against the ground. They could, however, hear the boisterous cheers that rose up from the castle in the distance.
Text copyright © 2020 by Jarrett Lerner
All right reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.