By the time the boys reached the castle, a small crowd had gathered on the lawn outside. There were men and women, boys and girls, all of them thin and sick-looking, their skin covered in layers of dirt and grime. Perched atop their horses, the boys were able to look down and see that the crowd was in fact huddled in smaller clumps of four or five, and that at the center of each group was a man, holding out a peach pie – one identical to those that the boys had just feasted upon out in the field. The men, scraggly and starved as could be, let the women and children have a turn scooping up a bite of pie first, and only then did they reach in for a taste themselves.
Gehry tried to get a better look at the people’s faces, wondering if each group was a family. But with all the dirt and grime caking their skin, it was hard to make out any particular features, and nearly impossible to then compare, say, the shape of a lip or the bend of a nose to the person’s beside them.
Kinsmere studied the castle. First the stones, then the ironwork, and finally the flag, bright white with a big peach painted in its center. And all of it – it looked so new. Kinsmere wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that the castle had been built just yesterday, that the flag – clean and white as a field of freshly fallen snow – had been raised for the first time that very morning.
Bruce, meanwhile, looked back and forth from the pie-eating people to the castle. He wanted to know where the cheese was. Because the thick, greasy scent of pressed milk curds was now stronger than ever. It swarmed Bruce’s head, making him feel dizzy and desperate. But he hadn’t found so much as a smear of the stuff when the castle doors flew open with a bang loud enough to make him forget all about it.
Out of the castle strode a group of men who couldn’t have been more different than the crowd assembled on the lawn. They were big and brawny and obviously well-fed. And save for a smudge of peach juice on a cheek and the stray flake of piecrust in one man’s hair, they were all clean, a few of them even immaculately so. They looked, in a word, like knights.
The last of the men to emerge was by far the biggest, brawniest, and best-fed of them all. When it came to cleanliness, however – well, that was another story. The man looked like he had gone for a swim in a lake of smooshed peaches. Chunks of the fruit were wedged in the linked rings of his chainmail shirt. His once-black boots were stained an orange-brown color by years’ worth of crusted peach juice.
The man was chewing, loud as a herd of cows, and had a wide, glistening circle of pulpy peachiness slathered around his mouth. Suddenly, then, he tossed his head back and spat a peach pit into the air. The boys, the dirt-covered crowd, and the clean, knightly men all watched and waited for the pit to fall back down to the ground. After a minute had passed and it still hadn’t, everyone began to clap, the crowd as enthusiastically as their weak bones would allow, the knightly men a bit begrudgingly.
The peach-covered man, grinning hugely, planted his hands on his hips and looked around the lawn. When he spotted the three neat, clean, well-dressed boys sitting on horseback amidst the bedraggled crowd, the man’s grin disappeared with a swiftness that could only be described as terrifying.
Aiming a peach-stained finger at the intruders, he demanded, “Who are you?”
Gehry urged his horse forward. “I am Gehry,” he said, “son of Beribahn, King of the Realm and 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 – ” Pausing, he took a quick look around. “ – 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 big man squirmed his mouth around as if he were trying to poke something out from between his teeth. Leaning toward Gehry, he spit out another peach pit. It struck the ground, bounced, and rolled up to tap the hoof of Gehry’s horse.
“That,” the man said, “is what I have to say about your royal lineage. Beribahn . . . ” He laughed. “He’s not the king of this realm.” He pointed down at his crusted-over boots and proclaimed, “This is my castle. My kingdom. For I am the Peachy Knight!”
The crowd once again clapped for the man, who, it was now clear to the boys, was some sort of rogue knight.
It was Kinsmere, who had brought his horse forward so that he now sat beside Gehry.
“Did you say Peach-eee?”
“Uh, I – well, yes,” said the rogue knight. “Yes, I did. Peachy. Is there . . . why? What – what’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Kinsmere shook his head. “It’s just – I figured – I thought you said Peach, that’s all.”
“You thought or you figured?” asked the rogue knight.
Kinsmere considered the question. Then he began to nod. “I guess I figured, yeah.”
The rogue knight frowned.
“No,” Kinsmere told him. “It’s not, like, bad that way. It’s just a little, I don’t know, strange, I guess? It’s different. You know, like when I hear ‘peachy,’ I’m not really thinking ‘knight’ is gonna come next. I’m more ready to hear something like – like ‘lady,’ I guess.”
The crowd let out a collective gasp, and the Peachy Knight’s eyes got as big as fists.
Kinsmere shook his hands as if he were trying to scrub away what he had just said. “Hold on,” he said. “Wait. I didn’t – I didn’t mean it like that. I wasn’t saying anything about you. I was just curious, that’s all.”
This seemed to quell, and also confuse, the rogue knight. “Curious?” he said, as if this were his first time encountering the word.
“Yeah,” Kinsmere said. “I was wondering, I guess. I mean, why not just leave it at Peach?”
The rogue knight winced a little, and sighed, and then, in the pinched, whiny voice of a child who has realized too late that he chose the worst of the desserts at a feast, he said, “I was gonna do Peach, but then I started doubting myself. I was all worried. Like, you know, is that right? Is Peach correct? Because, you know, I’m not actually a peach.”
“Right,” Kinsmere said, nodding sympathetically.
“And – and then – ” Tugging up a sleeve of his chainmail shirt, the rogue knight stuck out his arm so Kinsmere could see. “Look. It’s not like my skin’s really peach-toned, either.”
“I see that,” Kinsmere said. He narrowed his eyes and leaned forward on his horse. “More of a . . . a sort of pale strawberry.”
“Really?” said the rogue knight, sounding touched. “You think?”
“Oh, yeah,” Kinsmere said. “For sure. I definitely see some strawberry in there.”
Turning over his arm in the sunlight, the rogue knight muttered, “I always thought it was kind of an ugly color.”
“Stop that,” Kinsmere told him. “It’s a lovely color.” He looked back at the crowd. “Isn’t it lovely?”
There was some murmuring among the crowd. Individual voices could be heard here and there, saying things like, “Oh, yes,” and, “Yes, indeed,” and, “Very lovely.”
“See?” Kinsmere asked the rogue knight.
The man shrugged, sheepishly, as if he wasn’t quite convinced. “Anyway,” he said, moving on. “I ended up going with Peachy, on account of my liking peaches so much, plus cause I’m always eating ‘em. And if I’m not? Well, you can be sure at least I smell like ‘em. All of which led me to believe that the adjectival form was the proper one to use. The Peach-eee Knight, as opposed to just the Peach Knight. Otherwise people might show up looking for a knight with a complexion a little more orange than mine. Or, I don’t know – ” He shrugged again, and this time the gesture seemed almost cheery. “ – maybe even a great big peach on horseback, all suited up with a sword and shield.” The rogue knight smiled at the thought of this, then uttered a single syllable of laughter: “Ha.”
The instant they heard this, the crowd erupted, throwing their heads back and hooting up at the sky. Several women slapped their knees. A few men toppled to the ground, gripping their splitting sides.
The rogue knight looked their way, a small, shy smile on his face. He lifted a hand and gave a tiny wave. “Thanks,” he said. “Ha. Thank you, yeah.”
As he was taking in the adoring crowd, the rogue knight’s eyes once again settled on the boys, and his smile began to fade.
All of a sudden he blurted, “Who are you?”
Gehry cleared his throat. “Oh, ah – we did that one already. Remember?”
The rogue knight’s eyes got glassy. He was, it seemed, casting his mind back into his memories of a few minutes ago. Finally, blinking himself back into the present moment, he said, “Oh, right. Yeah. Of course. Thanks.”
Gehry gave a little nod. “No problem,” he said.
Taking a second to compose himself, the rogue knight started over. “What are you?” he said, but began to shake his head before all the words had even passed his lips. “No, no, no,” he muttered. “That’s not right. It’s . . . well, it’d have to be . . . Aha!” he cried, and in a proud, booming voice, he declared, “What are you doing here?”
There was some polite applause from the crowd.
Gehry waited for the clapping to stop, then gave the Peachy Knight the answer he knew he was supposed to give. “We are knights-to-be, and have been sent forth in search of adventure, hoping to prove ourselves worthy enough to return to my father’s castle and become proper knights, after which we shall spend our lives protecting the Realm from the evil influences that seek to threaten its continued existence and eternal glory.”
The rogue knight cupped a hand around his sticky mouth and quietly asked Gehry, “You said ‘adventure,’ right?”
“Yep,” Gehry answered. “Back there in the beginning.”
“Ha!” barked the rogue knight. “If it’s adventure you’re after, then you’ve come to the right place! For you’ve arrived at the castle of the Peachy Knight at the outset of the world-famous, semi-annual – ” He leaned back and, putting his whole body into it, bellowed up at the heavens: “PEACHY-SLASH-CHEESY TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS!”
The crowd – by now, perhaps, feeling the bolstering effects of those sugar-packed pies – cheered louder than ever.
“You missed the first event,” the rogue knight told the boys. “But that was pie-throwing, and it’s not like any of you could have beaten me, anyway. Normally I wouldn’t even let sad sacks like you compete, but seeing as that so-called king sent you here himself, I’ll make an exception.” He licked his lips, collecting some of the juicy peach flesh stuck to his skin and quickly swallowing it. “You’ll spend the night in my castle, and compete tomorrow in the rest of the tournament’s events. And once you’ve been beaten, once you’ve been humiliated and shamed, you can run home and tell Beribahn that no one can match the greatness of the Peachy Knight. And if he doesn’t believe it? Well, I’ll launch a pie clear across his itsy-bitsy little realm so it smacks him right in his stupid, ugly face!”
Bruce, who had been silent this whole time, kicked his horse forward, putting himself closer to the rogue knight. “Um, hi,” he said. “I think I heard – did you say ‘cheesy?’”
“Yes,” said the man. “Peachy-slash-Cheesy. That’s the name of the tournament. That’s my brother.”
“Who is?” asked Bruce.
“The Cheesy Knight.”
“I see . . . ” Bruce said. “Is there any way we could meet him?”
The boys didn’t get to meet the Cheesy Knight, and didn’t get to enjoy any of his fine-smelling cheese, either. Instead they were instructed to get off their horses, at which point a thin, dirt-caked child led them into the castle.
First, the child took them up a staircase. This came as a great relief to Gehry, who had assumed the Peachy Knight, rogue that he was, would force the boys to spend the night in his frigid cellar or, worse, some kind of dungeon. However, not long after the boys had been led up the staircase, they were led back down to the first floor by way of a different one.
Gehry fell back a few steps and leaned in close to his friends. “You think he knows where he’s going?” he asked them quietly.
Kinsmere shrugged. “Better than I do, at least.”
Bruce didn’t contribute to the conversation. In fact, he didn’t even hear his friends talking. He was busy, completely consumed in an examination of the walls of the corridors they were passing through, each of which had been decorated with various weapons and, it appeared, instruments of torture. There was a pair of giant metal jaws, spring-loaded, ready to snap and bite off a foot or a leg with its large, sharp teeth. There were thick whips, thin whips, and heavy ropes that had been wound around elaborate networks of gears, pulleys, levers, and wheels. There were swords and spears, lances and pikes, daggers and knives – essentially every kind of sharp, pokey-thing that history’s more violent metalworkers had ever conceived of. The objects put Bruce in such a dark and fearful mood that even the regular torches that lit the corridors began to look menacing.
When the boys’ guide took a turn into a long, bare-walled corridor, Bruce felt a rush of gratitude and relief. His head began to clear, and was quickly helped to clear even more by the sudden arrival of a lovely smell. Or smells, actually. Because the first scent swiftly gave way to another, and so on and so forth until Bruce couldn’t even tell what he was smelling. All he knew – and all he needed to know – was that it smelled glorious.
At last, the boys were led into a big, hot, busy kitchen. The sight of the place stopped not only Bruce in his tracks, but also Gehry and Kinsmere in theirs. The kitchen’s size and scope and level of frenetic activity rivaled even that of the one in King Beribahn’s castle.
Between and around the bodies darting about the place, the boys glimpsed a quantity of food that was, in a word, astonishing. There were blobs of dough the size of foals that were slowly inflating, growing larger, and larger still. There were cloth bags, enormous things whose tops nearly touched the ceiling, with words like “CINNAMON” and “ALLSPICE” and “CUMIN” and “CARDAMOM” printed on their sides. There were small mountains of sugar and flour, a sprawling heap of peaches – and in one corner, leaning carefully against the wall, a wheel of cheese humongous enough to make a troll-giant feel faint. The wheel was surrounded by a group of thin, tired-looking women whose job, it seemed, was to fan the cheese, thus preventing it from softening in the hot kitchen and losing its perfectly round shape.
It was the boys’ guide, trying to get their attention. The child was already over on the opposite side of the kitchen. He waved at them to hurry up, and the boys went, dodging the charging bodies of bakers and cooks.
They were led out of the kitchen – Bruce lingering a moment in the doorway, casting a glance of longing back at the cheese – and into another corridor, at the end of which they went up two flights of stairs, turned a corner, and crossed yet another corridor. There, at last, the boys’ guide stopped. The child poked a finger at a small wooden door. It was so small, in fact, that the boys hadn’t even noticed it before their guide had pointed it out. In order to reach whatever lay on the other side, they would have had to get down on their hands and knees and crawl.
Which, it became clear, was exactly what the boys’ guide wanted them to do. The child poked again at the tiny door, this time more forecefully. Then he turned around and walked away.
Gehry, Kinsmere, and Bruce all watched him go. His feet made little shushing sounds on the stone floor, the noise bouncing back to the boys’ ears down the otherwise empty corridor. Once the child had disappeared around the corner, the boys turned back to the small door.
Kinsmere nudged it with the toe of his boot, and the door crept open with a creaky whine.
“Well, then,” he said.
He got down on his hands and knees and crawled on through.
The room wasn’t as bad as that tiny door had led the boys to believe. But that’s not to say that it was big and warm and cozy. In fact, the room was just the opposite. Extremely narrow, with a gaping hole of a “window” at the far end and a pair of stacked wooden planks fastened to one wall, it was small and cold and uncomfortable.
Kinsmere, however, didn’t seem to mind.
“I call top bunk,” he said, hoisting himself up onto the higher of the two planks.
Gehry pointed to the other. “You take that one, Bruce. I don’t mind the floor.” To prove it, he lowered himself down onto the cold stones, leaned his head back against the wall, and shut his eyes.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.”
This was Bruce. He was standing in the middle of the room, looking back and forth from one of his friends to the other.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “What about all that food?”
Gehry opened his eyes. “What about it?”
“I want some,” Bruce said.
From his perch atop the upper plank, Kinsmere chuckled.
“Don’t worry,” Gehry told Bruce. “I’m sure they’ll bring us something.”
Not two seconds later, there was a knock at the door. Bruce opened it and leapt back when a pair of scrawny, dirty arms thrust into the room, holding a pitcher of water in one hand and a loaf of bread in the other. The pitcher and loaf were dropped unceremoniously to the floor, at which point the arms disappeared as abruptly as they had arrived.
“That’s it?” Bruce cried out into the hallway.
But there was no answer. The owner of the scrawny arms was already gone.
Heaving a sigh, Bruce picked up the bread. “Hard as a rock,” he said, then banged the loaf against the wall to show his friends that he wasn’t exaggerating. A few crumbs broke off and sprinkled onto the floor, but otherwise the bread remained intact.
“Here,” Kinsmere said.
He hopped down off his plank and took the bread from Bruce. Smashing the loaf over his knee, he broke it into half a dozen more manageable pieces. He picked one up and plunked it into the pitcher of water. After letting it sit in the liquid for a few seconds, Kinsmere popped the softened piece of bread into his mouth.
“Mm, mm, mm.” He patted his stomach. “Delicious,” he said, reaching for another hunk of bread.
Bruce grabbed a piece for himself before his friend could eat the whole loaf. Dunking it into the water, waiting for it to soften, he said, “This is ridiculous.”
“The life of a knight,” Kinsmere said between chews, “isn’t all fanfare and feasts.” Soaking a third piece of bread, he tossed it over to Gehry.
“Thanks,” Gehry said, blinking down at the soggy thing in his palm.
It took the boys just a couple minutes to finish the bread. At which point Bruce asked, “What do we do now?”
“We get some sleep,” Gehry said. “Tomorrow’s a big day.”
Kinsmere grinned. “Our very first tournament.”
“Oh, joy,” said Bruce, his voice as unenthusiastic as Kinsmere’s was thrilled.
The boys passed the pitcher of water around until it was empty. Then they went to bed.
Text copyright © 2020 by Jarrett Lerner
All right reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.