PART III: Encounters in the Night
The boys went to bed, but only Kinsmere fell asleep.
Almost immediately he sank into a dream. The dream was about a tournament, a sort of collage of the countless contests he had attended as a child, always stuck on the sidelines, clapping and cheering for his favorite knights, desperate to get in on the action himself.
Kinsmere’s father was there. The words he had said at the boys’ send-off feast boomed in the background, providing a kind of accompaniment to the dream’s various scenes.
Don’t be cocky, Sir Colton had said. Don’t be foolish. And don’t do anything to make me regret agreeing to send you out there in the first place.
If you’re half the man I was at your age, you’ll be fine.
Kinsmere was up on horseback, the butt-end of a lance tucked in his armpit. He was galloping toward another knight, big and ugly and sticky with peach juice and –
Kinsmere knocked the guy square in the chest, sending him toppling off his horse and crashing to the ground.
Even in his sleep, a grin curled onto the boy’s lips.
Over on the opposite side of the boy’s cold, cramped room, leaning back against the wall, Gehry sat with open eyes.
Bruce found this enormously frustrating. Laid out on his plank-bed, he had been waiting impatiently for his friends to fall asleep. Kinsmere had drifted off quickly enough, but Gehry – it seemed he was so uncomfortable that he wasn’t even trying to get any sleep. Bruce was close to giving up, to climbing down off his plank and just telling Gehry what he wanted to do. And if Gehry tried to stop him? If he made a fuss or tried to hold Bruce back physically?
Fortunately for Bruce, he didn’t end up having to answer such tricky questions. Seconds before he swung his legs off his plank, Gehry began to squirm around. Bruce shut his eyes, assuming his friend was finally trying to get cozy on the stone floor. Once it was quiet again, Bruce opened his eyes and looked back down, but he couldn’t find Gehry anywhere.
Rubbing at his eyes, trying to get them better adjusted to the darkness, Bruce scanned the room. The floor was empty. And the tiny door – it was open.
Gehry was gone.
Bruce sat up on his plank. For a moment, he forgot all about his plans. He only wondered where Gehry was going.
It didn’t take him long to figure it out. He thought back to before, to when the boys were sharing that loaf of bread. Gehry hadn’t taken any himself. He hadn’t even asked for any. He had eaten the soggy bit that Kinsmere threw to him, but no more.
Bruce nearly laughed out loud when he realized that Gehry had had the same idea as him all along. Careful not to wake Kinsmere, he got off his plank, dropped down onto his hands and knees, and crawled through the door. Out in the corridor, back up on his feet, Bruce pulled the small door shut behind him. Then he went to meet Gehry in the Peachy Knight’s kitchen.
Bruce was wrong about Gehry. He had no interest in returning to the Peachy Knight’s kitchen. Unless, that is, the kitchen had a bathroom in it. If there were a cozy little chamber tucked away, say, behind that giant wheel of cheese, then Gehry would have been extremely interested in a visit.
He had to pee. He had to pee far worse than he had ever had to pee before. What’s more, he had had to pee for several hours now. His stomach was in knots, and the lower half of his body had long ago begun to go numb.
He made his way down one corridor after another. But it was too dark in the castle to see much of anything. The handful of torches still lit hadn’t been fed in hours, and their flames cast such a dim light that they seemed to make it harder, not easier, to see. Gehry was forced to rely on his nose as opposed to his eyes, sniffing about the castle’s corridors for a bathroom’s telltale scents.
As he did, he began to think about all of the knights and knights-to-be in the great and glorious history of the Realm, the countless stories he had been told by his lesson masters and the innumerable tales he had read in his favorite books. He had marveled over each and every one of those stories, lovingly read and reread all those highly detailed account of the great men’s adventures and deeds. Yet the boy couldn’t recall a single instance in which a knight or even a knight-to-be had been struck by the need to pee. Had he missed something during his lessons? Was he different from everybody else? Had all those brave and noble knights rode around defending the Realm in dirty pants?
Gehry didn’t know, but if he didn’t stop thinking about it, he was going to have dirty pants. So he put all these extraneous thoughts out of his head and focused on finding a place to pee.
First things first, out in the corridor, Bruce stopped by the bathroom. Conveniently, there was one located right outside the boys’ room. Bruce had noticed the chamber earlier. Or, it should be said, his nose had noticed it. For purposes of privacy, Bruce supposed, the chamber had been tucked into the corner of the corridor, out of reach of the nearest torches and thus enveloped in shadow.
With his bathroom business taken care of, Bruce set off for the kitchen. Here, his nose was once again hard at work. It picked through the layers of scent trapped within the castle walls, seeking out the smells of dough and cheese, cinnamon and cardamom.
It wasn’t long before Bruce found himself a few steps from the kitchen doorway. He paused beside it, closed his eyes, and sent a brief prayer up to whatever gods oversaw fresh bread and deliciously stinky cheese. Please, ran the prayer. Please don’t let me turn this corner and find they’ve locked everything up for the night. I need some cheese. I need it bad.
Bruce turned the corner – and his knees gave out beneath him. He had to clutch the nearest wall in order to keep from toppling over. Because nothing, not a single morsel of food, had been put away. If anything, there seemed to be more to eat in the kitchen than there had been before. It was better than Bruce could have possibly hoped for. The mountains of sugar and piles of peaches, the gigantic bags of spices and great big gobs of dough, the heaps of vegetables and mounds of dried meats and, most importantly, that colossal wheel of cheese. Every last bit of it was there, just begging to be consumed by a famished, empty-stomached boy named Bruce.
He went for the cheese first, swerving around a bunch of turnips and grabbing a fresh, still-warm loaf of bread on his way. As he tore a hunk of bread off the loaf, steam poured out and heated his palm. It was a beautiful sensataion, and it made Bruce’s head spin.
By the time he finally reached the cheese, Bruce looked more like a rabid dog than a hungry boy, and he was just about to dive mouth-first at that massive wheel of gooey goodness when a voice stopped him short.
“You mustn’t do that.”
That was Bruce’s first thought. His second thought, however, was, No. Gehry wouldn’t say ‘mustn’t.’ Who says ‘mustn’t,’ anyway?
The realization that the voice behind him didn’t belong to his friend was a powerful one, momentarily shoving aside Bruce’s hunger and replacing it with another feeling – fear. Frantically searching his brain for an excuse as to what he was doing in the Peachy Knight’s kitchen in the middle of the night, Bruce slowly, cautiously turned around.
In his dream, Kinsmere had once again knocked the Peachy Knight off his mount. Enraged, embarrassed, the rogue knight climbed to his feet, spat at his horse, and tossed his jousting lance aside. He reached for his sword, then, gripping the hilt in a big, angry fist, and unsheathing it with a single fierce tug.
The slice of steel letting go of leather sang through the air, and before the sound had even ceased ringing in Kinsmere’s ears, the Peachy Knight charged.
But the boy was ready.
Well before the rogue knight made it within striking range, the boy had his own sword drawn. He stood there, waiting, his muscles tensed and prepared to send him dodging this way or that. And when the blade finally came swinging toward him, Kinsmere leapt back, swung his own sword upwards, and blocked the attack.
Steel struck steel with a resounding clank. The Peachy Knight was surprised that he had been thwarted, and Kinsmere didn’t waste a second taking advantage of it. He threw his weight forward, driving his shoulder into the rogue knight’s chest, sending the big man staggering backwards.
The move bought him only a few seconds, but that was all Kinsmere needed to ready himself for the next attack. He got into position, knees slightly bent, muscles tensed, the hilt of his sword loose and maneuverable in his hand.
Meanwhile, the Peachy Knight had regained his balance, and now he came rushing at Kinsmere again, this time raising his sword high over his head, preparing to bring it bearing down like a battle-axe.
Kinsmere swung his own weapon upwards, putting everything he had behind it. Blade met blade, and the devastating force of the Peachy Knight’s blow traveled down the length of the boy’s sword, jolting the thin bones of his fingers and wrists.
Strangely, though, there was no clank. When the rogue knight’s sword struck Kinsmere’s, it made more of a thud – a soft, almost hollow sound, like knuckles rapping on a door.
But there was no time to worry about that – the Peachy Knight already had his sword raised up high over his head again.
Kinsmere knew he couldn’t get his own weapon up in time to block the blade. All he could do was dive out of the way.
So he dove, his body hitting the ground with a soft, hollow knocking sound.
He looked back in time to see the Peachy Knight’s sword hack into the ground. It sunk several inches down into the dirt with a soft, hollow knocking sound.
He opened his eyes in darkness. It was thick, close, and pressed down on his body like an itchy blanket on a hot night.
It took him several seconds to remember where he was. At which point he looked around for his friends and found that they weren’t there.
“Guys?” he asked the darkness, even though he knew he was alone.
Of course there came no answer.
But a moment later, there was a soft, hollow knock at the room’s tiny door.
Gehry still hadn’t found a bathroom, and now he was lost in the castle. He had started out memorizing each of the turns he was taking, figuring he would be able to retrace his steps to get back to his room. But now he couldn’t remember whether he had taken two lefts and then a right, or a right and then two lefts.
“Ungh,” he groaned, adjusting his body to see if he could more comfortably accommodate his expanding bladder.
He couldn’t. But a moment later, he noticed something hopeful down at the far end of the corridor – a soft glow spilling out of a doorway.
Carefully, Gehry headed toward the light. And he had nearly made it to the doorway when a smell, terrible as any he had ever encountered, wafted out to assault his senses. It smelled like cheese and farts, and like cheesy farts. As big of an emergency as Gehry was dealing with, his good manners were deeply ingrained, and he waited with as much patience as he could muster for a turn in the chamber. It wasn’t long before he heard the voices.
There were two of them, both low and rough and far more similar than they were distinct. He listened for a moment, trying to make out what the voices were saying, when he heard something that stopped him cold. One of those voices – it had just said something about him.
Or so it seemed.
The king’s son. That was what Gehry thought he had heard.
He leaned his head a little closer to the doorway.
“Do you not understand the enormity of that?” the same voice said. And then he said it again: “The king’s son. King Beribahn’s one and only child.”
Turning around, Bruce didn’t find an angry Peachy Knight behind him. About that, he was glad. And he was even gladder to see that the person who was behind him was just a boy. He looked about Bruce’s age, or maybe even a little younger, and was dressed in a baggy brown robe-type thing. But despite the large, loose-fitting garment, Bruce could see that the boy was fairly scrawny. Which meant that if he tried to stand in the way of Bruce and that glorious, enormous wheel of cheese, Bruce could probably overpower him.
The boy, however, didn’t seem all that inclined to use force. He simply stood there in his silly robe, regarding Bruce with a sleepy, and somehow knowing, smile.
“It’s frustrating, I know,” the boy said. “But you mustn’t have another bite to eat tonight. It’ll ruin your appetite for tomorrow. And believe me, tomorrow you will need your appetite more than ever.”
Believe me? thought Bruce. Who was this kid? And who was he to act like he knew the first thing about Bruce’s appetite?
As if he had been listening in on Bruce’s thoughts, the boy said, “I am Gerwin, a wizard-to-be, and I know much more than the first thing about your appetite. And I am telling you that you must resist temptation tonight, for it is imperative that you be ravenous tomorrow morning. The safety of yourself and your friends depends upon it.”
“Wait,” said Bruce. “Hold on. How – ”
“How could I possibly know all this?” Gerwin interrupted.
Bruce, who had been about to ask exactly that, could only say, “Ah, yeah.”
“As I have mentioned,” the boy said, “I am a wizard-to-be, and during my quest thus far I have developed some relatively powerful visionary capabilities.”
“You mean – ”
“I know what you’re going to say before you say it, yes. It requires a great deal of concentration, but I can maintain such levels of focus for many minutes at a time. I can also see further into the future. Earlier this afternoon, for instance, I knew that you would be visiting the kitchen tonight, and I knew that, once here, you would be too distracted by that gigantic wheel of cheese to realize the true purpose of your visit.”
“The true purpose of my visit?” asked Bruce.
Gerwin’s sleepy smile livened up. “The true purpose of your visit, yes.”
“Which is . . . ” Bruce said.
But the boy just went on smiling.
“Um,” said Bruce. “Were you gonna tell me, or . . . ?”
Gerwin gave his head a single shake.
He shook his head once more.
Gerwin stiffened a finger, then ticked it from side to side.
“You’re not supposed to?”
“Oh-kay,” Bruce said. He looked around the kitchen before turning back to the boy. “Could you give me a hint, at least?”
Gerwin considered Bruce’s request. His expression became grave, his eyebrows and lips scrunching toward the middle of his face. But just as suddenly as it had disappeared, that sleepy, knowing smile returned. The wizard-to-be said, “It’s never wise to cross a troll.”
“Well, yeah,” said Bruce. “Everyone knows that.” He thought of Kinsmere. “Or should,” he added. “But what does that have to do with me?”
“Give it a second,” the boy said.
“Just – it’ll come to you.”
“What will come to – ” Bruce stopped, a series of connections having just been made in his brain. His eyes popped wide. His head shook back and forth. “No,” Bruce said. “No way. Not me. I can’t do that.”
Gerwin, the wizard-to-be, simply went on smiling.
Text copyright © 2020 by Jarrett Lerner
All right reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.