The knocking grew louder, and then became more rapid.
Kinsmere decided that it must be Gehry and Bruce out in the corridor, probably trying to play some sort of trick on him. Or maybe they had somehow gotten themselves locked out of their room? Either way, Kinsmere didn’t feel like they deserved to be let in right away – especially not while he was in the middle of such a good dream.
So he laid back down on his plank-bed.
He shut his eyes.
But then the knocking grew even more insistent. It turned into pounding.
“Okay,” he called toward the door as he hopped down off his plank. “I’m coming, I’m coming.”
The knocking stopped.
Kinsmere crouched down and pulled open the tiny door.
No one was there. The corridor was as dark and empty as a dried-up well.
“Seriously, guys?” he said. “How old are you – four?”
He was about to stand up and climb back onto his plank when he saw something shift among the corridor’s shadows. It was quick and slight, one patch of blackness moving over another, but enough to keep Kinsmere crouching there and staring out the tiny doorway.
“Hello?” he asked.
And then he saw it. There was a face, so dirty and soot-stained that it was almost impossible to see it in the corridor’s gloom. The face turned, and trained a pair of dazzling green eyes on Kinsmere’s own.
Gehry knew that he should leave. Not only was he eavesdropping on a private discussion between two very scary-sounding men in a castle that he shouldn’t have been sneaking around in the first place, but that private, secretive discussion was about him. If the men caught him listening in, who knew what they would do.
Nonetheless, Gehry couldn’t go. For one thing, if there were men in the castle who had malicious designs against him, it would obviously be advantageous to have some advance warning. But it wasn’t for his own sake that he went on standing there in the corridor. Not entirely, at least. He stayed because the men around the corner had now begun to talk about his friends.
“I get it,” said one of the men. “I do. But I still don’t see what the harm is in letting the little brats compete. We can rough ‘em up a bit, show ‘em what’s what. It’ll be fun.”
“The harm,” the other man said, “is in them fleeing. Every second we don’t take them in is another risk taken. A stupid, foolish, completely unnecessary risk.”
“Fleeing? Those boys aren’t doing any fleeing.” There was a pause. “Well, I suppose the chunky one might try. But he’d be easy enough to catch. The other two, though? That cheeky one and the king’s son? They’re drunk on tales of the Realm’s bravest, most noble knights. They’ve been dreaming of competing in their very first tourney all their lives. Those two aren’t going anywhere.”
“Maybe you’re right. But even so, I’d still be more comfortable locking them up and bringing them to you-know-who right away.”
The first man tsked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “Bah,” he said. “I don’t see why you’re always licking that guy’s boots, anyway.”
“Easy for you to say. You’ve already got your own castle.”
“Hey. It’s yours, too.”
“I guess . . . ”
“Oh, come on now. Don’t be like that. You know it is. What’s mine is yours, brother.”
“You say that, but it’s the ‘Peachy Knight’s Castle.’ That’s what everyone calls it. That’s how everyone thinks of it.”
“No, no, no. Not at all. What about those signs? The signs with those little cheese drawings on them?”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. Big whoop.”
The first man sighed. “Well, what do you want me to do? You want me to get the name changed? The paperwork for that – it’s a nightmare. And you know how much I hate paperwork.”
The other man mumbled something too low for Gehry to hear.
“Aw, stop that. Come on, let’s change the subject. Here. Here. Have a peach. See?”
There was a crunching sound, closely followed by a sucking sound.
There came the sound of someone swallowing down a large, drippy mouthful of food.
“Of course it’s good.”
“Here. You want some . . . you want some cheese?”
“Mmhm. Don’t mind if I do.”
There was a long silence, during which the men in the room crunched and sucked and chewed and swallowed.
Finally, the first man said, “Don’t you worry about a thing, all right? In a day’s time, you-know-who’s gonna be so grateful for what you’ve done, he’ll build a brand-new castle just for you.”
“Definitely,” the first man said. “Now – let’s get on to other matters. Let’s get back to cheering you up. How about a little practice for tomorrow, hmm? What do you say? Shall we have ourselves a good old-fashioned gas-off?”
“Anterior or posterior?”
“Up to you, sir.”
“How about – ”
There was a sudden, loud and long burbling sound. A kind of brrrrruphhfffffffffffffffhfub. It took Gehry a moment to identify it. The smell – like a hunk of hot, sixty-year-old cheese – helped. It was, of course, a blast of gas from one of the men’s posteriors. In other words, a fart.
“Oh, yeah?” the first man said. “Well, how do you like this?”
There was a faint, high-pitched whining sound, like wind squeezing through a crack in a wall: pwweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeehht. The sound was accompanied by a sharp, sour scent – once again cheesy, but this time with subtle notes of rotten fruit.
“That,” said the other man, “is the worst thing I’ve ever smelled. Utterly nasty!”
“Please. Yours was far worse. Like it came straight from the devil’s rump!”
“Oh, you’re too kind. Far too kind. Here – a little something for your kindness.”
There was another rough, chunky, burbling sound:
Out in the corridor, Gehry plugged his nose.
Fortunately, there was a wheelbarrow in a pantry off the kitchen. Without it, Bruce wouldn’t have made it more than a few feet with those enormous bags of spices, and it was hard enough as it was. But after a handful of false starts, the boy finally managed to steer the barrow out of the kitchen and all the way to the castle’s entrance. The ground outside was another challenge. Bumpy and sloped, and with only the moonlight to see by, it proved nearly impossible to navigate.
It was right after the bag of cardamom toppled over for a fourth time that Bruce, fed up, turned to Gerwin and said, “Hey, wizard.”
Gerwin continued peering intently toward the distant Forest of Egergrel, as he had been since they had first stepped out onto the castle’s lawn.
“Hey,” Bruce said again.
This time, Gerwin turned. “Me?”
“No,” Bruce said. “The other wizard out here.”
Gerwin shook his head. “Wizard-to–be,” he said. Then he gave a little laugh. “I’m afraid I’m a long ways away from being an official, full-blown wizard.”
“Whatever,” Bruce said. “I’m afraid I’m not gonna be able to haul these sacks all the way out to that forest. Can’t you make them float out there or something? Don’t you have any powers?”
“Unfortunately,” Gerwin said, “I have yet to develop those particular powers.”
“And there’s no chance you can develop them in the next five minutes?”
Gerwin began to retch violently. Bruce set down the barrow as quickly and carefully as he could, then hurried out of the way, sure the wizard-to-be was about to vomit. But several seconds passed, and nothing came out of the boy’s mouth.
At which point Bruce realized that Gerwin wasn’t sick at all. He was laughing. Yes, apparently Bruce’s question – asked in total and complete seriousness – was the funniest thing the wizard-to-be had ever heard. The boy shook with such forceful laughter that his baggy brown robe flapped about him, looking as if it were being blown by a strong wind.
Bruce grabbed the bag of cardamom and lugged it back up into place. Then he took hold of the barrow’s handles and began to wheel it forward again.
Gerwin lagged behind, laughing up a storm. But as soon as he was able to get himself under control, he hurried to catch up with Bruce. “You’re funny,” he told him.
“You’re funny-looking,” Bruce muttered back.
“Ugh, I know,” Gerwin said. He frowned down at his robe. “They make all of us wear these things. So ugly. They used to be better. Much better. You wanna know what the robes used to look like?”
Bruce didn’t answer. He had no intention of talking to the crazy person responsible for sending him on this insane errand about fashion. Or about anything else, for that matter. He vowed to remain silent for the rest of the night.
That vow, however, didn’t last long. Two minutes after he had made it, Bruce’s dry, hollow stomach began to growl more than ever. Desperate to get his mind off his hunger, he started the conversation back up again.
“This is crazy, you know,” he told Gerwin. “I mean, it probably isn’t even going to work.”
“Oh, it’ll work,” Gerwin said, once again smiling that sleepy, knowing smile of his. “And believe me – in about twenty hours, you’re gonna be really, really grateful it did.”
Bruce wanted to demand that Gerwin tell him how he could possibly know such stuff, and then ask him why, if he really did know it, he didn’t just go ahead and tell Bruce how it all turned out, seeing as then maybe he would be a little more motivated to haul these giant bags of spices all the way out to the forest. But something about the wizard-to-be’s smile let Bruce know that the boy wasn’t going to share a single detail about the future. So he tightened his grip on the barrow’s handles and said, “Okay. All right. Fine.” He sighed. “What did the robes used to look like?”
Those eyes. They were unlike any eyes that Kinsmere had ever seen. They made his heart race. They made his lungs ache. They made his brain whirl and his spine quiver and got things stirring in his gut that he never even knew had been down there, just waiting to be stirred. He didn’t move a muscle. He didn’t dare. Just then, he felt he would’ve been content to stay there, hunched down in that tiny doorway looking into those green, green eyes, forever.
But the owner of those eyes also had a mouth, and she used it now to let Kinsmere know that she preferred to do otherwise.
“May I come in?” she whispered to him.
It took Kinsmere a moment to get his legs working, but then he stood up, backed away, and stammered something in the green-eyed girl’s direction. “Um, bahhh, yes – yes, please, come – uhh, in.”
The girl crawled through the room’s tiny entrance and, once inside, closed the door behind her. When she climbed to her feet, Kinsmere saw that those brilliant green eyes were a head or so higher than his own.
“Where are your companions?” the girl said.
Kinsmere hardly heard her. He was busy wondering how a face that contained such glorious eyes could ever become as soiled as it was.
This jolted Kinsmere out of his reverie. Most of the way, at least. “Huh?” he said.
“Your companions,” said the girl. “Where have they gone?”
“Oh, I – ” Kinsmere looked around the empty room. “They’re just – they’ll – ”
“Never mind,” the girl said. “You can fill them in later.”
“Fill them in?”
The girl crossed the room, closing the distance between herself and Kinsmere with two long, strong strides. She reached out and, despite the darkness, found the boy’s hands easily. She held his fingers in her own, and the contact, slight as it was, sent pins and needles sweeping through Kinsmere’s wrists, over his elbows, up his arms.
“We’ve been waiting for you a long time,” the girl said.
“For – for – ”
Those eyes. They were so close now, so dazzlingly bright – like a pair of full, green moons. Kinsmere was once again having trouble concentrating.
“For me?” he finally managed.
“Yes,” the girl told him. “For you and your companions.” She gave Kinsmere’s fingers a squeeze. “It was hard to keep our hope alive, but we knew one day King Beribahn would send help. We knew one day knights – good knights, noble knights – would come and deal with our disgraceful master.”
“Oh, well, you see, we’re not – not actually – ”
“You’re our only hope,” said the girl.
Kinsmere blinked up at those eyes. “Right,” he said. “Yeah, um, okay. And who – you keep saying we.”
“Yes,” the girl said. “Myself and the rest of the castle’s servants. All of us. We were brought here, tricked into joining the castle’s staff with promises of great pay and wonderful working conditions. Or, in some cases . . . ” The girl’s grip on Kinsmere’s hands loosened, slipped. “In some cases we were simply taken from our families and our homes.”
Kinsmere was slowly overcome by a sadness, a sort of frustrated ache. But this wasn’t the frustration of, say, losing an argument with Bruce, and it wasn’t the frustration of being barred from participating in the jousts and sword-fights that took place in the tournaments and practice rooms of the castle back home, either. This was a different feeling, something new. Just then, Kinsmere couldn’t figure anything out about it besides the fact that it had brought about by her, the girl.
“That boy,” the girl said now. “The one who brought you and your fellow knights here to your room earlier today? He is one of those who was taken. He used to live beside the Oolga River, and one day, while playing along its banks, he was spotted by the Peachy Knight, and that rogue – he scooped him up, brought him here, and forced him into this wretched servitude.”
Kinsmere’s head began to move from side to side. “That’s . . . ” he said, taking a moment to look for some other word, one the girl hadn’t just used, but finally giving up and saying it: “That’s wretched.”
“Yes,” the girl said. “It is. And that is why we need you. You and your companions. You must do something. You must put an end to this evil man’s reign. You must free us from this unjust imprisonment. That,” she said, “is what knights do.”
Kinsmere wasn’t a knight. And while this fact didn’t prevent the boy from believing himself capable of competing against the Peachy Knight in a joust or a swordfight, he didn’t see how he could possibly do what the green-eyed girl was asking of him.
Put an end to this evil man’s reign.
How? By doing what?
Free us from this unjust imprisonment.
Were there instructions for such a thing? A bewitched orb to destroy? A document to steal? A person – perhaps an adult – to go and fetch for help?
Kinsmere didn’t know. But with the girl standing there, clutching his hands and aiming those big, beautiful, bright green eyes right at him, none of that mattered.
Giving her fingers a gentle squeeze, Kinsmere said, “We will.”
The gas-off went on for several minutes before the men finally declared the contest a tie and called it quits. Gehry couldn’t believe how much hot, smelly air the pair had been able to produce.
“Bring that power to the tourney tomorrow,” one of the men now said, “and you’ll be unbeatable.”
“Unless,” said the other, “it’s you who’s doing the beating.”
The men had a long laugh over this, then agreed that they should probably go to their rooms and get some sleep.
Gehry was too busy trying to figure out what a posterior gas-off could possibly have to do with a tournament to realize that the men in the room were headed directly toward him. It caught him off guard when the first of them stepped through the doorway and out into the corridor. If Gehry hadn’t already been pressed against the wall, the boy certainly would’ve been spotted.
He stood there rigid while the second man emerged, hoping he would follow the first down the other side of the corridor. He did, and as soon as he felt it safe, Gehry slipped into the room the men had been talking in and hid himself in the darkness.
The sounds of the men’s voices faded, and shortly after that the clip-clop of their boots disappeared, too. Only then did Gehry let himself stand up. He looked around the room, and in the far corner saw a pale silver glow – the faintest trace of moonlight.
Gehry hurried toward the light and, there, found a narrow opening in the wall. He poked his head through the gap and looked down upon what was, just then, the world’s most gorgeous sight: a toilet.
Ninety seconds after he went in, Gehry emerged from the bathroom. Crossing the outer room, he paused in the doorway to listen for voices or footsteps. Hearing neither, he stepped into the corridor and headed for his room, running through everything he had heard the men say as he went, not wanting to forget a single thing, needing to tell his friends that something – and something big – was afoot.
In the end, Bruce and Gerwin didn’t have to venture into the Forest of Egergrel. They found the troll-giant out in the field, enjoying the cool, star-studded night. The boys approached him cautiously, but of this there proved to be no need. It almost seemed as if Egergrel had been expecting them. Spotting the boys, he gave them a mellow little wave and said, “Hey.”
Bruce let go of the handles of the wheelbarrow, which hit the ground with a thud and began to tip. He didn’t even bother trying to save the bags. The spices spilled, a wave of cardamom seeds washing over the grass. A light breeze blew a handful of loose cinnamon toward the troll-giant.
Egergrel sniffed the air. “What’s that?”
“This,” Gerwin said, swinging an arm out toward the heaps of spices beside Bruce, “is what you’ve been waiting for all your life.”
In his eagerness to get back to his friends, Gehry had forgotten that he had forgotten how to get back to their room. There was nothing for him to do but wander aimlessly around the castle and hope that he stumbled upon the proper corridor, the right tiny door. But the corridors were countless and frustratingly uniform, one seemingly indistinguishable from the next. Gehry wandered so long that the sky began to grow light, and only then, with the night about to end, did he find a tiny wooden door.
Gehry made his way toward the door, his eyelids drooped, his body heavier and heavier with every step. He was trying to remember if anyone had mentioned what time the tournament was set to start, hoping he might be able to squeeze in at least a few minutes of sleep before he had to get ready, when the door at the end of the corridor swung open. Gehry expected to see Kinsmere or Bruce, or maybe even both of them, perhaps heading out to search for their inexplicably missing pal. Instead he saw a tall, dirt-covered girl crawl into the corridor and climb to her feet.
Gehry just about collapsed. Because this wasn’t it. He still hadn’t found the right room.
He was looking around the corridor, seeing if there was a spot he could curl up in, when someone else crawled out of the doorway.
It was Kinsmere.
Gehry watched his friend get to his feet and then bow to the tall girl. Kinsmere dipped so low that his hair brushed the stone floor. It was a very knightly thing to do, and it left Gehry greatly confused. His confusion was quickly compounded when, after leaving Kinsmere behind, the girl spotted him, Gehry, and hurrying over, took his hands lightly in her own and placed a gentle kiss on his knuckles. She rushed off, then, before Gehry had a chance to ask what in the name of the Realm was going on.
A moment later, Kinsmere was by Gehry’s side. “Where’d you guys go?” he said.
“Guys?” Gehry asked.
“Yeah,” Kinsmere said. He began to point at something over Gehry’s shoulder, but stopped before he had even lifted his arm high enough to do so. “Wait. Who’s that?”
Gehry turned, and saw Bruce coming toward them, accompanied by a kid dressed in a big brown bag of a robe.
“Where’d you go?” Bruce called over to Gehry.
“I had to find a bathroom,” Gehry said.
Bruce’s face scrunched up in confusion. He jerked his chin toward the corner, the one directly next to their room’s tiny door. “There’s one right there.”
Gehry squinted over at the wall. “Seriously?” he cried.
“Excuse me.” This was Kinsmere, eyeing the boy who had shown up with Bruce. “Who are you?”
“Gerwin,” the boy said, as if that explained everything.
“He can see the future,” Bruce told his friends.
“Huh?” said Gehry.
“He can what?” Kinsmere said.
Gerwin gave the boys a sleepy, knowing smile. Then he said, “You all have news to share. Important news. But you won’t be able to get it out in time. You have six seconds. Now five . . . four . . . ”
“What the – ”
“You guys – ”
“ . . . three . . . ”
“I heard – ”
“We went – ”
“The girl – ”
“ . . . two . . . ”
“You hold – ”
“We have to – ”
“ . . . one . . . ”
“Just – ”
“But – ”
“If you – ”
Gerwin placed his hands over his ears just before the bells began to ring.
The ringing of the bells was soon joined by the barking of the dogs.
After which came the pounding of the pots and the rattling of the buckets of rocks.
Then came the people. Where they had come from, the boys couldn’t have said. But suddenly there they were, swarms of them, pouring out of nowhere, piling up, all of them in a frenzy as they made their preparations for the Peachy-slash-Cheesy Tournament of Champions.
Text copyright © 2020 by Jarrett Lerner
All right reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.