Over on the opposite side of the castle, Kinsmere was trying to prepare for the day’s next event. But it was exceedingly difficult to prepare for something about which you knew nothing. He was more confused about his event than Gehry had been at the outset of the gas-off.
A group of servants had led Kinsmere to a large swath of bright, green grass, uninterrupted but for a single shed-like structure. Windowless and made of wood, the shed was basically just a big box of mismatched planks that had been nailed together. Kinsmere saw a few servants – their mouths and noses covered with rags – carrying buckets over to the shed. Reaching down into the buckets, they scooped out a dark, gummy substance and smeared it into the seams between the shed’s boards. It took them several minutes, but as soon as the servants were absolutely certain that the shed was airtight, they anxiously darted across the lawn away from the thing.
Kinsmere was looking around in the hopes of finding someone who knew what was going on when, without a hint of warning, there was another blast from the horn-blower’s terrible instrument. Clapping his hands over his ears, he watched the horn-blower, still sporting his giant, bright orange shirt, climb atop a stool in order to address the crowd.
“Contestants!” he cried. “Please step forward.”
Kinsmere approached the horn-blower along with half a dozen men. The boy scanned the group, and saw that the Peachy Knight himself would be competing in this event. The rogue knight locked eyes with Kinsmere and, chuckling to himself, rubbed his meaty hands together. Then, nudging the man nearest to him, indicating Kinsmere with a jerk of his thumb, the Peachy Knight said, “What do you think? One minute? Two?”
“You’re gonna give him that long?” the other man said. He pretended to study Kinsmere. “I’d say thirty seconds.”
“Twenty!” said another.
“Ten!” said the one beside him.
And the one beside him said, “I’ll bet he doesn’t even make it through the door.”
The men laughed heartily, and Kinsmere smiled right along with them, putting on a brave face even though he still had no clue just what his event entailed. Once the laughter had subsided, the horn-blower addressed the upcoming event’s contestants directly.
“Exiting the locker will result in immediate disqualification,” he said. “Fainting and vomiting will result in the same. In the case of fainting – listen closely, Sir Ickney – the body must be left where it is. Opening the door to rid the locker of a fainted opponent will result in the immediate disqualification of the door-opener.”
The horn-blower looked from one man to the next. Last of all, his gaze settled on Kinsmere.
The men all said, “Yes.”
Kinsmere said it, too, of course, even though he did not understand. But this would’ve been an exceedingly foolish thing to admit in front of his opponents. Besides, the rules of the contest were simple enough, and Kinsmere figured the workings of the competition itself would become clear once it actually began.
The horn-blower cried, “Proceed!” and the contestants, Kinsmere included, started toward the shed.
It was after just a couple steps that the stench reached the boy’s nose.
Kinsmere decided that his half dozen opponents had all simultaneously passed gas. How else could such a horrendous stench arise all at once, out of nowhere? As he came closer to the shed, however, the stench intensified, and Kinsmere couldn’t help it – he gagged. And not just the once. He gagged and gagged and gagged, as if someone were trying to force a fist-sized turnip down his throat. He only just barely kept himself from bringing up the few bites of soggy bread he had eaten the night before.
“Great Barber’s Beard!” one of his opponents said. “You were right!”
“Through the door?!” said another. “He can’t even make it to the door!”
Clutching their bellies, shaking their heads in amusement, the men continued toward the locker.
Kinsmere quickly got his gagging under control and forced himself forward, too.
With every step, the air grew heavier. Soon Kinsmere felt as if he were wading through a hot, putrid soup. Another step, and again the stench somehow got worse.
Finally, Kinsmere gave up all attempts to appear undaunted in front of his opponents. He clapped a hand over his nose and mouth, breathing in a bit of his own scent along with the fetid air.
The men, in any case, had quit paying attention to Kinsmere. It was clear that the stench had begun to affect them as well. Their pace had slowed considerably. A few of them were even dragging their feet.
Five or six steps from the locker, Kinsmere’s brain began to wobble. It was as if the rancid scent had congealed into a club and clobbered him on the back of the head. His mind, panicked, sent a single urgent message down to his body:
TURN AROUND NOW!!!
Off to Kinsmere’s right, a man began to retch. He put up a valiant effort, but ultimately couldn’t fight back his body’s need to empty itself. Peach chunks and cheese bits splattered across the grass.
And the Peachy Knight, still striding toward the shed, threw his head back and laughed.
There was a minor holdup while the men argued about whether the guy who had vomited should be allowed to continue on in the competition. One man was vehemently against it. The others, however, pointed out that the rules didn’t specify what sort of penalties a contestant might incur by vomiting before he entered the locker.
Kinsmere thought it odd that no one consulted the man himself, who just stood there, glassy-eyed and swaying from side to side.
Eventually, the horn-blower was called over. The men had decided to leave the final ruling up to him, a disinterested, and in fact uninterested, party.
The horn-blower spent no more than a second looking the vomiter over. Then he cried, “Let him compete!” and rushed away from the locker. The crowd – gathered at a safe distance, many of their noses plugged with strips of knotted cloth – cheered and clapped. And the vomiter, dimly aware that the applause was for him, swung around and threw his arms into the air.
But the man’s glory was short-lived.
Moments later the Peachy Knight reached the locker, and throwing open the door, he led the way inside. The others were right behind him, and after taking just one more step, the vomiter vomited again, this time hitting the back of the man standing in the locker’s doorway.
The vomited-upon man instantly began to gag. He clapped a hand to his mouth – but it was already too late. Vomit sprayed forth from between his fingers, smacking the man in front of him square in the face. This man then began to gag. But before he could vomit – before he could even clap a hand to his mouth – his eyes fluttered shut and he collapsed in a jumble of loose limbs.
By the time the fainter hit the floor of the locker, the pair of vomiters were gone. They were hurrying off, desperate to escape the stench’s reach.
Kinsmere was the only still-eligible competitor who had yet to set foot inside the locker. He spent one last moment in the relatively fresh air outside the door, then stepped in.
The Peachy Knight, who had stationed himself just past the doorway, grinned at Kinsmere as the boy passed by. Then he reached for the door and, chuckling to himself, pulled it shut, plunging the locker into darkness.
Kinsmere couldn’t see a thing inside the sealed-up locker. However, doing some quick arithmetic, he concluded that there were three men left in there with him. Four, actually, if he counted the man who had fainted. He was still in there, lying unconscious near the remaining, non-disqualified competitors’ feet.
Of his opponents, Kinsmere knew the Peachy Knight had the upper hand. The rogue knight hadn’t even flinched during that long, awful walk to the locker.
A voice came out of the darkness.
“Lovely way to spend a morning,” it said. “Don’t you think?”
Kinsmere suspected it was the Peachy Knight, and when the speaker started chuckling to himself, Kinsmere knew he was right.
“Where’s the boy?” asked another one of the men. “Still alive?”
Since stepping into the locker, Kinsmere had kept his nose and mouth covered, surviving on shallow breaths of the somewhat less-rancid air trapped in his palm. But he didn’t want his opponents to know this, and talking to them through his fingers would give him away. So Kinsmere dropped his hand, and bravely breathing in the rank, steamy air, he answered the men.
“I’m right here,” he told them. “Alive and well. Feeling good. Great, actually.”
In reality, of course, Kinsmere felt terrible. He was certain the locker’s tainted air supply had already done irreversible damage to his lungs.
“Great, huh?” one of the men asked him. “Not just good, but great.”
“Yup,” Kinsmere said. And to convince the men of his lie, the boy took a long, loud, chest-expanding breath. It was like guzzling a gallon of curdled milk. And Kinsmere couldn’t help it – he started to sputter, to cough and choke.
The men cracked up at his botched show of bravery. But the laughing – it got them sputtering and coughing and choking, too. And then all of a sudden there was a great commotion.
“What’s – ?”
Something darted past Kinsmere, blowing warm air across his face. Then the door to the locker flew open – the daylight so bright Kinsmere had to squeeze his eyes shut against it – and a man rushed outside. The door swung shut behind him, returning the locker to its dark, smelly silence.
“And then there were three,” the Peachy Knight said, chuckling again. “You – ” Somehow, the rogue knight found Kinsmere in the darkness, and tapped the tip of his nose with a grimy fingertip. “ – you, and me.”
Kinsmere wasn’t holding up too well. He and his competitors had spent four full minutes in the smelly locker, and if the boy was going to make it even one more, he was going to need something powerful enough to convince him to go on standing there letting that evil stench poison him to the core. Dreams of winning a tournament, of beating a man like the Peachy Knight, had only gotten him so far. Inside the locker, those visions seemed wispy, insubstantial, even a tad foolish. His brain wanted nothing to do with them. It was busy sounding alarms and sending out increasingly urgent emergency signals.
GET OUT NOW!
ARE YOU MAD?!
BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!
Kinsmere fought the urge to flee, but as the seconds passed, and his opponents showed no sign of giving up, the boy was finally forced to resign himself to failure. He reached toward where he thought the door must be – but then reared back as it all of a sudden swung open. Kinsmere blinked against the harsh light that spilled into the locker, and was just able to make out the figure of the horn-blower standing in the doorway. The man had the bottom of his enormous shirt wrapped around his face for protection, and so his voice came out muffled when he called, “Round Two!” Quickly, then, he set a candle down on the locker floor and, running off, slammed the door shut behind him.
The candle’s flame wavered in the wind made by the swinging door. Kinsmere watched the little lick of light steady, wondering if the horn-blower had left it in the locker for a reason.
It was only a moment later that the man beside Kinsmere began to gag. And turning away to dodge any oncoming vomit, the boy finally noticed the walls. They were horrifying enough to make him forget all about the vomit he was supposed to be dodging. Which is why he got a bellyful of the stuff to the side of the head.
Piles of rotten meat and maggot-infested fruit, heaps of rat corpses, mounds of insect eggs, and buckets filled to the brim with a muddy substance that, all things considered, probably wasn’t mud – this was what Kinsmere saw lining the walls of the locker. He brought his hands back up to his face, now covering not just his nose and mouth, but also his eyes.
The Peachy Knight, Kinsmere’s final opponent, found this quite humorous. Chuckling, he said, “Oh sure, boy. Go ahead and hide your eyes. Bet it doesn’t make a smidge of a difference.”
He was right. It didn’t. But Kinsmere had to keep his hands busy. Otherwise he would be using the things to open up the door and get himself out of the locker.
“Won’t be long now, will it?” the Peachy Knight went on. “Nope. Not long till you run out of here with a bit of your own upchuck on you, too.”
Kinsmere did his best to ignore the man, and also ignore the images of dead rats and brown-stained buckets flashing through his head.
“Did you think you could do it? Did you really think that you, a mere boy, who’s lived a life of luxury, who’s grown up in King Beribahn’s own castle – did you really think that you could compete with me? A little brat like you, slurping up your soup with a golden spoon? Ha! I’ll bet you aren’t half as tough as my meagerest servant.”
The Peachy Knight’s words – the last few in particular – set off a chain of connections in Kinsmere’s brain, and for the first time since that crazy day had begun, he thought of her again. The girl. The one with the dirt-caked face and those eyes – eyes like a lush meadow in the midst of a muddy bog.
And Kinsmere realized: those eyes, that girl – she was the something that he needed.
Slowly, he slid his hands off his face. Then he lifted his head and glared up at the Peachy Knight.
“Having a second wind?” the man said, laughing. “Well, guess what, boy? I’ll stay in here all day, if you’d like.” He spread his arms out to his sides and looked around, sizing up the candlelit accommodations. “Yep,” he said. “Suits me just fine. I could – ” He jerked his hand away from the wall suddenly. His knuckles had grazed a piece of maggoty fruit. “Um – ” he said, trying to pick back up where he had left off. “Ahh, errr – oh!” He laughed again, though compared to his laughter of a moment before, it sounded hollow. “I could stay in here all day, boy!” he said, but said a bit too eagerly. “All day!”
He was bluffing. The man’s mask had slipped. And seeing it, Kinsmere now knew that he could do it. That they could do it. He and the green-eyed girl. Because she was with him now. She had stationed herself inside the boy’s head.
We need you.
That was what she had said.
You must do something.
Put an end to this evil man’s reign.
Free us from this unjust imprisonment.
That is what knights do.
Standing there in the smelly locker with the maggots and dead rats and not-actually-mud-buckets surrounding him, Kinsmere realized that the girl was right. Growing up, Kinsmere had thought a knight’s life consisted of riding about the Realm from tournament to tournament, fighting for prominence and, ultimately, dominance. And it was true that plenty of knights did do only that – the Peachy Knight, for instance, who semi-annually arranged this so-called Tournament of Champions and then filled the days with strange events skewed toward his own bizarre abilities. Scoring easy wins and having his own castle was all that being a knight meant to him.
It was pathetic. And, Kinsmere decided right then, not knightly in the slightest. His favorite knights, the ones he had run around pretending to be as a child, had all competed in contests, fought with swords and spears, defeated countless enemies and slayed every variety of beast. But, he saw now, there had always been a reason. A higher – a nobler – goal. They were helping a person in distress, feeding a family in dire need, protecting a village, or ridding the Realm of villains. The most important part of a knight’s tale isn’t the beginning, Kinsmere realized. It’s not the weapons and the horses and victories at the tournaments. The most important part of the knight’s tale is the end – the helping, the feeding, the protecting, the ridding. The mission that set off the adventure in the first place, the goal achieved by the tale’s close – that, Kinsmere finally understood, was the only reason that the knights he had always admired even did any of the competing and fighting and slaying.
The Peachy Knight was flapping a hand around in front of Kinsmere’s face.
“Hey, boy, are you listening to me? Are you hearing this? All day. That’s how long I can last in here. All. Day.”
Kinsmere wasn’t listening. He was busy trying to figure out how to rip the Peachy Knight’s mask right off his face, and then step out of the locker the winner.
An idea came to him quickly, and Kinsmere didn’t even pause to consider it. Scanning the heap of garbage gathered against the nearest wall, he reached out and plucked a maggot-stuffed peach from beneath a block of moldy cheese. Slowly, then, making sure the Peachy Knight saw the whole thing, Kinsmere brought the ruined piece of fruit to his mouth.
“Are you . . . ” the man said. “You’re not gonna . . . ” He swallowed hard. “You – you wouldn’t . . . ”
Kinsmere sank his teeth into the peach. It took a few chews before the rogue knight’s cheeks abruptly puffed. Immediately after, the man’s head began to jerk forward and back. He gagged. And then, at last, he whirled around and barreled out of the locker.
Kinsmere dropped the peach and spit out the chewed-up bits he had in his mouth. Then he bent down and grabbed the ankles of the guy who had fainted all that time ago. And dragging the body behind him, Kinsmere, victorious, stepped through the door of the locker and out into the clear, bright sunlight.
Text copyright © 2020 by Jarrett Lerner
All right reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.