Bruce had been waiting at the bottom of a hill behind the castle for nearly an hour. The servants who had brought him there told him he would be competing in the tournament’s final – and biggest and best – event, but they didn’t offer any additional information. Bruce might have gone around in search of some clues about what the event entailed, but his stomach was so empty that he didn’t trust himself to make it more than a couple of steps without collapsing.
So he waited. He stood in the grass and kept an eye – and a nose – out for some sign of food. Because in Bruce’s experience, tournaments were basically daylong outdoor feasts. Of course there was the jousting and the sword-fighting and all that. But that was just the entertainment, something to watch while you crammed meat and cheese into your face.
There at the Peachy-slash-Cheesy Tournament of Champions, however, Bruce hadn’t seen or smelled a single edible morsel. As clumps of spectators began to gather at the base of the hill, Bruce attempted to flag someone down. When that didn’t work, he simply stepped into the path of an oncoming man.
“Yep!” the man was saying to a guy walking beside him. “Came outta there with a grin on his lips and someone else’s heave-hurl all up and down his face. I’m telling you, I’ve never seen anything – ”
“Excuse me!” Bruce shouted a second before the man barreled into him.
The man came to an abrupt stop. He looked Bruce up and down and said, “Hey, you’re one of those boys!”
“Uh, yeah,” Bruce said. “Yeah, I am.”
“Well,” the man said, grinning as if he were speaking to some sort of celebrity, “what can I do for ya?”
Bruce gestured at the space behind the castle. There was the flat patch of grass at the bottom of the hill and the long, bumpy field that rolled away beyond it. “Do you know what’s supposed to happen here?”
“Here?!” the man cried. He let out a burst of loud, bouncy laughter. “Why, it’s the cheese roll! Best part of the tournament, if you ask me.” The man looked Bruce up and down again. This time, he did so slowly, spending a particularly long time eyeing the boy’s round, softly bulging belly. “Oh, you’ll do fine,” he said. “Better than fine if you’ve got a bit of what your friends have in ‘em!”
He clapped Bruce on the shoulder, scanned the still-growing crowd for the guy he had been talking to a moment ago, and then hurried off to catch up with him. Bruce barely noticed. He had heard the man say cheese. After that, not a word.
Several dozen more people joined the crowd before the cheese itself made an appearance. Most of these newcomers were regular spectators, but a small group of them were servants who came bearing hammers and nails and large armloads of wood. Piling up their supplies, the servants set to work building some kind of big, circular contraption.
Hunger-blind, Bruce saw the spectators and servants as nothing more than a bunch of people-shaped things getting in the way of him and his – yes, his – cheese. He moved around to try and get a better view of the castle, where he figured the cheese would be coming from, and used what little energy he had left in him to leap up and look over the people-shaped things’ hairy tops.
At one point, he thought he saw Gehry somehow floating above the crowd. But this thought occupied Bruce’s mind for less than a second. Because just as his friend came into sight, the cheese finally arrived. And it wasn’t just any old piece of cheese – it was the cheese. That glorious, gooey masterpiece of pressed milk-curd, that enormous, perfectly proportioned wheel that Bruce had been so desperate to sink his teeth into ever since he had first glimpsed it in the castle’s kitchen all those many, many, meal-less hours ago.
Watching a group of servants roll the cheese across the grass, Bruce began to salivate. Additional servants moved along behind and on either side of the wheel, fanning it furiously to keep it from softening and losing its shape in the heat.
At the bottom of the hill, the servants rolling and fanning the cheese met up with the servants who had been busy building that wooden contraption, which, in the past few minutes, had turned into a large, hollow wheel. Carefully, calling out directions to one another, the cheese was steered into the hollow pocket and firmly secured inside the contraption. Then the servants began to roll the warming, wood-framed cheese up the hill.
Bruce tried desperately to make sense of this. Why were they bringing the cheese up the hill? They weren’t going to make him climb up there just to get a bite, were they? Why not keep it at the bottom of the hill, cut it up and serve it there?
It was the logical thing to do. But Bruce’s life had stopped running according to logic a couple days ago. And so the servants kept pushing and pushing, ever so slowly inching the cheese further up the hill.
Bruce could have cried. He probably would’ve cried, too, had that man – the one he had spoken to earlier – not passed by again.
“Hey,” he said. “Boy. What’re you doing down here?”
Bruce ignored the question. He pointed toward the hill and said, “Where . . . where are they . . . ” It was as much as he could manage.
Frowning, the man peered up the hill and told Bruce, “You’d better get up there. You don’t wanna give the others a head-start. Then you’ll have no chance of catching that thing.”
Only then did Bruce see all the other people climbing the hill. He had been too focused on the cheese to notice them before. But there were a bunch of them – regular-looking men mixed in among the cheese-pushing and cheese-fanning servants.
The man beside Bruce gave his shoulder a squeeze, a gesture that the boy supposed was meant to impart courage and strength. Mostly it just hurt.
“Just keep your eye on that wheel,” the man told Bruce. “And don’t you stop until you’ve got ’er!”
Bruce never could’ve made it up the hill on his own. It wasn’t that the hill was especially tall or steep. It was the length of the hill that was the problem. It sloped up gradually, but endlessly. Bruce could see the top, and could see that there were a handful of people already gathered up there, stretching their legs, waiting. But every time Bruce lowered his head, trudged on a bit, and then looked back up again, his destination appeared to be just as far away. Then there was the sun. Hanging directly overhead, not softened by a single cloud, it beat down ruthlessly on Bruce’s head and shoulders and neck. The boy wasn’t sure how the cheese was faring, but he knew that he was on the verge of turning to goo.
Fortunately, some of the servants spotted Bruce struggling, and before his legs could melt out from under him, a pair of them came down from the top of the hill to help. They each draped one of the boy’s limp, sweaty arms over their shoulders and dragged him up the rest of the way.
“Thank you,” Bruce said once he had begun to catch his breath.
“It’s the least we can do,” one of the servants replied. He was youngish, maybe a year or two older than Bruce.
“Right,” said the second servant, a girl who was maybe a year or two older than the first. “With all you’re doing for us today?” She shook her head with what appeared to be awe, and then flashed Bruce a smile. “We’ll be forever in your debt.”
Bruce blinked at the girl. He was, understandably, confused. “All I’m . . . ” he said. “All I’m doing? Me? What do you – ”
An ear-splitting burst of sound cut Bruce off before he could finish his question. It was that horn, that wickedly pitched instrument. The man in the giant orange shirt was all the way down at the bottom of the hill, but the brain-piercing sound of his horn carried easily over the distance. Even the servants, who must have heard dozens, if not hundreds, of those blasts, plugged their ears and ducked for cover.
Bruce did the same. And by the time he felt safe enough to stand back up and un-stuff his ears, the boy and the girl who had helped him up the hill were gone. In their place stood a pair of very large, very angry-looking men. Bruce immediately recognized one of them as the Peachy Knight, and based on their physical resemblance, he decided that the mammoth of a man standing next to him had to be the Cheesy Knight, his brother. The men didn’t look like they had fared too well so far in the tournament. Atop the layers of peach juice coating his shirt and pants and boots, the Peachy Knight sported a fresh-looking layer of vomit. And the Cheesy Knight? Bruce couldn’t quite believe it, but the man’s eyes were all puffy and pink, as if he had spent the morning crying.
“Uhh,” Bruce said. “Hi?”
Neither one of the brother’s answered. Not with their words, at least. The Cheesy Knight simply went on glaring, while the Peachy Knight lifted a huge, meaty hand and aimed his index finger directly at Bruce.
The boy flinched back as if the rogue knight’s arm might detach itself from his shoulder and fly at Bruce’s face. All that came Bruce’s way, however, was a sour-smelling growl. He turned back to the men in time to see the Cheesy Knight, his bottom lip quivering, spin around and stomp away.
His brother followed a moment later, leaving Bruce alone to wonder what to make of the encounter. Which, in the end, wasn’t much. Because as big as his confusion was, Bruce’s hunger was even bigger.
Peering past the crowd gathered atop the hill, he finally glimpsed a thin, curving slice of the wood-framed wheel of cheese. It was shiny and slick from having spent all this time in the sun, the spidery spokes of the wooden contraption providing nothing but the thinnest hints of shade.
Bruce’s feet began to carry him toward the cheese, taking him on a route that went around the Peachy and the Cheesy Knight. Distantly, he wondered whether they had somehow found out what he had done with their bags of spices. Was that what they were so angry about? Bruce stuck his cinnamon-scented hands in his pockets just in case.
A few more steps, and the smell of hot cheese danced its way across the hilltop and tickled Bruce’s nostrils. He breathed in the heavy, salty scent, and it filled his famished body with a tingly energy, giving him the strength he needed to continue weaving through the crowd. There at last, he tapped the shoulder of the single servant still standing between himself and the cheese.
The young man turned to look, and a grin spread across his face when he saw that it was Bruce.
“Um, hi,” Bruce said. “Could I – ?” He pointed at the wheel of cheese. “You think maybe I could have, like, a bite of that? Or maybe – yeah, I guess maybe two?”
“Sure!” the servant said, nodding enthusiastically. “You can have the whole thing! And all to yourself!”
It was a strange and unexpected thing for the young man to say. But it happened to be exactly what Bruce had been hoping to hear, and so he decided not to question it. Instead he started for the wheel, hands held out before him, fingers tensed and ready to rip off a nice hot smelly hunk of cheesy cheese cheese.
But Bruce hadn’t made it more than a couple of steps when the servant threw an arm out across his chest, blocking his way forward.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said. “You’ve gotta catch it first.” The young man peered around, then whispered something to a nearby servant. Turning back to Bruce, he spoke quietly, as if he were divulging an extremely delicate secret. “It’s about to roll.” He wiggled his eyebrows. “Now do it for us, will ya?”
Bruce was more confused than ever. But things began to fall into place when he saw the wheel of cheese, still trapped in the wooden contraption, slowly start to turn over the servants’ heads. It crept all the way to the edge of the hilltop, pausing at the spot where the long, gentle slope began. By then, Bruce could see the servants who were in charge of holding onto the cheese. He watched them peer around for a moment, and then nod to one another.
And then they just let go.
The crowd at the bottom of the hill noticed the cheese before any of Bruce’s opponents did. They let out an enormous roar, one that grabbed the attention of the men gathered at the top of the hill.
One man cried, “Hey!” and then charged down the hill in pursuit. A swarm of others followed after him, leaving only a few competitors lingering atop the hill. Bruce was one of those few, and so, the boy saw, was the Peachy Knight. The rest had been left behind because they had either just been punched, or were currently in the process of being punched, by the rogue knight.
Bruce, rooted to the spot, saw the Peachy Knight bash a cantaloupe-sized fist into another man’s face, and then saw the punched man collapse to the ground in a crumpled heap, as if his bones had been turned into pudding. The rogue knight watched all this gleefully, then whirled around to look for a fresh victim. Unfortunately, Bruce was the only un-punched contestant still standing there atop the hill.
“You!” the man growled at him.
And Bruce, who only a moment ago had considered running down an enormous hill after a giant wheel of cheese a crazy, dangerous thing to do, had a sudden change of heart, all at once finding it a very lovely idea indeed.
It was much easier going down the hill than coming up it had been. The only hard part was keeping your balance, making sure you didn’t lose your footing, fall over, and roll down the hill right along with the cheese. Knowing that a bloodthirsty Peachy Knight was somewhere behind him helped Bruce keep his speed up. But even so, the boy didn’t think he had a chance of catching the cheese. His opponents were already so much closer, and the fact that most of them were full grown men with legs twice as long as Bruce’s meant that it would basically be impossible for him to catch up.
He needed a miracle.
Or an accident.
And he got one.
Or maybe it was both.
The man leading the pack of cheese-chasers tripped and fell. One of his arms hooked the leg of the man right behind him, who, falling himself, grabbed hold of the men on either side of him. These two went down as well, and all together, the four fallen men formed a big, grabby obstacle that quickly took down another half a dozen competitors. One man did try and leap over the whole angry mess of reaching arms and kicking legs. And he made it, too – but landed awkwardly. There was a loud snap, and the man cried out, hitting the ground and sliding to a stop while clutching his probably broken leg.
It was, in a word, chaos. But chaos that Bruce happened to be behind. And far enough behind that he could easily angle his steps to dodge the now massive pile of fallen competitors. He did so, and in his excitement at looking down upon a hill completely empty except for that rolling wheel of cheese, he threw his arms up over his head, celebrating as if he had already won the competition.
But the celebration didn’t last too long. Because Bruce had forgotten about the man who wasn’t in that body-heap. A reminder came in the form of a low growl directly behind him, and a moment later, Bruce felt a breath of hot air across the back of his neck. As he turned his head to look behind him, a massive, blood-spattered hand pawed through the air right in front of his eyes. Bruce shrieked, and turned his head to look behind him the other way. But the view over there wasn’t much better – he saw the Cheesy Knight, making his way down the hill just a few strides behind his brother.
Bruce decided to keep his eyes aimed forward for the time being. He focused on the cheese, which had finally reached the bottom of the hill and was now rolling through the field that lay beyond it. It was still moving fast, but it wouldn’t be picking up any more speed, and if Bruce got lucky, the wheel might hit a bump big enough to knock it over. If that happened soon enough, he just might be able to reach the cheese before the rogue knights reached him.
But those servants – they knew how to keep a giant wheel of cheese rolling. The wooden contraption bounced cleanly, easily absorbing the bumps of the field. It showed no signs of toppling, just kept rolling and rolling. And the Peachy and the Cheesy Knight? They had to be right behind Bruce now. Steeling himself for what he might see, he glanced back – and something odd and unexpected caught his eye. It was a baggy brown robe, floating along, it seemed, just a few feet to his side. The cloth flapped and fluttered as it zipped forward, and then finally a face emerged from the folds. It was Gerwin’s face, of course. Bruce had no idea where he had come from, but he was there, all right.
“Hi!” said the wizard-to-be.
“Wha?” Bruce panted back at him. At the moment, it was as much of a response as he could muster.
“Listen,” Gerwin said. “It’s really, really, really important that you get to that cheese first. Like, really important. You’ve got to beat these guys, ’kay?”
Bruce gave his head a single shake. He was afraid to do more, lest it throw him off balance or upset his stride.
“You’re shaking your head,” Gerwin said. “I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean, but you should probably just concentrate on running. And the cheese, Bruce. The cheese. Think about how good it’ll be to finally eat that cheese!”
Glancing back, Bruce saw that both the Peachy and the Cheesy Knight were now close enough to dive forward and grab his ankles. To Gerwin, Bruce said, “I’m too . . . too . . . ”
“Tired?” the boy guessed.
“But the cheese, Bruce! You’re so hungry! You’ve barely eaten anything for two whole days!”
“I’m . . . ” Bruce huffed. “ . . . ahw . . . ahw . . . aware.”
“Come on, Bruce,” Gerwin said. “You can do it. You’ve got to do it. If not for the love of cheese, then for something.”
Bruce said, “I . . . I’m – ”
“Okay,” the wizard-to-be interrupted him. “Fine. But if I get in trouble for this . . . ”
Gerwin didn’t elaborate. Instead he wormed a hand out of his robe and wiggled his fingers at the field in front of him.
A sudden gust of wind swept across the grass, knocking the wheel of cheese over onto its side. A moment later, Gerwin did something crazy. He stopped running, spun around, and positioned himself directly in the Peachy and the Cheesy Knight’s path.
The brothers made no attempt to dodge the boy. They plowed right into him. But Gerwin refused to go down without a fight. Flailing his limbs wildly, he managed to get the baggy folds of his robe tangled in the men’s legs. It didn’t bring them down, but it still took the rogue knights several precious seconds to shake off the wizard-to-be, each one further weakening their chances of catching up to Bruce.
If, that is, Bruce could continue running as fast as he was. Which was a big if.
Do it for something.
That’s what Gerwin had told him. The wizard-to-be had kept him hungry all this time so that he would have a reason to chase the cheese. And that, plus the threat of annihilation at the hands of the Peachy Knight, had been enough to get him this far. But he still had a little further to go.
So what was it?
What was Bruce’s something?
Running, burning up his last licks of energy, he let his eyes close. He felt around in the darkness of his tired mind, searching for that something. And there, looming up out of the blackness, he saw it.
It was the face of his father. He thought back to the send-off feast just a couple of nights ago, and in his mind’s eye he saw Sir Brent, bold and brave and valiant, casually telling Bruce that he knew he would never see him, his own son, ever again. You and I both know you won’t make it more than a fortnight out there, he had said. A rogue knight’ll smell you from a mile away. You’ll get picked off faster than you can say “cake.” After which his father had dismissed him, saying, People are starting to stare.
And how many times had Bruce heard that before?
People are starting to stare.
Everywhere he went, people were always starting to stare. Even if he wasn’t doing anything stare-worthy at the time, they figured that he, the chubby, clumsy kid of the castle, was bound to embarrass himself sooner or later.
People are starting to stare.
People are starting to stare.
Still running, eyes shut, chasing blindly after the cheese, his empty stomach churning and grinding, Bruce thought, So let them! Let them stare all they want! Because he was going to show them – his father, his friends, the Peachy and the Cheesy Knight, the whole entire Realm – he was going to show them that he was more than a food-obsessed fat kid who couldn’t do anything worthwhile. He was going to get to that wheel of cheese first. He was going to win this tournament, and once he did, he would –
Bruce tripped. As he was falling, his eyes popped open – and just in time to see that what he had tripped over was the wooden contraption surrounding the wheel of cheese. Half a second later he flopped down face-first, his hands and face sinking into the gooey, sun-soaked curds.
Picking his head up, wiping the goop from over his eyes, Bruce looked around. The Peachy and Cheesy Knight were still a ways away. They must have slowed their pace once they had seen that the boy had them beat. The spectators, who were already rushing over to gather around the victor, were moving much faster than the pair of rogue knights.
Bruce watched the oncoming crowd, overwhelmed by the fact that they seemed to be cheering for him. But then he noticed that some of the approaching people were carrying forks and knives and loaves of bread, and suddenly jealousy replaced every other feeling in the boy’s body. Bruce brought his attention back to the cheese – his cheese – and tried to stuff as much of it as he could into his mouth before anybody else arrived.
Text copyright © 2020 by Jarrett Lerner
All right reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.