Thank Your Teacher!

Next week is Teacher Appreciation Week. I strongly believe that teachers deserve more appreciation and support all year round — and that’s in normal times. But these past six weeks or so have been far from normal. The demands on teachers — already enormous, and of enormous importance — have increased exponentially, ever since they were forced to figure out pretty much overnight how to teach their students remotely.

And so, if any time is a good time to show a teacher a little extra appreciation, now is an especially good time. Which is why I created this Thank Your Teacher activity sheet.

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I hope the activity causes kids and adults alike to reflect on all the time and energy that teachers devote to their work, and all the compassion and creativity with which they do it. I hope it also helps those same kids and adults brighten some teachers’ days.

Click HERE to download this activity sheet, or find it on my ACTIVITIES page along with all my other activity sheets.

And lastly, a big heartfelt THANK YOU from me to all the teachers out there who do what they do every day and deserve all the appreciation they can get — and then some!

~ Jarrett

KNIGHTS OF THE KIDS’ TABLE: Chapters 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, and 53

knights

 

PART V: A Blow of the Scrumbittlethwaight

 

Chapter 47

 

It was a short-lived celebration. It lasted a mere seven seconds – which was the amount of time it took the Peachy and the Cheesy Knight to reach the downed wheel of cheese.

By the time the brothers got there, a large crowd had already gathered around the cheese, and more people were arriving every second. Some were there in the hopes of hoisting Bruce over their heads and parading him about the property, just as they had done earlier in the day with Gehry. Others were there for lunch.

The Peachy and the Cheesy Knight had no trouble shoving their way through the throng. And once past the last of the spectators, they found Bruce, perched atop the wheel of cheese like a lion hovering over a recently felled gazelle. The boy was dividing his time equally between devouring his prize and protecting it. He slapped at every reaching hand and lunged preemptively at anyone who even appeared to have hunger in their eyes, shoving gooey fistfuls of cheese into his mouth any free second he got.

But Bruce had barely gotten anything into his stomach before the Peachy Knight intervened. He plucked the boy up by the back of the neck as if he were a bothersome kitten and tossed him aside. Bruce belly-flopped down onto the firm, bumpy ground and slid along on his slick, cheese-greased elbows and knees, finally coming to a stop a full ten feet away from his cheese.

Bruce lay there a moment before pushing himself up to his knees and climbing to his feet. Turning back to check on his prize, he found the Peachy and the Cheesy Knights standing in his way. Both of the brothers were still breathing heavily from their trip down the hill, and both looked like they had murder on their minds.

“Uhh,” Bruce said. “Sorry for winning?”

They came at Bruce.

But so did a swarm of servants. They detached themselves from the larger crowd and rushed to form a barrier between the rogue knights and Bruce.

“What the – ?” the Peachy Knight said. He swung an arm at the servants. “Get out of my way!”

A girl stepped out from among the others. She didn’t look much older than Bruce, but was at least a whole head taller. She trained her eyes on the Peachy Knight and gave the man a simple answer:

“No.”

What?!” he barked. The rogue knight tipped his ear toward the girl as if he had never before encountered the word she had said, as if she were in fact speaking some strange, foreign language.

“You heard me,” the girl said, lifting her chin a little as she did. “We’re done getting out of your way. Done doing every single degrading thing you demand of us. Done eating scraps and done living crammed together in tiny rooms with doors so small we have to get down on our hands and knees and crawl in and out of them. Crawl like – like rats.” She spat this last word as if it carried an ugly, sour taste.

The Peachy Knight listened patiently. Then he grinned, apparently amused at how worked up the girl was getting. “Oh, really?” he said. “And what are you going to do about it?”

“Nothing,” the girl said. But confusingly – to Bruce, at least – she said it as defiantly as she had said everything else.

Bruce decided that he must have misheard her.

Until the girl said it again.

“We aren’t going to do a thing,” she informed the Peachy Knight. “And we don’t have to. Because these boys – ” She turned and aimed a finger at the pack of servants behind her, all of whom quickly stepped aside so that the girl’s finger was aimed right at Bruce. “ – these brave young knights have come here to save us. To free us from your evil lordship. To put an end to all your wrongs and return us to the happier life that it is every one of our rights to lead!”

The servants went wild, clapping and cheering and yelling their throats raw.

During the ruckus, Bruce tried to squeeze his way through the crowd, doing his best to dodge the flailing arms, flying elbows, and pumping fists.

“Excuse me?” he said. “Hey. Hey. I – excuse – ow – please – okay – just – ”

It was far too loud for anyone to hear him. And as soon as things had quieted down, the girl, still fired up, began speaking again.

“That’s right!” she said. “Never again will you make a grown man lick your boots clean! Never again will you make a young girl smoosh peaches until her hands bleed! Never again will you make a mere boy carry around twice his weight in sugar – sugar that he’ll never even get to taste! Never again – ”

It was here that Bruce, having finally wormed his way through the crowd, interrupted the girl’s rabble-rousing with a tap on her shoulder.

Turning to him, the girl said, “Yes?”

“Hey. How’s it – uh, yeah – about that whole – that whole saving thing.” Bruce gave a little laugh. “I think there’s been some sort of misunderstanding. A miscommunication, maybe, on our part. Which I apologize for. But – but we’re – you see, we’re actually knights-tobe. And so – and so, you see – ”

Someone shoved Bruce aside. He staggered and nearly lost his balance, and was just about to get upset about it when he saw that the shover was none other than Kinsmere. Bruce watched his friend stride up to the servant girl, take her hand lightly in his own, and place a gentle kiss on the thin skin that covered her knuckles.

Gehry showed up a moment later. He joined Kinsmere beside the girl, and standing shoulder to shoulder, the two of them advanced toward the Peachy and the Cheesy Knight, stopping only once they were close enough to smell the brothers’ breath.

“Bruce?”

It was Kinsmere, snapping his fingers to get his friend’s attention.

“Bruce. We kind of need you up here, too, bud.”

With a sinking heart and a souring – and still very much empty – stomach, Bruce slunk forward and stood beside his friends.

 

Chapter 48

 

The next sixty seconds were chaotic and confusing. Here’s what happened, more or less in the order that it did.

First the Cheesy Knight gave his brother a nudge, after which he lunged for Gehry and Kinsmere. The boys were ready, and fought back bravely. But it quickly became clear that their efforts weren’t going to amount to much. The Cheesy Knight slapped the boys’ punches away as if each one was just another annoying gnat. Then, taking Gehry’s head in one giant hand and Kinsmere’s in the other, palming their scalps as if he were picking up a couple of his brother’s peaches, the rogue knight conked their skulls together. The boys’ legs went rubbery and they began to sink toward the ground. Before they could get there, though, the Cheesy Knight scooped them up. With a single, powerful motion, he hoisted the boys over his shoulders, draping Gehry over one and Kinsmere over the other.

Meanwhile, the Peachy Knight had gone after Bruce. Initially, the boy tried to throw a few punches, but as the knight came closer and his lake-sized shadow swallowed Bruce up, the preposterousness of putting up a fight became clear. Bruce loosened his fists and waved his hands to try and let the Peachy Knight know that he would go peacefully, that he was happy to be carted off to wherever it was his friends were being taken. Whether the man understood this, Bruce didn’t know. But, to the boy’s great relief, there was no more head-conking. The Peachy Knight simply grabbed him and, tucking Bruce under an arm as if he weighed about a quarter of what he truly did, started off after his brother.

The servants, so animated only moments before, seemed too stunned to try and help the boys. Or perhaps it was disappointment at seeing these young knights, these emissaries of freedom, fail so swiftly and thoroughly.

On the way back to the castle, perhaps feeling inadequate about carrying just one human being while his brother hauled two, the Peachy Knight snatched the horn-blower by the ends of his orange shirt. He dragged the man across the field, ignoring his pleas and apologies and desperate attempts to make the brothers’ day full of losses seem less humiliating than it truly was.

“It was too hot,” he said. “Yes, much too hot of a day. And you didn’t get enough sleep! Such an important thing, sleep. If only you’d had a little more, I think you would’ve really cleaned up.”

On and on he went, the back of his shirt gathering grass stains, his voice wobbling as he rode over the field’s pits and bumps.

 

Chapter 49

 

The brothers locked the boys and the horn-blower into a small, cramped iron cage. The cage rested atop a wheeled platform, which had been hooked to a two-person cart by a series of chains. The cart, in turn, was attached to a pair of horses – strong, antsy, and clearly well-rested – by way of a network of thick leather straps.

Once he had finished helping his brother with the straps, the Peachy Knight disappeared, returning a few minutes later with a sack of peaches, a large cloth-wrapped hunk of cheese, and a barrel of water. These supplies were loaded into the cart, set what would have normally been tantalizingly close to Bruce. Just then, however, the boy didn’t feel the least bit hungry. He was too focused on the fact that he and his friends were prisoners of a pair of rogue knights who had just spent a whole day collecting reasons to despise them. To make matters worse, his friends were unconscious, and Bruce had been crammed into the cage beside the horn-blower, who was sobbing uncontrollably, speckling his shirt with tears and gobs of snot.

Bruce tried to ignore the horn-blower and listen in on the Peachy and the Cheesy Knight’s conversation, hoping he might learn where he and his friends were being taken. The brothers had been talking constantly since climbing into the cart, but the more Bruce heard, the more he realized that the men were merely arguing.

“I told you,” said the Cheesy Knight.

“Told me what?” demanded his brother.

“That we should’ve done this from the start. We should’ve locked these brats up the second they told us who they were.”

“And I told you it wouldn’t matter. Which it didn’t. We got ‘em locked up now, don’t we?”

The Cheesy Knight turned in his seat so he could better glare at his brother.

“What?”

What?!” cried the Cheesy Knight. “You know what. Today – ” His voice shook. “Today was the most humiliating day of our lives.”

The Peachy Knight gave a little laugh.

“Oh,” his brother said. “You think it’s funny?”

“Not at all. I just – well, I think I know of a day that was a bit more humiliating for you.”

It took a moment, but then understanding dawned on the Cheesy Knight’s face. “Don’t,” he warned his brother. “Don’t even.”

The Peachy Knight laughed again, harder this time.

“You promised,” whined the Cheesy Knight. “You said you’d never bring that up again. I – I was only five! How was I supposed to know? Back then boys’ and girls’ underpants looked the same!”

The Peachy Knight didn’t agree or disagree. He simply went on laughing.

“Just wait,” muttered his brother. “Wait until we get to Hamper’s and I tell him you waited a whole day to bring him the boys. That you gave them a hundred opportunities to escape.”

None of this quieted the Peachy Knight.

Wait,” the Cheesy Knight went on, growing more upset by the second. “Wha-wha-wha-wait until I tell him what you really think of him!”

This shut the Peachy Knight up at once. “You wouldn’t,” he said, his tone and expression all of a sudden serious, perhaps even a little scared.

“I would!” cried the Cheesy Knight, grinning wickedly.

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Nuh-uh.”

“Yuh-huh!”

“Stop it!”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“No!”

It was here that Bruce quit listening. He couldn’t decide what was more irritating, the horn-blower’s sobbing or the brothers’ bickering. But it was possible, he thought, that the two of them together were even worse than that horrific blast that came out of the horn-blower’s instrument.

An idea tore through Bruce’s brain, grabbing his attention like a bolt of lightning in an otherwise still, dark sky.

The cart had only just then reached the edge of the woods, and despite the distraction of their ongoing argument, the brothers had wisely turned their horses away from the trees. Wherever they were headed, they weren’t going to venture into the Forest of Egergrel in order to get there. They would go around, riding alongside the trees instead of through them. Even so, Bruce thought they might be close enough for his idea to work.

Turning to the horn-blower, he said, “Hey. Your horn.”

“Huh?” said the man, sniffling and dragging a finger under his nostrils.

“Your horn,” Bruce said. “Do you have it?”

The horn-blower still didn’t understand. “My – my what?”

“The thing,” Bruce said. “The thing you blow into that makes that terrible sound.”

“Oh,” the horn-blower said. “My scrumbittlethwaight.” He reached beneath his snot-stained shirt and produced the trumpet-like instrument.

Bruce’s eyes lit up, and a grin curled onto his lips. Looking from the instrument to the horn-blower, he gazed into the man’s tear-studded eyes. “Blow it,” he told him. “Blow it like you’ve never blown it before.”

 

Chapter 50

 

The horn-blower did not disappoint. The noise he made was so horrid, so heinous, it caused all kinds of far-flung havoc. It altered weather patterns in the immediate area, and caused residents of several surrounding villages to be suddenly struck by incapacitating seizures. A sheep innocently munching grass in a field not far from King Beribahn’s castle burst into flames, and men and women all over the Realm fell out of love, set to sobbing, wet their pants, or did some wild combination of all three.

The noise also yanked Gehry and Kinsmere back into consciousness, and, as if they had been kicked by a big, invisible boot, knocked both the Peachy and the Cheesy Knight out of their cart and onto the ground. It did something else, too. It did the very thing that Bruce was hoping it would. But the boy didn’t know this yet, which was why he had his eyes fixed on the tops of the nearby trees.

On the ground beside the cart, meanwhile, the Peachy and the Cheesy Knight were grunting and groaning, slowly climbing to their feet. But the blast of the horn had been so loud, so close, and so unexpected that, even once their bodies began to work again, their brains remained fuzzy. They stumbled about, frowning dimly at their surroundings, until at last the sight of the cart and the caged boys caused something in their heads to click.

Hey,” said the Peachy Knight.

“Yeah!” his brother cried, swaying woozily and, it seemed, looking around for something to hold onto. “Hey.”

“What the . . . ” The Peachy Knight’s bleary eyes roamed over the horn-blower, then focused in on the man’s instrument. Starting forward, he said, “Gimme that.”

“Yeah,” said the Cheesy Knight, now sort of hugging the side of the cart in order to keep himself upright. “Give him it!”

Sadly, but without protest, the horn-blower handed over his scrumbittlethwaight.

The Peachy Knight hefted the instrument in his meaty hand. Suddenly, then, he pulled his arm back behind his head, as if he were going to hurl the instrument out into the middle of the field. He stopped, though, just before doing so, and held the scrumbittlethwaight up to the light to get a better look at it. He brought the front of it up close to his face so he could peer through the bell, as if he thought perhaps there was something hidden within it. Finally the man tossed the instrument back into the cart. “I’m keepin’ it,” he said. “I kinda like it.”

“Yeah,” his brother said. “It’s . . . ”

“It’s . . . ”

“Right, it’s . . . ”

“Yeah.”

Nearly a minute passed before something else clicked in the brothers’ addled brains. Or nearly clicked.

“We should probably get going, huh?” said the Peachy Knight.

“Definitely,” agreed the Cheesy Knight. “We should do that. For sure.”

“All right, then.”

“Yep. All righty right righty.”

“On to our destination.”

“Straight there!”

“To where we’d been planning to go.”

“Mmhm.”

“That place.”

“That wonderful, wonderful place.”

“Full of . . . ”

“Of, ah . . . ”

“Flowers.”

“Flowers!”

“And the people.”

“Yes, the people. Of course the people.”

“The people we’re going there to see.”

“Indeed. Them.”

“Who are . . . ”

“Are so . . . ”

“So very . . . ”

“So very, very . . . ”

While the brothers were struggling to work through their scrumbittlethwaight-induced confusion, Gehry and Kinsmere, slowly coming to, were trying to work through their own. After taking a look around and seeing that they had been captured by the rogue knights, they turned to Bruce and the horn-blower for some sort of explanation.

“What . . . ” Gehry said. “What happened?”

“And where are they taking us?” Kinsmere asked.

Bruce didn’t answer his friends’ questions. He barely even heard them. He was busy, still staring at the tops of those trees. A hesitant smile formed on his face. He thought he saw some movement up there. It could have been a breeze blowing the leaves – but it could have just as easily been something else.

“Come on,” the boy murmured. “Hurry up. Please.”

“Bruce?” Gehry said.

“You okay?” asked Kinsmere.

The cart gave a lurch and then began to roll forward again. The Peachy and the Cheesy Knight had yet to recall where they were supposed to be going, but, refusing to admit this to one another, had agreed that it was silly to stand around and delay any longer, and so had gotten back into the cart and set off toward the destination they both no longer knew of.

It didn’t make any sense. But in the end it didn’t matter. Because before the cart had made it more than a handful of feet, the tops of the trees along the edge of the Forest of Egergrel began to shake – and shake harder than any breeze could have possibly shook them.

Bruce’s tentative smile spread into a full-on grin.

More firmly this time, Gehry said, “Bruce.”

“You’re freaking us out,” Kinsmere added.

This time Bruce heard his friends. But all he said was, “He’s coming. He’s really coming.”

 

Chapter 51

 

The trees shook and bent and swayed. A couple of the thinner ones even tore themselves up out of the ground and leapt through the air. Or so it appeared to everybody watching from the cart. Bruce, of course, knew what was really going on. Gazing up at the trees, he grinned as if he had just won the Realm-wide lottery. And if not for the smells that soon began to waft over the cart, he would’ve gone on grinning, too, but instead he stopped in order to better breathe in those spicy scents.

“Is that . . . cinnamon?” Gehry said.

Kinsmere took a few quick sniffs. “I’m getting cumin.”

“Allspice,” the horn-blower said.

Bruce simply shouted: “Egergrel!”

The troll-giant came bursting through the last of the branches and leaves. Crashing out onto the field, he battered his barrel-sized fists against his chest and roared, “WHO DARE DISTURB THE AFTERNOON NAP OF EGERGREL?” Then, looking down and around him, peering past the iron bars of the cage perched behind the cart, he added, “Oh. Hey, Bruce.”

Everyone – Gehry, Kinsmere, the horn-blower, the Peachy and the Cheesy Knight – looked from the troll-giant to Bruce in astonishment. A chorus of confused sounds accompanied the looks:

“Errr –  ”

“Ahhh . . . ”

“Umm . . . ?”

“Grfp.”

Blurp.”

(This last sound was, in fact, a tiny belch of worry that had slipped out of the Cheesy Knight’s throat.)

Egergrel didn’t notice any of these reactions. Between beaming at Bruce and lifting up his enormous feet to show the boy their dusty, yellow-brown bottoms, he was very busy.

Bruce nodded happily at the troll-giant, and every time the creature showed him the soles of his feet, the boy sucked up a lungful of the scented air and gave him a pair of thumbs-ups.

It took Egergrel a moment to get over his excitement at having bumped into his new friend. But as soon as he had, he said, “Hey. Wait a second . . . ” The fact that Bruce was currently trapped in a cage had finally sunk in. Egergrel frowned. “What are you . . . ” he began, looking around again, trying to put things together for himself and, being unable to do so, at last just asking Bruce, “What are you doing in there?”

Bruce aimed a finger toward the front of the cart, where the Peachy and the Cheesy knight were still sitting, frozen and stupefied by the scene unfolding before them. But the roaring of Egergrel – an “AHRUUURRRRGHHHHH!” so loud and deep it made the earth jiggle slightly in its orbit – pulled the men out of their daze.

The Cheesy Knight dove for the horses’ reins. He tugged at them and twisted them and did everything else he could think of doing to them in order to get the animals going. Beside his panicked brother, the Peachy Knight was panicking, too. He swatted at the horses’ backsides, urging them on with curses and kicks and screams and shouts, before finally realizing that the animals had fainted dead away on their feet. It was then that the rogue knight finally leapt out of the cart and tried to simply make a run for it. He was followed promptly by his brother.

But neither man had any real hope of escaping the troll-giant. It took Egergrel only a couple troll-giant-sized strides to reach the rogue knights and scoop them up in either of his fists. Returning to the cart, temporarily tucking the Cheesy Knight into an armpit, Egergrel used a massive forefinger and thumb to bend the iron bars of the cage until he had made a space large enough for the boys, and even the horn-blower, to crawl through.

Once he had made it out onto the ground, Bruce called up to the troll-giant. “Thanks!”

“Yeah,” Gehry said. “Thanks a million.”

“Make it a billion,” Kinsmere said.

The troll-giant spent a moment smiling down at the boys. Then he looked up at the sky. It seemed as if he didn’t want to leave, like he would have very much enjoyed lingering there for a while in the afternoon sun. But the Peachy and the Cheesy Knight began to squirm around in his humongous fists, and so, after casting one last regretful glance up at the bright burning star in the sky, Egergrel turned to go.

He ducked his head to dodge the branches as he stepped back into his forest. The leafy shadows fell over his greenish skin, turning it several shades darker. Before he disappeared – the boys, squinting, could still see him, though indistinctly – Egergrel looked back and said, “Come visit, will ya?”

It was Bruce who answered.

“Will do,” he called into the forest.

The boys could still hear the troll-giant stomping away for quite some time. They listened until the forest swallowed up the sound. But even then, the scents of cinnamon and cumin hung around, giving the air a pleasant tang.

 

Chapter 52

 

It had been nearly twenty-four hours since the boys had had a chance to speak to each other at any real length, and quite a lot had happened to them during that time. And so, as soon as Egergrel had left them behind, the boys spent a few minutes catching up.

Bruce started. Understandably, Gehry and Kinsmere were eager to find out how he had become such good friends with the troll-giant who had nearly eaten them the afternoon before. So he explained about Gerwin, the wizard-to-be, how he had caught Bruce in the Peachy Knight’s kitchen just as he was about to help himself to a midnight snack and how, somehow or other, the boy then managed to convince him to go hungry and instead lug a bunch of sacks of spices out to the Forest of Egergrel in order to help the troll-giant mask the horrid odors that had been pouring forth from his feet for decades.

“Whoa.” It was Kinsmere. “Hold on a second, though.”

Bruce raised his eyebrows. “Yeah?”

“That little guy in the robe – he got you not to have a snack?”

Bruce sighed. “That’s what you got out of all of that?”

Kinsmere wasn’t listening. “Kid must be some wizard,” he said.

Gehry went next. He told his friends about the epic – and epically unnecessary – journey he had taken just to find a bathroom, but how all the pain and aggravation was ultimately worth it, seeing as his wanderings had led to his overhearing a secret meeting between the Peachy and the Cheesy Knight, one in which they discussed their plans to bring King Beribahn’s son and his two friends to someone they called “you-know-who.”

“Hammer,” Bruce said.

“Huh?” said Gehry.

“Or was it Hapner?” Bruce murmured. “Haggor? No. Hargor?”

“What?” Kinsmere said.

Bruce gave up trying to remember the guy’s name. “When you two were still knocked out,” he told his friends, “I heard them, the Peachy Knight and his brother – they were talking about bringing us to some guy named Hadder or Hastor or – or – ”

“Hasper?”

This was the horn-blower, who had been standing nearby all this time, listening to the boys’ stories. The boys turned to the man now.

“Who’s Hasper?” Kinsmere asked him.

“Oh,” the horn-blower said. “He’s my brother-in-law. Or actually – ” The man frowned. “Actually maybe he’s not. He’s my sister’s husband’s brother. So I know it’s her – Marsha’s, I mean – I know Hasper’s her brother-in-law. But if he’s mine, too – I’m not sure how that all works. Never thought about it, really, till now.”

“Well, this Hasper,” Gehry said, trying to get the man focused again. “Does he have some kind of secret, evil plan to do something terrible to my father, King Beribahn, and the Realm as a whole?”

The horn-blower tipped his head from side to side, considering. “Seeing as this hypothetical evil plan would also be a secret one,” he said, “I can’t say anything with complete confidence . . . ” He narrowed his eyes. He was thinking again, and thinking hard. “But no,” he finally said. “I really can’t see it. I mean, the guy’s just a humble scrumbittlethwaight-maker. That’s all.”

“Oh-kay, then,” Kinsmere said. “Anyway . . . ” He turned back to his friends and proceeded to tell them about his night, how he had woken up to knocking and a Gehry- and Bruce-less room, and how he had then answered the door and found a green-eyed girl who was there to tell the boys about the servants’ plight and their desperate need of a knightly rescue.

Then he leapt ahead, telling his friends about his experience in the smelly locker and his victory over the Peachy Knight. Which got Gehry sharing the story of the gas-off and his victory over the Cheesy Knight.

After that, the boys fell silent.

It was the horn-blower who finally spoke. “My word,” he said. “For knights as young as yourselves, you boys have had quite an adventure.”

 

Chapter 53

 

After a little more discussion, it was decided that the boys’ adventure wasn’t over yet. There was trouble brewing in the Realm, and more trouble, perhaps, than Gehry’s father could have ever believed. The boys would send word back to King Beribahn’s castle – the horn-blower promised to find someone to deliver their message – but would not return there themselves. They would travel on in search of more information about this Halper or Hastor or Hadder and his sinister designs against the Realm, confronting whatever obstacles they encountered along the way.

The decision had been made, and the boys – even Kinsmere and Bruce – were in perfect agreement about it. Yet they found themselves hesitating to leave. They stood around for several minutes, looking from the nearby Forest of Egergrel to the Peachy Knight’s castle, a turnip-sized smudge on the dusky horizon. A bright orange dot fluttered over the grass between the boys and that distant structure. It was the horn-blower, running across the field as fast as he could, his scrumbittlethwaight held proudly above his head. He was on his way to the castle to deliver the good news, to let the servants know that the boys, with a little help from the local troll-giant, had done it. They had ended the cruel reign of the Peachy Knight – and, as a bonus, had also gotten rid of the guy’s brother.

“Well . . . ” Gehry said at last. He took a deep breath. “Shall we?”

The boys dumped the cage out of the back of the cart, climbed into the front, and arranged themselves on the seat. The horses needed to be roused, and then soothed. But once they had been taken care of, the animals responded happily, even eagerly, to the boys’ gentle commands.

They hadn’t made it far when the cheers rose up. They were coming from the castle, from the newly freed servants, and they continued for a long time. It was clear that a magnificent celebration was underway.

The boys all glanced back at the castle – Kinsmere perhaps a few more times than either Gehry or Bruce – but they didn’t turn around, stop, or even slow the cart. They rode on, toward their next adventure.

“Anyone want some cheese?”

“Pass me a peach.”

“Here. Have two.”

______

Text copyright © 2020 by Jarrett Lerner

All right reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

Sunday Haha!

As a kid, Sunday was always one of my favorite days. Not because I didn’t have school. I was lucky enough to have incredible teachers all throughout my life, and so, most of the time, I looked forward to going to school. No, Sundays were so great because that was the day that the comics came.

Early in the morning, my mom or dad would head down to the end of our driveway to grab the newspaper. They’d bring it inside and leave it on the counter, and as soon as I got downstairs, I’d pick through it until I found the comics section. And then I’d read them — every single one, usually multiple times. I’d even read those comics whose humor was generally aimed at the paper’s adult readers. Those jokes flew over my head, but I didn’t care. I was addicted to the brightly colored panels, to the halftone patches, to all that wonderful, smudgy ink.

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All of which is why I was so excited when my pal Jen de Oliveira reached out to me about a project she and fellow author-illustrator Mika Song were putting together. The project, she said, was going to be called Sunday Haha, and it was going to try and recreate for today’s kids that Sunday-morning-comics excitement. How? By getting together a group of kid lit creators to make weekly comics and send them to kids (or their parents or guardians) via a FREE email newsletter on Sunday mornings.

I am thrilled to have some of my own comics included in Sunday Haha — especially as they are sharing a space with the work of some of my favorite creators! My series of strips will star this little guy:

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His name is Cooper — and he was named that by my daughter! — and I hope kids will enjoy following along as he explores his world.

You can sign up for Sunday Haha HERE. I hope you will consider doing so. And if you enjoy the comics, I encourage you to seek the other work of the creators involved. They all have excellent social media presences, and many have books out — from picture books to graphic novels — that can be found wherever books are sold.

~ Jarrett

KNIGHTS OF THE KIDS’ TABLE: Chapters 43, 44, 45, and 46

knights

 

Chapter 43

 

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.

 

Chapter 44

 

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!”

 

Chapter 45

 

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.

 

Chapter 46

 

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.

He ran.

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.

Bruce nodded.

“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.

T-Shirts of All Kinds!

I’ve gotten a lot of requests lately to reopen my previous T-shirt fundraisers. First of all, THANK YOU to everyone who’s already purchased shirts and proudly posted photos wearing them — it’s because of you that we’ve raised over $30,000 for various organizations that help put books into the hands of the kids who need them most, and also because of you that more people want to get shirts of their own and support the cause. And thanks, of course, to everyone who’s asked me to reopen the fundraisers! Also: here you go!

Below you will find six screenshots and associated links. The CustomInk fundraising platform only allows campaigns to have six different shirt options per campaign, so read the description below each link or click into the page to see the options for that fundraiser.

PLEASE NOTE:

— Each of these campaigns will remain open for three weeks, so if you want to get a shirt, or want to share the links with others, make sure to do so within that period!

— I will be launching a NEW T-shirt campaign with a new design this Friday, May 1st. Half of all of proceeds from this new fundraiser will go to support The Author Experience, while the other half will go to various kids’ book access efforts.

THANK YOU again!

~ Jarrett

1. Kids Need Books of All Kinds — Crew Necks

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Click HERE to order Kids Need Books of All Kinds crew neck T-shirts in a variety of colors.

2. Kids Need Books of All Kinds — Women’s V-Necks and Long-Sleeves

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Click HERE to order Kids Need Books of All Kinds women’s V-neck T-shirts in a variety of colors or gray or black long-sleeve options.

3. Kids Need Books of All Kinds — Long-Sleeves, Sweatshirts, and Gray Women’s V-Neck

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Click HERE to order Kids Need Books of All Kinds long-sleeve T-shirts, sweatshirts, or gray women’s V-neck.

4. Books Are Meant To Be… — Crew-Necks

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Click HERE to order Books Are Meant To Be… crew-neck T-shirts. Note that there are both women’s and unisex options. Also note that the blue unisex option comes in Youth sizes!

5. Have No Fear A Teacher Is Here — Crew Necks

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Click HERE to order Have No Fear a Teacher is Here crew-neck T-shirts. Note that there are both women’s and unisex options.

6. Have No Fear a Library is Here — Crew Necks

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Click HERE to order Have No Fear a Librarian is Here crew-neck T-shirts. Note that there are both women’s and unisex options.

Get to Know… Kit Rosewater!

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My name is… Kit Rosewater! Some people think that’s a pen name, but it’s my real name too! My maiden name was Watters and my partner’s was Rose, and when we got married we legally combined our last names to be Rosewater! I wish I had a derby name to share… I trained to be a roller derby referee but never got an official derby name. In 2018 I was briefly on a breakdancing crew, and my crew name was KitKat. If I were to lace up my skates again as a ref, I think my derby name would be KitKat, and my roller derby motto would be “Break me off a piece!”

I am a… children’s book author! A shenanigans-starter! A dog-howling-instigator! I am many things, and have tried many things in my life. Before writing books became my career, I worked as a children’s bookseller. Before that, I was a middle school teacher in theatre and English! I have a master’s degree in Children’s Literature and once wanted to be a college professor. But being an author has been my dream from the start. Maybe one day I’ll add illustrator to that title!

As a kid, I was… always imagining new games. I loved letting my imagination build new friends and pets and secret hideaways. My sister and I worked on building a castle in our backyard after school and on weekends. We never got the walls higher than a few inches, but we made a terrific moat to keep intruders out! I had invisible friends who followed me around like Cloud Dragon and Rosie the Pink Dog. I was also constantly making books out of scrap paper. I loved holding my stories as real objects rather than just ideas floating back and forth across my brainfolds.

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Writing is… something I do to escape, to contemplate, to think critically. I need to write stories the way people need to eat food. Taking characters on journeys fills me with a rush of excitement and energy and passion. Writing is also something I wasn’t inherently “good” at. I’m always learning how to tell stories in new ways that compel readers. Writing is a lifelong journey for me. I hope I never stop improving and changing the way I make books!

Drawing is… something I do for fun right now. I like to draw portraits with colored pencils. My favorite parts to draw are hair strands whipping around in the wind! Right now I have a notebook full of drawings I keep to myself. I would like to learn more about how to draw figures for children’s books, and one day illustrate my own graphic novel or chapter book series!

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Reading is… something I loved from when I was little. Learning how to read the alphabet was like cracking the coolest code ever. I remember reading books like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and Hop on Pop for the first time and feeling so powerful. I still feel powerful when I read. I’m amazed that I can be waiting in line at the post office, pull out a book, and suddenly be transported into another world! I recommend that everyone take a book with them when they go out. It’s so much more fun to read than scroll through phone messages while waiting for the cinema flick to start, or for your food to get to the table at a restaurant.

Books are… PURE MAGIC. Books are incredible. Books are everything. I wanted to write books from the beginning because I realized they could be portals, windows, and mirrors to anywhere. One of my favorite tropes in stories is when a specific book has powers… because I actually think that all books have powers!

Did you know… that while I was growing up, I also wanted to be a wildlife conservationist? In middle school I would wander through the desert plains behind my house and catch horned lizards and snakes. My idol was Steve Irwin, known as The Crocodile Hunter. Steve didn’t hunt crocodiles though–he cared for them and helped relocate them when they were in danger. He passed away in an accident when I was a teenager, but I had always dreamed of meeting him and working at his zoo in Australia. Now I write about the adventures I thought I would go on way back when. And who knows, maybe I’ll still go on some of those adventures someday!

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You can find me… barking out the window with my dog Sadie. Or climbing up the Sandia mountain crest in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Okay, I’m not always on that mountain, or even at my office window. But I am always online. You can learn a lot more about me and my books at kitrosewater.com, and you can catch me on Twitter or Instagram at @kitrosewater!

KNIGHTS OF THE KIDS’ TABLE: Chapters 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, and 42

knights

 

Chapter 37

 

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.

“Understood?”

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.

 

Chapter 38

 

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!

TURN AROUND!

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.

Kinsmere winced.

And the Peachy Knight, still striding toward the shed, threw his head back and laughed.

 

Chapter 39

 

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.

 

Chapter 40

 

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.

“Ow!”

Move!

“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.”

 

Chapter 41

 

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!

GET OUT NOW!

ARE YOU MAD?!

GET OUT!

HURRY!

BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!

GET!!! OUT!!!

 

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.

 

Chapter 42

 

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.

Hey.”

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.

Thank a Truck Driver!

The other day, my pal Amy Janjgava shared with me something that she’d heard on the radio: “If you got it, a truck brought it.” I’d already been working on an activity sheet to thank truck drivers for the work they do, and I thought this statement was the perfect thing to center the sheet around.

truck driver

It’s a great quote. It reminds us just how much we rely on truck drivers ALL the time — and now more than ever.

You can download the sheet above by clicking HERE, or by heading over to my ACTIVITIES page. You can print it, complete it, and share it with a truck driver you know, or simply complete it as an exercise in acknowledging these unseen, often unsung individuals who keep our lives running as they do.

~ Jarrett

KNIGHTS OF THE KIDS’ TABLE: Chapters 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, and 36

knights

 

PART IV: The Peachy-slash-Cheesy Tournament of Champions

 

Chapter 31

 

A human tsunami of dirt-caked, soot-stained servants came barreling down the corridor at the boys. The giant writhing knot of flailing arms and legs and spinning, bickering heads quickly overwhelmed them, carrying Gehry in one direction and Kinsmere in another. Bruce and Gerwin managed to keep track of each other for a few seconds after the crowd had reached them, but then lost sight of one another for good.

There were protests from the boys:

“Wait!”

“Ouch!”

“You’re tickling me!”

But for all the listening the servants did, they may as well have been deaf.

A smaller pack of servants brought each of the boys to his very own dressing room. Big, warm, fully furnished, the sight of these luxurious rooms let Gehry, Kinsmere, and Bruce know that the Peachy Knight had purposely given them the castle’s worst accommodations the night before. Each of the underslept boys gazed longingly at the big, plushly blanketed beds.

But there was no time for a nap.

Moments after the boys had been swept into the rooms, another wave of dirty, scrawny men, women, boys, and girls surged in carrying an array of large, shiny objects. It looked like armor. Not full suits, but bits and pieces taken from here or there. Or, perhaps, from a trash heap. Amidst the chaos, Gehry glimpsed a dented chest plate, Kinsmere saw a visor-less helmet, and Bruce noted more than a dozen sizeable holes in a chainmail shirt.

The armor-carrying servants handed their loads over to the other servants, who immediately set about dressing the young contestants. Little to no attention was paid to the sizes and shapes of the pieces of armor and the sizes and shapes of the boys’ bodies. They were squeezed and stuffed into steel pants tight enough to slow the flow of the blood in their veins, pushed and pulled into heavy iron vests intended for full-grown men.

There were protests:

“Wait!”

“Ouch!”

“Okay – that really tickles!”

But the servants were too focused on their tasks to listen.

The madness, fortunately, didn’t last long. Fully, if not fittingly, armored, the boys were finally ready for the tournament. The servants nudged, shoved, and at times even carried the boys out of their dressing rooms and down the castle’s crowded corridors.

There were protests:

“Wait!”

“Ouch!”

“Yes – I know I’m weirdly ticklish!”

But amidst such chaos, the servants couldn’t hear a thing. Nudging, shoving, and carrying when they had to, the servants brought the boys down the last of the castle’s corridors, through the front doors, and out onto the lawn.

 

Chapter 32

 

The crowd assembled outside of the Peachy Knight’s castle contained an extraordinary assortment of people. There were men from every profession imaginable, and women from the highest and the lowest classes, not to mention all of those in between. Packs of screaming children tore around the property staging their very own tournaments, competing to see who could throw the farthest, run the fastest, jump the highest, or shout the loudest.

Seeing the children, Gehry, Kinsmere, and Bruce each couldn’t help but think back to the day before last, when they had been so much younger than they were now. They had spent that oh-so-distant afternoon tossing stones at the slope’s big oak tree, and now, a mere two days later, they were far from home, wearing mismatched suits of armor and preparing to compete in their very first tournament.

Gerwin, the wizard-to-be, was out there, too. Currently he was keeping a close eye on a man dressed in an enormous, painfully bright orange shirt. The boy jammed his fingers into his ears as the man, tripping constantly over his ill-fitting shirt, climbed atop a nearby barrel and brought a strange, trumpet-like instrument to his lips. Inhaling deeply, the man blew into the horn, which emitted a high-pitched squeal as harsh as anything that had ever been heard in the Realm. It was like the scraping of a thousand knives on a thousand bare plates. The noise caused several men to drop to their knees. One woman vomited. Dogs as far as two miles from the castle fainted dead away.

Lowering his instrument, the horn-blower gave everybody a moment to recover. Then he said, “Would the owner of a blue, four-wheeled cart please move your vehicle to the designated parking area. You are currently parked in the middle of a contest zone.”

There was some mumbling among the members of the crowd, and then a man stepped forward and raised a hand to get the horn-blower’s attention. “What kind of blue?” he said.

The horn-blower blinked down at him from atop his barrel. “What do you mean? It’s a blue, four-wheeled cart.”

“Yeah, yeah. But what kind of blue? Is it light? Is it dark? Is it like the sea’s blue, or is more like the sky?”

The horn-blower considered for a second. “I guess . . . Well, I guess it’s light. But a bit more like the sea than the sky.”

The man from the crowd nodded, as if he found this description deeply interesting.

“So,” the horn-blower asked at last. “Is it yours, or . . . ?”

“No, no, no,” said the man in the crowd. He chuckled. “I walked here.”

The horn-blower glared at the man, then turned back to the rest of the crowd and made an amended announcement.

“Would the owner of a light, sort of sea-blue, four-wheeled cart please move your vehicle to the designated parking area. You are currently parked in the middle of a contest zone.”

No one moved to do so.

Someone shouted, “Start the stinkin’ tourney already!”

The horn-blower sighed and then quickly muttered, “Andnowitismyhonortoannouncetheofficialstartoftheseconddayoftheworldfamoussemiannualpeachyslashcheesytournamentofchampionsletthegamesbegin.”

The crowd went wild. They clapped and cheered, embraced one another and leapt gleefully into the air.

Amidst all the jumping and jostling bodies, Gehry finally spotted Kinsmere, then Bruce. He began to make his way toward them, but it was slow-going in his too-big, mismatched armor. Before Gehry could even get near enough to call out to them, he was swallowed up by a swarm of servants.

“Wait!” he cried. “My friends! Just give me a second!”

“We don’t have any of those,” one of the servants told him.

“Not even one,” said another.

And a third, giving Gehry a firm, encouraging slap on the back, said, “Your event’s about to begin!”

 

Chapter 33

 

The servants brought Gehry around the corner of the castle to a portion of the lawn that had been set up for jousting. Or so it seemed. A large rectangular patch of grass with a dirt track running down the center had been fenced off. Gehry thought the track was too narrow, so thin it could easily confuse a horse. Maybe the course wasn’t fully set up yet? There wasn’t a lance or a shield in sight. There weren’t any horses, either.

The servants motioned for Gehry to head to the center of the arena. He went, looking around for a clue as to what was going on.

A crowd had begun to form along the fence. Kids squeezed themselves in beside their parents, desperate for an uninterrupted view of the action. Further back, infants and toddlers and even a few smaller adults were being lifted up and set on other spectator’s shoulders.

But there were still no horses. Or lances. And where was Gehry’s opponent?

One of these three things showed up a moment later.

The crowd along the fence suddenly parted, making a big enough gap for a normal-sized man to squeeze through. But there was nothing remotely normal-sized about the man now entering the arena. It was the Cheesy Knight. Gehry recognized the sour tang that accompanied the man from the night before. But the quick glimpse Gehry had gotten of the man in that dark, smelly corridor hadn’t prepared him for what he saw now. A towering stack of broad, bulging muscles, the Cheesy Knight made his brother, the Peachy Knight, seem puny. The man seemed to be quite battle-tested, too. His armor appeared to have been bent, broken, and fused back together several times. This, Gehry finally realized, was because the suit had been fashioned using pieces of armor originally made for a horse. There was even a faded stamp of a horseshoe in the corner of his thigh plate to prove it.

Gehry knew it was important that he stay calm. At the very least, he had to do a convincing job pretending to stay calm. He had learned this from his books. And standing there on the Peachy Knight’s lawn, watching that man’s monstrous brother stomp toward him, certain passages that Gehry had set to memory in the comfort of his castle back home began to pop into his mind.

 

There are two kinds of knights: those who are brave, undaunted by even the greatest of dangers, and those who are able to conceal their fears behind showy pronouncements, loud shouts, and exquisite posture.

 

Not feeling particularly brave at the moment, Gehry knew he had better do some concealing. He kept his eyes fastened on the Cheesy Knight’s, and reminded himself of all that he had overheard the night before – that this terrifying, fatally massive man had some sort of evil design against Gehry’s father, and was planning on using Gehry and his friends to help see it through – in the hopes that it would bring about anger, if not bravery.

The Cheesy Knight strode right up to Gehry, stopping only once he was a foot away. Gehry had to tip his head back as far as it could go so he could continue to look the man in the eye.

“Ready?” the Cheesy Knight asked him, sending a sharp, moldy breath crashing across Gehry’s face.

Somehow, Gehry managed to not even flinch. And despite the fact that he had no idea what was supposed to be prepared for, he told the man, “I’m ready.”

The Cheesy Knight gave Gehry a cocky smirk. Then he leaned in close and belched into the boy’s face.

 

Chapter 34

 

At first, Gehry thought the Cheesy Knight was greeting him according to the customs of his, Gehry’s, castle. It was, after all, Gehry’s father who had institutionalized the practice of belching in the face of a guest, friend, or family member. Over the years, it had become a deeply respectful gesture, an intimate symbol of letting another into your private life by giving them a whiff of your insides. And while it was true that the Cheesy Knight was secretly orchestrating some kind of sinister plot against King Beribahn and, very possibly, the entire Realm, Gehry decided that the guy must have at least a smidgen of non-rogue decency in him.

So Gehry dug down deep and, popping up onto his toes to get his mouth a little closer to the Cheesy Knight’s face, he belched right back at the man.

The Cheesy Knight wrenched his head back. He seemed surprised by the force of the boy’s belch. He really shouldn’t have been. As the king’s son, Gehry had to be able to belch – and belch well – easily and on command. On holidays and other feast days, when lords and ladies from all over the Realm came to pay their respects to the royal family, Gehry had to stand beside his mother and father for hours at a time, belching into the faces of hundreds of people in a row.

The Cheesy Knight clearly hadn’t known this, for he was still looking down at Gehry with an expression that was equal parts amazement and, it seemed, fear. Gehry gave the man a moment to get his emotions under control, and looked once more around the arena. The lances and shields and horses definitely should have been there by now.

He turned back to the Cheesy Knight, thinking he would just ask him what the holdup was. But before Gehry could get a word out, the man leaned back down and belched for a second time in the boy’s face.

Wincing at the unexpected gust of nastiness, Gehry thought the Cheesy Knight’s behavior exceedingly strange. Because you never belched in someone’s face twice. At least not one after another like that.

Gehry looked up at the man, confused.

“Done already, then?” the Cheesy Knight asked him. He was smirking again. “Nothing left in that” – he dropped his voice into a toddler’s whimper – “wittle taiwny bewwy of yours?”

What kind of tournament is this? Gehry wondered. And then, suddenly, his brain leapt back to the previous night, to when he had overheard the Cheesy Knight and his brother “practicing” for the tournament. They had held a “posterior” gas-off, as opposed to an “anterior” one. In other words, they had farted instead of belched. But Gehry could only suppose that this here, this event that he currently found himself competing against the Cheesy Knight in, was the other kind. It was a belching contest. And a belching contest was something that Gehry, King Beribahn’s one and only son, had been born and bred to excel in.

Grinning up at the now somehow not-so-intimidating rogue knight before him, Gehry said, “Oh no. Don’t you worry. I’ve got plenty left.”

 

Chapter 35

 

Gehry gave the Cheesy Knight a second whiff of his insides:

 

blerck!

 

This time, the rogue knight remained perfectly still, letting the belch waft over him. Once the brunt of it had passed, however, the man dropped his head and gazed glassily at the foot or so of dirt track between him and Gehry.

Gehry immediately recognized the man’s expression. The Cheesy Knight was neither dazed nor distracted. He was fully focused, searching inside himself for an airy pocket of nastiness. And so Gehry was ready when the man brought his head back up and unleashed a beast of a belch:

 

BLOOOOOOOOOOOORRRRAAGHARAGHRAROOOOGAHHH!

 

It was extraordinary. Gehry wasn’t sure whether he had ever encountered such a powerful belch. He had certainly never been on the receiving end of such a thing. He was so overwhelmed by the sudden and storm-like force of the cheesy emission that he staggered back several steps.

As soon as he had stopped and steadied himself, the crowd began to clap. It was, Gehry realized, the quiet, polite sort of clapping that a tournament crowd might do if a contestant threw a particularly nice horseshoe or shot an arrow near, but not directly through, the bullseye.

Gehry looked out at the crowd. Then he looked down at the dirt track that ran clear across the arena. It was too narrow, as he had noted before, to accommodate a pair of horses. But it was perfectly proportioned for a pair of people.

All at once Gehry understood how this belching contest worked. He saw how one of the competitors could eventually “beat” the other. Exchanging nothing but belches, he and the Cheesy Knight were to try and force each other back along the dirt track, all the way to the fence at the opposite end of the arena.

To make sure he was right about this, Gehry pretended that the Cheesy Knight’s belch had swung around for a second attack. Waving his hands in front of his face, coughing and clutching at his throat, he stumbled back another step.

Once again, as soon as he had stopped and steadied himself, the crowd quietly, politely clapped.

The Cheesy Knight grinned over at the spectators. He gave them a few winks and a quick wave. Gehry could tell that the rogue knight believed himself to be on his way to an easy victory. He was so confident he was going to win that he didn’t even bother advancing on Gehry. He stayed there in the middle of the arena, at the very center of the dirt track, and let the boy walk back up to his starting position.

Heading there, more words popped into Gehry’s mind. These, however, weren’t from books. They were the words Gehry’s father had said to him at his send-off feast, the night before he and his friends had set out on this adventure. We know you’ll make us, and the Realm itself, as proud as we could ever hope to be.

Gehry glared up at the Cheesy Knight. He dug deep, deeper than he ever had before, and pulled up a belch as fierce as any he had belched before. The force of it nearly sent him, Gehry, toppling to the ground:

 

BLEEEEERCHAREEEEEECHKAAA*#####010387AAAAACHCHCHCAKWOIQPPPPAOIASHAFSAAAAAAAA!!!!*@&$#*!)_!!!!!!!!!

 

The Cheesy Knight fared even worse. Staggering back, tilting and tipping, his face contorted in horror.

As the crowd clapped and murmured, Gehry strode forward, stopping only once the toes of his boots were an inch from the Cheesy Knight’s. There, he tipped his head back defiantly, welcoming the best – or worst – that the rogue knight had to offer.

 

Chapter 36

 

Now that Gehry had a handle on the rules of the contest, things moved fast. So fast, in fact, that the spectators soon last track of whose belch was whose, which odor had come from which competitor. Now and again, even the competitors got confused. Their belches bled together, the stinks mixing to create brand-new stenches, ones that had never before been sniffed by a human nostril.

Yet Gehry and the Cheesy Knight battled on. They leaped and leaned through the cloud of foul gas that had built up around them, and sent one belch after another crashing across each other’s faces.

 

            berrrgh!

                                                                                    bluuURP!

                        BLORRRAHHHHHH!

                                                            blehp! blehp-blehp-BLEHP!

BAROOoOooOoOOOOO!

                                                                                    blap!

                                    blip!

                                                            blop!

                                                                                                BLERCK!

                        BLARRRCHGHARAGH(!)*!

                                                                                                                        BeRELAaAA

                                                                                                                        AGHAGHAG

                                                                                                                        HAGHAKCC!

                                                            bleeeggharegaah!

 

The competitors’ back-and-forth soon grew so intense that the crowd was forced to ignore the belching entirely. The only way to keep track of the contest was to focus on the contestants’ feet. How many steps did the boy just take back? How far did the Cheesy Knight stumble? Where was each competitor in relation to the fence behind him?

Of course, Gehry and the Cheesy Knight had to keep track of this, too. After every few belches, they had to look down at the strip of dirt beneath their feet or glance back at the arena behind them.

It was a tight battle. Gehry would make a gain – but then the Cheesy Knight would advance on him. Gehry would fire back fiercer than ever – but then the Cheesy Knight would bring up a belch twice as powerful as his last.

Eventually, Gehry got tired. His body had simply had enough. His stomach was tight and twisted. His throat ached. His eyes were desert dry. His nostrils burned as if he had sniffed a lit torch. And as the pain and discomfort grew worse and worse, he began to realize that the contest couldn’t be won by burps alone. He and the Cheesy Knight had proven themselves to be evenly matched. If they tired at a similar rate, they might be able to go on forever – or at least until one of them fainted from exhaustion.

But what could Gehry do?

He thought – then stopped thinking, briefly, to tug up a belch – and then thought some more. And eventually, amid the blurps and BLERGHs, Gehry found in his head another passage from his books.

 

Now and again, a knight may encounter a foe unbeatable by force or quickness alone. In such situations, cleverness must be employed in order to win the day. Looking past the body, to the vulnerability hidden away within all of us, the knight must locate the soft spot carried in his enemy’s soul. With a sharp enough barb, the knight can strike a deadly blow. Picture a thorn piercing a barely boiled egg – driving beyond the solid outside to reach the soft, runny center.

 

Gehry could practically taste that gooey yoke. But where, he wondered, was the Cheesy Knight’s soft spot? It took him another minute – enough time for both him and the Cheesy Knight to fire off another eight belches each – but then it came to him. He remembered something else he had heard the night before when listening in on the Peachy and the Cheesy Knight’s conversation.

After his next belch, Gehry said, “Hey.”

The Cheesy Knight belched back. “Hey, yourself.”

“You sure – blaaarghaerrrree! – you’re really a knight?”

“I’m – blurrrrP! – among the finest knights – blaghh! – there has ever been.”

“That’s weird. Cause – BERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGH! – every great knight I’ve ever known has had their own castle.”

The Cheesy Knight’s lips, opened wide to release another grisly burst of gas, began to quiver. Then they shut.

“And, I mean, this – ” Gehry gestured toward the castle behind him. “ – this is the Peachy Knight’s castle. Your brother’s, not yours. Everyone knows that.”

The rogue knight blinked. “Th-they do?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Gehry said. “Definitely. Everyone in the whole Realm. They all talk about the Peachy Knight. They say, ‘Sure. Guy’s got his very own castle!’ But when someone says, ‘Doesn’t he have a brother?’ people are always, ‘Does he? I don’t think so. If he does, I’ve never heard of him.’”

The Cheesy Knight’s head began to shake, tiny nervous ticks back and forth. “Th-the name,” he said. “We’re changing it. It’s just – the paperwork. We’re – ”

“Right,” Gehry said, interrupting the rogue knight’s stammering explanation. “But I’ve heard horror stories about that. The paperwork – it can take a lifetime.”

The Cheesy Knight stumbled back a few steps.

Gehry took a few steps forward. “And it’s too bad, too,” he said. “Since, you know, once a guy’s gone, if he didn’t have his own castle . . . ” He shrugged. “Well, how are people gonna remember him?”

“B-b-because – ”

“So many knights forgotten,” Gehry said. “Some great ones, too, I bet. Maybe even some of the greatest!” He tsked his tongue. “If only they’d had a castle named after them.”

The Cheesy Knight fell back a little farther, and then farther still, until he stood just a few feet from the arena’s fence. The crowd had quieted down to hear what Gehry was saying, and so they offered no help in clueing the rogue knight in on how close he was to losing the contest. But even if the spectators had been hooting and hollering, it probably wouldn’t have mattered much for the Cheesy Knight. He was terribly distracted, busy both trying to refute Gehry’s claims and convince himself that he would go down in history as a great, brave, and revered knight despite the fact that he didn’t have a castle that bore his name.

Gehry was patient, standing by while the Cheesy Knight stumbled and stammered away. He focused on gathering the necessary gas for what he hoped would be his final belch. He was just about depleted, and if one last big belch didn’t bring about a victory, Gehry wasn’t sure he would have anything left to fight with.

“But I’m – the signs,” the Cheesy Knight was saying. “There’s the – the little cheeses on the signs? P-p-people – th-they – they see them. The signs – they see the signs and they – ”

That was when Gehry let loose:

 

BAAHHHHROROORROOOÔÖÒÓØØØØØÒÓOOOOOOooOoOoOoooOOOOOoooOoOoOooOooOoOoOOÖÖÖÖÖOÖOOÖÖooooooooooo&&&*2863@&&&U33Oooooooo^^^E~““~oØØchRRRRRØØoooooooooooØoØooooooooooooŌÕ!

 

The rogue knight went silent. His eyes, wide and worried, slowly rolled back. And then, his limbs as stiff as if he had been seized by a sudden paralysis, the man tipped backwards and cracked his head on the top of the fence.

The crowd erupted. Men, women, boys, and girls all hopped the fence and, rushing toward Gehry, stepping on the downed Cheesy Knight if they had to, lifted the boy up into the air. They carried him around the arena as if he were a trophy and they were the winners, everybody squirming to get closer, desperate to give Gehry their congratulations, to lay their hands upon him for even the briefest of moments.

______

Text copyright © 2020 by Jarrett Lerner

All right reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

KNIGHTS OF THE KIDS’ TABLE: Chapters 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, and 30

knights

 

Chapter 24

 

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.

Kinsmere sighed.

“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.

 

Chapter 25

 

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.

“Iss gooh.”

“Huh?”

There came the sound of someone swallowing down a large, drippy mouthful of food.

“It’s good.”

“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.”

“You think?”

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:

 

bbrrrbbrubbrrbpruurbrrrbhuffffffffhhfhfhfffhffff

 

Out in the corridor, Gehry plugged his nose.

 

Chapter 26

 

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-tobe,” 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?”

 

Chapter 27

 

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.

Sir.”

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.”

 

Chapter 28

 

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.

 

Chapter 29

 

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.”

 

Chapter 30

 

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 – ”

Wait!

“You guys – ”

“ . . . three . . . ”

“I heard – ”

“We went – ”

“The girl – ”

“ . . . two . . . ”

“Hold on!”

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.