PART V: A Blow of the Scrumbittlethwaight
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:
“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-to–be. 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.
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.
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.
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?!” 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.
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.”
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 . . . ”
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.”
“To where we’d been planning to go.”
“That wonderful, wonderful place.”
“Full of . . . ”
“Of, ah . . . ”
“And the people.”
“Yes, the people. Of course the people.”
“The people we’re going there to see.”
“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.”
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 . . . ?”
(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.
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 – ”
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.”
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.