"I must defeat him soon- before I tire too much and the battle goes to him," Joel thought. "This has gone on too long, but so far I've been lucky. I can't swing this heavy blade too much longer." Joel's tired legs carry him for one last dodge to the side as he swings the heavy weapon for what may be his last attack. Joel's blade, carried by the strength of his young arm, pierces the enemy's armor. The mighty blow, using the last of Joel's remaining energy, bites deeply into the enemy's side. Joel sees the rush of his foe's blood pouring from the gaping wound. It was a death-blow and Joel stands panting as his enemy collapses to the ground. The joy of battle won rushes through Joel's wiry frame as his enemy gasps out his last breath.
"Well struck, M' Lord," wheezes Joel's enemy. "And now, I die.
Joel blinks in the afternoon haze and looks around at the empty clearing.
"Coming, Ma!" Joel yells back at the nearby house and reluctantly heads for home. He looks one last time at the rusty oil drum he has just beaten into submission. No longer would the Black Knight terrorize the innocent villagers. "Criminy, " Joel whispers to himself. "I whacked the tar out of it this time." He runs for home, knowing that to delay any longer would risk catching it from his Mother.
"Honestly, young man, I don't know what's going to become of you," Joel's teacher exclaims in a voice that reeks with frustration. "You never seem to hear a word I say."
"Ma'am?" Joel asks puzzledly.
"The problem on the blackboard," says the teacher, as if that would clarify the situation. The rest of the class stifle giggles as Joel tries to drag his attention back to his math class. "I'd like for you to solve the equation."
Math is so dull, Joel thinks as he reluctantly leaves his desk and approaches the blackboard. He grasps the chalk as if it were radioactive and scribbles the answer near the end of the equation.
"X equals 14," he says.
"No Joel," replies the teacher. "I want you to show each step as you factor the equation."
"But that's five steps," says Joel. "You can just look at it and see what will factor out, Ma'am. The answer has to be 14."
"Joel, how do I know that you worked out the problem yourself, instead of looking the answer up in the back of the book, if you don't show each step and how you got the answer?"
From the giggles coming from his classmates, Joel knows that the bullies will be after him as soon as the bell rings for lunch-break. They already hate him for ruining the teacher's grading curve. He knows that without his high grades on each test the teacher would be able to fudge the grades of the rest of the class so that more of them would pass. They singled him out for practical jokes and the occasional beating just because he could see the answers and usually managed to ace the tests. Joel erased his answer and began filling in the rest of the equation, showing each step, just the way the teacher wanted.
"All right class, there will be a test tomorrow," said the teacher when Joel had finished explaining each step. Groans filled the air and a spitball hit Joel in the back of the head as he sat back in his desk. He knew that they blamed him for the test. They couldn't very well blame the teacher, she was a grown-up. "I want you to review everything in chapter twenty and be prepared to start chapter twenty-one. Also, for your homework, do all of the problems at the end of chapter twenty."
The bell rang. As Joel gathered up his notebooks he could hear the bullies grumbling. He shouldered his knapsack and left the classroom, preparing to endure whatever torture awaited him at the hands of the others.
This time, there were only four of them. They shoved Joel against the lockers and shouted at him. Usually there were more bullies, some of them must have gotten sent to the Principal's office. They always teamed up on Joel, even though he was smaller than them. One got bold and punched him in the stomach while the others laughed and called out encouragements. Joel tried to fight back, but was helpless against them. Like savages, they huddled around him for the kill. Through a haze of pain, Joel saw a blur and cringed, expecting another blow. There was the sound of a meaty SMACK and the biggest bully went flying across the hallway. Two others were knocked reeling as the blur resolved itself into a recognizable shape.
"Anyone else want some?" came a voice. It was Tommy, the new kid that had just transferred from one of the big city schools. "Think you're pretty tough, 'eh? Four on one, you'd think y'all were scared of Joel."
The fourth bully turned and ran as the other three stumbled to their feet. Tommy balled up his fists and stood between the bullies and Joel. They took one look at what was shaping up to be a fair fight and ran off as well.
"Cowards!" yelled Tommy. "Come on back and fight, you chickens!"
"Thanks," gasped Joel as soon as he had his breath back. "But you'll just be making trouble for yourself. They'll gang up on you as soon as you turn your back."
"I don't think so," replied Tommy. "They ain't got the guts to stand up to someone who ain't afraid of them. Those buzzards are all alike. You gonna be OK? "
"Yeah, I think so. I just got the wind knocked out of me."
"OK," said Tommy. "I think we ride the same bus. Come on and I'll help you to a seat."
"Thanks again, but why did you wanna help me out?"
"Oh, I just hate to see somebody get ganged up on. 'Sides, I just came from the Library and your name was in every book I wanted to check out. I thought we might have something in common. Anybody that reads all them King Arthur books is OK by me."
Somehow, Joel summoned up the strength to laugh. Things were starting to look up.
By the end of the school year, Tommy and Joel were an inseparable team. They read the same books, watched the same movies, and stood beside one another against the same bullies. The bullies soon learned to look elsewhere for their sport, for Tommy had taught Joel a few lessons in the art of self-defence. Joel, in return, had introduced Tommy to the joys of battling oil drums and trees into submission with an old broomhandle. Joel's favorite clearing in the woods behind his house soon became their little Camelot. The boys built themselves a make-shift fort and treehouse in the branches of a friendly Sweetgum tree. When they discovered a textbook on fencing in the local public Library, they lost no time in marking off a space in their clearing to practice lunges, feints, and parries with their broomhandles. As the summer vacation drew towards it's end they found themselves dreading their first year of High School. Junior High had been easier since they had become friends, but they wondered if they were going to be able to spend their time together in the new school.
"I don't care if we don't have our classes all together," said Tommy. "We'll still be able to get together after school."
"Yeah," agreed Joel. "We weren't in the same classes that often last year. I don't see that it'll make much difference. We'll always be able to meet here at the fort."
As they talked, the boys were washed by the shade-cooled breeze that rustled the leaves of the tree. The gentle hiss of the wind was punctuated by birdcalls and the chattering of the nearby squirrels. Gradually, they became aware of the sound of approaching footsteps from deeper in the woods. Someone was coming, if the crunching of the dead leaves in the woods was any indication.
"I bet it's that goofy old woman who bought the old Harkness place," said Joel.
"No way! Somebody moved into the haunted house?" asked Tommy.
"Yeah, bet she don't stay there long!"
"What makes you think that it might be her?"
"I overheard Mrs. Thacker gossiping about the old lady when Mom and I went to the grocery store last week," replied Joel. "Ol' fussbudget Thacker said she must be some kind of Gypsy. Dressed like one, anyway."
"Oh," said Tommy. "What else did Motor-mouth have to say?"
"Just that she seemed to spend a lot of time out in the woods- picking mushrooms, collecting some kind of weeds, digging up some old roots. Stuff like that. Thacker said that it was disgraceful that a woman her age would carry on like that."
"Sounds like one of Dad's old girlfriends," said Tommy after some thought. "She was into all that 'Back to Nature' stuff. Glad Dad didn't marry her after all, we'd of probably gone off to live in some Macro-biotic commune or something."
"Sounds weird," replied Joel. "Ever since my Dad died, I've been worried that Mom would fall for some guy I couldn't stand"
"I know how you feel," Tommy said quietly. "Dad's been a little weird about girlfriends since he and Mom got divorced. 'Course, Mom running off with that surfer-dude and moving to California kind of tore him up. Never understood what Mom saw in that moron, anyway. It took more than a year before Dad even went out on a date. He still mopes around the house when their wedding anniversary comes around. But at least he's got it together enough to keep on dating women."
"Yeah," said Joel. "Mom has a couple of guys that she goes out with once in a while, but nothing special. I mean, neither of them have ever spent the night or anything."
"You know," began Tommy hesitantly, "maybe we oughta try to get my Dad and your Mom together sometime. Who knows? They might just like one another."
"Shhh..." Joel hissed. "Whoever it is ought to be here any minute now. Let's see how long it takes them to catch on that we're up here in the tree."
The boys could hear that the crunch of footsteps had gotten louder. Their visitor would be stepping into the clearing any time now. Joel and Tommy both sat very still, waiting for the first glimpse of whoever it was that approached their private kingdom.
"Hey," Tommy whispered. "How old is this Gypsy lady, anyway?"
"Ancient," Joel whispered back. "She's got to be forty-five if she's a day, leastways that's what Mrs. Thacker said."
The leaf-crunching rustle of the footsteps slowed and the boys caught their first glimpse of their visitor. They saw an old man with a snow-white beard, wearing a hooded cloak and walking with the aid of a tall staff. He entered their clearing, stopped, and looked around at the area of hard- packed ground that the boys had swept free of leaves for their playground. This was definitely not the Gypsy woman that they had been expecting. The stranger smiled as he viewed the clearing.
"What a green and pleasant land is this," said the stranger. "It shows much love and care. Obviously, this the realm of a kind and noble people." His voice was touched by an accent that was vaguely British. The stranger looked up and stared straight at the two boys hidden by the leaves around their treehouse. He smiled even wider, his eyes twinkling as he spoke again.
"Greetings M' Lords. 'Tis a pleasant day for a merry meeting. Come, descend from yon arbor and have speech with me, for I have traveled many leagues to grant your request. Come, two noble warriors such as yourselves have naught to fear from an old man. Not one as weary from walking as myself."
"Who are you?" asked Joel in astonishment.
"Indeed," replied the stranger. "You claim to know me not? Do you not recognize me? I am he that thou hast summoned with thy studies and thy love of the olden days."
"We haven't called anyone," said Tommy defensively. "We've been real quiet so folks would leave us alone."
"Exactly! That is how I was able to locate you so easily," said the stranger. "If you had been a pair of wild hellions I would not have felt the need to respond to your summons. Come, there is much to discuss and I fear my neck will suffer a crick if I am perforce to gaze up into yon tree all day."
"If you're some kind of pre-vert," said Joel. "We'll scream 'til the cops come and lock you up!"
The stranger chuckled as if the thought of being arrested were somehow ludicrous. He looked more like a kindly Uncle than some child-molester, but Joel and Tommy were still cautious. Looks can be deceiving.
"I have come to answer to your need," the stranger said calmly. "You both have expressed the same desires; to learn, to grow, to be whole again. You have demonstrated the love of valor and the purity of heart necessary to call me here. And so I have come in answer to your summons. To teach, to guide, and to heal your familial wounds. Such is not to be spurned lightly, for I do not grant this boon more than twice in a century."
"What are you talking about?" asked Joel.
"Who are you? Tell us your name," said Tommy. "Or we can't even begin to trust you."
"Caution... that is good," replied the stranger. "At least I won't have to teach you that. Nor swordplay either, I gather. That surely must be out of vogue in this age. Very well, my name, though you should both have recognized me by this time. I am Merlin Ambrosius, late of Camelot and the court of Arthur Pendragon."
"Either he's nuts," said Joel to Tommy, "or we are!"
"You got that right," said Tommy. Joel nodded solemnly.
"Very well," said Merlin. He gestured dramatically and a copper bowl appeared in his hand. "I'll need to fill this with water."
"Woah! I bet you won't find that trick at a magic show!"
"Yeah Tommy, That thing didn't come out of his sleeve. Um... there's a creek right over here, Mister Merlin."
"Thank you. Now, after I fill this perhaps I can show you something that will support my claims." Merlin walked over to the stream and descended the bank. While he was busy, Joel and Tommy had time to talk privately.
"What'd you think, Joel?"
"I dunno, that bowl sorta convinced me that he's not just some crazy in weird clothes."
"What's he gonna do with a bowl of water?"
"Guess we have to wait and see, Tommy. Shhh, here he comes back."
"Well, did you decide to watch with an open mind?" asked Merlin. "Now, let us see what we can see." Merlin stood his staff upright, muttered "Stay." The staff remained standing by itself. He then held the bowl between his hands and began whispering. The copper bowl was almost a foot across and half that deep. It's surface was polished to a high gleam and the water sparkled as Merlin held it level with his waist. The boys both gasped as Merlin took his hands away and left the bowl floating in mid-air! "Look into the water," he said. Tommy could see that the water was getting cloudy. Joel thought that he saw swirling shapes begin to twirl about in the bowl.
"Hey," Joel blurted out, "It's a picture!"
"Yes," smiled Merlin. "What do you see Tommy?"
"Uh- a castle," Tommy began.
"Camelot?" asked Joel breathlessly.
"No," Merlin replied. "But it is a castle in Avalon that is near Camelot. Camelot has been sealed away since the last battle. It awaits Arthur's return. Camelot may wait forever before England needs Arthur again."
"Just like in the stories?" asked Joel.
"Yes," Merlin replied sadly. "Those days are long gone, sometimes I miss them. Then again, hot and cold running water and indoor plumbing do have their own attractions."
"Wait a minute," Tommy said suddenly. "What happened to your accent? You were talking like a storybook when you first walked up, now you sound like everyone else does nowadays!"
"Ah, well... I have had a long time to adjust to modern life," Merlin began.
"I did have to fit in somehow over the years. After all, there would be some considerable outcry if I retained my accent from the middle ages. But sometimes it comes back when I'm in a more formal mood."
"Oh, I see... I guess."
"Come on, give him a chance. What's the matter Joel, don't you see that bowl floating there? I don't see any wires, do you? This is real!"
"Come on Tommy, this is just too weird!"
"So what are you saying? We're dreaming?"
"Boys, we don't have time for this," Merlin said gravely. "I only have a limited time. I'll show you why I'm here. Look into the water again."
"What's that?" asked Tommy when he looked into the bowl.
"It looks like a war- knights in armor, riding horses," added Joel.
"This is a land called Arcadia," Merlin said. "It is near to Avalon, but separated from it by many years. The two major kingdoms of Arcadia have been tricked into a bloody conflict that threatens to destroy the entire land. Only the safe return of two members of royalty, one to each kingdom, will avert the catastrophe that looms over both kingdoms. Without those two Princes, the evil mastermind will be able to bring down both royal houses and forge a kingdom of darkness for himself to rule over."
In the waterbowl there were scenes of great battlefields, strewn with the dead and dying. Families weeping over the loss of their fathers, brothers, and sons. Women being run down by hunched, twisted things that looked only vaguely like men on horseback, captured for torture- or worse. The pictures went on and on.
A third army hid in the darkness of the forests, striking first at one kingdom and then the other. Grim, misshapen figures emerged from the forests to confuse and misdirect the loyal armies of the two kingdoms. Both thought the other was responsible for the terrible deeds.
"Let me guess," said Joel. "You want us to go there with you and play 'Prince and the Pauper'!"
"No way!" Tommy gasped. "I don't believe it."
"I'll bet we just happen to look like these two missing Princes and Merlin wants us to impersonate them long enough to stop the war," Joel continued in a rush.
"Actually you don't look anything like them," Merlin said. "But that wouldn't matter because no one has seen them since they were infants. Otherwise, I'm afraid that you're right. I would like to ask you for your help. Not to impersonate the two Princes, but to help convince their families to stop the war, join forces against the real enemy, and give me time to locate the missing heirs. It will be more of a 'Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court' than 'Prince and the Pauper' for these people need an influx of modern ideas to help combat the dark power that threatens them."
"But what about our families? We don't have time to go anywhere!"
"Yeah Merlin, how could we disappear from home and not get our folks worried sick about us?"
"No matter how much time you spend in Arcadia, you will return here to the same instant that you leave. Magic does have it's uses, you know."
"I still don't believe it," said Joel. "That's gotta violate a whole bookfull of physical laws!"
"Not really," said Merlin as he smiled. "It can be expressed in terms of traveling through Einstein- Rosen wormholes in spacetime into a parallel universe, but that would take all the romance out of the magic... Plus make me look like a physicist instead of a sorcerer. I enjoy the accomplishments of science as much as anyone alive today, but I prefer the beauty and romance of magic."
"Joel," whispered Tommy. "We always wanted to do more than just play knights-in-armor, this is our big chance!"
"Tommy, you're already ready to just drop everything and take off. Doesn't any of this frighten you? It does me! We could get killed somewhere and our folks would never know! Those guys are fighting with real swords, that's real blood on the ground, and those are real goblins hiding in the shadows!"
"Come on Joel, Merlin is real. He's really here!"
"That's half of what scares me, Tommy!"
"Boys, I won't lie to you. There is danger. The threats are real, the monsters are real, but the people are real too and they need your help. You two are special, the spells I cast to get here brought me to you for a reason. In all the world, you are the right people to help Arcadia in it hour of need. The only two people to give them the help that they urgently need right now. It's not a matter of killing goblins, or curing some disease, or leading a band of warriors on a quest. The magic chose you because you have the gifts that are needed. Somewhere inside yourselves lies the salvation of Arcadia and you are the only ones that can make the difference. My time grows shorter, but I do have time to offer you some sort of proof of what I say."
"How?" asked Joel.
"By letting you visit another world, letting you spend as much time there as you wish, and bringing you back to this moment in time here in your own world. Will you accept that as proof that I can do what I say?"
"Well," mused Joel. "I suppose so."
"Good," smiled Merlin. He waved his hands again and a small globe of crystal appeared. It rapidly grew larger until it was almost as tall as Merlin and rested on the ground like a giant soap-bubble. Colors swirled and danced in it's interior and the boys could hear faint music float in the air. "Here is your gateway. I will bring you back when you believe. You may also find something there that could help Arcadia, I'm not sure. When I prepared for this meeting I knew that I would have to send you to another realm before you would consent to go to Arcadia, but I cannot determine why this is the place for you to go. I only know that you have to go here first. The magic will not work in any other manner. There is something in this world that you will need before you can go to the next. Perhaps it is some magical device, then again, it may only be self-confidence."
"Did you look into our future?"
"No Tommy, I looked into Arcadia's future. That is how I know that you and Joel are the ones needed to save it. The time is now. You must either step into the sphere or turn and walk away."
"Where will we go?"
"Into wonders beyond your imaginings, Joel. Into your destiny, one of your possible destinies in any case. Choose now. To go or not to go. I cannot force you to do anything except choose." Tommy and Joel looked at one another, then back at Merlin. They looked at the copper waterbowl floating in mid-air and at Merlin's staff standing upright by itself. Taking a deep breath, without another word they both walked through the wall of the sphere as if it were simply a patch of fog. Merlin smiled grimly.
"It has begun..." he whispered.
"Welcome to Ky-eir," he said as the crowd hushed. "I am Do-em-nair, Regent for the Princess Sill- eve-kor. I perceive from your clothing that you are travelers from a far land. May I ask how you came to be here? I saw you walk through the far wall and knew that some magic was at work this night."
"Merlin sent us," said Joel.
"Ah, " replied Do-em-nair with a laugh. "The Sage never visits us often enough. Be doubly welcome then, for Merlin is revered here and his friends are always treated well. Chamberlain, set two more places at my table. Bring food and drink for our new guests."
"Thank you sir," said Tommy.
"What is this place," added Joel. "Merlin wouldn't even tell us where we were going."
"Only that you needed to come here?" asked Do-em-nair.
"Yes, how did you know?"
"This is Ky-eir, Land of the Blessed. Only those who have need of us are able to find their way here through the World-Walls. A magic older than time itself protects us from all others. Come, sit and eat your fill. Young men are always hungry. It would please us all for you to tell us of your world." Joel and Tommy looked at the heaping platters of food that had been placed on the table before them. "Thank you sir," they said in unison as they sat down. In between bites, Joel and Tommy spoke of their homelife and what little history of their world as a pair of teenager boys would find important: In other words, very little of politics and wars, but quite a lot of television, cars, airplanes, school, and (of course) girls. Do-em-nair smiled even wider as this last topic arose. He then quietly ordered the Chamberlain to water the wine being served to the two boys as they obviously were younger than he'd first assumed. Merlin would not be amused to have drunkards returned to him in place of the two fine lads he'd sent to visit Ky-eir. As the boys continued their tale far enough to speak of their encounter with Merlin and what they had been asked to do, Do-em-nair realized why the visit to Ky- eir had been necessary. These two young lads would be placing themselves in grave danger while Merlin searched the cosmos for the two missing heirs to Arcadia's kingdoms. They were raw, untutored youths who would be called upon to take risks they could never imagine. Merlin obviously wanted them taught some basic survival skills, not to mention lessons in the arts of combat. But how to teach them without frightening them into giving up their duties? The more The Regent thought upon the problem the fewer options became. Finally, only one course of action made sense. The die was cast, the decision was made. Do-em-nair knew what the Sage would wish him to do.
"Joel, Tommy..." Do-em-nair spoke with a light voice in order to hide the danger of what he was to propose. "I wish to honor this visit that you are making to our fair realm of Ky-eir. We must declare a Hunt to begin tomorrow. You will accompany myself and the Nobles of the Court as we engage in our most sacred sport. Come the dawn we will begin the hunt for the sacred beast of Ky-eir. Tomorrow we hunt the Ma-tera-kondu. Chamberlain, prepare quarters for our guests. Huntmaster, you will make ready all that they will need."
"What's a Ma-tera-con... Kondu?" asked Joel.
"A large, flightless bird," answered Do-em-nair gently. "One that is native to our world." One that has been known to catch and eat it's hunters. He thought to himself.
"Joel, you got any ideas on how to get out of this?"
"Nope, but I'm prayin' we do. I got a few things to say to Merlin when we get back. If we get back. How many days has it been since we got here?"
"I dunno, four, maybe five. I kinda lost track."
"You think they're dead?" Joel asked quietly, his eyes straying from the forest to the bodies at the clearing's edge.
"Well," replied Tommy. "They're still moving a little, but they're cut up pretty bad. You think we can kill that bird when it comes back."
"We have to, before it can get us too. Shhhhh... Listen, I think it's coming back right now!" Gradually the noise in the underbrush surrounding the clearing had increased. As the boys strained to hear, they gripped their spears tighter. The sweat from their fear made the spear hafts slippery. The wind seemed to pick up, changing from a dead calm to a gentle breeze. The trees swayed noisily, but the thud of the giant Ma-tera-kondu bird's footsteps could still be heard. With a screeching cry, like fingernails on a chalkboard, the bird bulled it's way through the underbrush.
"There it is," cried Tommy. "It's gonna finish off the guides!"
"Come on," Joel said. "We gotta help them!" Yelling as loud as they could, the two boys tried to distract the giant bird. They ran to head off the monster before it could stoop down to sink it's long, sharp beak into the helpless men. As if from instinct, Joel and Tommy separated, one to either side of the bird. They managed to force it's attention from the guides to themselves as they dodged, weaved from side-to-side and screamed. The bird entered the clearing slowly, bypassing the injured guides. It's beady eyes looked evilly down at the two boys as if deciding which to kill first. The Ma-tera- kondu was at least nine feet tall, and looked like an ostrich on steroids. It's beak was over two feet long, thin and pointed, and sharp enough to stab to the bone. When it opened it's mouth to screech, they could see it's serrated edges that cut like the sharpest of knives. The monster kept stabbing at the boys with it's beak as they danced out of reach. Again and again they thrust at it with their spears. The bird was bleeding from several wounds now, but didn't seem to notice, or be hampered by them.
We need a plan, Joel thought. Otherwise, we're gonna die!
"Stay on it's other side," he yelled to Tommy. "When it comes at me, you stab it! When it goes after you, I'll stab it. If we keep it turning we can wear it down!"
During a moment's respite, Tommy stooped to grab a rock and flung it at the bird's head. The solid thunk! of the impact seemed to startle the monstrous bird. Joel picked up another rock and threw it as hard as he could. The rock hit the bird right in the eye as Tommy ran up to sink his spear in it's side. The bird spun toward Tommy, who circled with it's turn so as to stay out of reach of the slashing beak. Tommy's spear seemed to be stuck in the bird's side. Joel saw an opening and thrust his spear between the bird's legs. His shoulders were almost wrenched out of their sockets as the bird tripped and started to fall, but Joel managed to pull his spear back. Tommy gave a last desperate pull on his spear and managed to free it from the bird's side. Blood fountained from the deep wound. He fell backwards and rolled away from the bird as it tried to stab at him yet again. Joel lowered the point of his spear and ran at the bird as fast as he could.
Now! he thought. While it's looking the other way. I've got to reach it before it can get back up!
Joel dropped his spearpoint at the last minute and held on to the haft as he reached his target. Like a pole vaulter, he rose in the air as his spear rammed into the bird's back. He was forced to release the spear as he flew over the bird. It was too solidly jammed for him to free it while dodging the snapping beak. Tommy lunged at the open mouth and felt the spear break through into the monster's brain. The Ma-tera-kondu rolled, thrashing across the ground and was finally still.
The boys looked at each other, gasping for breath. They grinned. It was over.
"Well done," came a voice from the edge of the clearing. Do-em-nair stood there with the two guides that had carried the injured man to the castle. Several other men were there as well. One was already tending to the wounds of the hunters that lay at the clearing's edge. "I'm glad to see that we were not really needed. Churgeon... Those two guides, will they live?"
"One will, the other... Perhaps. I will need medicines from the castle. 'Twould be best if they were carried there at once."
"It will be done," replied Do-em-nair solemnly. He nodded at four of the hunters in his party. "Prepare litters for the wounded. Start back as soon as they can be carried. We will follow with the prey as soon as the men have caught their breath." He gestured at Tommy and Joel.
"How long," gasped Joel. "Have you been there?"
"We arrived just as you dispatched the beast. I can say that I have rarely seen a kill done in just that way, but you did seem to have the matter well in hand. When we return to the castle we will feast well. You will be honored. I have little doubt that bards will make of this a tale that will live long in our people's memory."
"How many dead, just for a meal?" Tommy asked bitterly.
"Three, if this one does not survive. Sometimes more are killed, sometimes less. The Ma-tera-kondu is not easily hunted. But more than a simple meal was at stake here," said Do-em-nair. "This has been a test of bravery. A test of your manhood. You are now to be held as adults by our laws. Let no one say otherwise or they shall be held accountable to our Court. I will be most proud to present you to her Highness, Princess Sill-eve-kor."
The Churgeon started off with the litter-bearers and the wounded as the rest of Do-em-nair's party made a sledge to drag the dead bird back to the castle.
"It's been fun Do-em-nair," said Joel. "But in a way I'm glad to be going home."
"Yeah," echoed Tommy. "Even the hunt was fun, when it wasn't scary, but there's no place like home."
"Please return if ever you are able," Do-em-nair said while smiling. "I have enjoyed your tales of your home world. You both would make fine knights in the service of Ky-eir. I am pleased that you agreed to take the spears that you used on the hunt with you when you go home. Whenever you hold them, I wish you fond memories of Ky-eir."
"Thank you, sir."
"But I have one more parting gift to give," added Do-em-nair as he hung a silver medallion around each boy's neck. "These are engraved with special runes to help protect you on your journeys. The court magicians have prepared them especially for you. I instructed them to spare no efforts in the making of these simple charms. Doubtless that Merlin could provide better, but these are from the hearts of all of the people of Ky-eir. Wear them with pride."
"We will," said Joel.
"You bet," added Tommy. "I hope we can come back someday. I like it here."
"There aren't any more ceremonies we'd have to worry about," Joel muttered. "Are there?"
"No, except for perhaps enough feasts to make you both fat," laughed Do-em-nair. "There is the Portal to your home. No doubt Merlin awaits you on the other side. Goodbye, my friends!"
With more farewells on their lips, the two boys stepped through the shimmering circle, as if stepping out of a dream. They found themselves once more within their special clearing in the woods near their home. Merlin stood in the same spot as he had before they left, but now he was holding a stopwatch!
"Six seconds... You certainly took your time in there! How long did you stay? Months?"
"No Sir," Joel sounded startled.
"Two weeks or so, was all..." Began Tommy.
"We've only been gone for six seconds?" Asked Joel. "But how?"
"Magic," said Merlin. "What did you expect? Well, now that I've proved myself to you, are you ready to help me find the two Princes of Arcadia?"
"Y-Yes Sir," Tommy stuttered. "Right now?"
"Of course," nodded Merlin. "Time is of the essence!"
"What have we gotten into now?" asked Joel wonderingly.
Tommy and Joel looked at each other and then to the shimmering portal between worlds that hung in the air like a sphere of water in the clearing they had once used as a playground. The look that passed between them was one that was strange to boys of their age nowadays. Their visit to Ky-eir had brought them more maturity than they had dreamed. They had passed the test of manhood there and had emerged wiser than before. Now they were ready to pass another test. Whether for good or ill, life or death, they had gained maturity and were ready for the task that befell them. Merlin had chosen well- the iron of their youth had been forged into the steel of adulthood and they stood ready for the tempering that would add further strength.
"Let's do it," they said as one.
"Pass into the portal, young men. And may the good God watch over you and guide your path. I will commence my search and recall you when it is done."
The boys gripped their spears more tightly and stepped forward into the portal... and into their destiny.
When they had gone, Merlin gazed over the clearing at the signs of their youth. Their scattered toys, hand-made swords of wood, armor of cardboard and tin, and a treehouse-fortress of rough two-by-fours. He saw the culmination of plans made ages ago when the world was young. he saw the glory of the ages yet to come. All was as the Gods had planned. He shivered, from the chill of the air or from the knowledge of things yet to pass, it cannot be said. Then, with a muttered spell in a language old before mankind had appeared, Merlin vanished. The search had begun in earnest, at last.
Joel and Tommy emerged in the darkness of a forest. They scanned the undergrowth all about them carefully, for they remembered the Enemy's monstrous troops that had gathered in the forest glades shown to them by Merlin's spells. To their ears there came the crack of dead branches being stepped upon by something hiding unseen in the shadows. They quickly stood back to back, without a word being spoken, and held their spears at the ready. When the unseen beast charged, it found them ready and unafraid. Well, less afraid than they would have been only days before. Before the hunt, before they had faced the beast that was the sacred prey of the men of Ky-eir. After killing the dread Ma-tera-kondu, what did they have to fear from a few goblins? Nothing... nothing at all. The goblin charged, swinging its poor excuse for a sword, ragged edges rusting. Tommy skewered the pitiful thing as it rushed to the attack. With a growl its brethren rushed in also, only to meet with the cold steel of Ky-eiran spears- and the cold determination of Joel and Tommy's will. Within seconds there were half a dozen dead goblins at the boy's feet. Then silence fell upon the forest.
"Let's get out of here," said Joel. "These things stink."
"I'm with you there," agreed Tommy. "We ought to be safer out of the woods, anyway. I'm grabbing one of these swords. It ain't much, but until we get some decent weapons it'll have to do."
"Right, hand me one too. I hope we can meet up with some Arcadian troopers once we get clear of the forest," added Joel.
"Think we'll have any trouble convincing them that we aren't the bad guys?"
"Well," said Joel while ducking a low-hanging treebranch, "We don't look much like those things that tried to jump us. That ought to count for something. Come on, it gets lighter over this way." In a few minutes the boys has cleared the edge of the forest and had come out onto a field of grass. In the distance they could see the tents and flags of an army encampment. They thought that they should be able to walk to the camp in a couple of hours.
"We'll be there long before dark. Come on Tommy, they might have supper ready by the time we get there."
"Yeah, good thinking. I'm starved, Joel."
"Hah," laughed Joel. "We just ate a less than an hour ago in Ky-eir."
"Yeah, we did. But all this jumping from world to world makes me hungry."
"Tommy, you take the cake!"
"As long as I get to eat some of it, I'll be all right."
The boys laughed and began their walk over the grassy plain of Arcadia.
Absalam was the name of the sentry that spotted the boys first. He passed the word to summon the sergeant of the guard and readied himself to face whatever threat they might present. He'd survived several major battles with the goblins and had learned caution the hard way. Not that he thought the two figures openly walking across the plain were really goblins- very un-goblinish activity indeed, approaching openly through the short grass in full view of the camp- but it paid to be careful. Taking things for granted got you killed quickly, these days.
As the boys drew closer he could see that they carried goblin swords as well as spears of an unfamiliar design. He could also see that they wore no armor and walked as if they hadn't a care in the world. Absalam would be very glad to see his sergeant show up and take the responsibility of meeting these two odd travelers. Passing the buck to a superior seemed to be one of the constants in any army of any world. Woe betide the footsoldier who had no officer to defer command decisions onto. One could lose ones head that way.
The sergeant showed up when the boys had gotten within shouting range. He cursed for a few moments, but that is just something that soldiers do when they need time to think. It was automatic, like breathing, and meant nothing more than that the sergeant wished that he had someone to pass the buck to in order to avoid having made a mistake show up on his record. Now he had to make sure that he didn't make any mistakes. at least none that he couldn't blame on someone else. The sergeant's name was Pandraius and he had left a flagon of mead and some fine mutton to come watch two striplings amble into his camp. That sort of thing left him in somewhat less than the best of moods. As a matter of fact, Pandraius had been in a foul mood since he'd been forced to leave his favorite tavern, and the serving wenches therein, at the start of the war against the goblins.
"Ahoy the camp," yelled Joel.
"Blasted farmboys," thought Pandraius. "Always mucking about trying to prove themselves men of action."
"What an odd pair, thought Absalam. "Wonder where they got those strange clothes?"
"What do you want?" yelled Pandraius as the boys got closer. "We have no need of peasant levies. Untrained layabouts is all you look good for!"
"Merlin sent us," called Tommy. He hoped that the old wizard was held in as high esteem here in Arcaida as he was in Ky-eir.
"He thought that you needed some help," added Joel, not liking the sound of Pandraius' insults one bit.
"Merlin?" asked Absalam. "He has not forgotten us after all?"
"What good are two striplings?" grumbled Pandraius. "What we need are two more cohorts of spearmen, or two more armies. Not a pair of untried youths. Likely you'll run off crying for your mothers as soon as the fighting starts."
"Aww, your mother swims after troopships," Tommy jeered.
Pandraius bristled at the insult. Absalam wisely tried to hide his laughter.
"Spirited striplings, in any case," Absalam managed to say with a straight face. His own mother had wanted him to find a career in the local theater group. After the last few battles with the goblins, he sometimes wished that he'd done just that. "Where did you find those swords?" he called out to the boys.
"In the hands of some monsters that attacked us back there in the woods," answered Joel.
"They didn't need them any more once we got through with them," added Tommy.
"You fought off a troop of goblins in the forest?" asked Pandraius skeptically. "You expect us to believe that sorry tale?"
"Well there were only seven or eight of them," said Tommy.
"And they're really stupid critters," added Joel. "Besides, Merlin said you needed our help while he looked for the two princes of your kingdoms. So we're here to help. We didn't really have any trouble with those goblin-things. They couldn't fight their way out of wet paper bag."
"You were not stricken dumb with the fear of the goblins?" gasped Absalam.
"Fear? Like some sort of spell, you mean?" answered Joel. "No, but we've just come back from Ky-eir. Maybe the talismans they gave us there helped to protect us from any spell the goblins use. I dunno, stranger things have happened."
The boys were now standing at the gates of the camp. It felt good not to have to yell back and forth in order to be heard.
"Anyway," Tommy said. "We're here to help until Merlin can find your two princes and bring them here to you. What's the big deal with that? How come two entire kingdoms are at risk because of some missing heirs?"
"Our Enemy, Gaspartin- may his wine turn to urine in his mouth, is of noble blood himself." Absalam explained. "Unless the princes return to claim their thrones he is next in the line of succession. We would rather die than see that despot upon the thrones of our kingdoms. His own Duchy is proof enough of his evil. The people there are little better than slaves, those who have avoided becoming food for Gaspartin's goblin army."
"Sounds like one nasty jerk," mused Joel.
"Kinda like Mister Dorphas, the football Coach back home." joked Tommy.
"Right," said Joel. "We better get busy helping these folks, before they become goblin-chow."
"Let's do it," said Tommy.
"Take us to your leader," grinned Joel.
"If the Honored One has truly sent you," said Commander Belasius evenly. "Then we should all be grateful that he has a plan to bring this nightmare to an end."
"It all hinges on the two missing Princes," said Tommy.
"And how quickly Merlin can find them," added Joel.
"If he can find them at all..." observed Sub-Commander Tiberion. "But then it is said that he can accomplish any task once he sets his mind to it."
"Do not be so gloomy, Tiberion," Belasius sighed. "At last we have hope. That alone should add strength to our men." He smiled at Joel and Tommy, "Tell us more of these tactics from your home world. We may have need of their use."
"Well," Joel began, "Not so much new tactics or weapons, but knowledge of your enemy and his tactics."
"Yeah, Merlin showed us that you and your army were being tricked into thinking that people from Entwaith Castle were behind these attacks," said Tommy. "When really its a bunch of goblins and whatnot being stirred up by someone that wants the two castles to fight each other."
"Yes," said Tiberion. "We had begun to suspect as much ourselves."
"Indeed," added Belasius. "We had secretly contacted the other castle to find out the truth of the matter. What we heard was chilling. They had also been attacked, by what they had assumed to be our troops. We were able to convince each other of the truth only after the capture of several goblins during recent battles."
"Then the enemy is making mistakes!" exclaimed Joel.
"Great!" said Tommy. "I hope we can find something to use against him."
"But who is the enemy?" Joel asked. "And where is he? We'll have to find out before we can carry the battle to him."
"Now that the armies of the two castles have joined forces," said Cirrok, the Commander of Entwaith Castle's army. "The Enemy may find his hand forced. He must know by now that we no longer hold our brothers to blame for these attacks."
"That may be why the woods are full of goblins," said Tommy.
"Yeah, I'd almost forgotten what we saw in that vision Merlin showed us before we left."
"Yep, there sure looked to be something big getting ready to happen soon. I bet that he's going to try to bust up this truce of yours and get the two armies back to fighting each other."
"Good point, Tommy." Joel looked thoughtful. "Maybe you had better fill us in a bit more, Commander. Then maybe we can guess what we're really going to be up against."
"No! They can't have spoiled my beautiful plan! They are far too blind to have divined my plans to rule Arcadia as my own kingdom. There must be a spy who has penetrated my forces to learn of my plans. Or... perhaps my goblin troops have gotten careless, the Gods know they are none too bright themselves..." The Enemy's voice muttered on and on as he considered various possibilities. He paced back and forth across the floor of the cave he'd picked to serve as his headquarters. The rough cave walls were gentled by heavy tapestries and the light of ornate brass braziers flickered on the jeweled inlays of the fine wooden furnishings in the Enemy's stronghold.
"There must be some other reason... Some outside influence has upset my plan. I had it all detailed, every nuance was perfect. There is some interloper trying to do me out of the throne that is rightfully mine! When I find him I'll rend his flesh as if it were rotted cloth!"
The dim, flickering illumination fitfully lit the Enemy's face. His sharp, hawkish nose cast shadows across his cheek, contrasting with the utter madness in his eyes. He drew a sword and brandished it about, screaming all the while.
"I shall not be denied! Do you hear me? I shall have my rightful dominion over this land, no matter what you attempt. Arcadia shall be mine! Mine to do with as I please! Mine, all mine! You shan't take it from me!"
The Enemy paced back and forth in the cave- utterly alone.
"Hmmm..." said Joel, looking at the map spread before them on the Commander's table. "If we post a small party of men here- near the woods where we know the goblins are- and put reinforcements here where they can join the fight in a hurry but the goblins can't see them until it's too late..."
"Exactly," said Commander Belasius. "We will have them in a perfect spot for the army of Entwaith Castle to come up out of this ravine- and catch them in a perfect pincer movement."
"So we just line up on either side of them," added Tommy. "And advance until the two armies meet each other?"
"That's right," Answered Commander Cirrok. "But we allow a few of the goblins to escape, follow them, and hopefully catch their master in his hideaway."
"I only pray that our forces are strong enough," said Sub-Commander Tibereon gloomily, "to take them all without losing the men we'll need for the final assualt later."
As the Enemy paced the floor of his stronghold he railed and ranted. "I shall drive them from this world! I will have them fed to my dogs while my ears drink in the delicious sounds of their cries for mercy." He was interrupted by the entry of a particularly large and ugly goblin.
"Master, you sent for me?"
"Yes, I wish you to begin the next assault. Now!"
"Yes Dolt, NOW! Is that so hard for you to understand? Go! I will join you on the battlefield when those fools have committed their full strength. Begin the final assault. Let this be their last battle! Then we shall march on both of the Castles and I shall proclaim myself absolute ruler of Arcadia. Go now, and drink the blood of my foes!"
"Yes Master, I go."
Within half an hour, the sounds of a small army of goblins could be heard echoing through the cavern as they departed to carry out their orders. Before another half hour had passed the battle for rule of Arcadia had begun.
Three hours later, the battle had not yet ended.
"Watch your back Joel," Tommy cried out. Joel turned and slashed his spear at the attacking goblin. The goblin hesitated- and was cut down by one of the swordsman of Keradoul Castle's army. Tommy and Joel moved to stand back-to-back, more concerned with keeping the goblins at bay than killing them. Even though the boys had faced and slain the Ma-tera-kondu when they had to in order to save their lives, all the killing around them now was more than they could stomach. They protected each other, but fought only to drive off the goblins, killing only when forced to do so. Several of the Arcadians seemed to understand and kept close by the two boys, cutting down any goblin foolish enough to approach. There was no lack of foolish goblins for it was as if they had been ordered to seek out and kill Tommy and Joel. The boys kept on the move so as to not become surrounded by the rapidly growing pile of goblin corpses. Even with the added protection of the Arcadian soldiers, the boys found it necessary to bloody their spears. They were not unharmed, either. Both had gashes and scrapes oozing blood from where one or another goblin managed to get through their guard. Luckily they were not seriously wounded, but it was only a matter of time. Again and again they had to slash and stab at the seemingly endless goblins that ran to engage them. They had to kill to live, but they didn't have to seek it out or enjoy it. There were no gymnastic feats here, as there were in the slaying of the Ma-tera-kondu, but there was fear and blood a-plenty. Joel and Tommy both were sickened at the sight of so many deaths, even the deaths of the goblins. They were also saddened when they saw Arcadian soldiers fall, overrun by the goblin horde.
"I'm getting too tired to keep this up for much longer," hissed Joel through clenched teeth.
"Same here," answered Tommy while gasping for breath. "Are we ever... gonna... run out... of these monsters?"
Another hour passed. The tide of battle had turned to favor the men of Arcadia. The last of the goblins were hard pressed to keep from falling to their knees in surrender. Bodies littered the field, both men and goblins, and the calls of carrion birds rang among the nearby trees.
In those same trees, hidden in the shadows, the Enemy waited. With him were fifty of the largest, fiercest goblins ever to be seen in Arcadia. These bloodthirsty monsters were his personal bodyguard and were loyal only to him. They saw the battle being turned against the goblins- gnashing their yellowed fangs with impatience at being held out of the battle. Finally, their master saw that unless he acted the battle would be lost to him. He turned to his goblin-troops and silently began to lead them to the edge of the woods.
"Now!" he screamed. "Slay them all! Let all the carrion-eaters feast this night!"
The men of Arcadia turned to face this newest wave of attackers. Though they were almost spent from the hours of battle, they lifted their weapons yet again, and in defence of their homeland they fought.
As the battle continued, thunder began to roll from the cloudless blue of the sky. All sense of order had deserted the men of Arcadia as they fought in groups of two and three against individual goblins. The fresher goblin reinforcements were beginning to turn the tide of battle against the Arcadians. Joel's spear was knocked from his numb fingers and a goblin stood with upraised sword, ready to strike his head from his shoulders. The goblin roared in triumph and Tommy's shocked eyes saw it's sword blur in a downward arc towards his helpless friend.
"NO!" he screamed, yanking his own spear from the throat of the goblin he fought.
Lightning split the air, the BOOM of it's thunderclap slapping goblin and Arcadian alike to the ground. Joel looked over at what remained of the goblin that had been about to take his life, gaped at a smoldering pile of ash that marked the spot where the goblin had stood, and rolled toward his spear. He snatched it up and struggled to his feet, his ears ringing from the thunder.
"Hold!" came a voice as loud as the thunder had been. "This battle is ended!"
Tommy gaped in astonishment- Merlin stood at the edge of the battlefield, wreathed in a glowing nimbus of amber light, his staff crackling with the discharge of static electricity.
"Camrik," Merlin shouted. "Foul madman, your plans have been laid low. I stand before you to state that the Two have been found! E'en now they sit upon the thrones of their own kingdoms. The missing Princes are now the found Kings. Never shall you rule here, fiend."
"Camrik," gasped Sub-Commander Tibereon. "He is the Enemy? We should have known."
"But Camrik has been missing for many months," said Commander Belasius. "We thought him to have been among the first victims of this- war of goblins."
"I shall not be denied my kingdom!" shouted Camrik. "I have come to far to fail now!"
"Fail you have," boomed Merlin's voice. "You shall never menace this land again. I banish you to the spaces between worlds! I condemn you to never enter another reality, as long as the universe shall last! You shall have only your pet goblins for company... And may they devour your soul for all eternity!"
Thunder rolled again, lightning flashed over and over, and above it all came the voice of Merlin intoning a mighty spell in a language that none there could comprehend. Joel and Tommy covered their eyes as a last flash of lightning leapt from Merlin's staff and danced from Camrik to his surviving goblins and back again. When the glare faded, no sign of Camrik or the goblins remained.
When they emerged from the portal and stepped into their own world once again, the boys were weary to the bone. Merlin stood tiredly and watched as the two boys wordlessly headed for their separate homes to rest. As they passed out of his sight, Merlin smiles kindly.
"You have done well, my lads," he says quietly. "Though you may have forgotten the promise I made to you when all this first began, rest assured that I will not. I have divined your hidden-most desires and for this service to me you shall be granted that for which you do not even know how to ask."
With a weary grunt, he walks off into the forest and disappears into the evening shadows.
A week later, Joel's Mother and Tommy's Father meet at the local grocery store checkout line. As they wait for a register to open, they talk. Later they spend quite a bit longer than necessary in the parking lot, continuing their conversation.
Two weeks later they meet again at a school PTA meeting.
Four months later they meet at the alter and Merlin watches from the back of the church, smiling and unseen by anyone as Tommy and Joel become step-brothers.