"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!"
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