"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.
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