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.
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