Chapter 17: Swords in the Stones
Fifteen minutes later, Neil jogged along the path, thinking of swords. What sort of swords in the stones would they be? All varieties of blades passed through his mind’s eye: daggers, two-handed broadswords, scimitars, katanas, rapiers, and even old pirate cutlasses. He imagined hefting each one and swinging it, slicing dozens of pesky dragonflies who had dared to return for his other eyebrow.
It felt good to think about something else. His son had only seen people like Tyson here, but he saw all the more. He didn’t blame his son for not seeing his mother here. They both had been very young when she had died, but apparently, Tyson knew enough to dream about her. He had seen her face in the crowd at the carnival, in one of the natives at the pyramid when he was trying to unplug the TV, even on one of the hot-air balloons. He would probably see her again.
He kept telling himself that it wasn’t really her, that this wasn’t actually real. Then again, everything here had felt pretty real. Was it possible that he had somehow brought his mother back from the dead?
This line of thinking made his head hurt, and so he turned his thoughts to his other son. As crazy as he had been the last few days, he realized that he liked his kind of crazy. Maybe he really had been that way once. It was easy to forget when the pressures of being an adult got in the way.
Suddenly, a trio of bright-colored birds swirled about his head, chirping in perfect three-part harmony. As he listened, he was sure he could make out words-words that formed that mushiest, sugariest, most-mind numbing romantic ballad he had ever heard.
Fighting the urge to vomit, Neil swatted at the fowl creatures, shouting at them to go serenade someone else. The birds scattered for briefly, but then always came back, chirping a brand-new verse for good measure, adding a dainty countermelody.
Walking at a brisk pace to outrun the birds, he reached the line of stones he had seen from a distance. They poked up from the ground like a demon’s fingernails, all different sizes and angles. Beyond the initial line of stones lay a minefield of jagged rocks, each with a different kind of hilt protruding from it. The selection was just as varied as it had been in his imagination.
“Wow,” he muttered. “He wasn’t kidding. Way more than one.”
He quickened his pace, and stood in front of the nearest stone from which protruded a huge double-handed broadsword with a golden, bejeweled hilt carved in the form of rearing dragon. The letters “AP” were engraved just below the brilliant ruby gem on the end of the pommel. Neil gazed in wonder for a long minute, wondering if his fingers were even worthy to touch such a magnificent blade. He wasn’t sure Excalibur itself could have looked so regal.
He closed his eyes, and at once imagined himself as a knight. All at once, the chorus of birds returned, chirping a mighty anthem to his kingly greatness. With one fluid motion, he knelt, grasped the sword and pulled up with all of his strength. The birds held out a triumphant final chord that shimmered brilliantly in the air.
The sword did not budge.
The song choked off in the birds’ throats and he crumpled to the ground.
“Well,” he muttered. “I’m glad no one was around to see that.”
Anxious to redeem himself, he reached out with one hand and gave it one last tug, just in case his first attempt has loosened it. No such luck.
As he straightened himself and looked around, his ears were drawn to another sound, similar to the one he had been making only moments before. Someone struggling to claim a blade of his own.
He walked towards the sound and found another boy trying his luck with a long, thin rapier blade with a silver dome over the grip. The veins on the side of the boy’s head bulged and his looked as if his eyes must pop from his head. At last, his arms gave out, and he tumbled head over heels away from the sword.
Most of the boy’s features were obscured by rusty armor, but a great bulbous nose stuck out from his open visor. The knight lay splayed out on the ground for several moments before clanking again to his feet. His head swiveled around and he glimpsed Neil for the first time.
“Care to try your luck? They are deceptive these thin ones. You think they will all be easier to pull out, but no. They are just as rooted as all the others.”
Neil stepped forward and glanced into the knight’s visor. Though a young face stared out at him, everything else in the boy’s mannerisms suggested an extremely old man. He shuffled when he walked, talked with a tired, raspy voice and his spine bent in a perpetual curve.
“How long have you been out here? Aren’t there better ways to find a sword?”
The knight shook his head, his armor squeaking in protest. “Perhaps, but I promised. I promised my darling Artemisha that I would not return without a sword. She still sits by the window in yonder tower, keeping the lights burning until I return.”
The knight scanned the field, as if determining his next victim. “I no longer remember how long I have been searching, but it does not matter. I took my most solemn vow and I would rather return in my coffin than return empty handed!”
Neil sauntered closer and rested himself against a large, double-edged sword. “So, how many have you tried? There’s got to be dozens…hundreds of these things out here.”
The knight made to scratch his head, although his metal gloves and helmet prevented him from doing so. “That has also slipped my memory. I know I should have started keeping track somehow, but I’m not sure that would have done again good. I swear they shift places from time to time and other times I see ones I know I have never seen before.”
“Do you want some help? I’m trying to find something to overcome the whirlwind down in the valley. Perhaps if I help you find a sword, you could help me with your problem as well?”
The knight tried to snap his visor shut, but found it impossible because of his protruding nose. “That would be a most satisfactory arrangement! Let us get started, for I know not how long our task will take.”
Neil glanced down at the sword he was leaning on, intent on giving it the first try. As he stared at the blade, he noticed an inscription near the hilt.
“Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone is rightwise King born of France.”
Neil lowered his eyes. Something didn’t seem right. The inscription was close to being right, but not quite.
“That’s right,” he said. “Arthur was the king of England. This sword says ‘France’.”
The knight had already moved on to his next attempt, and Neil ran back over to the first sword he had seen. He stooped and checked the blade. It, too, bore an inscription much like the other:
“Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone is rightwise King born of England.”
Now that was right. Just like the one in the story. It was no wonder he could not pull it out. He remained crouching and considered the inscription for a long time. Perhaps that was it. Perhaps each sword would only yield to one particular person, much like Excalibur had yielded to Arthur. It was worth a shot.
To be sure, he checked a dozen other swords, each which contained a different country: Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece, even some fictional kingdoms like Oz and Narnia. The swords each bore a distinctive style that reflected on the culture of the country it represented.
He rose to his feet and cupped his hands over his mouth. “Hey, Sir…uh, Knight?”
The knight shuffled towards him. “It is Sir Gregory. Have you met with success?”
Neil ran towards him and stopped only a few feet away. “No, but I have a question for you. Where are you from?”
“Do you mean from which kingdom I hail?” He placed a gauntleted hand on his chin. “Well, it’s…ah, yes. The Kingdom of Luxemburg. It is a very small land, but very rich.”
Neil did a quick glance from side to side. “Have you ever considered, Sir Gregory, that the sword you are looking for must bear the name of your native land? Every sword has a different country on it. You just have to find the one labeled with Luxemburg.”
Sir Gregory raised an armored fist into the air. “Yes, my boy. I knew all it would take is a young, vibrant brain like your own.” His triumphant pose fell. “But, I am sure how such a sword would appear. Perhaps there is still an effectual struggle to be made.”
Neil shook his head. “All the others reflect their country somehow-colors, size, symbols. If yours is a small, rich land, I bet the sword with be small and expensive-looking.”
“Yes,” cried the knight. “Again into the fray!”
The night shuffled off with renewed vigor, and Neil set off in the opposite direction. He scanned row after row as the sun sunk lower and lower into the horizon. He felt his eyes growing sore from reading all of the tiny inscriptions. Sir Gregory did not seem to be having any more luck.
Finally, as the sun disappeared over the horizon, Neil plopped down on a rock. He dropped his head to his hands and rubbed his eyes. “Good grief. Are there even this many nations on the earth?”
However, the final sunbeam glinted on something he had not seen before. It lay on the ground in front of him, and at first he thought it was a shiny pebble. As he bent down, though, he saw that it was a tiny sword sticking out of an equally small rock. The entire sword from the hilt to the tip of the blade was covered in gold, with a tiny multi-faceted diamond set into the end of the hilt.
The young elderly knight ambled over to Neil and bent over to examine the tiny object in Neil’s hand. “What is this you have found? A shiny toothpick, perhaps?”
“No,” said Neil. “This is the sword you’ve been looking for!”
Sir Gregory erupted in a full body laugh, all raspy mirth and squeaking armor. “Surely you jest, young man. ’Tis a fine blade for a rodent, but for a knight?”
Neil nodded vigorously. “You told me that your land was small and rich. This sword represents your country exactly!”
Sir Gregory stopped laughing and considered the tiny blade. “I suppose there is no harm in the attempt. I will, however, feel thrice more foolish should this attempt fail.”
With two fingers, he gripped tried to grip the tiny sword. It took several attempts, but at last, he gripped the sword and yanked upwards. The golden sliver lifted upwards out of the stone with a hum like striking a tuning fork.
The knight held his tiny sword aloft as if it had been a legendary blade. “Success, young man! Come, my dear Artemisha awaits!”
In minutes, they stood in front of a massive stone tower, a single light visible from a window near the top. Standing at the base, Sir Gregory held up his sword and called in the loudest voice he could manage. “Artemisha, Artemisha, let down your hair! For I have returned for the fairest of fair.”
A moment later, a torrent of white hair flung down the side of the tower, creating a means with which to ascend. Sir Gregory latched on at once and beckoned for Neil to follow. “Come, take hold of the hair. She does not like to keep her hair outside for too long.”
Neil screwed up his face and gripped a handful for the white hair. To his surprise, it was some of the softest, silkiest hair he had ever run his fingers through. “Like Rapunzel’s great grandmother.”
His stomach lurched as the hair shot upwards, yanking them both into the air with it.
Faster than Neil thought possible, the two of them whipped up the tower and through the window. They both landed with surprising ease to face a slender, unusually tall girl in a simple green dress. “Dear Greggy, my love. I am thrilled to see you, but honestly, dear, how long does it take to run a simple errand? It is fortunate that I did not also send you to fetch some milk.”
Sir Gregory ran to his wife, expertly avoiding the coils of hair piled on the floor. He embraced her and then withdrew the golden blade. She contorted her beautiful features. “And what, may I ask, is that? Methinks an expensive implement for cleaning one’s teeth. Have you perhaps been to see Scragling the trader again? He has swindled you if so.”
The knight removed his helmet revealing a youthful face, but a shock of white hair that would have made Einstein jealous. “No, no, ’tis the sword I was sent to fetch. I pulled it from a pebble in the field of swords after many days of seeking it. If not for our young friend here, I might have continued to seek it in vain.”
Artemisha turned her lovely blue eyes to Neil. “You have my thanks, young man. I suppose my instructions were to fetch a sword, and I neglected to give any specific instructions. As a reward for your kindness and keen eye, I shall treat you to a fine meal. Come and sit. After dinner, we shall discuss how we can further be of assistance to you.”
Neil bowed slightly. He knew he was supposed to get back to the others as quickly as possible, but the sound of a hearty home-cooked meal was too much to pass up. Between the New and Improved Nachos of the first floor to the Mint Crème leaves of the second floor, he had been pretty spoiled. The third floor had not presented anything, and by now he was getting extremely hungry. “Thank you. I’m Neil by the way. I’d be happy to share your meal.”
Sir Gregory ushered him down a flight of steps and into a spacious dining room already set with three places. Seeing Neil’s confusion, the knight pointed to the table. “My wife is a powerful enchantress. Her magic grows with the length of her hair, which is why she never cuts it. Make yourself comfortable. I would to discuss a bit of business with you.”
Neil sat and found the red-velvet cushion heavenly after having sat on so many jagged rocks during the course of the day. Sir Gregory walked over to a massive wardrobe on the wall and threw it open, releasing clouds of sparkling dust. As soon as his coughing spirit subsided, he gestured to the object inside.
“My lucky suit of armor,” Sir Gregory said. “It has survived a witch’s curse, a dragon’s bite, a manticore’s sting, and dozens of other unpleasant encounters. Besides, it is so heavy that all four winds at once cannot blow it over. Believe me, they have tried. I imagine it will be sufficient for you to prevail over the whirlwind.”
Artemisha entered with half a dozen dishes hovering around her. She pointed to the table and each dish took its rightful place. “We have Chimera steaks with three sauces, mandrake salad, and my famous dragondew brew. Please eat your fill. I simply loathe leftovers.”
Neil needed no encouragement. He sampled the steak with all three sauces, but found that he liked the robust lion sauce the best. Though he could feel his pants straining against his growing stomach, he helped himself to helping after helping of the amazing food. Finally, he could take it no more, and collapsed back in his chair. “Thank you,” he muttered. “If you don’t mind I’m going to take a little nap before I strap on that armor. I’m feeling heavy enough already.”
Artemisha chuckled, her laughter buoyant and infectious. “By my leave, young man. I would be offended if you did not.”
Following the nap, his hosts helped him arrange the armor on his body.
“Now that it is fitted,” Sir Gregory said, all you need to do to get it off is pull up on the plume of the helmet. It will then shrink to a more manageable size for transport. To put it on again, you simply pull on the plume again. Understand?”
Neil nodded and Sir Gregory led him down the tower and out the front door. Confused, Neil lifted his visor and leaned in to Sir Gregory. “If there is a front door, then why does your wife have to let down her hair?”
The knight grinned, a sparkle of youth returning to his eyes. “As you can imagine, she does not leave the tower often. I know the front door would be more practical, the alternate entrance makes her feel more important.”
Neil nodded hard, which brought the visor back down over his face. “You’re a smart man. I think I could learn a thing or two from you.”
Sir Gregory leaned over and gave Neil a pat on his metallic back. “Comes with age, my boy. I wish you a safe journey.”
Neil had left the charm on the outside of the armor to leave it accessible. He gripped it in two fingers and the last thing he heard before he disappeared was the sound of birds singing.