By Steve Finegan
“There’s not a word yet, for old friends who’ve just met.” — Jim Henson
“En garde!” shouted Gabe and swung his stick at Henry. The boy staggered back with a surprised squeak, barely blocking the wild cut with his own crooked stick. It flew out of his hand and clattered on the street.
“Not fair!” shouted Henry in his whiny voice; he stooped to recover his weapon. “En garde doesn’t mean duck or die.”
They were walking up Deadman’s Hill after school on a cloudy day in October 1966 with Halloween just around the corner. Gabe kicked at a pile of rain-mushed yellow leaves at the top of the hill. They scattered in clumps. A grinning jack-o-lantern squatted on the porch of the house next to The Stairs—four flights of seventy-five steps leading down to Ridgewood Drive and busy Twenty-Fourth Avenue.
Unable to hold back, Gabe blurted, “Quit being a crybaby! Tommy used to do that kind of crap to me all the time. Hey, I ever tell you about that time we were playing Ambush in Tommy’s back yard and he—”
“There you go again!” cried Henry. He was overweight and his fat jiggled when he got all worked up. “Tommy this and Tommy that! Why don’t you just go hang out with Tommy, then?”
“’Cause he moved to New Hampshire, dummy!” snapped Gabe. He felt a prickling just behind his eyeballs, and his lower lip was quivering dangerously. Don’t cry, stupid!
Henry rummaged in a nostril then thoughtfully examined the glistening tip of his finger. “Where’s New Hampshire?”
“You’re in the sixth grade, dufus. Didn’t you learn that last year? It’s … Back East. You know, three thousand miles away. Look, I gotta go.”
“Hey,” piped Henry. “Aren’t you coming over to watch Rocky and Bullwinkle?” Why did Henry always have to sound like a little kid begging and pleading for something? It made Gabe want to scream.
“I said I gotta go!”
“Yeah, well, see you tomorrow.”
Gabe waved Henry off and hurried down Alameda Street toward home, cuffing his stinging eyes. God, he missed Tommy! Why’d his best friend in the whole world have to up and move away? He sniffed and kicked at another pile of mushy leaves. No way he’d ever find anyone to replace Tommy. No way. It’d been nearly nine months and his life was as dull and boring as ever, and seemed like it would be—forever!
Standing on the edge of his driveway, Gabe gazed across the street. An orange moving van the size of a freight car was parked at the curb in front of Tommy Bronfman’s old house. Gabe swiped his stick at one of his mom’s rhododendron bushes and sighed. New neighbors.
Tommy had always said his dad was just being transferred temporarily. That they’d be back so fast it didn’t make sense to sell the house. Gabe’s mom had told him not to hold his breath. She’d been right. The renters stayed for eight months before moving out in September, sending Gabe’s hopes for Tommy’s return soaring. But a few days later a real estate agent came along and planted a big FOR SALE sign in front of the empty Bronfman house. He might as well have driven it through Gabe’s heart.
Vacant, the place had taken on a haunted look—haunted by old memories. His and Tommy’s memories. The two of them used to spend entire summer days playing Ambush in the jungle of houses, trees, and shrubs on half the blocks in the neighborhood, squeezing through the narrow gaps between garages, climbing over fences and walls, tromping over lawns and through flowerbeds and gardens, ducking under back porch stairs.
No obstacle was too big. No hiding place too small.
And no hiding place was safe from Tommy. He could climb higher, run faster, and commando crawl better than any other kid on Alameda all the way up to Thirty-Third Avenue. And when he ambushed you, you knew it. Once, playing with cut-off broomsticks and football helmets, Tommy leapt from out of nowhere, swinging wildly, and whacked Gabe in the nuts so hard he couldn’t catch his breath for a minute or move for ten. He just lay there groaning while Tommy laughed till he cried. Had it really been nine months? Nine months was an eternity, but an eternity that instantly felt like no time at all, or yesterday, or even this morning.
Gabe caught himself smiling and frowned. Nope. He’d never have that much fun again—with anybody! He broke the stick across his knee, tossed the pieces into the bushes, and started up his driveway.
Suddenly a woman’s voice carried from across the street: “I’ll be in the house if you need me.”
“Yes, ma’am,” echoed a gruff, cigar-chomping voice from the back of the cavernous van.
Gabe pivoted on his heel, tingling all over. That woman! She sounded like … like Mrs. Bronfman! “Oh my God!” he murmured. Could it be? Was it possible? Did he dare even hope? Was Tommy back?
He raced down the driveway and stood panting on the curb, craning this way and that for a better view around the moving truck. No good. He bounded across the street, nearly tripping over the loading ramp hooked onto the back of the van. “Tommy?” he called, facing the house, a Tudor giant with its doors flung wide. “Hey, Tommy! It’s me! Gabe! No prisoners!” He waited for a reply, his heart thrumming in his ears.
“You’re gonna have to move it, kid.”
The beefy, bearded man who stood frowning down from the back of the van wasn’t chomping a cigar, but he was clearly the owner of the gruff voice. “I said, move!” The man made a shooing motion. “As in outta the way.”
“Sorry,” said Gabe. He moved away from the ramp and stood on the sidewalk, staring at the house. Boxes and cartons were stacked man-high on the driveway. “Tommy!” he cried, his voice catching with excitement.
At last, cupped hands to his mouth, he shouted, “TAHHHMIIIIIII!”
Still no answer, but around the house the back screen door groaned open and slammed shut.
“Yo, Larry,” said the gruff moving man. “Let’s off-load King Arthur.”
“Roger that, Stu,” answered a hollow-sounding voice from the belly of the trailer. There was a rumbling as something was dollied toward the top of the ramp.
Gabe dropped his hands and stared. Stu was starting to shuffle onto the ramp backwards, carefully guiding the dolly, while Larry, a squinting, hatchet-faced man with a smoldering cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth, handled the steering. As they edged down the ramp, a rattling suit of chainmail armor took shape in the afternoon’s shifting gray light. A moment later it stood on the sidewalk in front of the house, looking like a lost time traveler.
Stu and Larry stepped back cuffing sweat from their foreheads, admiring their handiwork.
“Somthin’ else, ain’t he, kid?” said Stu.
Gabe nodded dumbly, hardly able to believe his eyes.
“Hey, boys!” The woman’s voice drifted from the house. “I made ice tea!”
Not Mrs. Bronfman after all, thought Gabe, but he didn’t even bother to look.
“Break time,” said Larry.
“Hand’s off the merchandise, kid,” said Stu, then the two men hurried across the lawn toward the house.
“No problem,” mumbled Gabe to no one in particular. Alone and face-to-face with “King Arthur,” it was easy for him to pretend that a living, breathing man stood there, checking out the neighborhood. Speaking of neighbors, he bet Old Lady Keith and all the rest had never seen anyone quite like this hanging out on the sidewalk! His powerful body was protected by a knee-length coat of chainmail, hidden for the most part under a white surcoat with a faded red cross sown on the front. His lower legs were sheathed in leggings made of the same flexible mesh of interlocking iron rings as his coat. His gauntleted hands rested almost casually, one atop the other, on the pommel of an upright sword. A bright mail hood covered his head and neck. Gabe knew something about this stuff—the surcoat alone told him this wasn’t the famous Once and Future King; still, everything about this knight was eerily—authentic.
Eeriest of all was the polished steel helmet-mask: the face of a nobleman whose empty black eye holes seemed to gaze with the directness of a crucifix at Gabe and whose expression seemed more sad than warlike. It was these not-so-blank hollows more than anything else that gave Gabe the skin-crawling sensation of a man behind the mask, sizing him up. The longer he stared, the more he felt the knight’s probing gaze like cold, paddling fingers on the back of his neck. At last he shuddered and blinked, ending the ball-shriveling staring contest.
Gabe’s eyes traveled down the figure of the knight. Strangely, the imagined man beneath the mail seemed prepared for anything but a fight. His weight rested on his left leg, allowing his right knee to bend slightly, like he was nonchalantly waiting for a time-hopping bus, not gazing across an ancient battlefield.
But what really got Gabe’s attention was the sword. And what a sword! He knelt for a closer look. It was a classic medieval long sword made for two-handed fighting. The ends of the crossguard were shaped like snarling dragons’ heads with glinting ruby eyes, and the grip was wrapped with finely braided copper and silver wire. The pommel was a thick disk inlaid with silver and gold, set with a large ruby. As if on cue, just like in a movie, a ray of sunlight escaped the drifting clouds and passed right through the blood-red stone, turning its heart to liquid fire.
“Gotta be a fake,” Gabe whispered. Still …
Beneath the hilt, the flat of the blade rippled and shimmered like the polished surface of a frozen pond. Gabe ran his finger along the glistening steel and thrilled at the cold realness of it. He looked toward the house. No, Tommy hadn’t come back, but … “Who would own something like this?” he wondered aloud.
“My dad! So hands off!” answered a puckish voice.
Startled, Gabe jerked his hand back and leapt up. A girl about his age stepped from behind a stack of moving cartons. Her eyes were dark and wild and her short black hair was laced with cobwebs like she’d just been crawling around in the Bronfmans’ basement storage room or maybe in the crawl space up among the hidden rafters. And to Gabe’s amazement she was holding a sword, a wooden replica of a real sword without all the fancy gems and stuff.
“What…?” he stammered. Then flushing, he snapped, “You scared the crap out of me!”
The girl took some kind of fighting stance that involved raising the hefty-looking sword above her head in both hands so that it was positioned to cut down. “What were you doing to Harold?” she demanded. She wore a dirty graffiti-covered cast on her right wrist that covered part of her hand but left her thumb and fingers free to grip the sword.
“Harold?” said Gabe. “I thought this was supposed to be King Arthur.”
She laughed the kind of laugh that really means how could you be so dumb? “Harold’s wearing an eleventh century knight’s armor—he’s a Crusader. Why would you think he’s King Arthur?”
“’Cause that’s what the moving man called ah … him. I knew the armor wasn’t right.”
“’Cause I read about stuff like this. Tommy and me used to—”
“Who’s Tommy?” interrupted the girl.
Gabe kicked at a crack in the sidewalk. “Never mind. So you gonna clock me with that thing or what?”
“Looked like you were planning to steal Harold’s sword,” said the girl.
“I was just looking.”
“You swear you weren’t thinking of swiping it?”
Gabe nearly laughed till he saw her narrowed eyes, her jutting jaw. “I swear,” he said.
Slowly and, he could see, reluctantly she lowered the sword and stared at him as if looking for a reason to raise it again. “My dad keeps Harold in fighting shape.”
“Dad repaired him, every inch of him, and spent weeks restoring his sword. Look at him! Not bad for a knight from Crusader times, huh?” She scratched her chin with the back of her cast, leaving a smudge of dirt.
“It’s just a suit of chainmail,” corrected Gabe, “not a real knight.”
“His name’s Harold,” said the girl with a frown.
Gabe frowned back, stepped up to … Harold, and stroked his softly chinking mail hood. “Where’d he come from?” In spite of his effort to sound like he wasn’t quite buying what the girl was selling, there was wonder in his voice.
“Dad got him at an auction in England years ago. Been working on him ever since. Feels like he’s in there right now watching you, doesn’t it?”
Gabe caught her eyeing him sidelong and shrugged.
“My dad’s a famous artist,” said the girl, swelling with pride. “Makes suits of armor and swords and stuff in his studio and sells them to rich guys in New York and London, places like that. He’s the best sword smith in the whole world. And there’s no one in the whole world like Harold. She thrust out her good left hand. “I’m Ellie.”
Gabe was having a hard time believing that someone’s dad could actually make a living doing something so … cool. He shook awkwardly. “I’m Gabe. From across the street. Hey, can I see that?”
Ellie hesitated for a moment, then handed him the wooden sword. He hefted the varnished blade. “Feels like the right weight.”
“Just right,” she said, “and it’s hickory, so you can spar all day long and it won’t splinter. It’s called a waster. It’s real. I use it for practice.”
Gabe cut the air with the sword. “What kind of practice? Fencing?” He was doing his best to come off like he did this sort of thing every day; trouble was, he was so jazzed he could barely hold the sword steady.
“No!” scoffed Ellie. “Sword fighting!”
“What’s the difference?” Gabe stood to the side and struck a pose, holding the sword straight out with his left arm drawn back like he’d seen fencers do on TV. “En garde!”
Ellie made a scrunched face. “No-no-no.” She snatched the waster from him and flourished it in a two-handed grip.
“Hey!” cried Gabe.
“Fencing’s a sissy sport compared to medieval sword fighting,” she said.
Gabe bridled. “At least fencers use real steel.”
“So do we,” said Ellie. “At least my dad does. He’s pretty darn good, and I’m learning—on this.” She made a couple of quick stabbing and hacking moves with her wooden sword that forced Gabe to step back.
“Not bad,” he said.
She stopped abruptly. “Wanna learn?”
“From your dad?”
“No, silly, from me … and Harold.”
“From Harold?” snorted Gabe.
Ellie’s face darkened with her frown. “Harold taught my dad, and he’s teaching me; well, my dad teaches me, too, but Harold is the master!”
Gabe stared at the girl. She looked like a lost waif in a movie.
“You’re joking, right?”
“No!” she snapped. Then, without taking her eyes off Gabe, she placed her hand flat against the red cross on the surcoat and said, “He’s in here, understand?”
“You mean, like a ghost?”
“More than a ghost.”
“In what way?” urged Gabe.
“Like he could come to life any second, you know what I mean? I can feel him here.” She tapped her breastbone. “And I can hear his voice in my head.”
“Cross my heart,” said Ellie, and she made the gesture for good measure.
Gabe locked eyes with her for a moment. She looked serious. “Is he talking to you now?”
“Not right now, but I can feel that he’s okay with me teaching you.”
Gabe took a step back and looked Harold up and down. “Really?”
“Here, hold it like this,” said Ellie. She adjusted Gabe’s hands on the waster.
They were standing in the Bronfmans’ backyard with its great view west to downtown Portland and the hills beyond, especially if you looked out from Tommy’s cool treehouse in the big old oak. Gabe had been back here a million times before—he’d probably spent half his life at the Bronfmans’—only this time felt like his first.
Stu and Larry, smiling and grunting like two eager serfs, had moved Harold to the concrete patio around back at Ellie’s request, then left to finish unloading the moving van. “If there’s even one drop of rain, he’s going in the garage asap,” said Ellie’s Mom. “Your dad would have a fit if he saw him out here.” Then she left, too. She was a nice woman with beehive hair and black glasses, carrying a pitcher of ice tea. She looked and sounded nothing like Mrs. Bronfman.
“Okay, got it!” said Gabe. “What’s next?”
“Stand like this,” said Ellie. Under Harold’s fathomless gaze, she pushed and shoved Gabe into a stance that left him holding the wooden sword thrust up at an angle in front with both hands gripping the hilt. “Really bend your knees.”
“Like this?” asked Gabe.
“Yes!” Ellie smiled.
Gabe smiled back. “Yeah, that feels better,” he said. “Hey, you really know what you’re talking about.” He bounced back and forth, thrusting, blocking, and slashing with the waster until he buried it in the wet grass. It came back out with a sucking schhhup!
“Hey take it easy!” cried Ellie.
Gabe grinned. “Sorry.”
“Keep the sword aimed at your opponent’s throat,” she said. “That’s right. Harold calls this guard the ‘The Plough.’ It’s the easiest guard to attack and parry from.”
“Guard?” asked Gabe.
“You know, stance.”
“Oh yeah. As in en garde,” he said, shifting his feet and rolling his shoulders.
A few minutes before, while Stu and Larry were bringing Harold around back, Ellie had vanished into the house and come back with another waster. Now she circled Gabe, casually shouldering her sword like a musket. “The guard I used on you in the driveway he calls ‘The Hawk,’ because you strike from on high.”
“I bet Harold fought in some wicked battles,” said Gabe, glancing from Ellie to Harold’s sad face and back.
“He did,” she said. “All up and down the Holy Land and at the taking of Jerusalem from the Saracens. But he doesn’t talk much about that, except to say that it was not holy or glorious.”
“And why’s that?” asked Gabe.
“It’s like this: Harold vowed to Jesus, he calls him ‘The Savior,’ that he would take up the Cross, endure any hardship, and fight to claim Jerusalem and the Holy Land in his name. All he asked in return was for his identical twin brother, who’d died in an ale house brawl with unconfessed sins on his head, to be allowed into heaven.”
“Where did Harold think his brother went after he died?”
“To hell, of course,” she said. “With all the other unrepentant drunkards and ne’er-do-wells—those who sinned not because they were evil, but because they were weak.
“Go on,” urged Gabe.
“Well, Harold loved his good-for-nothing brother and swore he’d do whatever was asked of him … whatever … for his twin’s salvation. But he couldn’t go on, not in the end. Disgusted by the rape and butchery visited on the Holy Land’s inhabitants, especially the slaughter of innocent women and children, which he says was and is a stain on the soul of every Christian knight who took part, Harold turned his back on the bloodbath the very day the crusaders overwhelmed Jerusalem’s defenses and stormed the city.”
“What day was that?”
“The fourteenth day of July in the year 1099. Many who died that day and the next were helpless to defend themselves against armored knights, and their hacked and torn bodies piled up in the streets and alleys. Few were spared.”
Ellie paused, tapping her shoulder with the waster, her eyes on Harold as if he were talking and she listening. At last she said, “He calls himself Harold of Gisburne, and his sword was said to be the deadliest in all of England.”
“Harold of Gisburne,” echoed Gabe, his cheeks and scalp tingling. Darting beams of sunlight through broken clouds played about the sad-looking eyeholes of the mask. “What was his brother’s name?”
“William. Harold calls him ‘Willie.’”
“Wow!” said Gabe. “Where’d you learn to tell his story like that? You sound so … I don’t know—fancy, like you memorized it from a book!”
“That’s the way Harold talks, more or less.”
Gabe stared at his strange new companion.
“Tell you what,” announced Ellie. “Let’s spar a little, and I’ll show you how this is done.”
“So what happened to him?” Gabe asked.
“I can fight and talk at the same time,” said Ellie.
Gabe looked at the varnished, mud-spattered wooden blade. It could definitely do some damage. “I don’t know. I’m a lot bigger than you.”
“I promise not to hurt you.” Ellie smiled sweetly.
Gabe stared at the skinny girl, at her smudged face, her wrist cast, her oversized sword. An hour ago, he would have been afraid of bruising her with a light swat on the arm. But now … In a flash, he raised the heavy waster and assumed the plough guard. “En garde!”
Ellie sprang to his challenge.
He made a half-hearted stab. In a blur of motion, she slapped his sword aside with a loud clack of wood on wood and lunged, shoving the point of her weapon up under his chin. It was over that fast. They must’ve looked like they were playing statues: she frozen in the act of skewering him through his skull, her eyes ablaze with a fierce glow, and he staring at her in shock and awe.
At last, Gabe backed away, rubbing the spot under his chin. “Let’s go again,” he said. “But you promised to fight and talk. I don’t hear any talking.” He dropped into position again, sword point jutting up.
Ellie brought her waster down and back, like a Samurai, and circled him, stepping carefully in the wet grass, swaying as if to avoid the occasional fluttering yellow leaf. “This back guard Harold calls ‘The Tail.’ Beware the lashing tail,” she crooned.
Gabe tracked her movements with the point of his sword. “Talk!”
“Where’d I leave off in the story?” said Ellie. “Oh yeah. Harold wasn’t able to stomach the slaughter of innocents, especially the babies spitted on spears and hacked to bits by swords. So he ran away from the horror and from his sacred vow. Disguised in Saracen robes, a headscarf hiding everything but his eyes, he traveled alone on foot. But he couldn’t forget. It got so he awoke screaming and clawing at thin air every single night. He prayed, but it did no good. He had fallen from God’s grace, or so he believed—”
Sensing an opening, Gabe lunged. Ellie ducked and closed in again, whirling up behind to slice at the back of his head. The wooden edge thwacked the boney bump at the base of his skull.”
“Ouch! No fair!” he protested.
She laughed. “Goal’s to kill and to kill quick.”
Gabe stepped back, rubbing his head and looking around to make sure no one he knew was spying on them, especially his older brother, Sam, who had an uncanny way of showing up when not wanted. Gabe would never hear the end of it. “What grade you in?” he asked.
“Me too.” He wondered if she’d wind up in his class. “What’d you do to your arm?”
“Broke my wrist, sparring with Dad,” said Ellie. “You trying to buy time?”
“No,” rasped Gabe.
“Look, I know this sounds strange,” said Ellie, “but you’ve got to try and kill me right away. That’s the way it was really done. Not like in the movies. Fights almost never went on and on like that. Oh, and watch your stance. Harold’s story can wait till you get the hang of it. Just don’t hit me too hard.” She batted her eyes and smirked, then saluted him with her sword and assumed her hawk guard, poised to strike down. “Ready?” Her dark eyes were locked on his. Her smirk had vanished.
Feeling a familiar heart-fluttering rush of adrenaline, Gabe snapped up his sword to match her guard. Suddenly he brought it slashing down diagonally, aiming for her side, but Ellie parried his slice with the flat of her blade then swung it around to his exposed neck. “You’re dead!” she cried.
In bout after short bout, Ellie met Gabe’s every stroke or thrust with a killing counter stroke, slice, or thrust. She even used the hilt and pommel as weapons, and most of the time she knocked his blade aside or ducked his strike altogether, then slipped up under his guard and got right in his face, locking up his sword with hers, or even using skinny arm locks to tie up his sword arm while she delivered a killing blow with the slicing edge of her wooden waster.
“Arrgh!” cried Gabe, panting and cuffing sweat out of his eyes with the back of his arm. He’d stripped off his jacket and stood in a clinging t-shirt. He was tired, sore, bruised—not just on the outside. His cheeks burned in spite of the chilly October air.
“Break time!” shouted Ellie. She was barely sweating.
“Not yet,” he insisted, taking up the hawk guard. Ellie matched his guard and they circled each other warily.
“So get on with the story,” said Gabe, glancing at Harold, whose hollow eyeholes seemed to be fixed on the two fighters; even seemed to be following their movements.
“Okay, grumpy,” said Ellie. “Let’s see … So Harold ran away from the blood and the stench and the flies and the heat. Ran away from his vow. He ran away knowing that when he got back home, his dead twin’s soul would still be in hell. For he had failed, and to make matters worse, he had come to believe that he’d lost his own soul in the process.”
“Oh man, that’s bad!” breathed Gabe.
“Very bad,” said Ellie.
They continued orbiting each other, their swords ready, and Ellie went on with the story: “From Jerusalem, Harold journeyed to Constantinople, where one night, drunk in one of the stewpots of the city, he met up with a Thessalian witch, the worst sort of witch. For a price, she offered to tell him how to recover his brother’s soul from the fires of hell—”
Suddenly Ellie feinted right, then went left, jabbing Gabe between the ribs. “You’re dead again.”
He ignored the surprise blow and the taunt. “The story, tell the story.”
“The witch,” said Ellie, “wanted Harold to kill a certain courtier, an evil man who dabbled in the black arts, and bring his tongue to her in a pouch made of woven gossamer bound with silver thread.” She’d resumed circling. Gabe circled as well, but he was interested only in the story now.
“Did he do it?” he blurted, glancing at the knight.
“Let me tell it!”
Ellie reversed direction and circled the other way; Gabe followed her lead. “If Harold did as she asked,” she went on, “the witch said he might have what he desired, but not without hardship and sacrifice.”
“What kind of hardship and sacrifice?” demanded Gabe.
“If he undertook to do her bidding, the witch told Harold that he would embark on a dangerous journey to a place with a smoking mountain and upon the mountain he would find a gate and before the gate would stand a guardian. If he could survive the journey and defeat the guardian, he could pass through the gate and venture down to hell itself and return with the soul of his lost brother, who could then make his way to heaven. Harold would have redeemed him. But the witch also said that, win or lose, Harold’s own soul would be forfeit, condemned to remain trapped within his armor and at her beck and call for all time—Thessalian witches are the devil’s servants, and immortal. Drunk and desperate to redeem his brother, and believing his soul was already lost, Harold agreed to the witch’s terms and did the bloody deed: he strangled the courtier with his bare hands, cut out his tongue, and presented it to the witch exactly as she instructed.”
“No way!” Gabe stopped circling, lowered his sword, and stood staring at the mask as a slanting ray from the late-afternoon sun turned it a gleaming blood red before his eyes.
Ellie had stopped, too, and now stood thumbing the edge of her sword. “The next morning, his head throbbing and even more convinced he was damned to hell, Harold boarded a ship bound for Messina, but it was overtaken by a storm. The ship went down, and Harold washed up on an island in the Middle Sea—that’s what they called the Mediterranean back then.
“When he woke up, he was staring up at a smoldering volcano. He never hesitated. Unable to walk straight, he staggered and crawled up the mountain’s side. About half way up, he came to a path. The path led to a gate—a gate made of horn and ivory. Beyond the gate was a blackness blacker than the darkest night. And before the gate stood an enormous man—big as an ox!”
Suddenly Ellie laughed and whipped up her sword, assuming the strangest stance yet, her blade pointing down slantwise across her face. “‘The Ox.’ See! Beware the ox; it gores like a bull.”
Gabe didn’t move to challenge Ellie with his sword. “Finish the story,” he demanded.
With a pouty lip thrust out, she lowered her sword and rubbed her chin with her cast.
“Okay,” she said, glancing at Harold, who seemed to be watching her as intently as Gabe. “Harold approached the guardian like this …” Ellie brought her sword up in the hawk guard and staggered toward the big oak with Tommy’s treehouse still visible up among the spreading branches. “But the guardian was strong and had many weapons: sword, spear, mace, and worst of all, the mountain’s fire.
Ellie mock-fought with the tree, thrusting, slashing, leaping. “They fought for hours there before the gate of horn and ivory. They fought until Harold was cut and bleeding from a hundred wounds. Yet, in spite of his wounds, Harold drew closer and closer to the gate, through which, he believed, lay the path to his twin brother’s redemption, and for which he’d already paid the ultimate price—his soul.
“At last, just as Harold stood in the shadow of the gate, the giant guardian seemingly at his mercy, the clever fiend shrieked a command and leapt aside. In that instant, the mountain unleashed a furnace blast of hell’s fire from its gullet, up and through the mouth of the gate, right into Harold’s face. Burned and blinded, he was thrown back.
“Smoldering, he staggered down the path, his skin and clothes peeling away, his armor scorching him horribly.” Ellie dropped her sword, turned away from the oak, and tottered around drunkenly with her hands out in front as if blinded. “He collapsed on the path and fell down into a darkness deeper than sleep.” She tumbled onto the wet grass and musty yellow leaves and lay on her back as if in a dead faint. From this position she mumbled, “And there he lay, until—”
“Ellie!” called Ellie’s mom from the back door. “Dinner.”
Ellie jumped up, snatching up her sword. “I’ve gotta go.”
“Hey!” cried Gabe, his damp t-shirt clinging coldly to his goose-pimpled skin. “You didn’t finish the story!”
“It’ll have to wait,” said Ellie.
“The mask! At least tell me about the mask.”
“The monks made it for him. His sword, too.”
“No way! They look new!”
“Didn’t always! I told you, my dad fixed him up.”
“Okay, but what monks? When? How? Did he succeed or fail in the end?”
“What do you think?”
“What do I think?” cried Gabe. “You made the whole thing up! Didn’t you?”
“Think what you want, Harold’s in there. He told me his story. He’s had enough adventures to fill a hundred books. He taught me to fight, and I can beat you any day of the week, Gabe.”
“No way! I let you win. I’ll show you right after dinner.”
“Your sworn oath?”
“My sworn oath,” said Gabe.
Ellie smiled. “Okay, see you after dinner. But I’m more dangerous in the dark.”
“And you’re gonna tell me the rest of the story, right?” said Gabe.
“You’ll have to earn the rest of the story, and there’s a lot of story left to tell.”
“I’ll earn it all right,” growled Gabe, “by kicking your sorry butt!”
“Yeah?” said Ellie. She faked a punch at his face with her small fist then shouldered him hard, knocking him on his butt in a squishy patch in the lawn. The instant he was on the ground, she plunged the point of her sword into the center of his chest and pinned him there.
“You’d better keep that waster,” she said, “’cause you’re gonna need to practice.” Then, laughing, she ran into the house, and the screen door banged closed behind her.
For a long moment after he got to his feet, Gabe stood staring at the door, then at Harold of Gisburne, at the fathomless eyeholes and the play of dwindling light and shadow on the mask that seemed to give Harold the appearance of life. Looking at him, it was easy to believe he was in there. Harold may have failed to redeem his twin’s soul, but somehow that made his selfless sacrifice all the more glorious, just like a true knight’s should be. But wait a minute! Had he really lost his soul, forever? Was he really doomed to be the slave of a witch, for all time? Even now, this minute? Gabe shook his head. No, he couldn’t accept that. There had to be a happy ending to the story—for both brothers. There just had to be. Right? Right. He’d get the rest of it out of Ellie if it took all winter and right into next summer, or even longer.
Suddenly a faint breeze stirred the oak leaves overhead and murmured in Gabe’s ear like … like whispered words he couldn’t quite understand. He froze for a moment, holding his breath, and listened while his skin prickled all over and the tiny hairs on the back of his neck stuck out like quills. But the breeze faded away, taking the mysterious whisper with it, until all Gabe could hear was his own blood rushing in his ears.
Finally, one step at a time, he moved up close to Harold and, hesitating for a second or two, placed his hand flat against the faded red cross on the surcoat. Then quickly turning away, his heart thrumming, his whole body tingling with excitement, he snatched up his jacket and ran down Ellie’s driveway, slashing at the brisk October air with the wooden sword, shouting, “En garde!”