I promise it wasn’t my intention to end the day getting my head cut off.
__ __ __
I rolled out of bed and sifted through pile of clothes that had yet to be folded for something that looked (and smelled) halfway decent.
I came downstairs for breakfast to seem Mom was already up, bright and cheerful as ever.
And by bright and cheerful I mean that she was wearing a bathrobe and her hair was all tousled, like in the cartoons when someone gets a gust of wind to the face. Worst of all, she hadn’t finished her coffee.
She squinted at me as I came down the steps, looking me over like I was a Dragon, come to steal her treasure.
I decided to stay out of her way.
But that doesn’t mean she wanted to do the same. “Peter!” She snapped.
“Mom?” I scanned the fridge for something to eat.
“Answer me this: When Uther Pendragan begot Arthur with Igraine, what did he do?”
I stuck my head in the fridge. It was six in the morning! This was not the time for History lessons!
That’s at 8:30 with Mrs. McFowl.
“Ummmm….He convinced Merlin to change his form or something, right? So that he looked like the Duke of Tintagel and he could get into the castle?”
“Correct. Now, did Uther commit a crime?”
Mom has this thing she likes to do where she springs traps on me. Including, but not limited to, asking for kingly decisions. “There’s more to being King than just hacking stuff up,” she says.
“Of course,” I mumbled. I snatched a glass of milk and some bacon leftover from yesterday.
“Are you sure?” Mom took several gulps of coffee. She slammed it down and locked her gaze on me. “Igraine begot Arthur with the man she considered Gorlois. At the time, she consented.”
“Can we not do this now?”
“We’re doing this now.”
Mom gets this weird gleam in her eye before she finishes her coffee. It’s as if her eyes are telling you nobody will find your body, should you say the wrong thing.
So I played along. “But Uther disguised himself as Gorlois. She can’t consent to having a child if she didn’t know that it was Uther in the Duke’s form.”
“But she saw the Duke.”
“But he wasn’t the Duke.”
“In Igraine’s eyes he was.”
I bit off a chunk of cold bacon. “Igraine’s eyes were deceived. It’s like if Dad wore a mask of Mr. McFowl’s face and told my history teacher he was—”
Mom gave me a smile so thin it could cut glass. And then I realized how ridiculous I sounded.
“Okay, it would have to be a really convincing mask.”
She touched my hand from across the table, “Finish your bacon. The bus will be here, soon.”
“Did I win?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, for one thing, I agree, but on the other hand, your argument was sloppy.”
“You hesitated too much. You didn’t sound sure of yourself. That won’t get you very far in the long run. Now go. It’s time for school.”
So I shoved Excalibur into my backpack and headed to school, where I met up with Dawn. She was digging through her locker.
I only managed to get out a quick, “Hey, Dawn—” when WHAM!
Dawn closed her locker and turned to me, wide eyed. “Ohmygod! Did you hear what happened?” It sounded like her voice was on fast forward. She dropped to a whisper. “Merlin is back.”
Why doesn’t anybody tell me these things?
“Back? Where is he?”
She sighed and twisted her mouth in an effort to force her words to keep up with her thoughts. “Well, he’s not exactly back back, but…well he paid me a visit the other night. He managed to conjure up his spirit or something. He saw me at three A.M last night.”
“Through his spirit? You mean astral projection?”
“Right, right. He told me dark times are coming.”
“Dark times?” I echoed. “What does that mean?”
“He didn’t say much else. He said he couldn’t interfere—and he couldn’t stay for long. He was still gathering his strength. Oh, but he—he was brilliant, Peter. Ohmygod, he was brilliant.” He eyes widened. “Oh! I almost forgot! He said he had a message for you.”
A message he couldn’t deliver to me himself? “Well, what is it?”
“You need to talk to David Pact.”
Welp. I’m dead. Dead dead dead dead dead.
Y’see, David Pact is, like, this artsy kid who smells like burnt coffee with a hint of cigarettes and is friends with most of the kids who don’t know I exist. A lot of that’s not really my business.
What was my business was that he was going to try to beat me to a bloody pulp with only his words.
Sure, most artsy kids wouldn’t do that, but David is the kind of I can’t be seen in your general vicinity because it’s bad for my image, kind of artsy kid.
“David Pact?” I said. The words hung there for a moment. “You want me to talk to David Pact. The David Pact?”
“Apparently,” Dawn said. She glanced over at him. She nodded her head to David in a way that made her hair sway.
I approached David, who was with a bunch of people that smelled like they took a shower in AXE deodorant. I spoke in the loudest voice I could muster, which was probably somewhere between a squeak and a whisper.
David narrowed his eyes at me. He brushed a red-streaked highlight of hair out of his eyes and said, “Peter, right?”
I took a sudden interest in my shoes. “Um, yeah.”
“I was actually about to go looking for you.”
I think I can pinpoint the exact moment my heart stopped upon hearing those words. “Wh-what?”
“I’ve got a friend of mine who’s a friend of yours.”
Classes hadn’t even started yet. It was too early to be puzzling out sentences like that.
“I was going to take a few guys out to watch a meteor shower in the woods tonight. He suggested I invite you. Interested?”
I think I said something along the lines of, “Ummmmmmm.”
David indicated with his head to Dawn. “You can bring your boyfriend, too, if you like.”
“I’m not—she’s not a—she—”
“I’m a girl. And we’re not dating,” Dawn finished for me. Phew.
“Interested?” He asked again.
“We’ll be there.” Dawn said.
I turned around and walked away as quickly as I could. I hoped my face wasn’t too red.
“It’s at the park!” David called after me. “Nine P.M!”
“Nine P.M?” Dad said, once I got home. “You want to go out past nine P.M?
Dad was standing over a gigantic pot of something simmering over the stove. I had no idea what it was. The cookbook looked like it once belonged to King Arthur’s personal chef. How did Dad even read that? Then again, half of the books in the house look like that.
“I know it’s a school night,” I said, “But I promise I’ll bring Excalibur. Just in case.”
Dad wrinkled his forehead as his eyes widened. “That’s a question for your mother, sport,” Dad said. “I don’t know jack about Excalibur or Lancelot or what have you.”
“But can I go out at nine?”
“Isn’t that your bedtime?”
“But Da-aa-d,” I moaned. “I get to stay up that late fighting monsters. Why is socializing now forbidden. I promise I’ll be fine in school tomorrow. Just let me go. Please.”
Dad shook his head in a way that meant maybe but alluded to no. “I don’t know…”
“Dad,” I said, “How often do I get to socialize?”
Dad chewed on that for a moment. His face scrunched up. “Be back before midnight,” he said, “And bring Excalibur.”
As I left the house to go to Dawn’s. Her parents agreed to drive us.
And when I did arrived at Dawn’s house, the first few moments were sort of awkward.
This goes without saying, as the first few minutes at any friend’s house is and weird until you start to settle down.
This meet-up, however, had a totally different reason behind it.
Her house was normal. Sofas? Check. Books written in this century? Check. Awkward family photos where you all have to hold your smile for that one second too long? Check.
I gawked at it for a few minutes before her biker-Santa-grandfather broke my concentration. “PENDRAGON!” he roared, and hugged me so hard I couldn’t breathe. He hoisted me into the air. “Mister Cross,” I wheezed. I was vaguely aware that Dawn was laughing.
He set me down and put a hand up to silence me. “Please,” he said, “Call me Gabriel.”
“Are you sure…?” I muttered.
“Of course I’m sure,” he laughed.
“There’s—you’re not angry at me?”
Mister Cross steepled his fingers. “Why would I be angry at you? Have you done something wrong?”
Dawn bit back a smile. I wrung my hands together. “No—but I’ve heard of something about a blood feud—”
Mister Cross wheezed out a laugh and slapped his medicine ball of a chest. “That’s why I should be angry? A centuries old blood feud?” I nearly flinched at his shouting. “It long, long past, my boy! It was a time before time! What’s past is passed. Are there still Descendants out there who follow that feud?”
I felt a trickle of sweat run down my temple. “Not that I’m aware of.”
“Then let the matter pass. My granddaughter tells me much about you. She wishes your friendship, and as long as you can return that, that is enough for me.”
“Really? Wow, that’s—that’s great!”
“It’s life,” Mister Cross said with a shrug. “My granddaughter tells me she was visited by Merlin last night, and if he needs you for some quest, then I must do what I can to ensure your success.”
“Thank you, Mister—“
“Gabriel. Thank you.”
He left the room to finish up a few chores. I crumpled to the sofa, staring blankly at nothing, my mouth agape.
Dawn sat down next to me. “Peter,” Dawn said, putting a hand on my shoulder. Her palm was callused from what I presumed was weapons practice. “What’s wrong?”
“What were you expecting?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“Weapons. Antiques. Lion crested shields brazenly displayed on the walls.”
“Is that what your home is like?”
I turned to face her. “Yeah. You don’t want know the details.”
After Gabriel Cross finished the chores, we hopped in his minivan and headed for the park.
After more awkward silence, Dawn said, “So who’s this friend you two have in common?”
“Not a clue. If but if Merlin told you to tell me to talk to him and he tells me we have a friend in common, I’m running with the idea.”
I thought over what I said and realized I couldn’t make sense of it either. “Never mind. Let’s just focus on getting there. Whatever Merlin has planned, it’s bound to be something important.”
“It is,” a disembodied voice said. It sounded like the Wicked Wizard of the West.
“Holy—” I shouted, jumping in my seat. “What the heck was that?”
Dawn turned her head to say something, but once she started to open her mouth she slowly—like a rusty machine. Her joints slowed and creaked to a halt.
“This is Merlin,” the voice said, and, like a candle, Merlin shimmered into existence, flickering.
He didn’t wear the pointy hat I had always anticipated. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bummed.
He did, however, have the flowing white beard and shock of hair. His nose peeked out of the tangled hairy mess that was his face like a hooked beak. He had to hunch over to fit in the backseat.
I stared at him. What do I say to the one and only Merlin the Magician? What will be my wondrous first words?
“You’re see through,” I said.
Merlin rubbed his temples. “I know, Peter. I’m working on it.”
“Working on it?”
“Nimuë tricked me centuries ago, and bound me underground. I’m still working on getting out. But for now, there are a few ways I can be of assistance.”
“And I assume this is the reason for your ghostly visit?”
Merlin glared at me with bloodshot, see-through eyes. “Danger lies ahead, my young king.”
King? I thought Dad was King. I mean, if he married Mom…“Merlin…” Words crumbled in my brain before I managed to say anything.
Merlin waved a hand at me. His fingers flicked out like a candle. I felt like I walked through a cobweb. “Oh, don’t be so speechless. Young Arthur was never like that, King Peter.”
“What? Why haven’t you shown up before?” I asked.
Merlin’s eyebrow stretched like a taut bowstring. “Would you have listened to my instructions if you had heard them from me? You would have had time to think, boy—and with a mind like yours, such time to think can be deadly. Second guesses can be deadly. And with what’s at stake in this meeting, second guesses are things that can end all hope before it begins.”
A mind like mine? I thought. Surely he didn’t mean—no. He’s centuries old. He wouldn’t know about that. I decided to let that comment pass. “So why now?”
“I come with a warning, King Peter. Your choices here will decide whether your new companion is friend or foe.”
“Who is my companion?”
“You do ask a lot of questions, young one.”
“Who is my companion?”
“Beware of Sir Bercilak, Peter Pendragon. Do not fall prey to his tricks.”
“Peter!” Dawn snapped her fingers in front of my face. I blinked, rapidly. “You were zoning out for a while there. Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I tried to just shrug it off, like I didn’t just have a secret meeting with Merlin in a car with both of Lancelot’s Descendants. “Yeah, I’m fine…hey, you wouldn’t happen to know anyone by the name of Sir Bercilak, would you?”
Dawn frowned in thought. “No. Why?”
I stared out the window. “I have a feeling we’re about to.”
We got out of the car and walked in stride. David was at the other end of the park, arms relaxed on the bench’s backrest. He was accompanied one of the guys he was talking to that morning.
Y’know, the intimidating people who use way too much AXE.
Then there was the other guy—the one I think David was talking about when he said a friend of yours. “Dawn,” I said, “Is it just me, or is that guy….green?”
And by green I don’t mean he was wearing a green shirt with green pants and green hair. This guy was completely green. I mean at least the Hulk has the decency to wear purple pants.
“I see it, too,” she said, “Must be a Descendant thing.”
David rose to meet us. He had his hair draped over one eye, the highlighted tip had gone from red to green.
Alarm bells rang in my head, but I didn’t know what to do with the situation yet. I decided the best course of action would be to ride it out.
David flipped his hair out of his face and extended his hand in the same motion. “Glad you could make it. Guys, this is Drew,” he pointed at one of the guys with a crew cut and a backwards Yankees hat.
“And of course, Benny Hack needs no introduction. He’s told me all about you.”
David wandered back over to the bench. “At first I didn’t know he was talking about you. Peter? The guy who I thought was mute until sixth grade? But hey, according to Benny you’re a pretty cool guy.”
Thanks for that, David.
Benny shook hands with Dawn and me. The awed look in his eyes was odd, considering he was supposed to know so much about me. I shouldered my bag. I had a feeling I’d need Excalibur.
I have to admit, David was a pretty cool guy. We had a nice talk, all four of us. It lasted halfway through the night.
Well, he did most of the talking. I just listened and nodded.
He mostly talked about his art, what classes he wanted to take in High School and things like that.
I soon discovered David Pact has some serious planning problems.
Not that he doesn’t plan at all, it’s that the guy plans too much. He has his entire future mapped out, and if one part of the plan goes wrong, the whole thing crumbles. It’s like he has one block supporting the bottom of a Jenga tower that is his future.
The night wore on. We didn’t have conversations as much as topics that float. Drew brought up the Mets and their season, which reminded Dawn of the fall, presumably from mentioning season. That reminded David of a painting he saw. Et cetera, et cetera.
Then came the meteor shower. Dawn and I camped out on the grass next to each other. Stars glittered across the sky. We watched in silence for a while.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Dawn said.
“Yeah,” I muttered.
Then I did the stupidest thing I could have done. I took her hand and started to learn over to—
—Actually, I’m not quite sure what I was going to do. Before I could figure that out she slid back.
“What are you doing?” she asked, calmly.
“I thought—I was thinking—didn’t you want to…?” I motioned back and forth between us. There was a wall between me and forming words.
“Oh,” she looked away. “Oh, no. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“No,” I said, “No, it’s okay. Total miscommunication. It’s fine. I just was going to because I thought you wanted me to—”
“And I didn’t.”
“And that’s fine.”
“Yeah, it’s fine.”
Then the silence caught up with us. Just to break the tension I motioned to the general park area away from her. “I’m just going to—you know what, I’m gonna…”
“Yeah,” she said, “That’s fine. It’s okay.”
I wandered off.
You know what I said earlier about pinpointing the exact moment my heart stopped? I lied. That was the exact moment my heart stopped.
Now would be a good a time as any to explain the whole a mind like yours thing Merlin had mentioned. Because with what just happened, I was convinced he knew exactly what was wrong with my head.
Merlin knew I have autism.
Asperger Syndrome, to be precise. Though I’d stopped calling it that after one to many crude jokes I will refrain from repeating. The long and the short of it is that I do not pick up on social cues. At all. The only way I can figure out emotion is to look for signs in body language and voice. And now I understood why Merlin went to Dawn.
If he had gone to me about David Pact, I would have overthought everything and screwed it up. Because a lack of social language gives tons of leeway to anxiety.
It was as I thought about this, and wishing I could trade in my brain for a more normal one, that my heart started taking a sledgehammer to my chest as though my ribcage was a prison. I replayed the events of what had happened between Dawn and me, over and over and over again.
I wandered in loops around the park, wondering on a scale of one to ten million how stupid I was.
That’s when I heard Benny’s voice. “Pendragon,” He said in a voice that was far too deep to belong to him. He sounded like a tuba.
I turned around to see the green kid facing me, and staring me down with what was either malicious intent or some weird form of admiration. “Well someone went through puberty a bit early.” I said
“In a way, yes.”
“Since we’re alone, can we talk about your….greenness?”
“You will discover the truth, Pendragon,” Benny said. “In time.”
“You wouldn’t happen to know anybody by the name of Sir Bercilak, would you?”
“Indeed. I have heard it oft.”
So not only was Benny’s voice unnaturally deep, but he also talked like a knight out of a crappy romance novel.
“Into the woods, Pendragon,” Benny said, motioning to the forest. Between the park and the lake. “Bring Excalibur.”
Well, this is certainly turning out to be an interesting night…and an interesting knight. I bit back laughter at my own pun.
We entered the woods. I held Excalibur in my hand.
That’s when Benny began to change. His skin grew lumpy and then hardened into muscle that looked like they’d been chiseled from marble. He grew taller and taller until I had to crane my neck to look at him.
“Aye, Pendragon,” he said, “Have you not read the tales about me?”
“I don’t remember you fighting King Arthur in the tales I’ve read…”
“I fought with him,” he said. He was towering over me, now, and his clothes were rippling into armor. “Long ago. But that is not the tale I am famous for. I am known for the challenge I issued to Sir Gawain, when I was known only as the Green Knight. Gawain was most honorable.”
“I don’t remember reading about that.”
He glanced at me. Just before his visor shimmered over his face, he arched an eyebrow that said you’ve got to be kidding me. “…We will come to that in time. We are not yet deep enough in the woods.”
“So you’re centuries old?” I asked. I wish I could say this surprised me, but with all I’ve been through in the past week alone, a centuries old Green Knight was surprisingly unsurprising.
“Yes. I’ve kept myself preoccupied.”
“How have you managed that?”
Have you ever see the green person on the front of the corn cans?”
“Yeah. The Green Giant, right?”
“That was me.”
“Hey!” He shrugged, “It’s a living.”
We came to a clearing, and he turned heel to face me. I took a ready stance and took note of the emerald sword at his hip. Bercilak was twice my size. This would be difficult.
“You may strike a blow,” he said. “And one blow only. I will not defend against this, but if I survive, I shall return it in kind.”
“What if I don’t want to?”
“Something tells me you already know the answer to that.”
He’s testing me, I thought. It’s all a test. If I back out, I fail.
“And if you do survive? What happens then?”
I could feel his grin through his helmet. “You’ll see.”
I remembered what Merlin said about having time to think. “So…like any blow? I can jab you in the shoulder and you’ll do that to me?”
Bercilak looked me up and down, as if comparing our sizes, and I realized how much worse that would be for him than for me. “Do I have to kill you? Are there any rules saying I can do something else? Cause I really want to keep doing that living thing.”
Bercilak remained silent. I had never killed a person before—only people who were out to kill me. But he wasn’t.
Why? I thought. And then another voice in my head answered, He’s testing you, idiot! Strike the first blow you think of. Stick to your gut!
“Don’t second guess.” I whispered. “Strike the blow.” I closed my eyes and gripped Excalibur so tight my knuckles turned white. I swung for his next, and felt Excalibur’s arc slow as its magic, cut-through-anything metal met armor and then flesh. I completed the strike and the Green Knight’s helmeted head fell to the ground.
“I did it,” I muttered, with a surprised chuckle. “I actually did it. I don’t have to die!”
Then the obvious hit me: the Green Knight was still standing.
I stopped breathing altogether when he started moving. I stumbled back and tripped over a tree branch.
He scooped up his head and put it back on his neck. He opened his visor. He stared at me, implacable. “Are you ready, Pendragon?”
That was it. There I was, about to lose my head. I’m going to die. The Pendragon line will be dead. No—that wasn’t what I wanted. I didn’t want to die—I scrambled back on all fours, and then I remembered something Bercilak said earlier.
Gawain was most honorable.
That’s it. That’s why he’s testing me, I thought. Without another word, rose, and marched forward. I felt like a pirate being lead to the gallows.
And then I knelt. “Do it quickly,” I said. “Deliver the blow.”
The Green Knight drew his emerald sword and raised it high above his head.
I’m an idiot, I thought. I made the wrong choice. I’m going to die.
He brought the sword down in a wide arc and stopped it at the hairs of my neck so that I felt a slight tickle. And then he put the sword lightly to my neck and nicked it so that only a droplet of blood peeked out, stinging.
“You may be Arthur Pendragon’s Descendant,” the Green Knight said, “But you have the honor of Sir Gawain. And I shall fight by your side in these dark times to come.”
“About that—I’ve been hearing a lot about this dark-times thingy. You wouldn’t want to elaborate, would you?”
Sir Bercilak nodded, his armor shrieking. “Those who are closest to you plot your demise, Peter Pendragon. They are gathering the knowledge to end you.” He bowed his head. “I can say no more, for there ends my knowledge.”
I heard someone crashing through the foliage. “Peter!” It was Dawn’s voice. “Peter, my parents are here.” She frowned at Bercilak and I, and I realized I was still kneeling.
Her mouth was a thin line across her face. “Am I interrupting something?”
“No,” Bercilak and I said together.
The Green Knight sheathed his sword. “I was just leaving.” He extended a hand to help me up. “Till next we meet, Peter Pendragon.” He wandered off the path and vanished into the foliage.
“Who was that?” Dawn asked.
“That was Benny Hack.” Talking to Dawn again made me feel like Bercilak delivered the blow to my gut instead of the back of my neck. “Look, Dawn, about before, I wanted to apologize.”
“Hey,” Dawn smiled, “It’s alright. It was a mistake, and it’s all right. What’s past is passed.” She gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, then took my hand and dragged me back to the park. “Come on.” She said, and then as an afterthought, added, “Don’t read too much into that.”
I decided against telling her that that was going to happen despite her warning.
We climbed into Gabriel’s car and drove off. The whole way back, all I could think about was Sir Bercilak’s warnings. Dark times are coming.
Whoo, boy. One day at a time, Pendragon.
A very heartfelt thank you to my patrons. You make this writing possible. Special thanks to Saija Rantala, Lydia Raya, Abbey Newman, and Temi Olatinwo.