“A true knight always rescues a damsel in distress,” Sir Manbeard explained to his squire. “Unless the damsel is a witch in disguise. Then, he should try not to get his face melted off by a face-melting spell.”
“Oh, that’s good advice, Sir Manbeard, sir!” chirped Dudley Squeakwright.
Sir Manbeard nodded in agreement and stretched his long legs out before him. He sat on a pile of burlap sacks filled with sack-worthy items. He was watching his squire saddle his giant steed, Thunderbolt, as he imparted his wisdom to the young lad.
At that moment, a messenger ran up to them. Dudley admired the page’s interesting shoes. The soft-looking foot covers laced up the fronts, all the way to the ankles. They had little lightning bolts etched into the sides and thick cushions on the bottoms. “Those have high tops,” Dudley commented. “What do you call them?”
The messenger had no time to discuss his fashionable footwear. “The queen wishes to see you!” he panted at Sir Manbeard. “Right away!”
Sir Manbeard sprang to his feet, placed his hands on his hips and stared into the sky. His long, wavy beard flapped in the wind like a banner. “To the queen!” he boomed.
The messenger peered in the same direction as Manbeard. “She’s not up there.”
“Then we must depart at once!” Manbeard replied.
“Sir, yessir, Sir Manbeard, sir!” Dudley agreed.
With practiced ease, Sir Manbeard swung himself onto his impressive horse. “Hiya!” and he kicked his heels into the horse’s sides.
Thunderbolt galloped forward, demonstrating his well-earned reputation as the fastest horse in the realm – for about 30 feet. Sir Manbeard pulled on the reins and jumped down. “Here we are!” he told the squire and messenger as they ran to his side. The three of them raced up the stone steps to the castle’s front doors.
The inside of the castle was in turmoil. Furniture had been overturned. Tapestries had been torn from the walls. Bowls of complimentary sweets offered hard caramels instead of soft chocolates. “The horror!” Dudley moaned.
Servants ran back and forth along the corridors. One turned in tight little circles, muttering, “Oh no, oh no, oh no. It’ll be the end of us all.”
Sir Manbeard stopped the spinning servant, who held out a hand to steady herself against Manbeard’s bulging arm. Manbeard flexed involuntarily. “Dear madam, what seems to be the trouble?”
“Lots of things seem to be the trouble,” she explained. “What actually is the trouble is that the queen has misplaced her salad fork!” She broke down into tears.
“My word!” Manbeard gasped. “No salad fork, you say?”
“How shall the queen eat her crumpety fish egg salad, sir?” She shook her head in dismay. “With fire-spiced mustard sauce,” she added in a confidential tone before bursting into wails again.
“Fear not, madam, for Sir Manbeard is here!” He ran to the stairs that led up to the queen’s chambers. “Well, actually, now I’m here.” He ascended a few more steps. “Now here,” he called over his shoulder. “And heeeeere!” his voice echoed from upstairs.
The squire and messenger sprinted up the stairs to join the knight. They navigated around panicked maids, laundresses, scullions and other people whose jobs weren’t obvious by looking at them. They rounded a corner too quickly and Sir Manbeard crashed into a young servant girl, carrying a tray of crispy kale crunchers. Stiff green clods went flying, some of which lodged themselves into the knight’s wavy beard. One found its way into his mouth.
“I’m so sorry!” the girl gasped.
“As you should be,” Sir Manbeard wrinkled his nose. “These are detestable.”
Around another corner and at the end of the hall, they finally arrived at the queen’s private chambers. Two guardsmen blocked the doors. “Who goes there?” asked the one on the right.
Sir Manbeard flapped his luxurious, now-crusty beard in their general direction. “Oh, of course, Sir Manbeard!” apologized the one on the left. “I didn’t recognize you under all that inedible foliage.” They stepped back and opened the doors. The guard on the right led them inside.
“Your majesty, may I present Sir Manbeard?” He bowed and extended his arm to Sir Manbeard, who was followed into the room by Dudley.
A large, soft woman sat at a small table laden with delicious-looking foods. She wore her crown and a frilly velvet robe over her nightclothes. A handmaiden knelt beside the queen’s chair, comforting her with a foot massage. A bard sat in the corner, strumming his lyre.
The queen paused from crying on roasted meats and sugared fruits to look up at them. “You have already presented him,” she sniffled, “so why are you asking permission?”
“It is the custom,” the guard replied. “It would be rude otherwise.”
“Oh,” the queen nodded as the guard left the room. “Of course. Quite right.”
In the corner, the bard plucked a few strings, singing his new sad song, “The Queen Lost Her Silverware.” The queen looked at him sternly. “I did not lose it,” she clarified. “It has decided to vanish.” The bard’s song changed to a menacing tune, “The Dastardly Vanishing Fork.”
“Your Majesty,” Sir Manbeard bowed to one knee beside her, “what dost thou ask of me?”
“Why are you talking like that?”
Sir Manbeard rose to his feet, picked at his teeth, swallowed and tried again. “Excuse me. Crispy kale crunchers. Make my mouth shrivel up on itself. How may I help, Your Majesty?”
“Without the crumpety egg and fish salad, my pickled cheese tart isn’t nearly as delicious as it might sound,” the queen sobbed. “Does anyone have worse problems than I?” The handmaiden, who was kneading the queen’s foot corns, rolled her eyes.
The bard strummed his lyre. “The problems of the queen are mighty, and look, here comes Mr. Righty!” The guard on the right had entered the chambers.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Your Majesty,” he said.
“It’s alright. I am already quite disturbed,” she replied.
“That’s very true,” her handmaiden muttered under her breath.
“What, dear?” the queen asked.
“I now present Scholar McWitters,” the guard said. He extended his hand to a smiling, elderly gentleman in a brown robe and round glasses.
“It’s the custom to ask if you may present them,” the queen pointed out.
“B-But, I already presented him,” the guard stammered.
“I had just heard this would be considered very rude,” the queen admonished. “Who said that…?” she wondered.
“It was me,” the guard reminded her.
“Me who reminded you.”
“That it would be rude to not ask permission when presenting someone, even if you’d already done so.”
“Quite right. Do not do it again.”
“No, Your Majesty, of course not,” and the guard bowed out of the room, hoping no one would show up the rest of the day. He had no idea how he was supposed to announce them.
Scholar McWitters walked further into the room and bowed deeply. “How may I be of service, Your Majesty?”
The queen waved her hands at her fancy table. “You’re so smart. What do you see that’s wrong here?”
The old man peered through his spectacles at the elegant food and scattered silverware. “You have crispy kale crunchers. I don’t recommend them.”
“My salad fork has disappeared!” she cried.
“Ah,” the scholar considered the dilemma for a moment. “Might I suggest a replacement from the kitchen?”
Manbeard, Dudley and the bard oooh’d, aaah’d and nodded to one another. This sort of problem solving ability was why McWitters was the castle scholar. The handmaiden sighed through her nose.
“No!” the queen huffed. “I will not have another ordinary salad fork that will just abandon me at a moment’s notice. I want something better. The best!”
The scholar raised his eyebrows. “Surely, not the salad fork?”
“Yes,” the queen raised her chin at him. “I demand that I possess it.”
Sir Manbeard furrowed his brow. “Possess what now?”
“The Salad Fork of Destiny,” McWitters breathed.
Everyone gasped. The bard plucked something that sounded like dun dun dun!
Dudley bounced up and down. “Ooooo! This sounds like the beginning of a quest!”
“Indeed,” the queen replied. “Sir Manbeard, I charge you to find and return to me the Salad Fork of Destiny.”
Manbeard dropped to a knee again. “Surely, my queen, I would do anything for you, but the fabled Salad Fork is… well, it’s…”
“Within your capable hands.” Her voice left no room for argument.
Manbeard leaped to his feet. “Of course, Your Majesty!” he declared. “I shall overcome any trial, face any danger, defeat any foe to bring you what you desire. I am your champion!”
“Yes, yes.” The queen waved her hands toward the doors. “Go now. Bring me my fork. This salad has special sauce, you know.”
“I have complete faith in you,” Scholar McWitters assured Manbeard.
“I’ll be with you the whole time,” Dudley patted Manbeard on the arm. Manbeard’s muscle twitched.
The bard’s song changed one more time to “Sir Manbeard and the Salad Fork of Destiny.” It would stay on the top ten requested songs in all of the taverns for many weeks – at least, until “Goblin Clowns Stole My Underwear” became the rage.
Sir Manbeard and Dudley rushed back through the doors, past the guards and panicked staff, around the corners, over the maid cleaning up the crispy kale crunchers (which one out of one castle scholars do not recommend for human consumption), down the stairs and out the entryway. Thunderbolt was right where they’d left him.
“You’ll have to ride with me, Dudley!” Manbeard announced. “There’s no time to waste!”
“Have you ever noticed that almost everything you say requires an exclamation point?” Dudley mused.
“Climb on!” Manbeard demanded.
Embarking on their quest, the knight and his squire rode Thunderbolt mercilessly – for another 30 feet. They slid off the exasperated horse and sprinted to the servants’ kitchen entrance. Sir Manbeard threw open the door, knocking a wash boy into a pile of ruby root peels. The gooey red spattered onto his hands, face and clothes.
“Hey!” he complained. “Oh, Sir Manbeard!” The boy climbed to his feet. “It’s you!”
“Yes, it is!” Manbeard put his hands on his hips and stared in an upward direction again. “And I am on an epic quest!”
“In the kitchen?” The boy peered where Manbeard was looking. “On the ceiling, sir?”
“That depends! My faithful squire and I seek… the Salad Fork of Destiny!”
Dudley nodded enthusiastically behind him. “We know it’s here somewhere!”
“Oooooo, I know exactly where it’s supposed to be,” the boy acknowledged. He pointed to a wooden door in the corner. “The Cellar of Storing. But, I wouldn’t go down there.”
“I laugh at fear!” Manbeard declared.
“Ha ha ha!” Dudley peeped in agreement.
“No, wait, you don’t understand –“ But, Manbeard and Dudley were already maneuvering toward the door.
Together, they dodged several cooks and servants, and ran into several others, to get to the door. Sir Manbeard turned to Dudley. His beard, still full of crispy kale crunchers, was now coated in flour, as well.
“This is your chance to turn back, Dudley.” Manbeard put his hand on Dudley’s arm. The squire’s tiny muscle tried to flex, but cramped instead. “You’ve been the best squire a knight could ask for, but I understand if you choose to return to your beloved home. You must miss it by now.”
“Oh, I do, sir!” Dudley’s eyes misted. “It’s been… oh my, I’ve already lost count of the minutes since I was there.” He swallowed hard and put on a brave face. “But, I’ll not leave you, sir. Not in your moment of need.”
Manbeard nodded. “Good man, Dudley. Good man. Shall we, then?” He turned back to the door, grasped the iron ring and pulled.
A blast of cold air hit them through the shadowed entry. Rickety, wooden stairs led down, down, down into the darkness. Sir Manbeard stepped back, bumping into Dudley.
“I-It’s okay, Dudley,” Manbeard assured Dudley. “I’m here. Don’t be s-scared.”
“Yes, sir,” Dudley squeaked. “I mean, no, sir. I’m fine, sir.”
Manbeard cleared his throat and grabbed a torch off the kitchen wall. He reached forward, poking the light into the doorway. The dancing flames only showed more stairs and created more shadows.
Inching through the entryway, Manbeard led Dudley down the first few steps before discovering what the boy had wanted to tell him. The sixth stair from the top had broken several days ago and was not yet repaired. The kitchen staff had been using an alternate entrance from another room – one that was less convenient, but wouldn’t cause anyone to pitch forward in surprise.
With his usual stoic poise, Manbeard expressed that surprise and tried to warn Dudley by yelling, “Eeeeeeeggggggaaaaahh!” Dudley, in turn, thanked Manbeard for his consideration with an “Ooooooooommmmmphhhhaa!” They rolled down the stairs and landed in a knight-squire pile. The torch flew out of Manbeard’s hand and landed on the stone floor.
“Gef off mmf,” Manbeard said, face buried beneath Dudley’s backside.
“Sorry, sir?” Dudley shook his head, blinking hard.
Manbeard shoved Dudley off him, sending the squire flying. “Thank you for your quick departure from my face.”
Dudley lay with the breath knocked out of him. “Anytime, sir,” he wheezed.
Manbeard stood, brushed himself off and retrieved the torch. Dudley, having collected himself, came to his side. They looked around at the flickering cellar. Beyond the light of the flames, shapes loomed in the dark. Manbeard and Dudley knew they could be just about anything. Sting-tailed krukaks. Indomitable razormouths. Barrels of beans.
Together, they inched forward, bringing the light to the walls and corners. The mysterious shadows resolved themselves into sacks, crates and boxes. Smaller parcels neatly lined towering, wooden shelves.
Manbeard and Dudley breathed a sigh of relief. “Kitchen supplies,” Dudley pointed out helpfully.
“Of course, of course,” Manbeard slapped Dudley on the shoulder, causing the squire to stumble. “What else would it be?”
“Right and true, as always, sir!”
The knight and squire combed the shelves, looking through spices, whisks and tea cozies. Finally, they found the special occasion dishes – fancy glasses, plates and silverware dedicated to singular purposes. Small plaques announced each item’s name and function.
“Wow,” Dudley breathed. “The Goblet of Guzzling. It’s here!” He pointed at a jewel-encrusted cup with a funnel attachment.
Sir Manbeard nodded. “Yes. And here is the famed Shoveling Spoon. How I wish I had that during chili night.”
After a few moments, Dudley gasped. “Here it is, Sir Manbeard, sir!”
Sir Manbeard looked where Dudley pointed. He dropped to his knees and put his hands over his heart. In a small glass box, Manbeard could see a dainty silver fork resting on purple velvet. Etched in delicate letters, the lid advised to “Break in Case of Salad-Related Emergency.” The torchlight made the box glow, and although Manbeard wasn’t sure, he thought he heard a chorus of angels singing.
“But, if we have found the fork, that means…” Sir Manbeard stood and looked around, alert and ready for danger.
“Yes,” a nasally voice responded from the dark corner. “Now, you must deal with me!”
“Wh-who is it?” Dudley looked wildly from the darkness to Manbeard, his knees shaking.
“The Basement Bureaucrat!” Manbeard thundered. “I knew I would have to face you one day.”
“Yes,” the voice said again. A small shape detached itself from the corner. Soon, the knight and squire could see a tiny, hunched man with a permanent frown in his face. He peered at them over his spectacles as he tapped a quill against a thick pile of parchment. “If you want the fork, you will fill out my 72-page requisition form – in triplicate!” His evil laugh sent a chill of terror through the questing duo.
The squire threw himself in front of his hero. “Go, sir, go! Take the fork to the queen! Save yourself!”
“I’ll never forget you, Dudley,” Sir Manbeard squeezed Dudley’s shoulder. A tear rolled from his eye.
“Nor I you, sir!”
As Dudley began the arduous task of dealing with paperwork, Sir Manbeard ran back up the stairs. He leaped over the fateful sixth stair from the top, raced through the kitchen workers (his beard adding egg yolk, sugar and a piece of pie to the mix), burst through the servants’ entrance and leaped onto Thunderbolt. The horse snorted in annoyance and galloped the 30 feet back to the main entrance.
Manbeard slid off his mount, sprinted through the crazed staff, ran up the stairs, bumped into more people and rounded corners until he reached the queen’s chambers. The guard on the right looked at Sir Manbeard and sighed. “I just… whatever. Go in.” He stepped aside and waved.
Sir Manbeard burst through the door. The bard was still strumming his lyre. The handmaiden was plaiting the queen’s hair into pigtails. The queen looked at Manbeard in surprise. “But, how am I supposed to know who you are if no one announces you?”
“Your Majesty, it is I, Sir Manbeard, your faithful champion!”
“You’ve announced yourself? Why, that’s very unusual, isn’t it?” The queen tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Very unusual, indeed.”
“I have brought what you asked for, my queen!” With a flourish, Sir Manbeard dropped to his knees, bowed his head and proffered the glass box. “The Salad Fork of Destiny!”
“Oh, quite excellent, yes!” The queen grabbed the box and hugged it to her chest in delight. “This is just perfect. Now I can enjoy my crumpety fish egg salad. With fire-spiced mustard sauce,” she added in a low voice.
The queen opened the box, turned to her meal, raised her fork and paused. “Oh my,” she groaned.
“What is it now?” the handmaiden asked. She cleared her throat. “I mean, oh, whatever might be the trouble, Your Royal Amazingness?”
“I don’t seem to have any peppered jelly sauce for my baked kinnich bread.” She sighed and shook her head, lowering the fork. “Oh, what do I do?” she moaned.
“I’ll send for the scholar,” the guard on the left yelled through the door.
“Oh yes, yes, indeed,” the queen agreed. “Quite right. I mean left. And you.” She pointed at Sir Manbeard. “Don’t go anywhere. I have a feeling I will need you again.”
Sir Manbeard put his hands on his hips and stared into the distance. “Wherever there is trouble, Sir Manbeard will be there!”
“On the ceiling?” the bard asked, confused.
“Anywhere!” Manbeard declared.