“Is,” Matthew said.
“Is not,” Ben replied.
“Is too!” Matthew argued.
“Unh uh,” Ben said shaking his head. “My dad said so!”
“Your dad’s wrong,” Matthew told Ben as he lifted his stick again. “We’ll have a duel and whoever wins is right,” he said as he swung lightly at Ben. Ben lifted his stick and tried to block but missed, not that it mattered as Matthew missed Ben on the swing. Matthew jumped back when Ben recovered and swung.
“Missed me,” Matthew teased.
“Knights wouldn’t say that,” Ben said.
“Would too,” Matthew said.
“They might,” Matthew replied swinging at Ben.
“Yeah, when?” Ben asked swinging back. Neither had yet hit the other.
“Well, um …” Matthew started but quit as he stooped and swung at Ben’s feet. Even though they were far enough away that they couldn’t hit each other, Ben still jumped high in the air to avoid getting his feet cut off.
“Missed me,” Ben said automatically as he landed. Ben stood still and looked at Matthew. He let the far end of his stick settle on the ground as he gave Matthew a confused look. Then he broke out laughing. It didn’t take long for Matthew to realize what Ben was laughing about, and he joined his friend in the laughter.
“Touch,” Ben said as he reached over and touched Matthew on the chest. “You’ve got the Red Plague!” Ben ran away from his friend and down the alley. Matthew was right behind trying to catch him.
As Ben turned the corner, there were two large Dargon guards in front of him, and he stopped as quickly as he could. He was right in front of both guards when Matthew came around the corner and ran into him, sending both of them into the guards. The larger guard faded back but the other guard reached for his sword *and* tried to step out of the way. The two children got tangled in his legs and the three of them fell. The fallen guard was sputtering and squirming to get his feet untangled from Ben and Matthew, while the remaining guard stood watching.
“You’ve chosen your guard well today, M’lord,” chuckled a man behind the fallen guard. “He readily throws his life at your feet to protect you.”
“Bartol, when you compose your poem about this incident,” the lord said smiling, “and I know you will, leave the name of our fallen guard out of it. No need to shame our new recruit any further.”
As the two men laughed, Ben and Matthew stood. The fallen guard had regained his feet also.
“My apologies, M’lord,” he said.
“We will overlook this incident,” the lord said smiling. “This time. The good sergeant, being a well-trained veteran, did not fall prey to the children and we were still protected.”
“‘overlook’ and ‘did not fall prey’?” Bartol repeated. All three men started laughing, and the young guard blushed. He looked at Ben and Matthew and then started laughing also.
“What are they laughing at?” Ben whispered to Matthew.
“I don’t know,” Matthew replied. “They’re grown-ups,” he said as if that would explain it. Ben shrugged and waited for them to stop laughing.
Matthew looked at the guard next to him. He was tall and big. The guard’s legs were about as big as Matthew’s body. He was dressed in black leather and carried a sword at his waist. Looking over at the other guard, Matthew noticed that he was younger and his leather wasn’t as well worn. In fact, it looked new. He wasn’t as big as the sergeant, either, but he did wear a sword at his waist.
“What were you running from that you tripped our guard?” the lord asked.
“I was running from him,” Ben said pointing to Matthew. Ben leaned in close to him and whispered, “I touched him and now he’s got the Red Plague.” When Ben stepped back and noticed the confused look on the man’s face he continued. “It’s a game. You touch someone and tell them they’ve got the Red Plague and they have to touch you back to get rid of it. If you can’t touch them back, you touch someone else to get rid of it.”
“I see,” the lord said. “Does that mean that my young guard here has the Red Plague then?” Ben looked at Matthew and Matthew looked back at Ben. It was a question that hadn’t come up before.
“I guess so,” Matthew answered. Ben and Matthew moved closer to the sergeant and farther from the young guard.
“Don’t even think about touching me,” the sergeant warned smiling.
“Is your name really ‘Mlord’?” Ben asked, slurring the “m” and “l” together.
“Ben!” Matthew exclaimed before anyone could answer. “That’s the name for people who don’t work. It’s a title, like sergeant.” There came a chuckle from Bartol and the guards could barely hold their own laughter in. All three were silenced by a glance from the lord.
“Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” Ben apologized. “Are we supposed to call you Mlord, too?”
“That is the proper way to address him, yes,” Bartol answered. “And it’s Milord. Try not to slur it so much.”
“Mmailloorrdd,” Ben said slowly trying to emphasize it the way Bartol did. “How come you said it faster before?”
“I didn’t mean to say it slowly. I meant …” Bartol said but was interrupted by laughter from the lord.
“You’re losing an argument to a child,” the lord laughed.
“Well, Mmailloorrdd,” Bartol said, “I’m only trying to teach them some manners.”
“Ben, we could ask them,” Matthew said suddenly. When Ben gave him a questioning look, Matthew said, “You know. Whether there is one?”
“You think they’ll know?” Ben asked.
“He seems to know a lot,” Matthew said using his finger to point at Bartol.
“It is impolite to point,” Bartol told Matthew. “Now what is your question?”
“See, he knows lots of stuff,” Matthew said to Ben. “He’ll know.”
“Yeah, but he was confused on the mlord thing,” Ben whispered back, but not quiet enough as both the lord and the sergeant laughed. The sergeant quieted quickly at a glance from Bartol.
“Please, ask your question,” the lord chuckled.
“Well, um,” Matthew began, “I say there’s dragons and Ben says there aren’t!”
“There aren’t!” Ben emphasized.
“Are too,” Matthew said.
“Ahem,” Bartol said clearing his throat. “You are both right.”
“Confused,” Matthew mouthed silently to Ben, and Ben nodded his head.
“I am not confused!” Bartol said heavily, and then laughed as he realized that the children were getting the better of him. “Let me explain. Once, long ago, there were dragons that roamed these lands freely. They were the lords of the land, for nothing could challenge them.”
“Why don’t we see any now?” Matthew interrupted.
“Sometime between then and now, they disappeared. No one really knows what happened, except that dragons do not roam our lands today. Some say that they are just sleeping deep in the earth and one day will awaken to rule again. Others say a great catastrophe occurred and killed them all. It is a debate between many scholars as to what happened. So you see, you were both right. Dragons existed, but there are none now.”
“What did they look like?” Ben asked. “How do you know so much? What do you do? Are you …”
“Slowly,” Bartol said, “I can only answer one question at a time. Unfortunately, I’m afraid there isn’t enough time to answer any of your questions. We are expected someplace, and if we don’t show up soon, a lot of people will start to worry.”
“Where are you going?” Matthew asked.
“We are returning to the castle,” Bartol answered.
“Are you going to see Duke Dargon?” Ben asked. “I saw him once!”
“You did?” the lord asked, smiling.
“Yeah,” Ben said, “he was walking down a street — I don’t remember which one it was, I was little then — and there was a lot of people around him. I was too far away to really see him, and my mom wouldn’t let me get closer, but I’d sure like to meet him one day.”
“I think that one day, you will meet him, Ben,” the lord said.
“You think so?” Ben asked.
“I know so,” the lord replied and then turned to Bartol. “We must be going. We wouldn’t want to keep ‘Duke Dargon’ waiting.”
“No mmailloorrdd, we wouldn’t,” Bartol said smiling as they continued on their way. Matthew and Ben watched them go until they turned a corner and were out of sight.
“Touch,” Matthew said to Ben as he touched him and ran. “You’ve got the Red Plague!”