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The squires quest, p.1
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       The Squire's Quest, p.1

           Gerald Morris
 
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The Squire's Quest


  The Squire's Quest

  Gerald Morris

  * * *

  Houghton Mifflin

  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Company

  Boston New York 2009

  * * *

  To Karen Ebert,

  who is real.

  Copyright © 2009 by Gerald Morris

  All rights reserved. For information about permission to reproduce

  selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

  Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.

  www.hmhbooks.com

  The text of this book is set in 12.5-point Horley Old Style.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file

  ISBN 978-0-547-14424-5

  Manufactured in the United States of America

  MV 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  * * *

  O purblind race of miserable men,

  How many among us at this very hour

  Do forge a life-long trouble for ourselves,

  By taking true for false, or false for true...

  —Alfred Lord Tennyson,

  Idylls ofthe King

  * * *

  Contents

  Book I: Alexander

  1 Terence and Eileen 3

  2 Alexander of Constantinople 25

  3 The Secret Prince 47

  4 The Wooing of Lady Sarah 71

  5 The Battle of Windsor 87

  6 Athens 113

  Book II: Cliges

  7 The Elixir of Good Dreams 141

  8 The Duke of Saxony 167

  9 The Tournament of Peace 183

  10 Questing 208

  11 The Courtly Love of Cliges and Fenice 233

  12 Bringing All Things to Light 254

  Author's Note 273

  BOOK I: ALEXANDER

  Terence and Eileen

  Terence gazed glumly from the turret of Camelot's highest tower. Before his eyes lay miles of tidy patchwork farms, bordered by hedgerows and forests, all tied together by ribbons of well-kept roads. Britain under King Arthur was a picture of tranquility, a picture that was belied by the tense, anxious emptiness that Terence had felt growing within for more than a month. He turned and picked his way down the tower's winding stairs.

  At ground level, Terence crossed a courtyard where young squires practiced swordplay with wooden cudgels. He nodded to them and returned several polite greetings: although he was older than the next oldest squire present by at least ten years, he was still one of them, in the service of King Arthur's nephew Gawain. He stopped once to offer advice to a young squire who was scrubbing at a spot of rust on a breastplate, then continued through the court to the chambers that he shared with Gawain. Gawain sat in an armchair by the fire, nursing a pot of ale.

  "There you are, lad," Gawain commented.

  "Here I am."

  "Where've you been all day?"

  "In the north woods, then on the high tower," Terence replied. Even to his own ears, his voice sounded abrupt. "Sorry, milord," he muttered.

  "Still worried?" Gawain asked, turning to examine Terence more closely.

  "Ay," Terence replied. "It's been nearly six months now since I've had any contact with the Other World."

  Gawain shrugged. "Is that so rare? Until I began traveling with you—fifteen, twenty years ago, or whatever it was—I never had contact with the Other World."

  "It's rare for me. Since we met, I've never gone more than a week or two without some word from home."

  When Terence said home he always meant Avalon, the court of his father, Ganscotter, in the World of the Faeries. Terence had been raised as a foundling by a hermit until he had been taken on as squire many years before by the young Gawain. In the course of their adventures, Terence had discovered his faery heritage and, through many visits to the other World since then, had come to realize that he lived in the World of Men as a visitor and a stranger.

  Gawain nodded. Although he had only a trace of faery blood himself, he was as tied to Avalon in his own way as Terence was. In Avalon lived his wife, Lorie, who was Ganscotter's daughter and Terence's half sister. Both Terence and Gawain would have left the World of Men and returned to Avalon in a second if it were not for their loyalty to King Arthur. Ganscotter had told them that they still had a task to perform for their king, and so they remained—their lives and duty in one world, their hearts and hopes in another.

  "What are you thinking?" asked Gawain. "Have you noticed something peculiar?"

  Terence sighed and sat in the other armchair by the fire. It was a breach of courtly etiquette for a squire to sit in the presence of his knight, but they had been through far too much for either to give a straw for such rules. "No, nothing. I don't have one solid reason for feeling so uneasy. To all appearances, King Arthur's reign is at its peak. Everything is peaceful and prosperous. It's been more than a year since the last little revolt, and that was just poor, unhappy Count Anders being a silly ass. King Arthur's made England what every land ought to be, and people come from everywhere to see how he did it and to bask in his glory."

  Gawain snorted and took a deep draught of ale. "I could do without that last bit," he commented, wiping foam from his lips with the back of his hand. "It's gotten so you can't step outside your door without tripping over another batch of jabbering, overdressed foreign courtiers come to get that Camelot polish, as if Arthur were running some sort of finishing school for knights. And that reminds me, where's this latest passel of fools from? The ones with the checkerboard trappings?"

  A gruff voice came from the hallway behind Terence, through the still open door. "From the Holy Bleedin' Roman Empire." Neither Terence nor Gawain bothered to look. They both knew the voice of Sir Kai, King Arthur's halfbrother and seneschal.

  "Come in, Kai," said Gawain. "oh, you have. Have some ... Never mind." Kai was already at the sideboard, helping himself to a tankard of ale.

  He joined them by the fire and continued his own rumbling monologue. "Though why they call themselves Roman makes no manner of sense to me. A passel of Germans." He frowned. "Is that right? Is it a passel of Germans?"

  Gawain looked thoughtful. "It isn't a flock, I know. or a gaggle. For that matter, what would you call a group of Britons?"

  Kai snorted. "All I know is that I wouldn't call them Roman."

  Gawain assumed the patient tone of someone instructing a very small child, or an idiot, and said, "Let me explain then, my dear Kai. The founder of this empire was a very important man named Charlemagne, who was a very good Christian except for the bit about killing thousands of people, and so the pope himself granted him the title of Emperor of Rome. So now Charlemagne's successors are the spiritual descendants of the Roman Caesars."

  "If there was anything spiritual about the Caesars I've yet to hear it," grunted Kai. "And anyway, it isn't as if the old Roman empire is gone. It's not what it once was, but it's still around, moved to Constantinople. So now, because the pope's a busybody without a lick of sense, we have two bleedin' Roman empires, and if I have to pick one I'll take the one that's farthest off. At least they're not sending us their wet-nosed brats to learn how to be knights."

  Terence rose from his chair and slipped away. Kai and Gawain would be talking politics for hours, and he had no desire to listen. outside the door, he took a long breath, then slipped out the window at the end of the corridor and climbed up the outside of the castle wall to a window one level up. He was going where he nearly always went when he felt uneasy or incomplete. He swung through the open window into a neat bedchamber where a red-haired woman sat reading. "Hello, love," Terence said.

  Lady Eileen carefully marked her place in her book, then looked up and met Terence's smile. "Hello, Teren
ce. I was hoping you'd come by today."

  "Oh?" Terence asked. "Did you have something to ask me?"

  "No," Eileen replied. "I hope that every day." She rose and walked across the room to him, and they kissed. It had been more than fifteen years since Terence and Gawain had rescued Lady Eileen from the Chateau Wirral, and Terence still caught his breath when he looked into her wise, laughing eyes. She rested her hands on Terence's shoulders, then stepped back to look at his face from arm's length. "Now you tell me," she said. "What's wrong?"

  Terence shrugged. "It's the same thing. Still no contact from the Other World. Not even a visit from Robin." Robin was the name of a mischievous little sprite who had been Terence's most frequent faery visitor.

  "And it worries you," Eileen said, nodding.

  Terence nodded back. "Remember, when I was with my father six months ago, he told me there was a plot against Arthur and that I was to be on my guard. Since then, there's been no contact at all."

  "You think this silence is a part of the plot?" Eileen asked. "That someone is keeping the two worlds apart on purpose? But who could do that?"

  "Morgause," Terence replied at once. Morgause was the most powerful, and most venomous, enchantress in Britain. She was also Gawain's mother and King Arthur's half sister, but that had no bearing on the implacable hatred that she bore for both. Terence and Gawain had opposed her plots against the king more than once.

  "Remember a few years ago," Terence said, "when Morgause kidnapped Queen Guinevere? She took the queen to a deserted land and cast a spell over it that kept all faeries from entering. Even I couldn't go in, and I'm only half faery. Lancelot and Lady Sarah had to rescue the queen. What if Morgause has done something like that for all England?"

  "I think you worry too much," Eileen said at last. "I'm no expert, but I have a feeling that if Morgause had enough power to do that, she wouldn't have to work by such roundabout means. She'd be able to just kill us all outright."

  Terence relaxed. Of course Eileen was right. "That's why I keep coming to you. You have such good sense."

  Eileen rolled her eyes. "Why, how complimentary, my dear! I had thought that you came because you were fond of me, but I see now that it's because I'm useful."

  "Well, I wouldn't go that far," Terence replied, grinning. "But you show promise."

  Eileen drew a breath to reply, but before she could speak, there came a loud rap on her chamber door and a thin female voice with a rich accent called out, "Lady Eileen! Are you een?"

  "Oh, blast!" Eileen muttered.

  "Who is it?"

  "A little chit named Fenice," Eileen said in a low voice. "She's with this latest group of tourists from the Holy Roman Empire. A silly, pampered girl with a head full of nonsense about romance that she's picked up from bad minstrels. Quick, in my bedroom. I'll try to get rid of her, but she's not strong on taking hints."

  Terence ducked behind Eileen's bedroom door. For Lady Eileen—one of Queen Guinevere's chief ladies-in-waiting—to be seen alone in her rooms with a lowly squire would effectively ruin her socially in the eyes of most of the court. He closed the door behind him and heard Eileen opening the outer door. "Good afternoon, Lady Fenice. What can I do for you?"

  There was a swishing of silk, and Lady Fenice's voice grew clearer as she entered Eileen's sitting room. "Ah, my dear Lady Eileen, I haff just heard the saddest news! I am to return to my home and so must take my leave of you! And I haff been so happy here! And to think! I haff seen Sir Lancelot and Sir Gavain and Sir Yvain and so many of the greatest knights! It is, it is, unglaubhaft—I do not know the English word; wait, I haff it! It is uncredible to see in real life these heroes that one had only in legends thought to live! But you, you do not think so. These heroes are close to you all the time, is it not?"

  "I have been here at Camelot many years," Eileen replied.

  "But there is one you are perhaps closer to than others, yes?"

  "I'm not sure I understand you, Lady Fenice."

  "One you haff loved faithfully for many years. It is so, yes!"

  Eileen hesitated, then replied, "I don't know to whom you've been talking, but I'm sure that whoever it was told you I have never been married."

  "Married? But what has that to say to anything? I do not speak of marriage. I speak of love! Marriage is a contract, a ... a Notwendigkeit... a thing that one cannot help. Me, I will be married soon, but it does not matter."

  "You'll be married soon?"

  "But yes. That is why my visit here must be cut short. A messenger comes to say that my father has arranged a marriage for me."

  "A marriage to whom?"

  "The Duke of Saxony. He's very rich and very old. He will do nicely. But I speak of love! I haff heard whispers of your secret love."

  Terence leaned toward the door.

  "You must learn not to pay attention to rumors, Lady Fenice," Eileen replied calmly.

  "I haff been told how he rescued you from a castle called Wirr ... called something silly and English, and how you have been faithful to him ever since, and how he has never married, for love of you! So I haff come to see you before I leave to hear stories of your love. How does he worship you? Does he poems of love to you write? Allegories? Does he wear your token at the tournaments? Do you send secret messages? Oh, it is so wunderbar! It is like Tristram and Iseult!"

  "Sir Tristram and Lady Iseult had a disgraceful affair and both died because of it," Lady Eileen said abruptly.

  "Yes," sighed Lady Fenice. "Isn't it romantic? But it isn't only Tristram and Iseult. I haff also heard that Queen Guinevere, many years ago—"

  "I'm afraid I can't help you, Fenice," Eileen interrupted. "My congratulations on your upcoming marriage, and I wish you the very best of journeys as you return home."

  Terence grinned and relaxed. He could just picture his Eileen shepherding the Lady Fenice gently but irresistibly out the door. Taking a breath, he stepped back, bumped against a chest, and knocked a wooden basin onto the stone floor. It made an impressive clatter as it bounced.

  "Aha! I knew it!" shrieked a delighted voice, and a moment later the bedroom door had been thrown open and Terence looked into the eyes of a pretty yellowhaired girl in a sumptuous silk dress. "I was right!" she exclaimed. "Secret messages!"

  Terence avoided Eileen's eyes and cast about desperately for something to say. Nothing came to him.

  "He sends his squire to you with love messages!" Fenice said. "Me, I haff seen this squire, and I know!" She turned back to Eileen and said, "You and Sir Gavain are very sly, yes? But you may trust me! I will say nothing! Oh, it is so romantic!"

  With that, Lady Fenice swished away. Eileen looked steadily at Terence for a long second. "Oh, marvelous. Terence, the uncanny woodsman who can creep through the densest of shrubbery without a sound! Can't make it across a blinking bedroom, can you?"

  "I am, er, better in the woods," Terence admitted.

  "And now she's off telling everyone about my love for Gawain."

  "She said she would tell no one," Terence pointed out.

  Eileen shook her head sadly. "You weren't listening. What she really said was 'I can't wait to tell everyone I meet.' "

  "That's what she said?"

  "Of course. Soon the whole court will think I've had a long-standing affair with Gawain."

  "Well, at least you both have good taste," Terence said.

  "Shut up, my love."

  That evening King Arthur was hosting a state dinner for his guests from the Holy Roman Empire. In recent years, state dinners had become the most frequent event at court. When alone in Gawain's chambers, with those he trusted, Sir Kai would often complain about such affairs. "When I started out," he would say, "I organized armies and planned for battles. Now I spend my time making sure that the linens are clean for the banquet tables." And if anyone suggested to him that it was the price of peace, Sir Kai would reply, "Not sure it's worth it."

  Having no plausible excuse to skip the banquet, Gawain went, which meant that Ter
ence was there as well, standing correctly behind his knight's chair. He didn't mind. He, at least, could move about the room and stretch his legs. This evening, as dinner entertainment, the guests from the continent offered their very own minstrel—a spindly fellow named Gottfried—to sing a song of his own composition. After apologizing to all for his English, which actually was excellent, the minstrel launched into the tale of Sir Tristram de Liones and his adulterous love affair with Queen Iseult, wife of King Mark of Cornwall. Gottfried played it up in the best courtly tradition, praising the purity of the pair's love and treating King Mark as a jealous buffoon. Never once did he hint that King Mark might have had reason to be angry about his wife's love affair with another. Terence decided that this would be a good time to stretch his legs, and he casually made his way to the kitchens.

  He had been there only a few seconds when the doors opened again and he was joined by one of King Arthur's knights, Sir Dinadan. "Is the dinner over?" asked Terence, grinning.

  Sir Dinadan smiled back, ruefully. "I couldn't stomach it," he admitted. "Even leaving aside that this Gottfried has no touch for his instrument—he plays the lyre like he's currying a horse—I just can't sit still and hear Tristram and Iseult treated as tragic heroes instead of the selfish lackwits that they really were."

  Terence's eyes rested on Dinadan's face. "Don't I remember hearing ... you were there, weren't you?"

  Dinadan nodded. "I saw them die, and there was nothing noble or romantic about it. It was stupid and pointless." Dinadan made a quick head motion as if to shake off a fly, then crossed through the kitchen and went out the far door. Terence watched him thoughtfully. When Dinadan had first arrived at Camelot, a callow youth not knowing whether he wanted to be a knight or a minstrel, Terence had not thought much of him, but in late years he had reconsidered that opinion. At any rate, he felt a bond of sympathy with anyone who lived in one world but really belonged in another.

  Gottried finished his maudlin poem, to loud cheers from the younger knights and courtiers and polite applause from the older ones, and Terence returned to his place behind Gawain, who whispered to him, "Coward!" Terence grinned but didn't answer.

 
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