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The quest of the fair un.., p.13
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       The Quest of the Fair Unknown, p.13

           Gerald Morris
 
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  "My quest?" Ellyn said. "But what is my quest?"

  Terence, who had remained behind them on the bank, only said, "It would be helpful to figure that out, Lady Ellyn," and then the ground sank beneath them, and the water rose up their bodies and covered their heads. Beaufils sensed Ellyn thrashing about in fear beside him, and reaching over, he took her arm. Then they and their horses were climbing out of a clear blue pool in a forest glade, with snow-capped mountains standing behind them. The wasteland and Terence were gone.

  Ellyn sputtered and coughed, then said vehemently, "I hate getting water up my nose!"

  ***

  Terence had been right. Except for being in a lush green forest instead of a barren waste, there didn't seem to be much difference between the two worlds. The plants and insects that surrounded them were the same ones they would have seen in a forest in their own world, and as Beaufils pointed out, there wasn't even one ogre.

  "Well, don't sound so disappointed," Ellyn said.

  "But I've never seen one," Beaufils said wistfully.

  "A body doesn't have to see everything," Ellyn muttered. She put her hands on her hips and looked around them in all directions, then said, "If we've all had enough to drink, let's go that way."

  "Fine with me. You're the leader," Beaufils said.

  This made Ellyn smile, and she mounted her horse and set off at a good clip, so that Clover had to trot to catch up. They rode through a perfumed evergreen forest, across a mountain meadow filled with flowers, then down a long slope of springy bracken. Through all this they saw no sign of other people, but then they came upon a knight in a field.

  They saw the knight before he saw them. He was on a white horse on a small knoll, looking down a long slope into a valley. He wore full armor, of flashing silver. His visor hid his face, but Beaufils had no trouble identifying him. "Galahad!" he exclaimed with mild pleasure.

  Galahad turned his horse, drawing his sword very swiftly indeed and facing them in grim silence as they approached. "Do we have to?" muttered Ellyn.

  "I know you don't care for him," Beaufils said, "but he's an old friend. We don't have to ride with him, but I can't just ignore him. He's not a bad fellow, after all."

  As they drew near, Galahad's tense figure relaxed slightly, but when they were only ten yards or so away, he called out, "Halt!"

  Beaufils and Ellyn stopped. "Hello, Galahad," said Beaufils, "What brings you here?"

  "What is your name?" Galahad demanded.

  "Have you forgotten?" Beaufils asked. "It's Beaufils."

  "And who is that woman at your side?"

  "You haven't had a knock on the head, have you?" Beaufils asked. "Once that happened to me when I was young. Fell out of a tree on my head, and Mother told me that for several hours I couldn't remember anything. I got better, though," he added encouragingly.

  "I'm Lady Ellyn of Carlisle," Ellyn said. "You stayed at my father's castle."

  "I remember your faces and names," Galahad said grimly. "But I still do not know you. How do I know you are not fiends who have taken human shape to tempt me?"

  "Trust me," Ellyn said. "There's nothing I want to do less than tempt you."

  "That's just what a fiend would say," Galahad replied.

  Ellyn glanced at Beaufils. "You're right. He's had a knock on the head."

  "Tell me how I came to know you, Beaufils—if that's really your name," Galahad demanded.

  "Well, that's sort of the problem, isn't it? I don't know if it is really my name. That's why I went with you to Camelot: I wanted to find my father and ask. That was when we met in the forest. You were with that nasty fellow Mordred, who tried to kill—"

  "A fiend would still know all this!"

  Ellyn tugged on Beaufils's sleeve. "Come on, Beau. Your friend Galahad wants to be alone."

  "I do not want to be alone," Galahad replied belligerently.

  "Well, then, I want you to be alone," Ellyn snapped back. "Come on, Beau."

  "Wait!" Galahad said. "What if you aren't fiends but angels sent to guide me? Then I would be making a grave error in not receiving you."

  Ellyn rolled her eyes. "Lord, help us," she muttered.

  At Ellyn's words Galahad relaxed. "Beaufils! It is you! How wonderful to see you again." Beaufils and Ellyn glanced at each other in confusion, but Galahad explained, "No fiend could say, 'Lord, help us.' Now I know you are who you say and have come to aid my quest."

  "Blast," Ellyn said under her breath.

  "I'd be happy to help if I can," Beaufils said, "but actually Ellyn and I are on a different quest this time—Ellyn's quest."

  "What quest is that?"

  "We don't know yet," Beaufils replied with a smile. "I'm hoping we'll recognize it when we find it."

  "Do you know where to look?" Galahad asked.

  "No."

  "Then we can ride together," Galahad said. "After all, I don't know where I'm going, either. Why shouldn't we go in the same direction? Say, do you know where we are?"

  Beaufils hesitated. He was remembering that with Galahad you had to be careful how much to say, because he didn't like to hear things that didn't go along with what he already thought. "Sort of," he said. "How did you get here?"

  "I came upon a strange boat in a great river. It had no pilot or crew, but on its deck there was a bed with carved pillars and damask curtains and this ancient sword sheath." He showed them a sheath of black leather that hung at his side. "I rode on board to see this wonder, and the boat left the shore. It crossed a great sea and brought me to this place. Are we in France?"

  "I don't think so," Beaufils said carefully.

  "Where, then?"

  There was nothing else for it. "Well, we were told that this is the World of Faeries."

  "Faeries!" Galahad exclaimed. Beaufils nodded, and Galahad gripped his sword more tightly. "I knew this was a devilish place. Let us ride on and meet the adventure that comes."

  He started down the slope, but Beaufils stopped him. "Er, Galahad, there's one thing. On Ellyn's quest, we are to go only where Ellyn leads. You don't mind letting her pick our way, do you?"

  "Let a woman lead?"

  "Let Ellyn lead, yes."

  "What sort of quest can be led by a woman?"

  Ellyn, who had sat in brooding silence during this whole exchange, spoke suddenly. "My quest. That's what sort."

  Galahad threw back his shoulders. "I am on a man's quest," he said. "I cannot follow a female."

  Ellyn straightened her own back. "Well, I'm on a woman's quest, and I'd just as soon that you didn't—"

  "Who do you suppose those fellows are?" Beaufils asked. Galahad and Ellyn both looked at him, then followed his gaze down the hill, where a line of nearly ten knights rode toward them, each holding a lance.

  "Don't worry, Lady Ellyn," Galahad said. "I'll protect you."

  "I don't need your protection!" Ellyn snapped.

  "Not much you could do anyway," Beaufils pointed out to Galahad. "Ten knights with lances against three people without them. And you're the only one with a sword and armor."

  By now the knights had drawn near, and the line curved around them, forming a circle. Then they pointed their lances at the three. One of the knights spoke loudly. "Is that a maiden?"

  Galahad and Ellyn maintained a rigid silence, so after a few seconds Beaufils said, "You can't tell? Do you not have many women hereabouts? I mean, they do have a pretty distinctive—"

  "Are you a maiden?" the knight rapped out.

  "Last time I checked, yes," Ellyn said.

  "You will come with us!" the knight replied. "All of you."

  "In here!" declared the knight, opening a great oaken door at the end of the long hall.

  The troop of knights had led them into the valley, along a river, around a great rocky crag, and to a massive stone castle, built, so it seemed, right into the side of a mountain. A drawbridge had lowered, and they had crossed the river into a cavernous courtyard. There the knights had disarmed Galahad, then con
ducted them all down the dim hallway at swordpoint.

  "This," the head knight added, "is the chamber of our mistress, ruler of these lands, the Lady Petunia."

  The three companions stepped into a room that was brightly lit by torches and a vast fireplace, then all stopped involuntarily. Ellyn gasped, and Galahad muttered a quick prayer under his breath. Beaufils only nodded slowly. "Oh," he said. "This is why you weren't sure what a maiden looked like."

  The woman who lay on the monstrous bed in the center of the room was as foul a creature as Beaufils had ever seen. She was vast and flaccid, and where her skin showed, it was swollen and puffy. Her face was mottled gray and red and raddled with pustules, many of which were oozing a clear fluid that formed patches of flaking, yellow crust. Her hair, what little there was of it, was wispy and wild and incongruously bedecked with dainty pink bows and ribbons. Small, beady black eyes looked out from behind puffy cheeks and bushy eyebrows. Judging from the shape beneath the sheets, the Lady Petunia was easily twice as large as any woman Beaufils had ever seen. A foul odor filled the room.

  "My dear lady," said the head knight, bowing. "We have found a maiden!"

  "Oh, you're so good to me, dear, dear Ronnie," Lady Petunia said to the knight. Her voice was surprisingly shrill and thin, almost girlish, for one of her bulk. "What would I ever do without such loyal, loving knights?"

  "It is my honor to serve you, my lady."

  "But you do so much," the woman said, her voice cracking as if she were about to cry. "I don't deserve such service, an old woman like me who is not long for this world."

  "You must not say so, my dear!" the knight said earnestly, kneeling beside the bed. "You see, I've brought the maiden for the cure! The last one we need, too!"

  "Ronnie!" the lady said sharply. "Mind your tongue!"

  The knight looked stricken. "I'm sorry! Oh, my lady, I'm such a fool! My wretched—"

  "There, there, Ronnie," the woman said soothingly. "You know I can never be angry with my dear boys for long. You will learn. I don't suppose you could ... no, you've done far too much already."

  "How can I serve you?"

  Lady Petunia looked at a plate covered with crumbs that lay beside her on the bed. "That silly manservant has let my bonbon plate go all empty."

  The knight rose to his feet instantly. "I shall speak to the churl at once!"

  "Now, Ronnie, don't be harsh with the poor boy," Lady Petunia said. "You know how difficult it must be for a pretty young man like that to serve an ugly hag like me."

  "He cannot have said so!"

  "It doesn't really matter if he did," Lady Petunia said, her voice becoming fainter. "It's only the truth, after all. I'm sure you will all be much happier when I die."

  "I shall cut out his tongue for saying such things!" the knight exclaimed, livid with rage.

  "But then who will bring me my bonbons?" Lady Petunia said plaintively.

  "I shall bring them myself!"

  With that, the knight stormed from the room, murder in his eyes, while Lady Petunia turned her black eyes on the three visitors. "Oh, my!" she said, looking from Galahad to Beaufils and back. "What pretty, pretty young men!" She blinked a few times and made a grimace that Beaufils guessed was supposed to be a smile. Then she looked at Ellyn, and her eyes grew cold. "And a pretty girl as well. You do think you're pretty, don't you, girl?"

  Ellyn's voice was hoarse, but she said, "That's not really for me to say, my lady."

  "Now, now, let's not play games," Lady Petunia said. "You are a beautiful girl, and you know it. You remind me of myself at your age." She gave a mournful sigh, while all three visitors stared at her with incredulity. "Indeed, I think I may have had the edge on you in my day," Lady Petunia continued, "but that day is long past, I'm afraid. Now I suppose all my knights will be falling in love with you and ignoring me, leaving me here all alone to die. Oh well, it's no more than I expect."

  With what seemed to be her last ounce of energy, she pulled a cloth rope that hung by her bed, and at once a door opened and a man of middle years hurried into the room. "Dear, dear Eggie-poo," Lady Petunia said. "Were you just waiting for my bell? Oh, you mustn't do that. I know you have better things to do than to serve an old wreck like me."

  The man knelt in abject subservience. "I live but to serve you, my dear."

  Lady Petunia fluttered her swollen eyelids again. "So silly of you," she murmured faintly. "As if I were worth such loyalty. But if you do want to help me, you could take these visitors to the guest hall and explain things to them."

  "At once, my precious lady," Eggie-poo said. Then he rose and led the three out of Lady Petunia's room.

  "I am Sir Egbert," the man said once they were in a spacious, though ill-lit, room with several bedchambers branching off from it.

  "Not Eggie-poo?" Beaufils asked.

  The man's jaw clenched momentarily, then relaxed. "My lady," he said, "is not well."

  "Really?" Ellyn said politely.

  "She has been grievously afflicted by a horrid enchantment, thrown on her by an evil man named Ganscotter."

  "Ganscotter," Beaufils repeated softly.

  "The curse was meant to destroy her, but my mistress is an enchantress herself, and by her own arts she has discovered that one thing alone may prevent her death." Then he hesitated, avoiding the gaze of all three.

  "Yes?" asked Galahad. "What is this?"

  "Only the blood of a maiden," Sir Egbert said.

  "Oh," they all said together. Beaufils and Galahad looked at Ellyn.

  "Er, how much blood?" asked Beaufils.

  "One small bowl," Sir Egbert said hurriedly. "We should be very careful not to hurt you, my lady. Just a pinprick in the arm, and we'd make you very easy while we bled you."

  Ellyn looked at him suspiciously and said, "Why go to all that bother? After all, we're your prisoners, aren't we? You could just kill me and take all the blood you want."

  Sir Egbert winced. "Please, my lady, let us not talk about killing. No one wants to kill you. But the thing is, the blood cannot be taken by force. It must be given willingly or it will have no healing power."

  Ellyn and Beaufils looked at each other, eyes wide. Sir Egbert bowed and, seemingly in a hurry, excused himself from the room. "You'll want to discuss this among yourselves," he said. "I shall be back shortly." Then he left, closing the door behind him.

  Before Beaufils or Ellyn could speak, Galahad burst out, "But this must be it!"

  "Must be what?" asked Ellyn.

  "Your quest, of course! I did not understand how a woman could have a quest, but now I see it all clearly. The quest of womanhood is the quest of self-sacrifice!"

  "Bosh," Ellyn retorted.

  "A woman gives herself for the sake of others, for her children, for her husband, for all! It is the noblest part of womanhood! My own mother, the most virtuous of all women, gave everything for me. No sacrifice was too great for her to bear. She never denied me anything!"

  "Unfortunate child," Ellyn murmured.

  "What could be more perfect a quest for a fair lady?" Galahad demanded. "To give of the lifeblood that flows through her veins so another can live! It is a perfect symbol of womanhood! Do you not think it noble to save another's life?"

  Ellyn hesitated. "Yes, I suppose it is. All things considered, though, I'd rather my lifeblood went to save a different life than Lady Petunia's."

  Beaufils nodded. "Appalling, wasn't she? I think maybe I'm finally starting to understand the difference between beautiful and ugly. That was ugly, wasn't it?"

  "Yes, it was," Ellyn replied, "and not just her appearance, either."

  "It ill becomes you to insult a helpless woman thus," Galahad said austerely.

  "Helpless?" Ellyn repeated. "There was nothing helpless about Lady Petunia. She had everyone dancing to her will."

  "Yes," Beaufils said. "I wondered about that, because you said earlier today that women don't use other people as tools, but I thought Lady Petunia—"

  "I may
have to rethink that," Ellyn replied hastily. "A nasty piece of work, wasn't she?"

  Galahad broke in. "It little matters whether you like the woman or not. Is it yours to decide if she deserves to live?"

  Ellyn glanced at Beaufils. "True," she said. "For once, your annoying friend is right." Then she looked back at Galahad. "But has it occurred to you that I might die?"

  "I thought about that," Beaufils said. "I wonder how big this bowl is."

  "What if you do die?" Galahad demanded. "What could be more noble than to lay down your life for another? I promise you, Lady Ellyn, that if you die in this endeavor, I shall honor you as long as I live."

  "Thank you," Ellyn said. "That will be a great comfort, I'm sure." She shook her head as if to clear it, then said, "I need to think alone for a while." Going into one of the bedchambers, she closed the door.

  Galahad gazed at the closed door for a long moment, then let out a sigh and said, "Yes. Now I understand. I must learn to think of others before myself. Lady Ellyn's sacrifice is showing me the way."

  Beaufils frowned and, when Galahad said nothing more, commented, "I'm sure that's an excellent lesson, Galahad, but I say, now that you've learned it, perhaps Ellyn doesn't need to risk her life after all."

  But Galahad ignored him, caught up in his own meditations, and after waiting a frustrating moment for a reply, Beaufils turned on his heel and went out into the hall.

  It was deserted, and Beaufils walked down the corridor, thinking how odd it was that anyone should build a castle underground, where there could be no windows. The only light was artificial, mostly from tiny candles that guttered in occasional sconces along the hallway. He looked in each room he passed, finding each one empty and somehow darker and more oppressive than the one before. At last he came to the final candle, but the hall continued on, a black pit yawning before him, leading into the mountain. "Where?" Beaufils muttered to himself, and his voice seemed eerily loud.

  Taking the last candle from its sconce, Beaufils walked into the blackness, feeling the thick darkness open before him, then fold behind him when he had passed. He could not explain why he felt the need to plunge into this sea of hiddenness, but his steps did not falter as he pressed on down the hall to whatever awaited him in the sunless depths. Finally he came to the end of the corridor, and without hesitating he pushed open the closed door that he found there.

 
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