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The quest of the fair un.., p.14
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       The Quest of the Fair Unknown, p.14

           Gerald Morris
 
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  The tiny candle flickered, and the small circle of light that it gave seemed to contract. The pungent and offensive smell of decaying meat met Beaufils's nostrils, but he stepped over the threshold and into the room. A sense that went beyond sight told him that he was in a vast room with a high ceiling, and the dim glow of his candle revealed a stone shelf built into the wall on his left. On the shelf lay a skeleton. Beaufils stepped near and looked more closely. From the dress of fine linen that still covered the skeleton and the long wisps of hair that lay about the grinning skull, he could tell that this had once been a woman. Lifting his eyes, he made out the gray form of another skeleton, on another shelf a few steps farther along. He began to walk around the perimeter of the room, finding another skeleton every ten feet or so. All were laid out with care, their arms across their chests; all were women. After he had passed a dozen skeletons, the smell of decay grew stronger, and he realized that he was now passing bodies that had not wholly rotted away. Now he could see on the bones bits of crumbling flesh. Beaufils felt a wave of nausea, and he picked up his pace, passing several more corpses quickly. At the end of the row, though, he stopped, for the last body was so recently dead that it was still whole. This had been a young woman, and had the body not been so pale and white it would have appeared to be merely a young woman sleeping. Stretching out his candle, Beaufils looked closely at the face, then at an arm. There, at the crook of the elbow, was a hole surrounded by an ugly bruise.

  "And did you give your lifeblood willingly?" he asked in a whisper. He stepped back until he was in the center of the room, then held his candle high and looked around. He remembered that back in his forest home, before he had set out, the old man had told him that in the world he would find much wickedness. "Yes," Beaufils said sadly. "More wickedness than I could have imagined." His head felt very heavy, and he allowed it to sink to his chin for a moment, but then he raised it. "Sleep well, sisters," he said hoarsely. "Perhaps you have already come to a kinder world." He looked back at the last body and realized that he had walked almost all the way around the room and had returned to the door through which he had entered. Between the last corpse and the doorway there was only one more stone slab, awaiting one more body. His eyes widened as he remember what the knight called Ronnie had said when he had ushered Ellyn in to Lady Petunia: I've brought the maiden for the cure; the last one we need, too. Turning on his heel, Beaufils ran back down the corridor, holding his candle before him like a sword, cutting the blackness as he returned to the world of the living.

  When he came back to the guest hall where he had left the others, the rooms were empty. Filled with sudden panic, he threw his candle aside and began to run back down the hall toward Lady Petunia's chamber. As he approached the door, he saw two armed guards—one of them the knight Ronnie—standing outside.

  "You may not enter!" Ronnie said.

  "You can't stop me," replied Beaufils quickly. Ronnie drew his sword, and Beaufils took it away from him. He was not sure exactly how he did so, because he acted entirely on instinct, but at one instant Ronnie had had a sword, and in the next instant Beaufils had twisted it from his grasp and was holding the point at the other guard's throat. "I have looked on the face of death today," Beaufils said quietly. "I don't wish to cause it."

  "I have sworn to my mistress that I will protect this room," Ronnie said tensely. Then he leaped forward, and Beaufils flicked the sword away from the other guard's throat and thrust it forward at Ronnie. It was not by conscious design, but the point of the sword slipped between two armor plates just at the bend of Ronnie's left arm, in the exact spot where Beaufils had seen the wound in the arm of the last corpse. Blood spurted through the armor, and Beaufils turned to the other guard. "Bind up his arm!" he snapped. The guard hesitated, and Beaufils added, "Help someone to live, not to die!"

  The guard knelt by Ronnie, and Beaufils threw aside the sword and pushed open the door to Lady Petunia's chamber. There was Ellyn, standing before the lady's vast bed, with Galahad just off to the side, near a strange man who held a knife and a large bowl. Beaufils drew a breath to shout a warning to Ellyn, but before he made a sound, he heard Ellyn say, in a clear voice, "No!"

  "No?" Lady Petunia wheezed. "Are you going to be so selfish? Are you so unnatural a female as to put herself before others?"

  "I will not give my blood for you to live, my lady."

  "Then your guilt will weigh on your head forever. How will you sleep at night? Can you deny your very nature? What is woman apart from self-giving love? Nothing! Nothing!" Lady Petunia's face was turning alarmingly purple.

  "Lady Ellyn," said Galahad, stepping forward. "Think what you are doing! Can you not give of yourself to help another?"

  "Selfish! Selfish!" Lady Petunia shrieked. "Oh, that I should have lived long enough to see so foul and unnatural a woman!"

  Ellyn gritted her teeth, but she replied clearly, "Lady Petunia, one day I may give my life for another, but if that happens it will be out of love, not out of duty and certainly not just because I'm female."

  Lady Petunia's eyes bulged, and she began to gabble incoherently. Flailing with her arms, she pushed her massive form to a sitting position, and then, quite suddenly, fell back on the pillows and was silent. The man who had been holding the knife and basin threw them down and rushed to the bed. "My lady! My lady!" he exclaimed. For several minutes he felt for her heartbeat, and then he sank slowly to his knees beside the bed. "My lady!" he said again, brokenly.

  "You have caused a woman's death, Lady Ellyn!" Galahad said sternly.

  "No," Beaufils said. "Lady Petunia caused her own death." He stepped forward and touched the kneeling man's shoulder. The man looked up, his eyes wet, and Beaufils said, "Lay her on the last slab in the hall of death. Put her beside all the maidens who died for her."

  The man looked up blankly, then nodded.

  "What maidens?" asked Ellyn.

  Before Beaufils could reply, a dull blue light began to shine from Lady Petunia's body. As they watched, the glow formed a swaddling band about the corpse, and in the midst of the light, Lady Petunia began to change. The raddled skin knit itself together and grew smooth. The puffiness around the eyes subsided, the wispy hair thickened, and the body's huge dimensions shrank. A minute later, they were staring at a different person, a pleasantly plump woman of middle years, with lustrous gray hair, a few fine wrinkles beside her eyes, and an amiable expression on her dead face. In the shape of the face, though, there was still something familiar.

  The man who had held the basin caught his breath and said, "Mother!"

  "Mother?" Beaufils asked.

  "This is what she used to look like, what she was supposed to become again once we had filled the hall of maidens. Mother promised it would be so."

  "She is your mother?" Ellyn repeated.

  "All of us in this castle are her children," the man said simply. "We would have given our souls for her."

  "You did," Beaufils said. He took Ellyn's arm and began leading her away. He looked once over his shoulder at the man. "Your mother was once very beautiful." Then, leaving by a different door than the one Beaufils had pushed open a few minutes earlier, the two withdrew from the room, followed by Galahad, and together they found their way to the stables, where their mounts awaited.

  X. A Kiss for the Dragon

  Beaufils and Galahad rode along the river, behind Ellyn. None of them spoke. Beaufils, for his part, was too weary to talk. His journey to the death hall had taken something out of him—something more than mere strength. It was as if he had left some vital part of his soul behind, beside the bodies on the stone shelves, and his thoughts were never far from the maidens he had found there. Ellyn also seemed exhausted, and as for Galahad, he was clearly struggling with a strong sense of shock and indignation.

  At last Galahad put his feelings into words. "You let that woman die," he said to Ellyn.

  "Yes, I did," she replied in a toneless voice.

  "How could you?"

 
; Beaufils judged it time to intervene. "Before you answer, Ellyn, I need to tell you both something." Then he described what he had found in the hall of maidens. "So you see, Lady Petunia and her sons knew from the beginning that Ellyn would die, just like all the others."

  Ellyn stared at Beaufils, her face stricken, her eyes filled with horror. "Oh, Beau," she whispered. "All those girls. And you found them lying there? How ... are you all right?"

  "All right, yes. But different," Beaufils said. "And you? You had to make a horrible choice. How are you?"

  "As you said, different. I'll recover, but I won't be the same."

  Galahad broke in. "I don't think it makes any difference at all. Yes, it was very wrong of them to kill all those girls—though we need to remember that they gave their lives willingly—but it doesn't change anything for Lady Ellyn. She didn't know about those noble girls when she refused Lady Petunia."

  "But it did make a difference," Beaufils pointed out. "When Ellyn refused, Lady Petunia was restored. She became who she was supposed to be, a gentle old woman."

  "She may have looked better, but she was still dead!"

  "That's the only thing that didn't change," Beaufils said. "Lady Petunia was dead already. That whole castle was. Now maybe some of her sons can leave that horrible place. By the way, have you wondered why they were all sons? Didn't she have any daughters? What happened to them?"

  Galahad shook his head. "It makes no difference," he said doggedly. "Killing her was a mortal sin, and I only hope we find a priest soon for Lady Ellyn to make confession to."

  Ellyn abandoned the dispute wearily. Beaufils, considering Galahad's last words, was wondering idly if there were any priests in the World of Faeries when they rode through a stand of trees into a small clearing, in the center of which was a tiny log house. "A hermitage!" Galahad declared joyously, flinging himself from his horse and hurrying toward the hut.

  "I really, really don't feel like meeting a hermit just now," Ellyn murmured.

  "Not all holy men are annoying," Beaufils reminded her. "Remember the good Basil. Say, why's Galahad stopping?"

  Galahad had halted his run forward and now was standing hesitantly in the little yard, staring at the hut.

  "There's no door," Ellyn said suddenly. "Just that one shuttered window." Galahad started forward again and walked all around the cabin. "Is there one on the other side?" Ellyn asked him.

  Galahad shook his head, then leaned toward the window. "Father?" he asked uncertainly.

  The shutters opened and a smiling face appeared.

  "You can call me Father if you like, but if you really want to be accurate, you should find another title." It was a woman.

  "I know who you are!" Galahad burst out suddenly.

  "Do you?" the woman replied. "That will save time on introductions. But you'll still have to tell me who you are."

  "You are an anchoress!" Galahad exclaimed.

  "Yes, I am," she replied. "But that isn't who I am, only what. My name is Irena. And what are your names?"

  Galahad ignored the question. "God be praised!" he murmured, sinking to his knees and raising his eyes toward the sky. "For leading us to this holy place!"

  Ellyn slipped easily from her horse and walked over to the cabin. "My name is Ellyn," she said. "This is my friend Le Beau Desconus and my traveling companion Sir Galahad."

  "I'm very glad to meet you all," Irena replied, and from the smile in her eyes Beaufils saw that she meant it.

  "What is an anchoress?" he asked, dismounting and joining Galahad and Ellyn by the window.

  Irena looked surprised. "You've never heard of anchoresses?"

  "I had a sheltered childhood," Beaufils explained. "It gave me a late start."

  "An anchoress," Irena explained, "is a woman who goes apart from society and lives in a cell, like this one, devoting herself to prayer. Sort of a female hermit. Do you know about hermits?"

  "Oh, yes," Ellyn replied. "We've met a lot of hermits."

  "Hmm," Irena replied. "By your tone, I gather that you didn't enjoy them all."

  "Not all of them, no," Beaufils admitted. "It was back in the World of Men. Do you know that world?"

  "I'm from there myself," Irena said.

  "Oh, then have you heard of a place called the Sacred Forest?"

  "Dear me, yes," Irena replied, shaking her head sadly. "I understand you now. A dreary place, the Sacred Forest. I don't suppose you met ... anyone there you did like, did you?"

  "Yes," Beaufils said. "A hermit named Basil."

  Irena smiled broadly. "Oh, good. You found him. Dear Basil. Is he well?"

  "Very well, thank you," Beaufils replied politely.

  Ellyn had stood through this exchange with a frown deepening on her face. "I'm sorry to interrupt," she said. "But did you really choose to live in this tiny log hovel?"

  "I did, yes, and I do."

  "How can you do that? How do you get out?"

  "I don't," Irena replied.

  "How do you eat?"

  "The people who live nearby bring me food, far more than I need."

  "They bring you food? Why?"

  Irena smiled. "I think they have some notion that I pray for them in return for their gifts. Silly of them, really, but I've stopped trying to argue."

  Ellyn raised her eyebrows. "What do you mean, 'silly'?" she asked.

  "They ought to know that I would pray for them whether they brought me food or not, but I'm afraid some people have a terrible time believing in gifts."

  Ellyn shook her head again. "But this looks like a prison!"

  Irena looked mildly at Ellyn for a moment before answering. "And I?" she said at last. "Do I look like a prisoner?"

  Ellyn seemed confused by the question, so after a moment Beaufils answered. "No, Irena. You don't."

  Irena acknowledged his reply with a nod, but she kept her eyes on Ellyn. "And have you never seen anyone who lived at liberty in a great palace who did seem like a prisoner?"

  "Yes," Ellyn said softly. "In fact, we've just come from a place like that—a magnificent castle filled with people in bondage."

  "When you know what a prison is really like, then you will find what you seek."

  Beaufils didn't understand this, but he had a sense that it wouldn't do any good to ask for an explanation. He wouldn't have had time anyway, because just then Galahad, who had been gazing rapturously all this time at the sky and ignoring everything that was being said, rose to his feet. "My lady," he said. "I honor you."

  "That's very kind of you, child," Irena replied. "But you don't have to, you know."

  "Such true womanliness!" Galahad declared, giving Ellyn a disdainful glance. "To devote your life to prayer and purity! To sacrifice yourself and all your happiness for the sake of others."

  "Oh, I'm quite happy," Irena said. "I don't feel that I'm making a sacrifice at all."

  "You are so brave!" Galahad said reverently.

  Irena sighed. "Yes, of course. Quite." Her eyes met Ellyn's, then crinkled with amusement. "He means well, you know," she said softly.

  Ignoring her words, Galahad announced, "I only hope that this lady with whom I ride can learn something from your example!"

  "Yes, I hope that, too," Irena said. She smiled at Ellyn. "But I'm not worried about it. You will find your joy, dear."

  Galahad returned to his horse and mounted. "We have been inspired to have been with you."

  "And likewise, I'm sure," Irena murmured. "And, if you're looking for a place to stay this evening, let me suggest you follow the river downstream a few miles to the castle of Lady Synadona. Perhaps you could even help her with a problem or two. You must insist on seeing Lady Synadona personally, though."

  With that, Irena smiled again, then closed the shutters and returned to her dark cell. Beaufils and Ellyn glanced at each other, then mounted and joined Galahad in riding toward the river.

  "That's a castle?" Beaufils asked, delighted with the sight that lay before him. The castle of Lady Synadona was
unlike any he'd seen. The walls were of stone, but not of rough and jagged stone like the castles he had seen in the World of Men. This palace was built of shiny, white, smooth stones that gleamed in the light. And, while it had as many towers as other castles, these were topped not with battlements but with roundish structures, something like onions with their pointed bits jutting upward. Most of all, there were no walls around the outside.

  "Ridiculous," Galahad said. "Who could defend a castle like that?"

  "Maybe it wasn't built to be defended," Ellyn said tartly. "I think it's gorgeous."

  They rode down a long slope toward the shining castle, and as they rode they came to a statue, carved from the same smooth white stone as the palace itself. Beaufils stopped to admire the figure, of an armored knight in a heroic pose. Galahad gave the figure a scornful glance as he rode by. "Do they imagine that a stone warrior will help them in a war?" he asked with a faint sneer.

  Beaufils prodded Glover into a walk to keep up with the others, but he glanced back over his shoulder one more time at the statue. The sight made him gasp, because from this side, the statue looked very different: now the noble knight was a scowling destroyer, his eyes alive with bloodlust and his sword dripping with gore. "Ellyn?" Beaufils said softly, but the others were already too far ahead to hear. Giving the image one more look, Beaufils turned and hurried on.

  As he caught up with the others, they were just coming to a second statue. This one was of a majestic, smiling queen who was holding out a hand filled with food for her grateful people. As they rode past, though, Beaufils turned to look at the statue from the other side. Again the figure was different in reverse. Now she was a pale and evil-looking woman with her people cringing at her feet. Only the crown on her head was the same.

  And so it went. They passed a magnificent king who, from the other side, was a shriveled hunchback counting piles of money. There were two young men, brothers or close friends, who from one side were embracing each other and from the other were driving daggers into each other's backs. There was a loving mother, surrounded by her adoring children, whose opposite aspect was of a lumpy lady troll with her children in chains at her feet. A tall man holding an armful of parchments and wearing robes like those worn by Clerk Geoffrey back at Camelot was on one side teaching a youth and on the other sneering at the world from behind a pile of books. Last of all, just before they came to the great front door of the palace, was a glorious angel whose other aspect was that of a goat-footed demon. Neither of Beaufils's companions looked over their shoulders to see the altered images, and Beaufils said nothing, but as they came to the palace, he guessed that whatever they found there would likewise not be what it seemed.

 
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