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The quest of the fair un.., p.2
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       The Quest of the Fair Unknown, p.2

           Gerald Morris
 
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  The two knights glanced at each other, then nodded. "Ay, lad," Sir Bors said. "We're from there ourselves. Are you going to Camelot?"

  Beaufils smiled with pleasure. How simple everything had turned out to be. "You're knights from Camelot?" he asked, beaming.

  "Yes."

  "Then is one of you my father?"

  The two knights looked at each other for a long moment. Sir Lionel's eyes were wary, and Sir Bors looked very solemn. At last Sir Lionel said, "Not that we know of, lad. Is ... your father a knight from Camelot?"

  Beaufils nodded, and Sir Bors said, "Ride with us, boy, and tell us the story."

  Pleased with the invitation, Beaufils leaped onto Clover's back, pausing only long enough to glance at the still-groaning bandit and ask, "Should I give this man his cudgel back?"

  "No," the two knights said in unison. Then they were off. It didn't take Beaufils long to tell about his mother and her instructions for him to find his father at Camelot, and when he was done, both knights were silent for a while. Sir Bors was frowning heavily, but Sir Lionel looked amused.

  "Tell me this, boy," Sir Lionel asked. "If you do find your father, what do you mean to do with him?"

  "Do with him?"

  "To speak plain, do you mean to punish him?"

  "Why would I do that?"

  "For leaving your mother to raise you all alone, of course."

  Beaufils puzzled over this. He had lived in the forest among the creatures long enough to know how these matters usually worked, so Sir Lionel's question took him by surprise. "Should he not have done so?" he asked.

  "No," Sir Bors said emphatically. "He should not! It was the deed of a coward."

  "But why?" Beaufils asked. "A stag mounts a doe and leaves her with young, then goes away. The doe raises the fawns, not the stag. Is that not how people do it?"

  Sir Lionel shouted with laughter. "A lad after my own heart! Faith, I like this boy's attitude!"

  "Be still, Lionel," Sir Bors said sharply. "You are betraying your morals!"

  "And so are you, my gloomy brother, I assure you," replied Sir Lionel with a grin. "Why are you so offended? Has the boy not spoken the truth?"

  "We are not beasts; we are men," Sir Bors snapped. "We live by a higher law." He turned to Beaufils. "How old are you, son?"

  Remembering his talk with the man in the forest, Beaufils replied dutifully, "Seventeen, maybe?"

  Sir Bors frowned again, even more severely, and muttered, "It could be. It could be."

  "Oh, for God's sake, brother," Sir Lionel said, rolling his eyes. "Maybe you were right all along and should have been a priest! Never a cat killed a mouse but that you felt guilty about it and tried to take the blame. Of all the knights of Arthur's court who were tomcatting about England twenty years ago, why should it be—?"

  "But you can't deny that it might have been—"

  "No more than you can prove that it was," Sir Lionel said. "I've told you before, Bors: Exercise your distempered conscience somewhere else. It bores me." He turned back to Beaufils. "Did your mother tell you the knight's name?"

  Beaufils shook his head.

  "Then what was your mother's name?" Sir Bors asked.

  "I don't know," Beaufils said. "I always just called her Mother."

  "I think you're wasting your time, boy," Sir Lionel said frankly. "Your father could be any of two dozen knights I can think of who were, ah, active in those days."

  Beaufils was surprised at this, but not discouraged. "Perhaps you're right. But I ought to ask anyway, I think. Can you show me the way to Camelot?"

  "Ay, that we can, son," Sir Bors said.

  "We'll even take you most of the way," added Sir Lionel. "We're on our way into Wales ourselves, but we can leave you on the Bristol Road, if that's all right with you." Since Beaufils had never heard of any of those places, they were all equally acceptable. He agreed readily, and they rode on together.

  Beaufils parted from Sir Bors and Sir Lionel two days later, and by the time he left their company, he had learned a great deal more about knights. He knew, for instance, about King Arthur—a king was the leader of the whole tribe of people, like the dominant wolf in a pack—and how King Arthur sent his knights out to protect weak people from other people who might want to hurt them. Beaufils didn't understand why people would want to hurt others, but having met two bandits himself, he knew that there were such people. He learned that some knights abused the power of their weapons and armor to hurt the weak—Sir Bors called these people "recreant knights"—and that one of King Arthur's goals was to stop every recreant knight. Beaufils even learned the names of some of King Arthur's best recreant-knight-stoppers: Sir Gawain, Sir Lancelot, Sir Tor, and others.

  There were still some things about knights that Beaufils thought strange, of course. The heavy armor they wore still seemed very impractical to him, for instance. Sir Lionel good-naturedly let Beaufils try on his armor one evening, and Beaufils privately thought that the protective covering of metal was not worth the bother. He felt like a turtle. Moreover, the knightly games that Sir Lionel called tournaments, in which knights bashed their best friends from horses, seemed very odd to Beaufils at first. But then Sir Lionel told how the ladies of the court all attended these games, and Beaufils understood. He had watched young bucks butt heads and cross antlers to impress females before.

  At any rate, if Sir Bors and Sir Lionel were what knights were like, Beaufils was pleased that his father was one. He liked the brothers, though they were as different as they could be. He liked their wish to help others and their commitment to their promises (Sir Bors called this "honor"). So it was with a sense of pleasant anticipation that Beaufils rode alone down the road that Sir Lionel had told him would lead to Camelot and the chance to meet other knights, one of whom was his father. Growing up in his lonely forest, he had never been aware that he was missing anything, but now he found the company of other people to be delightful. Of course, not everyone he had met had been equally amiable, but by and large, people were great fun, and Beaufils could hardly wait to meet some more.

  II. A True Christian Knight

  Beaufils met his next people that very evening. Riding through a wooded area at dusk, he smelled wood smoke through the trees and immediately turned Glover toward the scent. Soon he came to a small fire in a clearing. There was no one by the fire, but Beaufils saw at once that he had come to the camp of two knights. There were two neat bundles of gear, both containing some pieces of armor, and through the trees Beaufils could make out the outlines of two horses, tethered away from the fire. With a smile, Beaufils dismounted from Clover and called out, "Hello, knights."

  The bushes to his left moved slightly, and a knight stepped into the clearing. Beaufils was unloading his few things from Clover's back, but he stopped to examine this new person with interest. Beaufils had noticed that people looked different at different ages. The man in the forest, with the white hair and the lined face, Beaufils now realized, had been quite old. Sir Bors and Sir Lionel had been older than Beaufils but younger than the old man in the forest. This knight, however, had smooth cheeks and shining black hair, and looked as if he were about Beaufils's own age.

  "What are you doing, boy?" the young knight asked.

  "Unloading my things, boy," Beaufils replied, smiling.

  "What did you call me?"

  "Boy. It's what you called me, isn't it?"

  "Yes, but..." the young knight trailed off.

  "Aren't we nearly the same age?" Beaufils asked.

  "I suppose we are, but..." Again the young knight hesitated. "Why are you unloading your things?"

  "It would be uncomfortable for Clover to bear them all night while I slept."

  The young knight looked surprised. "Do you mean to camp here?"

  "Yes," Beaufils replied. While he had talked, Beaufils had been looking around for the second knight. Now he located him, just a faint shadow hiding in the bushes at Beaufils's back. Beaufils was just about to say hello when the
bushes rustled and the second knight leaped out, swinging his sword toward Beaufils's head. Beaufils was still unloading his gear and happened to have just picked up the cudgel he'd taken earlier from the bandit, so when the new knight swung his sword, Beaufils rapped it sharply to one side with his cudgel and stepped out of its way. The sword missed. The new knight said a word that Beaufils had never heard, then whirled around, raising his sword high above his head and chopping down at Beaufils again. Once again, Beaufils knocked the sword aside, and it dug into the earth by his feet. Beaufils put his foot against the flat of the sword, then stepped down hard, forcing the rest of it to the ground and out of the knight's grasp. The knight snarled at him and stooped down to grab the sword again, but then the first knight stepped between them. "What are you doing, Mordred? This boy has done you no harm!"

  The second knight rose slowly to his feet, and the anger disappeared from his face, leaving behind an expression of innocent surprise. "Why, I saw him take up that club, and I thought he was about to strike you, Galahad. Why else should I have attacked him? Aren't you the one who said he might be a bandit?"

  "I never said to attack him from behind!"

  The two knights stared at each other for a tense moment, and then Beaufils began to laugh. "You thought I was a bandit?" The idea seemed very ridiculous.

  "Yes, of course," the knight called Mordred said.

  "It makes no difference what you thought, Mordred," the knight called Galahad said, still staring hard at the other knight. "To use a sword against a mere boy armed with only a stick is a craven deed. You are lucky you didn't hurt him, for that would have been a mortal sin."

  Beaufils didn't know what Galahad had meant by "mortal sin," but he had to chuckle again at the rest of this speech. "Oh, it wasn't lucky that he missed me," Beaufils pointed out. "He tried his best."

  Mordred's eyes blazed angrily at this, but Beaufils ignored him. Stepping off Mordred's sword, he picked it up and handed it back to the knight. "Here you go, knight. Or should I call you Mordred?"

  '"Sir Knight' will do," Mordred said, a bit sharply. "It will help you to remember your place, boy."

  Beaufils was about to ask what Mordred meant by this when the other knight spoke. "In truth you are right, boy. He tried to strike you but could not. I have never seen anyone move as quickly as you did. Have you been trained for war?"

  Beaufils shook his head. "I don't think so," he said. "Have you?" he asked, hoping that Galahad would explain what he meant by "war."

  Galahad nodded. "From childhood, I have done nothing else but prepare for one sort of war or another. I have trained my body, my mind, and my soul for battle, both earthly and spiritual."

  This didn't help at all, but Beaufils decided he could ask about this "war" some other time, so he replied politely, "That must have been nice."

  Galahad blinked at this, then said, "Come, boy, and join our camp." Mordred started to speak, but Galahad said, "After all, Mordred, having attacked him without cause, we should make amends in whatever way we can. If you don't like it, you can go find another camp. I was here first anyway." He sat down at the fire and gestured for Beaufils to join him. "Mordred and I just met here a few minutes before you came. What is your name?"

  "Beaufils. And yours is Galahad? Or should I call you Sir Galahad?" Beaufils had learned from Sir Bors and Sir Lionel that people usually used that title of respect with knights.

  "No," Galahad said, with an air of regret. "I have not been knighted yet."

  Beaufils absorbed this. "So people who are not knights are made knights? Who can be made a knight?"

  Mordred laughed derisively. "Not a churl like you, if that's what you mean."

  "Who then?" Beaufils asked.

  "It is customary that only the sons of knights may become knights," Galahad explained gently.

  "Oh," Beaufils said. "That's all right then. I don't know that I want to be a knight, of course, but it's nice to know that I can become one if I wish."

  The two travelers stared at Beaufils in silence for a moment. "Do you mean to say that your father is a knight?" Galahad asked. Beaufils nodded. "What knight?"

  "I don't know his name," Beaufils said. Then he told them how his mother had revealed to him before she died that his father was a knight from Camelot who didn't even know that Beaufils had been born.

  Mordred laughed again. He was somehow able to make all the sounds of laughter without communicating any feeling of merriment. Beaufils thought it uncanny and not very pleasant. "You don't really expect us to believe that, do you?" Mordred asked. "Your mother was lying to you, boy—trying to make herself more important than she was." Galahad said nothing, but his eyes were wide as he stared at Beaufils. Mordred glanced at Galahad, then said, "Come, Galahad, you aren't going to believe this whelp, are you?"

  "Why should the boy's story be a lie?" Galahad said softly. "It is my story as well."

  Beaufils had been about to reply sternly to Mordred, whose scorn for his mother had aroused an unfamiliar stirring of anger, but at Galahad's reply Beaufils forgot his irritation.

  "Truly? Is your father a knight from Camelot too?"

  Galahad nodded. "And my father, like yours, does not know I exist."

  Beaufils smiled widely. "Why, we could be brothers!"

  "If so," Mordred said, his lips curled in an unpleasant expression, "you can both be very proud of your sire. A busy knight, it seems."

  Galahad turned red but didn't reply. Beaufils asked, "And are you on your way to Camelot, like me? To find your father?"

  "I am," Galahad said.

  Mordred gave his joyless laugh again. "A family reunion, I perceive. I do hope your father is, ah, pleased to see you both."

  "Oh, it might not be the same knight, you know," Beaufils assured him. "Sir Lionel said that my father could be one of two dozen knights. He didn't think I would be able to find him at all." He looked at Galahad. "How will you find yours?"

  "My mother said he would know my name when I was presented to the court. And what about you? Will your father know your name?"

  Beaufils shook his head. "I don't know. In fact, I'm not even sure that 'Beaufils' is my name. It means 'fair son,' and it was just what Mother called me."

  "How pathetic," Mordred said. "Two bast—ah, two love children, looking for their fathers."

  Galahad's face grew tight. "Why do you sneer at us so, Mordred? Do you think it a weakness in us that we do not know our fathers?"

  "No," Mordred replied softly. "I think it a weakness that you seek them out. If I had a father at Camelot who did not know I existed, I would not seek him; I would make him seek me. Then I would make him pay."

  Beaufils looked at Mordred in silence, feeling a chill of something black and heavy behind these words. Beaufils had never encountered such a feeling before—a hungry, bitter, and arid emotion that seemed to bleed all the warmth from Mordred's voice when he spoke. Beaufils felt instinctively that he was in the presence of a much greater wickedness than mere bandits with cudgels. Galahad must have sensed it, too, because neither he nor Beaufils spoke to Mordred again that evening as they sat around the fire, then prepared for sleep. When they awoke the next day, Mordred was gone.

  Galahad, Beaufils learned as they rode together toward Camelot, had spent all his youth in a place called a convent, where his mother was something called a nun.

  "What is that?"

  "A nun? Do you not know?" Galahad asked. Beaufils shook his head. "A nun is a bride of Christ, a woman who has wedded herself to Our Lord in mystic union and spends her days meditating on His goodness."

  "Oh," Beaufils said. His mother had told him about God and Christ, but he wasn't sure how Christ, whom he knew as a strong presence in moments of great peace, could be married to someone. "And a convent is where Christ's brides live?" he asked.

  "Yes. My mother went there after I was conceived, seeking a place away from the world in which to raise me."

  Beaufils understood that. It was exactly what his own mother
had done, except that his mother had gone farther afield.

  Galahad continued. "There I was raised by all the sisters of the convent, taught to give myself to prayer and to the service of God, and then—when I was old enough—trained to use the broadsword."

  "Your mother taught you that?" Beaufils asked, mildly interested. When he was with Sir Bors and Sir Lionel, he had lifted Sir Lionel's heavy sword, and he knew that his own mother would not have been strong enough to ply such a weapon. "A strong, burly woman, was she?"

  "No, of course not!" Galahad said. "There was a priest nearby who had once been a knight, and he taught me to use sword and shield."

  "That was kind of him," Beaufils said, thinking how nice it would have been to have had neighbors himself. "So where are your sword and shield?"

  Galahad lifted his chin. "I have none. Father Calchis trained me with his own rusted sword and shield, but they are so old and chipped now that they cannot be used. Mother says that God will provide arms for me."

  "That will be nice," Beaufils replied. "Will he give you one of those pointed things—a lance—as well?"

  Galahad flushed and turned sharply, but before he could speak Beaufils said, "Why is there a man up in that tree ahead?"

  Galahad turned back and stared down the path. A large chestnut tree growing just off the path sent out several long branches, one of which overhung the road a short distance ahead of them. "I see no man," he said.

  "He's on the branch over the road, just where the leaves are thickest," Beaufils said. "You don't see his outline through the shadows?"

  "I see nothing," Galahad said impatiently.

  "I'll show you," Beaufils offered. Sliding from Clover's back, he stepped into the bushes beside the path and made his way to the trunk of the tree. It was an old tree with low branches, ridiculously easy to climb, and it took Beaufils only a few seconds to reach the base of the overhanging branch. There he was, a man in knight's armor, sword in hand, his face turned toward where Galahad sat on his horse. Beaufils waited for the knight to say hello, but the man was so focused on Galahad that he hadn't even heard Beaufils climb the tree beside him. "Hello, knight," Beaufils said at last. The man jumped in the air, exclaimed something in a sharp voice, and swung his sword blindly behind him in the direction of Beaufils. "Be careful," Beaufils said, evading the sword easily. "You'll fall."

 
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