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The quest of the fair un.., p.4
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       The Quest of the Fair Unknown, p.4

           Gerald Morris
 
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  "Yes," Galahad said. "Do you remember that large knight with the graying beard? That was Sir Kai, the king's seneschal. I told him that I was from a knightly family, which is the truth, and had just arrived in court, and he said that he would see there was a place for me. I"—Galahad faltered—"I don't know if there will be a seat for you. I think that Sir Kai assumed you were my squire. Your deerskin clothes, you know, don't look much like knight's garments. But we'll go together and see if there's a place for you."

  When they arrived at the Great Hall that evening, Beaufils was so overwhelmed by the throng of gaily clad knights and ladies and the confusion of helpers bearing trays of food that he couldn't imagine how anyone could find a seat at all. But the other people seemed to have an instinct that told them how to find a place—like the instincts that teach birds how to make nests and fly south at wintertime. Even Galahad seemed to have this innate ability, for he found a chair almost at once, near the end of one of the long tables. Beaufils, however, was soon lost in the crowd. Every time he saw an empty chair, someone else sat in it before he got to it. At last he saw one more empty chair, one that no one else was moving toward. It looked very uncomfortable, which probably explained why it had been left for last, but Beaufils decided not to worry about all the shiny yellow and red and green knobs that stuck out of the back. He didn't have to lean back against them, after all. With a quick skip and a hop he came to the chair and climbed over the great yellow armrests into the seat.

  The room grew suddenly quiet. Looking up, Beaufils saw that every face was turned toward him. He smiled. "Hello, knights and ladies," he said.

  The large knight whom Galahad had mentioned earlier, Sir Kai, rose to his feet, his face stern, and opened his mouth to speak, but just then a door creaked open behind Beaufils and the knight was still. Beaufils sensed someone walking up beside his chair, and he looked over his shoulder to see a slender man with a gray beard regarding him curiously.

  "Hello, old man," Beaufils said.

  "Hello, er, young man," the man replied. His face was lined, as if he was often sad, but when he spoke his eyes glinted with humor and little lines appeared at the corners of his eyes.

  "My liege—" began Sir Kai.

  "Peace, Kai," the man said, holding up one hand. He looked back at Beaufils. "Are you, er, comfortable, lad?"

  "Not very. This is a terrible chair. Look at all these bumps in the back."

  "I quite agree," the man said gravely, stilling the murmur that had risen at Beaufils's words. "A most inconvenient place to put rubies and emeralds."

  "I suppose that's why this was the last chair left open," Beaufils said.

  The man pursed his lips. "Well, perhaps there's another reason, too. You see, the way these dinners work at Camelot is that this chair is reserved for the person who directs the meal."

  "Oh," Beaufils said. "What does that mean?"

  "Well, the one who sits there tells everyone when they may begin eating, for example."

  Beaufils blinked. "I didn't realize that when I sat here."

  The man smiled. "No, I didn't think you did."

  Beaufils returned his smile, then looked around the room at the crowd. "But I don't mind doing it. Let's start eating, shall we?"

  The room was silent. Two or three of the knights were smiling, but the rest only stared at Beaufils. No one began eating. Beaufils looked up at the old man. "Did I do it wrong?"

  The man suddenly gave Beaufils a wide, boyish grin, and Beaufils realized that he was not as old as he had thought. "Why, no, you did beautifully, lad." The man looked at the others. "Well, you heard him, didn't you?"

  Dazedly, and in silence, the knights and ladies began to fill their plates from the platters that lay on the table. Beaufils looked gratefully up to the gray-bearded man. "Thank you," he said. "I wouldn't have known what to do without your help."

  "Do you know," the man said thoughtfully, "there may be some other customs that come up that you will need help with. Perhaps it would be a good idea if I sat beside you."

  "I'd like that very much," Beaufils said. "But there's no chair."

  "Perhaps one could be fetched."

  "Yes, that would be good," Beaufils agreed. "Why don't you go fetch a chair while I make room for you?" He turned to the lady who was sitting on his left and who was staring at them both. Beaufils met her gaze and said, "I say, lady, would you mind moving over a bit to make room for my friend here?"

  The lady looked from Beaufils to the gray-bearded man, then back. The man bowed apologetically to her and said, "If it's not too much trouble, Guinevere."

  "It would serve you right if I said no," the lady said to the man, but then, with a sudden chuckle, she began making room for the man at the table. The tension in the room eased, and people began to converse with each other.

  When the man had taken his seat beside Beaufils, he said, "I don't believe we've met before, have we?"

  "No, I just arrived at Camelot early this afternoon. What a place it is, too!"

  "Does it not meet with your approval?" the man asked.

  "Oh, I didn't mean that! It's just that it's so very big, with so many people. I've never been anywhere like it! How can you ever get to know so many?"

  "I rather think that most people don't try," the man replied.

  Beaufils pondered this. "Doesn't anyone know all the people of Camelot?"

  "I doubt it," the man replied. "You see, there are always new ones coming."

  "Yes. That's delightful, I imagine, but it will make it harder," Beaufils said reflectively. "You see, I'm trying to find one particular person, and if no one knows everyone, how will I do it?"

  "May I ask whom you are looking for?"

  "My father," Beaufils said.

  "Your father," the man repeated, his voice dropping so that people nearby could not hear him.

  Beaufils nodded. "Yes. Before she died, my mother told me that my father was a knight at Camelot, and she sent me to find him."

  "Which knight?" the man asked, so quietly that Beaufils could hardly hear him.

  "I don't know," he admitted. "Mother didn't say that, and I didn't know how important the name would be. Now, of course, I see why Sir Lionel said it would be useful to know his name."

  "Sir Lionel?"

  "Yes, I met him and Sir Bors on my way here. They gave me directions."

  The man nodded. "I believe I shall accept that as a recommendation. We shall take up your matter after dinner, at the meeting of the Round Table."

  "Do you think you may be able to help me, then?"

  "I shall do my best."

  "Perhaps you could ask King Arthur if he knows?" Beaufils suggested.

  The man hesitated, then said, "Actually, lad, I am King Arthur."

  Beaufils looked at him blankly for a moment, then began to laugh. "Of course. Now I understand. I'm sitting in your chair, aren't I?"

  "Well, yes. You are, a bit."

  "That's why it was left by the others."

  King Arthur nodded, grinning impishly.

  "Would you like to trade back?"

  "Not at all. This chair is much more comfortable, and I don't have those dreadful high armrests between me and my wife. May I offer you some bread ... er, what is your name?"

  "My mother called me Beaufils. And yes, I'd love some."

  King Arthur turned to the lady at his side and said, "Guinevere, allow me to introduce you to Beaufils."

  "It means 'fair son,'" Beaufils explained, smiling a greeting at the lady.

  "Well, your mother was right about that, anyway," Guinevere replied frankly. "The 'fair' part, I mean. Do you have any idea how handsome you are, Beaufils?"

  "I don't think so," Beaufils replied. "Is it something that I need to learn right away? You see, I have so much to learn about living among people that I have to put less important things aside for now."

  "I think you can wait on that one," King Arthur said. "Some butter?"

  The dinner took an amazingly long time. Beaufils
had had his fill and stopped eating long before the others were done. At last, at King Arthur's prompting, Beaufils signaled an end to the dinner, and all the knights rose and followed the king through a doorway into another large room. This room was a perfect circle, and at the very center was a huge round table with chairs spaced about it. The knights went immediately to particular seats, but Beaufils held back. He wasn't going to be caught sitting in someone else's chair again. When all the knights were seated and only a few chairs were left empty, he went to join a cluster of courtiers and other people who stood along one side of the room. Beaufils saw Galahad among them.

  From his place at the table, King Arthur addressed the assembled knights and courtiers. "Thank you, all, for coming at such short notice. It seemed to me and to my counselors that the matter of this chair should be dealt with at once rather than be left for our next gathering." There were many nodding heads, and whispering voices buzzed in the room. King Arthur waited until these had subsided, then continued. "Before we deal with the chair, though, one smaller matter has come to my attention. Beaufils, would you stand beside me, please?"

  Beaufils stepped out of the knot of standing observers and joined the king.

  "This young man, who so ably presided over our dinner, is named Beaufils. He comes here, vouched for by Sir Lionel and Sir Bors of our fellowship, with a question to ask. Beaufils, would you tell my knights why you are here?"

  Beaufils smiled at the king. "Thank you, King Arthur." He looked back up at the knights. "I'm here to find my father," he said.

  The knights were very quiet.

  Beaufils went on. "You see, until just a few days ago, I lived with my mother, but she became ill. When she saw that she would die soon, she called me to her and told me that my father was a knight at Camelot. She said she lived here in the days before I was born, but when she discovered that she had conceived, she left. She went to a forest and gave birth to me, and we'd lived there ever since. But she told me I should not live entirely alone, so she sent me to find my father."

  All the knights at the table looked around at each other. At last the large knight whom King Arthur had called Kai spoke to the king. "My liege, may I ask this youngster some questions?"

  "Respectfully, yes."

  Kai looked at Beaufils. "Since you didn't say it earlier, I gather that you don't know your father's name?"

  "No, I don't. Mother didn't say."

  "What was your mother's name?"

  Beaufils shook his head. "I don't know that either. I always just called her Mother."

  "You never heard anyone else call her by name?"

  "I never saw anyone else until a few days ago."

  "Good Gog," Kai said, a reluctant smile growing on his face. "Never?" Beaufils shook his head. "What forest is this?"

  "What do you mean?" Beaufils asked.

  "What is it called?"

  Beaufils stared at him. "Do forests have names, too?" It seemed very funny to him, but he held back his laughter. "I didn't know that."

  Kai gaped at him for a moment, then asked, "How old are you?"

  "Seventeen, maybe?"

  "Maybe?"

  "I don't know that either," Beaufils admitted. "It never seemed very important in the forest, you see."

  Kai blinked, then said, "Beaufils, hey? That's French for 'fair son,' isn't it? She should have called you 'fair mystery' instead. What would that be in French?"

  One of the men standing at the edge of the room, near Galahad, stepped forward, clearing his throat loudly. "That, Sir Kai, would depend on whether you chose to use the archaic French that is still found in court documents or the more colloquial dialect in common use, the romanische, as it is called."

  Kai rolled his eyes and said, "Lord, who invited the scholar to this meeting?"

  King Arthur replied gently, "I asked Clerk Geoffrey if he would join us tonight, Kai."

  The scholar continued. "If you use the archaic speech, then 'fair mystery' might be Le Beau Desconus, but in the dialect one might rather say Le Bel Inconnu."

  "Would it make any difference if I said I didn't really want to know and was sorry I asked?" Kai said.

  "In this case, given the boy's mixed parentage, with a noble father and a commoner mother, either rendering might be defensible," the scholar concluded.

  At that point a knight with a bushy red beard spoke. "Just a moment, Geoffrey. I'm not certain that the boy's mother was a commoner." He turned to Beaufils. "Your speech is cultured, Beaufils, like that of an educated man, and your mother called you by a French name."

  "Please, knight," Beaufils asked. "What do you mean 'educated'?"

  The knight grinned. "Yes, I can see that might be a new concept to one raised alone in the woods. One advantage of your childhood would be that you escaped education."

  "But what is education?"

  "It's a horrible time when you sit in a bleak room wishing to be outside while dusty old people try to teach you to read and do sums and so on."

  "Oh, I can read," Beaufils said. "Mother taught me how." Then he frowned and added, "But she must have done it wrong, because I thought it was fun."

  The red-bearded knight nodded solemnly. "Yes, I'm afraid she did it wrong. Lucky you." Then he turned to the other knights. "Clearly Le Beau Desconus was born to a lady of good birth who spoke French. Does that help?"

  Once again the knights all looked around the table at one another and no one spoke. After a moment the red-bearded knight looked back at Beaufils. "I'm afraid that your father could be any one of several older knights. Thinking back eighteen years, I imagine that I could be your father myself, but I confess I'm reluctant to claim that role without further proof."

  At that, King Arthur said, "Perhaps someone would be less reluctant in a private setting. I invite Beaufils to remain at court as long as he wishes, and if you think you might be the man he seeks, you may find him and speak to him alone." The knights seemed to agree with this, and King Arthur looked at Beaufils. "Don't despair, lad. I have a feeling you'll find what you want."

  Then the king turned again to the knights. "And now, let us consider the marvelous chair." He waved his hand at an empty chair beside him. "As you know, this marvel appeared in this room by means unknown within the last two days. No one has ever seen it before; no one saw anyone bringing it. The chair is curiously inscribed with a message." The king read from the back of the chair: "'This is the Siege Perilous. Here ought to sit only he who is the purest knight of all.'" The king looked up. "And so I called this meeting to ask your counsel. But," he added, "after I summoned you to the table, we have had a like marvel appear." This took the assembly by surprise, and there was a brief buzz of whispers. The king nodded to Kai, who rose and walked to the wall behind him, pulling a black cloth off a bundle and revealing a sword stuck point down in a slab of stone.

  The king said, "This one also bears an inscription: 'Never shall man take me hence, but only he by whose side I ought to hang, and he shall be the best knight in the world.'"

  The king was silent for a moment while the knights looked at the sword, then at each other. King Arthur said, "So I ask you. What do we do?"

  The red-bearded knight said, "I'm not sure I know what you mean. We have only two options: either we test them or we leave them alone."

  "Yes, Gawain," the king said. "But we must think about both options. These marvels are clearly enchantments, and as enchantments they may be either a call to some noble adventure or a trap, devised of evil sorcery."

  "There is another possibility, sire," said another of the standing men. This one wore robes of red and gold and had on a funny hat.

  "Yes, Bishop Baldwin?"

  "This could be a miracle of God, given as a test to your court."

  "What sort of test?" the king asked.

  "A test of faith, trying whether your knights will risk themselves in the perilous seat and thus earn the blessed sword."

  Clerk Geoffrey cleared his throat again and said, "Excuse me, Your Holiness,
but I believe you'll find that the word is not 'seat,' but 'siege.'"

  Bishop Baldwin looked irritated and said, "And what does 'siege' mean, clerk?"

  "It's from the French," the clerk replied. "Both archaic and common, actually."

  "I didn't ask where it's from; I asked what it means."

  "It ... it means 'seat.'"

  Bishop Baldwin rolled his eyes and turned back toward the king, but the clerk kept talking. "But I should point out that the word 'perilous' is not spelled correctly in French, where it should be written with a different final letter."

  "Nobody cares, scholar," Bishop Baldwin said. "O king, I suggest that we give these wonders a trial, to see who has the faith to face a miracle of God."

  "And what if the chair and the sword are anointed with a poison that will kill those who touch them?" the king asked mildly. "I do have enemies who are capable of concocting such an ointment, you know. They would love to deprive me of some of my greatest knights."

  "Again I say, it is a test of faith," announced Baldwin.

  "I say throw them both in the cellars and forget about them," said Kai. Then all the knights began talking at once, each explaining his own view to anyone who would listen. In the hubbub, Galahad stepped out of the cluster of standing courtiers, walked quietly over to the sword, took it by the hilt, and drew it smoothly from the stone. The noise began to subside. Then Galahad stepped up to the chair and sat in it. For a moment the chair glowed with an orange light, then all was still.

  King Arthur examined Galahad. "That appears to solve that problem," he said softly, stern eyes resting on Galahad. "What is your name, son?"

  Before Galahad could answer, the clerk, who had walked over to examine the chair and the stone, gave a sharp exclamation. "Look, sire! The message on the chair! It's changed!"

  "Changed?"

  "It's a different inscription, sire! It says, 'This is the siege of Galahad, the Haut Prince.'"

 
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