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The quest of the fair un.., p.7
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       The Quest of the Fair Unknown, p.7

           Gerald Morris
 
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Having seen the piles of ordure in the courtyard, Beaufils was not surprised to find the stables filled with dung, but there was plenty of hay as well. Beaufils dismounted and, taking up a rusty shovel that leaned against one wall, began moving the piles of manure aside so that they could bring their mounts in. It was a long stable, with many separate stalls, each one occupied by a fat donkey. This circumstance seemed to bother Galahad and Bishop Baldwin even more than the smell of the manure.

  "I'm not leaving my horse in a stall with an ass!" Bishop Baldwin said abruptly.

  "Indeed, it is hardly appropriate," agreed Galahad.

  Beaufils didn't know why they were concerned; the stalls were all large enough for two animals, or even three. He didn't ask for an explanation, though; he was busy. Working quickly with his shovel, he mucked out a stall; then he led Clover in to meet his new donkey friend. He had just finished rubbing down the mule and was petting the silken forehead of the donkey when he heard a commotion nearby. Looking out, he saw Bishop Baldwin pushing and shoving a very determined little donkey out of the next stall. The animal's legs were locked, and its head lowered stubbornly as Bishop Baldwin shoved at its hindquarters.

  "What are you doing?" Beaufils asked.

  The bishop didn't reply at once, his face red with exertion, but after pushing for a while longer, he said, "I'm moving this ass out of my horse's stall, clodpate! What does it look like I'm doing?"

  "It looks like you're shoving at his bottom and moving him nowhere," Beaufils replied. "Why do you want him to move?"

  "My horse is a blood stallion. I won't have him sharing a stall with a lowly beast like that!"

  Beaufils clucked to the donkey and scratched its head. "You can't help how tall you are, can you, dear?" He looked up at the bishop. "Where do you want the donkey?"

  "I don't care. Anywhere but here!"

  "Let's see if your neighbor would like company," Beaufils said, leading the donkey to the next stall.

  "Well, that's done then," Bishop Baldwin said, brushing himself off with satisfaction as if he had accomplished something. "Shall we go meet our churlish host?"

  Gawain, who had been leaning against the stable wall watching the bishop's ineffective labors, said, "If Galahad's ready."

  Galahad joined them a moment later. He, too, had been delayed by the need to remove a donkey from his horse's stall, but he had accomplished this task on his own by the simple expedient of stretching both arms under the donkey's belly and carrying it to the next stall. When the men were together, they picked their way out of the stable, through the filthy courtyard, and into the central tower of the castle.

  There they were met by the dirty doorman, who jerked his head down a corridor. "Carl says you can have the east guest hall, if you like. Or if you don't. It's down there, end of the hall." Then he meandered off, leaving the four to find their own way.

  The guest hall was much like the rest of the castle: filthy and crawling with animals. Scrawny chickens pecked their way around the room, mice scurried everywhere, and several large dogs lay in the floor blocking their path. One of these, just as they entered, raised one leg and released a loud explosion of gas. "Figures," said Gawain, stepping over the dog and looking about at the cobwebby chairs. From the hall itself, several doors opened into smaller rooms, where Beaufils could make out some filthy beds. "Maybe I'll go sleep in the stable with a donkey," Gawain added.

  A squirrel chattered at them from the rafters and threw a nut down, which bounced harmlessly off Galahad's armor. Beaufils glanced at the squirrel, noted a line of bats clinging to the ceiling, and said, "It seems that the Carl likes animals."

  "More than he likes visitors, anyway," replied Gawain. "I'm beginning to have my doubts about our being invited to dinner with our gracious host."

  But Gawain's doubts were unfounded. After they had each chosen a bedchamber and dusted off their beds as well as they could (though not without some complaining from Bishop Baldwin and Galahad), the surly doorman strolled into the room without knocking and said, "Carl says if you want to eat, you can come sit at table with him. Don't if you don't want to, though. No skin off his—"

  "Yes, yes, we know," Gawain said. "We'll be with him at once. Which way?"

  The man led them through cluttered corridors to a huge banquet hall, littered with the debris of past meals, and Beaufils got his first look at the Carl of Carlisle.

  The man was huge—unnaturally so, in fact—for he must have stood a head taller than Gawain, who towered above the rest of them. He also seemed to be twice as broad as Gawain and at least three times as hairy. The Carl's thick black hair jutted out in long greasy tufts from his head, and his beard looked like a bearskin across his great chest. All four travelers stopped at the door and stared. The Carl gave them a cursory glance.

  "Well, don't stand there gawking like great gabies," he said in a booming voice. "Food's on the table." Silently, they moved toward the long table, but before they could sit, the Carl spoke again, to Galahad and Beaufils. "Not in those two chairs, ye bufflebutts. Those're for my wife and daughter."

  "I'm sorry," Beaufils replied. "I didn't know. Is that chair across the table all right?"

  "Suit yourself," the Carl grunted.

  At least the food looks good, Beaufils thought as he walked around the table and took his seat. Growing up with his mother in the forest, he had eaten mostly vegetables and nuts, and King Arthur's banquet, which had consisted largely of roasted meats, had not tasted very good to him. He had, however, loved the king's bread, and so he was pleased to see that the Carl's dinner was made up entirely of brown bread. His companions were clearly less pleased, though. Beaufils heard Bishop Baldwin mutter something about "paltry fare," and even Gawain seemed disappointed with the food.

  A few minutes after they began eating, the door opened and two women entered, and all four of the travelers stopped eating to stare at them, because it would have been impossible to imagine two women more ill-suited to their surroundings. One of the women looked older than the other—Beaufils guessed that these were the Carl's wife and daughter—but both looked clean and fresh and pleasant. They smiled at the travelers and greeted them warmly, then sat beside the Carl and began to eat. The Carl, his mouth stuffed full of food, said something to them under his breath, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and tossed a crust of bread over his shoulder.

  Gawain introduced himself and his three companions to the women, then made polite conversation while they ate. Listening, Beaufils learned that the older woman's name was Elspeth and the younger was called Ellyn. Beaufils didn't join the conversation, though, neither did Galahad or Bishop Baldwin. This puzzled Beaufils, since he had not noticed Bishop Baldwin being reluctant to speak before, but their silence was explained after dinner, when the four were back in the guest hall.

  "Now it all becomes clear!" Galahad announced as soon as they were alone. "This is a place of temptation, a test for us on our quest for the Holy Grail!"

  Gawain glanced around their squalid quarters. "You find something tempting in here?"

  "Not here! Those women of such beauty! The filth and the stench of the castle are a warning to us against temptation! We must leave at once!"

  Gawain frowned at Galahad. "I don't mind leaving, but I must say that I think you're misjudging Lady Elspeth and Lady Ellyn."

  "The good knight Sir Galahad is right!" Bishop Baldwin said. "Can you deny, Sir Gawain, that those two women of such unearthly beauty of form and face and figure can hardly be of this world? They are here to test our virtue."

  "Nonsense," Gawain said, his voice rising slightly. Before he could continue, though, a gentle tapping came from the door. Beaufils opened it to see the Carl's daughter Ellyn standing there. "Oh, hello," he said to her. "We were just talking about you. Come in."

  "Good evening," Ellyn said, stepping into the room, bringing a scent of flowers with her. "I just came to see if there was anything else you wanted before you went to bed."

  "See?" Galahad said, his
voice cracking slightly. "I told you so!"

  "Yes, Sir Galahad?" Ellyn asked, her brow wrinkling slightly in confusion. "Did you want something?"

  "I want nothing from you."

  Ellyn looked surprised at Galahad's vehemence. She replied rigidly but politely, "Very well."

  "Galahad, don't be an ass," Gawain said.

  Galahad ignored him, speaking again to Ellyn. "Come no closer. I will not give in." Then Galahad closed his eyes tightly.

  Gawain sighed. After a moment Ellyn said, "If you're all right, then, I'll leave you now." She turned and left the room, and Beaufils, after giving Galahad another glance, followed her into the hallway and closed the door behind him.

  "Sorry about that," he said. "I'm afraid my friend was a bit rude."

  "What was he talking about?" Ellyn asked.

  "I don't really know," Beaufils said. "Galahad sometimes gets ideas that I don't understand. All I know is there's no use trying to talk him out of them."

  Ellyn looked at Beaufils curiously. "But he's your friend, you say?"

  "Oh, yes," Beaufils said. They began walking together down the hall. "He always does what he thinks is right, and you have to admire that about him. I've begun to realize that's not very common among men."

  Ellyn gave a snort. "If you've only just begun to realize that, you must have lived a sheltered life until now."

  Beaufils smiled. "I have. In fact, until a few weeks ago, I'd never met another human being other than my mother."

  "You're joking!" Ellyn said, her eyes wide. "How could that be?"

  For the next two hours, Beaufils told her. They walked together down the hall as he talked, then up a long stairway to the top of a tower. There they sat together, above the smell of decay that filled the castle below, while Beaufils told Ellyn about his mother and his early life, then finally about his experiences since leaving the forest. Ellyn told Beaufils nothing about herself, but she asked many questions and clearly enjoyed his story very much.

  "You have been through it since leaving home, haven't you?" she said when he was done. "All the worst sorts of people—bandits and renegade priests and all that."

  "It's very strange, though," Beaufils admitted. "It all seems to come from people wanting things they don't need, just because someone else has them."

  Ellyn nodded slowly. "Indeed, you're right. People always want to possess whatever other people want. It's been the bane of my life since I became a woman."

  "What do you mean?"

  "Well," Ellyn replied gloomily, "a lot of people seem to think that I'm very pretty. This sounds like a good thing, but it's not. When men think a girl is pretty, they seem to think that's all she is. Everywhere I go, men either fall all over themselves to catch my attention, or take me in immediate dislike, like your friend Galahad. Either way, it's never about me but only about my appearance. It puts you off people, I can tell you. I can't think of one person, apart from my parents, I'd put myself to any trouble for."

  Beaufils shook his head with wonder. "You need to meet more people. I've met lots of people I'd be happy to help if I could. After all, they're usually so nice to me."

  Ellyn looked at him wryly. "You think so? Like those girls at Camelot who followed you around?"

  "Well, yes. It was very kind of them to be so nice to a stranger."

  Ellyn snorted again. "See how nice they are to a stranger with a mole on his nose. You poor innocent. They were following you because you are an incredibly beautiful young man. Girls who see you are going to become silly, giggly, blushing, simpering widgeons, just like men who see me all seem to become silly, strutting, boastful, peacocky nitwits."

  "But you didn't blush and giggle when you met me," Beaufils pointed out.

  "And you didn't strut and boast when you met me," Ellyn replied. "I can't tell you how nice it was, too."

  Beaufils grinned. "Does this mean we can be friends?"

  Ellyn returned his smile. "I guess so. But what will your friend Galahad think?"

  "I don't know," Beaufils replied frankly. "But you mustn't be hurt by Galahad's talk. It wasn't about you in particular. I think he's afraid of all women." Beaufils was remembering what the old man, Scotus, had told him about Galahad's dream.

  A voice rang out below them in the courtyard, and Ellyn looked over the edge of the tower. "Well, I suppose we can find out now. There's your friend Galahad, and he's calling for you."

  Together they descended the tower and made their way to the courtyard, where they found Galahad and Bishop Baldwin, already mounted and leading Glover.

  "There you are!" Galahad exclaimed when Beaufils stepped out of the tower. "Come! We must leave this—" He broke off when Ellyn stepped out the door behind Beaufils. "I see," Galahad said, his voice scornful. "No wonder we couldn't find you. Have you been with this woman all evening?"

  "Yes. She's my friend," Beaufils replied. "Are we leaving?"

  "Some of us are," Galahad said, his voice cold.

  "Where's Gawain?"

  "He has chosen to remain," Bishop Baldwin said. "In his pride, he believes he can withstand temptation."

  "More like doesn't believe there's any temptation to withstand," growled Gawain from the doorway. He stepped forward and looked at Beaufils. "There you are, lad. Don't listen to Baldwin. I told them I wouldn't sneak out of a castle in the middle of the night without taking leave of my hosts, and that's why I'm staying. Hello, my lady."

  "Good evening, Sir Gawain," replied Ellyn.

  "O'erweening pride!" pronounced Bishop Baldwin.

  "What does that mean?" asked Beaufils.

  "Don't worry about it, lad," replied Gawain. "Baldwin doesn't know, either."

  "Beaufils," said Galahad suddenly. "You have been a good companion to me, and one who has fought spiritual battles by my side. I will allow you to ride away with us if you agree to find the nearest church and confess your sins."

  Beaufils pondered this for a moment. He wasn't sure what sins Galahad thought he had to confess, and he was about to ask when Gawain spoke for him. "And if not?"

  "Then we part ways at once!" Galahad said in a ringing voice. "He may stay with you if he so chooses!"

  "Oh, may I?" Beaufils asked Gawain. "I think I'd like that."

  "I would too, lad," Gawain said.

  "You have chosen your path, and may you live to regret it."

  "Er ... thank you," Beaufils said. "I hope you live, too."

  Galahad turned his horse with a sharp tug on his reins, but at that moment a huge black shadow appeared between the two riders and the castle gate. "What's all this noise in the middle of the night!" rumbled a deep voice. It was the Carl himself.

  Bishop Baldwin's eyes widened, and he drew back from the Carl, but Galahad turned to face the Carl squarely. "We are leaving this castle of temptations at once!" he declared.

  "Over my dead body or not at all!" the Carl said. "If you want to leave, you'll have to kill me."

  "What?" gasped Galahad.

  "Go on!" the Carl said. "Cut off my head if you're man enough! I won't stop you."

  Beaufils glanced at Ellyn, who was watching her father calmly. Beaufils didn't understand this last bit at all.

  "Go on, little girls!" the Carl snapped. "Draw your swords! Hit me if you dare!"

  "Do it, Galahad!" said Bishop Baldwin. "Kill him before he kills us!"

  Galahad grasped his sword, drew it partly from its scabbard, then thrust it back in. "No!" he called. "It's another temptation! He wants me to commit the sin of wrath! A mortal sin!"

  "Well, go ahead and do it now, and then you can confess later! I'll hear your confession myself," Bishop Baldwin replied.

  "No!" screamed Galahad, after which he booted his horse into a gallop and raced through the courtyard to the front gate.

  Bishop Baldwin took one look at the Carl, squawked "Wait for me!," then followed. A minute later he and Galahad were gone.

  "Damn," said the Carl.

  "Do you mind explaining what that was about?"
Gawain asked the Carl calmly.

  The Carl shook his head and, turning away, stomped back into the castle.

  Ellyn smiled at Beaufils. "Good night, Beaufils. Good night, Sir Gawain. Will you be leaving in the morning?"

  "Ay, I suppose so," Gawain said. "But look here, my lady, what was your father up to, demanding that—?"

  "Then I'll see you tomorrow," she said, following her father into the castle.

  ***

  The next morning, Gawain and Beaufils rose at dawn and saddled their mounts in preparation for leaving. When all was ready, Gawain said, "Come on, Le Beau, let's go look for our puzzling host and his family."

  They didn't have to look far. When they stepped out of the stable, there was the Carl, with his wife and daughter on either side.

  "Leaving?" the Carl growled.

  "We are, sir," Gawain replied calmly. "But not without taking our leave of you. We thank you, sir, for your hospitality."

  "You've nothing to thank me for," the Carl snapped. "I've put myself to no trouble for you."

  "Well, that's true, at any rate," Gawain agreed. "We've slept on dirty beds and eaten old, dry bread. But whether or not you've been a model host, I've still been your guest, and I thank you."

  The Carl looked down at Gawain, his eyes speculative. "Mighty pretty manners," he grunted at last. "Maybe I should follow your example. Sir Gawain, would you do me one favor?"

  "If it is within my power, yes, I will," Gawain replied promptly.

  "Oh, it's within your power," the Carl said. With that, he knelt before Gawain. "Cut my head off."

  Gawain stared at the Carl, then looked at the two women. They were watching the scene calmly. "Cut your head off?" Gawain repeated.

  "Ay. Cut it off," the Carl replied.

  "Is that good manners?" Beaufils asked, puzzled.

  "Not as a rule, lad, no," Gawain said. He knelt before the Carl and said, "Actually, I'd rather not, sir."

  "You said you'd do it if you were able," the Carl snapped with a frown. "Are ye a man of your word or not?"

  "Is this what you want?" Gawain asked again.

  "Why would I ask it if I didn't want it?" the Carl said. "Is it the sort of thing a man'd be likely to joke about?"

 
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