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The quest of the fair un.., p.8
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       The Quest of the Fair Unknown, p.8

           Gerald Morris
 
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  Gawain stood and looked at Elspeth and Ellyn. "My ladies? Is this your wish?"

  Neither lady replied. They simply looked at Gawain, showing nothing.

  "What do you think, Le Beau?" Gawain asked.

  "I'm not the one who's been asked," Beaufils replied. "I think it'd better be your own decision."

  Gawain looked at the kneeling Carl for a moment, then said, "I do not take beheading lightly. By a careless blow I once brought on myself the greatest shame of my life." He thought for a moment. "But by another such blow I brought myself my greatest honor. All right, O Carl. I will keep my promise." Then Gawain drew his sword, and with one swift motion brought it down on the back of the Carl's neck.

  There was a great crash, like thunder, and a white mist began drifting up from the piles of refuse that lay on every side. In seconds, Beaufils could see nothing but the thick fog before his eyes. Then his right cheek felt a faint chill, and a breeze began to blow away the fog. When the mist was completely gone, Beaufils stared around himself with delight. It was as if the wind had blown him to a different castle. Gone were the piles of garbage, gone was the reek of decay. Everything was spotless, and at his feet, groaning and gingerly touching his neck, knelt a slender man with a neatly trimmed black beard.

  "Father?" whispered Ellyn.

  "Here, Ellyn," the man said. Both women knelt beside the man and embraced him, weeping.

  Beaufils glanced at Gawain. "This isn't what usually happens when you cut off someone's head, is it?"

  Gawain grinned. "Hardly."

  "Good," Beaufils said, relieved. "I was afraid that I had a whole lot more to learn about the world than I thought."

  The Carl stood and stretched out both arms to Sir Gawain. "Thank you, Sir Gawain. You have released me from a great enchantment."

  "That much I had figured out," Gawain said, returning the embrace. "Do you mind telling me about it?"

  ***

  "I used to be called the Earl of Carlisle," the Carl began. They were all back in the great banquet hall, eating a hot breakfast together. "I was the wealthiest man and the greatest nobleman in these parts, which at the time seemed very important to me. I grew very vain, I'm afraid."

  "You did, a bit," said his wife, Elspeth, "though never to your own family and friends. It was how I knew that you really weren't as pompous as you sometimes seemed."

  "At any rate, I was pompous once too often," the Carl said. "I treated a poor old vagabond as if he were nothing. He came to ask for a bit of food for the road, and I tossed him a crust of day-old brown bread and told him to be gone." The Carl reddened at the memory, then went on. "Anyway, it turned out this vagabond was a magician or sorcerer, and he laid a spell on me. I became a monster, and my home became ... well, you saw what it was like. My great horses became asses, my servants became slovenly oafs, and no matter what was served at my table, it immediately became day-old brown bread."

  "I rather liked the bread," Beaufils commented.

  "But Elspeth and Ellyn? They weren't transformed," Gawain pointed out.

  "That's because they had been kind to the old enchanter. In fact, they were the ones who sent him to the castle to get food. They had met him on the road when they were out riding."

  "He seemed a nice old gentleman," Ellyn said. "His name was Scotus."

  Beaufils caught his breath but kept his face still and his eyes lowered. His old man was an enchanter?

  "Scotus, eh?" said Gawain.

  "Do you know him?"

  "I know an enchanter with a name something like that," Gawain replied. "But go on with your story. What was all this about cutting your head off?"

  "The enchanter said that I could only be restored to the person I was supposed to be if I humbled myself to the point of death. Beheading just seemed like the surest way to do that. The only other thing that he added was that neither I nor anyone else could tell anyone about my enchantment."

  Ellyn smiled ruefully at Beaufils. "You can't know how hard it was for me to keep my tongue when we were talking last night. You told me so freely about your own life; I felt horribly ungrateful not telling you anything about myself."

  "But now you can tell me anything you want, right?" Beaufils said.

  "I could," Ellyn said. "But you and Sir Gawain are leaving now."

  Beaufils shrugged. "Why don't you come with us? You don't mind, do you Gawain?"

  Gawain grinned. "I don't, but Ellyn and her family may have other plans."

  Ellyn's mouth opened in a perfect little oval, and her eyes lit up. "Do you really mean it? Oh, Father, Mother! Do you mind?"

  "You want to go adventuring?" Elspeth asked her daughter. "Now that everything's finally restored at home?"

  "I couldn't have gone off with Father under the spell," Ellyn explained. "That would have been deserting him. But now, oh it would be the most wonderful adventure! And with Beaufils and Sir Gawain, too, the only two men I've ever met who don't act silly around me just because I'm pretty."

  The Carl—he forbade anyone to call him "Earl," saying that "Carl" was good enough for him now—and Elspeth needed to be coaxed a bit more, but in the end it was three riders who set off together to seek the Grail: a formidable middle-aged knight, a beautiful maiden, and Beaufils. Beaufils could not help smiling in anticipation; he was sure this was going to be fun.

  VI. Holy Men Like Fleas

  "Why do you call Beaufils 'Le Beau,' Sir Gawain?" asked Ellyn. They were following a thin track across a moor toward the dark line of trees that marked the edge of a forest.

  "You can just call me Gawain, Lady Ellyn," the knight replied. "You don't have to use the formal title while we travel."

  "Thank you, and you can call me just Ellyn, but I was asking about what you call Beaufils."

  Gawain grinned and glanced at Beaufils. "You want to tell her?"

  "If you like," Beaufils replied. He looked at Ellyn and said, "You see, I'm not sure if Beaufils is even my real name. It was what my mother always called me, but it turns out that it's just another way of saying 'fair son.'"

  "You don't even know if it's your real name? Didn't your mother ever call you anything else?"

  "Why would she?" Beaufils replied. "Without any other people around, we always knew who we were talking to. Until a few weeks ago, I didn't even know that people had their own special names."

  "Anyway," Gawain said, "when our friend here came to Camelot and explained all this, a friend of mine there—Sir Kai—called him 'Le Beau Desconus,' which means something like 'the Fair Unknown.' I just like the sound of that better than 'Fair Son.'"

  "I think I do, too," Ellyn said. "After all, you're not just somebody's fair son; you're more than that."

  "But what?" Beaufils asked.

  "That," Ellyn replied, "is still unknown, isn't it?"

  They had come to the edge of the forest by now, and their narrow path led right into the thick trees. Beaufils's eye was caught by an unexpected gleam of white beside the track, and looking more closely, he made out a small painted sign, nearly hidden by several years' growth of saplings. The faded letters of the sign read THE SACRED FOREST.

  "What the devil does that mean?" Gawain asked, after Beaufils had pointed it out to the others.

  "I've heard stories of enchanted forests," Ellyn remarked. "I'm not sure what a sacred forest is, though."

  "I would have thought all forests were sacred," Beaufils added.

  "Anyway, it sounds promising," Gawain said. "Where better to look for a Holy Grail than in a sacred forest?"

  The passage between the trees was tight enough that they had to ride single file. Gawain went first, followed by Ellyn, and Beaufils brought up the rear. It was hard to carry on a conversation that way, and Beaufils hoped that the path through the sacred forest wouldn't always be so narrow. Thus he was pleased when, just a few minutes after they entered the woods, the path widened and emptied into a small clearing. There he saw a tiny one-room log house with a very old, obviously long unused cookfire outside.


  "What a small house," Beaufils commented. "Even the house that Mother and I made in our forest was bigger than that."

  "Looks like a hermitage to me," Gawain said.

  "What's that?"

  "It's where a hermit lives," Gawain said. Then, at Beaufils's puzzled frown, Gawain chuckled. "I'll have to do better than that, won't I? Let's see. A hermit is a person who goes off to live alone and think about God. That probably doesn't make sense, does it?"

  Beaufils frowned and said slowly, "No, I think I understand. I've only been in the world outside our forest a short time now, but I can see that it might be easier to think about God when you're alone. The world's a bit loud, isn't it? So these hermits are very holy men?"

  Gawain avoided Beaufils's eyes as he replied, "Er, I have met one who was, yes."

  Beaufils smiled. "Then I should like to meet a hermit. Pity that this hermitage is empty."

  "Just what I was thinking," Gawain said. "Oh well, I suppose we should move on."

  Before long, they came to another empty hermitage, and then a third. Ellyn said she was beginning to have an idea why this was called the Sacred Forest.

  At last, at their fourth hermitage, they had better luck and found a real hermit, although Gawain managed to conceal his pleasure. The hermit was a tall, stoop-shouldered man with black hair that was turning gray at the sides. As the travelers rode into his clearing, the hermit rose to his feet and said, "I bid you welcome, travelers, if you are friends of God," the man said.

  "Well, I think we are," Gawain said. "I'm Sir Gawain of Orkney, and this is Lady Ellyn of Carlisle and Le Beau of Desconus. We are on a quest together in this forest."

  The hermit's eyes had grown suddenly intent. "What do you mean, you think you are friends of God?" he demanded.

  Gawain blinked but replied, "I just meant that we try to be."

  The man shook his head vigorously. "Then you are greatly misled. You can never be God's friend by trying, can never be justified by your own efforts. You must realize that you are sinners to the core."

  "Oh," Gawain said. "Do you, ah, do you know us, sir?"

  "Do not take my words personally," the hermit said. "I speak not only of you but of all humanity. I know of what I speak; I am Father Rolbert, formerly master of theology at Oxford University."

  "Formerly?" Gawain asked, glancing around at Father Rolbert's spare hermit's quarters.

  "I could not stay at Oxford, for my soul's sake. You may not believe this, but even in that place of divine study, I found false doctrine and heresy. I could no longer associate with false teachers. The truth is not in them." His eyes glowed unpleasantly, and Beaufils felt mildly disappointed. He wasn't sure what very holy men were like, but he hadn't imagined they would be like this.

  Gawain nodded slowly. "I'll keep that in mind. Listen, Father Rolbert, what we are really seeking is something called the Holy Grail."

  "If you are destined to find it, then you shall. If not, then you can never do so."

  "Just like that?" asked Gawain. "All a matter of destiny?"

  "That is correct," Father Rolbert said.

  Gawain scratched his beard, then said, "But if that's true, then I don't have to look for the thing at all, do I? I mean, if I'm destined to find the Grail, then it'll come to me. I can just go back to court and drink beer and wait."

  Father Rolbert shook his head, frowning. "No, if you did that, it would be a sure sign that you were not destined to achieve your quest."

  "Then what I choose to do does make a difference," Gawain said.

  "No, no. You have no choice at all. Just as God, in his mercy, has preordained some to heaven and some to eternal flames, so he has also preordained the one who will achieve this and every other quest."

  "I'm confused," said Beaufils. "Should we keep looking for the Grail or not?"

  "Yes, you should," Father Rolbert replied, with the air of one instructing a small and not particularly bright child. "But do not seek it because you think you can achieve it. You can achieve nothing of yourself. Instead, seek it because it might be God's will for you to find it."

  This didn't really make any more sense to Beaufils, but he nodded politely, hoping to avoid any further explanations.

  "How about this?" Gawain said. "Suppose for a moment that we might be fated to find the Grail—"

  A spasm of distaste crossed Father Rolbert's face, and he interrupted hastily. "Not fated; predestined."

  "What's the difference?" Gawain asked.

  "Fate is the heresy that the pagan Greeks and Romans taught; predestination is the true doctrine of the right faith."

  "Right, my mistake," Gawain said. "As I was about to say, if we were predestined to find the Grail, do you know which direction we might be predestined to take? I see that there are two different paths leaving this clearing."

  "It matters little which way you take," Father Rolbert said, shaking his head sadly. "Both paths lead to grave danger."

  "What sort of danger? Monsters? Recreant knights?"

  "Worse! Down each of those paths is a hermit, both of whom teach heretical falsehoods that imperil your very soul. They are not of God's elect."

  Beaufils grinned. "Recreant hermits?" he asked.

  Gawain chuckled, then jerked his head at one of the paths. "Shall we take a chance on the doctrinal danger to the right? If you're not too frightened, I mean."

  "I'm very brave," Ellyn said. "The righthand path it is." With that, the three companions rode away, leaving Father Rolbert alone again. Beaufils hoped that having correct doctrines was good company.

  Ten minutes later they came to the next clearing and drew up at the edge of the forest, watching. At first Beaufils thought this hermitage was deserted as well, but then he saw a tendril of smoke rising from a hole in the roof.

  "Do we really want to do this?" Gawain asked.

  "I was just wondering that, too," replied Ellyn.

  "Seems like you can't fling a rock in this forest without beaning a holy man," Gawain added. "Not that I'm suggesting that, necessarily."

  "They're as thick as fleas," agreed Ellyn.

  Beaufils was puzzled. "You think this hermit might be like Father Rolbert?" Gawain and Ellyn nodded. "Why?" asked Beaufils. "There must be more than one kind of holiness, after all."

  Gawain muttered, "Hope so," then bowed and gestured for Beaufils to go ahead of him. "As you wish, lad. Lead the way."

  Beaufils urged Clover out of the trees and into the clearing, calling out, "Hello? Hermit?"

  A smiling, yellow-haired man came to the door of the hut and waved. He looked to be about Gawain's age. "Welcome, travelers," he said.

  "Thank you," Beaufils replied. Since he had gone first, he supposed that he was expected to speak for the group.

  "I don't get many knights and ladies as visitors," the hermit replied, looking past Beaufils. "But you are welcome. I am Brother Denys."

  "I'm glad to know you," Beaufils replied. "I'm Beaufils, and these are my friends Gawain and Ellyn."

  "Sir Gawain? Of Arthur's court?" Brother Denys said, smiling widely. "I am honored. What brings you to my humble hermitage?"

  Brother Denys still hadn't given Beaufils more than a cursory glance, addressing himself entirely to the others, but Beaufils continued to speak. "Actually, Brother Denys, we're on a quest. Some say it's a holy sort of quest, so we thought maybe a holy man could help us."

  "A holy quest?" Brother Denys asked, finally looking at Beaufils.

  "Yes," Beaufils replied. "We're looking for something called the Grail. It appeared to King Arthur's court a week or so back, floating in the air, and a loud voice came from nowhere saying that it was the goal of everyone's desire. Then it disappeared. Have you seen anything like that around here?"

  Brother Denys's face lit up. "What a miracle! How I wish I had been there!"

  "Does that mean yes or no?" Beaufils asked.

  "I've seen nothing like that here, though I do see many visions."

  "Bother," Beauf
ils said to his companions. "No luck here, either."

  "Either?" asked Brother Denys, his voice sharper. "Whom else have you been asking?"

  "Well, we just came from the hut of Father Rolbert—"

  "Father Rolbert!" interrupted Brother Denys, with sudden sharpness. "Don't speak to me of Father Rolbert!"

  "But you asked me who we had—"

  "I never want to hear of Father Rolbert again! Father Rolbert's faith is all head faith! He knows how to divide syllogisms and talk the ears off a mule, but he has no heart! Father Rolbert wouldn't know a vision if it sat on his face! Father Rolbert has driven more good young men away from the faith than Satan himself. I hate the sound of his name!"

  "Why do you keep saying it, then?" asked Beaufils.

  "If you've been to see him," Brother Denys said, ignoring Beaufils's question, "then you are in grave danger of being led astray."

  "Funny," commented Beaufils, "that's what he said about—"

  "Come here, boy," Brother Denys said. He held out his arms, and Beaufils slipped obligingly from Clover's back and came to the hermit, who reached out and gripped both of Beaufils's hands in his own, then raised his eyes toward the sky. "Purge this boy of evil, I pray! Rid his mind of the dry doctrines of the devil! Enter his heart and warm it, O Spirit!"

  Brother Denys went on like this for another few minutes, occasionally giving Beaufils's hands a squeeze, as if to show particular seriousness. Beaufils looked helplessly over his shoulder at Gawain and Ellyn. Ellyn looked concerned, but Gawain was grinning broadly. When he caught Beaufils's eyes, he wiggled his gauntleted fingers in a little wave.

  Brother Denys prayed on. "Oh, remove sin and falseness from this boy's heart and mind, I pray, oh yes, oh yes, render us up in Thy sight, yes, and bind Satan from his attacks, yes, yes..." The hermit actually began to cry, tears rolling proudly down his cheeks. "Show us the true way of your Spirit!" he proclaimed. Then his eyes, pointed toward heaven, widened oddly.

  Beaufils followed the hermit's gaze but saw nothing above them. "Is there something up there?" Beaufils asked.

  Brother Denys, still crying, released Beaufils and raised his arms above his head. Beaufils stepped back quickly, to make sure he didn't get caught again, but the hermit wasn't watching him anymore. His lips moved, his eyes glazed over, and still he wept. At last he lowered his arms and focused his gaze on Beaufils. "Did you feel it?" he asked.

 
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