In which the quest begins, and falls into peril.
That night, Arthur sat as the barber cut his hair. By request, he trimmed it in a rounded, pageboy style. “You must remain silent regarding my husband’s look,” Guinevere explained. “Speak to no one as to how you cut his hair, nor how he looks now.”
“Of course, your majesty,” the old man did say, scissors flashing and clicking as he cut Arthur’s luxurious locks, which did fall to the floor all about him. When he finished, he gathered the hair in a cloth and shoved it into his robe. “With your permission, my lord and lady, I would like to use this hair to fashion a wig.”
“A wig?” Arthur said, getting up and looking in the mirror, rubbing his hand across the back of his neck, enjoying the feeling of freedom he once more enjoyed, freed of the long, womanly hair he’d endured this past day.
“You will NOT make a wig of the king’s hair,” Guenievere spat. “It is uncouth, and you should not even think it.”
Arthur raised a hand. “What would you do with such a wig?”
“Forgiveness, but there is a young lady who has lost her hair due to a rare ailment. I but thought that would make a lovely wig, quite suitable to her complexion. I should not have thought it.” He removed the bundle of hair from his robe and held it toward Arthur.
“Keep it,” Arthur said. “I cannot deny such a gift to a lady in need.”
Guinevere winced. She did not like the idea at all, and yet she admired her husband’s nobility, and so she acquiesced, only adding, “But let it remain a secret that this gift comes from Arthur.”
“Yes,” Arthur said. “Of course. Such a gift must be offered without any desire for thanks.”
“Yes,” the barber said, bowing and leaving the room.
Once the barber left, Guinevere went to her husband, brushing the bangs from his forehead. They each knew this was to be Arthur’s last night in Camelot before leaving on his quest, and that knowledge cast a bittersweet mood over them both. “Oh, Arthur, my love,” Guinevere said, staring into his eyes. “I do worry so.”
“You need not worry,” Arthur said. “I will return to you, and once more I will be the man you love.”
“You are, Arthur. I have told you.”
“You did not worry about me so when I had yet my manly frame.”
They moved to the balcony together. The night was cold, and a full moon hung above Camelot in a cloudless sky. Arthur took Guenivere’s hand. He squeezed, and Guenivere squeezed back. “Tell me you believe in me,” Arthur said.
“I believe in you,” Guinevere said. She put her hand over her heart, and felt it beating, even beneath the now soft swelling of his maidenly bosom. “But you must promise me. You must, that you will remember that though you are still a great warrior, and a man amongst men, that you wear a damsel’s shape, and there will be times you must think not as a man, but a woman.”
Arthur put his hand to Guenivere’s soft cheek. He understood his wife’s concerns. Indeed, her warnings about his reputation and the need to protect his– virtue– he almost choked even thinking the word– had made him consider that he would need to be careful of situations a man need not consider. “I shall, and I accept your counsel. Until the spell is broken, I will seek to act as Christian man, and Christian woman.”
“I will pray for you each morning and each night.”
“And I will pray for you. I know you govern Camelot with grace and honor in my absence. It must be said, though, you are not the only one who will worry. I shall think of you always as I journey on my quest.”
“Arthur!” Once more, their lips met, and then the ladies Arthur and Guenivere did hold each other tight, warming themselves in the chill beneath the cold light of the moon.
Arthur rose before the dawn. He dressed by candlelight, donning the suit of chainmail he’d found to fit his new body. He belted on his weapons– a short sword and a dagger. Indeed, he’d found a long sword unwieldy with his slender arms, but felt he could fight well enough. On his back, a smaller wooden shield. Finally, a hooded cloak. His clothes hid his shape, and with his haircut in the manner it was, he thought he would pass as a boy– a very pretty boy, but a boy nonetheless. None the lass, the thought, with a chuckle.
Finally, he gave sleeping Gueinivere a kiss, and slipped out of the castle and to the Old Gate, where Gawain waited with his steed, upon which had been bundled a bedroll as well as food and water. “Godspeed, my King,” Gawain said.
“Be at the Queen’s service. Protect her should danger call,” Arthur said, and the two clasped hands, as men do. Arthur climbed upon his horse. He felt bigger, of course, than he had seemed to Arthur previously, but he was certain he would get used to it. It was now pre-dawn. The sun had not yet risen, but the coming of the sun had cast the world in a purple light. Gawain watched as Arthur rode off, heading down a narrow, disused path into the forest.
“He looks so small,” Gawain thought. His heart fluttered. He felt a mighty desire to ride after this maiden king, to offer her his protection, as a knight was called to protect women, but he had his orders. “I must remember, Arthur is not a girl,” he thought. “He can defend himself.” Yet, Gawain like all the others had seen the king’s narrow shoulders, and his lithe arms. The memory unnerved him.
Arthur’s heart raced as he rode off into the forest. It was not fear, but excitement. It had been many years since he had gone on a quest, and many more since he had gone off without a retinue of knights around him. More, he’d woken with none of the aches and pains that he’d become accustomed to as an older man and a warrior. Indeed, this young body of his seemed a bundle of energy and vibrance. This, combined with the sense of total freedom he felt, made him feel young, as indeed his body was young, and it could only be said that he was thinking only of adventure, optimistically expecting nothing but success as he sallied forth.
He followed the paths through the forest as Merlin had described them, the sun rising, warming the cool air. Sunlight now cut through the branches of the ancient trees like pillars, and the air filled with the songs of morning birds. Arthur found himself thinking of the plan. He would meet Merlin at the Lost Pond, and they would journey to Northumbria, to the village of Pittenween. There was a druid there named Colban, who according to Merlin, would know where to find a unicorn.
Arthur reigned in his horse. He glanced behind him. Had he heard something? Was he being followed? He waited, but heard nothing more. “I am being ridiculous,” he decided. “I am not going to start acting like some silly girl, jumping at the least sound.” He began riding once more. “Forests are full of cracks and creaks, and animals often make for suspicious sounds.”
Several times more, he thought he heard sounds, but each time a glance showed nothing, and eventually he stopped worry about it at all. Finally, sometime around mid-day, as the sun hovered directly above, Arthus came to the Lost Pond. It was a lovely spot, surrounded by the swaying branches of willows, reflected back in the still blue waters of the pond. The sound of croaking toads filled the air. Arthur dismounted, tied his horse to a branch, and stretched. Looking about, he wondered– where is Merlin?
Wizards, Arthur thought. Never on time. With nothing else to do, he found a soft spot in the shade, tossed down his bedroll, and closed his eyes. He did not mean to nap, but rather just to rest his eyes. In moments, though, he did sleep.
A shadowy figure moved about in the brush, creeping to a place where it could watch the maiden king sleeping.
“You’re sure?” Mordred said. He wore a leather mask, and made a gruff voice to disguise his identity.
Killmack, the hunter, who was crouched low to the ground, his hand in the soft soil of a leafy, woodland path, nodded. “A horse passed here, and I will vouch it was this very morn.”
“Very well. I would have you follow this horse. You will find a girl. Take her prisoner. Make sure no harm comes to her in her capture.”
“Who is this girl?”
“You need not know,” Mordred said. He’d chosen this hunter because he knew the man had never met Arthur, so the spell would not reveal her true name. “She will, likely, make various claims as to her name. Ignore her. You need only capture her, take her to your cabin, and hold her there until I come to claim her.”
“As you wish,” the hunter said, bowing.
“Do this, and you will have a cure your daughter.”
“She will live?”
“She will,” Mordred said. “Now, go!”
“Wait,” Gurgen, the goblin said. “Do you smell that?”
Fundyn sniffed the air. “Girl flesh!” He grumbled, greedily.
“Delectable and sweet!”
“Let us sneak up on her!” Lumpy and green with warts and boils over their faces and bodies, goblins are hideous beasts that dwell in the wilds. As wicked as they are ugly, goblins love nothing more than to boil humans and make of them great stews turnips and weeds. Indeed, they preferred most of all to boil naughty children who sneak off into the woods without their parent’s permission, but second only to children was their delight in making stew from girl flesh. Men, yes, they would eat if they must, but they found men often tasted sour, almost as if they were made of puppy tails and besides the meat was tough.
Gurgen and Fundyn now moved with stealth, for goblins could slip amongst the forest as silent as cats when they wanted, and they found their way to the edge of the clearing that surrounded the Lost Lake. Gurgen, crouching, pushed a branch aside, and gasped as he gazed upon Arthur’s sleeping form.
“She looks tasty!” Gurgen whispered.
Fundyn started to rise, meaning to race down and seize the maiden, but Gurgen grabbed his arm and pulled him back. “Wait,” he hissed. “Look. She does have a sword.”
“A girl with a sword?” Fundyn said. Looking, he saw that Gurgen spoke the truth. Indeed, the girl did sleep with her hand upon the pommel of a sword. Goblins are cowards. It is their nature, and so the thought of any sort of fight was to be avoided at all costs. “We must sneak down and catch her while yet she sleeps.”
Neither of them noticed a shadowy shape moving through the woods towards them from the right.
Killmack, for his part, had also come to the lake. He now crouched to the left of our goblins, gazing upon the sleeping face of Arthur, admiring the sleeping maiden’s beauty. Who is this girl? He wondered. He had never seen a maiden so fair, and he felt drawn to her beauty. However, his hunter’s ears had picked up the murmuring of the goblins, and he hesitated, glancing through the woods, trying to pinpoint their position. He had not counted on having to deal with such foul creatures. Of course, as always, his mission seemed to have become more complicated than expected. He decided to knock his bow, wait for the goblins to emerge from the woods, and then shoot them down once they entered the clearing.
Fundyn and Gurgen had just started to sneak forward, when they heard a great shout from behind. “Flee, creatures,” a man shouted. “Or fall on my sword!”
The goblins turned, brandishing their clubs. From the forest rose a warrior dressed all in white, his face hidden behind a great helm. I have already told you goblins are cowards, and so they did consider running. But the scent of the girl had made their tummies growl, and their greed as well as their advantage in numbers gave them courage. Gurgen hissed and charged, while Fundyn circled behind the warrior. “Grrrroook!” The goblins howled. “Grrroook!”
Killmack, hearing the commotion, seeing the trees and branches sway, the sound of battle, swung his bow back over his shoulder and bounded from the woods, closing in on the girl.
Arthur, hearing the sounds of battle, sat up with a start, instinctively drawing his sword. As he got to his feet, head still cloudy with sleep, he saw a man charging toward him. “Hold!” Arthur called, brandishing his blade. “Come no closer!”
Killmack chuckled at the sight of the maiden and her sword, drawing his own blade and closing the distance between them. He decided to try to fool her. “Do you not hear the sound of battle? Come! I will take you from harm’s way!” He reached out his hand.
“Come one step closer, and it is you who will be harmed!” Arthur shouted.
“I only wish to protect you!” Killmack could not help but chuckle. This girl did have some spirit!
Arthur glanced at his horse, thinking to make a run for it, but the man’s smirk and condescension enraged him. He took a fighter’s stance. “I have warned you. Leave now or face my steel!”
“Very well,” Killmack said. He knew he had to take the girl without hurting her, so he resolved to disarm her. He swung his blade, and was surprised when the girl did parry his stroke with ease.
“Surprised?” Arthur said.
“A little,” Killmack said. Now seeing the girl had some skill with her weapon, he focused more intently, now attacking her with a flurry of blows all meant to meet her sword and knock it from her hands.
Arthur parried the blows. The huntsman was poorly skilled. He telegraphed each swing, and all were sloppy and inefficient. But each also shook his small arms as the clanging of steel rang out, and he found himself being driven backwards.
Arthur tried to circle, but he found now that he struggled with his footwork. It was the chain mail. It was too heavy for him, and it slowed his movements. The hunter now attacked with a sweeping motion, and Arthur saw too late what he intended as their swords locked at the pommels. Arthur pushed with all his might, but the man was too big and heavy. “Fool girl,” he said, and Arthur felt himself thrown backwards, overpowered. He fell to the ground, and before he could recover the huntsman fell upon him, twisting the sword from his grip and then pinning his arms to his sides.
“Get off me!” Arthur gasped, struggling helplessly beneath the man’s weight.
The huntsman, now eager to get away with his prize, covered Arthur’s mouth and nose with a cloth. Powerful herbs filled Arthur’s lungs, and he felt himself growing faint. “No!” He gasped as he sunk into darkness.
The huntsman lifted the girl and carried her from the lake, vanishing into the gloom of the forest.
The mysterious white knight, meanwhile, found himself battling not only the two goblins he’d originally assailed. Their calls of “grrrrooook” had brought a dozen more, and he spun and slashed and smashed them with his steel gauntleted fist, slaying 9 of the infernal beasts, and scattering the others. Blood now staining his white armor, gasping for breath, exhausted, he pushed his way through the trees and down to the lakeshore. Looking about, he saw Arthur’s horse, and his bedroll, but Arthur was gone.
The knight sank to one knee, looking for tracks. A confusion of foot prints. There had been a battle! He looked and looked, and then he found the steps of the hunter. He looked to the sky in despair. The sun was setting, and it would soon be too dark to see well enough to follow the tracks. He would have to wait until morning. “Arthur!” He cried out in despair and concern. “Arthur!”