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The Overwhelming Question

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Pentecost, Evening

Sir Perceval found young Galahad, new-come to the hall of Camelot, still seated in that chair which had been so long empty, very still and silent among the detritus of the great feasting. Most of the rest of the court was out of their seats and carousing in the great rolling melee that would continue until after the hour of Lauds, but while Perceval had grown accustomed to the ways of a great court, he had never felt entirely at ease. Galahad's stillness recalled Perceval to those early days, when he had not known enough to know how innocent he was, overwhelmed by all the noise and people.

"What ails you, Sir Galahad?" he asked, lifting a companionable hand to the lad's shoulder, and then pulling back in the long-trained reflex not to risk touching the deadly chair he sat in; and the gathering his courage and reaching out anyway. Too many people today had been flinching back from the boy, and he had long promised himself never to let pain go unseen or unquestioned.

The young knight gave no sign of noticing the touch. "It is only that I did not expect so goodly a court to be so worldly," he said, sighing a little.

"Well, they are all going out on quest tomorrow, and can't know when they will again sit to fine meat and ale, and see their friends and loved ones," said Perceval. "It is not always like this here, but we are in the world now." He thought for second. "You grew up in a convent, do I understand?"

"When I was not with my mother and grandfather."

Who, if the rumors were correct, were the keepers of Castle Corbenic. Perceval remembered his own visits there; long in the past, mostly, but vivid of all things: the hushed silences, the calmness that gathered around the wounded king's resigned, faithful stoicism; the aged, tired beauty of the stones and the rich cloth, the near-unbearable, solemn weight of power each eve as the holy relics had their procession. It was a king's court as much as Arthur's, but as different a one as could be.

"There is a chapel, not far distant from here in the castle," Perceval said. "I go there sometimes, when I wish to pray. Would you like me to show you where it is?"

The lad sat up, quickly, the chair pushing back easily from the table with a screech of stone on stone. Perceval winced. "There are chapels here?" Galahad asked, with the first trace of interest Perceval had heard from him since the swearing of the quest.

"I told you, this court is not always so worldly as it might seem to one seeing it now." Perceval smiled at him. "Else would the grail have come to us at all?"

"I suppose that is so," Galahad conceded with a frown.

Perceval led him in a weaving course between half-drunk knights and ladies, amid pages and servants dashing among them, trying to rescue the remains of the feast. They looked rather more well-satisfied than was usual at this point in the evening; Perceval wondered suddenly if the Grail had visited the kitchens with a feasting of their own, and he thought to ask, in the morning.

It was not so far to the chapel, after all, and the closing of the heavy oaken door behind them cut off the last growls of the revelry beyond. Galahad stood gazing around him as Perceval lifted the light he carried to the tall white tapers that stood along the wall. It was empty, here, and still carried the chill and silence of the castle's stone. Elsewhere, in the grand chapel, and the church beyond the walls, the priests were carrying out the offices of the hours, as always on Pentecost eve, but this smallest chapel was little-used. That was one reason Perceval had come to love the place, in his youth, desperately missing the simplicity of the forest he had once called home - that, and the carven beams of the vaulted roof, woven around with vines and oak-leaves, and human faces peering out among them like long-forgotten friends.

"It is very beautiful," Galahad said, almost reluctantly.

Perceval sat himself on one of the benches. "Yes," he said, ignoring the lad's awkwardness. He would grow into it, or he would not. "I was planning to stay through the night, in preparation for the quest," he said. "You are welcome to join me. Or there is a chamber prepared for you to rest, I can summon someone to lead you there."

He made a quelling gesture with one hand. "You would spend the night at vigil, then?"

Perceval smiled. "It seems the most auspicious way to start such a holy quest, does it not."

"No," Galahad. "Yes, I mean, yes it does. So why do the others... not? Do they not see that such... unrepentant excesses lead them farther from holiness, not closer? How shall they achieve the Grail?"

"Oh, they won't," said Perceval. "I imagine they don't expect to; they know they are not men such as you. They know they set out tomorrow to fail."

"So why do they go?"

Perceval looked at him. He was so very young, so very unworldly, so very innocent, and his faith and purity and goodness shone from him like the very light of the Grail, like the beauty that defined all of his features. He knew, as did all who had been at Camelot today, that if any man were to achieve the quest, it would be this new-knighted lad. And yet Perceval gazed at him, and only ached. He, too, had seen the grail as it circled the feasting-hall today, and he desired greatly to fulfill its quest; he desired more to be again as simple of heart as Galahad, to be a man who could be fulfilled by so pure a thing.

"They go," he said, "because the grail has come to them. The go because they are sworn. And they go, most of all, because they are knights of Arthur's court."

"I don't understand," said Galahad.

In the candlelight he was straight and slender and seemed sometimes just on the verge of flickering out; he had made no move to sit. The sword he had won - had it been just this morning? - was buckled, still, into the scabbard at his side.

"You drew a sword from a stone, today," Perceval said slowly.

"Well, yes."

"And you knew that it was for you to achieve; for you came bearing an empty scabbard, and all the court, besides, acclaimed that it was yours."

"Whose else should it have been?"

Perceval looked at him, sidewise. "Sir Gawain tried, before you arrived, though Lancelot told him he should be wounded thereby."

"Gawain!" Galahad exclaimed in derision.

"He is the best knight in all the world," Perceval replied mildly. "Oh, think you not? But there are those would call him so, and in their own way they would not be wrong. And I, also, tried it."

"You!" Galahad exclaimed, again. "Surely you knew it was not yours- "

"And how should I know?"

He looked discomforted, then. "You are not like them."

"I may have known, or I may not have known," he said, "But I tried it regardless, because Sir Gawain had, and he is my dear friend; and because my king wished it, and he also is; and because I am a knight of Camelot."

Galahad gazed at him. There was something very much the fifteen-year-old boy to him, in that moment. "You also will be wounded by it! Why would you do such a thing?"

Perceval stood, restless, and paced the three strides to the altar-rail of the tiny chapel. "Arthur our king pulled a sword from a stone, when he was little younger than you, did you know?" The lad nodded, but Perceval continued on. "He carried no empty scabbard, and no court acclaimed him, and he did not know that it was his; indeed, when it was seen what he had done, none there believed it of him. It seems an odd way of doing things, does it not? No-one had prepared him for a great destiny."

"It was God's will, I am sure," Galahad said, "But I still do not know why you should have pulled my sword, when you knew it was not yours, and you would be wounded by it."

Perceval deflated. He did not know why he spoke so. It would do no good to anyone for him to shake the lad's innocence, were it even possible that it could be shaken. If he returned to Arthur's court, he would learn more of the good things of the world; or he would not; that, too, was God's will, but Perceval somehow thought that they would neither of them return here. "I have been wounded before," he said, and "We are kin, you and I, did you know? If your mother is who she is said to be, at least. Well, regardless, as my father was some sort of distant cousin of Ban of Benwick's, but I have never been very clear on how."

"My mother was the Lady Elaine of Corbenic, daughter of King Pelles, the fisher," Galahad said stiffly. Well, he had likely repeated that many times already today.

"Pelles was my mother's brother," Perceval told him. "We are cousins in the first degree, then! I have spent many a fine hour at Corbenic, letting your grandfather teach me how to fish."

"I have not seen you there."

"It has been some time," Perceval admitted. "A knight of the Table Round has little chance for fishing with old friends, I fear." And, as much as he had loved the place, for every moment there the unfinished, unfinishable quest hung over him, and every pained breath his uncle tried to hide from him he felt as a wound of his own. "I remember them both fondly."

"I haven't seen Aunt Fleur for ages," said Galahad. "She's always off running errands for Grandfather. And mother's dead."

He said it so simply that for a moment Perceval didn't realize what he'd said. "She's dead? I'm sorry, then. She was a good woman, and right fair. How long gone is she?"

"A month, I think?" Galahad shrugged. "They said it was a fever."

He seemed unfeeling, but, Perceval knew, grief could take strange channels in the young. "Have you spoken of it to anyone here?"

"Is it a thing they would care to know?"

"I would think your father, at least, would care to hear of her."

"Would he?" Galahad asked flatly.

Perceval, suddenly, remembered himself at fifteen: hunting naked and uncaring in the forest, and running off to follow a shining dream as his mother perished of grief behind him. "Perhaps not," he conceded.

They stood in silence for a moment, and then both turned to the opening of the chapel's door. It was the Queen, Guinevere, as fair and merry as ever in her middle years.

"Sir Galahad, there you are!" she exclaimed. "With Sir Perceval, I should have known. Shame on you for stealing him away from his own party to this drafty old chapel."

"He is my cousin," Galahad told her stiffly, as if that should answer all of her complaints.

"Oh, he is? Yes, that's right, you're cousin to all of that Corbenic lot, aren't you?" she said.

"My lady," Perceval agreed.

"Well," she said, turning back to Galahad, one hand heavy on his forearm. "You know you must consider yourself as kin to all of us here, for your dear father's sake as well as your own. Now, come, my young sir - we've a chamber all prepared for you, the best chamber in the house! And you wouldn't want to disturb your cousin, I expect he's planning to keep a vigil - he always does before an adventure," she leaned to tell him, as if it were some great secret.

Galahad beseeched Perceval with one long look as she drew him away, but she was the Queen, and it would do the lad no harm to learn a bit - one night less of prayer, Perceval thought, would not be held against that one in the last accounting.

It took some minutes for the sense of silence to return to the room, when they had left. Perceval stood in the center, eyes turned toward the carven face gazing on him from the ceiling-arch, and thought, Mother, forgive me. Uncle, forgive me. Arthur, my king, forgive me. And he thought of the young straight night being pulled from the safe confines of the chapel, and thought, Galahad, and God, forgive me.

Tomorrow he would rise, and go to mass, and confess and be shriven; and then he would set out on one final quest.

He thought perhaps he would do his best to watch out for the lad, as well.

 

***

Two years later:

Sir Perceval walked, leading a single laden horse. It had been a long road from Sarras, and the old wound in his thigh was paining him, but the country through which he rode was as familiar as it was beautiful. The paths he traveled, which in his youth had seemed to twist and turn before him, now led straight on to his destination, and a fine damp breeze rustled the new green leaves on the trees.

He had not stopped at Camelot, where the king was: let Sir Bors tell them he had passed out of this world, for he felt as if he had - as if everything which had passed since he had gone from the city of the Grail had happened outside himself, to someone else.

He came to a broad water, still without any marked crossing, and saw upon the shore a man, gray of beard and fine of countenance, who lounged upon a rich carpet with a fishing-pole in his hand.

"Greetings," he said, and "Catch anything lately?"

The man rose at his greeting, and Perceval's heart leapt, once, to see him standing tall and unsupported, no trace of pain or even stiffness is his frame. "Sir Perceval!" he called, with a sudden glad smile, "I had begun to fear I would not see you again," and then he paused, seeing how Perceval was worn and drawn, and the sadness in his face. "What ails you, nephew?"

Perceval moved aside, the horse turning with him, so that the old King could see the burden tied across the saddle: an ancient sword, in a scabbard of surpassing fineness, swaddled in a rich surcoat; and over them both, a great white shield marked with a scarlet cross.

The king took one step toward it, suddenly unsteady again, knowing as well as Perceval what it betokened. "So," he said, "By the same stroke was I cured, and wounded again."

"He... asked for it," Perceval said, brokenly. "He begged to be allowed to go." The surcoat had no blood on it, as pure and unmarred as its owner had been, even to the end.

"He would," replied the king. "The boy never did have a lick of sense." He put one hand upon the center of the shield, where the cross was still red as new blood, and then laid his cheek against it. "All the same, it's what was meant to be, I suppose. It's only that I find myself growing very short of kin, as I grow old."

"I've come back," Perceval said.

"Have you?" asked the old king.

"I've come back to stay," he said. "If you'll have me here."

The king took Perceval's hands in his. "That question, Sir Perceval," he said, "You have never needed to ask."

Softly, it began to rain.