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Rain leaked through the thatch of the hen-house; the same dank, cold rain that had been falling for weeks, ever since the snow melted. It dripped on the back of her neck and down her back under her smock. Though it was nearly dusk, Elfrida checked the nests one more time, hoping that one of the scrawny, ill-tempered hens might have been persuaded, by a miracle or sheer perversity, to drop an egg. But as she had expected, the nests were empty, and the hens resisted her attempts at investigation with nasty jabs of their beaks. They'd gotten quite adept at fighting, competing with and chasing away the crows who came to steal their scant feed over the winter. She came away from the hen-house with an empty apron and scratched and bleeding hands.
Nor was there remedy waiting for her in the cottage, even for that. The little salve they had must be hoarded against greater need than hers.
Old Mag, the village healer and Elfrida's teacher, looked up from the tiny fire burning in the pit in the center of the dirt-floored cottage's single room. At least the thatch here was sound, though rain dripped in through the smoke-hole, and the fire didn't seem to be warming the place any. Elfrida coughed on the smoke, which persisted in staying inside, rather than rising through the smoke-hole as it should.
Mag's eyes had gotten worse over the winter, and the cottage was very dark with the shutters closed. "No eggs?" she asked, peering across the room, as Elfrida let the cowhide down across the cottage door.
"None," Elfrida replied, sighing. "This springif it's this bad now, what will summer be like?"
She squatted down beside Mag, and took the share of barley-bread the old woman offered, with a crude wooden cup of bitter-tasting herb tea dipped out of the kettle beside the fire.
"I don't know," Mag replied, rubbing her eyesMag, who had been tall and straight with health last summer, who was now bent and aching, with swollen joints and rheumy eyes. Neither willow-bark nor eyebright helped her much. "Lady bless, darling, I don't know. First that killing frost, then nothing but rainseems like what seedlings the frost didn't get, must've rotted in the fields by now. Hens aren't laying, lambs are born dead, pigs lay on their own young . . . what we're going to do for food come winter, I've no notion."
When Mag said "we," she meant the whole village. She was not only their healer, but their priestess of the Old Way. Garth might be hetman, but she was the village's heart and soulas Elfrida expected to be one day. This was something she had chosen, knowing the work and self-sacrifice involved, knowing that the enmity of the priests of the White Christ might fall upon her. But not for a long timeLady grant.
That was what she had always thought, but now the heart and soul of the village was sickening, as the village around her sickened. But why?
"We made the proper sacrifices," Elfrida said, finally. "Didn't we? What've we done or not done that the land turns against us?"
Mag didn't answer, but there was a quality in her silence that made Elfrida think that the old woman knew somethingsomething important. Something that she hadn't yet told her pupil.
Finally, as darkness fell, and the fire burned down to coals, Mag spoke.
"We made the sacrifices," she said. "But there was onewho didn't."
"Who?" Elfrida asked, surprised. The entire village followed the Old Waynever mind the High King and his religion of the White Christ. That was for knights and nobles and suchlike. Her people stuck by what they knew best, the turning of the seasons, the dance of the Maiden, Mother and Crone, the rule of the Horned Lord. And if anyone in the village had neglected their sacrifices, surely she or Mag would have known!
"It isn't just our village that's sickening," Mag said, her voice a hoarse, harsh whisper out of the dark. "Nor the county alone. I've talked to the other Wise Ones, to the peddlersI talked to the crows and the owls and ravens. It's the whole land that's sickening, failingand there's only one sacrifice can save the land."
Elfrida felt her mouth go dry, and took a sip of her cold, bitter tea to wet it. "The blood of the High King," she whispered.
"Which he will not shed, come as he is to the feet of the White Christ." Mag shook her head. "My dear, my darling girl, I'd hoped the Lady wouldn't lay this on us . . . I'd prayed she wouldn't punish us for his neglect. But 'tisn't punishment, not really, and I should've known better than to hope it wouldn't come. Whether he believes it or not, the High King is tied to the land, and Arthur is old and failing. As he fails, the land fails"
"Butsurely there's something we can do?" Elfrida said timidly into the darkness.
Mag stirred. "If there is, I haven't been granted the answer," she said, after another long pause. "But perhapsyou've had Lady-dreams before, 'twas what led you to me. . . ."
"You want me to try for a vision?" Elfrida's mouth dried again, but this time no amount of tea would soothe it, for it was dry from fear. For all that she had true visions, when she sought them, the experience frightened her. And no amount of soothing on Mag's part, or encouragement that thethingsshe saw in the dark waiting for her soul's protection to waver could not touch her, could ever ease that fear.
But weighed against her fear was the very real possibility that the village might not survive the next winter. If she was worthy to be Mag's successor, she must dare her fear, and dare the dreams, and see if the Lady had an answer for them since High King Arthur did not. The land and the people needed her and she must answer that need.
"I'll try," she whispered, and Mag touched her lightly on the arm.
"That's my good and brave girl," she said. "I knew you wouldn't fail us." Something on Mag's side of the fire rustled, and she handed Elfrida a folded leaf full of dried herbs.
They weren't what the ignorant thought, herbs to bring visions. The visions came when Elfrida asked for themthese were to strengthen and guard her while her spirit rode the night winds, in search of answers. Foxglove to strengthen her heart, moly to shield her soul, a dozen others, a scant pinch of each. Obediently, she placed them under her tongue, and while Mag chanted the names of the Goddess, Elfrida closed her eyes, and released her all-too-fragile hold on her body.
The convent garden was sodden, the ground turning to mush, and unless someone did something about it, there would be nothing to eat this summer but what the tithes brought and the King's Grace granted them. Outside the convent walls, the fields were just as sodden; so, as the Mother Superior said, "A tithe of nothing is still nothing, and we must prepare to feed ourselves." Leonie sighed, and leaned a little harder on the spade, being careful where she put each spadeful of earth. Behind the spade, the drainage trench she was digging between each row of drooping pea-seedlings filled with water. Hopefully, this would be enough to keep them from rotting. Hopefully, there would be enough to share. Already the eyes of the children stared at her from faces pinched and hungry when they came to the convent for Mass, and she hid the bread that was half her meal to give to them.
Her gown was as sodden as the ground; cold and heavy with water, and only the fact that it was made of good wool kept it from chilling her. Her bare feet, ankle-deep in mud, felt like blocks of stone, they were so cold. She had kirtled her gown high to keep the hem from getting muddied, but that only let the wind get at her legs. Her hair was so soaked that she had not even bothered with the linen veil of a novice; it would only have flapped around without protecting her head and neck any. Her hands hurt; she wasn't used to this.
The other novices, gently born and not, were desperately doing the same in other parts of the garden. Those that could, rather; some of the gently-born were too ill to come out into the soaking, cold rain. The sisters, as many as were able, were outside the walls, helping a few of the local peasants dig a larger ditch down to the swollen stream. The trenches in the convent garden would lead to itand so would the trenches being dug in the peasants' gardens, on the other side of the high stone wall.
"We must work together," Mother Superior had said firmly, and so here they were, knight's daughter and villien's son, robes and tunics kirtled up above the knee, wielding shovels with a will. Leonie had never thought to see it.
But the threat of hunger made strange bedfellows. Already the convent had turned out to help the villagers trench their kitchen gardens. Leonie wondered what the village folk would do about the fields too large to trench, or fields of hay? It would be a cold summer, and a lean winter.
What had gone wrong with the land? It was said that the weather had been unseasonableand miserableall over the kingdom. Nor was the weather all that had gone wrong; it was said there was quarreling at High King Arthur's court; that the knights were moved to fighting for its own sake, and had brought their leman openly to many court gatherings, to the shame of the ladies. It was said that the Queen herself
But Leonie did not want to hear such things, or even think of them. It was all of a piece, anyway; knights fighting among themselves, killing frosts and rain that wouldn't end, the threat of war at the borders, raiders and bandits within, and starvation and plague hovering over all.
Something was deeply, terribly wrong.
She considered that, as she dug her little trenches, as she returned to the convent to wash her dirty hands and feet and change into a drier gown, as she nibbled her meager supper, trying to make it last, and as she went in to Vespers with the rest.
Something was terribly, deeply wrong.
When Mother Superior approached her after Vespers, she somehow knew that her feeling of wrongness and what the head of the convent was about to ask were linked.
"Leonie," Mother Superior said, once the other novices had filed away, back to their beds, "when your family sent you here, they told me it was because you had visions."
Leonie ducked her head and stared at her sandals. "Yes, Mother Magdalene."
"And I asked you not to talk about those visions in any way," the nun persisted. "Not to any of the other novices, not to any of the sister, not to Father Peregrine."
"Yes, Mother MagdaleneI mean, no Mother Magdalene" Leonie looked up, flushing with anger. "I mean, I haven't"
She knew why the nun had ordered her to keep silence on the subject; she'd heard the lecture to her parents through the door. The Mother Superior didn't believe in Leonie's visionsor rather, she was not convinced that they were really visions. "This could simply be a young woman's hysteria," she'd said sternly, "or an attempt to get attention. If the former, the peace of the convent and the meditation and prayer will cure her quickly enoughif the latter, well, she'll lose such notions of self-importance when she has no one to prate to."
"I know you haven't, child," Mother Magdalene said wearily, and Leonie saw how the nun's hands were blistered from the spade she herself had wielded today, how her knuckles were swollen, and her cheekbones cast into a prominence that had nothing to do with the dim lighting in the chapel. "I wanted to know if you still have them."
"Sometimes," Leonie said hesitantly. "That was howI mean, that was why I woke last winter, when Sister Maria was elf-shot"
"Sister Maria was not elf-shot," Mother Magdalene said automatically. "Elves could do no harm to one who trusts in God. It was simply something that happens to the very old, now and again, it is a kind of sudden brain-fever. But that isn't the point. You're still having the visionsbut can you still see things that you want to see?"
"Sometimes," Leonie said cautiously. "If God and the Blessed Virgin permit."
"Well, if God is ever going to permit it, I suspect He'd do so during Holy Week," Mother Magdalene sighed. "Leonie, I am going to ask you a favor. I'd like you to make a vigil tonight."
"And ask for a vision?" Leonie said, raising her head in sudden interest.
"Precisely." The nun shook her head, and picked up her beads, telling them through her fingers as she often did when nervous. "There is something wrong with us, with the land, with the kingdomI want you to see if God will grant you a vision of what." As Leonie felt a sudden upsurge of pride, Mother Magdalene added hastily, "You aren't the only one being asked to do thisevery order from one end of the kingdom to the other has been asked for visions from their members. I thought long and hard about asking this. But you are the only one in my convent who has everhad a tendency to visions."
The Mother Superior had been about to say something else, Leonie was sure, for the practical and pragmatic Mother Magdalene had made her feelings on the subject of mysticism quite clear over the years. But that didn't matterwhat did matter was that she was finally going to be able to release that pent-up power again, to soar on the angels' wings. Never mind that there were as many devils "out there" as angels; her angels would protect her, for they always had, and always would.
Without another word, she knelt on the cold stone before the altar, fixed her eyes on the bright little gilded cross above it, and released her soul's hold on her body.
"What did you see?" Mag asked, as Elfrida came back, shivering and spent, to consciousness. Her body was lying on the ground beside the fire, and it felt too tight, like a garment that didn't fit anymorebut she was glad enough to be in it again, for there had been thousands of those evil creatures waiting for her, trying to prevent her from reaching
"The Cauldron," she murmured, sitting up slowly, one hand on her aching head. "There was a Cauldron "
"Of course!" Mag breathed. "The Cauldron of the Goddess! But" It was too dark for Elfrida to see Mag, other than as a shadow in the darkness, but she somehow felt Mag's searching eyes. "What about the Cauldron? When is it coming back? Who's to have it? Not the High King, surely"
"I'msupposed to go look for it" Elfrida said, vaguely. "That's what They saidI'm supposed to go look for it."
Mag's sharp intake of breath told her of Mag's shock. "Butno, I know you, when you come out of this," she muttered, almost as if to herself. "You can't lie. If you say They said for you to go, then go you must."
Elfrida wanted to say something else, to ask what it all meant, but she couldn't. The vision had taken too much out of her, and she was whirled away a second time, but this time it was not on the winds of vision, but into the arms of exhausted sleep.
"What did you see?" Mother Superior asked urgently. Leonie found herself lying on the cold stone before the altar, wrapped in someone's cloak, with something pillowed under her head. She felt very peaceful, as she always did when the visions released her, and very, very tired. There had been many demons out there, but as always, her angels had protected her. Still, she was glad to be back. There had never been quite so many of the evil things there before, and they had frightened her.
She had to blink a few times, as she gathered her memories and tried to make sense of them. "A cup," she said, hesitantlythen her eyes fell upon the Communion chalice on the altar, and they widened as she realized just what she truly had seen. "Nonot a cup, the Cup! We're to seek the Grail! That's what They told me!"
"The Grail?" Mother Magdalene's eyes widened a little herself, and she crossed herself hastily. "Just before youyou dropped over, you reached out. I thought I sawI thought I saw something faint, like a ghost of a glowing cup in your hands"
Leonie nodded, her cheek against the rough homespun of the habit bundled under her head. "They said that to save the kingdom, we have to seek the Grail."
"We?" Mother Magdalene said, doubtfully. "Surely you don't mean"
"The High King's knights and squires, some of the clergyandme" Leonie's voice trailed off, as she realized what she was saying. "They said the knights will know already and that when you hear about it from Camelot, you'll know I was speaking the truth. But I don't want to go!" she wailed. "I don't! I"
"I'm convinced of the truth now," the nun said. "Just by the fact that you don't want to go. If this had been a sham, to get attention, you'd have demanded special treatment, to be cosseted and made much of, not to be sent off on your own."
"But" Leonie protested frantically, trying to hold off unconsciousness long enough to save herself from this exile.
"Never mind," the Mother Superior said firmly. "We'll wait for word from Camelot. When we hear it, then you'll go."
Leonie would have protested further, but Mother Magdalene laid a cool hand across her hot eyes, and sleep came up and took her.
Elfrida had never been this far from her home village before. The great forest through which she had been walking for most of the day did not look in the least familiar. In fact, it did not look like anything anyone from the village had ever described.
And why hadn't Mag brought her here to gather healing herbs and mushrooms?
The answer seemed clear enough; she was no longer in lands Mag or any of the villagers had ever seen.
She had not known which way to go, so she had followed the raven she saw flying away from the village. The raven had led her to the edge of the woods, which at the time had seemed quite ordinary. But the oaks and beeches had turned to a thick growth of fir; the deeper she went, the older the trees became, until at last she was walking on a tiny path between huge trunks that rose far over her head before properly branching out. Beneath those spreading branches, thin, twiggy growth reached out skeletal fingers like blackened bones, while the upper branches cut off most of the light, leaving the trail beneath shrouded in a twilight gloom, though it was midday.
Though she was on a quest of sorts, that did not mean she had left her good sense behind. While she was within the beech and oak forest, she had gleaned what she could on either side of the track. Her pack now held two double-handfuls each of acorns and beechnuts, still sound, and a few mushrooms. Two here, three or four there, they added up.
It was just as well, for the meager supply of journey-bread she had with her had been all given away by the end of the first day of her quest. A piece at a time, to a child here, a nursing mother there . . . but she had the freedom of the road and the forest; the people she encountered were tied to their land and could not leave it. Not while there was any chance they might coax a crop from it.
They feared the forest, though they could not tell Elfrida why. They would only enter the fringes of it, to feed their pigs on acorns, to pick up deadfall. Further than that, they would not go.
Elfrida had known for a long time that she was not as magical as Mag. She had her visions, but that was all; she could not see the power rising in the circles, although she knew it was there, and could sometimes feel it. She could not see the halos of light around people that told Mag if they were sick or well. She had no knowledge of the future outside of her visions, and could not talk to the birds and animals as Mag could.
So she was not in the least surprised to find that she could sense nothing about the forest that indicated either good or ill. If there was something here, she could not sense it. Of course, the gloom of the fir-forest was more than enough to frighten anyone with any imagination. And while nobles often claimed that peasants had no more imagination than a block of woodwell, Elfrida often thought that nobles had no more sense than one of their high-bred, high-strung horses, that would break legs, shying at shadows. Witless, uselessand irresponsible. How many of them were on their lands, helping their liegemen and peasants to save their crops? Few enough; most were idling their time away at the High King's Court, gambling, drinking, wenching, playing at tourneys and other useless pastimes. And she would wager that the High King's table was not empty; that the nobles' children were not going pinch-faced and hungry to bed. The religion of the White Christ had divorced master from man, noble from villager, making the former into a master in truth, and the latter into an income-producing slave. The villager was told by his priest to trust in God and receive his reward in heaven. The lord need feel no responsibility for any evils he did or caused, for once they had been confessed and paid forusually by a generous gift to the priesthis God counted them as erased. The balance of duty and responsibility between the vassal and his lord was gone.
She shook off her bitter thoughts as nightfall approached. Without Mag's extra abilities Elfrida knew she would have to be twice as careful about spending the night in this place. If there were supernatural terrors about, she would never know until they were on her. So when she made her little camp, she cast circles around her with salt and iron, betony and rue, writing the runes as clear as she could, before she lit her fire to roast her nuts.
But in the end, when terror came upon her, it was of a perfectly natural sort.
Leonie cowered, and tried to hide in the folds of her robe. Her bruised face ached, and her bound wrists were cut and swollen around the thin twine the man who had caught her had used to bind her.
She had not gotten more than two days away from the conventdistributing most of her food to children and the sick as she walkedwhen she had reached the edge of the forest, and her vague visions had directed her to follow the path through it. She had seen no signs of people, nor had she sensed anything about the place that would have caused folk to avoid it. That had puzzled her, so she had dropped into a walking trance to try and sort out what kind of a place the forest was.
That was when someone had come up behind her and hit her on the head.
Now she knew why ordinary folk avoided the forest; it was the home of bandits. And she knew what her fate was going to be. Only the strength of the hold the chieftain had over his men had kept her from that fate until now. He had decreed that they would wait until all the men were back from their errandsand then they would draw lots for their turns at her. . . .
Leonie was so terrified that she was beyond thought; she huddled like a witless rabbit inside her robe and prayed for death.
"What's this?" the bandit chief said, loudly, startling her so that she raised her head out of the folds of her sleeves. She saw nothing at first; only the dark bulking shapes of men against the fire in their midst. He laughed, long and hard, as another of his men entered their little clearing, shoving someone in front of him."By Satan's arse! The woods are sprouting wenches!"
Elfrida caught her breath at the curse; so, these men were not "just" banditsthey were the worst kind of bandit, nobles gone beyond the law. Only one who was once a follower of the White Christ would have used his adversary's name as an exclamation. No follower of the Old Way, either Moon or Blood-path would have done so.
The brigand who had captured her shoved her over to land beside another girland once again she caught her breath, as her talisman-bag swung loose on its cord, and the other girl shrunk away, revealing the wooden beads and cross at the rope that served her as a belt. Worse and worsethe girl wore the robes of one who had vowed herself to the White Christ! There would be no help there . . . if she were not witless before she had been caught, she was probably frightened witless now. Even if she would accept help from the hands of a "pagan."
Leonie tried not to show her hope. Another girl! Perhaps between the two of them, they could manage to win free!
But as the girl was shoved forward, to drop to the needles beside Leonie, something swung free of her robe to dangle over her chest. It was a little bag, on a rawhide thong.
And the bandit chief roared again, this time with disapproval, seizing the bag and breaking the thong with a single, cruelly hard tug of his hand. He tossed it out into the darkness and backhanded the outlaw who had brought the girl in.
"You witless bastard!" he roared. "You brought in a witch!" A witch?
Leonie shrunk away from her fellow captive. A witch? Blessed Jesuthis young woman would be just as pleased to see Leonie raped to death! She would probably call up one of her demons to help!
As the brigand who had been struck shouted and went for his chief's throat, and the others gathered around, yelling encouragement and placing bets, she closed her eyes, bowed her head, and prayed. Blessed Mother of God! hear me. Angels of grace, defend us. Make them forget us for just a moment. . . .
As the brainless child started in fear, then pulled away, bowed her head, and began praying, Elfrida kept a heavy hand on her temper. Bad enough that she was going to dieand in a particularly horrible waybut to have to do it in such company!
Butsuddenly the outlaws were fighting. One of them appeared to be the chief; the other the one who had caught her. And they were ignoring the two girls as if they had somehow forgotten their existence. . . .
Blessed Mother, hear me. Make it so.
The man had only tied her with a bit of leather, no stronger than the thong that had held her herb-bag. If she wriggled just right, bracing her tied hands against her feet, she could probably snap it.
She prayed, and pulled. And was rewarded with the welcome release of pressure as the thong snapped.
She brought her hands in front of her, hiding them in her tunic, and looked up quickly; the fight had involved a couple more of the bandits. She and the other girl were in the shadows now, for the fire had been obscured by the men standing or scuffling around it. If she crept away quickly and quietly
No sooner thought than done. She started to crawl away, got as far as the edge of the firelight, then looked back.
The other girl was still huddled where she had been left, eyes closed. Too stupid or too frightened to take advantage of the opportunity to escape.
If Elfrida left her there, they probably wouldn't try to recapture her. They'd have one girl still, and wouldn't go hunting in the dark for the one that had gotten away. . . .
Elfrida muttered an oath, and crawled back.
Leonie huddled with the witch-girl under the shelter of a fallen tree, and they listened for the sounds of pursuit. She had been praying as hard as she could, eyes closed, when a painful tug on the twine binding her wrists had made her open her eyes.
"Well, come on!" the girl had said, tugging again. Leonie had not bothered to think about what the girl might be pulling her into, she had simply followed, crawling as best she could with her hands tied, then getting up and running when the girl did.
They had splashed through a stream, running along a moonlit path, until Leonie's sides ached. Finally the girl had pulled her off the path and shoved her under the bulk of a fallen tree, into a little dug-out den she would never have guessed was there. From the musky smell, it had probably been made by a fox or badger. Leonie huddled in the dark, trying not to sob, concentrating on the pain in her side and not on the various fates the witch-girl could have planned for her.
Before too long, they heard shouts in the distance, but they never came very close. Leonie strained her ears, holding her breath, to try and judge how close their pursuers were, and jumped when the witch-girl put a hand on her.
"Don't," the girl whispered sharply. "You won't be going far with your hands tied like that. Hold still! I'm not going to hurt you."
Leonie stuttered something about demons, without thinking. The girl laughed.
"If I had a demon to come when I called, do you think I would have let a bastard like that lay hands on me?" Since there was no logical answer to that question, Leonie wisely kept quiet. The girl touched her hands, and then seized them; Leonie kept herself from pulling away, and a moment later, felt the girl sawing at her bonds with a bit of sharp rock. Every so often the rock cut into Leonie instead of the twine, but she bit her lip and kept quiet, gratitude increasing as each strand parted. "What were you doing out here, anyway?" the girl asked."I thought they kept your kind mewed up like prize lambs."
"I had a vision" Leonie began, wondering if by her words and the retelling of her holy revelation, the witch-girl might actually be converted to Christianity. It happened that way all the time in the tales of the saints, after all. . . .
So while the girl sawed patiently at the bonds with the sharp end of the rock, Leonie told her everything, from the time she realized that something was wrong, to the moment the bandit took her captive. The girl stayed silent through all of it, and Leonie began to hope that she might bring the witch-girl to the Light and Life of Christ.
The girl waited until she had obviously come to the end, then laughed, unpleasantly. "Suppose, just suppose," she said, "I were to tell you that the exact same vision was given to me? Only it isn't some mystical cup that this land needs, it's the Cauldron of Cerridwen, the ever-renewing, for the High King refuses to sacrifice himself to save his kingdom as the Holy Bargain demands and only the Cauldron can give the land the blessing of the Goddess."
The last of the twine snapped as she finished, and Leonie pulled her hands away. "Then I would say that your vision is wrong, evil," she retorted. "There is no goddess, only the Blessed Virgin"
"Who is one face of the Goddess, who is Maiden, Mother and Wise One," the girl interrupted, her words dripping acid. "Only a fool would fail to see that. And your White Christ is no more than the Sacrificed One in one of His many guisesit is the Cauldron the land needs, not your apocryphal Cup"
"Your cauldron is some demon-thing," Leonie replied, angrily. "Only the Grail"
Whatever else she was going to say was lost, as the tree-trunk above them was riven into splinters by a bolt of lightning that blinded and deafened them both for a moment.
When they looked up, tears streaming from their eyes, it was to see something they both recognized as The Enemy.
Standing over them was a shape, outlined in a glow of its own. It was three times the height of a man, black and hairy like a bear, with the tips of its outstretched claws etched in fire. But it was not a bear, for it wore a leather corselet, and its head had the horns of a bull, the snout and tusks of a boar, dripping foam and saliva, and its eyes, glowing an evil red, were slitted like a goat's.
Leonie screamed and froze. The witch-girl seized her bloody wrist, hauled her to her feet, and ran with her stumbling along behind.
The beast roared and followed after. They had not gotten more than forty paces down the road, when the witch-girl fell to the ground with a cry of pain, her hand slipping from Leonie's wrist.
Her ankle Leonie thought, but no more, for the beast was shambling towards them. She grabbed the girl's arm and hauled her to her feet; draped her arm over her own shoulders, and dragged her erect. Up ahead there was moonlight shining down on somethingperhaps a clearing, and perhaps the beast might fear the light
She half-dragged, half-guided the witch-girl towards that promise of light, with the beast bellowing behind them. The thought crossed her mind that if she dropped the girl and left her, the beast would probably be content with the witch and would not chase after Leonie. . . .
No, she told herself, and stumbled onward.
They broke into the light, and Leonie looked up
And sank to her knees in wonder.
Elfrida fell beside the other girl, half blinded by tears of pain, and tried to get to her feet. The beastshe had to help Leonie up, they had to run
Then she looked up.
And fell again to her knees, this time stricken not with pain, but with awe. And though she had never felt power before, she felt it now; humming through her, blood and bone, saw it in the vibration of the air, in the purity of the light streaming from the Cup
The Cup held in the hand of a man, whose gentle, sad eyes told of the pain, not only of His own, but of the world's, that for the sake of the world, He carried on His own shoulders.
Leonie wept, tears of mingled joy and fearjoy to be in the Presence of One who was all of Light and Love, and fear, that this One was She and not Heand the thing that she held, spilling over the Light of Love and Healing was Cauldron and not Cup.
I was wrong she thought, helplessly.
Wrong? said a loving, laughing Voice. Or simplylimited in vision?
And in that moment, the Cauldron became a Cup, and the Lady became the Lord, Jesuthen changed again, to a man of strange, draped robes and slanted eyes, who held neither Cup nor Cauldron, but a cup-shaped Flower with a jeweled hearta hawk-headed creature with a glowing stone in His handa black-skinned Woman with a bright Bird
And then to another shape, and another, until her eyes were dazzled and her spirit dizzied, and she looked away, into the eyes of Elfrida. The witch-girlWise Girl whispered the Voice in her mind, and Quest-Companionlooked similarly dazzled, but the joy in her face must surely mirror Leonie's. The girl offered her hand, and Leonie took it, and they turned again to face
A Being of light, neither male nor female, and a dazzling Cup as large as a Cauldron, the veil covering it barely dimming its brilliance.
Come, the Being said, you have proved yourselves worthy.
Hand in hand, the two newest Grail Maidens rose, and followed the shining beacon into the Light.
It was inevitable that the Holy Grail anthology would spawn an Excalibur anthology. I kept promising to write the story and things got in the way . . . like other deadlines! But bless their hearts, they held a place for me, and here is the story itself. It's not at all like the Grail story; in fact, it's not a very heroic story, which may surprise some people.
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