THE ENDLESS QUEST
"Madam, you are in one's way. It is not unreasonable to request that you eviscerate that dwarf elsewhere."
"I'll move when I've finished. I've already lost my dagger inside it! Why don't you go away, wash your hair, and come back later, old 'one'?"
"With older years, Miss, come both wisdom and impatience. And one has had all one can bear of your rudeness. One would strongly suggest..."
"What can you do against a sword mistress? Write me a letter of complaint? Because I'll have you know, my letter opener's jolly sharp."
Hordriss thrust his hand in Gundrada's direction in understated rage, and stretched out his quivering fingers in exaggerated sorcery. "CLAUDERE!"
'Theorising that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap Accelerator, and vanished.
'He awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear.
'And so Dr Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.'
Like a passenger on a night ferry (with a captain he had yet to identify), embarking at one port, being carried across a broad, deep, wine-dark sea, and waking up on a strange, new shore (with rebirth following berth), Doctor Sam Beckett had completed another quantum leap through space and time. He waited a moment for his vision to clear, so he could attempt to piece together where, and when, and who he now was; but he remained in darkness.
Turning his head, Sam realised that his head was covered by some sort of cowl or sack. Was he a kidnap victim? He was sitting down, but it felt like he wasn't indoors. He tried to stand, and found that he could, though the ground was oddly shaky. He put a hand to his face, and pulled the cowl off. Around him was a lake. He was standing in a boat. Sam sat down.
"Oh hurry up will you? You're wasting time."
"Ah yes. Tempus fugit. Which is more than can be said for you!" Brother Mace tilted his head back and rolled out a round of laughter, while Gundrada grimaced in exasperation. The tavern monk wiped tears from his face, but not his smile. "Ah... do bear with me a moment, my young incarcerant – opening a pillory is a little trickier than the swig-and-swallow process at which I am... rather more experienced." After some fumbling, Mace got the pillory open, and lifting the top, allowed Gundrada to free her arms and head. With no intention of thanking the cleric, she cantered over to a nearby table, where her sword, Slash, was waiting.
"Now I can find that snobby old warlock and lop his arms off, before he gets the chance to magic me back into that thing."
Brother Mace steepled his fingers and raised his eyebrows. "So, it was Hordriss who put you in the pillory? That won't exactly keep the goblins under control – they're breeding rather feverishly these days. Allow me, as a representative of the Church, to have a word with him. You may find another meeting with each other a trifle... overwhelming."
"He certainly will! And you won't be visiting him, because I'm going to cut you in two, or maybe three since there's so much of you, for taking such a jolly long time to free me!" Gundrada drew her sword-point over to Mace's paunch; but perhaps because of his mild inebriation, the rotund monk was unfazed.
"My dear gladiatrix, you'd probably be doing me a favour, as a have a rather large bill to settle with the landlord of the Crazed Heifer; however, were you to... martyr me, who would you have to challenge you to monthly belching contests, and graciously lose?"
Gundrada thought this for a moment... but wasn't swayed. Mace could feel the blade through his habit, and cultivated a graver tone.
"If you cause harm to me, then I shan't divulge the information I've been permitted to share with you, about your quest."
Slash was drawn back. "My quest?"
"Yes, young lady, your quest." Mace tightened his silly rope. "You already know a little about it, I believe?"
Gundrada sneered a little as she tried to remember. "That evil sorceress said that it was a quest 'no dungeoneer would ever face'. She also told me that I can only use self-activating spells, which are jolly rare, and I'm supposed to avoid undue force, like chopping heads off. And that silly old fool with the white hair told me I had to show compassion, whatever that is, and that my quest is endless."
Mace chortled. "Ah, Merlin. Somewhat more riddled with senility now, than he was before the last phase shift. Only one of his declarations is correct. Your quest may well find an end, but first, you have to know your purpose. And I may tell you."
Gundrada snorted impatiently.
"Now how do I put this... A-ha, the words of Catullus perhaps, for he knows more of such things than I: zonam solvere diu ligatam."
"I don't speak Latin," snarled the sword mistress. "I did have a tutor. But I cut his tongue out to stop him asking me for homework, and he had a bit of a hard time teaching me after that."
The clergyman sighed, and dropping his eyes (but not his aitches), explained in plain English what Gundrada had to do. "Do that, and your path is your own. Fail, and your destiny remains tied to the Dungeon, which means that come Yuletide, and the end of this phase, you may well... disappear. Well, my dear, I shall leave you to it. Farewell, and er.. take care." Gundrada remained quietly wide-eyed as Brother Mace left the chamber.
Sam felt a chill in the air as he looked around him. The boat was pointing towards the shore of the lake, where a murky forest lurked. Behind Sam was an elegant yet imposing castle, that Sam couldn't put a date on. Perhaps the lake was a moat. Sam was fairly certain what country he was in; and if right, he was fairly certain whereabouts. Not a place, so much as an idea, an experience: a Knightmare.
"So, that's my quest, and... I know you help dungeoneers with their quests... so will you help me?" Gundrada gazed hopefully at the jester.
Motley drew his legs up to the window ledge where he was perched, and furrowed his brow. "Lemme get this straight..."
"Oh, must you? I've already explained!"
"You've been put on a quest to 'get passionate' with someone, and you're asking yours truly?"
"Yes. But it only needs to be once."
Motley paused, as he mulled over the desperation in Gundrada's voice. Then he fell off the ledge, laughing.
Gundrada hid her acute embarrassment in a thick scabbard of annoyance. "Finally made someone laugh, did you? You should be grateful to me!"
The giggling bundle of red and yellow eventually fell quiet, and peered up at the swordswoman. "In case you 'aven't sussed it by now," said Motley, in a chirpy yet determined tone, "the answer, is no." The joker sprung up from the stony floor and faced Gundrada, hands on hips (his own, on his own). "Despite what you may think, I 'ave got a reputation. And locking lips with you wouldn't do it any good. 'Locking lips' – makes me sound like a locksmith! Besides, knowing you, I'd probably end up in several pieces! Na, Melly's the girl for me. Now there's a handmaid!" Motley, looking wistfully upwards, didn't catch the fleeting glaze of sadness in Gundrada's eyes. When he looked back, she was frowning.
"Don't lose 'eart though. I'm sure you'll find someone willing to let you be 'is sword mistress. 'Til then, keep smiling" – Motley pinched Gundrada's cheek – "and don't do anything I wouldn't do!" The jester dashed away, stifling more giggles.
Sam examined the small boat. Besides a pair of oars, a short rope, some food and other provisions, it was packed with bars of gold and silver, some in sacks, others loose. Sam was reluctant to ask questions which couldn't be answered, but couldn't help wondering how the vessel could stay afloat with such heavy cargo. He picked up a silver bar – it was real. It was polished too. Sam seized the opportunity to check his reflection. The boatman's face gave him rather a shock.
Gundrada pounded along the corridor, trying to expel and trample her frustration as she ran. She had tried asking selected Crazed Heifer customers for help with her quest, but they had recoiled in apparent horror. Except for the drunk ones, who had fallen over whilst trying to recoil. In desperation, she'd tracked down Fatilla, a former admirer of hers whom she'd rejected previously, but he hadn't understood what she was asking. She'd embarrassed herself by offering some silver as a bribe; he'd humiliated her further by turning it down, simply because it wasn't freshly baked. Gundrada reached the end of the passageway, rasping, and hurtled down a staircase. She found a closed door at the bottom. She tried to open it – it was sealed. As she huffed, a face appeared on the wood. Its eyes overflowed with self-pity and tears.
"Oh, woe! Oh tragedy! All is futile! Every beginning leads to an end! Love is blind, because its reflection is Hate!"
"Oh do be quiet! I'd tell you to shut up, but you're already shut. Just open, will you?" The sword mistress didn't like having her way blocked.
The little-known door monster, Doorian, sniffled. "The proper calling will open me. Until then, your pleasure is my pain, your pain... is my pain!"
"I can't remember the calling. So do me a favour and OPEN UP!"
"No!" wailed Doorian. "I can't!"
Gundrada had had her fill of refusals. "Oh yes you can!" she roared, and drawing Slash, she swung it at the door. Doorian shrieked as Gundrada hacked at the wooden visage, until it faded. "Spell-locked, my foot!" she bellowed with Amazonian vigour, and with a thunderous kick, sent the door crashing down. But it was scant catharsis. She stepped through the doorway; but where was she going? Strength and swordplay could clear her path of many an obstacle, but it couldn't help her with her quest, and so the path led nowhere. Gundrada resolved to venture off the path: she would go to Level 3 and catch the attention of the powers that roosted there, and pester them until they agreed to lend her assistance. Gundrada wasn't sure how to get to Level 3, but she knew that the katabasis currently lay beyond Ariadne's Lair in Dunkley Wood, further than she'd ever been. Whirling Slash, as if to keep it warmed up, she raised the sword and marched forth.
"Row, row, row your boat, gently from the keep, warily, warily, warily, warily, life is but a leap."
The man who had joined Sam in the boat was Al: colleague, friend, and a better singer than other holograms from the future. Sam, who was rowing towards the shore of the lake, greeted him.
"Wow, Sam," responded Al. "I didn't know the boatman looked like that. Curious. He always has his face covered."
"This is Knightmare again, right?"
"Fourth season –1990." This made it Sam's third leap into the TV show. "This is Dunswater, and that castle's called the Tower of Time! Believe it or not."
Sam did believe it. Where Knightmare was concerned, it was sensible not to do otherwise.
"Luckily, I've been watching the episodes," Al continued. "I can't decide who's hotter: elves or sorceresses." A stern glance ushered Al back on topic. "Just as well, 'cause Ziggy's having an off-day."
Sam repeated Al's comment about the Project Quantum Leap computer, as a question.
"Gooshie says it's exhaustion. I say it's PMS. Anyway, what it means is that Ziggy's databanks are on the fritz. It also means that I can't do much observing of this leap."
This bothered Sam. He missed Al when his hologram wasn't around, and the Dunswater looked to be a lonely place. Al told Sam about the boatman: what he did, how he spoke, what he said.
"If you stick to the pattern, Sam, chances are you'll end up doing whatever it is that you need to do, to leap out."
"So, I've got to cover my head? How do I direct the boat?"
"There's gotta be a reason why you hide your face. Besides, the boat seems to be steering itself." Although his silver and orange suit was so wrong, Al was in fact right. Sam's oar-strokes were propelling the boat, but it was manoeuvring itself.
"So, I just take paying passengers across the lake, until something happens?" For all his ingrained Stoicism, Sam was dreading the solitude of this leap. He had no idea how long it might last. Every time he leaped, he hoped that he would return home, retake his destiny, be free, and it was being evoked by this leap, challenging his patience, stirring up urges and frustrations that he so rarely allowed to boil over, for what good would it do him or others? But the prospect of indefinite waiting... it reminded him of a play by his namesake.
Al answered Sam's question with "I'd say so. But I think you know when to play it by ear, Sam. You may even solve some more of the mystery surrounding this guy. Look, I gotta go, or Ziggy's gonna throw a tantrum. And besides," said the hologram, "I'm not a fantastic swimmer." Al walked across the Imaging Chamber, appearing to Sam to step through the boat and onto the water. "I'll be back, if I can. Be careful." He raised the sliding door of the chamber, passed through, and was gone. Sam sighed, just a little, and replaced the cowl. He felt chilly.
Greased with lupine blood, Slash sliced through a clump of foliage which its bearer could just as easily have stepped around. Gundrada coughed, the acrid arachnid stench at last fading from her nostrils. She saw that the edge of Dunkley Wood was a short, clear walk away. She paused, fatigued. She thought back to her altercation with Hordriss: one in which, she conceded, Slash was no help. Level 3, she'd heard, was all magic and puzzles – brawn wouldn't keep her safe there, long enough to be listened to by those superior enough to grant her quest aid. It was time for her to engage her head, to think, perhaps to feel. Apologetically, she lowered Slash – an discomforting gesture of submission for the sowrd mistress – and as distant wolves bayed, bade blade-wielding a tentative farewell, for now. Suddenly, she could feel the cold.
Sam sat alone, sightless, speechless, deprived of Al's supportive advice and less supportive repartee, struggling to convince himself that this struggle itself was for a greater cause. He could easily throw off the hood, leave the boat and wander off... but he knew that he'd jeopardise the leap if he flouted the boatman's constraints with no good reason. Of course, leaping always had constraints: he could never reveal who he really was, what he really thought, and felt. Sometimes, he felt like the only actor who knew that he was more than his character out of an entire cast. With the exception of Al's sympathy, Sam was alone under a veil that no one else understood; but now that veil was physical, and furthermore, he couldn't see out. It hurt. He... he could hear someone walking towards him.
"That jolly great castle... is it the way into Level 3?"
"Deep is the Dunswater, and cold. The fare for crossing is silver, or gold."
"So you'll take me there?"
"Silver, or gold."
"I was only asking!" Gundrada resisted the urge to lambaste the ferryman – threats wouldn't guarantee her passage. She handed him some silver, and clambered into the boat, placing Slash next to her as quietly as possible. The man seemed to hesitate; then, he rotated the oars, and the boat began to move away from the land.
Gundrada looked at the rower, and pondered. She liked to look people she encountered in the face. It told them something about her, such as how hard she'd have to swing her sword to get them out of the way. With dungeoneers in their helmets, this wasn't viable, so Gundrada tended to engage them in conversation. But neither approach seemed possible with the boatman. Had she been in the midst of a looting or bloodletting expedition, this would have annoyed her, but not on this occasion: the man was toiling, cut off from the world around him, and yet serving those within it, sending out ripples as he made his voyages over a lake that, perhaps like him, was outwardly cold, inwardly deep. This, coupled with the magic that seemed to be at work, struck the sword mistress, and intrigued her. Somehow she knew that the less the man talked, the more he would listen.
"Do you hide your face all the time? I suppose you have to."
Sam looked up. He heard a strain of tenderness in the woman's voice, that seemed unfamiliar to her somehow. He hoped she would say more.
"It must be your constraint. While you do your job. I also have constraints. I'm on a quest you see. I'm hoping I'll find some help on Level 3. Most people I meet don't help me much. It's jolly lonely." She paused. "I know I shouldn't complain, I'm a sword mistress for goodness' sake! I enjoy it, most of the time. Goblins do a kind of death dance after you cut them in half, I discovered. Lasts a good five minutes! Sword-fighting can be lots of fun... but with this quest I'm on, I can't be free. I want to escape, instead of doing what unknown forces want me to do." She gave a disjointed sigh. "You seem trapped too, getting gold and silver you can't spend, rowing all day because you have to. How awfully tough that must be."
Sam rowed slower. His mouth was dry.
"I've never been across the Dunswater before, but it seems I'm allowed. Someone told me my quest is endless, you know... then someone else told me it isn't. But I wouldn't be surprised if it is. I don't know why it's gone on so long. If I can't find support on Level 3, I don't know what I'll do. I..." She stopped speaking. Sam strained to hear, willing sounds to reach him. He heard her crying.
He stopped rowing. Leaving the oars, his hands found hers. He moved one to her face, and kept it there for a time, catching her tears. Eventually, she stopped crying. He put his hand gently over her eyes, pulled back his hood, and pressed his lips to hers...
Gundrada's quest was completed. Sam, his hood back in place, was rowing her back to shore. On the way, she thought aloud about what she would do next: she decided to continue 'sword mistressing' on Level 2 for a little while longer, as she didn't really know how to do anything else. (Plus, three of the seven dwarves on her hit list were still unaccounted for.) Then, she wanted to venture beyond the Dungeon, perhaps as someone's bodyguard, or as an adventurer with a sidekick – but not alone. The boat halted, and the gold and silver bars clanked, as if toasting a special occasion. Gundrada thanked Sam and wished him luck, and picking up her blade, headed into the forest, first trudging, then striding.
Sam didn't leap.
So he waited. Time passed, as it so often does. Footsteps approached.
"Deep is the Dunswater, and cold. The..."
"No need for that," snapped a voice. "Do you recognise me? No, of course you don't. I'm the one who enchanted that boat. Back when you wore a mask and used your real voice. I hear that the overweight barbarian refers to me as 'old bony-face'. You will call me something else... but I haven't decided what yet." The speaker sat down in the boat. It began to slide across the lake, without Sam rowing. "There. Now, not only have I come to collect my funds, I have a proposition for you. But first, show your face. I'm sure it's not a pretty sight, but do it."
It didn't take Sam long to decide that the voice, although staccato with immodesty, belonged to a man not to be disobeyed. He took off the cowl, blinking in the light, and focused on his glowering passenger, who had a pale face with sullen, red-rimmed eyes.
"Right. My offer. You can retain this boat if you wish, and take it out for the odd little jaunt – you seem quite attached to it. But I have another job for you. A far better job. There are going to be some changes round here. Rather big changes. The Dungeon will become a far more interesting place for those with purpose or fight in them. And those changes need a firm, helping hand." The future Opposition leader paused, and intensified his glare. "For one thing, the goblins need someone to take charge of them if they're to be of any use to me. So – what's your name again? Sparkle? Skarkill? – how would you like to be my Goblin Master?"