My tale is of a time long past, when the Noble King did sit upon the throne of Merry Mensaland and his court was filled with all the finest and most gallant of the realm. In the great hall they did nightly carouse, and the stories of their deeds went out to the far corners of the kingdom.
[quoteright]One evening, as the company of knights sat around the Great Table telling of the deeds of intellectual chivalry they had performed that day, there came to the postern gate a youth dressed in peasant leathers. Loudly did he demand entrance to the hail, saying "It is said that herein sit those who are the brightest and most favored in the land. I would that I could gaze upon the Noble King and take my place at his table, for rightly do I belong to the company."
But the guard at the gate pushed the youth away. "Get thee hence, varlet," he exclaimed, "for I see by thy dress that ye are not of the elect and are not fit to sit around the Great Table with my liege, the Noble King of Mensaland." And he made motions to loose the royal hounds upon the hapless supplicant.
Yet the noise of this altercation did penetrate into the Great Hall and did reach the ear of the King, who straightaway sent to know what breach of the peace was disturbing his nightly pleasure. "Good my Lord," reported the messenger, "it is but a mean rascal, a peasant youth at the postern gate who claims to belong to the elect and who demands a seat at thy table. Yet he is rudely dressed, and by appearance not fit to mingle with this great company."
"Nonetheless, let him be brought in," commanded the King. "For the knights that do sit at my table are selected not by dress but by intelligence, and we all know that many a noble mind is concealed beneath cheap raiment." And it was done even as he had commanded.
When the youth appeared before the company, they all did marvel at his comely demeanor and noble bearing, albeit his clothing was indeed of the lowest sort. "Come, lad," said the King, "tell us your name and from whence you come, and tell us why you have journeyed hither."
"My name, Noble King, is Newmember. I have traveled here from Hinterland to join thy Court. Many months have I walked, over poor roads and through dark forests, past majestic castles and through strange lands, pursuing the path to thy gate. Now I pray thee to dub me one of thy elect, for in sooth I do merit a seat at thy table." And the youth bowed his head, waiting for the judgment of the King.
Now, at this time there sat in the Noble King's court a shrewd and clever magician, Medlin by name, who by his feats of necromancy had established an ascendancy over all who dwelt therein. For every one of the company, no matter how brave, did fear this old man's conjury and took care not to arouse his displeasure. And this Medlin did always sit upon the right hand of the King, the more easily to whisper in his ear. When the youthful Newmember had finished his address, therefore, Medlin leaned toward the King and spake private counsel in such tones as none but the King could hear. "This brash youth, methinks, promisseth much but delivereth little," whispered the wily old magician. "Ye taketh great risk to embrace him too readily. Prithee put him to a test, that he may demonstrate unto thy company his worthiness to be called one of the elect."
At this advice the King was sorely wrought, for he was taken with the demeanor of the youth and would readily have dubbed him then and there. But even the Noble King feared Medlin's thaumaturgy, and could not bring himself to deny the magician's counsel. Therefore he spoke unto the company in this wise: "Ye all have heard of the evil beast known as Ayequeue, which dwelleth in the forest of Binet. Eight and ninety of the bravest of our company hath challenged this beast, but none has slain him. If this youth, Newmember, is truly fit to sit among us, then let him go forth and slay the Ayequeue." And at these words from the King, Medlin the magus did smile inwardly and say unto himself "Thus will this loud-mouthed youth suffer for his presumption."
But Newmember did not tremble at the dreadful task that had been placed before him, nor did he beg (as Medlin had secretly hoped he would) that the Noble King would cancel his terrible words and call for a less severe test. Instead, the youth raised his face unto the King and with a firm and fearless voice cried out, "Then give me a sword and I shall this night go forth and do battle with the monster. And if my sword be true, I shall bring back the head of the Ayequeue before the dawn!" So saying, Newmember clutched a sword and scabbard that was hanging on the wall, girt it about him, and strode from the Great Hall.
Among the company that remained behind, many having raised more than a few flagons of wine that evening, there was much jest and chivvying at these words; and cruel taunts were flung at the back of the brave youth. But as he was leaving the castle, a page boy who had been attending the door of the Great Hall hurried after him. "Please, good sir," he panted, "I would attend thee, and be thy page, and share in thy adventures, if thee will have me."
"Dost thee not know that we are in quest of a fearsome beast, and will undergo great dangers and hardships this night?" asked Newmember.
"Verily I do," replied the page. "But I see that you are brave and good, and I believe we will prevail over any evil that may befall us."
"Then tell me thy name."
"My lord, I am called Proctor," replied the page. And as Proctor kneeled in the roadway, Newmember placed his hands upon his head and accepted him into his service. Then they set forth together in the direction of the forest where the Ayequeue dwelt.
Now all this while the evil magician Medlin had been taking counsel with himself, and saying unto his heart "This brash youth will certainly fail. But it behooveth me to make sure." So he left the Noble King's side; and by using certain black incantations known only to him, he flew silently through the air, over the heads of Newmember and Proctor, directly to the lair of the dreaded Ayequeue.
"Hail, Sir Beast!" cried Medlin when he had reached the Ayequeue's cave. "Behold your old friend Medlin. Come forth that I may speak to you." And from within the cave came a deep rumbling sound, accompanied by the smell of burning sulfur.
Presently the Ayequeue appeared. What a sight it made! Its green scaly body was tougher than the keenest sword; its sharp claws were like knives flashing in the air; its barbed and pointed tail switched back and forth, slicing all that it touched; and from its mouth came choking fumes and flickers of orange flame. "What seeketh you, evil magician, that you disturb my sleep?" it rumbled, while the flames from its mouth scorched the ground at Medlin's feet.
"Know, Sir Beast, that a youth approacheth and that he intends to slay thee. While it is true that ye have vanquished many in the past, merely by the force of your great claws and powerful breath, I counsel you this time to resort to stratagem. If ye wager his life upon a riddle, which none have ever solved, then ye will surely win." And the old conjurer stepped forward and whispered the riddle into the Ayequeue's green and scaly ear.
"Ho, ho," exclaimed the beast, as its breath consumed a small tree. "That is indeed a deep and intellectual riddle! I will use it, and even thank you for it!" The Ayequeue thereupon retreated into its cave, while Medlin concealed himself behind a nearby bush to watch what transpired.
Meantime, Newmember and Proctor had been making good progress through the forest, so they shortly came up to the entrance of Ayequeue's cave. Upon seeing the scorched ground all about, and smelling the sulfur fumes, Proctor began to hang back. "My Lord," he said, "Perchance this is not the best time to affront the beast, when its fiery breath seemeth to be at its hottest. Mayhap we should come back in the wintertime, when the ice and snow may cool the flames." But Newmember strode forward, right to the black mouth of the beast's lair, and called out loudly.
"Come forth, foul Beast," he cried, "that ye may taste the righteous edge of my trusty sword!"
For a long time, all that emanated from the cave was rumblings and fumings, until the forest rang with harsh echoes and the air was blue with smoke. But presently the Ayequeue thrust its head from the opening and confronted Newmember. "Easily might I stab you with my claws, or crush you with my tail, or scorch you with my breath," it snarled. "Nevertheless I will grant you a test. I will offer to wager your life against mine upon a riddle."
"Agreed!" cried Newmember, while the beast inwardly chuckled at the ease with which he had been trapped. "Tell me thy riddle, that we may shortly be done with thee."
"Answer me then," growled the Ayequeue, "What is it that a man does standing up, a lady does sitting down, and a dog does on three legs?" And the Ayequeue raised its deadly claws, to grasp Newmember if he should answer false.
"My Lord," put in Proctor (who had been shaking in his boots all this time) "perchance we should come back another time. Methinks from its discourse that this is not a very nice Beast."
Indeed, Newmember was at first dismayed, thinking to himself, "This Beast is as foul inside as it is outside." But suddenly a happy thought struck him.
"Truly," he shouted, "that which a man does standing up, a lady does sitting down, and a dog does on three legs is to shake hands "
Upon hearing these fateful words, the Ayequeue emitted a horrible screech, which rang through the forest and shivered the very branches from the trees. "Medlin, you conniving old fool, it was your counsel that brought me to this pass!" it screamed. The beast then rammed a blinding shaft of flame onto the spot where Medlin stood, reducing him instantly to a pile of ashes; and in the same moment Newmember leaped forth and buried his sword deep in the Ayequeue's neck.
Newmember and Proctor found it easy to carry the head of the Ayequeue, since it constituted but two percent of its bulk; and so they set out immediately for the Noble King's hail with their trophy. In accordance with his promise, therefore, Newmember strode in before dawn with the Beast's head on the point of his sword. The entire company, which up to that moment had been making crude jests at his expense, immediately fell silent. Even the Noble King bowed his head. And when they heard how Medlin had been consumed by flame, their rejoicing knew no bounds. Newmember was then and there dubbed one of them, and Proctor was appointed his aide and companion.
So that is the story of the slaying of the Ayequeue. Forsooth, in later years the story has been told and retold many times; and at every mention of the gallantry of Newmember, it is universally declared that there has never been anyone who was braver or more true in all the length and breadth of Merry Mensaland.
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