[See Return of the Grail Bearer 1, in which Sir Percival embarks on a quest down the River of Story.]
Percival twisted back to ask the author where they were — conversation was difficult in a tandem kayak. She was squinting up at the constellations with such concentration, he did not interrupt her.
“Perfect,” she said at last. She leaned to one side so he wouldn’t have to twist so far around to see her. The boat drifted silently on a current powerful and slow. “We’re exactly where I hoped we’d turn up.”
“So, which otherworld is this?” He sniffed the air. “It doesn’t smell floral like Faerie. It’s definitely not Heaven. The sun never sets in your Summerlands, so it’s got to be something else.”
“Reports on the Summerlands vary, but you’re right, this is somewhere else. We’re on the Anduin, the Mississippi of Middle Earth. And see that bright star on the eastern horizon?”
“How do you know which way is east?”
“I’ve known the map to this place since I was eleven. So, the brightest one in the sky? That’s Earendil, the most beloved star. You can bottle that light, and it’s proof against pretty much any kind of badness. It’s a light that never goes out, even in the darkest places. Most to the point, for a Fisher King fighting cancer, it makes unwholesome things wither and back the hell off. Fill the Grail with it, and we’re good to go.”
“Language,” said the Knight of Purity.
“What makes it better than the Grail’s usual contents? The Grail is full. The Grail is always full.”
The author looked abashed. “It didn’t work last time. That’s nobody’s fault, but we have to be in a different story now. New quest, new plot, new medicine.”
Percival rested his paddle across the prow and reached a hand around to her. She took it. “I’m sorry about last time,” he said. “You know, I did go back in there and help with some victories. They were good quests.”
He took the Grail from its wrappings and tipped it to collect the light of Earendil as the first hint of morning turned the horizon from a mystery to a line of definite form. The clear water within the cup shone pure and blinding-bright.
“Oh,” murmured the author. “It’s as if he wrote it just for us.”
They drifted silent in their thanks a while. The morning birds took up their song as the sky warmed and the dimmer stars faded. Under the jingling calls of the forest insects, Percival thought he heard a low rumble.
“Look up,” said the author.
He turned from her to see ahead of him two kingly statues, massive, looming over the river. He could just make out the shapes of their hands stretched toward him, palms forward, as if to halt him.
She dipped her paddle and caught the current to turn them to the western shore. “This is where we get out and portage.”
That felt wrong. “I thought we were on the River of Story, not in the Forest of Story.”
“See those guys?” she said. “They took a century to build, a terribly expensive public works project in a nation not known for its developed economy. Why bother making them? Not for vanity or gratitude, but for the most practical reason: so that nobody would ever approach the biggest waterfall in the world without warning. So that we would never have to turn to each other in gaping surprise and ask, ‘Is that a…waterfall?’ We’re going to thank the nice kings, and get out, and walk. I think if we carry the boat vaguely northwest, I can get us from here to the Forest Primeval, the Whispering Pines and the Hemlocks.”
“No,” said Percival. “That’s not what we do.”
“Have I mentioned that I’m afraid of heights?”
“We have to go over. It’s a requirement of the genre.”
“The average American has three phobias, and this is the only one I have left. Did I not try hard enough to desensitize…” Her paddlestrokes went from slow steering to rapid digs against the current. The boat’s bottom grated against sand. She nearly tipped it getting out, and stood panting up to her knees in cold water.
“You’re panicking, milady.”
“I am not…” she dug her heels into the riverbottom and pulled the boat’s empty stern onto the wet sand, “going over…” she pulled again, “that waterfall. This is not an idiot plot. We know the falls are there, we see them, we hear them, and we’ve received a warning carved in stone a hundred feet high. The genre conventions of epic fantasy do not require us to throw our lives away for spectacle’s sake. And besides, this isn’t even a proper epic fantasy. If any story should count as slipstream…” Percival didn’t follow half of what she said about defining slipstream as a subgenre. She was talking way too fast.
He considered her, her eyes terror-widened as she gazed into the dark place where the river seemed simply to stop. A great pinnacle of rock split the width of the waterfall — it seemed set there just to give them something ruthless to collide with. The pre-dawn light showed beyond that a landscape whose features were tiny with distance. That must be some drop.
All patience, he said, “It’s not epic fantasy that requires it. We’re in a spell-story-prayer. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. You want a magick that gets your friend from the Bad World where his illness is unstoppable to the Good World where he has a chance to fight it. So, are we in that Good World or not?”
“El Mundo Bueno,” the author said.
“You can call it that. I’ve been translated into Spanish.”
She clambered back in, rocking the boat again. Percival held one end of his paddle against the riverbottom to steady them, as he’d seen the author do for him. Her pantlegs were soaked from standing in the shallows, and slapped against the kayak’s plastic hull as she settled into position. “Okay, we have to be moving faster than the water to have any control over where we go. That means we paddle like hell straight at the drop-off. As if we thought we could fly. I’m just going to decide to believe we can fly. Does that work for you?”
“I’ve seen stranger things,” Percival agreed.
He set them as fast a cadence as he thought she had any hope of keeping. The sound of her paddle behind him told him he could set it even faster. The rumble became a roar became a vibration in all his bones that went beyond mere sound. The forest to either side of the water blurred into streaks of green — there was enough light now to see green by, and somehow that made their madness seem auspicious.
The great pinnacle of rock rushed toward them. The author’s paddlestrokes dug harder against that side, and they curved wide of it without losing speed. It seemed impossible now to lose speed. All the speed in the universe gathered to hurl them across the sky.
Clouds drifted below the little blue boat. Not just the mist from the falls, but actual little clouds, one of which appeared from this distance to be raining. The ground came at them in a long diagonal approach. If they went on in this trajectory, they’d get soaked in a cloud or two and then hit a stand of enormous yellow-leaved trees on that hilltop over there.
The author’s voice shouted over the air rushing past his ears: “El Mundo Bueno, El Mundo Bueno, El Mundo Fucking Bueno!”
The cloud looked solid, even from close up, but when the boat fell into it, the thing offered no resistance at all. Just cold, just wet. Percival couldn’t see as far as the tips of his own paddles.
When they came down into the clear again, they were in a different sky, over a different river. It flowed broad and mighty toward a great horseshoe falls just ahead. Percival couldn’t see how far down it would be to impact, but wherever the water met the bottom, it kicked up a great roiling cloud of mist that rose a cathedral’s height above the highlands. Two crowds of people stood gathered, one on each riverbank, cheering for a man who stood bobbing in a barrel, just closing the lid in on himself.
Percival coveted his neighbor’s barrel. Here came the river. Any moment now.
“Bueno!” bellowed the author. “I said Bueno!”
The kayak’s bottom slapped the surface just before the plummet, and bounced like a skipping stone.
They soon resumed their shallow downward diagonal, this time through the drenching mist. The mist went on and on, until Percival was certain he was no longer anywhere near that horseshoe falls. Whatever had happened to the man in the barrel? Percival had so long to consider the question, he began to wonder whether the blue kayak might just fall forever through gray.
But at last the mist thickened into a puffy white cloud, one that looked quite solid from below when the two travelers dropped out of it.
An ocean poured over the edge of a flat earth. A few rocky islands clung to the rim, and here there were dragons. Great sea-serpenty creatures with webs between their long claws clung to warm stone, basking in the light of a sun they gazed down upon.
One of the beasts looked up and caught sight of the kayak and its passengers as they angled toward the end of the world. The dragon tilted its head to the side slightly and creased its spiky eyebrows in what looked like perplexity.
“Hey, translated-boy!” the author shouted over the wind. “What’s Spanish for flat?!”
“El Mundo Bueno!” she screamed with all her might. “No El Mundo Piso! Bueno! Bueno!“
The boat’s trajectory took them close enough to the curious dragon for Percival to meet its opalescent gaze evenly. He hoped to come back someday and make its acquaintance. He’d never held with the knightly business of dragonslaying.
Once more, the kayak’s hull smacked the surface and bounced.
The author shouted, “Oh, no! Not again!” and laughed until she squeaked.
Percival didn’t know what was so funny, but he couldn’t stop laughing, either.
He didn’t even see the next waterfall coming until the boat landed a few lengths upstream from it, and this time they did not bounce. The kayak rocked frantically side to side, and Percival tried to figure out just how the author was shifting her weight against the rocking to steady them.
Ahead roared a long run of rapids, surrounded by jungle.
Beside the little kayak loomed the prow of a much larger boat, muddied and soot-streaked. Perhaps it had once been painted white. Black letters proclaimed it the African Queen. The African Queen was adrift, and looked likely to hit the rapids sideways. Percival could hear two voices arguing above him — a crisp-voiced woman, a gruff, coarse man.
“What have we gotten ourselves into now?” asked the knight.
“A towering achievement of 1950s cinema,” said the author as she squinted down at the rocks and took a few strokes to steer. “Paddle fast. They’re about to fix their engine. We need to go faster than the water, and sooner than they do, or we’re flotsam.”
Fortunately, Percival had the strength of ten men because his heart was pure. The author’s fictitious whitewater skills were in excellent form. The little boat zigzagged its way around outcroppings, bumping and scraping its plastic hull over submerged algae-smoothed stones.
“Is it supposed to do that?” Percival shouted back over his shoulder.
“Exactly that!” the author replied. “Big drop coming soon!”
“I don’t see it.”
“Trust me. I’ve seen it before.”
They whipped around a standing wave higher than Percival’s head, catching a thread of green water speeding through the white. “Pull, pull, pull!” shouted the author. “Need speed!”
He caught sight of the waterfall. Had it been the day’s first, he’d have been daunted. Now it just looked cute. Certainly nothing like the end of the world.
And one last time, they sailed through the air. Percival leaned back hard, and only then realized he’d been doing so instinctively on every jump they’d done. Some part of him was following the author, who led from behind. She leaned back hard, too, muttering bueno again and again, until the kayak hit the water hard in a stern-first landing with its prow angled up. An eddy carried them to a calm spot where jungle vines draped. Like my willows, he thought
“Perfect,” said the author. “If I could do that in real life…actually, I’d still live pretty much as I do. Anyhow, perfect. Well done.”
A mechanical roar blasted as loud as the river’s. The African Queen lumbered over the waterfall and chugged on its way downstream.
It took Percival a moment to realize that something was blinking at him from across the eddy. Its gaze put him in mind of the serpents at the edge of the Flat Earth, but it entirely lacked that opalescent curiosity.
“Milady,” he said, “should we be concerned about the little dragons?”
He pointed with the tip of his paddle at the eyes, which saw themselves noticed and dove.
“Downstream,” she said, her voice tight. “Crocodiles aren’t the end of the world, but they’re worth avoiding.”
Downstream they sped, so intent on outpacing the crocodiles that they didn’t notice the changes in the forest until it was, unquestionably, forest and not jungle. Only when the air turned cold were they sure they’d paddled into another story entirely.
“Is that a snowflake?” the author asked.
“I don’t think…oh, wait. Yes. There’s another one.”
The cold turned bitter. Their clothes were wet. The author had dry things for them in a properly sealed drybag, but they’d need a fire. And food. For drinking water they had the Grail, which was always full, and seemed to have held the light of Earendil just fine. The companions passed the cup back and forth while they considered what to do. A Grailful of starlight made a fine restorative, but they concluded they should make camp somewhere and shore their strength up by mundane means, too. The snow on the trees and riverbanks got thicker with every mile. The prospect of trying to burn wet wood on snow had more appeal than the prospect of, say, another waterfall, but not by much.
Then they spotted the first great chunk of ice. And another. And around the next bend, the river nearly clotted with them.
Night was falling.
Wait. What was that? Around another bend, or maybe the one after.
“Smoke,” Percival said, to try the word on.
“Looks like,” the author agreed.
The kayak clunked against the ice, and both the muscle and the steerswoman spent almost as much of their paddling effort nudging the chunks away from the boat as they did on forward progress.
They didn’t notice just when the sound of other paddles shoving away other ice chunks could be heard over their own. In the softening light of winter evening, they didn’t see the canoes overtake them until the Revolutionary scouts were upon them, asking friend or foe?
“General Washington’s camp?” the author replied. “Have we made it to the Delaware? What day is it?”
“Christmas night, missus,” said a buckskin-clad scout. “We’ve got nothing to offer you for food, I’m sorry to say. We’ve got fire, though. Might be you’ll spend the rest of the war as prisoners, but we won’t leave you to freeze out here.”
So the bright blue plastic kayak took its place alongside a profusion of mismatched small boats and several sturdy-looking ones with high sides and shallow drafts. The knight and his author took their place, too, passing the Grail around with their keepers as they huddled by a fire on the eve of a victory that history called miracle.