Contemporary and epic fantasy with unforgettable characters, complicated families, and music in the sentences.

Return of the Grail Bearer

Percival hid behind the curtain of willow branches in full leaf, watching the knights practice jousting across the river. He wove the slenderest willow withes he could find into his first suit of armor, and put it on over the furs and hides that were all the clothing of his feral childhood.

This was his favorite moment in all the stories that had been told about him, the one he retreated to when nobody needed him to heal a Fisher King. He was laughable in his innocence. The knights would laugh, later, when he emerged from the forest to join them. That was all right. Bearing the Grail demanded laughable innocence, and in Sir Percival’s experience, Fisher Kings often needed to laugh.

Something long and shiny parted the branches — plastic, that was the word, and shaped like a boat paddle. The blunt prow of a bright blue tandem kayak nudged into Percival’s hiding place. A bespectacled woman slid her her craft alongside the river’s muddy bank, looked up at him, and said, “Sir Knight?”

“Milady,” said Percival, because he still wasn’t sure of the correct form of address from a character to his author.

“I’m so sorry to take you away from this, but we need you again. Same Fishers, different King. There’s a biopsy coming up, and the results have to be good. I don’t suppose anyone’s told you the parable of Schroedinger’s cat…” The words had started out all business, but now her voice quavered. “Will you come?”

“Of course I’ll come. And there was much talk of the miraculous cat at the Grail Castle of Sloan-Kettering.”

So Percival let go of his feral child form and became his pilgrim self, humble in sackcloth.

“You’ll need this,” said the author. She handed him a most improbable garment, a vest all of buckles and puff. “It’s a flotation device.”

“I don’t think I can drown,” said Percival.

“The River of Story gets rough,” she replied. “Just think of it as armor.”

He put it on to humor her. No sooner did he finish buckling it than it became a mass of woven willow.

“That’ll do,” she conceded.

He clambered down into the kayak’s fore seat, with a great ungainly wobble, as she pressed her long paddle down against the riverbottom to steady them. The figure-eight paddle stroke was easy enough to pick up, with a few pointers. Percival was the muscle — he pulled, the author steered.

When they cleared the curtain of willow, he saw they were on a different river, smooth and slow. Trees in the glory of autumn rose to either side. The blue boat had slid into place in a flotilla of kayaks, dozens of them. Plastic was strange stuff, but Percival couldn’t help smiling at all those bright colors.

“Where are we?” he asked.

“Moose River, at the Paddle for the Cure,” said the author. “This must be one of the years I missed, one I only heard about in stories.”

Percival took to heart this mission to paddle for the cure, so he picked up his cadence a little. His steerswoman kept up. All the paddlers they passed on the river called to them in greeting — they were the author’s kin.

Where a stream diverged from the main current around a little island, the author dug hard curving strokes with her paddle to steer away from the flotilla, and her kin cheered for a good send-off.

“We’ve got a lot of stories to cross,” she said. “Actually, I’m not sure how many. The way to your willow tree was boggy, foggy, and several other kinds of oggy that rather bent my brain.”

“Well, we’re somewhere else now, all right,” said Percival. The narrow curves of the Moose gave way to a river straight as a church-nave and wide as a city. Summer drove away the autumn chill.

“The Mississippi. See that raft ahead, with the blond boy and the tall, dark man? This stretch of Story’s theirs. All the American stories either pour in as tributaries or branch off in the delta.”

“So where are we going?” He hoped they weren’t heading upstream. This would be quite a river to fight.

“Under. We’re going to do half an Eskimo roll and navigate on the other side of the surface.”

“Eskimo roll? Is that a kind of sushi?”

“Listen,” said the author, “my whitewater skills are almost entirely fictitious. Off the page, I just go out on lakes, canals, smooth stretches of river like that run on the Moose. The smallest, safest rapids on the Potomac were more than enough for me. But this is a time for being boldly fictitious. So we’re going to tip ourselves over into an otherworld. Someplace with stronger magic than one usually finds in Philadelphia, so we can fill the Grail. The Mississippi is archetypal, but not entirely mythic. I’m just, ah, not sure which otherworld we’ll end up in.”

A catfish leapt from the muddy water. Sunlight glinted off suspended flecks of mica, and the whole rippling surface glowed gold. It was, in its gritty way, beautiful enough, but it was not what one brings in the Grail to the Fisher King. “So all we have to do is tip over?”

“Yes. That’s one of the oggy parts,” the author said. “Deep breath, hold tight to your paddle, then lean right, fast and hard, like you’re throwing yourself off a horse.” Percival knew, by this description, that she had never thrown herself off a horse in her life. “One, two…” They both drew their breaths in for three, and hurled themselves right. The pull of the earth sped them. Gold-green water crashed against his head.

So dark. Who would have thought the mud could make it so dark, just a few handspans under the surface?

But then Percival realized he was breathing, and dry, and that he didn’t feel the least bit upside down. The blue kayak rocked and lurched a moment, then settled to drift on a black surface glinting with reflected silver. Above him shone a night sky full of unfamiliar stars. It was the strangest thing — and Percival had seen and been many strange things — he felt as if he could hear the stars singing.

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