WHEREIN THEY MEET QUEEN GOSSIP, AND HER EVIL COMPANIONS
Anon, they came to the head of a dark valley that led down from the mountains. After a time of riding within its dim confines, they saw five riders standing their horses across the valley, as if to bar their way. There seemed to be another with them, but the form was indistinct in the haze.
As they drew nearer, they were able to make out the strangers, and see what kinds of persons they faced, and their hearts turned to lead within their breasts.
In the center was a Queen. She was ugly beyond description, and had a great mouth full of foul teeth. Her body was grossly fat, and disease had placed great pustules upon her ravaged face, and her gown was unwashed and torn. She carried a spear that dripped black venom, and rode upon a rawboned horse, whose eyes rolled this way and that, as if in terror, and whose mouth drooled slime. Her crown was of iron, and glowed red-hot upon her brow.
Her companions were equally as ugly, twisted and bent in form, with eyes that glittered with hatred, and all were armed with fell weapons that gleamed in the wan light.
"Hold!" The Queen spoke, in a croaking whisper. "Who travels my valley without my leave?"
"We are travelers in search of the Dream," answered Pilgrim in a mild voice, "And seek only to pass in peace."
"Thou shalt not pass this place without thou payest tribute to me. All must pass, and all must pay!"
There was a stirring at her feet, and a Beast lifted up, and its many heads hissed at the travelers, snarling hate and lies beyond belief, in many voices, some filled with hate, others quiet and seemingly reasonable, but all filled with lies and deception.
"And what is thy fee for passage?" Pilgrim asked, tensely.
"Naught but that thing thou callest thine Honor!" The Queen snarled. "Thou needest it not to be great and powerful, and to be great and powerful is the wish of all. Submit to me, and bring the highest down with the sale of thine honor, and thou shalt pass."
"Beware, Pilgrim, and make ready for combat, for this is Queen Gossip, with her attendants of Lie, and Slander, and Treason, and Libel, and to combat this enemy may be harder than any other foe thou wilt ever face. She rides the horse of Fear, and carries the poisoned spear of Rumor. Her dungeons are worse even than those in the Castle Grim." Prince Temperance said, in a tense voice, and lowered his visor, preparing for battle. "Beside her stands the Whispering Beast! Take care, for it cannot die!" (11)
Shoulder to shoulder, the knights charged the ugly Queen and her vile attendants. The thunder of the horses shook the earth.
The Cavalier rode to the left of the line, and wielded, in the place of his accustomed rapier, a broad sword with a basket-shaped hilt, and in his other hand, a wheel-lock carbine.
The Saracen and Mongol rode to the right, and slightly ahead of the line, and plied their bows with blinding speed.
In the center were Pilgrim, and the Lady Knight, and Temperance, Fortitude and Justice rode with them.
The lances dipped, and the charge hit home!
Yet it seemed that they fought ghosts, for each blow they struck seemed to have no effect upon their opponents, but passed thru them as if they were air, or not truly there.
The blows the travelers received were well in evidence, though, and soon each was bleeding from a score of wounds, and unhorsed.
Justice, Temperance and Fortitude, with the Lady Knight and the Cavalier, Saracen and Mongol found themselves battling with Lie, Slander, Treason and Libel, whilst Pilgrim faced the Whispering Beast and its mistress, Gossip.
The Beast fastened itself to Pilgrim's shield, tearing and rending it with its many mouths, whipering its lies as it bit, and, as it fell from Pilgrim's arm, Gossip charged. Pilgrim tried to deflect her weapon, but the Spear called Rumor struck home in his body, and sore wounded him, felling him from his horse.
The Beast and Queen Gossip stood side by side, and she smiled a terrible smile of victory. "Thou art defeated! Yield to me, and pay thy tribute!"
Pilgrim rose from the ground, and spoke, wearily. "Never! Thou art foulness itself, and I will not place mine honor in hands such as thine!" His face was pale, and sweat beaded upon his forehead.
Gossip laughed, and sneered, and said, "My powers are as the sands of the seas, for once I speak, naught can call the words back, but they shall resound against thee forever! The wounds I give will never heal, and my minions are everywhere! Thou art lost! Give over, and surrender to me!"
The battle raged around them, and the four evil companions of Gossip beat back the other travelers, until the knights stood in a ring around the ladies and Arthur's Candle.
The Candle burned low, and flickered.
There was a pause of an instant in the battle, as both sides stood a while to rest.
"Gossip and her companions are bad enemies indeed, and hard to destroy." panted Fortitude. "Yet we shall stand against them while there is breath in our bodies!."
"Thou shalt not!" sneered Gossip. "We shall always have our strength, as thine wears away! And I shall at last put that candle out!"
And the sinister band made ready to charge again. The horse Fear screamed as if in pain, in a voice that had all the cold of a nightmare.
Pilgrim's shield had been destroyed in the conflict, torn to pieces by the Whispering Beast, and Faith quickly handed him the old, battered shield from the Castle Grim. He strapped it upon his arm, and turned to face Queen Gossip.
Gossip voiced a terrible scream! The shield had begun to glow with an unearthly light and radiance, that seemed to fill the air, and illumined every part of the ugly Queen.
Faith shouted, "'Tis the Shield of Truth! Gossip cannot stand against it! We are saved!"
Gossip turned, and ran with her fell companions, and hid herself within a dank and noisome cavern, and shrieked incomprehensible evil at the travelers from within its bowels.
Pilgrim looked at his companions, his face white with pain and glistening with sweat as if he had a fever, and dropped lifelessly to the ground.
"I fear that the poison from Gossip's weapon hath killed him." said the Mongol.
"He shall not die." said Faith. And forthwith she, and her sisters Hope and Charity placed their hands upon his brow, and he was healed, though the scar left behind was ugly, and never left him, and the wound would pain him on lonely nights forever.
The travelers bound up their hurts, and continued upon