There was enough light to see by, though Oliver was unable to make out how it was produced. It was an even gray light, like twilight, and it was a sad light, almost an ominous light. He kept on walking, and the passageway seemed to stretch on and on. Thin, leafy branches hung from the walls on both sides; they gave a pleasing rural effect.
He continued walking. The floor beneath his feet changed slowly into a real forest floor, and a natural luminescence lighted his way. He couldn't see far ahead, however, as there were leafy branches everywhere.
After a while the tree cover became thinner, and he came out into a grassy meadow. At the end of that meadow was a small castle, situated on its own little island, with a moat and drawbridge. The drawbridge was down.
He entered the grounds of the inner keep and saw a door before him. It swung open as he approached.
Inside was a nicely laid out living room with a fire burning merrily in the fireplace. A lady was sitting on a small stool to one side of the doorway; she rose to her feet and turned to him.
"Welcome, sir knight," she said. "I am Alwyn, with a y, and I bid thee welcome. My husband is away killing people, but the hospitality of my house demands that I ask you to stay for dinner, and then to offer you a bed to sleep in, and finally, breakfast in the morning."
"Sounds good to me," Oliver said. "What I'd really like to know, though, you don't happen to be holding a magic horse for me, do you?"
"A magic horse? What color magic horse?"
"Well, that's it, you see, I don't really know. I was told there was a magic horse just ahead for me, and it would lead me to a golden candlestick. After that… Actually, I'm a little unclear as to just exactly what is to happen after that. I believe I am to be lord of a large body of armed men. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
"No," Alwyn said. "I really have a very small part in this thing."
She smiled. Her dark hair was lovely and tousled, her breasts high and well rounded. Oliver followed her inside.
They passed through several rooms, all decorated in scarlet and black and silver and containing armorial bearings, arms, and dark portraits of stern-looking elders. In each fireplace a fire sparked and glowed gaily. They walked through six rooms altogether. In the seventh a table was set with a gleaming white cloth and silver service.
"Do take a seat," Alwyn said. "Make yourself comfortable."
A white kitten came under the archway and pranced and danced its way into the room. Alwyn gave a merry little laugh and bent to play with it. As she did so, Oliver seized the opportunity and exchanged plates with her. The two plates were almost identical, the only difference being that his had two radishes on the side and hers but one. He quickly placed one of his radishes on her plate to disguise his substitution. When she straightened up, Alwyn appeared to have noticed nothing.
They ate, and Alwyn poured two glasses of Burgundy from a great bottle on the damask-covered table.
Oliver found a moment when Alwyn's attention was taken up by a small foxhound that came into the room with a definite gamboling motion. Seizing the moment, he switched glasses. She didn't notice a thing.
Congratulating himself, he now turned to his assault on the provender, his favorite sort of a battle by far.
He ate greedily and drank deeply, for the food was of a luscious perfection. This was fantasy food, magic food, just nothing in the world like it. Soon he felt the unmistakable sensation of some opiatelike drug attacking his sensorium and making him dizzy and faint.
"Is anything wrong, sir knight?" Alwyn asked as he slumped low in his seat.
"Merely a moment of fatigue," Oliver said.
"You've switched plates!" Alwyn said, staring at the knight's grimy thumbprint on her plate—proof enough of what he'd wished concealed.
"No offense intended," Oliver said sleepily. "Old custom of my people. You take this stuff on purpose?"
"Of course. Without my sleeping potion, I have a devil of a time dropping off at night," Alwyn said.
"Damned sorry I took it," Sir Oliver said through rubbery lips and eyes that seemed already to be rolling back into his head to reveal that passage into dreams that he would rather not take. "How long before it wears off?"
Her reply was lost in a crashing wave of sleep that broke over Oliver's head. He struggled in it like a man caught in raging surf; then he was out of the surf and falling deep into the black pool that lapped around him like a warm bath. He struggled to keep his head above the soapy marble waves sent by Morpheus.
He wrestled with strange thoughts, unaccountable insights. And then, before he even knew it, he was gone.
When he came to again, the woman was gone. The castle was gone. He was in a different place entirely.