Once upon a time, there was a man. His name was Gareth. He was considered to be one of the best-off men in the village. But Gareth, while he had every material thing that he might need, lacked someone to love in his life. Thus, he could not be happy while he did not love anybody.
Gareth also loved going for long walks in the forest that was close by to the village. He would collect flowers and rocks, and other bits and pieces of nature that he would display in his house. But one day, while collecting specimens, Gareth found a long lock of hair. It, at first seemed to be from the heads of different people, but as he observed closely, the individual hairs changed colors! Even though he had never seen the girl to whom the lock belonged, Gareth fell in love with the girl immediately. In the days and weeks and months that followed, Gareth thought of nothing but the girl.
He spent most of his money trying to find her, and went on long journeys to seek her. But everywhere he went, nobody had ever seen a person with hair that changed colors. But finally, Gareth was able to speak to a very wise old lady who lived in the land of Mercia. She took the lock and examined it for a very long time. She then told him of a beautiful faerie who lived beyond the mountains. Unfortunately, the faerie was guarded by a sphinx, who would give you a riddle. If you answered the riddle correctly, the sphinx would let you pass onto the next test. But if you answered incorrectly, the sphinx would eat you!
The next test was a huge serpent. Next to it, there were three instruments. You had to figure out how to enchant them so that they would play lovely music together. The music would put the serpent to sleep and you would be able to pass onto the next test, which was the hardest of all. The last test was a Woman in White. The Woman would shape shift into what you loved the most. But Gareth was not afraid of the Woman; for he had never loved until he had found the faerie’s hair.
But Gareth was worried. He did not know any magic. So for a month, Gareth sought for a magician to help him. Many of the magicians who came to him were false, and Gareth soon despaired of ever finding one who would actually be able to help him. But finally, a young girl came to him and told him that she had been born with magic and kicked out of her family’s village for being abnormal. Her name was Ygraine, and she always wore a woolen cap around her head. Gareth was not exactly sure what color her hair was! But Ygraine proved to him that she was a real magician though many tests, and soon they set off for the mountain.
When Gareth and Ygraine got to the Sphinx, Gareth was extremely nervous. Since this was his mission, he felt that he should answer the riddle. But if he got it wrong, then the Sphinx would probably kill him and Ygraine! He hoped that the riddle would not be too hard. The Sphinx spoke aloud to him. “If my riddles are easy, then why are there so many skeletons in this mountain pass?”
Gareth stammered, “I am not a person of great intelligence. I seek something, in quiet desperation! I strive for someone to love, and for someone to love me! Please, let us pass!”
The Sphinx threw back her head and laughed. “Not until you answer my riddle.”
Ygraine yelled, “Then state the blinkin’ riddle! We can’t answer ‘til you ask us!”
The Sphinx growled, but closed her eyes and recited lazily, “What walks on four feet in the morning, two feet in the day, and three feet at night?”
Gareth brightened. “Man! He crawls when he’s a baby, walks upright when he is young and middle-aged, and uses a cane as a third foot when he is old! Now let us pass!”
“Oh, not so fast…” the Sphinx drawled. “She has to answer one as well.”
“What in the name of—“ Gareth started, but Ygraine interrupted him. “Let’s have it, then.”
“When I am full of blood, people understand what I say. When I am drained of blood, I become dumb. What am I?”
Ygraine looked blank for a moment, then shut her eyes and concentrated. “A pen! When a pen has ink, you can write with it, and people can read what you’re writin’! But when there’s no ink in the inkwell, the pen can’t write anything! Now let us pass!”
The Sphinx stood up, stretched, and walked away from the path. “Good luck go with you, travelers.” She called out. “And you, magician. The serpent’s favorite song is ‘Gipsy Rover’.”
She winked as the two passed under the rocks. Ygraine glanced back, and then shrugged. “I guess when they ain’t tryin’ to kill you, sphinxes can be quite amiable chaps.”
After walking for another day, they came to a garden. Gareth was rather excited at how well the quest was going, and could not stop going on and on about what he would say to the faerie when he met her. It annoyed Ygraine very much, and fortunately, the pair soon came to the end of the garden, where a huge green serpent was curled up. He opened his eyes as soon as he sensed their presence. “Why, look here…” he said slowly, savoring each word, “A nisssssse tassssssssty-looking pair of travelersssssss…”
He nodded towards a table, where a harp, a violin and a flute lay, dusty. “Get going there… and do not think that I sssssshall go to sssssssleep before you are finisssssshed, magician…”
Ygraine was pale, but she took out her wand and began enchanting the flute first. But as she waved her wand and muttered under her breath, the flute began to sing, in a clear bright soprano.
Then the violin joined in, its rich deep alto sounding through the grove.
A gipsy rover came over the hill
Down to the valley so shady
He whistled and he sang ‘til the greenwood rang
And he won the heart of a la-dy!
The harp started to play along, albeit in its ordinary voice. To Gareth, it sounded like two sisters singing together, accompanied by a harp. The snake began to nod its gigantic head, and soon, it was fast asleep. Gareth and Ygraine walked on their tip-toes around the serpent, careful to not touch or wake him. As soon as they were past the grove, the pair broke into a run. Laughing together, they fell down next to a river under a tree, and made camp. Ygraine wandered off to find wood for the fire, and Gareth stayed to put up the tent.
Ygraine soon came back, but she had no wood. “What is it you seek?” she said, in a harsh grating tone. “You, who were so contented until you found that lock of hair, you who now live this life of quiet desperation, seeking, striving for that which is with you right now! You have never seen this faerie, and you do not even know if she has hair that possesses this magical quality! Confess it; you are in love with me!”
Gareth was very frightened; he had never seen Ygraine act like this before. She kept coming closer and closer to him, until he was backed up against the tree. Then, with inhuman strength, she picked him up, and was about to throw him into the river. But then, another Ygraine came out of the forest, this time with her arms full of wood. Gareth yelled, and the first Ygraine whirled around. But it was not Ygraine!
She twisted and writhed, and soon changed into a woman with pale white skin, white hair, and clothes of white rags. It was not Ygraine, but the Woman in White! Ygraine charged the Woman, and she dropped Gareth. Unfortunately, when she dropped him, he fell into the river, and Gareth clung to a branch. Ygraine and the Woman fought, both using their magic to try and best each other, and eventually, Ygraine beat the Woman.
The Woman screamed and exploded in a burst of green light. Gareth had managed to get out of the water by this time, and was standing by, wondering what he could do to help. But then Ygraine fell to the ground. The Woman’s magic had done its evil work, and as Gareth dashed over to her prone form, he knew that she was dying. He held her underneath the tree and talked to her, his eyes filling up with tears.
“You know, the old lady said that the Woman in White would appear as the one whom I loved most,” he said awkwardly. He had never before had someone close to him die for him. Ygraine grinned crookedly, but the smile vanished as a wave of pain enveloped her. “I never had anyone love me before,” she said softly. “My mum said that I was too unusual.”
“Well, I’m strange, and you’re odd, so we go together very well.” Gareth said though his tears. A tiny teardrop landed on Ygraine’s face, and Gareth gently wiped it away. She caught his hand and held it. “Y’know how the Woman said that you lived a life of quiet desperation?”
“I think what she meant was that you were striving to get something, something that maybe wasn’t what you really needed, or what God wanted for you.”
Gareth wiped another tear off of her forehead, but as he did so, her cap fell off. Long, shining hair, so beautiful that he did not know when one color stopped and another began, flowed out from under the cap. Gareth held up the lock of hair that he kept in his vest pocket to her head. To his astonishment, it matched perfectly. “It’s mine.” Ygraine murmured gently. “I knew that it was mine from the moment that you told me about the quest. I didn’t know how to…” she labored for breath, “…to tell you. You were so happy to be going on a quest for your true love.”
She breathed out and closed her eyes. Gareth kissed her forehead and whispered, “I did go on a quest for my true love. My life of quiet desperation was all for you, and I had no idea.”
Ygraine’s hand became limp in his, and Gareth closed his eyes.