On the edge of the encampment, away from the noise and bustle of the tournament, damp open fields stretched out into a flat, boggy marshland. In the distance, mist and fog hung over the ground.
It might have been a beautiful view if there had been perhaps a church spire, or even a path or a fence or any other sign of humanity to liven it up.
"That direction is your way back to the future," said Merlin. "Pass through the mist and the forest, and you will arrive back from whence you came."
Sally shuddered at the eerie emptiness that they had to pass through.
"When we came here by boat, we had to fall asleep," she said.
"The journey is less frightening if you are asleep," said Merlin, "but if you see any demons on your way, you may rest assured that they are insubstantial spectres, terrifying maybe,
but without the ability to do any real harm. Isn't that so, Lancelot?"
"Indeed," said the old knight. "I have passed that way and lived to tell the tale."
"I'm up for it," said Basil. "Let's get cracking." And Sally could not help admiring this new Basil who seemed to be full of fiery determination.
She thought: "My, how a boy changes when you put a sword in his hand."
Two pages helped Basil to clamber up onto his charger. All the chainmail, leather, and armour-plating that he was wearing made him fairly stiff and inflexible.
Once he was in the saddle, Sir Lancelot handed him his shield and his lance. Sally managed to spring onto her dappled mare without any assistance.
Now she was wearing a flowing dress, she had to ride side-saddle, which was a little strange at first, but she felt terribly ladylike.
Her horse started to walk forward of its own accord, but from behind her she heard Merlin calling out:
"Hold steady. It is still for me to prophesy what shall take place."
And Sally pulled on her reigns. She turned round and saw Merlin raise his staff and peer into the clouds as if he was seeing what would take place in a vision.
"First, Sir Basil must rescue the princess from her captors, then he must meet the champion of Morgan Le Fay.
If, God willing, he survives the encounter, he must take a second test - the Challenge of Knowledge. If he succeeds, then all will be well. If not, then the Dark Ages shall return."
"The Challenge of Knowledge!" exclaimed Basil. "What do I know about knowledge?"
But his witty remark was ignored by all. Sir Lancelot boomed:
"By he who died on the cross, be a true knight. Go forth and smile upon danger."
And as she waved farewell, Sally wished that they had said rather less about death and danger. She looked over at her riding companion to see how he was taking it all.
Basil wore his helmet with the visor turned up.
His face was grim and determined, but she could not help thinking that this Classics student in a suit of armour was more than just a little bit quixotic.
Was he really going to rescue a princess and fight a witch's champion to the death? It was almost funny, she thought.
But as they rode on, and the mist started to swirl around the hooves of their horses, she was more than glad to have him at her side.
In fact, she started to feel that there was quite a lot to be said for a girl to have her knight to protect her.
They rode into the fog, and then into the woods. Fortunately the horses seemed to know the path.
Basil rode in front, and hacked at branches with his sword, but he could not clear the way completely, and Sally felt leaves brush against her face.
Then, in the darkness, she saw two demon eyes glowing at her:
"Ahhh!" she screamed.
"Steady on Sally," called out Basil. "No harm will come to us here, remember." And his voice seemed so certain that she managed to compose herself. There was, after all, no going back.
In fact, when she saw the glowing outline of a demon face grinning at her from the branches, she almost laughed.
Something shrieked and flew at Basil's head - it might have been a bat or an owl - and he swiped at it with his sword. That really made her jump so that she almost fell out of her saddle.
"Oh please, can we find the way out of this terrible place?" she pleaded.
"Keep calm, and we will," said Basil, as his horse stepped over what appeared to be a huge python that was sleeping off a meal, still bulging inside its body.
Sally was so terrified that she wasn't even frightened anymore. She just felt sick and helpless.
But the worst journey of her life, did eventually come to an end. They came out of the woods, into another fog, and found themselves following the river bank.
"Hey look, that's the back of Christ Church," said Basil. And Sally thought that she would never again be so pleased to be back in Oxford.
Their horse's hooves clattered down the High Street, which was still strewn with sleeping bodies.
They crossed over Magdalen Bridge and out into the living, traffic-filled, noisy, and air-polluted world which seemed totally oblivious to the sleeping, time-warped city just across the river.
People were staring at the medieval knight and his lady as they road up the hill. They presumed that they were on their way to some sort of fair or pageant.
But nobody was quite as surprised as the receptionist at the BidCliffe Clinic when a knight in armour, sword in hand, kicked open the front door.
The clinic was used to all sorts of people, some depressed, many unable to cope with life, and still others suffering from various delusions of grandeur or paranoia,
but seldom had the receptionist met anyone quite so obviously insane as this.
"Where's the princess?" he demanded as he marched up towards her desk.
The security guard was no use, he just jumped out of the window and ran across the lawn to his car.
"Room number 12, just at the top of the stairs," she replied with as much brisk, businesslike normality as she could find within her.
And while the mad knight clanked down the corridor, she cowered behind her desk and called the police. "Yes, he's armed with a sword," she emphasised, "and he looks like he means to use it."
But in fact, at that moment, Basil was briefly holding his princess in his arms against his metal plated chest, before saying:
"Quick, there's no time."
They ran out of the clinic to the drive where Sally was waiting anxiously on her mare.
Despite the encumbrance of his armour, Basil managed to swing up onto his horse, and haul Talia up behind him. They cantered down the drive, and out onto the London Road.
Amid all the traffic, it wasn't really safe to do more than walk their horses down the hill and wave the cars past, but when they heard the sound of police sirens,
Basil kicked his spurs into the side of his charger and darted down the centre of the road, Sally not far behind.
A single police car was attempting to block off half the road at the bottom of the hill, but Basil's horse jumped right over its bonnet. Talia hung on tight around his waist.
Sally more prudently lead her mare the other way round the side of the car and avoided the block all together. They galloped over the bridge, pursued by police cars but not for long.
The drivers fell asleep at their wheels as soon as they entered the fog.
"I hope they were wearing their seat belts," thought Sally as she heard them crash somewhere behind her.
They entered Westerly College through the back entrance, which was normally used by cars. Basil jumped his horse over the barrier, but Sally was more circumspect, and dismounted from hers.
Basil rode into the main quad, with Talia still clinging on to him, and as he called out: "Witch where are you?
Send out your champion!" he waved his sword in his right hand, which although it was thick and meant to be held in two hands, was light in his grip.
Somehow when he held it, his whole body seemed skilful and fluid. The armour that he was wearing did not seem to hinder his movements at all. He felt that he was a natural horseman.
After a long silence, they heard the sound of horse's hooves in the next quad. First the shadow, and shortly after the point of a lance, appeared around the corner of the chapel.
It was followed by a knight on horseback. He was no giant, but small, almost childlike in stature. His visor was up showing a face that was gnarled and scarred by battle.
"I am Basil, champion of Princess Talia, what is your name?" called out our knight.
The gravelly reply came back: "No matter my name. Know that I am your doom."
"I know that knight," said Talia. "His name is Parkin. He is small but poisonous and has proved deadly to many. But Basil, I know you can defeat him. You have Excalibur in your hand."
"And I have you by my side," said Basil. "But now my princess, you must get down, for it is time for me to face my fate."
Basil sheathed his sword and reached down for his lance which was strapped to his saddle.
Sally came into the quad just in time to see the two knights turn towards each other, raise their shields and lift up their weapons. She ran over to where Talia was standing.
"Oh Talia, what will become of us if Basil is defeated?" she asked.
"Sally, just think positive thoughts," replied the princess. And Sally tried her best to do so as the two knights charged across the quad.
Parkin's Lance hit Basil's shield and splintered, but the force was enough to knock Basil backwards off his horse.
"Oh no!" called out Sally.
"My dearest Basil," said Talia under her breath.
Basil tumbled head over heels and somehow sprang to his feet. Excalibur was in his double handed grip as Parkin rode in for the kill.
He thrust upwards and felt the point tear through his enemy's glove and into his hand. He heard Parkin shriek as he dropped his sword. Basil struck at the horse's side.
He liked animals, but this was war. He remembered Sir Lancelot's words: "When you pick up the sword, forget chivalry.
In a struggle, the victor takes all the honour, and tells the story when he gets back home."
The horse reared up and threw its rider onto the ground. As Parkin staggered to his feet, Basil swung the flat side of his sword against his helmet with an almighty clang.
The man was dazed and staggering around and Basil took a vicious stab at his leg, catching him in the joint between his armour plates. Parkin the Poisonous was by no means dead, but he was certainly out.
Basil wondered if it would be kinder to humanity if he killed him, but then he realised that he didn't quite have that in him to do that - not in cold blood.
“Crawl back to your own time,” he snarled.
“Look out Basil,” screamed Talia. From where he lay, Parkin threw a dart at Basil. It just missed his neck and its point stuck harmlessly into the collar of his leather jerkin.
No doubt it was tipped with poison.
“Don’t you know when you are defeated?” asked Basil. And he gave Parkin another whack with the flat of Excalibur to make sure he was unconscious at least for a while.
Basil had not one, but two women rush over to him to tend to any wounds that he might have received, but given that he was so well buckled into his armour, it wasn’t convenient right then to examine the damage.
“I thought you were a gonner for a moment back then,” said Sally as she took one arm, and Talia the other.
“Oh Basil, you could have broken your neck when you came off the horse. I’ve seen that happen before at a tournament you know.”
“What next?” said Basil with grit in his voice. “Oh,” said Talia, “we must tackle the witch.” “Where is she?” asked Sally. “Didn’t you see her?” said Talia. “She was watching from the tower.”
“Well, no time to lose,” said Basil, and he began to lope towards Fletcher’s Tower. Sally and Talia ran after him. When they got to the entrance, Talia said: “She is my enemy. I must take her on alone,” and she pushed the door open and swiftly and lightly climbed the stone staircase.
“What do you think?” asked Sally, “I think I must go after her,” said Basil and they both followed up behind.
Basil in his armour could not move as quickly as Talia, and he was blocking Sally’s way, with the result that the princess reached the room at the top of the tower a minute or two before her friends. She pushed open the door and saw, as she knew she would see, a woman with a spinning wheel.
“I am not a little girl anymore. I won’t fall for that trick a second time,” said Talia. But Morgan Le Fay picked up a needle and threw it at Talia. The Princess turned her body sideways and it flew past her and stuck into the half open door. “I’m charmed,” said Talia.
And a moment later Basil and Sally came into the room. Basil was holding his sword in two hands and was ready to slice the witch into pieces but Talia said firmly: “Hold back Basil. You cannot fight magic with a sword.”
“Which of you is ready to take the Challenge of Knowledge?” said Morgan Le Fay.
“That will be me,” said Talia. “Er no,” said Basil. “I’m afraid it has to be me.” “You Basil? You’ve done enough. This Challenge is about brains not brawn.” “Well thanks,” said Basil.
“Oh come on Basil,” said Sally. “This is no time to get all uppity. We all know that Talia is the top student, and you didn’t even get one answer in the college bar quiz.” “That may be,” said Basil, “and yes, Talia is the most brilliant person I have ever met. But Merlin said it was my fate to take the test.
So it has to be me. I don’t like it any more than you do. It’s destiny.”
And he stepped forward. “Who,” said Morgan Le Fey, “is the wisest person who ever lived? This is the question that you must answer.”
Basil thought. King Solomon? Plato? Descarte? … maybe, he thought for a moment, even Talia. He remembered the time that she had shown Socrates to him. He could only take a wild guess. It seemed ridiculous that the fate of the world should hang on his answer.
That what he might reply might make the difference between enlightenment and darkness. And in any case, who was to judge that his answer was correct. He looked at Sally.
He could see that she was white with nerves. He looked at Talia. Her eyes were full of tears. In fact, his own eyes were moist ... he was not sure whether it was with frustration or fear or the sheer emotion of it all.
He was still holding Excalibur in his hand. Its blade was a thing of beauty. Simple, but perfectly balanced, and with edges that were almost incredibly sharp. Somehow it was impossible not to be wise with such a kingly object in his hand. His brain had to match the keenness of the weapon.
He did not quite know how he recalled the words, but he said, perfectly fluently:
"οὖτος μὲν οἴεταί τι εἰδέναι οὐκ εἰδώς, ἐγὼ δέ, ὥσπερ οὖν οὐκ οἶδα, οὐδὲ οἴμαι"
Which was what Socrates said at his trial. This man, on one hand, believes that he knows something, while not knowing anything. On the other hand, I - equally ignorant - do not believe that I know anything.
And which is often translated as: “All that I know is that I know nothing.” After everything he had been through since he had first met and kissed Princess Talia, he felt the truth of those words in his heart.
The more he experienced the mystery of time and space, the more he realised how little he understood the world, and how he could take nothing for granted.
And so it proved. Those words of humility were indeed the ultimate truth of the universe because at that moment, Morgan Le Fay was sucked through the window of the tower and out into eternal darkness.