Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris

The Lady of the Lake

On a day at the end of the feasts given by King Arthur in honor of his mother, there came into the court a squire, who bore before him on his horse a knight that had been wounded unto death. He told how a stranger knight in the forest had set up a pavilion by a well, and forced all who passed to joust with him. This stranger had slain his master, and he begged that some champion would revenge the slain knight.

Then rose Griflet, a youthful squire who had done good service in the wars, and begged to be knighted, that he might undertake this adventure.

"Thou art but young for such a task," said Arthur.

"I beseech you for the honor of it," pleaded Griflet. "I have done you knightly service."

Thereupon he was knighted and armed, and rode at day-dawn with a high heart into the forest. But by night-fall back he came, with a spear-thrust through his body, and scarce able to sit his horse for weakness. He had met the knight, and barely escaped with his life.

This angered the king, and he determined to undertake the adventure himself, and to seek to punish the daring knight who had planted himself, with hostile purpose, so near his court. By his order his best armor and horse were set before day at a point outside the city, and at day-dawn he met there his squire and rode with him secretly into the forest.

On the way thither he met three churls, who were chasing Merlin and seeking to slay him. The king rode to them and sternly bade them desist, and on seeing a knight before them they fled in craven fear.

"O Merlin," cried Arthur, "for all your craft you would have been slain, had I not come to your aid."

"Not so. I but played with these churls," said Merlin. "I could have saved myself easily enough. You are far more near your end than I, for unless God be your friend you ride to your death."

As they conversed they came to the forest fountain, and saw there a rich pavilion, while under a cloth stood a fair horse, richly saddled and bridled, and on a tree was a shield of varied colors and a great spear. In a chair near by sat an armed knight.

"How is it, sir knight," asked the king, sternly, "that you abide here and force every knight that passes to joust with you? It is an ill custom, and I bid you cease it."

"He who is grieved with my custom may amend it if he will," said the knight.

"I shall amend it," said Arthur.

"I shall defend it," replied the knight.

With these words they mounted, placed their spears in rest, and put their horses to their speed. Together they came in mid career with such violence and equal fortune that both spears were shivered to splinters, but both knights remained in their saddles. Taking new spears, once more they rode, and once again met in mid course with the same fortune as before. Then Arthur set hand to his sword.

"Nay," said the knight. "You are the best jouster of all the men I ever met. For the love of the high order of knighthood let us break another spear."

"I agree," said Arthur.

Two more spears were brought them, and again they rode together with all the might and speed of their horses. Arthur's spear once more shivered into splinters from point to handle. But the knight struck him so fairly in the centre of his shield that horse and man together fell to the earth.

Then Arthur drew his sword eagerly and cried:

"Sir knight, I have lost the honor of horseback, and will fight you on foot."

"I will meet you on horse," replied the knight.

Angry at this, Arthur advanced towards him with ready shield and sword. But the knight, feeling that he was taking a noble adversary at unfair advantage, dismounted, and advanced to meet Arthur on foot.

Then began a mighty battle, in which many great sword-strokes were made, and much blood was lost by both antagonists. After the affray had long continued the two warriors by chance struck so evenly together that their swords met in mid air, and the weapon of the knight smote that of Arthur into two pieces.

"You are in my power," cried the knight. "Yield you as overcome and recreant, or you shall die."

"As for death," said Arthur, "it will be welcome when it comes, but I had rather die than be so shamed."

Thus saying, he leaped upon his foeman, took him by the middle with a vigorous grip, and threw him to the earth. Then he tore off his helmet. The knight, however, was much the larger and stronger man, and in his turn brought Arthur under him, deprived him of his helmet, and lifted his sword to strike off his head.

At this perilous moment Merlin advanced.

"Knight, hold thy hand," he cried. "You little know in what peril you put this realm, or who the warrior is beneath your sword."

"Who is he?" asked the knight.

"He is King Arthur."

Then would the knight have slain Arthur for fear of his wrath, and raised his sword again to do so, but at that moment Merlin threw him into an enchanted sleep.

"What have you done, Merlin?" cried Arthur. "God grant you have not slain this worthy knight by your craft! I would yield a year of my dominion to have him alive again."

"Do not fear," said Merlin. "He is asleep only, and will awake within three hours. And this I shall tell you, there is not a stronger knight in your kingdom than he, and hereafter he will do you good service. His name is King Pellinore, and he shall have two noble sons, whose names will be Percivale and Lamorak of Wales. And this brave knight shall, in the time to come, tell you the name of that son of your sister who is fated to be the destruction of all this land."

This being said, the king and the magician departed, leaving the knight to his magic slumbers. Soon they reached the cell of a hermit who was a noted leech, and who, with healing salves, in three days cured the king's wounds so that he was able to ride again. As they now went forward, through forest and over plain, Arthur said,—

"I have no sword. I shall be ill put to it should I meet a champion."

"Heed not that," said Merlin. "That loss will be soon repaired."

And so they rode till they came to a lake, a broad and fair sheet of water, that stretched far before their eyes. As the king stood and looked upon it, he saw in its midst, to his deep wonder, an arm clothed in white samite lift itself above the water, and in the hand appeared a glittering sword, that gleamed brightly in the sun's rays.

"Lo! yonder is the sword I spoke of," said Merlin.

Then another wonder met their eyes, for a woman came walking towards them upon the surface of the lake.

"What damsel is that?" asked Arthur. "And what means all this wondrous thing?"

"That is the Lady of the Lake," said Merlin. "Within that lake is a great rock, and therein is a palace as fair as any on the earth, and most richly adorned, wherein this lady dwells. When she comes to you ask her in courtly phrase for the sword, for it is hers to give."

Soon came the damsel to them and saluted Arthur, who courteously returned her salutation.

"Fair lady," he said, "what sword is it that yonder arm holds so strangely above the water? I would it were mine, for I have lost my weapon."

"King Arthur," replied the damsel, "the sword you see is mine. But it shall be yours if you will promise me a gift when I shall ask it of you."

"By my faith," rejoined Arthur, "I will give you whatever gift you may ask, if it be within reason and justice."

"Then," said the damsel, "go into the barge you see yonder and row yourself to the sword, and take it and the scabbard. As for the gift, I shall bide my time to ask it."

Arthur and Merlin now alighted and entered the boat they saw near by, rowing it to where the arm in white samite held up the sword. Reaching boldly out, Arthur grasped the weapon by the handle, and at once the arm and hand disappeared beneath the water, leaving the wondrous blade in his hand, and the scabbard with it.

When they reached the land again the Lady of the Lake was gone, and so they mounted and rode away from that place of magic. Then Arthur looked upon the sword and much he liked it, for the blade seemed to him of rare promise.

"Which like you the better, the sword or the scabbard?" asked Merlin.

"The sword," answered Arthur.

"There you lack wisdom," said Merlin, "for the scabbard is worth ten of the sword. While you wear that scabbard you shall never lose blood, however sorely you be wounded, so take good heed to keep it always with you."

So they rode unto Carlion, where Arthur's knights were glad enough to see him, for his absence had greatly troubled them. And when they heard of his adventures they marvelled that he would risk his person so alone. But all men of worship said that it was merry to be under a chieftain who would take upon himself such adventures as poor knights loved to meet.

During the absence of the king a messenger had come to the court from King Ryons of North Wales, who was also King of Ireland, and of many islands, bearing a message of most insulting purport. He said that King Ryons had discomfited and overcome eleven kings, each of whom had been forced to do him homage in the following manner: each had sent him his beard, and the king had trimmed his mantle with these kings' beards. But there lacked one place on the mantle, and he therefore sent for King Arthur's beard to complete the fringe. If it were not sent him he would enter the land and burn and slay, and never leave till he had head and beard together.

"Well," said Arthur, "you have said your message, and the most villanous one it is that ever living man sent unto a king; you may see, moreover, that my beard as yet is somewhat too young to serve as a trimming to his mantle. This, then, you may tell your king. Neither I nor my lords owe him any homage. But if he shall not before many days do me homage on both his bended knees, by the faith of my body he shall lose his head, in requital for the shameful and discourteous message that he has sent me. Bear you this answer to your king."

And so the messenger departed.