Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris

Book III
The Treason of Morgan Le Fay

The Adventure of the Enchanted Ship

On a day not long after the event of Balin's death, it befell that Arthur and many of his knights went out hunting in a great forest, where, as fortune willed, King Arthur, Sir Accolan of Gaul, and King Uriens, who had wedded Morgan le Fay, followed far on the track of a great hart, which led them astray till they were ten miles distant from their late companions.

They were all well mounted, but so hot was the chase, and so far did it lead them, that the horses at length fell dead beneath the ardent huntsmen, leaving them on foot in the remote depths of the forest. But the hart was in no better condition, for the hot chase had worn it out, and it dragged wearily on before them, barely able to keep its feet.

"What shall we do?" said Arthur. "We are far from human habitation, and the night comes fast upon us."

"Let us go forward on foot," said Uriens. "We shall surely soon meet with some place of shelter."

[Illustration] from King Arthur I by Charles Morris


Taking this advice, they advanced in the track of the hart, and soon came up with it where it lay on the bank of a large stream, while a hound had it by the throat, and others were coming up in full bay.

Then Arthur blew the death-note of the chase, and killed the hart. This done, he looked about him, and to his surprise saw approaching on the stream a small vessel, with flowing sails of silk. As it came near it veered towards the shore, and finally touched land on the sands before them. Arthur walked to the bank and looked over the sides upon the deck, but to his wonder not a living person was to be seen.

"This is a marvellous thing," said the king. "Has the vessel been blown here by a wind of magic? Let us enter and see what is in the ship."

They did so, and found it richly adorned with silken hangings and royally equipped. As they stood on the deck looking about them in surprise, night came upon them, but suddenly the darkness was dispelled by a hundred torches, which flared out around the sides of the ship, brilliantly illuminating it. And immediately, from somewhere in the depths of the ship, appeared twelve fair damsels, who fell upon their knees before King Arthur, saluting him by name, and welcoming him to the best cheer that their means could provide.

"You are welcome, whoever you be," said Arthur, "and have our thanks for your kindly good will."

"Follow us then, noble sir."

Arthur and his companions followed their fair guides into a cabin of the ship, where they were glad to see a table richly provided with the most delicate viands, and set with the rarest wines. The king marvelled greatly at this, for never in his life had he fared better at supper than at this royal feast.

The meal ended, Arthur was led into a richly-appointed chamber, whose regal furniture and appointments he had never seen surpassed. His companions were conducted to chambers no less richly appointed, and quickly the three weary hunters fell asleep, for they were exhausted with their day's labor.

Perilous was the sleep that came upon them, for they little dreamed that they had been lured into an enchanted ship, and that strange adventures awaited them all, and deadly danger threatened the king.

For when the next day dawned, Uriens woke to find himself at Camelot, in his own chamber, with his wife. Much he marvelled at this, for he had fallen asleep the evening before at two days' journey distant. As for Accolan, we shall tell later what befell him. Arthur woke to find himself in utter darkness, while the air was full of doleful sounds. On feeling round him he soon discovered that he was in a dismal dungeon, and on listening he discovered that the sounds he heard were the woeful complaints of prisoners.

"What place is this, and who are ye that bewail so bitterly?" asked Arthur.

"We are twenty knights that have long been held prisoners here, some for seven years and some for less."

"For what cause?" inquired Arthur.

"How came you here, that you know not the cause?"

"I came by foul enchantment," said Arthur, and told them his adventure, at which they wondered greatly. "Now tell me," he asked, "how came you in this direful state?"

"We are victims of an evil-hearted villain," they answered. "The lord of this castle, Sir Damas by name, is a coward and traitor, who keeps his younger brother, Sir Ontzlake, a valiant and worthy knight, out of his estate. Hostility has long ruled between them, and Ontzlake proffers to fight Damas for his livelihood, or to meet in arms any knight who may take up his quarrel. Damas is too faint-hearted to fight himself, and is so hated that no knight will fight for him. This is why we are here. Finding no knight of his own land to take up his quarrel, he has lain in wait for knights-errant, and taken prisoner every one that entered his country. All of us preferred imprisonment to fighting for such a scoundrel, and here we have long lain half dead with hunger while eighteen good knights have perished in this prison; yet not a man of us would fight in so base a quarrel."

"This is a woeful story, indeed," said Arthur. "I despise treason as much as the best of you, but it seems to me I should rather take the choice of combat than of years in this dungeon. God can be trusted to aid the just cause. Moreover, I came not here like you, and have but your words for your story. Fight I will, then, rather than perish."

As they spoke a damsel came to King Arthur, bearing a light.

"How fare you?" she asked.

"None too well," he replied.

"I am bidden to say this to you," she remarked. "If you will fight for my lord, you shall be delivered from this prison. Otherwise you shall stay here for life."

"It is a hard alternative," said Arthur; "I should deem only a madman would hesitate. I should rather fight with the best knight that ever wore armor than spend a week in such a vile place. To this, then, I agree. If your lord will deliver all these prisoners, I will fight his battle."

"Those are the terms he offers," said the damsel.

"Then tell him I am ready. But he must provide me with horse and armor, and vow on his knightly honor to keep his word."

"All this he will freely do."

"It seems to me, damsel, that I have seen you before. Have you not been at the court of King Arthur?"

"Not so," said the damsel. "I have never been there, but am the daughter of the lord of this castle, who has always kept me at home."

In this, as the chronicles tell us, she spoke falsely, for she was one of the damsels of Morgan le Fay, and well she knew the king.

Damas was glad at heart to learn that a knight had at last consented to fight for him, and the more so when he saw Arthur and marked his strong limbs and the high spirit in his face. But he and none there save the damsel, knew who his prisoner was.

"It were a pity," said all who saw him, "that such a knight should die in prison. It is wise in him to fight, whatever betide."

Then agreement was made that Arthur should do battle to the uttermost for the lord of the castle, who, on his part, agreed to set free the imprisoned knights. To this covenant both parties took oath, whereupon the twenty knights were brought from their dark prison to the castle hall, and given their freedom and the privilege of seeing the battle.

But now we must leave the story of Arthur and Damas, and turn to that of Accolan of Gaul, the third of the three knights who had gone to sleep in the enchanted ship. This knight was, unknown to Arthur, a lover of Morgan le Fay, being he for whose sake she had counterfeited the magic scabbard of the sword Excalibur.

She loved him, indeed, as ardently as she had grown to hate her royal brother, and through this love had laid a treacherous plot for Arthur's death.

When Accolan awoke, to his surprise he found himself no longer in the ship, but lying within half a foot of the side of a deep well, in seeming peril of his life, for he might at any moment have fallen into the water. Out of this well there came a pipe of silver, from which a crystal stream ran into a high marble basin. When Accolan beheld all this he crossed himself and said,—

"God save my lord King Arthur, and King Uriens, for those damsels in the ship have betrayed us all. They were not women, but devils, and if I escape this misadventure I shall destroy all enchantresses wherever I find them."

As he spoke, there came to him a dwarf with a great mouth and a flat nose, who saluted him, and said that he came from Morgan le Fay.

"She sends you her greetings, and bids you be of strong heart, for to-morrow it shall be your task to fight a knight of the greatest prowess. That you may win in the combat she has sent you Arthur's sword Excalibur, with its magical scabbard. She bids you do the battle to the uttermost without mercy, and promises to make a queen of the damsel whom you shall send to her with the head of the knight you fight with."

"I shall do her bidding," said Accolan, "and cannot fail to win, now that I have this sword, for which I fervently thank her. When saw you my lady queen?"

"I am just from her."

"Recommend me to her, and tell her I shall do all I have promised, or die for it. These crafts and enchantments that have happened—are they of her making?"

"That you may well believe. She has prepared them to bring on this battle."

"Who, then, is the knight with whom I shall fight? It seems to me he should be a noble one, for such preparation."

"That my lady has not told me."

As they spoke there came to them a knight and a lady, with six squires, who asked Sir Accolan why he lay there, and begged him to rise and come with them to a neighboring manor, where he might rest in better ease. As fortune willed it, this manor was the dwelling of Sir Ontzlake, the brother of the traitor Damas.

Accolan gladly accepted the invitation, but not long had he been in the manor when word came from Damas, saying that he had found a knight who was ready to do battle to the death for their claims, and challenging Ontzlake to make ready without delay for the field, or to send a knight to take his side in the combat.

This challenge troubled Ontzlake sorely. Not long before he had been sadly hurt in a joust, and was still weak from his wound. Accolan, to whom all this was made known, at once came, with the generous impulse of a true knight, to his host, and offered to do battle in his stead. In his heart, too, he felt that this might be the combat of which Morgan had warned him, and with the aid of Arthur's sword and scabbard he could not fail to win.

Ontzlake thanked him deeply for his generous offer, and without delay sent word to Damas that he would be ready with a champion at the hour appointed, and trust to God's grace for the issue of the combat.

When morning came, Arthur was arrayed in a suit of chain mail and provided with a strong horse, which he viewed with knightly ardor.

"When shall we to the field?" he asked Damas.

"As soon as you have heard Mass."

Mass was scarcely ended when a squire rode up from Ontzlake, to say that his knight was already in the field, and to bid Damas bring his champion to the lists, for he was prepared to do battle to the utterance.

Then Arthur mounted his war-horse and rode to the field, attended by all the knights and commons of the country round; twelve good men of the district having been chosen to wait upon the two knights, and see that the battle was conducted fairly and according to the rules of chivalry.

As they rode forward a damsel came to Arthur, bringing him a sword like unto Excalibur, with a scabbard that seemed in every point the same.

"Morgan le Fay sends you your sword, for the great love she bears you," said the messenger, "and hopes it may do you worthy service in the fray."

Arthur took it and thanked her, never dreaming that he had been treated falsely. But the sword that was sent him was but a brittle and worthless blade, and the scabbard was a base counterfeit of that magic one which he who wore could lose no blood, and which he in brotherly trust had given to the care of his faithless sister.