OF ARTHUR'S BIRTH; AND HOW HE BECAME KING
Long years ago, there ruled over Britain a king called Uther Pendragon. A mighty prince was he, and feared by all men; yet, when he sought the love of the fair Igraine of Cornwall, she would have naught to do with him, so that, from grief and disappointment, Uther fell sick, and at last seemed like to die.
Now in those days, there lived a famous magician named Merlin, so powerful that he could change his form at will, or even make himself invisible; nor was there any place so remote but that he could reach it at once, merely by wishing himself there. One day, suddenly he stood at Uther's bedside, and said: "Sir King, I know thy grief, and am ready to help thee. Only promise to give me, at his birth, the son that shall be born to thee, and thou shalt have thy heart's desire." To this the king agreed joyfully, and Merlin kept his word: for he gave Uther the form of one whom Igraine had loved dearly, and so she took him willingly for her husband.
When the time had come that a child should be born to the King and Queen, Merlin appeared before Uther to remind him of his promise; and Uther swore it should be as he had said. Three days later, a prince was born, and, with pomp and ceremony, was christened by the name of Arthur; but immediately thereafter, the King commanded that the child should be carried to the postern-gate, there to be given to the old man who would be found waiting without.
Not long after, Uther fell sick, and he knew that his end was come; so, by Merlin's advice, he called together his knights and barons, and said to them: "My death draws near. I charge you, therefore, that ye obey my son even as ye have obeyed me; and my curse upon him if he claim not the crown when he is a man grown." Then the King turned his face to the wall and died.
Scarcely was Uther laid in his grave before disputes arose. Few of the nobles had seen Arthur or even heard of him, and not one of them would have been willing to be ruled by a child; rather, each thought himself fitted to be king, and, strengthening his own castle, made war on his neighbours until confusion alone was supreme, and the poor groaned because there was none to help them.
Now when Merlin carried away Arthur—for Merlin was the old man who had stood at the postern-gate—he had known all that would happen, and had taken the child to keep him safe from the fierce barons until he should be of age to rule wisely and well, and perform all the wonders prophesied of him. He gave the child to the care of the good knight Sir Ector to bring up with his son Kay, but revealed not to him that it was the son of Uther Pendragon that was given into his charge.
At last, when years had passed and Arthur was grown a tall youth well skilled in knightly exercises, Merlin went to the Archbishop of Canterbury and advised him that he should call together at Christmas-time all the chief men of the realm to the great cathedral in London; "For," said Merlin, "there shall be seen a great marvel by which it shall be made clear to all men who is the lawful King of this land." The Archbishop did as Merlin counselled. Under pain of a fearful curse, he bade barons and knights come to London to keep the feast, and to pray heaven to send peace to the realm.
The people hastened to obey the Archbishop's commands, and, from all sides, barons and knights came riding in to keep the birth-feast of our Lord. And when they had prayed, and were coming forth from the cathedral, they saw a strange sight. There, in the open space before the church, stood, on a great stone, an anvil thrust through with a sword; and on the stone were written these words: "Whoso can draw forth this sword, is rightful King of Britain born."
At once there were fierce quarrels, each man clamouring to be the first to try his fortune, none doubting his own success. Then the Archbishop decreed that each should make the venture in turn, from the greatest baron to the least knight; and each in turn, having put forth his utmost strength, failed to move the sword one inch, and drew back ashamed. So the Archbishop dismissed the company, and having appointed guards to watch over the stone, sent messengers through all the land to give word of great jousts to be held in London at Easter, when each knight could give proof of his skill and courage, and try whether the adventure of the sword was for him.
Among those who rode to London at Easter was the good Sir Ector, and with him his son, Sir Kay, newly made a knight, and the young Arthur. When the morning came that the jousts should begin, Sir Kay and Arthur mounted their horses and set out for the lists; but before they reached the field, Kay looked and saw that he had left his sword behind. Immediately Arthur turned back to fetch it for him, only to find the house fast shut, for all were gone to view the tournament. Sore vexed was Arthur, fearing lest his brother Kay should lose his chance of gaining glory, till, of a sudden, he bethought him of the sword in the great anvil before the cathedral. Thither he rode with all speed, and the guards having deserted their post to view the tournament, there was none to forbid him the adventure. He leaped from his horse, seized the hilt, and instantly drew forth the sword as easily as from a scabbard; then, mounting his horse and thinking no marvel of what he had done, he rode after his brother and handed him the weapon.
When Kay looked at it, he saw at once that it was the wondrous sword from the stone. In great joy he sought his father, and showing it to him, said: "Then must I be King of Britain." But Sir Ector bade him say how he came by the sword, and when Sir Kay told how Arthur had brought it to him, Sir Ector bent his knee to the boy, and said: "Sir, I perceive that ye are my King, and here I tender you my homage"; and Kay did as his father. Then the three sought the Archbishop, to whom they related all that had happened; and he, much marvelling, called the people together to the great stone, and bade Arthur thrust back the sword and draw it forth again in the presence of all, which he did with ease. But an angry murmur arose from the barons, who cried that what a boy could do, a man could do; so, at the Archbishop's word, the sword was put back, and each man, whether baron or knight, tried in his turn to draw it forth, and failed. Then, for the third time, Arthur drew forth the sword. Immediately there arose from the people a great shout: "Arthur is King! Arthur is King! We will have no King but Arthur"; and, though the great barons scowled and threatened, they fell on their knees before him while the Archbishop placed the crown upon his head, and swore to obey him faithfully as their lord and sovereign.
Thus Arthur was made King; and to all he did justice, righting wrongs and giving to all their dues. Nor was he forgetful of those that had been his friends; for Kay, whom he loved as a brother, he made Seneschal and chief of his household, and to Sir Ector, his foster-father, he gave broad lands.
THE ROUND TABLE
Thus Arthur was made King, but he had to fight for his own; for eleven great kings drew together and refused to acknowledge him as their lord, and chief amongst the rebels was King Lot of Orkney who had married Arthur's sister, Bellicent.
By Merlin's advice, Arthur sent for help overseas, to Ban and Bors, the two great Kings who ruled in Gaul. With their aid, he overthrew his foes in a great battle near the river Trent; and then he passed with them into their own lands and helped them drive out their enemies. So there was ever great friendship between Arthur and the Kings Ban and Bors, and all their kindred; and afterwards some of the most famous Knights of the Round Table were of that kin.
Then King Arthur set himself to restore order throughout his kingdom. To all who would submit and amend their evil ways, he showed kindness; but those who persisted in oppression and wrong he removed, putting in their places others who would deal justly with the people. And because the land had become overrun with forest during the days of misrule, he cut roads through the thickets, that no longer wild beasts and men, fiercer than the beasts, should lurk in their gloom, to the harm of the weak and defenceless. Thus it came to pass that soon the peasant ploughed his fields in safety, and where had been wastes, men dwelt again in peace and prosperity.
Amongst the lesser kings whom Arthur helped to rebuild their towns and restore order, was King Leodegrance of Cameliard. Now Leodegrance had one fair child, his daughter Guenevere; and from the time that first he saw her, Arthur gave her all his love. So he sought counsel of Merlin, his chief adviser. Merlin heard the King sorrowfully, and he said: "Sir King, when a man's heart is set, he may not change. Yet had it been well if ye had loved another."
So the King sent his knights to Leodegrance, to ask of him his daughter; and Leodegrance consented, rejoicing to wed her to so good and knightly a King. With great pomp, the princess was conducted to Canterbury, and there the King met her, and they two were wed by the Archbishop in the great Cathedral, amid the rejoicings of the people.
On that same day did Arthur found his Order of the Round Table, the fame of which was to spread throughout Christendom and endure through all time. Now the Round Table had been made for King Uther Pendragon by Merlin, who had meant thereby to set forth plainly to all men the roundness of the earth. After Uther died, King Leodegrance had possessed it; but when Arthur was wed, he sent it to him as a gift, and great was the King's joy at receiving it. One hundred and fifty knights might take their places about it, and for them Merlin made sieges or seats. One hundred and twenty-eight did Arthur knight at that great feast; thereafter, if any sieges were empty, at the high festival of Pentecost new knights were ordained to fill them, and by magic was the name of each knight found inscribed, in letters of gold, in his proper siege. One seat only long remained unoccupied, and that was the Siege Perilous. No knight might occupy it until the coming of Sir Galahad; for, without danger to his life, none might sit there who was not free from all stain of sin.
With pomp and ceremony did each knight take upon him the vows of true knighthood: to obey the King; to show mercy to all who asked it; to defend the weak; and for no worldly gain to fight in a wrongful cause: and all the knights rejoiced together, doing honour to Arthur and to his Queen. Then they rode forth to right the wrong and help the oppressed, and by their aid, the King held his realm in peace, doing justice to all.
OF THE FINDING OF EXCALIBUR
Now when Arthur was first made King, as young knights will, he courted peril for its own sake, and often would he ride unattended by lonely forest ways, seeking the adventure that chance might send him. All unmindful was he of the ruin to his realm if mischief befell him; and even his trusty counsellors, though they grieved that he should thus imperil him, yet could not but love him the more for his hardihood.
So, on a day, he rode through the Forest Perilous where dwelt the Lady Annoure, a sorceress of great might, who used her magic powers but for the furtherance of her own desires. And as she looked from a turret window, she descried King Arthur come riding down a forest glade, and the sunbeams falling upon him made one glory of his armour and of his yellow hair. Then, as Annoure gazed upon the King, her heart grew hot within her, and she resolved that, come what might, she would have him for her own, to dwell with her always and fulfil all her behests. And so she bade lower the drawbridge and raise the portcullis, and sallying forth accompanied by her maidens, she gave King Arthur courteous salutation, and prayed him that he would rest within her castle that day, for that she had a petition to make to him; and Arthur, doubting nothing of her good faith, suffered himself to be led within.
Then was a great feast spread, and Annoure caused the King to be seated in a chair of state at her right hand, while squires and pages served him on bended knee. So when they had feasted, the King turned to the Lady Annoure and said courteously: "Lady, somewhat ye said of a request that ye would make. If there be aught in which I may pleasure you, I pray you let me know it, and I will serve you as knightly as I may." "In truth," said the lady, "there is that which I would fain entreat of you, most noble knight; yet suffer, I beseech you, that first I may show you somewhat of my castle and my estate, and then will I crave a boon of your chivalry." Then the sorceress led King Arthur from room to room of her castle, and ever each displayed greater store of beauty than the last. In some the walls were hung with rich tapestries, in others they gleamed with precious stones; and the King marvelled what might be the petition of one that was mistress of such wealth. Lastly, Annoure brought the King out upon the battlements, and as he gazed around him, he saw that, since he had entered the castle, there had sprung up about it triple walls of defence that shut out wholly the forest from view. Then turned he to Annoure, and gravely he said: "Lady, greatly I marvel in what a simple knight may pleasure one that is mistress of so wondrous a castle as ye have shown me here; yet if there be aught in which I may render you knightly service, right gladly would I hear it now, for I must forth upon my way to render service to those whose knight I am sworn." "Nay, now, King Arthur," answered the sorceress mockingly, "ye may not think to deceive me; for well I know you, and that all Britain bows to your behest." "The more reason then that I should ride forth to right wrong and succour them that, of their loyalty, render true obedience to their lord." "Ye speak as a fool," said the sorceress; "why should one that may command be at the beck and call of every hind and slave within his realm? Nay, rest thee here with me, and I will make thee ruler of a richer land than Britain, and give thee to satisfy thy every desire." "Lady," said the King sternly, "I will hear and judge of your petition at this time, and then will I forth upon my way." "Nay," said Annoure, "there needs not this harshness. I did but speak for thine advantage. Only vow thee to my service, and there is naught that thou canst desire that thou shalt not possess. Thou shalt be lord of this fair castle and of the mighty powers that obey me. Why waste thy youth in hardship and in the service of such as shall render thee little enough again?"
Thereupon, without ever a word, the King turned him about and made for the turret stair by which he had ascended, but nowhere could he find it. Then said the sorceress, mocking him: "Fair sir, how think ye to escape without my good-will? See ye not the walls that guard my stronghold? And think ye that I have not servants enow to do my bidding?" She clapped her hands and forthwith there appeared a company of squires who, at her command, seized the King and bore him away to a strong chamber where they locked him in.
And so the King abode that night, the prisoner of that evil sorceress, with little hope that day, when it dawned, should bring him better cheer. Yet lost he not courage, but kept watch and vigil the night through lest the powers of evil should assail him unawares. And with the early morning light, Annoure came to visit him. More stately she seemed than the night before, more tall and more terrible; and her dress was one blaze of flashing gems, so that scarce could the eye look upon her. As a queen might address a vassal, so greeted she the King, and as condescending to one of low estate, asked how he had fared that night. And the King made answer: "I have kept vigil as behoves a knight who, knowing him to be in the midst of danger, would bear himself meetly in any peril that should offer." And the Lady Annoure, admiring his knightly courage, desired more earnestly even than before to win him to her will, and she said: "Sir Arthur, I know well your courage and knightly fame, and greatly do I desire to keep you with me. Stay with me and I promise you that ye shall bear sway over a wider realm than any that ever ye heard of, and I, even I, its mistress, will be at your command. And what lose ye if ye accept my offer? Little enough, I ween, for never think that ye shall win the world from evil and men to loyalty and truth." Then answered the King in anger: "Full well I see that thou art in league with evil and that thou but seekest to turn me from my purpose. I defy thee, foul sorceress. Do thy worst; though thou slay me, thou shalt never sway me to thy will"; and therewith the King raised his cross-hilted sword before her. Then the lady quailed at that sight. Her heart was filled with hate, but she said: "Go your way, proud King of a petty realm. Rule well your race of miserable mortals, since more it pleasures you than to bear sway over the powers of the air. I keep you not against your will." With these words, she passed from the chamber, and the King heard her give command to her squires to set him without her gates, give him his horse, and suffer him to go on his way.
And so it came to pass that the King found himself once more at large, and marvelled to have won so lightly to liberty. Yet knew he not the depths of treachery in the heart of Annoure; for when she found she might not prevail with the King, she bethought her how, by mortal means, she might bring the King to dishonour and death. And so, by her magic art, she caused the King to follow a path that brought him to a fountain, whereby a knight had his tent, and, for love of adventure, held the way against all comers. Now this knight was Sir Pellinore, and at that time he had not his equal for strength and knightly skill, nor had any been found that might stand against him. So, as the King drew nigh, Pellinore cried: "Stay, knight, for none passes this way except he joust with me." "That is no good custom," said the King; "it were well that ye followed it no more." "It is my custom, and I will follow it still," answered Pellinore; "if ye like it not, amend it if ye may." "I will do my endeavour," said Arthur, "but, as ye see, I have no spear." "Nay, I seek not to have you at advantage," replied Pellinore, and bade his squire give Arthur a spear. Then they dressed their shields, laid their lances in rest, and rushed upon each other. Now the King was wearied by his night's vigil, and the strength of Pellinore was as the strength of three men; so, at the first encounter, Arthur was unhorsed. Then said he: "I have lost the honour on horseback, but now will I encounter thee with my sword and on foot." "I, too, will alight," said Pellinore; "small honour to me were it if I slew thee on foot, I being horsed the while." So they encountered each other on foot, and so fiercely they fought that they hewed off great pieces of each other's armour and the ground was dyed with their blood. But at the last, Arthur's sword broke off short at the hilt, and so he stood all defenceless before his foe. "I have thee now," cried Pellinore; "yield thee as recreant or I will slay thee." "That will I never," said the King, "slay me if thou canst." Then he sprang on Pellinore, caught him by the middle, and flung him to the ground, himself falling with him. And Sir Pellinore marvelled, for never before had he encountered so bold and resolute a foe; but exerting his great strength, he rolled himself over, and so brought Arthur beneath him. Then had Arthur perished, but at that moment Merlin stood beside him, and when Sir Pellinore would have struck off the King's head, stayed his blow, crying: "Pellinore, if thou slayest this knight, thou puttest the whole realm in peril; for this is none other than King Arthur himself." Then was Pellinore filled with dread, and cried: "Better make an end of him at once; for if I suffer him to live, what hope have I of his grace, that have dealt with him so sorely?" But before Pellinore could strike, Merlin caused a deep sleep to come upon him; and raising King Arthur from the ground, he staunched his wounds and recovered him of his swoon.
But when the King came to himself, he saw his foe lie, still as in death, on the ground beside him; and he was grieved, and said: "Merlin, what have ye done to this brave knight? Nay, if ye have slain him, I shall grieve my life long; for a good knight he is, bold and a fair fighter, though something wanting in knightly courtesy." "He is in better case than ye are, Sir King, who so lightly imperil your person, and thereby your kingdom's welfare; and, as ye say, Pellinore is a stout knight, and hereafter shall he serve you well. Have no fear. He shall wake again in three hours and have suffered naught by the encounter. But for you, it were well that ye came where ye might be tended for your wounds." "Nay," replied the King, smiling, "I may not return to my court thus weaponless; first will I find means to purvey me of a sword." "That is easily done," answered Merlin; "follow me, and I will bring you where ye shall get you a sword, the wonder of the world."
So, though his wounds pained him sore, the King followed Merlin by many a forest path and glade, until they came upon a mere, bosomed deep in the forest; and as he looked thereon, the King beheld an arm, clothed in white samite, shoot above the surface of the lake, and in the hand was a fair sword that gleamed in the level rays of the setting sun. "This is a great marvel," said the King, "what may it mean?" And Merlin made answer: "Deep is this mere, so deep indeed that no man may fathom it; but in its depths, and built upon the roots of the mountains, is the palace of the Lady of the Lake. Powerful is she with a power that works ever for good, and she shall help thee in thine hour of need. For thee has she wrought yonder sword. Go now, and take it."
Then was Arthur aware of a little skiff, half hidden among the bulrushes that fringed the lake; and leaping into the boat, without aid of oar, he was wafted out into the middle of the lake, to the place where, out of the water, rose the arm and sword. And leaning from the skiff, he took the sword from the hand, which forthwith vanished, and immediately thereafter the skiff bore him back to land.
Arthur drew from its scabbard the mighty sword, wondering the while at the marvel of its workmanship, for the hilt shone with the light of many twinkling gems—diamond and topaz and emerald, and many another whose names none know. And as he looked on the blade, Arthur was aware of mystic writings on the one side and the other, and calling to Merlin, he bade him interpret them. "Sir," said Merlin, "on the one side is written 'Keep me,' and on the other 'Throw me away.'" "Then," said the King, "which does it behove me to do?" "Keep it," answered Merlin; "the time to cast it away is not yet come. This is the good brand Excalibur, or Cut Steel, and well shall it serve you. But what think ye of the scabbard?" "A fair cover for so good a sword," answered Arthur. "Nay, it is more than that," said Merlin, "for, so long as ye keep it, though ye be wounded never so sore, yet ye shall not bleed to death." And when he heard that, the King marvelled the more.
Then they journeyed back to Caerleon, where the knights made great joy of the return of their lord. And presently, thither came Sir Pellinore, craving pardon of the King, who made but jest of his own misadventure. And afterwards Sir Pellinore became of the Table Round, a knight vowed, not only to deeds of hardihood, but also to gentleness and courtesy; and faithfully he served the King, fighting ever to maintain justice and put down wrong, and to defend the weak from the oppressor.
OF THE TREACHERY OF QUEEN MORGAN LE FAY
There was a certain Queen whose name was Morgan le Fay, and she was a powerful sorceress. Little do men know of her save that, in her youth, she was eager for knowledge and, having learnt all human lore, turned her to magic, becoming so skilled therein that she was feared of all. There was a time when great was her enmity towards King Arthur, so that she plotted his ruin not once only nor twice; and that is a strange thing, for it is said that she herself was the kinswoman of the King. And truly, in the end, she repented her of her malice, for she was, of those that came to bear Arthur to the Delightful Islands from the field of his last bitter conflict; but that was long after.
Now when this enchantress learned how the Lady of the Lake had given the King a sword and scabbard of strange might, she was filled with ill-will; and all her thought was only how she might wrest the weapon from him and have it for her own, to bestow as she would. Even while she pondered thereon, the King himself sent her the scabbard to keep for him; for Merlin never ceased to warn the King to have in safe keeping the scabbard that had power to keep him from mortal hurt; and it seemed to Arthur that none might better guard it for him, till the hour of need, than Morgan le Fay, the wise Queen that was of his own kindred. Yet was not the Queen shamed of her treacherous intent by the trust that Arthur had in her; but all her mind was set on how she might win to the possession of the sword itself as well as of the scabbard. At the last—so had her desire for the sword wrought upon her—she resolved to compass the destruction of the King that, if she gained the sword, never might she have need to fear his justice for the wrong she had done.
And her chance came soon. For, on a day, King Arthur resolved to chase the hart in the forests near Camelot, wherefore he left behind him his sword Excalibur, and took but a hunting spear with him. All day long, he chased a white hart and, when evening fell, he had far outstripped his attendants, save only two, Sir Accolon of Gaul and Sir Uriens, King of Gore, the husband of Queen Morgan le Fay herself. So when the King saw that darkness had come upon them in the forest, he turned to his companions, saying: "Sirs, we be far from Camelot and must lodge as we may this night. Let us go forward until we shall find where we may shelter us a little." So they rode forward, and presently Arthur espied a little lake glinting in the beams of the rising moon, and, as they drew nearer, they descried, full in the moonlight, a little ship, all hung with silks even to the water's edge. Then said the King to his knights: "Yonder is promise of shelter or, it may be, of adventure. Let us tether our horses in the thicket and enter into this little ship." And when they had so done, presently they found themselves in a fair cabin all hung with silks and tapestries, and, in its midst, a table spread with the choicest fare. And being weary and hungered with the chase, they ate of the feast prepared and, lying down to rest, were soon sunk in deep slumber.
While they slept, the little ship floated away from the land, and it came to pass that a great wonder befell; for when they woke in the morning, King Uriens found himself at home in his own land, and Sir Accolon was in his own chamber at Camelot; but the King lay a prisoner, bound and fettered and weaponless, in a noisome dungeon that echoed to the groans of hapless captives.
When he was come to himself, King Arthur looked about him and saw that his companions were knights in the same hard case as himself; and he inquired of them how they came to be in that plight. "Sir," said one of them, "we are in duresse in the castle of a certain recreant knight, Sir Damas by name, a coward false to chivalry. None love him, and so no champion can he find to maintain his cause in a certain quarrel that he has in hand. For this reason, he lies in wait with a great company of soldiers for any knights that may pass this way, and taking them prisoners, holds them in captivity unless they will undertake to fight to the death in his cause. And this I would not, nor any of my companions here; but unless we be speedily rescued, we are all like to die of hunger in this loathsome dungeon." "What is his quarrel?" asked the King. "That we none of us know," answered the knight.
While they yet talked, there entered the prison a damsel. She went up to the King at once, and said: "Knight, will ye undertake to fight in the cause of the lord of this castle?" "That I may not say," replied the King, "unless first I may hear what is his quarrel." "That ye shall not know," replied the damsel, "but this I tell you: if ye refuse, ye shall never leave this dungeon alive, but shall perish here miserably." "This is a hard case," said the King, "that I must either die or fight for one I know not, and in a cause that I may not hear. Yet on one condition will I undertake your lord's quarrel, and that is that he shall give me all the prisoners bound here in this dungeon." "It shall be as ye say," answered the damsel, "and ye shall also be furnished with horse and armour and sword than which ye never saw better." Therewith the damsel bade him follow her, and brought him to a great hall where presently there came to him squires to arm him for the combat; and when their service was rendered, the damsel said to him: "Sir Knight, even now there has come one who greets you in the name of Queen Morgan le Fay, and bids me tell you that the Queen, knowing your need, has sent you your good sword." Then the King rejoiced greatly, for it seemed to him that the sword that the damsel gave him was none other than the good sword Excalibur.
When all was prepared, the damsel led King Arthur into a fair field, and there he beheld awaiting him a knight, all sheathed in armour, his vizor down, and bearing a shield on which was no blazonry. So the two knights saluted each other, and, wheeling their horses, rode away from each other some little space.
Then turning again, they laid lance in rest, and rushing upon each other, encountered with the noise of thunder, and so great was the shock that each knight was borne from the saddle. Swiftly they gained their feet, and, drawing their swords, dealt each other great blows; and thus they contended fiercely for some while. But as he fought, a great wonder came upon Arthur, for it seemed to him that his sword, that never before had failed him, bit not upon the armour of the other, while every stroke of his enemy drew blood, till the ground on which he fought was slippery beneath his feet; and at the last almost his heart failed within him, knowing that he was betrayed, and that the brand with which he fought was not Excalibur. Yet would he not show aught of what he suffered, but struggled on, faint as he was and spent; so that they that watched the fight and saw how he was sore wounded, marvelled at his great courage and endurance. But presently, the stranger knight dealt the King a blow which fell upon Arthur's sword, and so fierce was the stroke that the blade broke off at the pommel. "Knight," said the other, "thou must yield thee recreant to my mercy." "That may I not do with mine honour," answered the King, "for I am sworn to fight in this quarrel to the death." "But weaponless thou must needs be slain." "Slay me an ye will, but think not to win glory by slaying a weaponless man."
Then was the other wroth to find himself still withstood and, in his anger, he dealt Arthur a great blow; but this the King shunned, and rushing upon his foe, smote him so fiercely on the head with the pommel of his broken sword that the knight swayed and let slip his own weapon. With a bound, Arthur was upon the sword, and no sooner had he it within his grasp than he knew it, of a truth, to be his own sword Excalibur. Then he scanned more closely his enemy, and saw the scabbard that he wore was none other than the magic scabbard of Excalibur; and forthwith, leaping upon the knight, he tore it from him and flung it far afield.
"Knight," cried King Arthur, "ye have made me suffer sore, but now is the case changed and ye stand within my power, helpless and unarmed. And much I misdoubt me but that treacherously ye have dealt with me. Nevertheless, yield you recreant and I will spare your life." "That I may not do, for it is against my vow; so slay me if ye will. Of a truth, ye are the best knight that ever I encountered."
Then it seemed to the King that the knight's voice was not unknown to him, and he said: "Tell me your name and what country ye are of, for something bids me think that ye are not all unknown to me." "I am Accolon of Gaul, knight of King Arthur's Round Table." "Ah! Accolon, Accolon," cried the King, "is it even thou that hast fought against me? Almost hast thou undone me. What treason tempted thee to come against me, and with mine own weapon too?" When Sir Accolon knew that it was against King Arthur that he had fought, he gave a loud cry and swooned away utterly. Then Arthur called to two stout yeomen amongst those that had looked on at the fight, and bade them bear Sir Accolon to a little hermitage hard by, and thither he himself followed with pain, being weak from loss of blood; but into the castle he would not enter, for he trusted not those that held it.
The hermit dressed their wounds, and presently, when Sir Accolon had come to himself again, the King spoke gently to him, bidding him say how he had come to bear arms against him. "Sir and my lord," answered Sir Accolon, "it comes of naught but the treachery of your kinswoman, Queen Morgan le Fay. For on the morrow after we had entered upon the little ship, I awoke in my chamber at Camelot, and greatly I marvelled how I had come there. And as I yet wondered, there came to me a messenger from Queen Morgan le Fay, desiring me to go to her without delay. And when I entered her presence, she was as one sore troubled, and she said to me: 'Sir Accolon, of my secret power, I know that now is our King, Arthur, in great danger; for he lies imprisoned in a great and horrible dungeon whence he may not be delivered unless one be found to do battle for him with the lord of the castle. Wherefore have I sent for you that ye may take the battle upon you for our lord the King. And for greater surety, I give you here Excalibur, Arthur's own sword, for, of a truth, we should use all means for the rescuing of our lord.' And I, believing this evil woman, came hither and challenged the lord of this castle to mortal combat; and, indeed, I deemed it was with Sir Damas that I fought even now. Yet all was treachery, and I misdoubt me that Sir Damas and his people are in league with Queen Morgan le Fay to compass your destruction. But, my lord Arthur, pardon me, I beseech you, the injuries that, all unwitting, I have done you."
King Arthur was filled with wrath against the Queen, more for the wrong done to Sir Accolon than for the treason to himself. In all ways that he might, he sought to comfort and relieve Sir Accolon, but in vain, for daily the knight grew weaker, and, after many days, he died. Then the King, being recovered of his wounds, returned to Camelot, and calling together a band of knights, led them against the castle of Sir Damas. But Damas had no heart to attempt to hold out, and surrendered himself and all that he had to the King's mercy. And first King Arthur set free those that Sir Damas had kept in miserable bondage, and sent them away with rich gifts. When he had righted the wrongs of others, then he summoned Sir Damas before him, and said: "I command thee that thou tell me why thou didst seek my destruction." And cringing low at the King's footstool, Damas answered: "I beseech you, deal mercifully with me, for all that I have done, I have done at the bidding of Queen Morgan le Fay." "A coward's plea," said the King; "how camest thou first to have traffic with her?" "Sir," replied Damas, "much have I suffered, first by the greed of my younger brother and now by the deceit of this evil woman, as ye shall hear. When my father died, I claimed the inheritance as of right, seeing that I was his elder son; but my young brother, Sir Ontzlake, withstood me, and demanded some part of my father's lands. Long since, he sent me a challenge to decide our quarrel in single combat, but it liked me ill, seeing that I am of no great strength. Much, therefore, did I desire to find a champion but, by ill fortune, none could I find until Queen Morgan le Fay sent word that, of her good will to me, she had sent me one that would defend my cause; and that same evening, the little ship brought you, my lord, to my castle. And when I saw you, I rejoiced, thinking to have found a champion that would silence my brother for ever; nor knew I you for the King's self. Wherefore, I entreat you, spare me, and avenge me on my brother." Therewith, Sir Damas fawned upon the King, but Arthur sternly bade him rise and send messengers to bring Sir Ontzlake before him.
Presently, there stood before the King a youth, fair and of good stature, who saluted his lord and then remained silent before him. "Sir Ontzlake," said the King, "I have sent for you to know of your dealings with Sir Accolon and of your quarrel with your brother." "My lord Arthur," answered the youth, "that I was the cause of hurt to yourself, I pray you to pardon me, for all unwitting was I of evil. For ye shall know that I had challenged my brother to single combat; but when word came to me that he was provided of a champion, I might not so much as brook my armour for a sore wound that I had got of an arrow shot at me as I rode through the forest near his castle. And as I grieved for my hard case, there came a messenger from Queen Morgan le Fay bidding me be of good courage, for she had sent unto me one, Sir Accolon, who would undertake my quarrel. This only she commanded me, that I should ask no question of Sir Accolon. So Sir Accolon abode with me that night and, as I supposed, fought in my cause the next day. Sure am I that there is some mystery, yet may I not misdoubt my lady Queen Morgan le Fay without cause; wherefore, if blame there be, let me bear the punishment."
Then was the King well pleased with the young man for his courage and loyalty to others. "Fair youth," said he, "ye shall go with me to Camelot, and if ye prove you brave and just in all your doings, ye shall be of my Round Table." But to Sir Damas he said sternly: "Ye are a mean-spirited varlet, unworthy of the degree of knighthood. Here I ordain that ye shall yield unto your brother the moiety of the lands that ye had of your father and, in payment for it, yearly ye shall receive of Sir Ontzlake a palfrey; for that will befit you better to ride than the knightly war-horse. And look ye well to it, on pain of death, that ye lie no more in wait for errant knights, but amend your life and live peaceably with your brother."
Thereafter, the fear of the King kept Sir Damas from deeds of violence; yet, to the end, he remained cowardly and churlish, unworthy of the golden spurs of knighthood. But Sir Ontzlake proved him a valiant knight, fearing God and the King and naught else.
HOW THE SCABBARD OF EXCALIBUR WAS LOST
Now when Queen Morgan le Fay knew that her plot had miscarried and that her treachery was discovered, she feared to abide the return of the King to Camelot; and so she went to Queen Guenevere, and said: "Madam, of your courtesy, grant me leave, I pray you, to depart." "Nay," said the Queen, "that were pity, for I have news of my lord the King, that soon he will return to Camelot. Will ye not then await his return, that ye may see your kinsman before ye depart?" "Alas! madam," said Morgan le Fay, "that may not be, for I have ill news that requires that immediately I get to my own country." "Then shall ye depart when ye will," said the Queen.
So before the next day had dawned, Morgan le Fay arose and, taking her horse, departed unattended from Camelot. All that day and most of the night she rode fast, and ere noon the next day, she was come to a nunnery where, as she knew, King Arthur lay. Entering into the house, she made herself known to the nuns, who received her courteously and gave her of their best to eat and to drink. When she was refreshed, she asked if any other had sought shelter with them that day; and they told her that King Arthur lay in an inner chamber and slept, for he had rested little for three nights. "Ah! my dear lord!" exclaimed the false sorceress; "gladly would I speak with him, but I will not that ye awaken him, and long I may not tarry here; wherefore surfer me at least to look upon him as he sleeps, and then will I continue my journey." And the nuns, suspecting no treachery, showed Queen Morgan le Fay the room where King Arthur slept, and let her enter it alone.
So Morgan le Fay had her will and stood beside the sleeping King; but again it seemed as if she must fail of her purpose, and her heart was filled with rage and despair. For she saw that the King grasped in his hand the hilt of the naked brand, that none might take it without awakening him. While she mused, suddenly she espied the scabbard where it hung at the foot of the bed, and her heart rejoiced to know that something she might gain by her bold venture. She snatched up the empty sheath, and wrapping it in a fold of her garment, left the chamber. Brief were her farewells to the holy nuns, and in haste she got to horse and rode away.
Scarcely had she set forth, when the King awoke, and rising from his couch, saw at once that the scabbard of his sword was gone. Then summoned he the whole household to his presence and inquired who had entered his chamber. "Sir," said the Abbess, "there has none been here save only your kinswoman, the Queen Morgan le Fay. She, indeed, desired to look upon you since she might not abide your awakening." Then the King groaned aloud, saying, "It is my own kinswoman, the wife of my true knight, Sir Uriens, that would betray me." He bade Sir Ontzlake make ready to accompany him, and after courteous salutation to the Abbess and her nuns, together they rode forth by the path that Morgan le Fay had taken.
Fast they rode in pursuit, and presently they came to a cross where was a poor cowherd keeping watch over his few beasts, and of him they asked whether any had passed that way. "Sirs," said the peasant, "even now there rode past the cross a lady most lovely to look upon, and with her forty knights." Greatly the King marvelled how Queen Morgan le Fay had come by such a cavalcade, but nothing he doubted that it was she the cowherd had seen. So thanking the poor man, the King, with Sir Ontzlake, rode on by the path that had been shown them, and presently, emerging from the forest, they were aware of a glittering company of horsemen winding through a wide plain that lay stretched before them. On the instant, they put spurs to their horses and galloped as fast as they might in pursuit.
But, as it chanced, Queen Morgan le Fay looked back even as Arthur and Sir Ontzlake came forth from the forest, and seeing them, she knew at once that her theft had been discovered, and that she was pursued. Straightway she bade her knights ride on till they should come to a narrow valley where lay many great stones; but as soon as they had left her, she herself rode, with all speed, to a mere hard by. Sullen and still it lay, without even a ripple on its surface. No animal ever drank of its waters nor bird sang by it, and it was so deep that none might ever plumb it. And when the Queen had come to the brink, she dismounted. From the folds of her dress she drew the scabbard, and waving it above her head, she cried, "Whatsoever becometh of me, King Arthur shall not have this scabbard." Then, whirling it with all her might, she flung it far into the mere. The jewels glinted as the scabbard flashed through the air, then it clove the oily waters of the lake and sank, never again to be seen.
When it had vanished, Morgan le Fay mounted her horse again, and rode fast after her knights, for the King and Ontzlake were in hot pursuit, and sore she feared lest they should come up with her before she might reach the shelter of the Valley of Stones. But she had rejoined her company of knights before the King had reached the narrow mouth of the valley. Quickly she bade her men scatter among the boulders, and then, by her magic art, she turned them all, men and horses and herself too, into stones, that none might tell the one from the other.
When King Arthur and Sir Ontzlake reached the valley, they looked about for some sign of the presence of the Queen or her knights, but naught might they see though they rode through the valley and beyond, and returning, searched with all diligence among the rocks and boulders. Never again was Queen Morgan le Fay seen at Camelot, nor did she attempt aught afterwards against the welfare of the King. When she had restored her knights to their proper form, she hastened with them back to her own land, and there she abode for the rest of her days until she came with the other queens to carry Arthur from the field of the Battle in the West.
Nor would the King seek to take vengeance on a woman, though sorely she had wronged him. His life long, he guarded well the sword Excalibur, but the sheath no man ever saw again.
Of Merlin and how he served King Arthur, something has been already shown. Loyal he was ever to Uther Pendragon and to his son, King Arthur, and for the latter especially he wrought great marvels. He brought the King to his rights; he made him his ships; and some say that Camelot, with its splendid halls, where Arthur would gather his knights around him at the great festivals of the year, at Christmas, at Easter, and at Pentecost, was raised by his magic, without human toil. Bleise, the aged magician who dwelt in Northumberland and recorded the great deeds of Arthur and his knights, had been Merlin's master in magic; but it came to pass in time that Merlin far excelled him in skill, so that his enemies declared no mortal was his father, and called him devil's son.
Then, on a certain time, Merlin said to Arthur: "The time draws near when ye shall miss me, for I shall go down alive into the earth; and it shall be that gladly would ye give your lands to have me again." Then Arthur was grieved, and said: "Since ye know your danger, use your craft to avoid it." But Merlin answered: "That may not be."
Now there had come to Arthur's court, a damsel of the Lady of the Lake—her whose skill in magic, some say, was greater than Merlin's own; and the damsel's name was Vivien. She set herself to learn the secrets of Merlin's art, and was ever with him, tending upon the old man and, with gentleness and tender service, winning her way to his heart; but all was a pretence, for she was weary of him and sought only his ruin, thinking it should be fame for her, by any means whatsoever, to enslave the greatest wizard of his age. And so she persuaded him to pass with her overseas into King Ban's land of Benwick, and there, one day, he showed her a wondrous rock, formed by magic art. Then she begged him to enter into it, the better to declare to her its wonders; but when once he was within, by a charm that she had learnt from Merlin's self, she caused the rock to shut down that never again might he come forth. Thus was Merlin's prophecy fulfilled, that he should go down into the earth alive. Much they marvelled in Arthur's court what had become of the great magician, till on a time, there rode past the stone a certain Knight of the Round Table and heard Merlin lamenting his sad fate. The knight would have striven to raise the mighty stone, but Merlin bade him not waste his labour, since none might release him save her who had imprisoned him there. Thus Merlin passed from the world through the treachery of a damsel, and thus Arthur was without aid in the days when his doom came upon him.
BALIN AND BALAN
Among the princes that thought scorn of Arthur in the days when first he became king, none was more insolent than Ryons of North Wales. So, on a time when King Arthur held high festival at Camelot, Ryons sent a herald who, in the presence of the whole court, before brave knights and fair dames, thus addressed the King: "Sir Arthur, my master bids me say that he has overcome eleven kings with all their hosts, and, in token of their submission, they have given him their beards to fringe him a mantle. There remains yet space for the twelfth; wherefore, with all speed, send him your beard, else will he lay waste your land with fire and sword." "Viler message," said King Arthur, "was never sent from man to man. Get thee gone, lest we forget thine office protects thee." So spoke the King, for he had seen his knights clap hand to sword, and would not that a messenger should suffer hurt in his court.
Now among the knights present the while was one whom men called Balin le Savage, who had but late been freed from prison for slaying a knight of Arthur's court. None was more wroth than he at the villainy of Ryons, and immediately after the departure of the herald, he left the hall and armed him; for he was minded to try if, with good fortune, he might win to Arthur's grace by avenging him on the King of North Wales. While he was without, there entered the hall a Witch Lady who, on a certain occasion, had done the King a service, and for this she now desired of him a boon. So Arthur bade her name her request, and thus she said: "O King, I require of you the head of the knight Balin le Savage." "That may I not grant you with my honour," replied the King; "ask what it may become me to give." But the Witch Lady would have naught else, and departed from the hall, murmuring against the King. Then, as it chanced, Balin met her at the door, and immediately when he saw her, he rode upon her, sword in hand, and, with one blow, smote off her head. Thus he took vengeance for his mother's death, of which she had been the cause, and, well content, rode away. But when it was told King Arthur of the deed that Balin had done, he was full wroth, nor was his anger lessened though Merlin declared the wrong the Witch Lady had done to Balin. "Whatsoever cause he had against her, yet should he have done her no violence in my court," said the King, and bade Sir Lanceour of Ireland ride after Balin and bring him back again.
Thus it came to pass that, as Sir Balin rode on his way, he heard the hoof-beats of a horse fast galloping, and a voice cried loudly to him: "Stay, Knight; for thou shalt stay, whether thou wilt or not." "Fair Knight," answered Balin fiercely, "dost thou desire to fight with me?" "Yea, truly," answered Lanceour; "for that cause have I followed thee from Camelot." "Alas!" cried Balin, "then I know thy quarrel. And yet, I dealt but justly by that vile woman, and it grieves me to offend my lord King Arthur again." "Have done, and make ready to fight," said Lanceour insolently; for he was proud and arrogant, though a brave knight. So they rushed together, and, at the first encounter, Sir Lanceour's spear was shivered against the shield of the other, but Balin's spear pierced shield and hauberk and Lanceour fell dead to the earth.
Then Sir Balin, sore grieved that he had caused the death of a knight of Arthur's court, buried Lanceour as well as he might, and continued sorrowfully on his journey in search of King Ryons. Presently, as he rode through a great forest, he espied a knight whom, by his arms, he knew at once for his brother, Sir Balan. Great joy had they in their meeting, for Balan had believed Balin still to be in prison. So Balin told Balan all that had befallen him, and how he sought Ryons to avenge Arthur upon him for his insolent message, and hoped thereby to win his lord's favour again. "I will ride with thee, brother," said Balan, "and help thee all I may." So the two went on their way till, presently, they met with an old man—Merlin's self, though they knew him not, for he was disguised. "Ah, Knight," said Merlin to Balin, "swift to strike and swift to repent, beware, or thou shalt strike the most dolorous blow dealt by man; for thou shalt slay thine own brother." "If I believed thy words true," cried Balin hotly, "I would slay myself to make thee a liar." "I know the past and I know the future," said Merlin; "I know, too, the errand on which thou ridest, and I will help thee if thou wilt." "Ah!" said Balin, "that pleases me well." "Hide you both in this covert," said Merlin; "for presently there shall come riding down this path King Ryons with sixty of his knights." With these words he vanished. So Balin and Balan did as he had bidden them, and when King Ryons and his men entered the little path, they fell upon them with such fury that they slew more than forty knights, while the rest fled, and King Ryons himself yielded him to them. So Sir Balan rode with King Ryons to Camelot that he might deliver him to King Arthur; but Balin went not with them, for he would see more adventures before he sought King Arthur's presence again.
After many days' travel and many encounters, it befell that, one evening, Balin drew near to a castle; and when he would have sought admittance, there stood by him an old man, and said: "Balin, turn thee back, and it shall be better for thee," and so vanished. At that moment there was blown a blast on a horn, such as is sounded when the stag receives its death; and hearing it, Balin's heart misgave him, and he cried: "That blast is blown for me, and I am the prize. But not yet am I dead!"
At that instant the castle gate was raised and there appeared many knights and ladies welcoming Balin into the castle. So he entered, and presently they were all seated at supper. Then the lady of the castle said to Balin: "Sir Knight, to-morrow thou must have ado with a knight that keeps an island near-by; else mayest thou not pass that way." "That is an evil custom," answered Balin; "but if I must, I must." So that night he rested, but with the dawn he arose, and was arming himself for battle when there came to him a knight and said: "Sir, your shield is not good; I pray you, take mine which is larger and stouter." In an evil hour, Balin suffered himself to be persuaded, and taking the stranger's shield, left; behind his own on which his arms were blazoned. Then, entering a boat, he was conveyed to the island where the unknown knight held the ford.
No sooner was he landed, than there came riding to him a knight armed all in red armour, his horse, too, trapped all in red; and without word spoken, they charged upon each other, and each bore the other from the saddle. Thus for a while they lay, stunned by the fall. The Red Knight was the first to rise, for Balin, all wearied by his travels and many encounters, was sore shaken by the fall. Then they fought together right fiercely, hacking away great pieces of armour, and dealing each other dreadful wounds. But when they paused to take breath, Balin, looking up, saw the battlements of the castle filled with knights and ladies watching the struggle, and immediately, shamed that the conflict should have so long endured, he rushed again upon the Red Knight, aiming at him blows that might have felled a giant. So they fought together a long while; but at the last, the Red Knight drew back a little. Then cried Balin: "Who art thou? for till now, never have I met my match." Then said the Red Knight: "I am Balan, brother to the noble knight, Sir Balin"; and with the word, he fell to the ground as one dead. "Alas!" cried Balin, "that I should have lived to see this day!" Then, as well as he might, for his strength was almost spent, he crept on hands and knees to his brother's side and opened the vizor of his helmet, and when he saw his brother's face all ghastly, as it was, he cried: "O Balan, I have slain thee, as thou hast also slain me! Oh! woeful deed I never to be forgotten of men!" Then Balan, being somewhat recovered, told Balin how he had been compelled by those at the castle to keep the ford against all comers, and might never depart; and Balin told of the grievous chance by which he had taken another's shield.
So these two died, slain by each other's hands. In one tomb they were buried; and Merlin, passing that way, inscribed thereon the full story of their deaths.