Le Morte d'Arthur

6. The Lady of the Fountain



King Arthur was holding his court at Caerleon-upon-Usk, and it was the time of the evening banquet, when there entered the hall the good knight, Sir Kynon. A brave warrior was he, and of good counsel, but he seemed in weary plight as, after due salutation to all, he took his place at the Round Table. So it was that all were eager to hear of his adventure, yet none would question him until he had eaten and drunk. But when he was refreshed, the King said to him: "Whence come ye, Sir Kynon? For it would seem that ye have met with hard adventure." "Sir King," answered Kynon, "it has been with me as never before; for I have encountered with, and been overthrown by, a single knight." All were filled with wonder at his words, for never before had Sir Kynon been worsted in any meeting, man to man. Then said the King: "The stoutest of us must some time meet his match; yet did ye bear you valiantly, I doubt not. Tell us now, I pray you, of your adventures." "Noble lord," said Kynon, "I had determined to journey into other lands; for I would seek new and untried adventures. So I passed into a far land, and it chanced, one day, that I found myself in the fairest valley I had ever seen. Through it there flowed a mighty river, which I followed, until I came, as evening fell, to a castle, the largest and strongest I have ever seen. At the castle gate I espied a man of right noble mien, who greeted me courteously, and bade me enter. So as we sat at supper, he inquired of my journey and the quest I followed, and I told him how I sought but adventure, and whether, perchance, I might encounter one stronger than myself. Then the lord of the castle smiled and said: 'I can bring you to such an one, if ye would rather that I showed you your disadvantage than your advantage.' And when I questioned him further, he replied: 'Sleep here this night, and to-morrow I will show you such an one as ye seek.' So I rested that night, and with the dawn I rose and took my leave of the lord of the castle, who said to me: 'If ye will persevere in your quest, follow the path to the head of the glade, and ascend the wooded steep until ye come to an open space in the forest, with but one great tree in its midst. Under the tree is a fountain, and beside it a marble slab to which is chained a silver bowl. Take a bowlful of water and dash it upon the slab, and presently there will appear a knight spurring to encounter with you. If ye flee, he will pursue, but if ye overcome him, there exists none in this world whom ye need fear to have ado with.'

"Forthwith I departed, and following these directions, I came at last to such a space as he described, with the tree and fountain in its midst. So I took the bowl and dashed water from the fountain upon the marble slab, and, on the instant, came a clap of thunder so loud as near deafened me, and a storm of hailstones the biggest that ever man saw. Scarce was I recovered from my confusion, when I saw a knight galloping towards me. All in black was he, and he rode a black horse. Not a word we spoke, but we dashed against each other, and at the first encounter I was unhorsed. Still not a word spoke the Black Knight, but passing the butt-end of his lance through my horse's reins, rode away, leaving me shamed and on foot. So I made my way back to the castle, and there I was entertained again that night right hospitably, none questioning me as to my adventure. The next morning, when I rose, there awaited me a noble steed, ready saddled and bridled, and I rode away and am returned hither. And now ye know my story and my shame."

Then were all grieved for the discomfiture of Sir Kynon, who had ever borne himself boldly and courteously to all; and they strove to console him as best they might. Presently there rose from his siege the good knight Sir Owain of Rheged, and said: "My lord, I pray you, give me leave to take upon me this adventure. For I would gladly seek this wondrous fountain and encounter with this same Black Knight." So the King consented, and on the morrow Sir Owain armed him, mounted his horse, and rode forth the way Sir Kynon had directed him.

So he journeyed many a day until at last he reached the valley of which Sir Kynon had told, and presently he came to the strong castle and, at the gate, met the lord thereof, even as Sir Kynon had done. And the lord of the castle gave him a hearty welcome and made him good cheer, asking nothing of his errand till they were seated about the board. Then, when questioned, Sir Owain declared his quest, that he sought the knight who guarded the fountain. So the lord of the castle, failing to dissuade Sir Owain from the adventure, directed him how he might find the forest glade wherein was the wondrous fountain.

With the dawn, Sir Owain rose, mounted his horse, and rode forward until he had found the fountain. Then he dashed water on the marble slab and instantly there burst over him the fearful hailstorm, and through it there came pricking towards him the Black Knight on the black steed. In the first onset, they broke their lances and then, drawing sword, they fought blade to blade. Sore was the contest, but at the last Owain dealt the Black Knight so fierce a blow that the sword cut through helmet and bone to the very brain. Then the Black Knight knew that he had got his death-wound, and turning his horse's head, fled as fast as he might, Sir Owain following close behind. So they came, fast galloping, to the gate of a mighty castle, and instantly the portcullis was raised and the Black Knight dashed through the gateway. But Sir Owain, following close behind, found himself a prisoner, fast caught between two gates; for as the Black Knight passed through the inner of the two gates, it was closed before Sir Owain could follow. For the moment none noticed Sir Owain, for all were busied about the Black Knight, who drew not rein till he was come to the castle hall; then as he strove to dismount, he fell from his saddle, dead.

All this Sir Owain saw through the bars of the gate that held him prisoner; and he judged that his time was come, for he doubted not but that the people of the castle would hold his life forfeit for the death of their lord. So as he waited, suddenly there stood at his side a fair damsel, who, laying finger on lip, motioned to him to follow her. Much wondering, he obeyed, and climbed after her up a dark winding staircase, that led from the gateway into a tiny chamber high in the tower. There she set food and wine before him, bidding him eat; then when he was refreshed, she asked him his name and whence he came. "Truly," answered he, "I am Owain of Rheged, knight of King Arthur's Round Table, who, in fair fight, have wounded, I doubt not to the death, the Black Knight that guards the fountain and, as I suppose, the lord of this castle. Wherefore, maiden, if ye intend me evil, lead me where I may answer for my deed, boldly, man to man." "Nay," answered the damsel eagerly, "in a good hour ye are come. Well I know your name, for even here have we heard of your mighty deeds; and by good fortune it may be that ye shall release my lady." "Who is your lady?" asked Sir Owain. "None other than the rightful Chatelaine of this castle and Countess of broad lands besides; but this year and more has the Black Knight held her prisoner in her own halls because she would not listen to his suit." "Then lead me to your lady forthwith," cried Sir Owain; "right gladly will I take her quarrel upon me if there be any that will oppose me." So she led him to the Countess' bower, and there he made him known to the fair lady and proffered her his services. And she that had long deemed there was no deliverance for her, accepted them right gladly. So taking her by the hand, he led her down to the hall, and there, standing at the door, he proclaimed her the lawful lady of that castle and all its lands, and himself ready to do battle in her cause. But none answered his challenge, for those that had held with the Black Knight, deprived of their leader, had lost heart, whereas they that for their loyalty to their lady had been held in subjection, gathered fast about Sir Owain, ready to do battle. So in short space, Sir Owain drove forth the lawless invaders of the Countess' lands, and called together her vassals that they might do homage to her anew.

Thus he abode in the castle many days, seeking in all that he might to do her service, until through all her lands order was restored, and her right acknowledged. But when all was done, Sir Owain yet tarried in the lady's castle; for he loved her much, but doubted ever of her favour. So one day, Luned, the damsel who had come to his aid on the day that he slew the Black Knight, said to him: "Alas! Sir Knight, the time must come when ye will leave us. And who will then defend my lady's fountain, which is the key to all her lands? For who holds the fountain, holds the land also." "I will never fail your lady while there is breath in my body," cried Sir Owain. "Then were it well that ye stayed here ever," answered Luned. "Gladly would I," answered Sir Owain, "if that I might." "Ye might find a way if your wits were as sharp as your sword," she answered, and laughing, left him, but herself sought her lady. Long he pondered her words, and he was still deep in thought, when there came to him the Countess, and said: "Sir Knight, I hear that ye must leave us." "Nay, my lady," answered Sir Owain, "I will stay as long as ye require my services." "There must ever be one to guard the fountain, and he who guards the fountain, is lord of these lands," answered the lady softly. Then Sir Owain found words at last, and bending the knee, he said: "Lady, if ye love me, I will stay and guard you and your lands; and if ye love me not, I will go into my own country, and yet will I come again whensoever ye have need of me. For never loved I any but you." Then the Countess bade him stay, and calling her vassals together, she commanded all to do homage to him, and took him for her husband in presence of them all.

Thus Sir Owain won the Lady of the Fountain.