This is a chapter of King Arthur and His Knights by Blanche Winder.
King Arthur and Princess Guinevere were married with great rejoicings, and all the barons and baronesses, the dukes and duchesses of the country, came to the wedding. Such a banquet it was at Camelot! Such songs, and dances, and tournaments! The whole neighborhood seemed to ring with the mirth of it; with the shouts, and laughter, and delicate music of a hundred harps. Every evening the king and queen sat at the windows of the castle, watching processions of knights, with torches, winding in and out of the trees. Every morning the radiant pair came out together, smiling and beautiful, to walk or ride across the meadow, so that the whole world might see them. The queen just moved along daintily and silently, but the king was always watchful and alert, ready to hear grievances or to grant favors: ready, even, to give the order of knighthood to the poor sons of laborers and cowherds if they could prove to him that they were as noble and valiant at heart as any gentleman of the land.
But a day came when Merlin told Arthur that the merriment and feasting must pause for a time and that the king must meet his knights in sober and earnest talk, seated at the round table. So Queen Guinevere and all the ladies of the court swept and rustled away, in a stately procession, to the women’s quarters in the castle, and the king and the knights sat down at the round table and passed the cup of fellowship from hand to hand. Then Merlin said that today the empty seat at the king’s left hand was to be filled — not the Seat Perilous, but the other place which had been left without a name. Everybody wondered who the chosen knight could be, and they all stood up and waited as the great wizard went out of the door of the banqueting hall to bring in the newcomer, and to present him to the king.
After a minute or two, the sound of a galloping horse was heard through the window — a strong, fast horse which came, with hoofs like thunder, over the drawbridge of the moat. A knight’s armor clashed in the courtyard; a knight’s small silken banner fluttered against the casement; Merlin’s voice spoke a greeting, and deep full gay tones echoed in reply. Down the corridor tramped the heavy feet of the stranger, and in the doorway his form showed, tall and broad. Merlin took his hand and led him forward, and King Arthur gave a cry of amazement. For whom do you think it was? Why, none other than King Pellinore, the knight who had set up his tent by the side of the woodland fountain and who had been left lying in an enchanted sleep the last time that Arthur had seen him!
But King Arthur was pleased — oh, very pleased indeed! He bore the other king no ill will for having broken his own royal sword —and very nearly his own royal head as well— in their mighty battle among the forest trees. Stepping forward, he greeted his old enemy warmly, declaring that he was a right goodly, and noble knight, worthy to become a member of the Round Table. Pellinore said, in reply, that he was proud of many things in his life, but never prouder than at this moment, when he stood in the halls of Camelot and received the greeting of Camelot’s king. Then he bent on one knee before Arthur and took the oath of fealty, and Arthur, himself, raised him up and placed him in the seat at his left-hand side, while the jeweled cup was passed around again, and all the other knights drank joyfully to Pellinore, the latest comer to the round table.
And now Merlin made a sign to Arthur, and the king sprang to his feet and drew his sword from his scabbard. Everybody else did the same. There was a moment’s pause, and then all the brave voices rang out together. Standing side by side, shoulder to shoulder, their unsheathed swords glittering, their heads high and erect, the knights of the round table thundered out the words of the vow.
The sound of it was still in the air, and not one of the company had sheathed his sword again, when a great commotion arose under the windows of the castle! Hounds were baying, horns were blowing, and a little dog seemed to be barking with all its might! A long, long way off, horses might be heard galloping, as well. But nobody could be quite sure of that, because, as they all stared at each other in great astonishment, the door of the banqueting hall suddenly burst open, and a great pure-white stag, with branching horns and eyes like balls of flame, bounded into the room, its hoofs, which seemed to be made of silver, flashing and ringing among the green rushes on the stone flags of the floor.
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No sooner had it leaped through the doorway than everybody saw that the little white dog, which had been making such a noise outside, was hard on the heels of this beautiful and mysterious deer. And, following instantly, came a pack of thirty couple of great black hounds, in full cry after the snow-white stag. But of followers and huntsmen there was not a sign. Only the sound of fairy horns blowing in the air, and the galloping of unseen horses far away.
Round the big banqueting hall swept this strange hunt, which was, in very truth, a hunt from Fairyland. Just as the great white stag reached the place where a young handsome knight was sitting, the little dog sprang right up at it, so that the big beautiful creature leaped almost over the young knight’s head. This knight was called Sir Gawaine, and the stag knocked him clean over. Sir Gawaine sprang up, quite bewitched, and, catching up the little dog, joined the hunt, not knowing that it was a fairy hunt and would lead him goodness knows whither! Away he ran out of the room and out of the castle, and, putting the little dog on his horse just as huntsmen always did, went galloping off after the snow-white stag. But no sooner was he gone out of the door than a beautiful maiden, on the prettiest white pony, came in at another, and rode right into the middle of the hall, and called to King Arthur to go after Sir Gawaine and to bring back the little fairy dog which he had stolen!
“The little dog is mine!” cried this beautiful unknown lady. “The knight had no business to take it away! Remember the vow, King Arthur, remember the vow! I am a lady in distress, and, as such, you have sworn to help me!”
King Arthur sat silent, his hand on his sword. The vow had seemed to him such a beautiful serious thing, and he could not believe that it had anything to do with this wild fairy hunt, and this strange fairy lady, who certainly was not made of flesh and blood. He heard the noise of the black hounds, and of Sir Gawaine’s horse, and of the little mysterious elfin dog, fade in the distance among the faintly-blowing horns of the invisible company, and he had not the slightest wish to go after them. He wanted to stay soberly in his royal castle with his beautiful royal bride.
As he hesitated, another startling and quite unexpected visitor came loudly in through the wide-open door. This time it was a strange shadowy knight almost as big as a giant, dressed in black armor, and riding a huge black horse. He trotted up to the lady, and, without a word to anybody, seized her pretty white pony by the bridle. Then he wheeled his horse about and rode quickly out of the door again, leading the lady’s pony and taking no notice of her cries and tears. It all happened so quickly that not a single knight of the Round Table had time to spring to the lady’s rescue.
As they all stood, breathless and amazed, King Arthur suddenly found his voice and cried aloud, in ringing tones, to Merlin, the magician:
“Tell me, oh, great wizard!” he cried. “What is the meaning of all this magic?”
Merlin, whose face had been hidden under his magician’s hood, suddenly flung away the covering. Everybody saw him, for a moment, as an old man, with a long white beard, wearing a crown of mistletoe. But, even as they looked, his face changed. He seemed young and very beautiful, and the crown of mistletoe became a laurel wreath on his hair, which was golden and like a boy’s. His voice, when he answered Arthur, somehow reminded the king of the invisible fairy horns which they had all heard.
“And what if the hunt is only a fairy hunt and the lady only a fairy lady?” cried Merlin. “Are you not brave enough to follow them into Fairyland? Is all your life going to be spent in royal castles, eating and drinking at rich banquets, and meeting other knights in mock battles, with swords and shields? Do you not know what high adventure means? If not, I can soon tell you! It means the adventure of bright dreams, and of lovely visions, and of things that are only very dimly seen and heard. Follow the fairy hunt, good King Arthur! Go after the vision of the snow-white stag, and the sweet sorrowful lady, and the dark knight! What if she has only asked you to bring back her little white dog? What if you think it is all magic mixed with folly, and you would be better staying quietly at home? Have the kingly courage to take horse and to follow Sir Gawaine into Fairyland — to storm the doors of the Castle Perilous and to brave the darkness of the Valley of No Return!”
Then Arthur drew himself erect, and King Pellinore sprang to his feet at the king’s right hand.
“I, too, am a king,” cried Pellinore. “I, too, am of royal blood! It is for kings to lead the way into the mysterious places of which the great wizard has spoken. Come, King Arthur! We will set off on this high adventure together!”
“You say well!” cried Merlin. “You have your own good sword, King Pellinore! You have used it well and strongly more than once. Use it well and strongly again! And for you, my own great sovereign, you have Excalibur! Excalibur, which you took from the hand that held it high above the enchanted lake! Carry Excalibur with you and use it, always, to defend the right. Then you need not fear the places of dark spirits! Forward, forward, both of you! Go, like brave and chivalrous kings, into Fairyland!”
Merlin finished speaking and folded his hood once more about his face and hair. King Arthur and King Pellinore went out of the banqueting hall and sprang each upon his own war horse. Then off they went, side by side, after the fairy hunt, while Merlin, hidden in his hood, passed away from the sight of the knights of the Round Table. Where he went to, none of them knew.