This is a chapter of King Arthur and His Knights by Blanche Winder.
After King Arthur, and King Pellinore, and Sir Gawaine had followed the mysterious hunt into the Enchanted Forest, they never knew at what hour of the day —or of the night, either— they might not hear the horns of Fairyland blowing and catch a glimpse of the long string of black hounds streaming through the meadow grasses after the beautiful white stag. Many and wonderful were the adventures that befell them — and not only them, but all the other knights of the Round Table. Sometimes the fairy hunt led them into startling danger, sometimes into strange and beautiful places; but always they found that there was a lady in distress to be rescued, a giant to be killed, a brave gentleman to be helped, or something else to be done that was included in the vow.
Well, one day Arthur was hunting with his knights on the borders of the Enchanted Forest, following a big stag, which was not, however, the one with the fairy hoofs that shone so brightly upon the moss. The king rode his horse far from his companions, and presently overtook the fine stag and shot it with a strong arrow from his bow. The stag fell by the side of a river, and Arthur dismounted to see if it were quite dead. As he stood there, the dim thrilling notes of the elfin horns came to him, and, all at once, on the opposite side of the water, he caught a glimpse of the flying white deer of Fairyland and of the shadowy speeding bodies of the coal-black hounds. Arthur’s horse began to tremble. In another moment it had broken free and was galloping home as fast as it could. It might well be frightened, for, as the fairy hunt disappeared into the shadows of the forest, the whole wood went suddenly quite dark, while down the glimmering black waters of the river a little ship came sailing, with a hundred torches burning in a hundred silver holders, and lighting it from end to end. Nobody was steering or guiding the ship, but it sailed on as if a clever hand were at the helm, and, when it reached the place where Arthur stood, it swung about on the water and lay rocking, as if it were at anchor, close against the bank where the willows grew.
“Now here is my adventure!” said King Arthur to himself, quite joyful and fearless.
In his green hunting dress he strode down through the willows and boarded the ship. Off it floated again, the moment he was aboard. And, when he looked up at the sails above his head, he saw that they were all made of white silk, embroidered with pink roses and poppies the color of blood.
The little ship went on, down the river, and the flaming torches were mirrored in the dark steam like so many stars. The king seemed to be quite alone on board; when, all at once, rising up, as it seemed, from the water, twelve beautiful maidens appeared and made a ring around about him, joining hands and dancing as prettily as fairies do dance on a moonlit night. Then they all fell on their knees and said how glad they were that he had boarded the little ship, and what a beautiful feast was spread for him, if he would go below. So below King Arthur went, and found a cabin hung with white satin and silver candlesticks, with clear-burning candles set on a table spread with fruit and honey, white bread, and red wine. He sat down to eat, and the twelve beautiful maidens waited on him. When he had finished, they led him to a bedroom hung with crimson satin, and he lay down on a blue and silver bed and fell asleep.
But, when he awoke, the pretty ship and the bed had all disappeared! He found himself in a dark dungeon, lying on a stone floor, with twenty other knights, who were all groaning in the deepest trouble and asking each other if nobody would ever come to help them.
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King Arthur sat up and rubbed his eyes. “Where am I?” he asked the knights. “And who are all of you?”
“Alas! Alas!” cried all the twenty at once. “We are prisoners, and we have been thrown into this dungeon by the cruel lord of the castle. And here he will keep us until we die. For we can only be rescued when a knight has been found who is brave enough and strong enough to fight with the lord of the castle and to conquer him. And that nobody is ever likely to do.”
“But, indeed, there is now a knight among you who is quite brave enough and strong enough to try!” cried King Arthur. “Tell me how to get out of this dungeon, and I will soon challenge the lord of the castle to fight!”
Even as he said the words, a light seemed to appear from nowhere, and he saw a beautiful girl dressed like a princess, standing beside him.
“Follow me!” said the maiden. “I am the princess of this castle. And I want these poor prisoners saved.”
Immediately King Arthur sprang to his feet and followed her.
She led him out of the dungeon, and all the knights rose to their feet and followed. She took them to the hall of the castle and gave King Arthur armor to wear over his green hunting clothes. And she pointed to a war horse that stood in the courtyard outside.
“Mount the horse!” said she. “Take your sword, your shield, and your spear! The lord of the castle is in the meadow on his great black steed, waiting for someone to do battle with him for his prisoners!”
Arthur was already dressed in the armor and had taken up his shield and spear. But when he looked at the sword, he shook his head.
“I cannot fight with that sword!” he cried. Alas! Where is my magic sword, Excalibur?”
Then the beautiful lady laughed, put her hand behind her, and brought out what looked like Arthur’s own sword, Excalibur! And the king, with great joy, took it into his hand, and set off for the meadow, with all the twenty knights.
This was, indeed, a great adventure — much greater than King Arthur knew. For the ship was a witch’s ship, and the twelve dancing fairies were wicked fairies, and the lady who called herself the princess of the Castle Perilous was the wickedest fairy of them all. Because, you must know, Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s sister, had made herself queen of the water witches, and she wished her brother, the king, to be killed. So she had set all this magic afoot and had also stolen Arthur’s real sword, Excalibur, and given it to the knight who was waiting for the king in the meadow.
When he saw Arthur coming, he rode towards him with a great shout, waving the stolen Excalibur around and around his head. The king spurred his own horse forward, and the two met with a ringing crash of steel. Over and over again they struck at each other, but King Arthur felt, with anguish, his own sword was not striking keen and true. Then, even in the thick of the battle, he found time to gaze at the jewels in the scabbard of the sword his enemy used. And, all at once, the king guessed that some treachery was at work — that the other knight was fighting with Excalibur and that the sword in his own hands was not made of fighting steel.
As Arthur realized this, he wavered in his saddle and almost fell. The wicked lord who fought him swung Excalibur high to strike the last blow. But, at that very moment, the waters of the river which flowed around the meadow were strangely disturbed. Out of the sparkling foam sprang a figure no less sparkling, and across the grass swept a beautiful lady, with dripping golden hair and a long trailing silver gown. It was the water fairy who had brought up Sir Lancelot and who had heard from the moorhens and little fishes of the plot made by Morgan le Fay and was hurrying to the rescue.
She swept past the twenty knights and stood poised on her little white feet just above the grass, half resting on the meadow flowers and half hanging, on her misty wings, in the air. She waved her white hands and cried out magical words. And the wicked lord on the big horse dropped Excalibur into Arthur’s very hands! The king seized his own good sword, and, with a shout of victory, stabbed his enemy through the breast. The big knight fell to the ground and lay there.
His servants came running from the castle and took him in. He got better in the end, but nobody cared much about that. What everybody did care about was that the twenty imprisoned knights were set free and went joyfully home to their twenty faithful wives!