This is a chapter of King Arthur and His Knights by Blanche Winder.
Everybody in Britain knew that the son of Uther Pendragon had been found at last, and, though some of the barons were very angry and refused at first to accept the “beardless boy,” as they called him, they gave in when Queen Ygierne openly declared him to be the child of the dead king and herself. So Arthur was crowned with great rejoicings and feastings, jousts and tournaments. Never was there so handsome and so favored a young sovereign! Not only did all the knights and ladies of his court think the world of him, but the fairies of the forests and lakes loved him too. Had he not been given into the special care of Merlin, that master of magic, who knew a hundred times more secrets than the fairies knew themselves?
Arthur’s sister, too, was half a fairy and was called Morgan le Fay, which means Morgan the fairy maiden. She knew all sorts of spells, both good and bad. She could read stories in the stars and tell you the wonderful enchantments that might, any moonlit night, be woven by means of a hazel wand, held in a certain very secret manner. She knew exactly what kind of fern seed would make you invisible, and where to find the flowers that were used for wonderful wine that smelt like cowslips and wild honey and made you fall head-over-heels in love! There was no end to Morgan le Fay’s magic.
Arthur and his sister were very fond of each other, though, like a good many other brothers and sisters, they quarreled a little sometimes. It is, however, pretty certain that Morgan had something to do with the way in which the young king came into possession of a second sword, much more marvelous than the one which he had pulled out of the shining white stone.
Not very far from Arthur’s castle —which was at a place called Caerleon, quite a long way from Tintagel— a big wood grew, all dark and shady with pines and oaks. In the middle of the wood was a fountain, which was always full of clear spring water. By the fountain, a beautiful tent appeared one day, hung inside with satin curtains, and decorated with tassels of silver and gold. Just outside the tent, a horse in bright rich trappings was tethered, and, on a bough over the horse’s head, hung a magnificent shield, set thickly with jewels, and enameled in as many colors as a peacock’s tail!
As soon as this lovely tent and horse and shield appeared by the side of the fountain, all the passers-by knew their meaning. Some strange and powerful knight from a distant country had taken up his post in the middle of one of King Arthur’s private forests and was challenging anybody and everybody to come and turn him out! This was a thing that happened very often in those days, and there was never any lack of knights to answer the challenge. It meant honor and glory to every knight who rode out to do him battle, and great distinction to the one who succeeded in conquering him.
The first person to come and tell Arthur about the knight was a very brave youth called Griflet, who was only a page at the court of Caerleon. He begged the king to give him the order of knighthood, that he might ride off at once and fight with the stranger, who, he said eagerly, was one of the strongest, bravest, cleverest knights in the whole world. Arthur hesitated, for he thought Griflet was too inexperienced and young; but Merlin told him to do as the lad asked; so the king made him a knight, calling him “Sir Griflet”, and made him promise to come back to the court if he failed in the brave deed he was so anxious to perform.
Sir Griflet promised and rode off. But, in a few hours, he came riding back, terribly wounded and dreadfully unhappy. The knight by the fountain had easily conquered him and, instead of killing him, the stranger had himself dismounted and given aid to poor Sir Griflet, telling him he was a brave youngster and would make a fine fighter when he was a little older. Then he had set the young knight on his horse again and sent him back to the king.
Well, when Arthur heard Sir Griflet’s story, he exclaimed that the stranger was, indeed, a fine and generous knight, and that he would himself go off to the forest and challenge him to a battle! For, in those days, the more splendid and brave an enemy was, the more honor there was in fighting him. So off went King Arthur on a magnificent war horse, his shield and sword and breastplate shining brightly.
On the way Merlin walked by the king’s stirrup, saying he thought he might be wanted before the day was over. As he and Arthur talked together, they came in sight of the richly-colored tent, with the strange knight, dressed in all his bright armor, standing by the side of the tree where his shield was hanging, its jewels and enamel gleaming in the shade of the boughs. When he saw another knight riding in the forest, he stepped forward and stood barring the way.
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“How now!” cried Arthur. “Then no one may pass this way without a fight?”
“That is so,” answered the knight, as bold and haughty as you please. “Are you ready?”
“Quite ready!” replied Arthur joyfully.
So the stranger leaped upon his horse and, with sword and spear, king and knight sprang towards each other to do battle. Such a crash rang through the forest as they met! But the noise was only the noise of the king’s spear striking the shield of the knight, and the knight’s spear striking the shield of the king. And so vigorously each struck that both the spears were shivered into a thousand pieces.
By this time, both king and knight were hot with battle and, springing from their horses, they rushed at each other on foot, brandishing their sharp shining swords. Over and over again they struck, one at the other, each trying to strike the conquering blow. At last, the stranger knight drew back for a moment. King Arthur, thinking he was exhausted, leaped towards him. But the other swung his sword suddenly high above his head and brought it with all his force against the king’s sword as Arthur made his spring. So violent was the knight’s great blow that it cut right through the sword of the king, who was left with only the jagged handle in his grasp. Then Arthur threw away the handle and rushed on to the knight with his mailed gloves. So they fought again, rocking and swaying together like two mighty wrestlers. And, at last, King Arthur was thrown to the ground and lay senseless among the bruised ferns.
The stranger knight lifted high his own unbroken sword to cut off the fainting king’s head. But Merlin, who had been watching, sprang forward and waved his wizard’s wand. Instantly, the knight slipped slowly to the ground and lay beside the king in a deep sleep, while Merlin lifted Arthur and set him, only half conscious, on the stranger’s horse.
The king, pale and exhausted, looked down on the knight as Merlin led the horse away. “Oh, Merlin, Merlin!” he cried. “You have killed the finest knight that ever did battle against a king!”
“Not so!” answered Merlin. “He is only asleep! But come! You must have another sword to make up for the one that has been broken in the fight!”
So on they went, through the trees, Merlin still leading the horse. Presently they came to a big open space in the forest, and there, in the afternoon sunlight, glimmered the wide waters of a mysterious lake. Nothing and nobody was in sight — no people, no wild foxes or deer. But, right in the middle of the lake, a white hand and arm were stretched out from the water, as motionless as if they were carved in ivory. A long sleeve of pearly satin was folded about the arm, and the hand held the most beautiful jeweled sword that Arthur had ever seen in his life.
As the king looked, amazed, he saw a fairy maiden in a silver gown, with golden hair, walking on the green water. She came stepping daintily towards them, and Arthur asked Merlin who she was.
“She is Nimue, the lady of the lake,” said Merlin, “and, if you ask her, very courteously, she will tell you how to get the sword.”
So, when the Lady of the Lake set her pretty little foot on the shore, Arthur went towards her and, bowing low, asked her to tell him how he could get the sword.
Then the maiden smiled and showed him a fairy barge, hidden all among the reeds. She told him he had only to get into the barge, and to row himself into the middle of the lake, and to take the sword out of the fair white hand which held it.
“And for my reward for telling you,” said she, “one day I will come to the court and claim a favor from you!”
Then she disappeared, and Arthur and Merlin, springing into the barge, rowed out as fast as they could.
All this time, the hand and arm that held the sword had remained quite still. How Arthur marveled, as he drew nearer and nearer, at the slim wrist, and the delicate fingers, of that white strange hand!
The barge drew close up to the motionless arm, and Arthur, leaning over the side, put out his hand. Very gently and carefully he drew the shining sword from the fairy fingers. As soon as he touched it, they released their clasp, and the arm went slowly, slowly down into the lake, and was gone.
Then Merlin rowed the barge back again to the rocky, reedy bank of the lake. The lady who had told them to take the sword had disappeared among the dark pines that grew right down to the water’s edge.
Arthur and Merlin got out of the barge, and Arthur fastened the fairy sword to his side. Then Merlin, who had read all about it in one of his fairy books, told him that the sword was called Excalibur and that it was just as precious and wonderful as the round table itself. The wizard told the king, too, the name of the stranger knight, which was Pellinore, and said that he, also, was a great king. But, when Arthur wanted to go and finish the battle with Pellinore —now that he had a fairy sword— Merlin said that he had fought enough for one day. So he and the king rode back to Caerleon with Excalibur hanging by Arthur’s side, while King Pellinore awoke quietly from his enchanted sleep and went to rest in his tent.