T HERE was a woman in Arthur's Court named Morgan le Fay, who had learned a great deal about magic. She was a wicked woman, and hated the king because he was more powerful than she, and because he was so good.
However, she pretended to be a true friend to him, and the king believed in her. One day when they were talking together, she asked him if he would not let her take charge of wonderful sword Excalibur, and its scabbard. She said that she would guard them so carefully that they would never be stolen. As she was very eager, Arthur granted her request.
One day in time of peace, King Arthur went out hunting with a certain knight named Sir Accalon, who was the lover of Morgan le Fay. They rode for a long time, and when they were tired, stopped to rest beside a great lake. As they looked over its shining waters, they saw a beautiful little ship, which sailed straight towards them, and ran up to the sands at their feet. It was all covered with golden silks, which waved in the gentle wind. King Arthur and Sir Accalon climbed into it and examined it thoroughly, but they found no one on board.
They rested on two couches which were on the deck, until it grew dark. Then they were about to return home, when all at once, a hundred torches set on the sides of the ship were lighted, and suddenly there appeared twelve beautiful damsels who told the two that they were welcome, and that they should be served with a banquet.
Presently the maidens led the king and the knight into a room which had a table covered with a white cloth embroidered in purple. It bore many golden dishes, and each dish had a beautiful design carved upon it. Some dishes had vine-leaves, others ivy-leaves; some had angels with long robes sweeping back in graceful lines; and all these dishes held choice food. The king and Sir Accalon ate to their hearts' content.
Then the damsels led them into two separate chambers. King Arthur was tired and so sleepy that he gave but one glance at his bedroom. He saw that it was hung in red silk embroidered with gold dragons and griffins. Then he threw himself on his bed and slept very soundly.
When he awoke, he found himself not in the pretty bed-chamber, but in a dark place. He could see nothing, but all about him he heard the sound of complaining and weeping. He was much bewildered, but in a moment he cried:
"What is this? Where am I?"
Then a voice answered:
"You are in a prison, as we are."
"Who are you?" asked Arthur.
The voice replied:
"We are twenty knights, prisoners, and some of us have been here as long as seven years. We are in the dungeons of a wicked lord named Sir Damas. He has a younger brother, and the two brothers are enemies, quarreling about their inheritance. Now the younger brother, Sir Ontzlake, is very strong, but Sir Damas is not strong, and moreover, he is a coward. So he tries to find a knight who will fight for him against Sir Ontzlake.
"But Sir Damas is so much hated that no one will fight for him. So he goes about the county with a body of rough men, and whenever he sees a knight, he captures him. Then he asks him to fight with Sir Ontzlake. So far, all the knights have refused, and have been thrown into prison. We do not have food enough, but we would rather die here than fight for Sir Camas, who is so wicked."
At that moment a damsel entered the prison with a torch, which faintly lighted the dismal place, and advanced to the king.
"Sir," she said, "will you fight for my lord, Sir Damas? If you will, you shall be taken from this prison. If you will not, you shall die here."
Arthur considered for some time, and then said:
"I would rather fight than die in prison. If I fight, will you deliver also all these prisoners?"
The damsel promised, and Arthur consented to fight. While she went to tell Sir Damas, Arthur said to the other prisoners:
My friends, I do not know Sir Damas, and I do not know Sir Ontzlake. I do not know whether they are bad or good. But I will fight, and then, when I have conquered, I shall judge between them, and do justice to both."
"That is a good plan," said the knights, "but why are you so sure that you will conquer?"
"I am Arthur, the King," he replied.
At that the knights set up a great cry of joy, and the king continued:
"I shall send for my good sword Excalibur and the scabbard, and with these I shall surely win."
So when Arthur and the knights were led out of prison, the king sent the damsel who had visited them to Morgan le Fay for his sword and scabbard.
Meantime, the knight who had accompanied Arthur on the little ship, Sir Accalon, also awoke. He found himself in the palace of Morgan le Fay, and he wondered very much where Arthur was. He went to the lady, who said to him:
"My dear lord, the day has come when you can have great power if you want it. Should you like to be king of this land instead of Arthur?"
Now Sir Accalon was a traitor at heart. He wanted very much to be king, even if the good Arthur was to be killed; so he said:
Then she said:
"You shall be king, and I shall be your queen. All you need to do is to fight a great battle, which you shall win. I have been using my magic. It was I who sent the ship of silk to you and Arthur. I had him put into prison, and I had you brought here."
Sir Accalon wondered very much. Then she told him of the fight King Arthur was to make against Sir Ontzlake.
"But I have caused Sir Ontzlake to fall sick," she said, ""and he cannot fight. I shall go with you to his castle and you can offer to fight for him.
"I to fight with the king!" cried Sir Accalon. "He would surely overthrow me."
"He cannot," said Morgan le Fay, "because you are to fight with his sword. A little while ago he sent to me for Excalibur and the scabbard, but I returned him a false sword which looks like Excalibur, and a false scabbard. You shall take the true ones, and then you will surely overcome him and rule this land."
Then Sir Accalon was glad, and he hastened with the lady to the castle of Sir Ontzlake. They found him groaning because he was ill and because Sir Damas had sent him a challenge to fight with a knight, and he could not accept it. He was much relieved when Morgan le Fay told him that Sir Accalon would fight in his place.
Early in the afternoon, King Arthur and Sir Accalon rode into the field where the combat was to be held. Arthur did not know who Sir Accalon was, nor did any one else, except Morgan le Fay. Two sides of the field were full of people who came to watch, half of whom were friends of Sir Damas, and the other half were friends of Sir Ontzlake.
Arthur and Sir Accalon rode at each other so furiously that at the shock of the meeting both fell off their horses. Then they began to fight fiercely with their swords. The king could make no headway with his false steel, but whenever Sir Accalon struck at Arthur he drew blood.
The king was much amazed. He grew weaker and weaker, but still he kept on his feet. Those who watched him were sorry for him; they thought they had never seen a man fight so bravely. At last Arthur's sword broke, and fell in two pieces on the ground. When Sir Accalon saw this, he cried:
"Now, yield to me."
"I will never yield," said the king, "and if you do not get me another sword, you will be shamed before all men, for it is an unknightly thing to fight with a defenseless man."
"I do not care," said Sir Accalon. "If you will not yield, defend yourself with your shield as best you can."
He rushed at the king. Arthur was so weak that he could hardly stand, but he guarded himself as well as he could with his shield. Soon he could do no more, and fell to the ground.
At this moment the Lady of the Lake, who had given Arthur his sword, came upon the field. She was invisible, but anyone who had listened intently could have heard a sound like the ripple of water as she walked. She caused Excalibur to fall out of the hand of Sir Accalon and drop near Arthur.
When it fell, Arthur saw that it was his own Excalibur. He grasped its handle and some of his strength came back. He struggled to his feet, and rushing up to Sir Accalon, seized the scabbard of Excalibur and threw it far over the field.
"Now," he said, "send for a second sword and fight with me."
Then Sir Accalon was afraid. Yet he thought that Arthur was so weak that he could still be overcome. So he sent for a second sword, and they began to fight again. Arthur's strength, however, had largely returned, and in a short time he gave Sir Accalon a mortal stroke.
Sir Accalon fell to the ground, and the king, leaning over him, cried:
"Tell me who you are."
Then Sir Accalon was filled with remorse, and he said:
"Oh, my King, I have been a traitor to you, but now am dying, and I am sorry for what I have done. I deserve my death."
He told the king his name, and all about his treachery, and that of Morgan le Fay.
King Arthur was sad.
"It is very hard to be deceived in a friend," he said, "but I forgive you freely. I will try to cure your wound, and sometime I shall trust you again."
"You cannot cure me," said Sir Accalon. "I am dying. Let them carry me off the field."
So he was taken to a neighboring abbey, while the people crowded about the king to congratulate him, but Arthur said:
"I am sad at heart. My victory is no comfort to me, for to-day I have lost a friend whom I believed true."
Then he called the two brothers, Sir Damas and Sir Ontzlake, and judged their cause. He decided that their property must be divided equally between them, and that they must be friends. They promised never to quarrel again. Arthur told them that they must be kind to other knights and to all people. He said that if he heard that they were not, he would come and punish them.
After this, Sir Damas gave back to the twenty knights all their money, and they went on their way rejoicing. King Arthur mounted his horse and rode over to the abbey, where he sat by the bed of Sir Accalon till the poor knight died. Then the king went back alone to his Court and Camelot.