The Sword and the Lady
In a time when knights were brave and men were strong, when women were fair and fragile, there lived a wise and noble king. His name was Uther Pendragon. For years, he ruled England wisely and justly. So loved was Uther, that upon his death it was said that men cried, women wept and dogs howled.
It was a time of great sorrow and mourning across the land as war loomed throughout the kingdom. With the now vacant throne, many men declared themselves king and fought for their right to rule the entire land, plunging the realm into darkness.
Then one day, a miracle occurred as a magnificent sword appeared in the middle of London, embedded in a stone. It was said by all that this sword would reveal to all the true ruler of England. Many attempted the feat to pull the sword from the stone.
All of them failed.
Sir Percy, it was said pulled so hard he threw his back and had to pried off of the sword’s hilt.
Sir Lott’s face turned so red from pulling at the sword, that it was said that from that day on his face was perpetually resigned to that colour.
Sir Warbeck, brimming with pride, had believed that the others’ armour had weighed them down. He thus decided to remove his armour when attempting the feat, resulting in a rather unfortunate wardrobe malfunction for all to see.
None could pull the sword from its resting place, leaving England forever a kingless land. A land without law.
Twelve years passed and England was plunged into a dark age. Lawlessness was rife throughout the land and it was thought that England would forever be without a king. That was until the church announced that a grand tournament would be held in London, were the victor would be crowned King. Messengers raced far and wide to spread the word…
“The c-crown?!” spluttered Sir Ector, a red wash of wine spurted out of his mouth upon hearing the news. His small piggy eyes gawked at Sir Pellinore, blinking frantically at the old man as the other man brushed the wine out of his bushy mustache.
“Yes, indeed,” Pellinore replied stiffly, wiping himself with a napkin as the two sat in the Great Hall of Sir Ector’s castle. A delicious feast was spread across the main table; succulent pig, mouth watering pheasant and a platter of trout, all of which were now coated in the remains of Sir Ector’s wine spittle. “It’s been agreed upon by the church itself, whomever wins shall be crowed king. The tournament will mean they are worthy of the sword and will be thus, be able to pull the Sword from the Stone. Makes perfect logical sense to me,” he shrugged.
“King?” Ector gasped, his eyes darted back and forth as he thought over the matter, until finally his eyes fell on his son; Kay. He turned to the large, brutish boy who looked as though a mere thought might induce a headache. “Kay! How about it? King Kay!” he boomed with pride.
“King?” Kay replied blankly, his face contorting into a mixture of great thought and pain as he thought over the prospect. “Why not?” He grunted at last, a lopsided grin crossing his face as he made his decision, “least I get to have a good fight in the process.”
“Ataboy!” Ector roared, slapping his son on the back as he let out a hearty laugh. His laughter boomed across the hall as if the crown was already his son and by extension: his. “To the training yard you go first thing in the morning! Have to get you in tip-top form! Yes! Yes! No king has ever been great with flabby muscles and not knowing the good end of a lance!!”
“That’s Kay out before he starts,” a low voice mumbled involuntarily loud from the far end of the table. The three men turned to the see a small girl of 14 years of age sat at the far end of the table. Her name was Ariana. A beautiful girl with straw-like hair that hung frizzly against her face.
“And I suppose you can do better?!” snapped Kay snidely as the men glowered down at her.
“If you must know, yes!” Ariana declared defiantly, “I’ll defeat every knight that comes at me!” She held her spoon in the air imagining it was a sword glinting in her wake, as hundreds surrounded her with thunderous applause.
Instead she was met with the raucous and deflating sounds of laughter from her foster father and brother, who banged at the longer table through tears of laughter. Sir Pellinore himself looked kindly and yet amused at her as the others continued to laugh. “Dear lady, the jousting lists are no place for a girl,” he chuckled kindly, “dangerous business, built for only the bravest of men.”
“Pellinore’s right!” Ector guffawed still choking with laughter, “this is no business for a girl. It’s MAN’S WORK! A woman can not lead men into battle nor rule a kingdom!”
“Yes they can!” Ariana snapped indignantely, stopping short and recoiling as Sir Ector’s fat fiinger halted before her face, the Lord looking at his ward purple faced and in no mood for further dreams or arguments.
“Now you listen here girl,” he snarled dangerously, brandishing his finger at her, “You will stop this talk at once! You will listen to you tutor and learn how to be a good lady! You will cease this silly prattle and know your place! Am I clear?!!?”
“Yes, sir,” she bowed sadly and defeated, making it the final word.
Why not her? she wondered sadly the next few days as she sat at her window sill watching Kay training in the yard, jousting and brandishing his sword at an invisible enemy like an ape with a stick. Sir Ector’s words remained in her head even still and yet she had heard those words most of her life.
“A lady does not brawl,” her previous tutors had told her with disgust, “they are fair and delicate. They govern their husbands estate when they are away on business and do their husbands proud.”
Pfft, she grumbled to herself as she sat at the window sill. Why couldn’t she fight wars? Why couldn’t she do battle and go off on grand crusades with brave knights slaying dragons and saving princesses locked in towers? But no, her life was governed by poise and delicacy, knitting and being groomed to be someone’s trophy sitting safely in his castle as he went off to see the world.
“Why not me?” she asked herself aloud with exasperation.
“Why you indeed?” A soft voice echoed behind her causing her to jump from the windowsill. She turned around to see an old man stood at the door holding the largest book she had every seen. He had a long white beard that rested against a set of tatty robes that looked fade and yet once extravagant. He stood to one side, his right side resting on a brown cane.
“W-who are you?” Ariana gasped backing off from the man, her hand trailing to grab something to protect herself. Her eyes shifting slightly to see a toy sword leant against her desk.
“Do you always answer a question with another question?” The man asked surveying her closely. He smiled kindly at her bowing slightly towards the sword she was trying to reach. “Let me ask you something; a man brandishes a sword at another man, what you think the other man’s reaction shall be?”
“He draws his sword,” Ariana replied a matter-a-factly, as if there was no other answer.
“Why?” the man asked curiously, sitting down on the bed and looking at her pensievely, as if the entire discussion was just idle chit chat.
“The man means to cause him harm,” Ariana replied, feeling compelled to sit down as well, her mind moving away from the wooden sword.
“And there is no other way the man can talk the other down?” the man enquired thoughtfully, “let us imagine,” he said abruptly, standing up causing Ariana to jump slightly, “the man does talk the man around, how many people will have died?”
“None,” Ariana replied not quite sure where this conversation was going.
“Exactly,” the man exclaimed snapping his fingers in the air as if he had just had a great thought or rather that she had had the thought, “if you react to a situation with violence. You will be met with violence. By not reacting to the violence in front of him, the other man has more choices; he can flee, he can talk the man down or he can indeed fight. Take us for example; I come into your room, a complete stranger and you immediately went for the wooden sword over there,” he nodded to the corner causing Ariana to blush slightly and feel rather foolish, “now if I had reacted to you with violence, you would have come out of it with nothing more than a bump to the head from my cane. Instead, we have had a spirited discussion in which you have learnt a great deal I hope.”
The man plopped down on a chair looking at her triumphantly and rather mischievously with his deep blue eyes. Ariana looked at him rather confused and yet strangely, intrigued. Despite his shabby nature he gave off a strange aura of power, but with twinkle. “Who are you?” she asked finally.
“I am Merlin,” Merlin introduced himself at last, lifting his cane and flicking it with his wrist. With that movement, the desk in which he had placed the large book down leapt over Ariana’s bed and landed in front of her with the book, scuttling itself into place in front of her so that she could reach it. She looked at Merlin in shock and awe as he stood up, his back straight and his hands resting on the cane. “And I am your new tutor.”
Having a tutor that was also magical was an unusual way to learn Ariana had found out the next few weeks. With a wizard, especially a daft old man like Merlin, learning wasn’t just sitting in a classroom, it was an adventure. The few weeks she was under his tutelage, Ariana witnessed marvels she could not believe.
She swam with fish, bobbing through the water as if in a dream, feeling the water slide across his gills and feeling the unusual sensation of breathing underwater. She had met underwater terrors and predators who made others flee in terror, and fought against them in an effort to escape her fate.
She had soared with the birds, feeling the wind beneath her wings and seeing the world from a different perspective. The world looked both smaller and larger from so far up, she saw the vastness of the land and plains she had never ventured.
She buzzed around the bees seeing the delicate nature of life itself, watching as the honey bees buzzed around collecting honey and presenting it to their Queen as if in tribute. She saw the nature of a collective society and watched the Queen fatten up as her every whim was met for her, while her hive died around her.
Each adventure Merlin would ask her what she had learnt from the experiences and they would sit for hours discussing her new found knowledge. With each day she felt smarter as if she was being opened up to whole new world; to the very world around her. With each day she wondered what new world she would see, what new adventure would she go on and what new eyes would she see from.
“Birds! Fish! Bees!!” roared Sir Ector when Ariana excitedly started talking about what she had learnt during dinner, recalling one of her many adventures. These adventures, however, were not the sort of teaching practices her foster father had wanted for her nor expected for her. “What is that old fool teaching you? I wanted him to teach you to be a respectable lady not someone with her head in the clouds!”
“He is not an old fool! And he taught me much more interesting things than anything you could ever imagine!” Ariana snapped angrily standing up stubbornly.
“Hell’s bells! Do you see the unruliness of her?!” Ector roared bouncing up from his chair in a rage and slamming his fists down. “I want that damn wizard out of this castle at once! And you will learn you place girl!! You will forget this silly prattle and learn to be a lady of proper standing!!”
And so just like that, the lessons were over, the mad old wizard Merlin was evicted from the castle and whatever magic Ariana had felt or experienced was gone. She no idea where her life would take her next.
The momentous day arrived as hundreds of knights, barons and great lords travelled from far and wide to the city of London for the Grand Tournament. Bells rang throughout the town. Knights on horseback trotted down the lanes as onlookers cheered pointing at the squires holding their banners.
The tournament itself was a lovely experience, filled with jousts and pageantry. There were great feasts and knights in black and silver armour readied themselves for battle. Ariana watched on bored as the gallant and honourable knights trotted passed promising their victory to her, as well as her hand in marriage should they win. Sir Ector sat next to her beaming at the prospect.
“Smile, girl!” He hissed under his breath as he glared at Ariana, nudging her to smile at the passing knights. She felt like a prized cow. She smiled curtly at the men, who waved at other girls all of whom swooned at the knights. They all wished to be on their arm, Ariana wished she was alongside them testing her metal.
But that was not for her. Her thoughts trailed to Merlin as she sat being swooned over by the passing knights. She thought of the lessons he had taught her and as she looked at the knights before her; she saw nothing but men fighting for their own glory and self interest. They did not fight to restore justice to the land nor to bring about a greater future for the people; they fought for their own honour and to better themselves.
Cheers echoed throughout the stadium as the winner was finally announced, her thoughts taking her away from everything around her. Sir Uryen stood triumphant as champion, much to the disappointment of Kay (and Sir Ector) who had been unhorsed by him during the last joust. “Behold our champion!” the men declared from the stands as they began to lead the processions towards the churchyard where the Sword in the Stone lay.
The lords and ladies stood excitedly as Sir Uryen walked to the middle of the churchyard, a bearded man with broad shoulders. His bannermen smiled at him with pride and he looked on smugly at the sword ready to take his birthright and his destiny. He stepped forward as the Bishops gave sermons of thanks for their new king. He took the sword by its hilt with one hand and pulled…
Nothing. The sword did not move.
He pulled again. He heaved. He heaved.
“Oi, what happened?” called an onlooker from the back.
“I thought he was a king now?!” Another shouted.
“‘Ere they lied to us!” yelled one man pointing at the now frightened Bishops, who tried to shuffle off only to be cut off by the crowd who bared down on them angrily, whilst Sir Uryen continued to try to extract the sword.
Within moments the entire scene had exploded into riot, as knights fought with swords or bashed each other with their metal gloves. The crowd clawed at the bishops yelling at them and shaking them, forcing them to do something to free the sword. Men were thrown across the churchyard, men shook each other, they ran at each other falling over headstones. Ariana looked on at the violence as more men ran at the sword, knocking the now exhausted Sir Uryen from it as they too tried to pull it from its resting place. The great knight despite his tiredness lunged at the men to keep them away from sword, thus joining the fray and leaving the sword vacant.
Ariana looked at the sword and felt a strange pull emanating from it. She moved towards it as if she knew what happened would make all the difference, as if this decision had been her destiny all along. She heard her ladies in waiting scream as she walked past the fighting men, all of them remained oblivious to her, dissolving around her until finally she stood in front of the sword. One word repeated in her mind: ‘pull’. She grabbed the hilt of the sword with both hands and with a great heave she fell backwards the sword releasing itself from the stone and clanging next to her as she fell to the ground.
With the clang, the fighting stopped. Hundreds of eyes stared at the young girl before them, holding the sword with a mixture of shock and exhilaration. “How’d she done that?!” screeched a young squire from the crowd.
“She can’t do that? Can she?!” another cried looking around for someone to back up his claim, “I mean, she’s a girl!”
“It’s a hoax!” Sir Uryen snarled as he pushed past men towards her, causing her to step back and recoil, “I loosened the sword for the girl nothing more! Give it to me!”
“Loosened it, my boot!” one of the other knights who had tried for the sword barked, “I loosened it. You saw it didn’t you Kevin!”
“It definitely jiggled, my lord!” his young squire argued in favour of his master and with that the fighting began again as more knights joined the argument, all demanding their right to have the sword. None of them believing that this girl could have pulled it from the sword. Ariana held the sword close as the men fought to get to her and sword, she looked around for help.
There in the crowd she saw him. The old wizard stood silent and merely nodded to her. And with that she found her voice. “Enough!” She cried, her voice carrying over the shouting knights. Those who were still fighting amongst each other stopped in mid-fight. One man held another in a headlock, two other men held another man upside down by his ankles attempting to dunk him in a horse trough. They all stood frozen, as if by magic, all waiting for what she would do next and it was then that she spoke.
“Are you men of honour or animals?” She called out to them stepping forward, still holding the sword in her hand. “I say you are neither. For too long, this land has been without a ruler, be it King or Queen and as such you have all become lost in your own scramble for importance. You have forgotten your true purpose; to defend, to be champions of good and for justice, to defend the church. And what have you done today; fought amongst each other, dishonoured your ladies and families and attacked churchmen!” she aimed that jab at the fellows holding the bishops hostage.
“Sorry my lord,” one of the men mumbled sheepishly as he let the Bishop go.
“God be with you son,” the Bishop spluttered as he got himself together and fixed himself, though not before giving the young man a crack around the ear.
“And you intend to rule us?!” spat Sir Uryen darkly as he stepped forward towering over Ariana, his eyes blazing with fire. “You forget yourself girl! That sword is mine and the lands are mine!” He turned to the crowd, “I tell you this is trickery! Nothing more! This girl is nothing more than a witch, an enchantress and a temptress! Here to bring ruin to us!”
Ariana backed off as she saw the crowd getting restless from Sir Uryens word, already she could hear those in the back shouting ‘burn her! burn her!’ All of the men moved forward unsheathing their swords at the so-called ‘witch’ and ready to take the sword away from her. Ariana looked over for Merlin, to find the wizard had disappeared. Damn him, she cursed to herself. She had to think fast.
“You are right, Sir Uryen!” Ariana cried, the men freezing as she spoke watching her curiously as she fell to her knees. “I am not worthy to be your ruler. I have not met men in battle nor led those in battle. Not like a man of honour such a yourself, I remember the legendary stories of your battles and the many honours vested onto you. But I did pull the sword from the stone without magical help. I swear it.” She turned the sword in her hand and presented it to Uryen who along with all the men, looked at her curiously. “So if you truly believe I am a witch, then strike me down with this sword… a lady in this churchyard. But if you do believe I am your Queen then knight me, sir.”
She bowed her head to the man as he took the sword from her hand gingerly, looking down at the blade and the helpless girl before her. Ariana closed her eyes, she heard the sword being raised. Silence filled the churchyard until finally…
Ariana felt the sword touch her lightly on the shoulder, Sir Uryen’s words echoing through the courtyard. “I dub her by the grace of God and our Lord Jesus Christ,” she looked up at him to see the man kneeling towards her and bowing with tears in his eyes, “Arise, my Queen.”
As Ariana stood up along with the sword, the remaining men slowly began to kneel and bow before their new Queen. In the back of the crowd stood Merlin, smiling as he always did mischievously and knowingly. He bowed his head to her with a cheeky wink.
“You knew all along didn’t you?” Ariana hissed at him later during her royal feast with all her new subjects celebrating the new Queen.
“The legend never mentioned that the person had to be male or female,” Merlin shrugged with a slight smile, “so I guessed.”
And so as the Queen and wizard laughed, the reign of Queen Ariana began and so too did the legend of Camelot and her Knights of the Round Table.
But, they are a story for another time…