Now, after Merlin had quitted the Court with Vivien in that manner aforetold, Queen Morgana le Fay returned again to Camelot. There she came unto King Arthur and kneeled before him, bowing her face, with an appearance of great humility. And she said, “Brother, I have meditated much upon these matters that have passed and I perceive that I have done very ill to talk against thee as I have done, and to be so rebellious against thy royalty. Wherefore I crave of thee to forgive me my evil words and thoughts against thee.”
Then King Arthur was very much moved and he came to Queen Morgana and took her by the hand and lifted her up upon her feet and kissed her brow, and her eyes, saying, “My sister, I have no ill-will against thee, but nothing but love for thee in my heart.” And so, Queen Morgana le Fay abode at the Court in the same manner as she had aforetime done, for King Arthur believed that they were reconciled.
Now one day, Queen Morgana and the King fell into a friendly talk concerning Excalibur, and Queen Morgana le Fay expressed a very great desire to see that noble weapon more closely than she had yet done, and King Arthur said he would sometime show it to her. So the next day he said, “Sister, come with me and I will show thee Excalibur.” Therewith he took Queen Morgana by the hand and led her into another apartment where was a strong wooden coffer bound with bands of iron. Then the King opened the coffer and therein Queen Morgana le Fay beheld Excalibur where he lay in his sheath. Then King Arthur said to her, “Lady, take this sword and examine it as you please.” Therewith Queen Morgana took Excalibur into her hands and lifted him out of the coffer. And she drew the sword out of the sheath and, lo! the blade flashed like lightning. Then she said, “Sir, this is a very beautiful sword and I would that I might take it hence and keep it for a little so that I might enjoy it in full measure.”
Now King Arthur was of a mind to show the Queen great courtesy at this time of their reconciliation, wherefore he said to her, “Take it, and be thou its keeper for as long as thou wilt.” So Queen Morgana took Excalibur and his sheath and bare them away with her to her inn, and she hid the sword in the bed in which she slept.
Then Queen Morgana sent for sundry goldsmiths, eight in number, and for certain armorsmiths, eight in number, and for certain cunning jewellers, eight in number, and she said unto them, “Make me a sword in every particular like this sword that I have here.” And thereupon she showed then Excalibur in his sheath. So these goldsmiths and armorsmiths and lapidaries labored with great diligence, and in a fortnight they had made a sword so exactly like Excalibur that no eye could have told the difference betwixt the one and the other. And Queen Morgana le Fay kept both swords by her until her purposes should have been fulfilled.
It befell upon a certain day that King Arthur proclaimed a hunt, and he and all of his Court were party thereunto.
Now the day before this hunt took place Queen Morgana le Fay came to King Arthur and said, “Brother, I have here for thee a very beautiful and noble horse which I intend to give thee as a gift of love.” Therewith she called aloud and there came two grooms bringing a horse as black as jet and all beset with trappings and harness of silver. And the horse was of such extraordinary beauty that neither King Arthur nor anybody who was with him had ever before seen its like for beauty. So a wonderful delight possessed the King at sight of the horse and he said, “Sister, this is the noblest gift I have had given to me for this long time.” “Ha! brother,” quoth Queen Morgana, “doth that horse then belike thee?” “Yea,” said King Arthur, “it belikes me more than any horse that I ever beheld before.” “Then,” quoth Queen Morgana, “consider it as a gift of reconciliation betwixt thee and me. And in sign of that reconciliation I beg of thee that thou wilt ride that horse forth upon the hunt to-morrow day.” And King Arthur said, “I will do so.”
So the next day he rode forth to the hunt upon that horse as he said that he would do.
Now it happened some time after noon that the hounds started a hart of extraordinary size, and the King and all of his Court followed the chase with great eagerness. But the horse of King Arthur soon out-stripped all the other horses saving only that of a certain very honorable and worthy knight of the Court hight Sir Accalon of Gaul. So Sir Accalon and the King rode at a great pace through the forest, and they were so eager with the chase that they wist not whither they were riding. And at last they overtook the hart and found that it was embushed in a certain very thick and tangled part of the forest, and there King Arthur slew the stag, and so the chase was ended.
Now after this had come to pass, the King and Sir Accalon would have retraced their way whither they had come, but in a little they perceived that they were lost in the mazes of the woodland and wist not where they were. For they had followed the chase so far that they were in an altogether strange country. So they wandered hither and thither at great length until eventide, at which time they were oppressed with hunger and weariness. Then King Arthur said to Sir Accalon, “Messire, meseems we shall have nowhere to rest ourselves to-night unless it be beneath a tree in this forest.”
To this Sir Accalon made reply, “Lord, if thou wilt follow my counsel thou wilt let our horses seek their own way through this wilderness, so, haply, because of the instinct of such creatures, they shall bring us unto some place of habitation.”
Now this advice appeared to be very good to King Arthur, wherefore he did as Sir Accalon advised and let loose his bridle-rein and allowed his horse to travel as it listed. So King Arthur’s horse went along a certain path, and Sir Accalon followed after the King. And they went a great pass in this wise, and the night was descending upon them in the forest.
But, before it was entirely dark, they emerged out of that forest and into an open place where they beheld before them a very wide estuary, as it were an inlet of the sea. And before them was a beach of sand, very smooth, and white, and they two went down to that beach and stood upon the shore, and they wist not what to do, for there was no habitation in sight in any direction.
Now, whiles they stood there a-doubt, they suddenly perceived a ship at a very great distance away. And this ship approached where they were, sailing very rapidly. As the ship drew nigh to that place they perceived that it was of a very strange and wonderful appearance, for it was painted in many divers colors, very gaudy and brilliant, and the sails were all of cloth of silk, woven in divers colors and embroidered with figures like to the figures of a tapestry and King Arthur was very greatly amazed at the appearance of that ship.
Now, as they stood so watching the ship, they perceived that it drew nigher and nigher to that place where they were, and in a little it beached itself upon the shore of sand not very far away from them.
Then King Arthur said to Sir Accalon, “Sir, let us go forward to the shore where we may look into this ship, for never did I see its like before in all of my life, wherefore I have a thought that maybe it is fay.”
So they two went to where the ship was and they stood upon the shore and looked down into it, and at first they thought that there was no one upon board of the ship, for it appeared to be altogether deserted. But as they stood there marvelling at the wonderfulness of that ship and at the manner in which it had come thither, they beheld, of a sudden, that certain curtains that hung before an apartment at the farther extremity of the ship were parted asunder and there came forth from that place twelve very beautiful damsels. Each of these was clad in a rich garment of scarlet satin very bright and shining, and each wore around her head a circlet of gold, and each had many bracelets of gold upon her arms. These damsels came forward unto where the two knights were and they said, “Welcome, King Arthur!” And they said, “Welcome, Sir Accalon!”
At this King Arthur was very much astonished that they should know him, and he said, “Fair ladies, how is this? Ye appear to know me very well, but I know ye not. Who are ye that know me and my companion and call us by name?”
Unto this the chiefest of those damsels made reply, “Sir, we are part fay and we know all about you; and we know how that ye have been following a very long chase; and we know that ye are aweary, anhungered, and athirst. Wherefore we beseech ye that ye come aboard of this ship and rest and refresh yourselves with food and drink.”
Now, this appeared to King Arthur to be a very bel-adventure, wherefore he said to Sir Accalon, “Messire, I have a great mind for to go aboard this ship and to follow out this adventure.” And Sir Accalon said, “Lord, if thou goest, I will go also.”
So those ladies let fall a gangplank from the ship and King Arthur and Sir Accalon drave their horses up the gangplank and aboard the ship, and immediately they did so, the ship withdrew itself from the sands and sailed away as it had come – very swiftly – and it was now the early nighttime with the moon very round and full in the sky like to a disk of pure shining silver.
Then those twelve damoiselles aided King Arthur and Sir Accalon to dismount; and some took their horses away and others led them into a fair chamber at the end of the ship. And in this chamber King Arthur beheld that a table had been placed as though for their entertainment, spread with a linen cloth and set with divers savory meats, and with manchets of white bread and with several different sorts of excellent wines. And at the sight King Arthur and Sir Accalon were very much rejoiced, for they were very greatly anhungered.
So they immediately sat themselves down at that table and they ate and drank with great heartiness, and whiles they did so some of those damsels served them with food, and others held them in pleasant discourse, and others made music upon lutes and citterns for their entertainment. So they feasted and made very merry.
But, after a while, a very great drowsiness of sleep began to descend upon King Arthur; albeit, he deemed that that drowsiness had come upon him because of the weariness of the chase. So presently he said, “Fair damsels, ye have refreshed us a very great deal and this hath been a very pleasant adventure. But I would now that ye had a place for us to sleep.”
Unto this the chiefest of the damsels replied, “Lord, this boat hath been prepared for your refreshment, wherefore all things have been made ready for you with entire fulness.”
Therewith some of those twelve damsels conducted King Arthur into a sleeping-chamber that had been prepared for him, and others led Sir Accalon into another chamber prepared for him. And King Arthur marvelled at the beauty of his chamber, for he thought that he had never beheld a more excellently bedight bed-chamber than that one into which he had now entered. So King Arthur laid himself down with much comfort to his body, and straightway he fell into a deep and gentle sleep, without dream or disturbance of any sort.
Now when King Arthur awoke from that sleep, he was astonished beyond all measure so that he wist not whether he was still asleep and dreaming, or whether he was awake. For, lo! he lay upon a pallet in a very dark and dismal chamber all of stone. And he perceived that this chamber was a dungeon, and all about him he heard the sound of many voices in woful complaint.
Then King Arthur said to himself, “Where is that ship in which I was last night, and what hath become of those ladies with whom I spake?”
Upon this he looked about him and, behold! he saw that he was indeed in a dungeon and that there were many knights in very sad estate all about him. Wherefore he perceived that they also were captives and that it was they who had made that sound of woful lamentation which he had heard when awaking.
Then King Arthur aroused himself from where he lay and he saw that all those knights who were prisoners there were strangers unto him, and he knew not them and they knew not him. And of these knights there were two and twenty who were prisoners in that place.
Then King Arthur said, “Messires, who are you and where am I at these present?” To the which the chiefest of those knights who were prisoners made reply, “Sir, we are, like yourself, prisoners in a dungeon of this castle, and the castle belongs to a certain knight, hight Sir Domas, surnamed le Noir.”
Then King Arthur made great marvel at what had befallen him, wherefore he said, “Messires, here is a very singular thing hath happened to me, for last night I was asleep in a very wonderful ship that I believe was fay, and with me was a knight-companion, and, lo! this morning I awake alone in this dungeon, and know not how I came hither.”
“Sir,” said the knight who spake for the others, “thou wert last night brought hither by two men clad in black, and thou wert laid down upon yonder pallet without awaking, wherefore it is very plain to me that thou art in the same case that we are in, and that thou art a prisoner unto this Sir Domas le Noir.”
Then King Arthur said, “Tell me, who is this Sir Domas, for I declare that I never before heard of him.” “I will tell you,” said the captive knight, and therewith he did so as follows:
“I believe,” said he, “that this Sir Domas is the falsest knight that liveth, for he is full of treason and leasing, and is altogether a coward in his heart. Yet he is a man of very great estate and very powerful in these parts.
“Now there are two brothers, and Sir Domas is one and the other is hight Sir Ontzlake, and Sir Domas is the elder and Sir Ontzlake is the younger. When the father of these two knights died, he left the one an equal patrimony with the other. But now it hath come about that Sir Domas hath nearly all of those estates and that Sir Ontzlake hath only one castle, which same he now holdeth by the force of arms and because of his own courage. For, though Sir Domas is altogether a coward in his heart, yet he hath cunning and guile beyond any man of whom I ever heard tell; wherefore it hath so come about that of his father’s patrimony Sir Domas hath everything and Sir Ontzlake hath nothing saving only that one castle and the estate thereunto appertaining.
“Now it would appear to be very strange that Sir Domas is not satisfied with all this, yet he is not satisfied, but he covets that one castle and that small estate that is his brother’s, so that he can hardly have any pleasure in life because of his covetousness. Yet he knoweth not how to obtain that estate from his brother, for Sir Ontzlake is a very excellent knight, and the only way that Sir Domas can lay hands upon that estate is by having to do with his brother as man to man in a contest at arms, and this he is afraid to attempt.
“So, for a long time, Sir Domas hath been in search of a knight who may take up his case for him, and do battle against Sir Ontziake in his behalf. Wherefore all the knights whom he can arrest he bringeth to this castle and giveth them their choice, either to take up his case against his brother, or else to remain in this place as his prisoner without ransom. So he hath arrested all of us, and hath made demand of each that he should do battle in his behalf. But not one of us will take up the case of such an evil-conditioned knight as Sir Domas, so we all remain his prisoners.”
“Well,” quoth King Arthur, “this is a very wonderful case. But me-thinks that if Sir Domas maketh his appeal to me, I will take up his case. For I would rather do that than remain a prisoner here for all my life. But if I should take upon me this battle and be successful therein, then I will afterward have to do with Sir Domas himself in such a manner as I do not believe would be very much to his liking.”
Now a little while after this the door of that prison-house was opened by the porter, and there entered a very fair young damsel. And this damsel came to King Arthur and she said to him, “What cheer?” “I cannot tell,” quoth King Arthur, “but meseems I am in a very sorry pass in this place.” “Sir,” said the damsel, ” I am grieved to see so noble-appearing a knight in so dolorous a case. But if you will undertake to defend the cause of the lord of this castle with your person against his enemy, then you shall have leave to go whithersoever you please.” To this King Arthur consents to made reply, “Lady, this is a very hard case, that either I must do battle for fight a battle I care not for, or else remain a prisoner here without ransom for all of my days. But I would liever fight than live here all my life, and so I will undertake that adventure as thou wouldst have me do. But if I do battle for the lord of this castle, and if I should have Grace of Heaven to win that battle, then it must be that all these, my companions in imprisonment, shall also go forth with me into freedom.”
To this the damsel said, “Very well, be it so, for that shall content the master of this castle.”
Then King Arthur looked more closely at the maiden, and he said, “Damsel, meseems I should know thy face, for I think I have seen thee somewhere before this.” “Nay, sir,” said she, “that can hardly be, for I am the daughter of the lord of this castle.”
But in this she was false, for she was one of the damsels of Morgana le Fay; and she was one of those who had beguiled King Arthur into the ship the night before; and it was she who had brought him to that castle and had delivered him into the hands of Sir Domas. And all these things she had done upon command of Queen Morgana le Fay.
Then King Arthur said, “But if I do this battle, thou must carry a message for me unto the Court of King Arthur, and that message must be delivered unto Queen Morgana le Fay into her own hands. Then, when that is done, I will do this battle for the cause of Sir Domas.” And the damsel said, “It shall be done so.”
So King Arthur wrote a sealed letter to Queen Morgana le Fay that she should send to him his sword Excalibur; and he sent that message to her. And when Queen Morgana received that letter she laughed and said, “Very well, he shall have a sword that shall please his eye as well as Excalibur.” And therewith she sent him that other sword that she had had made exactly like Excalibur.
So Sir Domas sent word unto his brother Sir Ontzlake, that he had now a champion for to do battle in his behalf to recover all that portion of their patrimony which Sir Ontzlake still withheld from him.
Now when Sir Ontzlake received this message he was thrown into great trouble of spirit, for a little while before he had been very sorely wounded in a tournament in the which a spear had been thrust through both his thighs, so that he was then abed with that wound and without power to arise therefrom. Wherefore he wist not what to do in this case, for he could not do battle upon his own behalf, and he had no one to do battle for him.