Now, it befell upon a time some while after this, that King Arthur was at Tintagalon upon certain affairs of state. And Queen Guinevere and her Court and the King’s Court made progression from Camelot unto Carleon, and there they abided until the King should be through his business at Tintagalon and should join them at Carleon.
Now that time was the spring of the year, and all things were very jolly and gay, wherefore King Arthur became possessed with a great desire for adventure. So he called unto him a certain favorite esquire, hight Boisenard, and he said to him, “Boisenard, this day is so pleasant that I hardly know how I may contain myself because of the joy I take in it, for it seems to be that my heart is nigh ready to burst with a great pleasure of desiring. So l am of a mind to go a-gadding with only thee for companion.”
To this Boisenard said, “Lord, I know of nothing that would give to me a greater pleasure than that.”
So King Arthur said, “Very well, let us then go away from this place in such a manner that no one will be aware of our departure. And so we will go to Carleon and surprise the Queen by coming unexpectedly to that place.”
So Boisenard brought armor, without device, and he clad the King in that armor; and then they two rode forth together, and no one wist that they had left the castle.
And when they came forth into the fields, King Arthur whistled and sang and jested and laughed and made himself merry; for he was as a war-horse turned forth upon the grass that taketh glory in the sunshine and the warm air and becometh like his esquire. unto a colt again.
So by and by they came into the forest and rode that way with great content of spirit; and they took this path and they took that path for no reason but because the day was so gay and jolly. So, by and by, they lost their way in the mazes of the woodland and knew not where they were.
Now when they found themselves to be lost in that wise they journeyed with more circumspection, going first by this way and then by that, but in no manner could they find their way out from their entanglement. And so fell night-time and they knew not where they were; but all became very dark and obscure, with the woodland full of strange and unusual sounds around about them.
Then King Arthur said, “Boisenard, this is a very perplexing pass and I do not know how we shall find lodging for this night.”
To this Boisenard said, “Lord, if I have thy permission to do so, I will climb one of these trees and see if I can discover any sign of habitation in this wilderness.” And King Arthur said, “Do so, I pray thee.”
So Boisenard climbed a very tall tree and from the top of the tree he beheld a light a great distance away, and he said, “Lord, I see a light in that direction.” And therewith he came down from the tree again.
So King Arthur and Boisenard went in the direction that Boisenard had beheld the light, and by and by they came out of the forest and into an open place where they beheld a very great castle with several tall towers, very grim and forbidding of appearance. And it was from this castle that the light had appeared that Boisenard had seen. So they two rode up to the castle and Boisenard called aloud and smote upon the gate of the castle. Then immediately there came a porter and demanded of them what they would have. Unto him Boisenard said, “Sirrah, we would come in to lodge for tonight, for we are a-weary.” So the porter said, “Who are you?” – speaking very roughly and rudely to them, for he could not see of what condition they were because of the darkness. Then Boisenard said, “This is a knight of very good quality and I am his esquire, and we have lost our way in the forest and now we come hither seeking shelter.”
“Sir,” said the porter, “if ye know what is good for you, ye will sleep in the forest rather than come into this place, for this is no very good retreat for errant knights to shelter themselves.”
Upon this King Arthur bespake the porter, for that which the porter said aroused great curiosity within him. So he said, “Nay, we will not go away from here and we demand to lodge here for this night.”
Then the porter said, “Very well; ye may come in.” And thereupon he opened the gate and they rode into the courtyard of that castle.
Now at the noise of their coming, there appeared a great many lights within the castle, and there came running forth divers attendants. Some of these aided King Arthur and Boisenard to dismount, and others took the horses, and others again brought basins and his esquire of water for them to wash withal. And after they had washed their faces and hands, other attendants brought them into the castle.
Now as they came into the castle, they were aware of a great noise of very many people talking and laughing together, with the sound of singing and of harping. And so they came into the hall of the castle and beheld that it was lighted with a great number of candles and tapers and torches. Here they found a multitude of people gathered at a table spread for a feast, and at the head of the table there sat a knight, well advanced in years and with hair and beard white as milk. Yet he was exceedingly strong and sturdy of frame, having shoulders of wonderful broadness and a great girth of chest. This knight was of a very stern and forbidding appearance, and was clad altogether in black, and he wore around his neck a chain of gold, with a locket of gold hanging pendant from it.
Now when this knight beheld King Arthur and Boisenard come into the hall, he called aloud to them in a very great voice bidding them to come and sit with him at the head of the table; and they did so, and those at the head of the table made place for them, and thus they sat there beside the knight.
Now King Arthur and Boisenard were exceedingly hungry, wherefore they ate with great appetite and made joy of the entertainment which they received, and meantime the knight held them in very pleasant discourse, talking to them of such things as would give them the most entertainment. So after a while the feast was ended and they ceased from eating.
Then, of a sudden, the knight said to King Arthur, “Messire, thou art young and lusty of spirit and I doubt not but thou hath a great heart within thee. What say you now to a little sport betwixt us two?” Upon this King Arthur regarded that knight very steadily and he believed that his face was not so old as it looked; for his eyes were exceedingly bright and shone like sparks of light; wherefore he was a-doubt and he said, “Sir, what sport would you have?” Upon this the knight fell a-laughing in great measure and he said, “This is a very strange sport that I have in mind, for it is this: That thou and I shall prove the one unto the other what courage each of us may have.” And King Arthur said, “How shall we prove that?” Whereunto the knight made reply, “This is what we shall do: Thou and I shall stand forth in the middle of this hall, and thou shalt have leave to try to strike off my head; and if I can receive that blow without dying therefrom, then I shall have leave to strike thy head off in a like manner.”
Upon this speech King Arthur was greatly a-dread and he said, “That is very strange sport for two men to engage upon.”
Now when King Arthur said this, all those who were in the hall burst out laughing beyond all measure and as though they would never stint from their mirth. Then, when they had become in a measure quiet again, the knight of that castle said, “Sir, art thou afraid of that sport?” Upon which King Arthur fell very angry and he said, “Nay, I am not afeared, for no man hath ever yet had reason to say that I showed myself afeared of anyone.” “Very well,” said the knight of the castle; “then let us try that sport of which I spake.” And King Arthur said, “I am willing.”
Then Boisenard came to King Arthur where he was, and he said, “Lord, do not thou enter into this thing, but rather let me undertake this venture in thy stead, for I am assured that some great treachery is meditated against thee.” But King Arthur said, “Nay; no man shall take my danger upon himself, but I will assume mine own danger without calling upon any man to take it.” So he said to the knight of the castle, “Sir, I am ready for that sport of which thou didst speak, but who is to strike that first blow and how shall we draw lots therefor?” “Messire,” said the knight of the castle, “there shall be no lots drawn. For, as thou art the guest of this place, so shall thou have first assay at that sport.”
Therewith that knight arose and laid aside his black robe, and he was clad beneath in a shirt of fine linen very cunningly worked. And he wore hosen of crimson. Then he opened that linen undergarment at the throat and he turned down the collar thereof so as to lay his neck bare to the blow. Thereupon he said, “Now, Sir Knight, thou shalt have to strike well if thou wouldst win at this sport.”
But King Arthur showed no dread of that undertaking, for he arose and drew Excalibur so that the blade of the sword flashed with exceeding brightness. Then he measured his distance, and lifted the sword, and he smote the knight of the castle with all his might upon the neck. And, lo! the blade cut through the neck of the knight of the castle with wonderful ease, so that the head flew from the body to a great distance away.
But the trunk of the body of that knight did not fall, but instead of that it stood, and it walked to where the head lay, and the hands of the trunk picked up the head and they set the head back upon the body, and, lo! that knight was as sound and whole as ever he had been in all his life.
Upon this all those of the castle shouted and made great mirth, and they called upon King Arthur that it was now his turn to try that sport. So the King prepared himself, laying aside his surcoat and opening his under-garment at the throat, as the knight of the castle had done. And at that Boisenard made great lamentation. Then the knight of the castle said, “Sir, art thou afeared?” And King Arthur said, “No, I am not afeared, for every man must come to his death some time, and it appears that my time hath now come, and that I am to lay down my life in this foolish fashion for no fault of mine own.”
Then the knight of the castle said, “Well, stand thou away a little distance so that I may not strike thee too close, and so lose the virtue of my blow.”
So King Arthur stood forth in the midst of the hall, and the knight of the castle swung his sword several times, but did not strike. Likewise, he several times laid the blade of the sword upon King Arthur’s neck, and it was very cold. Then King Arthur cried out in great passion, “Sir, it is thy right to strike, but I beseech thee not to torment me in this manner.” “Nay,” said the knight of the castle, “it is my right to strike when it pleases me, and I will not strike any before that time. For if it please me I will torment thee for a great while ere I slay thee.” So he laid his sword several times more upon King Arthur’s neck, and King Arthur said no more, but bore that torment with a very steadfast spirit.
Then the knight of the castle said, “Thou appearest to be a very courageous and honorable knight, and I have a mind to make a covenant with thee.” And King Arthur said, “What is that covenant?” “It is this,” said the knight of the castle, “I will spare thee thy life for a year and a day if thou wilt pledge me thy knightly word to return hither at the end of that time.”
Then King Arthur said, “Very well; it shall be so.” And therewith he pledged his knightly word to return at the end of that time, swearing to that pledge upon the cross of the hilt of Excalibur.
Then the knight of the castle said, “I will make another covenant with thee.” “What is it?” said King Arthur. “My second covenant is this,” quoth the knight of the castle, “I will give to thee a riddle, and if thou wilt answer that riddle when thou returnest hither, and if thou makest no mistake in that answer, then will I spare thy life and set thee free.” And King Arthur said, “What is that riddle?” To which the knight made reply, “The riddle is this: What is it that a woman desires most of all in the world?”
“Sir,” said King Arthur, “I will seek to find the answer to that riddle, and I give thee gramercy for sparing my life for so long a time as thou hast done, and for giving me the chance to escape my death.” Upon this the knight of the castle smiled very sourly, and he said, “I do not offer this to thee because of mercy to thee, but because I find pleasure in tormenting thee. For what delight canst thou have in living thy life when thou knowest that thou must, for a surety, die at the end of one short year? And what pleasure canst thou have in living even that year when thou shalt be tormented with anxiety to discover the answer to my riddle?”
Then King Arthur said, “I think thou art very cruel.” And the knight said, “I am not denying that.”
So that night King Arthur and Boisenard lay at the castle, and the next day they took their way thence. And King Arthur was very heavy and troubled in spirit; ne’theless he charged Boisenard that he should say nothing concerning that which had befallen, but that he should keep it in secret. And Boisenard did as the King commanded, and said nothing concerning that adventure.
Now in that year which followed, King Arthur settled his affairs. Also he sought everywhere to find the answer to that riddle. Many there were who gave him answers in plenty, for one said that a woman most desired wealth, and another said she most desired beauty, and one said she desired power to please, and another said that she most desired fine raiment; and one said this, and another said that; but no answer appeared to King Arthur to be good and fitting for his purpose.
So the year passed by, until only a fortnight remained; and then King Arthur could not abide to stay where he was any longer, for it seemed to him his time was very near to hand, and he was filled with a very bitter anxiety of soul, wherefore he was very restless to be away.
So he called Boisenard to him, and he said, “Boisenard, help me to arm, for I am going away.”
Then Boisenard fell a-weeping in very great measure, and he said, “Lord, do not go.”
At this King Arthur looked very sternly at his esquire, and said, “Boisenard, how is this? Wouldst thou tempt me to violate mine honor? It is not very hard to die, but it would be very bitter to live my life in dishonor; wherefore tempt me no more, but do my bidding and hold thy peace. And if I do not return in a month from this time, then mayst thou tell all that hath befallen. And thou mayst tell Sir Constantine of Cornwall that he is to search the papers in my cabinet, and that there he will find all that is to be done should death overtake me.”
So Boisenard put a plain suit of armor upon King Arthur, though he could hardly see what he was about for the tears that flowed down out of his eyes in great abundance. And he laced upon the armor of the King a surcoat without device, and he gave the King a shield without device. Thereupon King Arthur rode away without considering whither his way took him. And of everyone whom he met he inquired what that thing was that a woman most desired, and no one could give him an answer that appeared to him to be what it should be, wherefore he was in great doubt and torment of spirit.
Now the day before King Arthur was to keep his covenant at that castle, he was wandering through the adjacent forest in great travail of soul, for he wist not what he should do to save his life. As he wandered so, he came of a sudden upon a small hut built up under an overhanging oak-tree so that it was very hard to tell where the oak-tree ended and the hut began. And there were a great many large rocks all about covered with moss, so that the King might very easily have passed by the hut only that he beheld a smoke to arise therefrom as from a fire that burned within. So he went to the hut and opened the door and entered. At first he thought there was no one there, but when he looked again he beheld an old woman sitting bent over a small fire that burned upon the hearth. And King Arthur had never beheld such an ugly beldame as that one who sat there bending over that fire, for her ears were very huge and flapped, and her hair hung down over her head like to snakes, and her face was covered all over with wrinkles so that there were not any places at all where there was not a wrinkle; and her eyes were bleared and covered over with a film, and the eyelids were red as with the continual weeping of her eyes, and she had but one tooth in her mouth, and her hands, which she spread out to the fire, were like claws of bone.
Then King Arthur gave her greeting and she gave the King greeting, and she said to him, “My lord King, whence come ye? and why do ye come to this place?”
Then King Arthur was greatly astonished that that old woman should know him, who he was, and he said, “Who are you that appeareth to know me?” “No matter,” said she, “I am one who meaneth you well; so tell me what is the trouble that brings you here at this time.” So the King confessed all his trouble to that old woman, and he asked her if she knew the answer to that riddle, “What is it that a woman most desires?” “Yea,” said the old woman, “I know the answer to that riddle very well, but I will not tell it to thee unless thou wilt promise me something in return.”
At this King Arthur was filled with very great joy that the old woman should know the answer to that riddle, and he was filled with doubt of what she would demand of him, wherefore he said, “What is it thou must have in return for that answer?”
Then the old woman said, “If I aid thee to guess thy riddle aright, thou must promise that I shall become wife unto one of the knights of thy Court, whom I may choose when thou returnest homeward again.”
“Ha!” said King Arthur, “how may I promise that upon the behalf of anyone?” Upon this the old woman said, “Are not the knights of thy Court of such nobility that they will do that to save thee from death?”
“I believe they are,” said King Arthur. And with that he meditated a long while, saying unto himself, “What will my kingdom do if I die at this time? I have no right to die.” So he said to the old woman, “Very well, I will make that promise.”
Then she said unto the King, ” This is the answer to that riddle: That which a woman most desires is to have her will.”
And the answer seemed to King Arthur to be altogether right.
Then the old woman said, “My lord King, thou hast been played upon by that knight who hath led thee into this trouble, for he is a great conjurer and a magician of a very evil sort. He carrieth his life not within his body, but in a crystal globe which he weareth in a locket hanging about his neck; wherefore it was that when thou didst cut the head from off his body, his life remained in that locket and he did not die. But if thou hadst destroyed that locket, then he would immediately have died.”
“I will mind me of that,” said King Arthur.
So King Arthur abided with that old woman for that night, and she refreshed him with meat and drink and served him very well. And the next morning he set forth unto that castle where he had made his covenant, and his heart was more cheerful than it had been for a whole year.