La Demoiselle d Arthur
And her Knights of the Table Round
In which Arthur, KIng of the Britons, does find
himself a lady fair
It was The Feast of Saint George, and in the Great Hall of Camelot, King Arthur and his knights gathered for a banquet. The seven famed hearths blazed with mighty fires, and the room swam in the succulent smell of roasting pork, veal and venison. Servants scurried here and there, refilling mugs with ale, but the food waited– as it always did on the Feast of Saint George– for the occurence a miracle.
“Arthur,” Sir Yvain said, and not for the first time. “Just a slice. I am famished.”
“Patience,” Arthur said. “The meal will be all the more satisfying knowing that you earned it through your pious devotion.”
“But I am sooo hungry.”
“You will make it, my friend,” Arthur said, patting him on the wrist. “I am sure you will.”
“This waiting for miracles is for fools,” Mordred said. “Irish blarney. We are Celts, and it is time to admit that.”
Arthur hid his irritation behind a fatherly smile. “Our faith has delivered us many victories in war. Our traditions guide our footsteps, so we do not stray…”
“Into the forest of folly,” Mordred groaned. “Yes, I recall as you have only said that same thing to me, I don’t know? There are fewer stars in the heavens, I will say that much.”
Arthur sighed. It was a failing on his part, but he did not like Mordred. Arthur, in fact, would never have awarded the arrogant young man a place at the round table, but for the fact that the boy’s mother, Morgana, had begged him, and she was his sister, and the boy his nephew. Yet, Arthur considered his inability to like his nephew as falling short of his Christian obligations as an Uncle.
“Remember, Arthur,” Lancelot said, breaking off his conversation with Percival. “We united England for the benefit of the future generations.”
“That may have been a mistake,” Arthur said, taking a sip of ale. “It may we have made things too easy on the young.”
Mordred scowled, dreading another if you only knew how hard I had it when I was your age speech. “I need warm myself by the fire,” Mordred said, getting up and sauntering over to one of the great hearths, mug of ale in hand. As he walked, he marvelled at the floor of the great hall– all intricate mosaic tiles, artfully laid out in the images of the Roman gods– a floor left over from those who originally constructed this mighty hall, the Roman Legions who had held this fort, it was said, for many hundreds of years.
There was the image of a man atop a mountain, bolt of lightning in his hands. A woman hunting. Few Britons remembered anymore who these Gods were, their stories, but the images had always fascinated Mordred, and since he’d first come here as a child, he’d made up stories to go with the images.
The walls of Great Hall had been plastered and painted with the images of the Celtic Gods– and these names Mordred did know. Dadga, Morrigan, Brigid and Danus among so many more. Mordred reached up and gently lay his fingers on the image of Mighty Dagda, and his heart sang, even to grow cold as he looked over and saw the image of the cross.
Mordred frowned and looked back to his Celtic Gods. His mother Morgana had told him all the stories, had told him of the way the Irish had come and turned the people of Briton against their traditions. “The Irish,” Morgana had said in disgust. “Of course, they of all people would fall in love with a religion that serves wine in the middle of the ceremony!”
It had only been a few generations since the Christians had come to Briton, and Morgana had filled Mordred with a zeal to restore the old gods, to sweep these Irish and their wine soaked rituals into the sea. He glanced over at Arthur, who now laughed and drank with his men, but Mordred could see the grey starting to fill his head, the wrinkles about his eyes. How long? He wondered. How long until that old fool dies, and I can fix all that he has done wrong to our people?
Arthur, despite Mordred’s irritating display, felt a general sense of well-being. Indeed, after many fierce battles, the warring kingdoms of Briton now stood united. The people prospered, and he’d established a uniform system of justice to be applied through all the lands. Built roads. I am, he thought, looking about the fine men gathered at his round table, perhaps the greatest king ever.
Just as that thought crossed his mind, the doors to the great hall flung open, the steel bound oaken frames slamming against the stone walls, sending a terrible noise like thunder through the chamber. A chill wind came swirling into the room, followed by the clatter of horses’ hooves, and then a mighty white steed trotted into the hall, upon which rode a tiny, slender figure in flashing chain mail and an iron helmet, the visor pulled down.
“Ah,” Arthur called out. “Our miracle arrives.”
Mordred scowled. He scowled often. In this case, it rankled that once again Arthur and his expectations of miracles on St George’s Day had been fulfilled.
The tiny figure leapt from the house, landing with a “clang” and then immediately drew its sword. The hand of every knight went to the sword that rested next to his chair, thinking this strange little man meant harm to Arthur, but the King, trusting their visitor the manifestation of divine providence, waved his hand.
“Why do you come to the Court of Arthur, King of all the Britons?” He asked.
The figure lowered its sword and dropped to a knee. “I have come to join the round table.”
The men all laughed, as this figure seemed a child, and far too small to be of use in battle. Arthur chuckled as well. “Show me your face.”
“Yes, your highness.” The helmet came off, and golden hair spilled out, pouring down over the shoulders. It appeared they were speaking to a child, and a girl child at that.
“Are you a girl?” Arthur asked.
“Yes,” the girl said, her eyes hard, serious, determined. If she heard the laughter, she did not acknowledge it. “And I am pure of heart and stout of arm. I have come across the sea from Leon, where I had a vision of the Virgin Mary. She told me I was to travel here and join the round table.”
“Indeed?” Arthur said, glancing around at his men, who were all chuckling, and yet curious as well. This was, after all, the St George’s miracle, and so must not be dismissed. “Your name?”
“Ceridwen,” the girl said.
Mordred, who’d been watching with practiced teen-age boredom, started at the name. It was the name of a celtic goddess, but could this be the shape-shifter, herself?
Arthur looked at the young girl. She appeared to be about 12 or 13. These miracles usually involved some sort of test for him or one of his knights, but in this case he’d been merely asked a question. Perhaps, he decided, I am called on to show grace. He adopted his fatherly ‘about to give bad news’ look and tone. “Well, little one, you are certainly bold to have made such a journey, and I do not question your heart. But, brave as you are, the life of a knight is not suited to a young girl.”
Now, Ceridwen smiled. “Are you saying, great king, that I am too young?”
“Indeed,” Arthur said. “But what if I were to send you to be with my wife and the other ladies? You could try on a beautiful dress or do other such things as ladies do.”
“I travelled across the sea to join the round table,” the girl said. “And if I am too young, then I will grow older.” With that, she stood and waved her arms and all watched in wonder as she sprouted, growing a full foot and now standing 6 feet tall. No longer did she have a youthful face, but that of a grown woman.
The men all gasped.
“I am no longer too young. I request, again, that you make me one of your knights.”
Arthur thought. What was the meaning of this test? He couldn’t just let any person join his retinue, and more, women were not allowed to serve as warriors. It would be– unChristian of him. “You may no longer be too young,” he said. “But you have not proven your skill with a sword. You must defeat another knight in a duel if you would be shown as worthy.”
“Very well,” Ceridwen said. “I challenge every man in this room to a dual. Who will fight me?”
The men all shrank back and averted their eyes. Not Gawain nor Pervical, not Galahad, Agravain or Lancelot would meet the challenge. First, because it was unheard of for a man of noble Christian blood to fight a woman, and second because this woman clearly knew magic.
Three times in total did Ceridwen call out the men of the roundtable, and three times the men did decline to meet her in battle. Mordred sipped his ale, loving it all as both Arthur and his men seemed utterly cowed by this arrogant woman– if she, indeed, was a woman and not a goddess!
Ceridwen then turned to Arthur. “None of your brave knights will meet me. Therefore, by the laws of chivalry, I am declared winner over them all. I ask for a third time that you make me a knight of the round table.” She looked Arthur directly in the eyes, and her look was of total defiance.
Arthur considered, and shook his head. “You mention the courtly laws,” he said. “Then, surely you must know by those very same laws that a woman can not be made a knight. Would you ask me to dishonor myself by breaking the law?”
“No, my noble lord, but I would point out that the laws do allow a king to make any, and I do quote, “ any person a knight who he deems worthy, the judgment of the king superseding all other strictures.”
At this, some of the men chuckled. Mordred laughed out loud, as he loved seeing his Uncle made to look the fool.
Arthur grimaced. This girl, miracle or not, was proving as annoying as Mordred, and she was trying his patience, and it snapped. “You are being ridiculous,” he said. “You are a sorcerous, a witch, and your spells and trickery do not change the fact that women are not meant to fight. I can no more make a woman a knight than I could make a kitten a tiger. Be gone from my hall, and waste no more of my time with your foolishness.”
The hall grew silent as all waited to see what Ceridwen would do. The only sound was the popping of the fires. Ceridwen sheathed her sword. She put her face in her hands, and for a moment seemed to be sobbing, but then she looked up, a wicked smile on her face, and she raised her hands, crying out, “You say a woman can not serve as a knight, Arthur? Perhaps you should be one!”
With that, a great wind once more swept into the hall, forming a vortex which lifted Arthur off his feet. He began to spin, slowly, struggling against the wind which seemed to have pinned his arms to his sides, to have taken his voice. Arthur’s men rose, meaning to rush to his defense, but the wind pushed them back, heels scraping across the floor, and they were all thrown against the walls and pinned there, writhing helplessly against the power of Ceridwen.
All eyes were on Arthur now, and all looked in wonder as each time he spun, he was changed. Turn– and long, thick hair now swirled about his head. Turn– and now he seemed smaller than before. Turn— and his breeches and tunic vanished, replaced by a woman’s gown. Turn– and the gown did hug a shapely figure, slender waist, rounded hips. Turn- and from the top of the dress spilled soft white breasts. Turn– and now narrow shoulders replaced his manly frame. Turn– and dainty white arms dangled from his sleeveless dress.
The hall went dark, and all could hear Ceridwen laughing.
“Arthur King, did he declare, a maiden could not be a knight
He swaggered and bellowed and played the man
But Ceridwen had other plans
Now that king a man no more
Now does he take a woman’s shape
Now does he face a woman’s fate
Small and pretty and soft and weak
No this girl is not a king
Nor can she a warrior be
Lady Arthur is meant for homemaking
A fertile mother and devoted wife
This now becomes Arthur’s life
Oh, why or why, she will cry
Oh my, oh my, she’d rather die
For being a woman, after once a king
Only sorrow her new life brings
The winds died down. Arthur lowered to the floor, stumbling slightly. He had felt himself changing, but did not understand the nature of the changes. He now looked down to see his fresh, new breasts– soft and round. He felt cold, and plucked at the clothes he wore, realizing he wore a dress, horrified, humiliated. He looked at his hands, his slender wrists, his soft white arms, and his mind fought against it. He struggled, refusing to accept what his eyes were telling him, the words of Ceridwen’s song. “A woman?” He said, shocked at the sound of his voice. “No.”
Arthur’s knights stared at him, at the woman he’d become. In truth, it was part due to shock, and it was part because he was now the most lovely woman any of them had ever seen, with a face that would make an angel weep. They all knew this fair maiden was none other than their King. They all stood frozen, no one knowing what to do or say. Ceridwen continued her song.
Is there no hope? Must Arthur be
A maiden fair for all his years?
There is a way for our damsel dear
To escape her little life of tears
By midsomer, our virgin sweet
Must use her pure and womanly heart
To tame a unicorn with feminine art
To present to me by end of longest day
Shall the lady fail or be delayed
a maiden faire then she must stay
Arthur, sweet lass, for ever more
No more a knight, no more a king
This truth from her down mouth
She did decry.
Once more, Ceridwen waved her arms. The knights and Arthur found themselves freed from her spell. The men charged Ceridwen, but she leapt upon her steed and rode out of the hall, leaving behind only her laughter. Arthur had tried to charge his tormenter, but unused to a woman’s dress, he’d stepped on the hem and stumbled, falling to the ground, his long, black hair hanging around his face like a curtain. He felt the wrongness of his body, his clothes. It didn’t seem possible that he found himself a woman? No.
A hand reached down, coming into his vision. Arthur took it, and was helped to his feet, surprised how small and soft his hand felt in this man’s coarse, calloused grip. As he stood, he looked up to see Mordred’s grinning face looking down at him– how short am I? Arthur wondered.
“Milady,” Mordred said, putting a hand on the small of Atthur’s back and guiding him toward the exit. “You must flee!