Omir the Storyteller

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Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Story of Ragnell, part one

Stories

Like most of the noblemen of his day, King Arthur was a huntsman. He didn't hunt so much for food -- he had others who did that for him -- as for the companionship, for the challenge, and for the sharpening of his skills. On one particular day, the challenge was certainly there, but the companionship was not. The truth is, on this day Arthur was more interested in solitude than anything else. He was using the time alone to reflect -- and to see if he could still drop a stag.

So far his skills had not served him well. He had been out since the early morning, and all he had to show for his effort was a quiver with a single arrow left in it. He was feeling a bit frustrated, and deep in thought, and barely noticed the change in his surroundings until the change had overtaken him. The day was clear and sunny, but the sun cast no shadows, and the air felt still and heavy. Darkness seemed to permeate the air, though the sun shone brightly. It was as if he was in the middle of a dense forest, except that in this part of Inglewood there were no trees. And strangest of all, a mist began to swirl out of the ground, even though he was nowhere near a stream or lake and the weather was hot, not cool.

Suddenly he heard a rustling behind him, and his hunter's mind took over as a stag bounded past his left shoulder and toward the mists ahead of them. He reached for the quiver on his back, grabbed the lone arrow out of it, notched it, drew back the string, and let the arrow fly. It sailed straight toward where the stag was bound . . . when all of the sudden, a sword flew out of the mist and knocked the arrow out of the air.

Arthur looked up in surprise to see a man, larger than himself, rise out of the mist. The man wore a helmet with full visor, a shirt of mail and a black tabard. To call it "black" would not be to do it justice; the tabard was of such a deep black that Arthur was sure he could see into the depths of it. The man, a noble by his bearing, wore a shirt and breeches that, while not as black as the tabard, stood out in the darkness that had enveloped the world. Behind the dark knight rose a castle, the likes of which Arthur had never seen before. He would have sworn to anyone who would listen that he was in Inglewood, a part of his realm, but there he was, looking at the castle, and presumably, its lord.

"Good sir, I --" Arthur began, and stopped as he found the point of the knight's sword pressed up against his Adam's apple.

"Arthur Pendragon," the knight intoned from beneath the visor. "I know who you are. But I do not know why you are poaching on my land."

"I apologize, good sir," Arthur explained. "I had no intent to trespass on the land of another."

"Perhaps," the dark knight said. "Unfortunately, the law does not recognize intent. You do know the law, do you not? You wrote much of it. You are trespassing on my land, and poaching my game at that, and for that your life is forfeit at my will."

"That is the law," Arthur said, somehow maintaining his composure. "But good sir, would you kill an unarmed man?" Arthur cast his bow upon the ground. "As you can see I have nothing with which to defend myself but an empty quiver, and that is poor defense against a sword."

The dark lord put just a bit more pressure on Arthur's Adam's apple, as if to make a point. "What does that matter to me, when I am aggrieved?"

"My men will not take kindly to it," Arthur replied. "Killing an unarmed man is one thing. Killing their king . . . they will come to find you."

"And who is to say that if I present them with your head, that they will not swear allegiance to him who defeated you?" The black knight laughed a mirthless laugh. "But I am a fair man, and will give you a chance to defend yourself. What do you hold to be holy?"

"The name of our Lord Jesus," Arthur said.

"Then swear upon the Name of your Lord Jesus that you will return in a week and a day, and if you would defeat me, come dressed as you are now, armed only with an answer to this riddle that will satisfy most of those who hear it:

"What is it that a woman truly wants above all else?"

Arthur was not used to defeat, and though he seemed defeated at that moment, he reasoned that a week and a day alive might give him a chance to reverse his fortune. "I swear by the name of Our Lord, I shall return as you say."

The black knight lowered his sword and pointed behind Arthur with his left hand. "Go then!" Arthur heard the mocking laugh as he rode through the mist toward the light and the men he had left behind.

All the way back to Arthur's summer residence at Carlisle he discussed the matter with his knights. "It comes to this," he said. "On the one hand, I have sworn to return, and if I return of my own free will, and do not have the answer to his question, my life is forfeit. On the other, it should be an easy task to find an answer to the question of what a woman truly wants that will satisfy most of those who hear it. All we have to do is ask all the woman we can meet with in the next week, and reach a consensus."

The other knights agreed that this was a good plan, and they rode to the corners of Arthur's realm to find an answer.

An answer was not easy in coming, however.

"Beauty!" one woman would say. "A woman desires more than anything to be beautiful."

"Who needs beauty when you can have brains?" another would say.

"What a woman truly wants is a man," replied another.

"As many man as she can get!" said yet another to ribald laughter from the other women present, and blushes from the men.

"Children!" said a woman who had four children clinging to her. "A woman desires children."

"She desires grandchildren! They are just as fun and much less responsibility." This provoked more laughter.

Wealth, music, a pleasant voice . . . each woman had her own idea of what a woman truly wanted above all else, and none was able to argue her point to the satisfaction of even a majority present, much less most of those who heard it.

After a week, Arthur called his knights back and stood before them.

"I am a stranger to failure," he said, "but it seems I have failed to find an answer to the riddle. And so, men, this will likely be goodbye." His men protested, volunteered to go in his stead, to fight for him, but he would have none of it. He had sworn an oath, and his honor would not let him break it. He made arrangements for his succession, said a tearful goodbye, and once again rode for Inglewood, alone.

As he rode, his mood was as dark as the mists that once again swirled up around him. But before he could get to where he would meet the dark knight, he was brought out of his reverie by the sound of singing. He thought for a moment he could see the Fair Folk dancing and singing on the path ahead of him, but then he turned away for a second . . .

And there, in the center of where he thought he had seen the Fairies dancing, was a woman. But she was a grotesque caricature of a woman indeed! Her face was wrinkled and pitted, with a misshapen nose, lips that closed on a toothless maw and two eyes of different sizes, both of which were too large by half from what they should have been. Her hair was matted and filled with dirt, moss and leaves. She was built like a barrel with shoulders, with dirty arms and breasts that would have been a load for a horse. She wore a pelt of animal skins, matted and greasy. And the smell . . . the smell was a combination of musk, rancid grease, unwashed flesh and decay.

"Hail Arthur, King of the Britons!" the hag said in a voice that grated upon the ears.

"Hail," Arthur said, and motioned to his horse to go around her. She stepped in his way again.

"What is it that a woman truly wants above all else?" she croaked.

Arthur brought his horse to a stop. "You know of my quest?" he asked.

"Aye," she said. "And not only that, I know the answer you seek. One that will satisfy most of those who hear it, if not all."

"Then tell me!" he said. "Tell me and I shall reward you greatly."

She cocked her head and looked at him with one overgrown eye. "Will you give me whatever it is I ask of you?"

"That depends a great deal," Arthur said. "What would you ask of me?"

"All in good time," she replied. "I guarantee you, what I ask will be in your power to grant me, and will be worth your while."

There was a moment's silence. "Oh come! Come!" she snapped. "Surely anything that is within your power to grant me should be worth your life!"

There was another moment's silence. "Very well," he said. "Any one thing that is within my power to grant you, I shall do so if your answer spares my life. I swear it."

"Done," she said. "Come here, and you shall know the answer."

Arthur dismounted from his horse. The sight and smell of the woman conspired with his eyes and nose to cause his stomach to rebel, but by sheer power of will he forced it to obey as he approached her. He struggled to listen as she whispered the answer into his ear.

TO BE CONTINUED

1 Comments:

At 7:52 AM, Blogger FARfetched said...

I've heard this story before, but it's worth hearing again. Looking forward to the next installment!

 

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