Omir the Storyteller

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Sunday, October 02, 2005

Lady Ragnell, Part Two


Our story thus far:

King Arthur was caught unwittingly poaching a stag on the land of a mysterious dark knight. The dark knight was within his rights to kill Arthur on the spot, but promised to spare his life if Arthur could find an answer to the riddle, "What is it that a woman truly wants above all else?" that would satisfy most of those who hear it. Unable to find a suitable answer, Arthur is traveling to meet his fate when he meets up with an equally mysterious, misshapen woman, who whispers an answer into his ear in exchange for the promise that at some point in the future Arthur will grant her any one thing she asks that is within his power to grant.

Arthur rode on, heedless of the mists and darkness gathering about him. He had begun his journey a defeated man; now he had regained the bearing of a king, and rode to meet his challenge.

At length he came to within sight of the great black keep, and there, blocking the road, larger than life, was the dark knight, with his tabard so black it hurt the eyes and a sword almost as big as Arthur was tall.

Arthur dismounted from his horse. "Hail, sir Knight," he said.

"Arthur Pendragon of the Britons," the dark knight fairly sneered. "You are a man of your word." The knight shifted his hold on the sword to a two-handed battle grip.

"As I shall hold you to yours," said Arthur. "You told me that if I would defeat you, I was to come dressed as I am, armed only with the answer to your riddle." He held out his empty arms. "You see, I have not brought so much as a dagger with me."

The knight raised the sword above his head, readying a killing blow.

Arthur pointed directly at the dark knight. "What is it that a woman truly wants above all else?" he intoned.

The dark knight held his position.

"Only this:" Arthur continued. "To be sovereign unto herself, and to be the captain of her own destiny."

The dark knight held his position, but began to tremble ever so slightly. The trembling changed to a shaking, accompanied by a high-pitched whine, and Arthur raised his arm just as the dark knight exploded into a million ebony shards that looked like they would cut him to ribbons, but which quickly faded away like morning dew. So too did the mist and the darkness, the black castle and the ebony landscape gradually fading to nothingness, until Arthur was left standing on the plains on Inglewood, blinking at the bright noonday sun.

He remounted his horse, turned and rode for Carlisle, but he did not travel far before his way was blocked again, this time by the misshapen hag he had encountered on the way to his meeting with the dark knight.

"Hail, milady," Arthur said to her.

"Hail Arthur, King of the Britons, who yet lives," the hag croaked, a strange satisfaction in her voice.

"That I do," he said, "and all thanks to you. Now, I believe I owe you a favor."

"All in good time," she replied, "all in good time. You shall yet know what I will ask of you, but I must ask it at Carlisle, in the presence of your knights."

"Very well," he said and made to continue riding, "I shall meet you there."

She stood her ground. "How very unchivalrous of you," she chided. "You would leave a woman to walk when your horse could easily carry two?"

"Yes, of course," Arthur replied with little enthusiasm, for she was as correct as she was repulsive. He helped her up onto his horse, placing her behind the saddle, calming the nervous animal as he did so. Once she was seated, he mounted for the ride to Carlisle.

"You have saved my life," he said as they rode toward the castle. "What should I call my benefactor."

She was silent for a moment, then said simply, "I am called Ragnell."

"Very well, Ragnell," he replied. "Thank you."

They rode on toward the castle, the silence punctuated by the clip-clop, clip-clop of the hooves of Arthur's horse and a labored breathing from Ragnell. Fortunately for Arthur the wind was in their faces, so with some effort he was able to avoid her odor, and indeed he did his best to pretend he was riding alone.

Word of their coming preceded them. At the earliest approach to Carlisle Arthur told a young squire to ride on ahead with news of his victory, and to have a feast made ready in celebration. Fanfares cascaded from ranks of trumpets as they passed. People cheered as they rode by, and stared in amazement at Arthur's passenger. The whispers circulated among the crowd. Was it an ogre? Was it a troll? What on earth was that behind their king?

At length they reached the gates of the castle. Arthur dismounted, then helped Ragnell down and a page led the horse away to be fed and rested. Arthur ordered up lavers to wash the dirt of the road from his face; with Ragnell, however, the washing seemed to make little difference.

At last the two of them entered the assembly hall. There, in an impressive line, stood Arthur's Knights of the Round Table, with the famous table itself behind them. Servants scurried to and fro, preparing soups and sauces and trenchers and roasts and ale and other victuals for the celebratory feast.

Arthur began by telling his knights he had survived, to thunderous applause. He recounted the story of how Ragnell had saved his life by giving him the answer to the dark knight's riddle, told them of the dark knight's defeat, and then finished by introducing them to the woman who had saved his life.

"This is Ragnell," he said. The knights of the Round Table, chivalrous to a man, said nothing of their lord's benefactor's appearance. "In return for her service I have promised her any one thing it is within my power to grant. She has said she would only tell me what she requires here, in front of you.

He then turned to Ragnell. "Milady?"

Arthur had spoken in a well-projected voice, an asset for a king in any case and necessary in the great cavernous assembly hall at Carlisle. Ragnell looked the line of knights over, then matched Arthur's voice in volume and force.

"Which of you men would die for your king?" she thundered.

There was a great sssssssching as the knights drew their swords from their scabbards and held them at the ready in a salute to their sovereign.

"I expected no less," she continued. "But now, which of you would marry for him?"

The knights held their salute, but looked at one another, at Ragnell and at Arthur, confused.

"Your king has promised me any one thing it is within his power to grant," she said. "And I ask him now for a husband. Arthur Pendragon, King of the Britons, I would have the hand of the bravest and most chivalrous of your knights in marriage."

The knights were used to discipline in battle, but this was something new and unexpected. Looks of worry began to set in. Arthur too did his best to maintain his composure, and gravely nodded in response to her request. He said nothing as Ragnell began to pace before the knights. No, pacing is not the right word; she stalked, as an animal might patrol its territory. She looked over some of the knights the way a chef in the market might inspect a butchered hog; others she eyed like a young girl sizing up a village swain. She inspected one man, now another, reached the end of the row, turned again, and continued to inspect them for what seemed like an eternity to the assembled knights.

Finally she stopped at one of the youngest of the knights, gave him an especially careful going over, then turned to Arthur. "Yes, this one," she announced. "This is the one I would have for my husband."

The tension in the room relaxed, but only a little, and there, beside Ragnell, Sir Gawain could be seen to swallow hard.


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