The Damosel with the Sword

An Arthurian tale with a strong flavour of Malory and a feminist twist.

Circa 2012. One of the best things about an English Literature degree was the incentive to bury yourself in a text until you had really absorbed its voice. Reproducing the style and sensibilities of something like the Morte Darthur was immensely enjoyable and not something I’m sure I could now – certainly not without a long reread.

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So it befell that king Arthur was sore bestad with sorrow, for that his court was lorn and empty of the most part of all his knights. For at this time half and more of his knights were questing after the Sankgreal, and therein had many a good knight and noble baron lost his life, other else his honour, and the noble fellowship of the Round Table been nigh disparbeled. Nor yet had sir Bors returned with tidings of his successful adventures, and of sir Galahad and sir Percival, nor had sir Launcelot returned to comfort the king, that was said to be the best knight of all the world. And of the absence of sir Gawayn that was his nephew, and of sir Launcelot, in especial, the king had great pain, for these were the men he loved best of any.

And for that her husband was full of dole, queen Guenevere had made a great feast that he might be merry. So she gathered into court all the knights of the Round Table that might be found, and made great store of vitayles for a merry feasting, and each made good cheer of the other though they were but few. And there was sir Kay the Seneschal, sir Uwayne Le Avoutres, and sir Hebes; sir Gareth, that sir Kay caused to be called Beaumayns; sir Severause le Brewse, and sir Pelleas that was loved of one of the ladies of the lake, that she kept him ever from danger (and her name was dame Nyneve); sir Gryfflet, sir Braundeles, sir Clegis; and others whose names I find not written. And there came also sir Galahalt the Hawte Prince, with twenty of his knights, for to do king Arthur comfort.

Then was it king Arthur’s custom that he should not sit down to a feast ere that he had seen some adventure. And queen Guenevere knew this, and made known to the company that a damosel was come to Arthur’s court in great distress, and complaining of strange troubles.

“Well, let her be before us, then,” said king Arthur, “and we shall see how we may relieve her woes.”

So the damosel was brought in. And she was a passing fair maiden, and there hung on her girdle a fine sword. So when king Arthur saw this sword it much misgave him, and he said, “Maiden, it be not seemly that ye bear a weapon in this wise, woman that ye are.”

And the damosel wept bitter tears, and said, “Lord, it is not from choice I bear it but necessity.” Then Arthur had pity of her, and enquired eagerly after the cause of her sorrow and why she bore that sword.

“That I will tell ye,” said the damosel. “There lives a false recreant knight, sir Domnall, that has about him many knights and knaves like unto him. And with this host he forced my father’s house, and there slew both my father and my brother! And there he would like to have ravished me, I am sure, for he says that ’tis but for love this evil deed was done, and ’twas my beauty killed my father and brother – but that I got me to my brother’s horse, by God’s grace, and slipped them by. Yet I fear me I shall never be free of this mine enemy, for he pursues me still.”

Then were they sore aggrieved for the sorrow and the peril that had befallen this damosel. And many sighed, and many cursed the man that brought such shame upon the order of knighthood.

“Yet ye have not told us the cause of this fair sword that hangeth upon thy girdle,” said king Arthur.

“As for that”, said the damosel, “when I had fled my father’s house I betook me to dame Nyneve of Avalyon, for I knew that she might help me. And she girded this sword upon my hip, and set me again upon my brother’s horse, saying, ‘Now search thee for the knight that may draw this sword from its scabbard, for that knight shall be thy true protector; and that shall be a true knight and one of the best on life.’ And unless this knight I find, never shall I be free of sir Domnall. Therefore have I come here, my lord, for it is said that thine is a fellowship of the noblest knights on life. And queen Guenevere out of her great goodness promised me this audience.”

“Ah,” king Arthur said, “it repenteth me that this adventure should now befall when the most part of my knights, and some among them the most worshipful of the world, have departed. Yet nevertheless, we shall assay, peradventure any of this noble company be thy true protector. And I shall assay first, not for that I believe I am most of worship, but so I may encourage all those here. And if we may help ye, we will.”

Then the king took the hilt of the sword in his hand, which was set with garnets and enchased with silver and copper wire, so that it was wondrous to behold; and the pommel stone was a great green agate. But in no wise could he stir it. Then did sir Gareth assay the damosel’s sword, but it was not his. Then assayed sir Severause la Brewse, and sir Pelleas, and all the knights of the Round Table there present, but none could move the sword. And so sir Galahalt and his twenty knights, which were passing good knights, though not of the Table Round.

When it was known that none there might help her, the damosel with the sword nigh sowned for sorrow. And sighing king Arthur said, “But if sir Launcelot were here then ye must be happy, for I dare say he is the best of any earthly man, and a true protector of all good women. Other else his pious son, sir Galahad, other sir Gawayn, that is a full strong knight of his hands, both these might do ye succour, by my troth.”

So then the king stood, and said, “Do not despair, damosel. And I may, then will I bring ye to these knights, wherever they may be found. And a valiant company shall bear ye to them in all safety, and ye shall have a fair palfrey to ride upon and gentlewomen to wait upon ye.”

Then the damosel with the sword said sadly,“That may not be; for the lady Nyneve has charged that none accompany me in my search, and that I ride no horse but that my brother’s, which shall after be my protector’s. Yet will I seek these knights of which ye speak, if they be the noblest and the best.” And so she departed Arthur’s court.

Then was queen Guenevere greatly saddened, that her feast that should be merry had brought only more dole. But more pain she felt for the plight of the damosel with the sword, and she went to her before she left. And taking her by the arm, she said, “Advise thee well, and when a knight would draw that sword and be thy protector, be sure he do so but for very pure love of thee, other else respect for all womankind. All manner other reasons were a shame to thee, and to all good knights. And it were better thou look to thyself than let such shame befall.”

And the damosel gave thanks to the queen, and so she departed. Then leave we the court of king Arthur, which all unhappy is, and turn to the quest of this damosel with the sword, and pray it may have a happy ending.

*

Through many lands and strange this damosel did search and inquire after those three knights. And ever and anon she was accosted by false and savage men, and must spur her brother’s horse and flee if she would not be slain, or worse. For in those days there was great unquiet in king Arthur’s lands and the lands surrounding, for that the knights of the Round Table did not maintain peace and justice in those lands, but quested ever after the Sankgreal. And some even of that fellowship turned to villainy, and besmirched themselves with many foul deeds. So did sir Aggravayne and sir Mordred, that were sir Gawayn’s brethren, fall upon sir Dinadan and slay him, that was a valiant knight.

And always was this damosel affeared that she would meet with sir Domnall, so that all men seemed to bear his face.

So after some weeks it befell that this damosel came to a moated castle, and there she found sir Gawayn. Great cheer had sir Gawayn of the lady of that castle, for he had but lately rescued her husband from a giant that lived in those parts. And sir Gawayn would woo this lady, but she was true to her husband and took no mind of this. So when the damosel with the sword knew that he was sir Gawayn, she joyed greatly; and for his part, he marvelled at the beauty of this damosel, though he misliked the sword she wore.

And when he had heard how she must find the knight could wield that sword, other else live ever in fear of sir Domnall, he said unto her, “Fair lady, and thou grant me a kiss, this sword I shall draw and be thy protector.”

Then the damosel blushed at these words, and sir Gawayn smiled and said, “Nay then, let me assay the sword, and should it yield to me then the kiss may be granted. For thee are fair, and I would not have thee ravished by this recreant knight, but rather that thee live by me and be my lover.” So with that he made to grip the sword’s hilt.

And almost she let him, but then she remembered the words of queen Guenevere, that dealt of pure love and respect of womankind, and she bethought her how she had seen sir Gawayn woo the lady of the moated castle. Then she stayed his hand, and said, “That may not be, for ye would not protect me for love or service, but so ye might have me as sir Domnall would have me, though it go by another name.”

Then sir Gawayn wax wroth, and turned from her full orgulously, and soon departed that place. But the damosel with the sword stayed there several days to recover from her journeys.

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By this time sir Domnall had heard rumour of the damosel with the sword that wandered to and fro, and weeting well it was the woman he wanted most of any in the world, he hurried him unto the moated castle, and twenty of his followers with him. And it was only through the help of the lord and lady of that castle that she escaped him into the forest, nor could she leave him far behind, for he was like a hound snapping at her heels. And there were knaves and bandits in great number in these lands, that often she must spur her brother’s horse, and often beat them off even with the sword in its scabbard.

By the by she came upon a little chapel where lived an hermit, a good man and holy. And she had cause for much joy in that chapel, for therein sir Galahad knelt at prayer. So the damosel with the sword knelt also and prayed that this knight might be her protector. Yet sir Galahad paid her no mind. In the meanwhile, the hermit brought victuals, but none for sir Galahad, he said, “for he is fasting.” And then soberly the damosel thanked this good man of his generosity, but she would not eat, for while sir Galahad did fast so too would she. And that day she spent in prayer and fasting, and that night also, for so would sir Galahad.

And when the morning came, he rose and gazed upon the damosel as if he wot not that she had been there, and said sternly, “What is thy business here, maiden? And why dost thou bear that sword, which is not right for a woman to bear?”

“For that I must,” said she, “until I find the knight can wield it and rescue me from mine enemy. And that knight shall be a true knight and one of the best on life; therefore have I sought for ye, and sir Launcelot, and sir Gawayn, and beseech ye assay the sword and be my protector.”

Then was sir Galahad silent, until at last he said, “I am sorry, maiden, but I have a sword already, and am bound thereby to a quest I may not let easily. I must seek the Sankgreal; I cannot seek thy foe. Yet will I do my utmost should I meet him, for I shall know him by his arms, yet will I not make no promises, nor in no wise may I be thy protector.”

These words wrought much sadness in the damosel, for he seemed a knight of prowess, and holy. Sighing she said, “That may not be, for none can vanquish sir Domnall but they wield this sword and none other. Yet ye say troth ye cannot by my protector, for I shall have no man so but he love and respect womankind, and ye love only heavenly things.”

Sadly then she departed that chapel to seek sir Launcelot. And soon after sir Galahad went on his way, so that sir Domnall passed by that place unhindered.

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And so it befell that four recreant knights of sir Domnall, whose horses were swifter than their fellows’, fell upon the damosel with the sword as she rode out of the forest. So she spurred her brother’s horse which was passing swift, but these knights were not dismayed, but pursued her on left and right. And she was sore afraid, for they were more like wolves than men.

When as she felt despair tear open in her breast, for that her brother’s horse was nigh exhausted and began to stumble, she espied a knight that was full comely galloping across the plain. And he braste among her enemies, and with his spear he threw one down so that he rose no more. Then he draw his sword, and with two mighty strokes he slew two more, so that the fourth knight fled in terror for his life. Then he turned his horse, and the damosel with the sword rode to him and thanked him many times. And he lifted his visor, and said, “My lady, it repentith me that ye should bear a sword, for by it I may know that great shame has fallen on me and all knights. For it be our duty to make all lands safe and peaceable for maids and damosels, and yet ye ride here armed, and eke pursued by foes.”

And the damosel told him for why she bore that sword. And she told him of her quest, from Avalyon to king Arthur’s court, and of her dealings with sir Gawayn and sir Galahad, and her search for sir Launcelot.

“Then,” said the knight, “ye are happy, for I am sir Launcelot du Lake.”

So the damosel had great joy, and was relieved of the great of all her dread. And she prayed him to assay the sword. He were full loath, for he would not presume to achieve where so many worthy knights had failed, or be seen to raise himself above his fellows; and yet she prevailed upon him. Then he gripped the sword by the hilt, but all in vain: for he could nor shift nor stir it any way. And the tears burst from her eyes, not knowing now where to look for her protector.

But sir Launcelot said, “Have comfort, for though I may not be thy protector, yet will I accompany ye to some place of safety, for I see that ye are hard set upon by thine enemies. And for the love I owe all women, for often have they succoured me when I was starved for hunger or for wounds; and in especial for the love I bear my lady, queen Guenevere, I must do what I may to aid ye. And though ye be charged to search alone, it seemeth me ye know not what ye search, or where, and thus I deem ye cannot search; and as ye do not search, ye do not fail thy charge and ye go with me.”

And sir Launcelot was kind, and she was weary and affeared of her pursuers, so she consented unto this. And while that she travelled in his company sir Domnall dare not approach her, for fear. Yet hovered he and his knaves about her still, and oft amidst the trees she spied them when she lay down to sleep. And they followed at a distance when they rode, though sir Launcelot went as he saw them not. Then might she have no rest, but ever was afraid. And it was like the shadow of sir Domnall did crush down upon her at all times, so that she could not breathe; no matter that sir Launcelot did defend her, that was the best knight of any earthly man.

So it was that in this wise sir Launcelot and the damosel with the sword came unto a goodly manor, and there dwelled an old gentlewoman. And this gentlewoman did them much honour, and laid out good store of victuals. Then sir Launcelot inquired of any worthy knight adventuring in these lands, for ever would he help that damosel. And the gentlewoman could tell of some knights that were passing strong, and some right noble; so was the damosel recomforted a little, for peradventure one of these might wield her sword.

Then she bid sir Launcelot leave her when he would, for she knew that if she sought these knights then she must go alone, or other else she failed the charge of dame Nyneve. And he would have stayed nevertheless, but she said, “That may not be.” Then he departed full soon, for still was he bound to seek the Sankgreal. Yet might he never achieve it, as old books say, for the love he bore to women. Then let us leave of sir Launcelot, and turn to what next befell this damosel.

*

When sir Launcelot had departed a night, then was the damosel awakened by a cry without her chamber. And the shout was “Damosel, fair damosel!”. So went she to her window and espied below sir Domnall, and his men surrounded the manor. And she knew him for his arms were red, and on his shield was a woman depicted, that he was wont to call his own.

“Damosel, fair damosel! Know well there is no escape, nor will I suffer thee to leave me again, for both thy father and thy brother are dead for thy beauty, and I would not slay another if I may. And I hear that thou bearst a sword, though thou art a woman, and I have seen thee wander forth unchecked, though that thou art but a maiden, and this is not right in the eyes of the world. Yet I forgive it thee, for I know that thee do not so but for necessity, to find thy true protector. Then let me assay that sword, and I weet I shall draw it with little ado, for thou art mine. And if thou refuse, I shall storm this manor with my knights, and none shall protect thee but I slay them. And they shall be dead for thy beauty.”

Then she knew not what to do, so that she ran to the gentlewoman of that manor. And weeping she told her all that sir Domnall had said, and how she could never find the knight to wield that sword, though she had assayed the best knights on life. Then that gentlewoman held her, and said, “Dear maid, would ye have sir Domnall wield this sword?”

And she said full quickly, “Nay! For I hate him; and he hath but despite of me, though he say he loves me. And queen Guenevere advised me, let none assay this sword but would do so for pure love other else respect for all women. And otherwise were shame to that knight and me, and better were I look to myself than yield to such a knight.”

Then said the gentlewoman, “Maid, what is thy name?”

“My name is Brende.”

And the gentlewoman smiled, and said, “It repenteth me I did not ask before, for thy name is thy answer. For by Brende is signified a ‘brand’, and that brand is a sword. And by that I know that thou art the very knight thou seek, and shall thy true protector be and all women’s. Then look to thyself, sir knight, and draw thy sword.”

So Brende set her hand upon the hilt and drew forth the sword as easily as ye might write thy name. And she spoke with the gentlewoman of what she would do, then returned she to the window. And sir Domnall saluted her, and said, “Well, damosel, what say thou? Shall I assay?”

“Yea,” she said, “ye shall. But ye must come alone to the manor, for I will have none others about me when ye do. And if ye can draw the sword, I will yield me quietly.”

And so sir Domnall came to the door of the manor, and the gentlewoman let him in. And as he came in, Brende smote him across the helm so that he fell and moved not. And the gentlewoman closed the door hastily, that none might see. Then did Brende arm herself in sir Domnall’s arms, which fit her well. And she took up his shield with the woman upon it, and made it her own. And in this was no shame, for just so sir Launcelot would serve a nobler knight, when that he was besieged in the queen’s chambers by sir Mordred and sir Aggravayn and was like to be slain. And so ye may read in the book of the Morte Darthur.

Then Brende mounted her horse, that had been her brother’s, and dressed herself to battle those without. But she wore no helm, that they would know she was not their master. And though they were twenty, they could not withstand her, for she braste among them and slew those that would have killed her with mighty strokes, and the remnant fled for very fear. Then turned she back to the manor where sir Domnall lay lifeless, and thanked the gentlewoman full soberly. And then she departed for king Arthur’s court.

*

So I find it written that as she went she met again sir Launcelot; but he knew her not, but thought her sir Domnall by her arms, and so challenged her. And for she bore no spear, he let fall his own, and drew his sword. And they dealt each the other many a stroke, but at the last Brende gave him such a buffet that he fell down dazed. Then mounted she her horse and continued on her way. And sir Launcelot greatly marvelled, for now it seemed he knew that horse, and also the knight by her riding.

And so in time she came to sir Galahad, and he also knew her not, but thought her sir Domnall. And for she bore no spear, he came at her with his sword, but she held against him full knightly. So they fought back and forth many hours, but at the last she knocked him down. Then mounted she her horse and continued on her way.

And so as she went she encountered sir Gawayn. And he knew her not. And for she seemed sir Domnall, he dressed himself to battle that he might have the honour of rescuing the damosel with the sword. So he raised up his spear and spurred his horse to a great gallop. But Brende warded his spear against her shield, so that sir Gawayn was thrown backwards off his steed. And they rushed together with such force that he may not rise, but lay still and groaned. Then turned she her horse and continued on her way.

And so at last it befell that Brende came again unto king Arthur’s court. And she appeared before them all, but none there knew her. And she asked that she be made a knight of the Round Table, “for I am that knight slew sir Domnall the ravisher in defence of the damosel with the sword. And that ye may know I speak truth, here are his arms I wear, and this his shield. And here is the sword of that damosel which I have drawn.”

And king Arthur did so with all speed, for he was much beholden to this knight. Then would he know “thy name, sir knight.”

“My name is sir Brende,” said she, and took off her helm. Then was there great marvel, for they saw she was that damosel with the sword. And king Arthur was wroth and said, “Maid, why bearest thou that sword and eke these arms?”

“In truth,” said she, “for that I achieved the one, and won the other. And they are mine, I deem, for only I might wield this sword, nor could none other have taken these arms from he I bested. Also, I have bested sir Gawayn, sir Galahad and sir Launcelot each in plain fight, as they shall tell ye. And by this ye may know I am a true knight and one of the best on life.”

Then returned sir Gawayn, and after sir Launcelot, and they confirmed all that she had said. But sir Galahad by this time had gone into Sarras, where he died. And then the king and queen had great joy of sir Brende, and she of them. And she was a true protector of women and one of the best knights in the world. Yet for she was not wont to fight in games and tournaments, but ever fought in earnest against false men and recreant knights while that she lived, she is little remembered in the annals of the time.

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“Now that’s everything, huh? No weapons, no friends, no hope… take all that away, and what’s left?”

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