King Arthur was riding his trusty steed over hill and dale, inspecting his fertile land and feeling a certain pride in his own mastery. He entered a wood. The sunlight was filtered softly between the branches and leaves. The smell of the spring earth filled his nostrils. He looked around. He nodded in self satisfaction. This kingdom, this beautiful land, was his. He had won this peace.
A small sound alerted him to a presence. He crouched low on his horse, stroking the beast’s mane to hush its fidgeting hooves. He peered through the foliage and saw a white stag, standing erect and proud. Arthur squinted at this rare king of the forest. The stag turned its head to look him full in the face and, as he did so, Arthur shrank a little.
Pulling on the reigns of his horse he led him further amongst the trees. Arthur marveled at the majestic ash, its smooth silvery bark and small supple leaves. He noted how the blackthorn was in bloom and thought of the berries that would come later in the year. Bending, he swept his hand through the bracken fronds and wondered at the wildlife that arose and sparkled in the dappled air.
He whistled softly. His trusty hound rejoined him and kept pace with his horse’s gentle trot. Something ahead moved. The dog darted forward, barking, thrusting itself forward in defence but then recoiling. Arthur’s horse reared, flaring its nostrils, breathing hard, sounding a whinny in panic. ‘Whoa, whoa’, he said, patting the animal on the neck to calm it.
‘King Arthur,’ a mocking voice emerged from the trees, ‘King Arthur.’ Arthur flicked his head around and around, the voice was everywhere and nowhere. ‘I command you to dismount.’ Arthur clutched for his sword, but Excalibur was lying with Guinevere and instead he had only a small dagger at his side.
‘Who are you?’ he shouted back. ‘Show yourself, if you be an enemy, and fight like a man. If you be a friend, come share with me my food and rest while the sun is at its height.’
‘I am neither friend nor foe,’ the voice answered, ‘Not everything is measured in reference to your glory Arthur. Today you are King, and perhaps for tomorrow also, but this land, these places, mine own self, we are beyond your power.’
‘You speak with an arrogance that is not becoming when addressing your King,’ Arthur spat back. I demand you show yourself.
A fearful laugh rang throughout the forest; it was as if the trees themselves were scorning him. Arthur dismounted in a fury only to find himself standing up to his knees in a mist that stole the ground out from underneath him. The grey swirl thickened and drifted. Arthur strained his eyes. A darkness pervaded his soul and the glade.
He saw, just at the edge of his vision, a figure materialise from the mists. Arthur stood firm, but inside his spirit was as cold the cloud surrounding him. The figure advanced and Arthur could see that it was as black as a raven, as tall as the mightiest oak and as solid as Stonehenge itself. ‘What do you want?’ Arthur shouted, his hand resting on his dagger. Another peel of laughter rattled the leaves above him and reverberated off the tree trunks around him.
‘You trespass in my domain,’ came the growled response. The figure was closer now and Arthur baulked as he recognized the cast iron breast plate of the Black Knight. ‘Your rule of Albion is a gift granted by the Gods, yet you, Arthur Pendragon, forget your loyalties and debt.’ Arthur licked his lips nervously. It was indeed true that he had neglected his duties at Glastonbury these past few years. Merlin had reported that Avalon was receding further and further into the mists. ‘You consider that you own this land Arthur, that you have dominion over that which you have fought for and won. You fail to remember, that as a mere mortal, you only borrow the inheritance of your children.’
‘Have you drawn me here to warn me of this?’ Arthur asked.
‘I did not bring you Arthur, you trampled your own way through these parts, believing you have the same freedom as a winged bird or the swift stag, yet you are man in body and mind, you are clay, you are flesh, you are nothing more than a waiting corpse.’
‘What do you want of me?’
‘I want nothing of you Arthur, you have nothing which I need or desire. Your pride makes you conceited.’
‘My pride …’ Arthur began.
‘Your pride,’ the Black Knight interrupted ‘Blinds you as surely as this dragon’s mist does. You think you are a king of vision, but instead you are a small man, lost in the forest, whose kingdom is now at the mercy of those you have chosen to make your enemies. We who put you on your throne will not stand for such rude dismissal. We will ensure you are punished in the eyes of your people, and they will desert you Arthur, in the same way as you have deserted us and the old ways.’
Now it was Arthur’s turn to laugh, but the noises that escaped from his throat sounded high and false. ‘Laugh as you wish,’ the Black Knight mocked, ‘Because this curse of dragon’s mist will cloud all judgments before you, it will suffocate your sovereignty and it will provide a smoke screen for those who plot against you.’
‘Sir, I am a warrior, much like you, and I am a proud man. I have united this kingdom …’
‘You have betrayed this kingdom. Even now your knights at court sit flabby. You do not worship this land, you hold it in no esteem, instead you hunt and play your jousting games for the amusement of your women. You do nothing except consume and rejoice in your own pleasures. Your belly and soul are filled with self satisfaction. You are not a king; you are a stupid hog that snuffles in a trough silted with enjoyment and gratification.’
‘There is no war,’ Arthur protested.
‘There is always a war,’ the Black Knight thundered, ‘As long there is something worth fighting for. Only the senseless and satisfied would claim otherwise.’
‘My subjects choose me as their King because I display a steady wisdom,’ Arthur answered angrily.
‘Wisdom? Wisdom? Where was your wisdom when you chose to ride out today without your sword?’
‘You cannot even fight; you are a mute kitten before me.’
‘I am your King and I command you to lift these cursed mists and leave me in peace to do my duty.’
‘You are not worthy to make demands of me, but I will concede if you can prove your wisdom and worth by answering one simple question.’
‘It is not your place, Knight, to interrogate me.’
‘Perhaps you speak the truth, but it is my power.’
Arthur hung his head. All substance around him crept with the dark mist which clung to branch and leaf. The shadows dripped with damp threat. A chill flowed over and through him. He looked at the Black Knight, who stood stern and unmoving. ‘What is the question?’ he said.
‘One which should give your wisdom no trouble at all,’ the Black Knight mocked, ‘Pray tell me what is the one thing that all women want.’
‘You are asking me this?’ Arthur said incredulously.
‘I am asking you that, and demanding your answer by noon tomorrow. If you are able to solve this puzzle which has troubled men since the dawn of time, I will lift the mist.’
Arthur eyed the Black Knight cautiously. ‘I will do your bidding, but I must consult with my knights before giving an answer.’
‘A wise move Arthur. I shall wait for you by the tallest elm. When the sun is high and the birds need sleep, then I shall expect you.’
Arthur approached Camelot through a sea of mist. He had galloped hard and fast and his horse was breathing heavy. The encroaching darkness had caused the guards at the gate to light torches which spilled their yellow light into the murk. He did not see the old woman until he was almost on top of her and he had to pull his horse up hard to avoid trampling her.
She was dressed poorly, a rough cloak covering a thin shift and a scarf tied tightly around her bony skull. The flesh on her face had retreated as age had advanced. Her cheeks were hollow, but her eyes shone with a keen blackness. ‘An apple, would Sir like to buy an apple?’
‘No, no,’ he waved her away impatiently.
‘Sir, just one apple to put a coin into the hand of an old woman.’ Arthur paused and stared into her face, noting the thin, bloodless lips and the peg like teeth. Her features had swelled and softened. He imagined how she would look in death, vaguely pulpy he determined, as do all women that youth has deserted. He thought of Guinevere and her rosy skin, still alive with the force of life that pulsed through her veins. Sweet Guinevere … and then something occurred to him.
‘I will give you a gold coin if you can tell me to the answer to a riddle.’
The old woman’s eyes flashed and she grinned wide. ‘This must be a question that troubles you deeply Sir for you to offer such a reward.’
‘Indeed, it is a matter of some importance.’
‘How may that be?’
Arthur studied the woman in front of him. She seemed to be a loyal citizen going about her lawful duty. He had always been honest with his people. If he explained about the Black Knight, the dragon’s mist and the curse, perhaps she would be better disposed to helping him.
The old woman nodded sagely as Arthur told her of his predicament. ‘I believe I can help you Sir, but in payment for my services I wish you to grant me the hand in marriage of one of your Knights.’ Arthur was startled, but fearing failure, as it was already sunset and he needed an answer by noon the following day, he agreed to the woman’s contract.
The Round Table was laden with food when Arthur entered, the old woman following closely behind him. As was common, his Knights stood to greet him, enquiring after his health, the enjoyment of his ride and whether they could expect Guinevere’s presence tonight. ‘My Knights, we have important business to attend to before we can eat.’ The men fell silent as Arthur’s deep baritone voice reverberated around the hall. ‘Look to the land and you will see a dragon’s mist stealing across the ground.’ The men turned to each other, nodding in acknowledgement. ‘This is the curse of the Black Knight.’ Hands reached to scabbards. ‘But I have made a pact with him.’ Eyebrows were raised. ‘I must answer his riddle, by noon tomorrow, to secure freedom from his swathing mist.’
‘A riddle Arthur?’ Sir Pellas asked.
‘Indeed, and one that troubles me greatly,’ Arthur replied, ‘For in the questioning it appears simple, but in the answering it seems most complicated.’
‘And what is this riddle?’ Pellas continued.
‘What is the one thing that a woman wants?’ Arthur said it simply, but shrugged his shoulders as he spoke. A peel of laughter rippled throughout the hall.
‘A simple task’, Sir Bors said, sticking out his chest and chin. ‘A woman wants … She wants a Knight for a husband.’ The old woman, who had been standing a respectful distance behind Arthur, edged forwards and touched his arm lightly.
‘Yes, yes,’ said Arthur as he recalled her presence. ‘And this hag here, she claims to know the answer.’
‘Well let her tell us then,’ said Sir Galahad. She smiled wide and toothless, her raven black eyes twinkling in the candlelight that threw short flickering shadows into the hall.
‘She has her price,’ Arthur declared, ‘She will only solve the riddle for us if a Knight from my Round Table will pledge his hand to her in marriage.’ Ribald laughter echoed off the stone walls, but even in their amusement some of the Knights drew back from the spectre of the shriveled crone.
‘But we may attempt to solve the riddle ourselves before taking such a drastic step?’ Sir Gareth questioned.
‘You can try,’ the hag answered, ‘But you will fail, because no man, in all the histories of living and loving, has been able to satisfy this need of woman.’ The Knights nudged each other and winked.
‘Arthur, you should ask Guinevere,’ Sir Galahad interjected. A moment of uncomfortable silence followed. Arthur shot a glance at Lancelot, who looked immediately at the stone flagged floor and shuffled from one foot to another.
‘I think Guinevere does not need to be concerned with such matters of state,’ Arthur replied stiffly. Lancelot raised his eyes and was grateful to note that he did not need to avoid Arthur’s stare. He had been avoiding Arthur’s stare for some days now …
‘So which of you Knights will make an honest woman of me?’ The crone asked blatantly.
‘Before my men have need to make such a commitment, Madam, perhaps it would be as well for us to attempt the question ourselves. Should I require your hag’s wisdom then I will surely stand by the bargain I made with you. For now, please seat yourself comfortably and partake of the feast laid out before you.’ The woman was disgruntled and she mumbled sticky invectives as she proceeded to the table and tore a chicken virtually in two.
‘Galahad, what say you? What does a woman want?’
‘From my experience Sire, women have the same wants and needs as all of us, food, shelter and warmth. We are all but animals.’
‘For sure, for sure Galahad, but there must be some difference between what a woman wants and what a woman needs. Lancelot, what say you?’
Lancelot made a small cough to clear his throat, ‘I believe a woman wants nothing more than love.’
Arthur fixed Lancelot with a steel eyed glare. ‘Perhaps you speak the truth Lancelot, but it seems to me that, in that respect, women scarcely know what they want. It is possible to love a woman and for her to reject such investiture, for her dash that fragile worship against cliffs until the love is shattered into a million tiny pieces.’ A red glow crept across Lancelot’s dark cheeks. Arthur snapped his head round to Gawain, ‘What say you?’
Gawain stroked his slight beard. ‘Security Sire, a woman wants to feel safe.’
‘Why then do they risk everything on a whim?’ Arthur said, ‘Why are they so fickle in their desires without considering consequence.’ Gawain shrugged. ‘What think you Sir Percival?’
‘Women want comfort and luxury.’
Arthur considered this for a moment, ‘Dresses and pretty sleeping chambers?’ Percival nodded. ‘I cannot believe that all women want is decoration,’ Arthur replied, ‘We have many women at Court who have such fancies and baubles, yet still they natter and chatter and moan and whine. Then, there are the nuns of Glastonbury and our sisters in Avalon, these women forfeit such comforts in preference for something other. No. No, women cannot be so easily bought. Sir Lionel, have you any light to shed on this matter?’
‘Power Sire, all the women I am familiar with are hungry for power.’
Arthur laughed. ‘You are unfortunate indeed Sir. Methinks the women you are familiar with do you a great disservice. It is true that some women feel compelled to control, but others I know of are happy to share. We have to answer the question as to what every woman wants, not think only of what some women want.’ Lionel sighed and blushed and moved towards the table in order to help himself to more wine.
The questioning session continued apace. The Knights suggested various solutions to the problem, more often than not illustrating their own ignorance rather than shedding any light on the nature of women. ‘Money?’ No, no. ‘Protection?’ From men generally. ‘Pleasure?’ From men generally it would seem. ‘Children?’ To become men generally. The night was almost worn away before Arthur considered he would have to take the old hag at her word, so calling his Knights to order he asked ‘Who will marry this crone, so that we may answer the riddle and raise the dragon’s mist from our land?’ His men became mice, each and every one of them suddenly discovering an intimate interest in his sword or his empty plate or his boots. Arthur banged his fist hard on the table and eventually it was loyal Gawain who stepped forwards ‘For King and country.’
The ceremony was concluded in minutes. Although there was some snickering at the back, most of the Knights wished to preserve a quiet calm that would enable the ritual to pass off quickly. Gawain seemed flushed with heat, his hands shaking and his hair ruffled. Arthur smiled encouragingly at him as he exchanged vows with the hag. Lancelot slapped him heartily on the back when the ceremony was completed. Others amongst the Knights offered him congratulations and bawdy advice. Gawain gritted his teeth as he led his bride from the hall and to the marriage chamber.
Never had a door seemed so heavy to Gawain, but he knew his duty and he was a man of his word. Inside the grey stone cell he attempted to approach his wife with a friendly smile, yet as he looked at her cracked face and rotten teeth he found himself physically repulsed and it was all he could do not to back away from her. She in turn folded down the bed covers, running her rough old hands across the linen and furs. Gawain stood behind her, thinking up the energy to place his hands on her hips. He had not imagined his first time would be like this. He had thought he would want to touch the woman he was to lay with.
She spun round to face him. ‘Sire. I am a woman of some age and some experience. What you do not know I will teach you.’ Gawain baulked, a long, slow shiver pervading his whole body. ‘In recognition of your generosity I am able to grant you a single wish.’ Gawain’s eyes flickered. ‘I can be the most beautiful woman you have ever beheld, but only for half the time. You may have the maiden at night and the hag during the day or the hag at night and the maiden during the day.’
Gawain was taken aback by this revelation, and also intrigued. Indeed, if this old crone had the power of transformation it could well be that he was the luckiest man in Camelot. He licked his lips. ‘Madam, I would wish that you were beautiful at night.’
She scowled. ‘An answer I expected. It is no surprise to me Sire that you desire a beauty in your bed for your pleasure. After all, once you have had your wicked way with me you would then be free to ignore my aged ugliness during the day.’
Gawain was a kindly man and he did not wish to offend his wife. ‘I beg your forgiveness lady, perhaps it would indeed be more agreeable to you if you were fair during the day and your ugliness hidden by the dark of night.’
‘Aha,’ the hag shot back, ‘So you would have me as your trophy in front of your friends and their women, whilst at night hiding my face and body underneath the covers?’
Gawain was confused. This had indeed been a very confusing evening. ‘Wife, it would seem I am unable to provide you with a satisfactory answer to your question. I have only two choices, yet whichever I choose seems to offend your sensibilities.’
‘Consider your options more closely,’ the old woman said, ‘There are always more choices than those which present as obvious.’
Gawain studied her face, noting the life which had been scratched into her features. ‘I am unable to understand you in this matter my lady, yet I am certain there is an answer that would please you.’
‘Indeed,’ she smiled, ‘You are ignorant of even what is before you.’
‘Given my ignorance and your wisdom, perhaps it would be prudent if you were to choose then,’ Gawain said somewhat irritably.
‘And now you have identified a further alternative,’ the old woman said. A frown of annoyance flashed briefly on Gawain’s brow. ‘For it is true,’ she continued, ‘The choice was presented as yours to make, but you found yourself lacking in both wit and understanding. Consider this though Sire, as a woman perhaps I did not want that you should choose for me, rather that I should be allowed to choose for myself.’
‘You try my patience wife, with your riddleish talk of wit and understanding.’
‘The only consideration of any worth,’ she persisted. “Is that women wish to be able to choose for ourselves, in all matters, in all things, for our own choices to direct our lives and guide our lovings. For too long we have laboured under the choices of men, who, through no fault of their own, are incompetent when it comes to our dreams and desires.’
‘Then – I have at last satisfied your desires?’
‘More than that Sir Gawain, for if men see fit to give us the right to choose then they shall also see that we are happy. Now go tell your King, your wife has honoured her pledge and is satisfied with her husband, who at least had the wit to ask his woman her preference.’
‘Let it be known that this is the answer to the question of the Black Knight, the question that all Arthur’s men failed to answer, and further let it be known that only women can claim to know what a woman really wants – freewill, this is all, it is that simple.’