Friday, 25 May 2012
The Knight of the White Horse
There was once a woman who had a child. Her husband had gone to find work in another town and she missed him. But worse was to come, for before long her child was taken by the faeries and a changeling left instead. You may imagine her sorrow and her fear for her child.
But she quickly became less unhappy and more angry. She read about the faeries and one morning put the changeling into swaddling clothes and told it that she would put it into an iron cradle unless it told her who had taken her own child and where she might fetch the child from. The faeries do not like cold iron and the changeling struggled in its swaddling bands and wept. It snarled and growled and threatened, but the mother was adamant. So the changeling soon became meek and told the mother that the Queen of the Lake beyond the forest had her child.
The mother put the changeling back into the wooden cradle and surrounded it with iron and steel implements. That done, she took her own iron crucifix and a carving knife as well as enough food for the journey. She could not drive through the forest and so she must walk. She put on her boots and her wool coat and set out through the back garden. She was about to go through the gate into the forest when her long-haired white cat met her.
"Where do you go to, mistress?" the cat asked.
The woman was astonished to hear her cat speak, but told the cat that she was going to get her child back from the Queen of the Lake beyond the forest. The cat said that he would go with her, for he had a longing to travel and the mother might need his help. The woman did not know how he might help her, but she was glad of the company, so they went across the meadow beyond the gate and into the forest.
They walked and walked until the woman was very weary, but still she would not stop. The cat then left her and when he returned he had two pheasants in his jaws. Hunger gripped the woman's stomach and she thanked the cat. She stopped and made a fire, cooking both pheasants. One she ate and the other, the cat ate. They were most glad of the rest and the food. Now as they finished eating, beautiful gentle music slipped between the trees and into their ears. The woman felt herself relaxing and leaning back against a tree she began to fall asleep. The cat however growled and miauled loudly and hissed until the music stopped. He nipped the woman's hand and would have scratched her sharply if she had not awoken.
"They seek to beguile you mistress. Sing your own songs loudly and let us go on," the cat told her.
The woman shook the sleep from her head and they went on through the night. The woman stumbled from time to time but she did not stop. The cat helped guide her as best he could. The following morning found them tired and bedraggled but still moving on. Just as the woman felt tiredness seeping into her bones they came out of the forest and beheld a large calm lake.
"Be aware mistress, for this is the Queen's lake. Rest here and I will fetch food for us both," the cat told her.
She was only too happy to sit with her back against a tree and rest. Off the cat went to hunt for food.
Now the Queen of the Lake soon heard from her minions that the woman was arrived near the shore of her lake. She arose up through the waters and strode across the surface of the lake to the shore. Beyond the shore was a wide strand of grass and moss and there against a tree she saw the mother. The Queen's blue-green eyes showed neither compassion nor pity. She saw only that the mother of her new acquisition was come. She whispered a word and at her command the waters of the lake lashed the shore and climbed the bank to flow across the strand. Before it had reached the woman however it must stop, for the forest was not the Queen's domain. Even among faeries, invasion is not a welcome act and the Queen of the Forest was most powerful. The Queen of the Lake returned to her waters and sent her guards to watch the woman.
Before long, the cat returned to the woman and woke her. They ate two hares this time and the cat sniffed the air and growled. He knew that the Queen had been there, but he ate his hare in silence.
Now the Queen sent a knight across the waters towards the woman. The knight was tall and his armour shone like the scales of a trout on his lean body. The woman found him rather elegant and beautiful, but his look was stern.
"My most noble Queen of the Lake demands that you renounce all rights to her property," he told her.
It is not wise to upset a mother in any circumstances, but this comment roused the mother's fury. Still, before she could answer the cat stood before her, his fur bristling with rage of his own.
"My mistress has her own champion, the knight of the white steed and she will fight the Queen's champion and the Queen herself to regain her child. Nobody may wilfully break away a child from its mother without paying dearly for it. Go back and tell your impertinent madam that," the cat replied.
The knight was furious, but he returned across the waters and down into the centre of the lake. Not long after an old gauntlet was flung back up to land before the woman and the cat. Now the woman became afraid of what the cat had done, but the cat told her,
"Trust me mistress, I am, like all cats, not all that I appear to be. Come with me a little way into the forest and fear nothing."
The woman did not see that she had much choice and returned into the forest with the cat. There, in the shadows of the trees the cat bid her await him. He trotted off among the trees and in a little while a beautiful white horse appeared with armour and weapons draped over a fine saddle. The woman spoke kindly to the horse who answered her in familiar tones,
"Mistress, put on the armour and the sword. I have been a cat in your garden, I shall be your steed by the lake. Know that this armour was worn by a great warrior queen who was blessed by the Queen of the Forest. I was the Queen of the Forest's champion then and I am yours now. You shall defeat the Lake champion if you want your child enough. Once you have done that, you must cast his sword into the lake and demand the Queen of the Lake return your child to you."
The mother put on the armour and buckled on the sword. Her mind was full of fearful thoughts and her hands trembled with worry. Yet, she was also angry enough to want her child back. She mounted up onto the white steed and rode out onto the grassy strand between the lake and the forest. At the horse's bidding, she took a bugle from the saddle bag and blew a challenge to the lake.
The Lake Queen's champion arose from the choppy waters of the lake and rode to the strand to meet the mother. The knight repeated the Queen's demand haughtily. But hearing it put aside all the mother's fears and she drew her sword firmly in her hand.
The knight charged at the mother, but she brought her sword down on his with such force that she broke his blade. She turned on the white steed sharply and with the flat of her blade, struck the knight so that he was flung from his saddle. He threw aside his broken sword and prepared to meet her. The horse bid her stay in the saddle, so she pointed her blade at the knight and asked if he would yield. If he yielded he would lose the battle and his Queen would transform him into a fish. So he refused and now the mother was at a loss. She did not want to kill the knight, but she wanted her child back. Remembering her steed's words, she bid the knight give up his sword to her. He dared not, so she rode a little closer until she was between him and the lake. The horse pushed him step by step towards the forest, but now the mother drew forth her iron crucifix and the knight instantly gave up his sword and fled back to the lake. With a scream of horror he dived into the lake and as he touched the waters, he became a long trout.
The mother dismounted, but held onto the horse's bridle. Sheathing her own sword, she took the knight's and mounted up again. Now, with her heart full of anger she demanded that her child be returned to her. Nothing happened and in that instant, she hurled the knight's sword towards the centre of the lake. The blade flashed as it turned in the air like a fish leaping from the water in the sun. It plunged into the lake and a loud shriek filled the air. The waters parted briefly and the Queen of the Lake strode again to the strand. In her arms she bore the mother's child.
"Give me back my child or I will follow you into the lake itself and fight you for my child in your home," the mother demanded.
With a furious and haughty look on her face the Queen paused, then she set the child upon the strand and returned to the waters saying over her shoulder,
"You may take your child if you know which one it is."
As she spoke a hundred identical babies appeared upon the strand. The mother dismounted and the steed whispered a word. In that moment, all but one of the children appeared older than the forest and the lake themselves. The mother went straight to her child who reached up to her. She took the child in her arms and held it close, kissing the soft warm face and weeping with her relief. Then she turned and returned to the horse who led her away back through the forest towards home.
As for what became of the child, why she grew into a musician of great ability and talent, but she never once spoke of what she had seen as a baby in the palace of the Queen of the Lake. The mother always loved and cherished her daughter and the beautiful white cat who stayed with the mother into her old age.