“Damosel, said Arthur, what sword is that, that yonder the arm holdeth above the water? I would it were mine, for I have no sword. Sir Arthur, king, said the damosel, that sword is mine, and if ye will give me a gift when I ask it you, ye shall have it.” — Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur
Of the damsel and her other and their existence in the lake
In the evenings, we begged Merlin to hold out his hands, but only the night came. Merlin was walking the earth, dressed in frayed clothes, only wanting to take back his power. We remained in the lake. Of all his beautiful tricks, we loved him from a rock in the middle of a magic pool. Cold in a cave, we opened our palms, pushed back the water, and the lake held our secrets.
How the damsel and her other trapped Merlin under a rock and how he then forged Excalibur
A millennium ago, we lived in the world as Merlin’s companion and he lusted for our power. We could transform into a flower or a tree, lie for hours as rock, as field grass, or moss. Merlin commanded us to teach him this magic, but we refused because even then his greed was destroying the world. We told him to bury himself under a rock and after he did, we enchanted the rock to hold him. But he buried himself deeper, touching stones with memories even greater than his. He aged. These rocks were hurtled together from all corners of the universe—meteors crushed and remade into planets—and in them Merlin found the great quiet.
There too, he remade the world with violence. He beat stones until they burned red-hot. Merlin fashioned himself a weapon he called Excalibur, cutter of steel. Working with water and fire from the foundries of underground pits, Merlin plunged his hammer with the heaviest and slowest of swings. He took eons to craft the weapon, to hew it from fine metal, to forge it in the fires of the earth’s belly that he stoked and churned for centuries, the world folding itself around him.
How Merlin used Excalibur to free himself, punish the damsel, and create her other
Merlin, though he was aged, thrust the sword Excalibur and cleaved the rock that held him. He caused a quake we felt throughout the whole world. The mountains shook, the skin of the earth crawled backwards, lightning set the world ablaze.
To hide from him, we laid in a field, letting grass and wildflowers seed our forehead, trees to root in our womb. Rain gathered in our eyes, which swelled to the sizes of oceans. Our hair grew the length of a thousand miles, threading nations together.
But we could not escape Merlin. With Excalibur, he cropped our body back to size, shrunk our breasts from mountains into empty sacks. Retracted our limbs and fingers from the rivers and tributaries they had become. He returned our skin—the sites of deserts and ice caps—to pale patches of dust.
He divided our body and, from the excesses of our expansiveness, formed two of us. He lowered our twin likenesses into the very center of the lake and clothed us in ancient magic. Our own duplication was punishment for our infidelity to him.
When he made us, Merlin said, “You and the water are one.” He who charmed the snake which spoke to Eve whispered and we could not resist it. Above the lake, our bodies were as green as the day the world was born. Merlin submerged us. The color dissolved from our skin.
How the damsel and her other lost their name
The other—the Lady of the Lake—held the sword Excalibur above the water and we waited for Merlin. We had eyes as clear as glass that caught in the water as we glided, doppelganger swans of the underwater world. Our hair was fine as raven feathers, our new limbs as pearlescent as the moon.
Once, Merlin gave us a name—a word for the water of a strange place, a word that contained magic—but the day of our double birth, Merlin scattered our real name within the ripples of the lake.
Of the damsel and her other’s watery prison
We did not always swim in the lake. There were caves in the mist, a narrow canal we worried would take us to sea. We could not have lived in the sea—it would not have recognized us—so we avoided the canal and instead scaled rocks slick with algae and age. Over time, the rocks eroded into a throne where we sometimes rested our four elbows and reclined into the mossy rock face. From here, we saw the whole of the lake and the woods beyond, the little spindled pines that never died, that tightened closer together in the waning light, shielding the other’s pale, weapon-wielding hand from the darkness.
Of the damsel and her other’s banishment and their plan to escape
Merlin had reduced us so much that we had become too weak to balance the violence of his new world. “Witch,” Merlin called us. And also “whore.”
But even though we were not what we had been before, when men were still beating their quarries with stones, we were still necessary to the whole of everything.
How the damsel and her other killed the mother of a boy who would later set them free
We caused the hate that doomed a man.
What were we? We had the hair, the eyes, the faces of women, but we never aged. We wore clothes of samite—silk woven with gold and silver—our dresses breathed water and danced under the moon. Merlin’s pride was our prison.
We killed a boy’s mother as she drew water from the lake. Her boy stood at her side, his eyes watching the waves, the froth lining the shore. We saw his future link with ours—the restlessness that would burden his days and how he would wander alone and friendless, lying in prison with only our identical faces to haunt his dreams.
When we raised our hand above the lake surface, we smote his mother down and she sunk slowly into the water. The boy screamed. He tried to pull her back to shore but our current was too strong. We swallowed her—soft, limp, her eyes open—and smothered her in stillness, in weight.
We were shadows. We ate air. We were vulnerable to nothing.
Of the young king and his promise to the Lady of the Lake
Days passed. We walked the shore. The other’s forearm, a pale sliver of frozen starlight, illuminated the surface of the lake. We neither slept nor ate. We never tired.
One morning, a young man sailed out in a boat toward our hand forever grasping a sword untarnished by time or age.
We called to him from the edge and the center of the lake. “Who comes?”
“This is Arthur,” Merlin spoke—the voice of old magic, a dark ache we remembered.
“What sword is that?” Arthur asked.
He was not more than 16, gangly, curled hair and burnt-umber eyes.
“The sword is mine,” we said with one voice.
Envy coated Arthur’s face like a mask, wooden and garishly painted black and red.
“I will give it to you,” we said. “If you promise me a gift in return.”
“Anything you ask,” Arthur said. “By my honor, I will give it.”
Arthur rowed to the center of the lake. When he grasped the hilt of the sword, the other’s white hand slipped silently below a wave.
“Name your gift, Lady,” Arthur said, his hands jealously stroking his new treasure.
“Soon,” we said.
Of Balin’s imprisonment and the witch’s hand that haunted him
After his mother’s death, the boy Balin became a wandering, fiendish man. He drank and killed. He raped women and girls. He did not care.
For close to a year, Balin lay, weak and broken, sores spreading along his arms and legs, in prison. In the corner, a brown pile of wet hay reeked and the small scurry of rats echoed across the stones and wet bars.
Our hand—a witch’s hand—had cursed his mother and he had failed to find us again.
He screamed at the walls and swore at darkness and ghosts that gathered at the bars, thicker than fog, leering with glazed eyes and broken teeth. He clawed the stones until his fingers bled.
Of Balin’s most vivid hallucination
At night, we became strange and visited him as a woman clad in silver and gold, raven-black hair that hung past our waist, clear unadorned eyes. We stood in the doorway of his cell with one hand stretched through the bars towards him. We were dripping wet and shivering.
“Speak,” he said.
“I fear you,” we said, the sound of our double-voice washing over him even after our lips had stopped moving. “My death will be your doom.”
We turned and slowly faded into the stones, a pale sword dangling at our side.
How Balin earned his freedom and sought the King to offer his gratitude
The good King Arthur absolved Balin of his crimes if he would devote himself to the king’s service. Balin waited in the court. He wore rags, his hair long and matted, but he would not leave until he had seen Arthur.
Of the King’s victory over the old ways
In the evenings, the King’s knights held their faces to the sky and the myriad stars shimmered on their armor. The world resembled a stoney precipice from which the King rode but always felt hard on his heels. Excalibur glanced at nothing but fickle air.
Bound to his island by a churning sea, the King believed there was more beyond this edge. There was more to him, to his heart, much like a sound growing from behind a darkened window. Evidence of another knowledge.
The King’s knights circled each other again. Their horses brayed nervously from their cries. They would have yelled to the stones if they could have heard, and from their placid rest, unhinged from the soil, and sprung into the air.
The knights feasted. The King raised a glass and shouted, “Here’s to the end of the old ways!” He toasted to the end of the wayward workings of man or witch or wizard—those elements that to him so unnaturally altered what was good, sacred, holy—and rejoiced in the renewed vision of the night. He had not seen Merlin for close to ten years. “To chivalry, good knights, and the chains of our armor which link us as brothers and hold all our insides from pouring out!” To himself he also made a toast that a happy sun would follow the darkness that clung to his men, that rested on his head as densely as his crown.
How the damsel and her other attended the King’s feast and set a challenge before the knights
At dawn, the close of their victory feast, we wore a great fur-lined cloak, carried a large sword, entered the court, and bowed before the King.
“Have you need for such a weapon, damsel?” he asked us.
We did not lower our gaze as we stood to our full height.
“I am bound to this sword, sir, until the knight who can take it from me comes forth. The sword is called Vulcan, wielded fire, for in its wake the one to carry it shall meet his doom.”
One by one the knights tried its handle, but none could remove it from its sheath.
How Balin ignored the damsel and her other’s warning and won the challenge anyway
Balin watched and in his heart he knew. He was standing behind the servants in the hall as we pulled our cloak back over our shoulders.
“We have failed your challenge, damsel,” King Arthur said as he walked with us.
“Do not doubt yourself,” we said. “This is a test which has not been put to you. Every man must face the worst in himself. Few conquer it.”
Balin stepped from the shadows and kneeled at Arthur’s feet.
“My lord,” Balin said. “This damsel and this sword are familiar to me. And I cannot watch her leave without attempting—with your permission—her challenge.”
“You speak courteously, sir,” the King said, stepping aside. “I’ll not come between you and this sword.”
Balin stood. We touched Balin’s face and in his eyes we saw the upside-down reflection of our altered appearance. Today our eyes were flinty green, hair auburn and heavy around our shoulders. One last shape shift.
“You may choose to leave now and forgo my challenge. It is meant for one with a hate that burns his heart. The one who carries this sword himself will die at its edge.”
Balin swept the fringe of our cloak over our shoulder.
“Whatever will come, I meet the challenge gladly.”
Easily, he withdrew the sword from its sheath.
Of the King and Queen in the garden
The Lady Guinevere waited in the eaves, her long hair enfolded her breasts and she whispered as softly as the deer licking dew from the morning grass. She called the King’s name and “dear one” and “my heart of hearts.” Before the shadows crossed their path, and the sun burned at the fringe of day, Guinevere held his hand and told him she had dreamed of their child.
“A beautiful boy,” she said, lifting her eyes to the trees. “With your deep burning eyes and curling locks. Strong and good-tempered, playing with the creatures. And his smile,” she closed her eyes, a warmth in her cheek more blushing and pink than a rose, “lifts clearer from his face than sunlight from dawn.”
Their fingers entwined and they stopped to hold their breath, and the world with it. The King felt a thousand armies march into his chest. His lips hummed.
How the Lady of the Lake returned to ask for the King’s gift and how Balin smote her
In the morning, we returned to ask Arthur for the gift we had requested in exchange for his sword, Excalibur.
“I seek the knight who won the sword Vulcan.”
“He believes his mother was killed by my hands. The damsel who challenged him has deceived him so that he will kill me.”
“And what do you want with Balin?”
“To beg his mercy. This is the real test. He can choose his fate—whatever the damsel may say.”
But when Balin saw our true face—those haunting clear eyes, long dark hair—Vulcan burned in his hands and an equally hot fire wreathed his heart.
He stepped from the shadows once more, but this time he struck us in twain.
How the King and Queen mourned the Lady of the Lake
The King built the funeral pyre and laid the Lady of the Lake in himself.
Guinevere folded the Lady’s hands and rested them upon her silvery clothing. As the King observed Guinevere, he could not help thinking of her as such with his son. She was calm and strong, praying words of faith and mercy. The archers set the pyre to burn and the boat the King and the Queen set to sea, to float away across the untarnished legions of green-blue water.
As the light dimmed from the sky, the King remembered how as a boy, he used to think he could run away. He could have abandoned his place in the new ordering of the world. He could have ignored Excalibur, thrown it back in the lake.
But Sir Balin killed her whose promise he should have honored. And for this Balin’s sword would forever belong to him, but the King’s sword was not his own.
That morning the King had awoken to a dream about his death. He saw himself lying on the shores of a lake, a knight at his side. The King could not stand. He gave the knight Excalibur and told him to throw it back into the water. There the King saw it sink into the murky depths. Such a tool of pain and beauty disappearing, nothing of its ilk to ever be seen again.
How the damsel knew she was free once more
The Lady of the Lake was cut away, but my sin against Merlin was not forgiven. I felt him stirring, his anger coloring the sky red and purple.
When this half of myself died, a tremor traveled the strings of the universe. The stars flickered and folded. The water rose. My remaining self curled and uncurled ribbons of the lake. The water was warm and cool as it sifted in my palms, tracing the narrow arches of my feet. As I sank, the lake enveloped me, gently drawing me back and below. Back to the fishes with ecliptic eyes and fins wavering paths of infinity.
How Merlin restored his power over the ways of men
Merlin returned from his wandering. He cried out in anger so that Arthur and his knights stood and drew their weapons. Merlin took long strides around the table and pointed at Sir Balin, who held Vulcan above his head. “With that sword, I curse you to kill your own brother.” Merlin gnashed his teeth. “Get out, murderer.” Merlin touched Balin’s head and Balin disappeared.
Merlin turned to Arthur. “And the woman you love most will betray you.”
Of the end
The end will begin in the sky, the place where Merlin never looks. I will cause enough rain to flood the whole world. I will only return to the lake once more—to catch Excalibur when Arthur throws it back. I will take it away from the world and hurl it back to the stars where it will spin, hilt over tip, without end.
Jacqueline Kharouf holds an MFA in fiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in South Dakota Review, Fiction Vortex, Otis Nebula, NANO Fiction, and Numéro Cinq Magazine, where she assists as production manager. In 2011, she won third place in H.O.W. Journal’s Fiction contest (judged by Mary Gaitskill) and in 2009 and 2010, she earned honorable mention and third place (respectively) in the Denver Woman’s Press Club Unknown Writer’s Contest.
Artwork: Sarah Ann Loreth