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On a day some twenty years after these events, King Arthur held court. Now, most people know that King Arthur became king by drawing an enchanted sword from a stone. Many also know that he established a band of noble heroes called the Knights of the Round Table. Some even know that he ruled wisely and well and brought peace to all England. But not many realize how long all this took. On this particular day, the king had already drawn the sword from the stone, but he had no Round Table and only a few knights, and he ruled only a small part of England. Many powerful nobles were waging war with him, resisting his reign, which kept King Arthur quite busy. Nevertheless, he was already trying to rule wisely and well, which was why he was holding court. He was hearing the appeals of the people and administering justice.
"Next case!" called Sir Kay, the king’s foster brother, who stood beside the throne, sorting out the crowd and keeping order. Two guards led forward a grimy knight in dusty armor. Sir Kay looked at his list. "Here, O king, we have a knight who is accused of killing a fellow knight, a certain—" Sir Kay paused, squinting at the records in front of him. "Oh, dear."
"What is it, Kay?" asked the king.
"He’s accused of killing our cousin, Sir Bullevere. Uncle Clovis’s son."
King Arthur said, "This is a serious charge, O knight." He looked disapprovingly at the knight’s dusty armor. "Though you don’t seem to take it seriously. Is this how you choose to appear before your king?"
The knight replied softly, "I did not choose this dirt, sire. I have spent the last three months in your dungeons, waiting for trial. Your dungeons could use a wash."
The king’s expression softened. "I see. I’m afraid it has been a while since I last held court, hasn’t it? You see, I’ve been busy lately, fighting the rebel King Royns of Wales. Well, never mind the dust, then. What is your name?"
"I am Sir Balin of Northumberland, Your Highness," said the knight.
"Sir Balin, you are accused of killing the knight Sir Bullevere."
"Yes, I did that."
King Arthur blinked. "You admit it?" Sir Balin nodded. "Why did you do it?"
"He attacked me."
"No, sire. I think he attacked me because I called him a nasty, cowardly brute."
King Arthur frowned again. "To provoke another to attack is the same as attacking yourself," he said.
Beside the king, Sir Kay cleared his throat. "Um, Arthur?"
"I’d just like to point out that, in fact, Bullevere was a nasty, cowardly brute. I mean, remember that Christmas we spent at Uncle Clovis’s? Bull was a stinker, all right."
"But you can’t just go around calling people names," the king said.
"Even if they’re true?" asked Sir Kay. "Why not?"
"Because it starts fights, and people get killed," King Arthur explained patiently. "Sir Balin, step forward to receive your sentence."
But before Sir Balin could move, a murmur arose from the onlookers. The crowd parted to make way for a tall woman, who strode forward wearing a long sword.
"Where is King Arthur?" demanded the woman austerely.
No one spoke. Since King Arthur was wearing a crown and sitting on a throne in the middle of the hall, this seemed rather obvious, and people hate answering silly questions. But the woman apparently expected an answer, so at last the king waved his hand and said, "Um, right here."
"At last! Long have I sought you!"
There was another pause. "Well, ah . . . here I am."
"I am Lady Lyla of the Outer Isles! I bring this enchanted sword, seeking the one knight who is able to draw it from its sheath!"
"Stuck, is it?" asked Sir Kay.
"I used to have a sword that would do that," said another knight. "Have you tried jiggling the hilt?"
"No, you need to tap it on the side," said another.
"Bacon grease," added a third. "That’s the best way to—"
"It is not stuck!" said the woman. "It is enchanted! Only the noblest knight in England may draw this blade, and for that knight it will come forth easily."
"Oh!" said all the king’s knights.
"It’s like your sword, Excalibur," Sir Kay said to the king. "No one but you could draw it from the stone. You’d better take this, sire."
"Very well," said King Arthur. He rose from his throne and went to Lady Lyla. She held the scabbard firmly in both hands as the king grasped the sword’s hilt and pulled. The sword didn’t move. The king frowned and tugged again, with the same result.
"Pulling harder will avail you nothing," declared Lady Lyla. "Only the noblest knight in England may draw this blade, and for that knight it will come forth easily."
"Yes, you mentioned that," muttered the king. "Give it a go, Kay?"
One by one, all Arthur’s knights tried the sword, but none could budge it by a hair. "Alas!" cried Lady Lyla. "Where shall I find the noblest knight in England?"
Suddenly a strange knight stepped from the crowd. "Let me try!" he said.
"Who are you, O knight?" asked Lady Lyla.
"I am Sir Lanceor of Ireland. I have come to join King Arthur and to prove myself to him! May I attempt the adventure of the enchanted blade?"
Lady Lyla released the sword’s sheath, letting it hang loosely by her side. "Any knight may try," she said.
Sir Lanceor struck a dramatic pose, lifted his chin, and said, "I know not whether I am the noblest knight in England, but I am willing to put myself to the test. Shall I, peradventure, succeed where so many noble knights have essayed this trial and . . . ?"
While Sir Lanceor was delivering this speech, the dusty knight Sir Balin stepped up behind Lady Lyla and easily drew the sword from its scabbard. Everyone stared, except for Sir Lanceor, who was too busy talking. " . . . t’would be a marvel indeed for an unknown knight to step so quickly to so high a rank, but—"
"What do you think you’re doing?" demanded Lady Lyla to Sir Balin. Her face was alarmingly purple.
"Drawing the enchanted sword," Sir Balin explained. "You see, when I was born, the Old Woman of the Mountain prophesied that one day I would be the noblest knight in England, so when you said—"
"I don’t care what some old wench said to you," snarled Lady Lyla. "Give it back!"
"No," said Sir Balin. "It’s mine now. I drew it. King Arthur got to keep Excalibur when he drew it from the stone, didn’t he?"
"That’s true," said Sir Kay.
"Give it to me!" Lady Lyla shrieked. "If you don’t return it at once, terrible misfortune will follow you wherever you go!"
Sir Balin shrugged. "Yes, I know. Can I have the scabbard, too?"
With a scream of fury, Lady Lyla threw herself at Sir Balin, but as it happened, Sir Balin had just lowered the sword to examine an odd notch in the blade near the hilt, and Lady Lyla threw herself right onto the point. It pierced her heart, and she fell dead at Sir Balin’s feet.
"Oh, dear," said Sir Balin. He glanced at the king. "That was an accident, sire."
"I know," said the king. "I was watching. Bad luck for her, though."
Sir Balin sighed. "It’s that prophecy again."
"What prophecy?" asked the king.
"The same one that said I would be known as the noblest knight in England," Sir Balin said. "It also said I would bring misfortune everywhere I went. It’s true. Things always go badly for me. It’s like when I met your cousin Sir Bullevere. He was beating a peasant with a switch for not getting out of his way, and I only meant to stop him from being such a beast, but then he attacked and I ended up killing him and spending the whole summer in your dungeons. Things always go sour around me."
"I see," said the king.
"So, unless you want to throw me back in your dungeons—"
"I don’t," said the king.
"—then probably the best thing I could do for your court is get far away so none of my ill luck rubs off on you. May I?"
"You may do whatever you wish, Sir Balin. You are free."
"Free? Hardly," muttered Sir Balin. Stooping, he took the scabbard from Lady Lyla’s body.
"Here, don’t I get a try, too?" asked a plaintive voice. It was Sir Lanceor.
King Arthur raised one eyebrow. "Why? Lady Lyla said only one knight could do it, and one knight has done it."
Sir Lanceor started to speak, then clamped his lips shut and stomped away.
Sir Balin turned to leave, but Sir Kay said, "Just a moment, Sir Balin. It says in the records that you had a horse and a sword when you were arrested. I’ve sent for them."
"Thank you," said Sir Balin.
"I guess you have two swords now," said Sir Kay. Sir Balin sighed heavily. "I’ll probably need them."