We are now in medieval times. In the seventeenth chapter of our Waking Beauty series, Sally meets some famous people and Basil is increasingly anxious that he might have to fight a duel with a knight.
Story by Bertie.
Read by Elizabeth.
Proofread by Jana Elizabeth.
Illustrated by Chiara Civati
Sally had not met anybody who could claim to be famous before, unless you counted Timmy Jones, the drummer with the Space Kids, who was a friend of a friend, or Danny O’ Shea, her classmate from school who now had a bit part on a TV soap. Merlin, however, was not merely well known, but an A-list historical celebrity down the centuries. He was more than just famous. He was a legend. When she first saw him, Sally felt a bit disappointed really, because he seemed to be just a bit too smooth to be likeable. She remembered what her mother used to say: “Never trust a man who takes too much care over his grooming.” Not to mention another pearl of her mother’s wisdom: “Don't meet your idols in the flesh, because they’re always a let-down in real life.”
And Merlin said, or rather, he almost purred in a silky, refined voice: “My dear, we must dress you in clothes that befit a lady of our times.” And without him adding anything else, a servant stepped forward and said: “I will show you my lady.”
She led Sally out of the tent and across the camp. It was not the most peaceful scene. Page boys were scrapping and play-fighting over the muddy grass, and on the other side of a fence, two knights were trading energetic blows with wooden swords. Sheep and goats were tethered here and there, and some of them were bleating noisily. Chickens ran around the place, and Sally could not help feeling sorry for some rabbits that were kept in small cages, presumably destined for the cooking pot.
The serving woman, who seemed a kindly sort, said to Sally: “The Queen is your size my lady, I believe that her array shall befit you.”
“Oh my gosh, do you think the Queen will mind me wearing her clothes?” asked Sally a little alarmed.
“She will not begrudge a friend of the Wizard Merlin, my lady.”
They entered another colourful tent that was guarded by two soldiers with pikes. Inside, a dignified old lady was sitting at a table and talking to a white haired, but still handsome man, with broad shoulders and a straight back.
The serving woman curtsied. Sally followed suit, though the effect was not quite the same in jeans, trainers, and a t-shirt.
“Your Majesty. This lady has come from Princess Talia to the Wizard. As is plain to see, she is in sore need of decent clothing.” Sally blushed and the Queen said:
“My dear, do not be shy. Step forward. Let me take a better look at you.”
And Sally, who was feeling quite jittery with nerves, almost had to force herself to walk up to the table.
“She is passing fair, is she not?” the Queen said to the knight who was sitting at her side. And the knight stroked his beard while he looked Sally up and down and replied:
“She is fair indeed, my lady.”
“And tell us what became of our beloved niece, the Princess Talia?” asked the Queen.
“Ah yes, Talia, she’s good, I mean well, I mean, she was, but now she is in great danger. I’ve come here with our friend Basil to find help for her, but we aren’t quite sure what we are looking for yet. Am I making any sense?”
“Perfectly my dear. Talia was our favourite niece. Her beauty and grace were surpassing. Her gift for music was a delight to us. Many a young knight had eyes for her. But we knew that she had befallen an evil curse. We did all we could to lessen its sting, but the magic of Morgan Le Fay is a match even for Merlin’s. They are brother and sister you know, but Merlin is ours, or sometimes I think that we are his. Now. Your complexion is a little red. But never mind. My yellow sunflower dress will suit you. It is yours. Help her to dress, will you Anya?”
And Anya led Sally through some drapes at the back of the tent, where they found numerous gowns were laid out over the couches, and still more inside wooden chests. Anya knew where to find the yellow sunflower dress, as well as shawls and shoes.
While Sally was changing into the unfamiliar clothing, a bewildered Basil was sitting down to a meal of roast partridge washed down with mead, a kind of honey wine. He was not feeling particularly hungry, but it was impossible to refuse the hospitality of the knights, who were convinced that he was the son of Sir Eric. Basil found it hard to understand their conversation which was heavily accented, and besides, they were all talking at once with their mouths full, and it was embarrassing when they tried to exchange friendly banter with him, because he could do no more than smile back. It was a great relief when Sally returned, although it took him a moment to recognise her.
“Wow, Sally, you look, amazing,” he exclaimed as he stood up from the table to admire her. He was truly surprised, because although Sally was a great friend, she did not normally have much of a wow factor about her.
Her yellow dress was trimmed with white fur at the bottom, and braided with gold around the collar. Her hair was covered with a silk scarf and a green gown hung on her shoulders.
“Well I feel a bit daft looking like a sunflower,” she admitted.
“No, really it suits you perfectly. You should dress up more often,” he said.
And Merlin, who was standing by her side, added: “Queen Guinevere has chosen well for you. She was a great beauty in her youth, and it pleases her to dress a young lady well. She used to give many fine things to Princess Talia, including, my dear, that amulet that you are wearing.”
It took Sally a moment to take this in: “Did I hear you right? You mean, that was the Queen Guinevere?”
“Indeed my dear.”
“Dead long ago. The man you saw sitting by her side was Sir Lancelot.”
A minstrel began to sing, and some of the ladies came down to sit with the knights at the dining table. The uproar was growing louder by the minute.
“Could we find somewhere quieter to talk?” asked Basil with a pained expression on his face. And Merlin nodded.
The inside of Merlin’s own tent was lightly scented with incense and bathed in wonderful quietness. They sat on cushions and a page boy brought them grapes.
“You see, we’ve come all this way,” said Sally, “but we are not quite sure what it is that we are looking for.”
Merlin, who was sitting crossed legged with a straight back, replied: “You must return to your own time where Basil will fight Morgan Le Fay’s Champion.”
“Fight?” said Basil alarmed. “I’m afraid I’m not much good at fighting.”
“You are Talia’s champion,” said Merlin, “and if you do not fight, she will have to find a better man. Either way, the battle will take place in your time, not ours.”
“Then why are we here?” asked Sally.
“You are here,” said Merlin, “so that Basil can learn the art of combat and gain the quality of courage. And we shall begin by watching the tournament, where you shall see skills of our young knights on display.”
After an hour or so rest, they made their way to the field where the jousting would take place. Crowds of noisy spectators were held back by ropes and soldiers. Guinevere and Lancelot were already seated on a wooden throne. The other more privileged onlookers took their places on an elevated stand. Flags fluttered. Trumpets blared. Basil watched with a sense of trepidation as a knight was helped onto his horse by two foot soldiers. He saw the chainmail, the shield, the sword, the lance. The man was like a human tank. Was he, Basil, supposed to fight somebody like this knight? When he was finally mounted, the knight struggled to take control of his restless horse, before spurring him onto the side, and riding over to the Royal Stand. He halted just before where Basil was sitting with Sally and Merlin.
“Oh cripes, he’s not going to challenge me, is he?” thought Basil. But the knight bowed, and called out:
“My Lady. If I may be so bold. Lend me your colours. Your fair looks will give me courage and I am sure to win the day.”
Sally couldn’t help smiling, almost from ear to ear, and she looked round to see if Basil or Merlin could offer her any advice about what she should do.
“If you find favour with the knight,” said Merlin, “you may give him your scarf to wear.” And Sally unpinned the silk from her head and held it out to the knight, who took it and tucked it into his sword belt.
By now the other knights, about two dozen of them, were riding onto the field. Sally felt a thrill of excitement, but Basil said in a confidential voice: “I hope there won’t be too much blood, because I will look silly if I faint.”
“Poor Talia,” thought Sally. “She has some champion ...”
The knights presented themselves before the Queen, one by one, and the supporters in the crowd either cheered or booed. It was not unlike a football match. The referee, in this case, was armed not with a whistle but a bugle. He rode among the knights, inspecting their swords and the ends of their lances, to make sure that they were blunt for the contest. But blunt or not blunt, you would not want to be hit by one of those weapons thought Basil.
Sally had been expecting an organised contest in which knights took it in turns to tilt at each other with their lances. In fact, it was nothing like that. They divided into two teams, the blues and the reds, retired to opposite ends of the pitch, and when the bugle sounded they charged at each other and met in the middle. From then on it was a chaotic brawl and at times it seemed like every man for himself. The swords clashed, the men grunted, the horses reared, the crowds roared. When knights were knocked off their horses, men ran onto the field to help them onto their feet or to carry them off on stretchers. Those who still had strength continued to fight on foot.
“Oh no!” exclaimed Sally, as her champion was pushed off his horse by a lance from behind. As he lay on the ground, it was clear that he was in need of some medical attention, and Sally was afraid that he would be trampled underfoot, but the horses seemed to know not to step on the bodies lying on the field. His assistants soon came and dragged Sally’s shining knight, semi-conscious, to the side.
“You’ll have to do better than that for Talia,” she said to Basil. But Basil did not reply.
When the bugle called an end to the battle, there were only six knights still left in their saddles, and three others standing on their feet. The Queen consulted with Lancelot, before declaring the reds to be the winners. The crowd cheered and the knights congratulated one another.
“And now,” said Merlin to Basil, “you have a better idea of what you must do.”