The king’s great sword descended. It touched the embroidered shoulder of Bedevere’s jerkin, rose above his handsome head, and fell, in a regal crescent, to the other shoulder. The sword rose into the air, fire glimmering in its steel. The lords and ladies of the court held their breath. The coals in their braziers glowed a baleful red, as if about to burst from the suspense, reflected in the orange and yellow masks of the court painted by the flicker of candelabrum, torches and hearth. The king smiled. Still holding his sword aloft, he said, “Arise, Sir Bedevere.” And it was so.

The knight rose, bashful smile crossing his handsome face, a childish twinkle in his eye, so contrary to his new status that it seemed rather the king had offered the lad a novel toy and not a noble accolade. The ladies were the first to break from the crowd and take up the young man’s hands. Calls of “Huzzah!” still deafening the hall, the women circled and chanted, “Tell us, Sir Bedevere! Tell us once more how you defeated the black dragon of Lincolnshire!”

“Well, I owe much to my sword, Gallsmacker, a mightier steel found nowhere but in the king’s strong hand.”

The king held his sword to the rafters as proof of the young knight’s claim. A lord sitting at the supper table squealed.

“There I was!” Sir Bedevere exclaimed, “in the scorched desert that bordered the county seat, where the black dragon, Awkdraw, slithered like a leviathan snake over the sands and stones. I found him, sitting in the center of a semicircle of cowering virgins. Each of them held the sleeve of a garish sweater, and with their free hands they twisted thread, up and down, in hypnotic syncopation. ‘That’s it,’ snorted the dragon, black tendrils of smoke curling from his volcanic nostrils, ‘keep your eyes on the hem. Keep it even, and relax. Very fine, Mary,’ he said to the youngest, a maiden of only seven years.” Sir Bedevere cocked his head at Lady Gwissom and cocked an eyebrow, perfectly matching the black dragon’s infamous leer. The lady covered her lips with her pale hands and tittered.

“From under the hill on the shepherd’s trail came the sounds of the villagers. I crouched behind a boulder, waiting for the dragon to pounce. I climbed in silence to the crown of that massive stone, shielded from view by a dead birch. I cast aside my shield and pulled forth Gallsmacker. The villagers appeared, two, one of the elders and a farmer I had met on my way to the giants’ courthouse. The first, the elder, hailed the dragon in his sewing circle. ‘Awkdraw!’ he hailed. ‘Awkdraw! We must speak to you about this crop rotation you introduced to poor Bilbo here.’ The dragon excused himself from the maidens and unwound himself from his ball of devil’s yarn. Slithering to the villagers, his mouth smoking, he made a most condescending ‘tsk’ing sound. ‘Did he forget to turn over the soil?’ Awkdraw growled, as if the earth had vomited up his vocal faculty. ‘Or has he started on the field I razed? I have told you and Parson Brown time and again, dear magistrate, that you must wait a season for the soil to fertilize. It does us no good to try and plant in a field of cinders. You must wait while the earth is still hot!’

“And I plunged!” cried Sir Bedevere. He slapped his gauntlets together with a mighty crash. The ladies shrieked with delight, and the lords shouted once more, “Huzzah!” “Off came the black bastard’s head, and up rose the cheers of the possessed women and the villagers so long held in thrall. Their cheers sounded like the mewls of sweet babes and I bid them cry no more tears. But the poor dears, like children, encircled the beast with their arms and their cries, as if they might kill once more what was adeptly vanquished. I waved them back from the corpse, lest it strike in its death twitches, and for their certainty, and for good measure, I thrust my sword many times into its scales. They screamed for joy and I left them shaking their frail fists to God and heaven, promising I’d ask no favor nor reward. For virtue, dear ladies, is its own sweet reward.” And taking Lady Gwissom’s slender wrist, Sir Bedevere led her to the table and poured her the first of the night’s manifold libations.

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