"Excalibur Being Reclaimed by the Lady of the Lake" (Aubrey Beardsley, 1893)
"Excalibur Being Reclaimed by the Lady of the Lake" (Aubrey Beardsley, 1893)

The Girl Beneath

In this eerie take on a central tale of the Arthurian mythos, the Lady of the Lake is reimagined as a surface-dwelling girl, transformed by time and strife into the jealous warden of Excalibur, the legendary sword of power.

My world is darkness. 

No. It’s dark beneath the water, but it’s unjust to say there is only darkness. There is also cold, and the slithering company of eels, and there is waiting: time stretching out until it’s lost its meaning.

I have lived in the lake for so long that I do not mind the dark, nor the cold, nor the eels. 

The waiting, or rather, the dread of what will come, is harder to bear.

I stroke my treasure. I am aware that one day, perhaps one day soon, I must give it up. The thought sickens me.

Once, I was an ordinary girl — bright-eyed and untamed. Overwhelmed by the crowd and craving the sweetness of apples, I slipped away from a village festival. 

I was known for it: Niviene, adept at escaping the protection of her brothers; Niviene who kept her own company. Aloof. Alone. Then, as now.

I remember the crisp bite of apples, the scent of summer hay and wildflowers. I remember laughing, plaiting cascades of blossoms into my hair, humming a tune meant for dancing as bare feet recalled the steps along the dusty road. 

Life was light and heat and joy.

There is no dancing below, no food to slake hunger, no beauty to covet. My hair has become blossoming algae, my skin the pale silver of the belly of a fish. The dress I wore is long gone, rent to rags and waterlogged streamers. 

I look almost like the nymph who imprisoned me. 

She was not always my jailer; first, she’d been my savior. 

I’d been snared, a hapless rabbit. They left me to die when they finished with me — tossed into the lake either to drown or bleed. 

I, tangled in torn skirts and too weak to fight, sank into the murk, and when she came to me I thought I must be dreaming, so near death that reality had lost its design.

“Shall I help you?” she’d asked, her voice the rasp of a whetstone on an iron blade.

I did not answer, too tired to be concerned about what could and could not be real.

She pushed my hair from my face, her webbed fingers tipped with blunt, dark talons. 

“You are so young. Surely you have no wish to die?”

She pulled me to the surface then, and I took a nourishing, gasping breath. 

“Shall I help you?” she asked again.

Her face in the twilight terrified me, and I could not answer. She stared hard, waiting, and then abandoned me to sink once more to the depths. 

Long hours later — or merely moments, I could not tell ± she returned, pulling me back to the world above. I choked and coughed and breathed the glorious air.

This time, she clutched the hilt of a sword, its bejeweled pommel burnished by fading sunlight. 

While I devoured apple-scented air, she explained her terms — her charge would be passed to me. I would wait, and when the right one came, I would bestow the sword.

“That is all?” I asked, when I could once more speak. It seemed so little in trade for my life, and I had been warned against making deals with the fair folk. I touched the shining hilt. “How will I know the right one?”

Her eyes were black, unblinking. “You will know.”

In her strange accent, she explained. 

Once this mysterious someone came to claim it, my task was to wait again, for the sword’s return. I knew I would not. I thought I would leave as soon as it was gone, possibly before, for what was this creature’s duty to me?

I agreed, and it was done. I would live. I would live, breathing water as air in the company of eels and fishes. 

Already I felt my body mend, my mind turning from the world above to my shining charge below.

“And when the task is done?” I cried, but she was already gone, a flash of scale and fin. 

I thought it would be easy. A short wait, a meaningless task. But the sword is not as I expected. 

The sword is lovely. 

It is warm to the touch, seeming to thrum with living energy. Each time I tried to leave, it called me back. It whispered its name, naming me, too. Binding me to it.

On those rare days when the sun truly shines, the light filters through the dense blooms of algae, bleeding green and gold into the depths of my lake. The sunlight catches the jeweled hilt of my sword — half-mired in the muck and yet a beacon when touched by sun. 

It does not rust nor tarnish; the silver gleams year after year as though newly made, the precious stones never dull. 

My hands reach for it often, sliding it from its sheath of mud and pebbles. I trace the pattern etched on the cross-guard and wonder if it’s meant to convey meaning or just add beauty. 

My fingers feel small, wrapped around the grip, and even underwater, it is so heavy. 

I am careful with the blade, having learned years before that it keeps its edge. The sword is magic. It has become my treasure.

And yet, one day, I must relinquish it.

At first I watched the people above, longing for the life I’d abandoned. Time blunted my interest, and now full seasons, years perhaps, can pass between visits to the surface. 

There were those, long gone now, who I wished to see again — my mother, my brothers, the girl who used to play with me in the meadow — but even they cross my mind but rarely. 

Longing fades to curiosity, and even that fades, until my whole world is just the humming vitality of the sword.

I imagine keeping it, ignoring the call when it comes. Perhaps it will not. So many years — centuries? ± have passed, after all. 

Surely the sword has been forgotten by all but me? Surely it is mine to keep. Mine to cherish.

The sword thrums mightily now, almost keening. I wrap myself around it, trying to soothe, jealously trying to muffle its call. I suspect the truth, that the time has come. 

You will know. The nymph’s words come back, undimmed in memory. 

I sheathe it in mire, swim to the surface.

They still pull carts down the shore road, still drop eel nets of nettle-hemp from their boats. Life goes on, unchanged, it seems, even after so very long. 

Near dusk, I peek out at them from among the reeds and sedge-grass. I see men toiling in the fields, even at this late hour. They sing songs with strange words, their melodies echoes of tunes I once knew.

A knight rides by, his horse bedecked in colorful livery. I sigh, relieved, as he passes. He is not the one. 

I sleep, or what passes for sleep now, and come awake with a start. The gibbous moon is high overhead, its reflection an imperfect circle on the still surface of my lake. I sink low, backing further into the cluster of reeds. 

There are men on my pebbly shore.

They are few, all knights by their glorious raiment. Each removes his helmet and one — his white surcoat emblazoned with a silver-threaded cross — kneels at the waterline. For a moment, all is silent, and I realize they must be praying.

Keeping to the shadows, I swim closer. I would see more of this man who means to steal my treasure.

A ripple spreads across the lake as though a stone were tossed — my sword, I realize, its keening growing more powerful.

He looks out over the water, an awestruck expression on his young, careworn face. 

I freeze, startled: He hears it, or feels it. He knows my sword is down there, calling him.

He stands, straightens his spine into a regal stance. 

“I am Arthur!” he calls across the dark lake. “King of the Britons! I have come to beg of you use of the sword Excalibur.”

Beg of me? Such humility in the voice of a king moves something deep in my soul. The sword thrums again in answer.

The moment has come, and I am paralyzed by it. Excalibur is mine! I would scream it into the night, gather my treasure into my arms and carry it off.

And yet, Excalibur has decided. My own desire is naught.

He will return it. The nymph said as much, that this man wishes a loan, nothing more. His own words convey this, and yet I do not trust. 

He will come to love the sword as much as I have. It captivates. A king is yet a man, and men fall easily to greed. He will spirit it away, keep it for himself. He will not be able to help it, once he touches it, knows it.

The sword keens once more, its voice nearly a wail of longing now. It yearns for this Arthur. A man’s life is brief, a part of me argues. A king’s even more so. I can wait — I have proved this — I can outlast this king.

“How have you come to know of Excalibur?” My voice rings across the black water, its power surprising even myself. The men on the shore fall back, crossing themselves in fear. Arthur does not.

He steps forward, his boots splashing into the water. 

“Please,” he says softly. “Your sword is my destiny. My last hope. My kingdom’s last hope. The seer Merlin foretold it.” 

He cannot see me, so his eyes scan the whole of the lake. 

“Please,” he says again — the plea of a man, not a monarch.

It is a wonder, my Excalibur. I believe it can change a man’s destiny. A kingdom’s destiny. I stare into this king’s face, searching for any trace of guile. I find none. He is in earnest. 

I dive.

The sword has shaken itself nearly free of its muddy scabbard, and I cradle it one last time before surging back to the surface. Arthur does not alarm me, but I cannot trust his men.  

Afraid to be seen, I keep below, slicing the surface of the lake with the blade. 

I hold it there, willing my wrist not to tremble, until I hear Arthur’s splashing footsteps, until I feel the startling warmth of his hand lifting Excalibur’s hilt from my small fingers.

“I am beholden to you, my Lady of the Lake,” Arthur murmurs, bowing deeply, blocking the moon’s glow. 

I sink back into the darkness, the cold, the waiting. I dreamt this moment would grant me freedom — but no. 

It is a short span, the life of a king.

And so I wait.

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Angela Teagardner

Angela Teagardner

Angela Teagardner grew up on fairy tales and historical fiction. She lives with her small family and two cranky cats in Columbus, Ohio. When she’s not at the keyboard, she runs about with her daughter’s Brownie troop and attempts to make pretty things out of stained glass.

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