I am so well versed in The Rules Governing the Ladies of the Lake that I could recite them backward on a dare, but the wisdom I treasure most was gleaned not from that vast, ancient compendium but from my own earnest blundering. To wit: learn the Rules so you know when to break them.
It took me half a lifetime to understand this.
Long ago I had no inkling. I was a feckless young lake spirit, living in damp contentment in a place called Looe Pool. My home was deep and wide, the limpid blue of an aquamarine. Because it was only a stone's throw from the ocean, I could hear waves breaking day and night--a steady, soothing sound, like a giant breathing through a stuffy nose.
Grand as the ocean was, nothing compared to my Lake, for its water was refreshing in summer, bracing in winter, and, unlike the surf, very drinkable. I loved its taste of ducks' feet and shale.
I treasured solitude in those days, so I kept the Lake hidden. It was a feat well within my powers, for as a Lady, I commanded significant magic, just as my forebears had. There are severe restrictions to what I can divulge ("A Lady Does Not Discuss Her Ancestry or Her Training"), but I will say that I could obscure most things (including myself) to mere shadows and could move from one element to another as smoothly as rain gliding off a leaf. Like other Ladies, I knew countless helping and hindering spells, and I need hardly mention that I was bewitching, with every sort of glamour at my disposal--from the subtler ones all the way up to the dizzying, the blinding, and the stupefying.
Moreover, I could see what was hidden in men's hearts--which had its advantages, as men are always trying to hide something. But it was a gift I seldom used, for in those days I avoided mortals, deeming them rough, hasty creatures with indifferent manners and unfathomable customs. They were boistous, too--noisier than birds but without the pretty feathers. So I kept my distance, and they kept their secrets.
Another of my talents (and an unusual one for a Lady) was the ability to work metal, which I could shape and forge as well as any cave-dwelling gnome. I made necklaces of silver droplets, gold armbands shaped like leafy vines, candlesticks, pitchers, ewers, and tongs. I went through a long goblet phase--fifty years at least. Eventually I moved on to weapons--but more of that later.
Finally, as I have said, I could recite each and every one of the Rules Governing the Ladies of the Lake, having committed the entire body to memory when I was ninety-eight. I was only a child then and eager to prove my cleverness, but my achievement (such as it was) proved to be of questionable value, for, having memorized the Rules, I was then bound to follow them--not only by honor, but also because the skin between my toes itched (sometimes quite painfully) if I did not.
This could be irksome.
Which brings me to Merlin.
Far too much has been said (and sung) about what passed between the great wizard and me, and almost all of it is irritating nonsense. I did not flirt with him, nor did I charm him into loving me. I did not crave his powers, and I most emphatically did not lock him up by turning his own magic against him. The truth--sordid and shocking enough to make me cringe for at least a hundred years--is far more interesting, and I fully intend to reveal it. Until then, I will say only this: Merlin did introduce me to Arthur, and in doing so changed my life forever.
Merlin called on me one spring morning, just as the water lilies were opening to the sun. He did me the courtesy of coming into the Lake, but after I assured him that we could speak just as well on land, we floated to the shallows and then walked ashore. By this time the thrushes were singing, a lovely song, very liquid, about mayflies and grubs. We listened for a moment, and then Merlin told me why he had come.
"The future king of Britain will soon be needing a sword and scabbard," he said. "Will you fashion them?"
I said I would. As I mentioned, a Lady who can work metal is a rarity--like a sweet-voiced goblin or a fairy who likes numbers. But I enjoyed the gift and never questioned it. Perhaps--and this occurred to me many years later--I was given it so that I could perform this very task, which was more important than I knew.
In any event, even if I had wanted to refuse (and I did not), I was disallowed. The Rule of Service to Future Kings was clear about that.
"The sword must be invincible, and the scabbard must have the power to stanch his blood if he is wounded," Merlin continued.
Good idea for the scabbard, I thought, hoping I had the spell for it.
"Both should be heavily jeweled," he said, "as befits a king," and I nodded. I liked jewels. In fact, I loved them like a dragon.
"And they must be ready in three years," he concluded.
The wizard's long, thin nostrils flared, as if the word smelled bad.
"It will take me almost three years to forge and temper the blade," I told him, "and the grip alone requires a year. I will need nine years."
"Nine." He drew the word out, as if considering the number; at the same time the sky darkened and thunder rumbled directly overhead. "The boy is twelve," he said pointedly, "and will very soon be ready to take the throne." A bolt of lightning hit a tree on the horizon, and it toppled in flames.
Merlin, Merlin, Merlin! I thought. Do you really think that roiling the weather will make me hurry? Think again! I gave him a smile with just a hint of glamour in it (the girlish, honeylike sort). "Nine years," I repeated.
I was pleased to see his face soften. "Nine years it is," he said, as if there had never been a difference of opinion.
I nodded. The sky cleared. We touched palms and bowed, and I began to sink into the Lake.
"You won't forget the scabbard?" he called.
I shook my head. "Be sure to bring him when you return," I called back.
"Done," he promised, fading into the atmosphere.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Damosel by Stephanie Spinner. Copyright © 2008 by Stephanie Spinner. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.