But a false knight with his followers was laying waste the country across the sea, and Arthur had gone to wage war against him.
"And you, Sir Mordred, will rule the country while I am gone," the King had said. And the knight smiled as he thought of the power that would be his.
At first the people missed their great King Arthur, but as the months passed they began to forget him, and to talk only of Sir Mordred and his ways.
And he, that he might gain the people's praise, made easier laws than ever Arthur had done, till by and by there were many in the country who wished that the King would never come back. When Mordred knew what the people wished, he was glad, and he made up his mind to do a cruel deed.
He would cause letters to be written from beyond the sea, and the letters would tell that the great King Arthur had been slain in battle.
And when the letters came the people read, "King Arthur is dead," and they believed the news was true.
And there were some who wept because the noble King was slain, but some had no time to weep. "We must find a new King," they said. And because his laws were easy, these chose Sir Mordred to rule over them.
The wicked knight was pleased that the people wished him to be their King. "They shall take me to Canterbury to crown me," he said proudly. And the nobles took him there, and amid shouts and rejoicings he was crowned.
But it was not very long till other letters came from across the sea, saying that King Arthur had not been slain, and that he was coming back to rule over his own country once more.
When Sir Mordred heard that King Arthur was on his way home, he collected a great army and went to Dover to try to keep the King from landing.
But no army would have been strong enough to keep Arthur and his knights away from the country they loved so well. They fought fiercely till they got on shore and scattered all Sir Mordred's men.
Then the knight gathered together another army, and chose a new battle-field.
But King Arthur fought so bravely that he and his men were again victorious, and Sir Mordred fled to Canterbury.
Many of the people began to forsake the false knight now, and saying that he was a traitor, they went back to King Arthur.
But still Sir Mordred wished to conquer the King. He would go through the counties of Kent and Surrey and raise a new army.
Now King Arthur had dreamed that if he fought with Sir Mordred again he would be slain. So when he heard that the knight had raised another army, he thought, "I will meet this traitor who has betrayed me. When he looks in my face, he will be ashamed and remember his vow of obedience."
And he sent two bishops to Sir Mordred. "Say to the knight that the King would speak with him alone," said Arthur.
And the traitor thought, "The King wishes to give me gold or great power, if I send my army away without fighting." "I will meet King Arthur," he said to the bishops.
But because he did not altogether trust the King he said he would take fourteen men with him to the meeting-place, "and the King must have fourteen men with him too," said Sir Mordred. "And our armies shall keep watch when we meet, and it a sword is lifted it shall be the signal for battle."
Then King Arthur arranged a feast for Sir Mordred and his men. And as they feasted all went merrily till an adder glided out of a little bush and stung one of the knight's men. And the pain was so great, that the man quickly drew his sword to kill the adder.
And when the armies saw the sword flash in the light, they sprang to their feet and began to fight, "for this is the signal for battle," they thought.
And when evening came there were many thousand slain and wounded, and Sir Mordred was left alone. But Arthur had still two knights with him, Sir Lucan and Sir Bedivere.
When King Arthur saw that his army was lost and all his knights slain but two, he said, "Would to God I could find Sir Mordred, who has caused all this trouble."
"He is yonder," said Sir Lucan, "but remember your dream, and go not near him."
"Whether I die or live," said the King, "he shall not escape." And seizing his spear he ran to Sir Mordred, crying, "Now you shall die."
And Arthur smote him under the shield, and the spear passed through his body, and he died.
Then, wounded and exhausted, the King fainted, and his knights lifted him and took him to a little chapel not far from a lake.
As the King lay there, he heard cries of fear and pain from the distant battle-field.
"What causes these cries?" said the King wearily. And to soothe the sick King, Sir Lucan said he would go to see.
And when he reached the battle-field, he saw in the moonlight that robbers were on the field stooping over the slain, and taking from them their rings and their gold. And those that were only wounded, the robbers slew, that they might take their jewels too.
Sir Lucan hastened back, and told the King what he had seen.
"We will carry you farther off, lest the robbers find us here," said the knights. And Sir Lucan lifted the King on one side and Sir Bedivere lifted him on the other.
But Sir Lucan had been wounded in the battle, and as he lifted the King he fell back and died.
Then Arthur and Sir Bedivere wept for the fallen knight.
Now the King felt so ill that he thought he would not live much longer, and he turned to Sir Bedivere: "Take Excalibur, my good sword," he said, "and go with it to the lake, and throw it into its waters. Then come quickly and tell me what you see."
Sir Bedivere took the sword and went down to the lake. But as he looked at the handle with its sparkling gems and the richness of the sword, he thought he could not throw it away. "I will hide it carefully here among the rushes," thought the knight. And when he had hidden it, he went slowly to the King and told him he had thrown the sword into the lake.
"What did you see?" asked the King eagerly.
"Nothing but the ripple of the waves as they broke on the beach," said Sir Bedivere.
"You have not told me the truth," said the King. "If you love me, go again to the lake, and throw my sword into the water."
Again the knight went to the water's edge. He drew the sword from its hiding-place. He would do the King's will, for he loved him. But again the beauty of the sword made him pause. "It is a noble sword; I will not throw it away," he murmured, as once more he hid it among the rushes. Then he went back more slowly, and told the King that he had done his will.
"What did you see?" asked the King.
"Nothing but the ripples of the waves as they broke on the beach," repeated the knight.
"You have betrayed me twice," said the King sadly, "and yet you are a noble knight! Go again to the lake, and do not betray me for a rich sword."
Then for the third time Sir Bedivere went to the water's edge, and drawing the sword from among the rushes, he flung it as far as he could into the lake.
And as the knight watched, an arm and a hand appeared above the surface of the lake. He saw the hand seize the sword, and shaking it three times, disappear again under the water. Then Sir Bedivere went back quickly to the King, and told him what he had seen.
"Carry me to the lake," entreated Arthur, "for I have been here too long."
And the knight carried the King on his shoulders down to the water's side. There they found a barge lying, and seated in it were three Queens, and each Queen wore a black hood. And when they saw King Arthur they wept.
"Lay me in the barge," said the King. And when Sir Bedivere had laid him there, King Arthur rested his head on the lap of the fairest Queen. And they rowed from land.
Sir Bedivere, left alone, watched the barge as it drifted out of sight, and then he went sorrowfully on his way, till he reached a hermitage. And he lived there as a hermit for the rest of his life.
And the barge was rowed to a vale where the King was healed of his wound.
And some say that now he is dead, but others say that King Arthur will come again, and clear the country of its foes.
-- from Stories of King Arthur's Knights by Mary MacGregor