No one knew how the square slab of marble-stone came to be in the churchyard. One moment, there was nothing there but the empty ground. The next moment, or so it seemed, the huge slab simply appeared. And what a stone it was! It looked as if it had been hewn from the side of a mountain. On top of it stood a great iron anvil and buried deep in the anvil was the long, sharp, shining steel blade of a sword.
It was Christmas day, and the knights of King Uther Pendragon had come to pray in the church. For this one day, they seemed willing to set aside their constant quarrelling over which of them should be King of Britain. The rivalry had been going on ever since King Uther died, with no son to succeed him. It was a violent rivalry. Each knight was willing to kill all the others in order to possess the throne.
Merlin the Magician sighed as he looked around at the brutish faces of the knights in the church. It was tragic that men like these should be the leaders of the Britons, for they were more interested in their own ambitions than in the welfare of their nation.
While Uther's knights were squabbling, Britain was in a terrible plight. Year by year, fierce Anglo-Saxon invaders were conquering more and more of the land. If the Britons were to stop them, they must have a King - a King acknowledged by all as their true and only rightful ruler.
That was the purpose of the sword in the stone. It was the only means by which Merlin could show the people who their King really was. When the knights left the church, they spotted the stone straight away. At once, they crowded round it and ran their fingers over the hard surface of the stone. They looked with amazement and admiration at the mighty steel sword. It was the sort of sword that could kill all rivals, and there was not a man there who did not long to own it.
Then one of the knights saw the words carved in golden lettering along the side of the stone. They read: 'Whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone and anvil is the true-born King of all Britain.'
As soon as they saw this message, the knights rushed forward, only too eager to pull the sword out of the anvil. They pushed and shoved and shouted, demanding to be the first.
Eventually, one knight barged in front and grasped the hilt. He pulled. The sword did not move. He heaved and hauled, using all his strength. It would not budge.
Angry and disappointed, the knight gave up. He was followed by another and another, all of them straining to get the sword out until they turned blue in the face with the effort. The sword did not move a single centimetre.
The Knights were furious; Merlin was standing nearby, watching them with that ' mysterious smile of his. The Knights shook their fists at him.
"This is one of your tricks, Merlin!" they raged. "You've put a spell on this sword."
"No trick, Sir Knight," Merlin replied quietly. "It simply means that none of you is the true-born King of Britain."
"Where is he, then?" growled one of the knights, a large man with a nasty look on his face. "If I ever get my hands on him, I'll fight him for the throne - true-born King or not!"
"You may get your chance, if you dare to take it," Merlin told him. "There will be a great tournament here on New Year's Day. Knights have been summoned from near and far to joust and fight with swords - and all will try to draw the sword from this stone. We shall see if any can do so!"
In the week between Christmas Day and New Year, the roads were filled with splendid processions of knights, all mounted on great strong horses, and followed by their squires and servants. They were heading towards the great tournament. All hoped to draw the sword from the stone and so be proclaimed King of Britain.
Among the knights was Sir Ector and his son Sir Kay, and with them came Sir Ector's younger son, Arthur. Arthur was only sixteen, too young to be a knight. He could not take part in the jousting, but he could assist his father and brother and look after their weapons and their horses.
By the time New Year's Day dawned, the field where the tournament was to be held was crowded with bell-shaped tents as brilliant colours. From the top of each one fluttered the flag of the knight who owned it. Each flag had its own special pattern and design. Arthur sat by the side of the field and looked around excitedly. He was always happiest when he was among fine horses and brave fighting men, and he loved the noise and bustle and thrills of the tournament.
Suddenly, Arthur saw his brother Sir Kay riding towards him. Sir Kay seemed to be in a great hurry.
"I've left my second sword behind at our lodgings," he told Arthur. "How stupid of me. How could I have forgotten it? Will you run and get it for me?"
Arthur scrambled quickly to his feet. He loved and admired his elder brother and liked doing things for him.
"Of course I will," Arthur replied. He ran off to the house nearby where he, his brother and his father were staying while the tournament lasted. Arthur soon reached the door of the house, but found, to his dismay, that it was locked. He banged on the door and shouted, but no one was there.
'Everyone must be at the tournament,' thought Arthur. 'What shall I do? My brother Kay must have his sword.'
Suddenly Arthur remembered the sword in the stone. It was there, in the churchyard, for none of the knights had succeeded in drawing it out.
Quickly, Arthur ran to the churchyard, clambered up on to the great stone, and pulled the sword out of the anvil. It was very beautiful. Arthur admired its fine, broad blade and the way it shone in the winter sunshine.
'Sir Kay will be very pleased with this,' Arthur thought, turning the blade from side to side so that it sparkled in the light.
At that moment, Arthur had forgotten all about the message carved on the side of the stone. But Sir Kay and Sir Ector had not forgotten. When they saw Arthur coming towards them waving the great sword to show he had done as Sir Kay had asked, they gasped with astonishment.
"Here, brother Kay," Arthur panted, somewhat out of breath with all the running about he had done. "Here is a fine sword for you . . . "
"Where did you get this?" Sir Ector asked Arthur.
"From the churchyard, it was sticking in the anvil," Arthur explained, suddenly worried to see the serious expression on his father's face. "Have I done wrong, Father?" he asked anxiously.
Sir Ector shook his head and put a hand on his young son's shoulder. His hand, Arthur noticed, was trembling.
"No, you have not done wrong, Arthur," Sir Ector said. "But let us go to the churchyard and see you take the sword from the stone again."
"Put the sword back in the stone, Arthur," Sir Ector commanded him when they reached the churchyard. The sword slid into the anvil smoothly and easily.
Sir Ector beckoned to Sir Kay. "Try to take it out," he told him. Sir Kay grasped the hilt and pulled. He pulled again. He heaved at it a third time. The sword seemed firmly stuck.
"What is the matter, brother Kay?" Arthur asked. "Why can't you move the sword? Look, it's easy!" He reached up, grasped the sword hilt and slid the blade out of the anvil with one swift movement.
Suddenly, to Arthur's amazement, his father and brother knelt on the ground before him. They were bowing their heads to him in reverence.
"What are you doing?" Arthur cried.
"Why do you kneel to me?"
"Because you are the true-born King of all Britain," Sir Ector said. "I am honoured to pledge you my allegiance and to serve you."
Arthur was dumbfounded. "Me? A King?" he gasped. "There must be some mistake!"
"No, Arthur," said a voice behind him. "There is no mistake."
It was Merlin. He had been watching everything from the shadow of the door. Now the magician came forward, holding a magnificent gold scabbard and belt.
"Take this, Arthur," Merlin said. "It is yours. I have waited many years to give it to you, for I have known ever since you were born that you, and no other, are the true-born King of Britain!"
Arthur was unable to speak. He simply gazed wonderstruck at the shining gold scabbard. He turned it over and over in his hands. Merlin watched him and for a moment felt sad that such a young boy should be burdened with so awesome a destiny. As King of Britain, Merlin knew that Arthur would not find it easy to bring peace to his people after so many years of rivalry and fighting. Also, the Anglo Saxons, whom Arthur would have to fight, were not easy foes to overcome. But all that lay in the future. Now was the time for celebrations.
"Come!" said Merlin. "We must tell the people that their King has made himself known at last. They have waited a long time to hear this glad news."