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Arthur's Axe: a Lawyer's Tale

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The Knights were all assembled, and their chatter settled into an expectant quiet as King Arthur strode into the glade.  Sir Lancelot stepped forward and knelt before his king.  “My Liege,” he said, “we wait upon your pleasure.  Why have you brought us into these woods?”

King Arthur smiled, and spoke so that all his knights could hear.  “Each of you sits at my Round Table because you have proven yourself worthy, time and time again,” he said, “and I hold the least of you above the best of all other men.  But no sword besides mine stays sharp by itself, and to hone you all this day I offer a challenge to any who wish to please me and earn my special favor.”  He gestured at the young oak next to him, which had an axe leaning against its base.  “I have had Merlin make a spell to ensure that only the worthiest may fell this tree.  Will any step forward?”

Surprised, Lancelot stood and faced his king with injured pride.  “You would use us as axemen?  This tree is no enemy of yours, worthy to fall before a knight.  Yet since you command it, this meanest task becomes a knightly deed.  I will chop your wood.”  He strode forward, seized the axe, and with one powerful motion threw a blow so mighty that ten trees might have fallen before it.

The axe bounced from the tree as might a thrown pebble, and then fell to the ground from Lancelot’s numbed fingers.  The other Knights laughed as Lancelot’s features flushed red in angry shame, but King Arthur quieted them with a gesture.  “Laughing is easy when the failure is another’s.  Who will take his place?”

Sir Bedivere stepped forward and bowed.  “My king, I will.  If I succeed I earn your favor, and if I fail I stand with Lancelot.”  He glared at his companions.  “I see no shame in either.”  He, too, picked up the axe and swung it in a deadly arc, but yet made no mark upon the tree.

This time, there was no laughter.  This was serious business now — knight’s business — and a grim quiet fell, punctuated only by battle cries followed by groans of failure.  One by one each knight hefted the axe and swung, and one by one each knight stepped back with a grimace of defeat and a curse for a bespelled tree.

When the last knight dropped the axe and stepped away, King Arthur gazed at them all for a long moment.  “I see fallen pride today, but a standing tree.  Will none of you try again?  Is there no one to fell this tree for me?”

From behind the knights came a hesitant voice.  “If I am not being too bold, Your Majesty, may I serve you as you require?”  The king nodded, and a squire bearing a pack on his shoulders stepped forward and knelt.  “May it please you, my king, I gather wood often for my knight’s fire while he rests from the field or from the hunt.  I have no strength so great as he, and the sound of chopping disturbs his sleep, so I use this, instead.”  The squire drew a saw from his pack, and at another nod from the king he began cutting at the tree.  The knights were astonished to see sawdust begin to fall, and it was not much more than a minute before the tree came down with a crash and a rustling of leaves.

“What is your name, squire?” asked King Arthur.

“William of Riverbend, Majesty, but I am called Wat.  I am squire to Sir Dinadan,” he said.  That knight seemed less than pleased by the moment’s attention.

“Look at this man,” said the King to the assembled company.  “A squire only, yet he succeeded where you failed; not because he has greater strength, nor finer bravery, nor fiercer loyalty.  Not because he could best even one of you on the listfield.  He is worthy because he understood what I required of him.  I challenged each of you to fell that tree.  I said nothing about an axe!  Yet each of you picked up what had failed your brothers and hewed away, thinking somehow to best both Lancelot’s arm and Merlin’s magic with your might.  Some battles are won with valor and well-aimed blows, but others need eyes to see beyond what has been placed before them.  The worthiest knight learns to tell which ones are which.  Merlin’s spell was never on the tree… it was on the axe.”

From that day forward and for many years thereafter, King Arthur would often listen to the wise counsel of Sir William Oaksbane of Riverbend, who knew that there are times when the direct approach of an axe is best to solve a problem, but also that sometimes one must imitate the saw and come at the problem sideways.

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