What Women Want - Simon Heywood

North of Penrith, the M6 motorway runs among the rolling green fields of the lower Eden Valley, towards Carlisle. You could be forgiven for failing to notice that the motorway here runs through a land of mystery - within a dozen miles of Croglin, the haunt of one of England's very few known vampires, and many other marvels. But if you were to take the A6, and turn off it at High Hesket, or come the other way from Armathwaite station, you would find yourself passing a patch of rough woodland over a gate by the side of the road. You could pass it a dozen times and never look twice at it. There would be little to tell you that it was once the bed of a lake.

But it was. 

In the old days, long before the busy Victorians drained it, it was a famous place of illomen, and it had more than one name. Some called it Laykebrait, "the lake that sounds;" but any story that lies behind that name has long since been forgotten. Others called it Tarn Wadling or Tarn Wathelin, and it was by that name that the lake found fame in the tales of the great king Arthur, for there Arthur first found his personal limits as a king, while Gawain, his nephew and favourite knight, found his bride. 

And this is the story of how it happened.

Arthur went riding out one day from his court at Carlisle in the good Old North, that his forefather Leil had built. As the king was returning home from a poor day's hunting, skirting the shores of Tarn Wathelin in the gathering dusk, a giant ogre leapt out of the shadows as if from nowhere, and attacked the king with a club. Kings, in those days as in these, are slow to show fear, so Arthur returned battle heartily, with scarcely a second thought. Before long, the ogre had beaten him to the ground. The king surrendered and begged for mercy with every ounce of eloquence lying at his command.

"Mercy you shall have, Arthur, king and warrior," the ogre rasped, "but on my terms alone. For if you wish to escape with your life, you shall swear, by your throne, and your kingdom, and the glory of your father's name, that, this day twelvemonth you will come once again to this very place, and give me the head from your shoulders, and the crown that rests upon it, unless, on that day, you can answer the riddle that now I shall ask."

He was a remarkably articulate ogre. 

Arthur swore that he would do it, and told him to ask his
riddle. "My riddle is this," the ogre said. 

"What is it that women most desire?"

Strictly speaking, this was not a riddle so much as a question, but Arthur was not in a position to quibble terms, and was not in any case feeling particularly competent to venture an answer to the question off the cuff. So he agreed the ogre's terms, and was thankful to make his escape back to Carlisle.

In those dark times, Arthur's court was the glory of the world for chivalry and learning, and all that year Arthur went up and down it, and put the ogre's question to wizard and warrior, scholar and knight and priest, men of the world and men of book-learning. What is it, he asked them all, that women most desire? He sought the answer in vain. Perhaps he should have asked a woman.

Kings, in those days as in these, are men of their word at any rate, so when the day twelvemonth came round, Arthur quietly set his affairs in order as best he could, and rode out with a heavy heart towards Tarn Wathelin in the gathering dusk. Never had he been more certain of anything than he was, that day, of his own imminent death.

But before the king could come to the Tarn, it happened that a mist descended. He seemed to lose his way in the mist, and before long he found himself in the shadow of a great crag, which he could not remember ever having seen before. Nor was that all, for, faintly yet clearly to be glimpsed in the mist was the most extraordinary creature the king had ever seen. The figure was rocking and singing in a cracked voice. She seemed to be a woman, more or less, but age had bent her right over like a wheel, and so frail did she seem to be that Arthur thought the mist itself might have billowed straight through her. She was dressed in filthy rags, and her hooked nose and chin, warty and tufted, met in the space before her face, like the points of a great pair of blunted shears. Two long ropes of greasy hair hung down either side over sunken cheeks, and between them, where her mouth should have been, a single, staring, bloodshot eye was set, while on her wrinkled brow, where her eyes should have been, there gaped her bleary, shrivelled mouth, with one mossy tooth still clinging to denuded gums. She was laughing as she sang, and kicking up her heels, and she pointed to the king as he rode past.

"Look at the fool going to his death," she cackled, "for want of the knowledge I could give him. If only he would ask it!"

The king's ears pricked up at once, and he spurred his horse towards the foot of the crag.

"Fair lady," the king said - for kings were still courteous in those days - "what you say, alas, is true enough; but if you do know the answer, how shall I ask you for it?"

A sudden glint lit up the hag's eye.

"Bargain for it," she said.

"What will you take for it?" the king asked frankly.

"My choice of your knights for my husband, at Carlisle next midsummer's day," the hag said at once.
The king considered a moment.
"That is in my power to offer you," he admitted.

"Then I choose Gawain," the hag said at once.

"He's single. He's yours!" Arthur replied, greatly relieved. "You have my word on it."

The hag kicked up her heels and screeched.

"Then approach, o king!"

The king approached, and leaned in and down, and the hag strained until her loathsome lips were almost touching the king's ear, and she whispered:

"Ask the riddle."

In a faltering tone, Arthur asked: "What is it that women most desire?"

The words she whispered in reply were these: "Women want what women want."

And before the king could answer, she kicked up her heels again, and vanished in the mist.

"Gawain!" cried the cracked, ghostly voice as it faded in the mist. "Midsummer's day!"

And, with that, Arthur was alone.

With a heart even heavier than before, Arthur rode alone on to Tarn Wathelin, half-hoping that the ogre might have missed the day. 

There was no time to make further debate of the riddle, and evening was drawing in. But, sure enough, he saw the dark shape looming out of the dusk. His heart sank even further as the ogre stepped out of the mist, brandishing his club, a great knotted oak torn almost whole from the earth, and stripped of leaves and branches: a terrible thing, a certain instrument of shameful and agonising death. Arthur remembered that club very well, and king and ogre faced each other, in the dusk by the shore.

"So, Arthur, king and warrior," the ogre boomed, "you have kept your word, and kept the day. Have you learned the right answer to my riddle?"

"I shall tell you the best answer I have," the king said gallantly, "but its rightness is not for me to judge. But if my best answer wants rightness in your eyes, son of Cain, child of Gogmagog, then know that this day, in fulfilment of my oath, my head shall be yours, and my crown with it. My answer is this: "Women want what women want."

There was a short silence.

Simon Heywood