The story of the death of Sir Percival's sister, as presented in the Arthurian tales, is a mysterious one. In it, Percival and his sister (who is never named)--in some versions in the company of Sir Bors and Sir Galahad--come across a castle where it is said that there is a custom for every passing maiden to give a "dishful of blood" for the "healing of a Lady." Percival's sister agrees to do this, but then dies in the process, and her body is set adrift in a barge at her behest, where in most versions it is found by Sir Lancelot. We are given to understand that the woman's sacrifice did, indeed, accomplish the "healing of the Lady."
In the stories of Sir Balin le Savage--the knight who struck the Dolorous Stroke that maimed the Grail King and set off the Quest for the Grail--Balin first arrives at the Grail King's castle in the company of a damsel he has met in the forest, a damsel whose original companion has been killed by Garlon, the "invisible knight" who is the Grail King's brother. It is the killing of this knight by Garlon that causes Balin to attack Garlon and kill him, thus sending him into combat with the Grail King, at the end of which he strikes the Dolorous Stroke with the Sacred Lance.
When Balin and the damsel--who also is never named--first enter this castle, though, the woman is seized by squires; Balin thinks they mean to kill her, and prepares to attack them. He is told, however, of the custom of the "silver dishful of blood" which must be donated for the healing of the Lady. The woman gives her consent, gives the blood, and does not die--but the "Lady" is not healed by her efforts. Nowhere are we given any details about this mysterious "Lady."
Later, though, after Balin strikes the Dolorous Stroke and much of the castle falls into ruin, he finds the damsel lying dead. It is not made clear whether she has died in the collapse of the castle or whether she was killed in the fighting which preceded the Dolorous Stroke.
At a steady pace, two horses, a white charger and a red palfrey, moved down the road that led between the two high hills. Astride the charger was a knight in full dress; the palfrey bore a damsel, beautifully clothed in reds and yellows, her carriage suggesting nobility. Both of them looked up at the hills as they went by. These slopes were covered with trees, but the trees looked weak and frail, and the grasses along the sides of the road were withered and brown. The horses crossed a small stream that cut through the roadway; there was only a trickle of water, and what water there was looked brown and murky.
"What has happened here, Percival?" the maiden asked. "The lands hereabouts are green and full, why are these hills brown and lifeless?"
Lifting his visor a little higher, Percival turned his head toward her. He smiled, as he always smiled when he saw his younger sister's face--as indeed, most men did when they gazed upon Igraine of Gales. Bright blue-green eyes gazed out of a wide, innocent, lightly freckled and almost always smiling face; hair the color of red gold swirled around her slender shoulders. "I know not, my sister," he answered. "Mayhap there has been a drought here."
"Here alone, and not in the lands we just passed through?"
"I believe it is possible," the knight answered. The horses moved on, rounding a wide bend in the road where the hill on their left turned very steep. As they came around it, they saw ahead of them a large castle, standing off the road on their right well up in the hills, still more than a mile away, accessed by a bridge that cross a wide river--a river that, like the stream, seemed to be carrying very little water at the moment. Much closer, on the plain at the foot of those hills, stood a little cluster of pavilions, bright red and green canvases topped by flags that waved gently in the afternoon breeze. The two riders pushed their horses to a canter and rode up to the pavilions. As they came, a number of young men, unarmored and unarmed except for daggers at their waists, came into the road as if to stop them.
"I greet you," Percival started to say as he pulled his horse to a halt. "I am--"
He broke off. Paying no attention to him at all, the squires and servants rushed to Igraine's horse. One grabbed the bridle, and another reached for Igraine. "Come," the man said, pointing. "Make haste, the enchanter and his dagger await you in yon pavilion."
Percival looked off in the direction the man was pointing. There, standing inside a tent, was a man dressed in black robes. Before him was a low table, and on it stood a silver dish and, on an ornate holder, a shining dagger with a jeweled hilt. He pulled his horse around and brought it close to Igraine's, where the young man seemed prepared to drag her from the saddle if necessary.
"Unhand her," Percival said, laying his hand on the hilt of his sword. "Unhand her or your head will decorate these brown fields!"
The squire looked up at him as if seeing him for the first time. "Honored knight, know that it is the custom for any damsel who passes this way to give a dishful of blood for the healing of the Lady of the these Lands, who has lain ill for many years now. This custom must be observed."
"Unhand me, as he says," Igraine said gently. "And I will dismount of my own accord. But if you should drag me from my horse and I should fall, my brother here may become annoyed with you! You do not want Sir Percival of the Round Table at Camelot to be annoyed with you!"
The man looked back at the knight, who was then dismounting his own horse, and his eyes widened. "I have heard of your valor and your skill," he said. "Your renown is spreading throughout the land. And yet this damsel, be she your sister or some other, must obey the custom of this place, and--"
Percival took a step toward him and started to draw his sword. "And it is the custom of the Knights of King Arthur's Court," he said in an ominous low voice, "to cause knaves who would attack maidens on the highways to lose their heads! No matter what their reasons or their customs!"
It seemed that only then did the squire realize that he was in real peril for his life. He looked around as if for support, but there was no one there except for other squires and servants, and the enchanter had not emerged from his pavilion. He first held up his hands defensively, but then dropped them to his sides. He stood before Percival with downcast eyes and hands folded, apparently trying to look as non-threatening as possible. "Sir, we will not, we cannot, fight with you," he told the knight, "and so we will not take blood from this damsel, your sister, by force, but only by her leave. But I pray, honorable knight, allow her to go into the pavilion alone and talk with the wise man who awaits there. Then hear her answer."
Percival looked over at the open pavilion, at the jeweled knife in its holder on the table and the silver dish sitting beside it. "I will permit it," he said, "but only if the blade lying within is brought forth before she enters, so that I may know that she might not be harmed by it before I have heard her give her leave."
The squire nodded. He went into the tent and spoke briefly with the black-robed man there. After a moment, the enchanter nodded; he picked up a small cushion covered with red silk. After handing the cushion to the servant, he laid the knife atop it. The squire emerged, bearing the knife, and stood beside the pavilion holding it. He appeared to have no intention of setting it down anywhere.
Percival turned to Igraine. "I am satisfied," he told her, "that your safety is assured. Now you may enter and speak with this man, if you will."
Igraine nodded. "I will speak with him, my brother," she said. "I would hear more of this Lady, of her illness, and of the cure these men seek." She dismounted her horse gracefully and walked into the pavilion. Another of the servants closed the flaps. Still on his horse, Percival waited patiently, watching the closed flaps. The man holding the knife never moved. Time passed, and very slowly.
Finally, after a long delay, the flaps opened and Igraine came out. With a peculiar expression on her face, she walked to the horse where Percival remained mounted. "My brother," she said, looking up at him, "For the healing of this Lady, I will offer a dishful of my blood; I have given my consent. I pray you do not interfere in any way, nor draw your sword against these men, no matter what should happen here, no matter what you should see."
Percival frowned. "But Igraine..."
"Do not say me nay, precious brother. My consent has already been given to yon enchanter."
"Very well," Percival said. He dismounted from his horse. "A maiden's word is her bond, no less so than a knight's. If this thing is to be done with your permission, I will not interfere."
Igraine came forward and embraced him, laying her head on his shoulder. "I will go, then," she told him. "I should not tarry." She grasped his hand but pulled herself away from him; after holding his hand for a moment, she let it go as if with reluctance. Then, with a couple of backward glances, she went back to the pavilion. She entered, followed by the squire who was carrying the cushion upon which the knife rested and a servant Percival watched them close the flaps; then he went to a nearby tree and sat down under it to wait.
Inside the pavilion, Igraine stopped when she was facing the table where the silver chalice was still sitting. The squire bearing the knife and cushion offered it to the enchanter, who took it and replaced it on its stand. Then he stood gazing at Igraine fixedly for a while. She stared back at him, but became increasingly uncomfortable under his piercing gaze.
"You are the One," he said after a while. "I can see it. You are the One."
"What must I do?" Igraine asked.
He waved his hand. "First, damsel, you must disrobe. You must disrobe completely, you must be as you were made by nature, as you were when you came forth into the world. Let not modesty nor propriety stay your hands, damsel. Here we will follow the Old Ways, the way of nature, and for that your body must be entirely bare."
"I understand, Magus," she replied. "I will not stay my hands." So saying, she started removing her outer dress; when she had it off she handed it to one of the squires, who laid it aside neatly. Her inner dress followed, then her stockings, then her shoes. Clad only in her shift, she removed the necklace from around her neck, the rings from her fingers, and the ribbons from her hair. Finally she removed her shift as well, tousling her hair as she pulled it over her head. Finally, completely naked, she handed the squire her shift and stood before the Magus without the slightest trace of shame or embarrassment in her eyes. The two squires could not help but stare. They had helped perform this ritual many times before, they had seen many maidens standing naked in these pavilions.
But Igraine's beauty held them spellbound. Her legs were very long and shapely, her waist tiny, her breasts softly rounded and tipped with delicate pink nipples; the freckles on her face continued across her chest. Her groin was only lightly haired, the folds of her sex prominent, and she made no attempt whatever to conceal any part of herself. Her skin was very white, the blue of her veins vaguely visible beneath it in several place.
"I stand naked before you, Magus," she said unnecessarily.
"As I can see," he answered. He gestured to one of the squires, and the man quickly laid out a soft mat on the floor of the tent. "Now," the black-robed man said once it was in place, "kneel here. Be comfortable, but keep your knees apart." She obeyed without question or hesitation, laying her hands on her thighs.
The black-robed man then picked up a pitcher of water and came to her. Dropping to one knee beside her, he put the spout against her chest between her breasts. "Lean back a little," he instructed. She did, and he poured a little trickle of fresh clean water onto her body, letting it run down across her belly and slightly wet the mat she was kneeling on. While he was pouring it he recited some arcane words, none of which she understood. Then he rose again. She turned her head to watch as, very respectfully and with some ceremony, he lifted the silver dish. Returning to her, he handed it to her; following his example she held it with both hands. It was perhaps fourteen inches in diameter and fairly shallow; it looked as if it might hold a quart of liquid at best.
He reached out and touched her belly, just above her navel. "Press the rim here," he told her. "Press hard, so it indents your skin."
She did as he said. "In this fashion?" she asked.
"Yes." He snapped his fingers, and the two squires came to kneel on either side of her. Each one laid one hand on her shoulder and the other on her thigh. She glanced at each one it turn as if surprised, but she made no objection.
The Magus then picked up the knife from its holder. The jewels in the hilt caught the light that filtered through the seams of the pavilion and flashed as if on fire. The shining blade was small, only three inches long, fairly wide at the base but tapering quickly to a slender point. While Igraine watched, he held it over a small basin and poured water over the blade from the same pitcher he'd used to wet her body, emptying the pitcher.
Then he dropped to one knee in front of her, the wet knife in his hand, the water droplets on the blade now catching the light just the way the jewels had. "My Lady, this will pain you most grievously," he warned. "But you must have courage, you must remain still. If you are not the One, this should not cause your death; this we know, for we have done this many times before. But if you struggle, if you cry out and thrash about, it may. This we have seen as well, this we know."
Igraine nodded. "I understand, Magus. To the best of my ability I shall remain still, and I shall make no cries which might alarm by brother, who is waiting without. Do with me as you must."
The black-robed man tipped his head in acknowledgment. He then slipped his left hand under her hair, sliding his fingers around her neck until he was holding her neck from behind. Once his grip was firm, he carefully located the point of the knife against her upper abdomen, an inch or two down from the base of her breastbone. He was very meticulous about the location; three times he moved the point until he had it exactly where he wanted it. She looked down at it as well, following his movements.
Then he looked up at her face. "We will begin, my Lady," he warned. "Prepare yourself."
She raised her eyes to his. "I am prepared, Magus. As best I can be."
Again he tipped his head. They both looked back down at the blade, and the Magus suddenly punched an inch of the slim point in. Igraine gasped and jerked, but immediately she became still again. The Magus, pausing for a moment, glanced up at her. Seeing that she had composed herself, he then began sliding the knife very slowly into her body. He did not have to force it, the keen edges sliced through skin and muscle very easily. Igraine could not stop herself from trembling a little, nor from making some low moaning sounds, but for the most part she remained still and silent. Her facial expression was a study in pain and determination mixed together. Forcing herself to keep her eyes open, she kept her head down, she watched the blade slide steadily in. A very small trickle of blood appeared below it, running down her belly and into the silver dish. Carefully and methodically the Magus slipped it on in until the blade had completely disappeared.
"Well done, my Lady," the Magus said.
She glanced up at him, then back down at the imbedded knife. "But there is very little blood..." she noted.
"There will be more," he told her. He did not look up. "In just a moment." He studied the knife, mumbling some word Igraine could not really hear.
Then he started pulling the knife back, just as slowly as he'd put it in. A moment later, as the wider part of the blade re-emerged, her blood suddenly came spilling out, gushing into the silver dish.
He made no attempt to withdraw it any further. In silence, all four of them watched in silence as the bright red fluid flowed into the bowl, covering the bottom quickly and then rising up the sides. Breathing hard, Igraine trembled a little but still did not move.
The level of the liquid rose toward the edge of the dish.
"My Lord, it does not stop!" one of the squires exclaimed.
"I have said she was the One," the black-robed man answered. He fell silent, watching; finally, the dish was completely full and the blood started spilling over the side, dripping onto her thighs. The Magus looked up at her. "Now it has been shown." Much more quickly than before, he slipped the full length of the blade back into her. She grunted sharply, but the flow of blood decreased dramatically.
Then he let go of the knife, leaving it standing in her body, and took the dish from her. He took his time, he was very careful; though it was brim-full of blood, he spilled very little as he poured it into the pitcher he'd emptied. Once he'd done that he handed the dish to Igraine again and she dutifully pressed it back into her belly, again catching the now-trickling blood.
The Magus tipped her chin up with a fingertip. "You are the One," he told her. "The One we have waited for. You will die, but through your death, Our Lady will be healed."
Igraine, tears in her eyes, nodded. "I understand. I beg you, Magus. Bring in my brother that I may speak with him before I swoon away and death claims me. If I do not, he may slay all of you in his anger."
"That we are slain," the Magus said, "does not matter. The dish has been filled at last, and I cannot imagine a circumstance where the blood in the jar will not be spilt onto the ground, thereby fulfilling the last requirement of the rite. We understood that when we showed your body to the knight waiting without, he might well draw his terrible sword and slay us all before we could make explanations. But our lives are of small consequence in this affair, noble Lady."
"Yet you need not die, as I must," Igraine said. "I pray you, bring in my brother now."
The Magus nodded. "As you will." He opened the tent flap and went out; just a few seconds later it opened again, and he held it while Percival entered.
He stopped just inside, unable to believe what he was seeing. His sister, the sister he loved so well, kneeling naked on a mat, supported by the two squires, the cold blade of the dagger piercing the middle of her body, her blood seeping into the already-stained silver dish. Her skin was whiter than ever, and even her lips were growing pale.
"What is this!?" he cried. "Igraine, they have slain you! Treachery!" He glared at the squires. "But you will answer for this, knaves. Soon your blood will join hers on the floor of this tent and your heads will be rolling about these fields!" With that, he started to draw his sword.
"Nay, fair brother," Igraine called urgently as his sword started to come into view. She spoke quickly, ignoring the pain speaking caused her; she knew her brother's prowess with that sword very well, and she knew that if she did not speak the Magus and the two squires had only seconds of life remaining. "Sheath your sword. This thing has been done by my leave; you must not slay these men. I am dying, yes. But by my death, by my blood, the Lady who has lain ill for so long will be healed at last."
His sword half out of its scabbard, Percival stopped and stared at her. "By your leave?" he asked, his voice betraying the trusting childlike innocence that had always characterized him. "My sister, you gave them leave to slay you? For the healing of a Lady you do not even know, that you have not even seen?"
Igraine nodded. "I did so in truth, my brother, after the Magus had explained who this Lady was and what her plight was. I do know her, as do you, as you will see, very soon. He also explained to me that I would not die if my death would not accomplish her healing; but now she will be healed. That is a boon worth my life, and easily." She paused for a moment, breathing hard. "Dear brother, I charge you not to bury my body in these lands. I have seen my future, brother, I saw it before my eyes, in a bright vision, as my blood was flowing into the dish. As soon as I am dead, put me in a boat and set it adrift on yonder river, let it carry me as it will. Then, in the town of Sarras, look for me under the tower there, for there you shall find me. Bury me there, dear brother, in that sacred land; for there you too will, in your time, be buried."
"I do not understand," Percival said. He sheathed the sword. "But it will be as you say."
Igraine smiled wanly. "Go then, brother," she said. "Let me finish my dying. The Magus will come and tell you when I am--"
"Nay," he interrupted. "I shall not leave your side, not until the boat leaves my sight as it drifts on the river's currents."
"Nay. I shall not leave."
She sighed. "As you will, dear brother. I charge you then not to interfere nor protest what happens here." She paused again and took several deep breaths. "Let us proceed, Magus," she said. "I grow weak, weak and tired..."
"Yes, my Lady." He came to her quickly and dropped to his knee before her. Taking the knife in his hand again, he pulled it back once more but, as before, only until the wide part of the blade had cleared the wound. She groaned and trembled; her blood poured out again, as freely as before, yet again covering the bottom of the silver dish. Igraine sighed, her chest heaving; the blood continued to flow unabated. She began to sag, and it looked as if she might drop the silver dish. The Magus took it from her, holding it with one hand, and her hands dropping to the mat beside her. Beside her, the squires held her well, they did not let her fall. It seemed impossible, but she grew even paler, the freckles on her face and chest standing out in sharp contrast.
After several long minutes, the dish was almost filled again. She moaned pitifully and lifted her head a little as the Magus slipped the knife back in deep. When he let go of it again her head drooped forward, her eyes closed. Moving very quickly, he emptied the dish into the jug and returned again. Pressing the dish against her belly he pulled the knife back once more and once more her blood flowed, though slower now than before.
After several seconds, she raised her head and opened sleepy eyes with obvious effort. The Magus, seeing the expression on her face, withdrew the knife completely. Struggling, she turned her head toward Percival. "Fair brother, please... let me feel your touch..." The Magus moved back, and the knight stepped forward. Reaching out, he laid his hand on her cheek.
"You will be sore missed, my sister, Igraine," he whispered. "Sore missed..."
She smiled a little, leaned her head into his hand--and suddenly relaxed. Her eyes dropped closed, the blood abruptly stopped flowing, and her chest became still.
"It is done," the Magus said as the two squires laid her back gently on the mat.
The two squires helped Percival as he carefully cleaned the blood off her body, and, after wrapping a cloth around her midsection so that her clothes would not be bloodstained, they also helped him to dress her again.
"We have a litter for her," the Magus told him as he prepared to pick her up. "And a small cart for the litter. There is no need for you to carry her in your arms to the river. This is something we knew would happen, and we have been prepared for it for a long time." He instructed the squires to fetch it, and they went to a nearby pavilion and returned with a beautifully decorated litter covered in red silk.
"It is most appropriate," Percival said as her body was laid on it. He stood by and watched sadly as a little two-wheel cart was hitched to the red palfrey; once it was ready, the litter bearing Igraine's body was laid on it and fasted with thick soft ropes to the beams. "I will take my leave of you now," Percival told the black-robed man. "I do not fault you, Magus, since Igraine gave you her leave to do this thing. But it still surpasses my understanding..."
"In a little while," the other answered, "you will understand."
"I trust you are correct." He mounted his horse, holding the palfrey's reins to lead it. "I must go now to the river, I must find a boat, and yet I do not know where I will find one."
"I do not think," the Magus told him, "that this will be a problem for you." Percival nodded, then rode off at a slow pace.
The Magus was correct; when he reached the river, he found a small barge lying against the shore, as if waiting for him. Assuming the Magus might have left it there himself--he hadn't forgotten what the man had said about having been prepared for this eventuality--he dismounted and opened the canvas curtains concealing the inner area of the barge. Inside, there was just enough space for the litter, and he was then even more certain it had been left here for this specific purpose. He untied the litter from the cart and lifted it into the barge, placing it on the crossrails that seemed designed to accept it.
For a little while he remained, gazing at Igraine's still form and at her face, remembering her smile, remembering the bright eyes now closed forever. Finally, he closed the curtains, untied the barge from its moorings, and gave it a push to send it toward the middle of the dark murky river. Standing beside the horses, he watched the boat as it began to drift slowly downstream. Only when it was almost out of sight did he realize the sunshine was gone, that heavy clouds had covered the skies; it began to rain then, droplets pinging sharply on his armor. To him it seemed only appropriate, this was a sad day indeed. After unhitching the cart from the palfrey, he remounted his horse and started to ride away, following the road that led alongside the river. The rain grew more intense, turning the roadway into mud.
But after he'd ridden through the downpour for an hour or so, he began to notice that things around him were changing.
The river, dark, murky, and seemingly lifeless when he'd set the barge adrift, was rising rapidly; bright fresh water was pouring in from the hills, and the murkiness, it seemed, was being washed away. He looked at the hillsides on his left, and at those beyond the river on his right. Brown and lifeless just a few hours ago, they were already beginning to take on a sheen of fresh green color as plants, waiting for this rain, started pushing up through the soil. Fascinated, he stopped to watch; it was as if time was running much more rapidly than usual. He saw plants push up, spread leaves, and burst into bloom before his eyes; buds and then leaves appeared on the near-dead trees.
Again, he realized, the Magus had been correct; he did understand now, and he knew the identity of the Lady for whom Igraine had sacrificed her life. He rode on, through a land in riotous bloom, headed for the town of Sarras. Under the tower there, he knew, he would find her waiting, just as she'd said, and he was already planning a royal funeral and burial for her.