IN THE COURT OF KING ARTHUR
by Samuel E. Lowe
TABLE OF CONTENTS
I. Allan Finds A Champion
II. Allan Goes Forth
III. A Combat
IV. Allan Meets The Knights
V. Merlin's Message
VII. The Tournament
VIII. Sir Tristram's Prowess
IX. The Kitchen Boy
XI. Allan Meets A Stranger
XII. The Stranger And Sir Launcelot
XIII. The Party Divides
XIV. King Mark's Foul Plan
XV. The Weasel's Nest
XVI. To The Rescue
XVII. In King Mark's Castle
XVIII. The Kitchen Boy Again
XIX. On Adventure's Way
XX. Gareth Battles Sir Brian
XXI. Knight Of The Red Lawns
XXII. Sir Galahad
XXIII. The Beginning Of The Quest
XXIV. In Normandy
XXV. Sir Galahad Offers Help
XXVI. Lady Jeanne's Story
XXVII. Sir Launcelot Arrives
XXVIII. A Rescue
XXIX. Facing The East
XXXI. The Beggar And The Grail
WHO WAS KING ARTHUR?
King Arthur, who held sway in Camelot with his Knights of the Round Table, was supposedly a king of Britain hundreds of years ago. Most of the stories about him are probably not historically true, but there was perhaps a real king named Arthur, or with a name very much like Arthur, who ruled somewhere in the island of Britain about the sixth century.
Among the romantic spires and towers of Camelot, King Arthur held court with his queen, Guinevere. According to tradition, he received mortal wounds in battling with the invading Saxons, and was carried magically to fairyland to be brought back to health and life. Excalibur was the name of King Arthur's sword—in fact, it was the name of two of his swords. One of these tremendous weapons Arthur pulled from the stone in which it was imbedded, after all other knights had failed. This showed that Arthur was the proper king. The other Excalibur was given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake—she reached her hand above the water, as told in the story, and gave the sword to the king. When Arthur was dying, he sent one of his Knights of the Round Table, Sir Bedivere, to throw the sword back into the lake from which he had received it.
The Knights of the Round Table were so called because they customarily sat about a huge marble table, circular in shape. Some say that thirteen knights could sit around that table; others say that as many as a hundred and fifty could find places there. There sat Sir Galahad, who would one day see the Holy Grail. Sir Gawain was there, nephew of King Arthur. Sir Percivale, too, was to see the Holy Grail. Sir Lancelot—Lancelot of the Lake, who was raised by that same Lady of the Lake who gave Arthur his sword—was the most famous of the Knights of the Round Table. He loved Queen Guinevere.
All the knights were sworn to uphold the laws of chivalry—to go to the aid of anyone in distress, to protect women and children, to fight honorably, to be pious and loyal to their king.
Allan Finds A Champion
"I cannot carry your message, Sir Knight."
Quiet-spoken was the lad, though his heart held a moment's fear as, scowling and menacing, the knight who sat so easily the large horse, flamed fury at his refusal.
"And why can you not? It is no idle play, boy, to flaunt Sir Pellimore. Brave knights have found the truth of this at bitter cost."
"Nevertheless, Sir Knight, you must needs find another message bearer. I am page to Sir Percival and he would deem it no service to him should I bear a strange knights message."
"Then, by my faith, you shall learn your lesson. Since you are but a youth it would prove but poor sport to thrust my sword through your worthless body. Yet shall I find Sir Percival and make him pay for the boorishness of his page. In the meantime, take you this."
With a sweep the speaker brought the flat side of his sword down. But, if perchance, he thought that the boy would await the blow he found surprise for that worthy skillfully evaded the weapon's downward thrust.
Now then was Sir Pellimore doubly wroth.
"Od's zounds, and you need a trouncing. And so shall I give it you, else my dignity would not hold its place." Suiting action to word the knight reared his horse, prepared to bring the boy to earth.
It might hare gone ill with Allan but for the appearance at the turn of the road of another figure—also on horseback. The new knight perceiving trouble, rode forward.
"What do we see here?" he questioned. "Sir Knight, whose name I do not know, it seems to me that you are in poor business to quarrel with so youthful a foe. What say you?"
"As to with whom I quarrel is no concern of anyone but myself. I can, however, to suit the purpose, change my foe. Such trouncing as I wish to give this lad I can easily give to you, Sir Knight, and you wish it?"
"You can do no more than try. It may not be so easy as your boasting would seeming indicate. Lad," and the newcomer turned to the boy, "why does this arrogant knight wish you harm?"
"He would have me carry a message, a challenge to Sir Kay, and that I cannot do, for even now I bear a message from Sir Percival, whose page I am but yesterday become. And I must hold true to my own lord and liege."
"True words and well spoken. And so for you, Sir Knight of the arrogant tongue, I hope your weapon speaks equally well. Prepare you, sir."
Sir Pellimore laughed loudly and disdainfully.
"I call this great fortune which brings me battle with you, sir, who are unknown but who I hope, none the less, are a true and brave knight."
The next second the two horses crashed together. Sir Pellimore soon proved his skill. The Unknown, equally at ease, contented himself with meeting onslaught after onslaught, parrying clever thrusts and wicked blows. So they battled for many an hour.
Allan, the boy, with eyes glistening, waited to see the outcome of the brave fight. The Unknown, his champion, perhaps would need his aid through some dire misfortune and he was prepared.
Now the Unknown changed his method from one of defense to one of offense. But Sir Pellimore was none the less skillful. The third charge of his foe he met so skillfully that both horses crashed to the ground. On foot, the two men then fought—well and long. Until, through inadvertence, the Unknown's foot slipped and the next moment found his shield splintered and sword broken.
"Now then, by my guardian saint, you are truly vanquished," Sir Pellimore exclaimed exultantly. "Say you so?"
But the Unknown had already hurled himself, weaponless, upon the seeming victor and seizing him about the waist with mighty strength, hurled him to the ground. And even as the fallen knight, much shaken, prepared to arise, lo, Merlin the Wizard appeared and cast him into a deep sleep.
"Sire," the Wizard declared, "do you indeed run many dangers that thy station should not warrant. And yet, I know not whether we, your loyal subjects, would have it otherwise."
Now Allan, the boy, realized he was in the presence of the great King. He threw himself upon his knees.
"Rise lad," said King Arthur kindly. "Sir Percival is indeed fortunate to have a page, who while so young, yet is so loyal. So shall we see you again. Kind Merlin," and the King turned to the Wizard, "awaken you this sleeping knight whose only sin seems an undue amount of surliness and arrogance, which his bravery and strength more than offset."
Now Sir Pellimore rubbed his eyes. "Where am I?" he muttered drowsily. Then as realization came, he sprang to his feet.
"Know you then, Sir Pellimore," said Merlin, "he with whom you fought is none other than Arthur, the King."
The knight stood motionless, dumbfounded. But only for a moment.
"If so, then am I prepared for such punishment as may come. But be it what it may, I can say this, that none with whom I fought has had more skill or has shown greater bravery and chivalry. And more than that none can say."
And the knight bowed low his head, humbly and yet with a touch of pride.
"Thou art a brave knight, Sir Pellimore. And to us it seems, that aside from a hasty temper, thou couldst well honor us by joining the Knights of the Round Table. What saith thou?"
"That shall I gladly do. And here and now I pledge my loyalty to none other than Arthur, King of Britain, and to my fellow knights. And as for you, boy, I say it now—that my harsh tongue and temper ill became the true knight I claim to be."
"Brave words, Sir Pellimore," said the King. "So let us back to the castle. We see that Merlin is already ill at ease."
Allan Goes Forth
So then the four, the good King, Sir Pellimore, Merlin the Wizard, and Allan, page to Sir Percival, came to the great castle of Britain's king.
Arthur led them into the great hall in which were placed many small tables and in the center of them all was one of exceeding size and round. Here was to be found a place for Sir Pellimore but though the King searched long, few seats did he find which were not bespoken. Yet finally he found one which did well for the new arrival.
"Here then shall you find your place at the Round Table, good knight," said the King. "And we trust that you will bring renown and honor to your fellowship, succor to those who are in need and that always will you show true chivalry. And we doubt not but you will do all of these."
Sir Pellimore bowed low his head nor did he make reply because within him surged a great feeling of gratitude.
The King turned away and Merlin followed him to the upraised dais. So now the two seated themselves and joined in earnest talk.
At the door, Allan had waited, for he would not depart until His Majesty had seated himself. A strange gladness was in the boy's heart, for had not his King fought for him? Here in this court, he too would find adventure. Sir Percival mayhap, some day, would dub him knight, should he prove faithful and worthy. What greater glory could there be than to fight for such a King and with such brave men?
"But I must be off," he suddenly bethought himself, "else Sir Percival will not be pleased." And therewith, he made great haste to depart.
"Aye, sire," Merlin was now speaking, "my dream is indeed weighted with importance. But by the same taken, it cannot be known until you call your court together so that it may be heard by all."
"Then mean you, kind Merlin, that we must call not only those of the Round Table but all other knights and even pages and squires?"
"Even so, sire. And yet, since Whitsunday is but a few days away, that should be no hard matter. For the knights of your court, except Sir Launcelot and Sir Gawaine are here, prepared for such tourneys and feasts fit to celebrate that day."
"So then shall it be. Even now our heralds shall announce that we crave the attendance of all those who pledge loyalty to our court. For I know well that they must be of no mean import, these things we shall hear. We pray only that they shall be for our good fortune."
The Wizard, making no reply, bent low and kissed his King's hand. Then he departed.
Came now his herald whom the King had summoned.
"See to it that our court assembles this time tomorrow. Make far and distant outcry so that all who are within ear may hear and so hurry to our call. And mark you this well. We would hare Sir Launcelot and our own nephew, Sir Gawaine, present even though they departed this early morn for Cornwall. See you to it."
Swiftly the herald made for the door to carry out the commands of his King. But even as he reached it, Arthur called again to him.
"We have a fancy, good herald, we fain would have you follow. Ask then Sir Percival to let us have the services of his page who seems a likely youth and bid this youth go hence after the two absent knights, Sir Gawaine and Sir Launcelot and give to them our message, beseeching their return. Tell not the boy it is we who have asked that he go."
"It shall be done as you will, sire," replied the herald. No surprise did he show at the strangeness of the King's command for long had he been in his service and well he knew the King's strange fancies.
Sir Percival gave ready consent, when found. So when the boy had returned from the errand forespoken, the herald announced that he must hasten after the two knights and bid them return.
"And by my faith, lad, you have but little time and you must speed well. For tomorrow at this time is this conclave called, and the two knights are already many miles on their journey. Take you this horse and hasten."
Then, as the eager youth, quick pulsed, made haste to obey, the herald added in kindly voice: "It would be well could you succeed, lad. For it is often true that through such missions, newcomers prove future worthiness for knighthood."
"I thank you greatly for your kindness," replied the boy. "I can but try to the uttermost. No rest shall I have until I meet with the two knights."
So now Allan sought out and bespoke his own lord.
"I wish you well, Allan," said Sir Percival. "And say you to my friends Launcelot and Gawaine should they prove reluctant that they will favor their comrade, Sir Percival, if they would make haste and hurry their return. Stop not to pick quarrel nor to heed any call, urgent though it may seem. Prove my true page and worthy."
"I shall do my very best, my lord. And, this my first commission, shall prove successful even though to make it so, I perish."
Swiftly now rode forth the boyish figure. Well, too, had Arthur chosen. Came a day when, than Allan, no braver, truer knight there was. But of that anon.
"Good Launcelot, I trust that good fortune shall be with us and that our adventures be many and the knights we meet bold and brave."
"Of that, Gawaine, we need have no fear. For adventure ever follows where one seeks and often enough overtakes the seeker. Let us rather hope that we shall find Sir Tristram and Sir Dinadian, both of Cornwall. For myself I would joust with Sir Tristram than whom braver and bolder knight does not live."
"And as for me," spoke Gawaine, "my anxiety is to see Mark, the king of Cornwall, and tell him to his face that I deem him a scurvy hound since he promised protection to Beatrice of Banisar as she passed through his lands and yet broke his promise and so holds her for ransom."
"And there shall I help you, dear Gawaine. For bitterly shall Mark rue his unknightly act. Shall I even wait for my event with Sir Tristram until your business is done."
"Aye, and gladly will Sir Tristram wait, I wot, if he deems it honor to meet with Sir Launcelot du Lake. For no knight there is who doth not know of your prowess and repute, Sir Tristram least of all."
"Kind words, Gawaine, for which I thank you. Yet, if I mistake not, yonder, adventure seems to wait. And we but a little more than two score miles from our gates."
Ahead of them and barring their way were ten knights. Launcelot and Gawaine stopped not a moment their pace but rode boldly forward.
"And wherefor do you, strange Knights, dispute our passage?" asked Sir Gawaine.
"Safely may you both pass unless you be gentlemen of King Arthur's court," quote the leader who stepped forward to answer.
"And what if we be, Sir Knight?" replied Sir Launcelot mildly.
"And if you be then must you battle to the uttermost. For we owe loyalty to King Ryence who is enemy of King Arthur. Therefore, are we his enemies too, and enemies also of all of King Arthur's subjects. And thus, we flaunt our enmity. We here and now call King Arthur an upstart and if you be of his court you cannot do aught else but fight with us."
"Keep you your words," said Sir Gawaine, "until we have ceased our quarrel. Then if you will you may call Arthur any names. Prepare you."
Boldly Sir Launcelot and Sir Gawaine charged upon the foe. Nor did the knights who met them know who these two were, else milder were their tone. Such was the valor of the two and such their strength that four men were thrown from their horses in that first attack and of these two were grievously wounded.
Together and well they fought. Easily did they withstand the men of King Ryence. Four men were slain by their might, through wondrous and fearful strokes, and four were sorely wounded. There lay the four against an oaken tree where they had been placed in a moment's lull. But two knights were left to oppose Launcelot and Gawaine but these two were gallant men and worthy, the very best of all the ten.
So they fought again each with a single foe. Hard pressed were the two men of King Ryence, yet stubbornly they would not give way. And as each side gave blow for blow, so each called "for Arthur" or "for Ryence," whichever the case might be. Many hours they fought until at last Sir Launcelot by a powerful blow crashed both foe and foe's horse to the ground.
And as the other would further combat, though exceedingly weak, Sir Launcelot, upraised lance in hand by a swift stroke smote sword from out of his weakened grasp.
"Thou art a brave knight, friend. And having fought so well, I ask no further penance but this, that you do now declare King Arthur no upstart. I care not for your enmity but I will abide no slander."
"So must I then declare, since you have proven better man than I," declared the conquered knight. "And for your leniency I owe you thanks. Wherefore then to whom am I grateful? I pray your name?"
"That I shall not tell until I hear your own," replied Launcelot.
"I am known as Ronald de Lile," the other replied in subdued tone.
"Truly and well have I heard of you as a brave knight," was the reply, "and now I know it to be so. I am Sir Launcelot du Lake."
"Then indeed is honor mine and glory, too. For honor it is to succumb to Sir Launcelot."
But now both heard the voice of Gawaine. Weak had he grown, but weaker still his foe. Gawaine had brought the other to earth at last with swift and mighty blow and such was the force of his stroke the fallen man could not rise although he made great ado so to do.
"So must I yield," this knight declared. "Now will I admit Arthur no upstart, but though I die for it I do declare no greater king than Ryence ever lived."
"By my faith, your words are but such as any knight must hold of his own sovereign prince. I cannot take offense at brave words, Sir Knight. Now, give me your name, for you are strong and worthy."
"I am Marvin, brother of him who fought with your comrade. And never have we met bolder and greater knights."
"I am Gawaine and he who fought your brother is none other than Launcelot."
"Then truly have we met no mean foes," replied the other.
Conquered and conquerers now turned to make the wounded as comfortable as they well could be. After which, our two knights debated going on their journey or tarrying where they were until the morn.
"Let us wend our way until we find fit place for food and rest. There can we tarry." So spoke Launcelot and the other agreed.
Then they took leave of Sir Marvin and Sir Ronald and so on their way. Not many miles did they go however before they found suitable place. Late was the hour and weary and much in need of rest were the two knights. So they slept while, half his journey covered, Allan sped onward, making fast time because he was but light of weight and his horse exceeding swift.
Allan Meets the Knights
From the first day when Allan began to understand the tales of chivalry and knightly deeds, he fancied and longed for the day when he would grow into manhood and by the same token into knighthood. Then would he go unto King Arthur on some Pentecost and crave the boon of serving him. Mayhap, too, he would through brave and worthy deeds gain seat among those of the Round Table. So he would dream, this youth with eager eyes, and his father, Sir Gaunt, soon came to know of his son's fancies and was overly proud and pleased with them. For he himself had, in his days, been a great and worthy knight, of many adventures and victor of many an onslaught. It pleased him that son of his would follow in his footsteps.
When Allan was fourteen, Sir Gaunt proceeded to Sir Percival who was great friend of his and bespoke for his son the place of page. And so to please Sir Gaunt and for friendship's sake, Sir Percival gave ready consent. Therewith, he found the youth pleasing to the eye and of a great willingness to serve.
So must we return to Allan who is now on his way for many an hour. As he made his way, he marveled that he should have had notice brought upon himself, for he was young and diffident and should by every token have escaped attention in these his first days at court. How would his heart have grown tumultuous had he known that none other than Arthur himself had made him choice. But that he was not to know for many a year.
Night came on and the boy traveled far. Yet gave he no thought to rest for he knew that he could ill afford to tarry and that only with the best of fortune could he overtake the two knights in time to make early return. About him the woods were dark and mysterious. Owls hooted now and then and other sounds of the night there were, yet was the boy so filled with urge of his mission that he found not time to think of ghosts nor black magic.
Then, as he turned the road he saw the dim shadow of a horse. Ghostly it seemed, until through closer view it proved flesh and blood. Lying close by was a knight who seemed exceeding weak and sorely wounded.
Quick from his horse came Allan and so made the strange knight be of greater comfort.
Now the knight spoke weakly.
"Grievously have I been dealt with by an outlaw band. This day was I to meet my two brothers Sir Ronald and Sir Marvin yet cannot proceed for very weakness. Which way do you go, lad?"
"I keep on my way to Cornwall," replied Allan.
"From yonder do my brothers journey and should you meet with them bid them hasten here so that together we can go forth to find this outlaw band and it chastise."
"That shall I do. Sir Knight. It grieves me that I may not stay and give you such aid as I may but so must I hasten that I cannot. Yet shall I stop at first abode and commission them to hurry here to you."
"For that I thank you, lad. And should time ever come when you my aid require, know then to call on Philip of Gile."
So Allan pressed forward. At early dawn he came upon Sir Ronald and Sir Marvin who had found rest along the wayside. And when he found that these were the two knights he gave them their brother's message.
"Then must we hasten thence, Ronald. And thank you, lad, for bringing us this message. Choose you and you can rest awhile and partake of such food that we have."
"Of food I will have, Sir Knights, for hunger calls most urgently. But tarry I cannot for I must find Sir Launcelot and Sir Gawaine. Mayhap you have met with them?"
"Of a truth can we say that we have met with them and suffered thereby. Yet do we hold proof as to their knightly valor and skill. They have gone but a little way, for it was their purpose to find rest nearby. We doubt not you will find them at the first fair abode. In the meantime must we hasten to our brother's aid and leave our wounded comrades to such care as they may get."
The knights spoke truly, for Allan found upon inquiry that the two he sought were lodged close by. Boldly the boy called, now for Sir Launcelot, now for Sir Gawaine, but both were overtired and of a great weariness and it took many minutes before at last Sir Launcelot opened wide his eyes.
"And who are you, boy?" for he knew him not.
"My name is Allan and I am page to Sir Percival."
"Come you with a message from Sir Percival? Does he need our help?"
"Nay, sir. Rather do I come with a message from the court—the herald of which sent me urging you and Sir Gawaine to return before sundown for a great conclave is to gather which the King himself has called."
"Awaken then, thou sleepy knight," Sir Launcelot called to his comrade who had not stirred. "It were pity that all this must be told to you again."
Sir Gawaine now arose rubbing eyes still filled with sleep. To him Allan repeated his message.
"What say you, Gawaine? Shall we return?"
"As for me," replied Sir Gawaine, "I would say no. What matter if we are or are not present. Already we are late for our present journey's purpose. So say I, let us not return but rather ask this youth to bespeak for us the king's clemency."
"And I, too, am of the same mind, Gawaine. So lad," Sir Launcelot turned to the boy and spoke kindly, "return you to court and give them our message. This errand on which we are at present bound holds urgent need, else would we return at our King's behest."
Rueful and with a great gloom Allan saw his errand fail.
"Kind sirs, Sir Percival bid me bespeak for him as well, and ask you, as true comrades, to make certain to return. Furthermore, my knights, this, my first mission would be unfortunate if it did not terminate successfully. So I pray you that you return."
Loud and long Sir Launcelot laughed and yet not unkindly while Sir Gawaine placed hand upon the boy's shoulder approvingly.
"By my faith, Launcelot, we can do no more than return. That Percival speaks counts for much, but this youth's honor is also at stake." The light of laughter played in the speaker's eyes.
"Yes," said Sir Launcelot, "let us return. It would be pity to send this lad back after his long journey, without success. So then to our horses and let us make haste. The hours are few and the miles many."
Now as the sun, a flaming golden ball about which played the wondrous softer colors of filmy clouds, began sinking in the western horizon, the heralds announced everywhere that the time for assemblage had come. Of those few who were not present, chiefest were Sir Launcelot and Sir Gawaine. And for these two the herald of King Arthur was searching the road in vain.
"Think you, Sir Percival, these two will come?" the herald, anxious of tone, inquired. "Our King would have them present and I fancy not the making of excuse for their not appearing."
"It is hard telling, Sir Herald. Far had the page to go and he is young. Then too, it is a question whether should he meet with them, these two have a mind to appear. For I know that their journey to Cornwall is urgent."
Now the knights entered and found place. Then followed the pages, squires and after them such yeoman and varlets as could find room. After each had found his place, came King Arthur leading his queen. And as they entered, up rose the knights, their vassals, all that were within the hall and raised a mighty shout.
"St. George and Merrie England. Long live King Arthur. Long live Queen Guenever."
Then turned the King toward his loyal subjects and though his lips were seen to move, none heard him for the clamor. So King Arthur turned to seat his queen and then he himself sat down upon his throne, high on the dais.
Then soon after even as bell tolled the hour, Arthur arose. No sign had yet come of Launcelot and Gawaine. So now the herald slipped to the door to cast again a hurried glance for perchance that they might be within vision. And as he went noiselessly, so, too, a quiet fell that the King's words might be heard. But now disturbing this quiet came a great clattering. Arthur turned his eyes, frowning, at the sudden noise. Yet came a greater turmoil, approaching horse's hoofs were heard and then into the great hall thundered the steeds carrying the noble figures of Launcelot and Gawaine, followed but a pace behind by Allan the page.
Straight to the dais they came, the two knights. Allan, however, turned, made hasty exit because he felt himself abashed to be observed by so many eyes. On foot he entered once again and found place far in the rear where few could observe him.
The two knights now dismounted and knelt before their King.
"We pray your pardon for the lateness of our coming. Yet did we hasten and could not have come the sooner."
"That we feel is so, Sir Knights, for we know you well enough. Nor are we wroth, since come you did. But where, pray, is the message bearer? Truly his speed was great to have reached you in time for your return. And if I mistake not," added the King with great shrewdness, "neither you, Gawaine, nor you Launcelot, were any too ready to return. How then, did the lad urge you?"
"You speak truly, sire," replied Gawaine. "For our errand had need of urgent haste and we were both to give it up. Yet did the boy urge us and chiefest urge of all to us was where he claimed his own honor demanded the success of his mission. Those were fine words, so did we therefore return."
"Fine words, indeed. Where then is this page? Will you, Sir Herald, bring him forth?"
So Allan came forward, red of face and hating such womanness that would let him blush before all these great men. Knelt he before his King.
"Thou art a good lad and will bear watching. Go thy way and remember that the road ahead for those who wish to be knights of high nobility is steep and arduous but well worth the trials. Remember too, that this day, Britain's King, said that some day thou wilt prove a worthy and brave knight."
And as Allan with flaming cheeks and glorious pride went to his place far in the rear of the hall the King turned to the assemblage.
"Merlin is here but departs from us tomorrow for many a day. He has had a great dream which affects this court and us and which must be told to all of you. So he has asked us to call you and this we have done. Stand up now Merlin, wisest of men and truest of counselors. Speak."
Up rose Merlin and for wonder as to what his dream might be all held their breath.
"But the other night came Joseph of Armathea to me while I slept. And he chided me that in all Britain so few of all the true and brave knights had thought to seek the wondrous Holy Grail which once was pride of all England.
"And me thought I heard him say, 'Truly do I misdoubt the valor of these knights who seek adventure and glory.'
"'Yet.' said I, 'doubt not their valor for can I give surety for it. For Holy Grail, every varlet, let alone those of true blood, would give his life and count it more than worthy.'
"'So shall it be!' replied Sir Joseph. 'For the Holy Grail will be found. Whether knight or varlet shall the finder be, I will not say. But this I tell you now. He who finds it shall be pure of heart and noble beyond all men. From whence he cometh, who he is, I will not say. Remember this, Merlin, brave and noble knights there are now in England, brave knights shall come, and some shall come as strangely as shall the Grail. Many deeds will be done that will bring truest of glory to England's name. And never again shall more noble or more worthy knights hold Britain's banner so high. For they who seek the Holy Grail must be worthy even of the search.'
"'Let your King beware that he listens well to all who come to his court on every Pentecost. And though they who search may not be overstrong, yet while they seek it they will find in themselves many men's strength.'
"And then he left me. But even after he was gone I dreamt on. And I say to you, oh men of England, go you forth and seek this Holy Grail, if within you, you know that you are pure of heart and noble. If you are not, go then and seek to be purified for that is possible. Only one of you will find the Holy Grail, yet is there great glory in the search. May he who finds it and all the rest who search for it bring greater fame and worthiness to this our land and to him who is our King."
Now Merlin turned to seat himself. But yet before he found his place every man within the hall stood up prepared to make oath then and there to begin the search. Only two kept still, nor did they move. One was Sir Launcelot, the other the youth Allan.
But quick as they who upstood, Merlin spoke again. And though his voice was low, yet was it heard throughout the hall.
"Pledge not yourself today, nor yet tomorrow. Go you hence, first. In your innermost heart find answer to this question. Am I pure, am I worthy for the search? For that you must be before any pledge suffices."
Silent and thoughtful the men found each his seat. And when all had been seated, Arthur, King, arose.
"Wouldst that I felt myself worthy. Yet from this day shall I strive to the uttermost for the time when I shall feel that I am."
And throughout the hall came answering vows: "So shall we all." Within his heart, Allan, the youth, felt a strange radiancy, as he too made this vow, "So shall I."
Now came Pentecost and brought with it to King Arthur's Tournament brave knights from everywhere. Distant Normandy, the far shores of Ireland, sent each the flower of its knighthood. Scotland's king was there, the brave Cadoris, to answer the challenge of the King of Northgalis who was also present. Ban, King of Northumberland, had come. Sir Palomides came too, and it was he who was declared, by many to be the bravest and the most skillful of all of Britain's knights. Yet there were equal number and more who held the same for both Sir Launcelot and for Sir Tristram. Sir Lauvecor, leading a hundred knights, came late, with the blessing of his father, who was none other than King of Ireland.
A brave show they all made, these many knights seeking adventure, and each, as he so easily bestrode his steed, found it hard matter to find comrade and friend, for the many who were there. Gay were the colors each knight wore and on some fortune had smiled, for these carried token of some fair lady. Of fair ladies there were many to watch the deeds of skill and bravery and most beautiful of them all, was Arthur's queen, Guenever.
Sir Launcelot and Sir Gawaine had found no need to journey to Cornwall. For word had come that Sir Tristram had had a bitter quarrel with King Mark and had left his court carrying that wicked King's curse. Tristram had made final demand on the traitorous King to release the maiden Beatrice whom he was holding for ransom and this the King had had no mind to do. Then had the bold knight himself made for the door of the great dungeon and with hilt of sword knocked long and loud to summon the keeper. And when the door was opened this same keeper could not withstay him, nor would he. Then had Tristram carried the maiden to point of safety and so earned her gratitude. Nor would any knight of King Mark take issue with him for none felt the King's deed to be knightly. And though the King made pretense of bearing no ill will, yet did Sir Tristram leave Cornwall that same day.
And Sir Gawaine knew not whether to be pleased or otherwise at the news.
"I would have fancied making rescue of the Lady Beatrice myself. And fancied even more to have told King Mark the scurvy knave I deem him; yet I doubt not Sir Tristram did the deed well and since it leaves me free to stay and have part in the jousting, I am not displeased."
"And methinks," added Sir Launcelot, "Sir Tristram will make his way hither, for tournament such as this holds all alluring call."
King Arthur, together with Ban of Northumberland, and Sir Percival were declared the judges for all but the last of the three days.
Now then Sir Percival, finding a moment's brief respite, followed by his page rode to the palace where sat his mother and two sisters. There he found Sir Uwaine already in deep converse with Helene, who was the older of the two maidens and whose knight he was.
"See you, son, there do be knights who find time to pay respect to us, even though our own are slower footed." So spoke the Lady Olande yet did it jestingly and with no intent to hurt for she had great love for her son.
"And I doubt not, Uwaine does make up for any seeming lack of mine," replied Sir Percival. "If, mother mine, I were not made a judge, my time would be more my own.
"But here, I must have lost what manners I have been taught. Mother, this is Allan who is my page, and these, Allan, are my sisters Helene and Yosalinde. Allan is son of Sir Gaunt, whom you all know. Forgive my not making you known before this, lad."
Pleasantly did the ladies greet him and so well that he found no embarrassment therewith. And so now Sir Percival turned and spoke in low tones to his mother. Sir Uwaine and his lady walked away, claiming that they must give greeting to certain high ladies. And therewith left Allan, the boy, and Yosalinde, who was even younger than he, to themselves.
Allan strove to speak but found he could not and so sat on horse waiting. The girl calmly watched him from her place, yet was there mischief in her eyes.
"If you would, you may dismount from your horse and find place hither. There is room, as you see," she suggested.
The lad looked uncertain. Yet Sir Percival had already found place next to his mother and was now in earnest converse. So he found he could not do otherwise.
Now Yosalinde laughed at what showed so plainly his unwillingness to sit beside her.
"I shall not bite you. See how harmless I am? No witch, I hope, you think I am. For shame that youth, who would be brave knight, should fear a lady and in especial one so young as I."
"I fear you not," replied Allan hotly.
"Then perhaps you dislike me?" the minx questioned innocently.
"Certes, no. How could I?" the guileless youth replied.
"Then you do like me? Although I doubt I find any pride in that since I must need force the words from you."
At a loss now the lad could not answer. For the girl had better of him because of her quick tongue and he found she twisted his words and meaning to suit her taste. Yet finally, she turned the talk and so Allan found himself telling her of his high hopes. So simply too, without boasting, he told her of the fine words of Arthur to him. And last, because it had made its deep impress upon him, he spoke of Merlin's dream. And of this Yosalinde, now serious and wide eyed, questioned him closely, and soon knew all that he did.
So now Percival uprose and made ready to return to his duties. So therefore, too, did Allan, and found he now felt more at ease and without constraint of the girl.
"I like you, Allan, and I say it though I should make it harder for you to know, than it was for me. I give you my friendship and if it help you, take this ring and wear it. May it serve you in time of stress. And at all times consider it token of your lady."
And then once again the laughing, teasing minx, she, added:
"Yet, after all, you are but a boy and I am no less a girl. Yet, let us make-believe, you a bold knight and I your lady. Mayhap it may be true some day."
So she was gone now to her mother leaving Allan with stirred feelings and somewhat in a dream, too. For Sir Percival had to call twice to him before he mounted his own horse. And even as they both made their way, he turned his head back to see if he could perceive aught of this strange girl. And thought he saw a waving hand but was not sure.
On the first of the three days of the tournament there were great feats of wrestling and trials of archery. So too did yeomen prove their skill with mace and clubs. Foot races were many. And constant flow of ale and food so that none among the yeomen and even of the varlets found aught to want. Many fools there were too and these pleased all mightily.
But as the day advanced of all the yeomen but a half dozen remained for the wrestling. And for each of these but one, there was high acclaim from those other yeomen who were there and from such knights as owed fealty to selfsame banner. And of the archers too, but very few remained for last tests of skill.
For the one yeoman, who wore green tunic and red cap, there was none to cheer. A stranger, he kept silent and yet was equally skillful with the best. He had entered himself for the archery prize and for the wrestling.
"Dost know this knave?" asked King Arthur of Sir Percival.
"Only that he belongs not to any of us of the Round Table," replied Percival.
"Is he forsooth one of your men, worthy Ban?"
"I would he were, Arthur, yet is he not."
Now Sir Percival rode forward and divided these last six wrestlers into teams. Yet did this man prove victor for he had a wondrous hold which none of the others knew. And when he had won, so turned he to watch and join in the archery. And as he watched came there knaves to him and mocked him.
"Faith though you wrestle well," one spoke, "it doth not make you an archer. For here you find true archery than which none can do better."
"And I carry a club I would fain try on your thick skull," said another who was even less gentle spoken.
"Of a good time, my friend, and you may," replied the lone knave.
"No such time befits the same as now," replied the first knave.
"If they will wait for my trial with bow and arrow I would be the last to keep you waiting." So spoke the stranger.
So then one of the knaves hurried away and received permission.
"Then furnish me a club," said the stranger.
"Here then is mine," offered the third knave.
Yet, forsooth, the club was but a sorry one and so the unknown would not use it.
"Then show you a coward's heart," replied he who would strive with him. And then the three rushed upon the stranger and would do him hurt.
So now came bearing down on the three none other than Allan who had overheard the parley.
"For shame, knaves. No true men would treat stranger so. He asks nothing more than is fair. Give him a club of his choosing."
"Of a faith, young master, this quarrel is none of yours, and warrants no interference. Leave this fellow to us, and we shall give him clubbing of his choosing." And the man who addressed the boy, though he looked not straight at him, growled surlily.
"I shall give you a thrashing, fool, unless you do my bidding," replied the boy, hotly.
But the three surly brutes moved uneasily. And then came Sir Percival forward.
"What have we here?" he asked.
So Allan waited for the men to say. But they, now frightened, made no spoken word.
"These knaves would play foul tricks on this strange fellow. This one, would strive with him and yet would not offer other club than this. And when the stranger asked to have one of his choice they called him coward and would beat him."
"And I doubt not, fools, this club you offer will not stand one blow." So Sir Percival brought it down on the first knave's head, and, lo, though the blow was not a hard one, yet did the club break in two.
"So methought. Now go you Allan and get club that will do. And then will you, stranger, give this villain a sound trouncing." And Sir Percival stayed so that the troublemakers did not depart.
So Allan brought a club which suited the stranger.
Now did the two battle long and well. Both the stranger and he who fought with him were of great strength and each was exceeding quick.
As wood struck wood and each tried to get full blow upon the other, so turned all eyes upon the two. And except for glancing blows neither could bring the other down. And though the sparks flew, yet each held his club and was hardly hurt. So now they rested for a few moments.
And while they waited, the stranger turned to Allan and spoke.
"I thank you for your brave upstanding of me, young master. And I hope some day I may serve you equally well."
"You are a worthy man. Serve me now by trouncing the knave who battles with you."
"I can but try, yet right skillful is the fellow."
So they turned to again. Yet this time the stranger fought the better. Soon the other was forced back, foot by foot. And even as the stranger seemed to have all the best of it, his foot seeming slipped, and he went to his knees.
Fiercely the other came upon him. Yet as he came closer the stranger's club moved swiftly. From out the seeming victor's hand flew his mighty club and next second found him clubbed to the ground, senseless.
Now the stranger sat himself down for he needed rest sorely. But only for a little while and thereafter he turned to try his skill with bow and arrow. And though he had shown skill in all of the other feats he proved his mastery here. For he was wondrous expert in his archery.
"Here you, is fair target," he finally suggested after many trials. And went to distant tree and removed from bough upon it, all its leaves but one.
"Shoot you all at this. And if you bring it down I will call you skillful."
But only one would try for it. And he came close but missed.
Now did the stranger raise his own bow. Nor did he seem to take aim but let the arrow fly. And the arrow carried the twig and leaf with it to the ground.
"Of a truth," said King Arthur, "a right worthy knave is that and I would speak to him."
So they brought the stranger before the king.
"Thou hast done exceeding well, this day, fellow. Tell us then the banner that you serve."
"That I cannot do. For, sire, such are my master's commands. Yet may I say no knight is more true and worthy."
"Then must we wait for your master's coming. Go thou hence and tell your master he can be proud of thee. And take you this bag of gold besides such other prizes as are yours." So as the knave stood there, the King turned to Sir Dagonet, his jester, who was making himself heard.
"A fool speaks, sire. Yet claim I, like master like man. So then must this fellow's master be right skillful to hold him. And since this master is not you, nor Sir Launcelot, then I pick him to be Sir Tristram."
"Fool's reasoning, yet hath it much sense," said the King.
Now the stranger left. But ere departing, he turned to Allan.
"I trust, young master, I shall see you again. As to who I am, know you for your own keeping—fools ofttimes reason best of all."
The yeoman rode far into the forest. Then when he came to a lone habitation he dismounted. A knight seated near the small window at the further wall greeted him as he entered.
"How did the day turn out? No doubt they trounced you well."
"No, master, no trouncing did I get. Instead, the good King spoke pleasantly unto me, gave me this bag of gold, and commended me to my master. Furthermore, see you these prizes that are mine?"
"Aye," the yeoman continued, not a bit grieved at the knight's banter, "I even heard the King's fool remark that since the man was so good, the master need must be. And then and there he hazarded a shrewd guess that if this master were not the King, nor Sir Launcelot, then it must need be you."
"Then truly am I in good company. Now then tell me what news is there of tomorrow?"
"The King of Northgalis desires your aid. That I heard him say. Sir Launcelot is to joust for Cadoris as is Sir Palomides, and these two, of a truth, make it one-sided."
"Worthy Gouvernail, prove again my faith in you. Procure for me a shield, one that holds no insignia, so that I may enter the lists unbeknownst to any. I would not have them know I am Tristram, so that it may be my good fortune to joust with many knights who know me not."
"That, good master, is not hard. I know a place where I can obtain a black shield, one that holds no other remembrance upon it. It should serve your purpose well."
"By my faith, did ever better knave serve master? Right proud of you am I, Gouvernail. And would that I too had bags of gold I could give you for your loyal service."
"Nay, master, such service as I give I measure not by aught that you can pay."
"That do I know full well, else had you left me long since, for little have I paid," Sir Tristram answered, soft spoken and with great affection.
Sir Tristram's Prowess
So the next day Sir Tristram, carrying the black shield, went forth to enter the lists. And none knew him. The great conflict had already begun when he arrived. He found himself a place among those knights who jousted for Northgalis. And very soon all perceived that this knight with the black shield was skillful and strong. Well and lustily did he battle and none could withstand him. Yet did he not meet with Sir Launcelot nor with Sir Palomides, on this first day. Nor did any know him, but all marveled at his worth and bravery.
So, as the day was done, this Unknown and his servant, Gouvernail, rode back into the forest. And none followed him for he was a brave knight and all respected him and his desire to stay unknown. Yet did the judges declare the side of Northgalis victor and as for single knight, the most worthy was the Unknown. And he was called "the Knight of the Black Shield."
Now as the judges' duties were done, King Arthur showed how wroth he was that strange knight had carried off such great honors.
"Yet do we hope tomorrow shall show other reckoning than this. For good Launcelot shall be there and so shall we."
On the morn the heralds called forth the brave knights once again. And with the call came the "Knight of the Black Shield."
Sir Palomides was await for him, eager and alert, to be the first to joust. And so they, like great hounds, went at each other. And truly, Sir Tristram found his foe a worthy one. Long did they joust without either besting the other until he of the black shield by great skill and fine force brought down a mighty blow and did smite Sir Palomides over his horse's croup. But now as the knight fell King Arthur was there and he rode straight at the unknown knight shouting, "Make thee ready for me!" Then the brave sovereign, with eager heart, rode straight at him and as he came, his horse reared high. And such was the King's strength he unhorsed Sir Tristram.
Now, while the latter was on foot, rode full tilt upon him, Sir Palomides, and would have borne him down but that Sir Tristram was aware of his coming, and so lightly stepping aside, he grasped the arm of the rider and pulled him from his horse. The two dashed against each other on foot and with their swords battled so well that kings and queens and knights and their ladies stood and beheld them. But finally the Unknown smote his foe three mighty blows so that he fell upon the earth groveling. Then did they all truly wonder at his skill for Sir Palomides was thought by many to be the most skillful knight in Britain.
A knight now brought horse for Sir Tristram, for now, all knew that it must be he. So too was horse brought for Sir Palomides. Great was the latter's ire and he came at Sir Tristram again. Full force, he bore his lance at the other. And so anew they fought. Yet Sir Tristram was the better of the two and soon with great strength he got Sir Palomides by the neck with both hands and so pulled him clean out of his saddle. Then in the presence of them all, and well they marveled at his deed, he rode ten paces carrying the other in this manner and let him fall as he might.
Sir Tristram turned now again and saw King Arthur with naked sword ready for him. The former halted not, but rode straight at the King with his lance. But as he came, the King by wondrous blow sent his weapon flying and for a moment Sir Tristram was stunned. And as he sat there upon his horse the King rained blows upon him and yet did the latter draw forth his sword and assail the King so hard that he need must give ground. Then were these two divided by the great throng. But Sir Tristram, lion hearted, rode here and there and battled with all who would. And of the knights who opposed him he was victor of eleven. And all present marveled at him, at his strength and at his great deeds.
Yet had he not met Sir Launcelot, who elsewhere was meeting with all who would strive with him. Not many, however, would joust with him for he was known as the very bravest and most skillful. So as he sat there all at ease, there came the great acclaim for the Knight of the Black Shield. Nor did Sir Launcelot know him to be Sir Tristram. But he got his great lance and rushed toward the cry. When he saw this strange knight he called to him, "Knight of the Black Shield, prepare for me."
And then came such jousting as had never been seen. For each knight bowed low his head and came at the other like the wind. When they met it was very like thunder. Flashed lance on shields and armor so that sparks flew. And each would not give to the other one step but by great skill with shield did avoid the best of each other's blows.
Then did Sir Tristram's lance break in two, and Sir Launcelot, through further ill fortune, wounded Sir Tristram in his left side. But notwithstanding, the wounded knight brought forth his sword and rushed daringly at the other with a force that Sir Launcelot could not withstand, and gave him a fearful blow. Low in his saddle sagged Sir Launcelot, exceeding weak for many moments. Now Sir Tristram left him so and rode into the forest. And after him followed Gouvernail, his servant.
Sore wounded was Sir Tristram yet made he light of it. Sir Launcelot on his part recovered soon and turned back to the tourney, and thereafter did wondrous deeds and stood off many knights, together and singly.
Now again was the day done and the tournament, too. And to Sir Launcelot was given full honor as victor of the field. But naught would Sir Launcelot have of this. He rode forthwith to his King.
"Sire, it is not I but this knight with the Black Shield who has shown most marvelous skill of all. And so I will not have these prizes for they do not belong to me."
"Well spoken, Sir Launcelot and like thy true self," replied the King. "So since this knight is gone, will you go forth with us within the fortnight in search for him. And unless we are in great error we shall find this Knight of the Black Shield no more, no less, than Sir Tristram."
The Kitchen Boy
Among all those who came to the court of King Arthur at this Pentecost seeking hospitality, were two strangers in especial, who because of being meanly garbed and of a seeming awkwardness brought forth the mockery and jest of Sir Kay the Seneschal. Nor did Sir Kay mean harm thereby, for he was knight who held no villainy. Yet was his tongue overly sharp and too oft disposed to sting and mock.
Too, the manner of their coming was strange. One was a youth of handsome mien. Despite his ill garb, he seemed of right good worship. Him, our young page Allan found fallen in a swoon, very weak and near unto death, asprawl on the green about a mile from the castle. Thinking that the man was but a villain, he would fain have called one of the men-at-arms to give him aid, but that something drew him to closer view. And then the boy felt certain that this was no villain born for his face bespoke gentle breeding. So he himself hastened for water and by much use of it the man soon opened his eyes and found himself. So he studied the lad as he helped him to greater ease but either through his great weakness or no desire he did not speak.
"Stranger," said Allan to the man, "if there is aught that I can do for you or if I can help you in any way I give you offer of service. Mayhap of the many knights who are here, there is one whose aid you may justly claim."
The stranger held answer for many moments, then he spoke.
"There are those here, lad, whose service I may well accept for they hold ties of blood to me. But I would not. Rather, if your patience will bear with me, I would fain have your help so that I can appear in the presence of the King this day. For so it is ordained and by appearing there I shall find some part of my row accomplished. On this holy day, I have boon to ask from your King."
"So shall I and right gladly lead you there. Good sir, my name is Allan. I am page to Sir Percival, and I would bespeak your name."
"I beg of thee, Allan, think not that I am churlish and yet must I withhold my name. For it is part of the vow I have made. Nor, forsooth, am I therefore the less grateful."
"No offense take I, friend. So when you feel disposed I shall guide your steps for audience with our good King."
The stranger, weak and spent, leaning mightily on his young friend made his way to the great hall. And as we have recounted, though all were struck by oddness and meanness of the stranger's clothes, yet only Sir Kay made point to taunt him. Yet did he make no answer to these taunts but waited with a great meekness for his turn before the King. And that he should wait with such meekness was strange for he seemed to be a high born knight.
There were many who sought audience with the King and it was long before the stranger's turn came. Weak he still was, but he made no complaint, and when others would crowd before him so that they could speak the sooner to King Arthur, he did not chide them but permitted it. At last Sir Launcelot came forward, for he had observed this and made each of them find the place which was first theirs, so that the stranger's turn came as it should. Weak though he was he walked with a great firmness to the dais, and none there saw his poor clothes for the fineness of him. The King turned to him and he nodded kindly.
"Speak, friend. In what way can we be of service to thee?"
"Sire," said the stranger, "I come to ask of thee three boons. One I ask this day and on this day one year I shall come before you and crave your favor for the other two."
"If the boon you ask, stranger, is aught we can grant, we shall do so cheerfully, for on this day we heed all prayers."
"I ask very little, sire. This and no more do I wish—that you give me food and drink for one year and that on this day a year hence I shall make my other two prayers."
"It is indeed little you ask. Food and drink we refuse none. It is here. Yet while your petition might well beseem a knave, thou seemeth of right good worship, a likely youth, too, none fairer, and we would fain your prayer had been for horse and armor. Yet may you have your wish. Sir Kay," and the King turned to his Seneschal, "see you to it that this stranger finds his wish satisfied."
So the King turned to others present, for of those who sought audience there were many. And so forgot all of the fair youth for many a day.
Sir Kay laughed mockingly at the unknown.
"Of a truth this is villain born. For only such would ask for food and drink of the King. So therefore he shall find place in our kitchen. He shall help there, he shall have fat broth to satisfy himself and in a year no hog shall be fatter. And we shall know him as the Kitchen Boy."
"Sir Kay," frowned Sir Launcelot, "I pray you cease your mocking. It is not seemly. This stranger, whosoever he may be, has right to make whatsoever request he wishes."
"Nay, Sir Launcelot, of a truth, as he is, so has he asked."
"Yet I like not your mocking," said Sir Launcelot as he looked frowningly at Sir Kay, while next to him stood Sir Gawaine and Sir Percival, neither of whom could scarce contain himself.
"It is well, we know you, Sir Kay. Or, by our guardian saints we would make you answer for your bitter tongue. But that we know it belies a heart of kindness we would long since have found quarrel with you." So spoke Sir Percival and Sir Gawaine nodded in assent.
"Stay not any quarrel for any seeming knowledge of me, kind friends," frowned back Sir Kay.
But the two knights moved away. Sir Kay was of great shame. And so to cover it he turned to the stranger in great fury. "Come then to your kennel, dog," he said.
Out flashed the sword of Sir Gawaine. Yet did Sir Launcelot withhold him.
"Sir, I beg you to do me honor of feasting with us this day?"
"I thank you Sir Launcelot. Yet must I go with Sir Kay and do his bidding. There do be knights well worth their places at the Round Table. And I note right well that they set high example to those who are still but lads and who are to become knights in good time. So to you all I give my thanks."
Then followed the stranger after Sir Kay while the three knights and Allan watched him go and marveled at his meekness.
And so in turn came the second stranger before King Arthur. Poorly clothed, too, yet had his coat once been rich cloth of gold. Now it sat most crookedly upon him and was cut in many places so that it but barely hung upon his shoulders.
"Sire," said the stranger, "you are known everywhere as the noblest King in the world. And for that reason I come to you to be made knight."
"Knights, good friend," replied the King, "are not so easily made. Such knights as we do appoint must first prove their worth. We know thee not, stranger, and know not the meaning of thy strange garb. For truly, thou art a strange sight."
"I am Breunor le Noire and soon you will know that I am of good kin. This coat I wear is token of vow made for vengeance. So, I found it on my slain father and I seek his slayer. This day, oh King, I go forth content, if you make promise that should I perform knightly deed you will dub me knight of yours."
"Go thou forth, then. We doubt not that thou wilt prove thy true valor and be worthy of knighthood. Yet proof must be there."
On this selfsame day, Breunor le Noire departed.
Next morn, the King together with Sir Launcelot, Sir Percival, Sir Gawaine, Sir Pellimore, Sir Gilbert, Sir Neil and Sir Dagonet, indeed a right goodly party, prepared to depart. Nor did they purpose to return until they met with Sir Tristram, for King Arthur was of great desire to have this good knight as one of the Round Table.
Now as these, the flower of King Arthur's court, were waiting for Sir Dagonet who was to be with them and who had delayed, Sir Launcelot saw Allan the boy watching them from the side. Saw too, the great wish in the lad's eyes. Nor did Allan see himself observed for Sir Launcelot was not then with the others.
A thought came to this fine spirited knight and it brought great and smiling good humor to his lips. He rode to Sir Percival's side and the two whispered for many moments. Then did the two speak to the King and he laughed, but did not turn to gaze at the boy. Sir Gawaine now joined in the whispering. Then did all four laugh with great merriment. So Sir Pellimore and the other knights inquired the cause for the merriment and, being told, laughed too. Kindly was the laughter, strong men these who could yet be gentle. Sir Launcelot now turned and rode hard at the boy.
"And wherefore, lad," and dark was his frown and greatly wroth he seemed, "do you stand here watching? Rude staring yours and no fit homage to pay your betters. Perchance, we may all be displeased, the King, Sir Percival, and all of us."
Now the lad's eyes clouded. To have displeased these knights, the greatest men in all the world, for so he thought them. Then and there he wished he could die. Woe had the knight's words brought to him.
"Indeed, and I meant no disrespect, Sir Launcelot. Indeed—" and said no more for he knew he would weep if he spoke further. So he saw not the dancing laughter in the knight's eye, nor the wide grins on the faces of the others.
"Yet we must punish thee, lad. So then prepare you to accompany us. Get your horse at once. Nor will we listen to any prayer you may make for not going because of your youth."
Agape, Allan turned to look at him. For he knew he could not have heard aright. But now, as he looked, he saw that Sir Launcelot was laughing and then as he turned wondering, he saw his own lord and the King and the other knights watching him with great glee.
"You mean then, that I—I—may go with all of you!"
And then so that there would be no chance of its being otherwise, he rushed in mad haste to get his horse. Joy was the wings which made his feet fly. He came back in quick time, a bit uncertain, riding forward slowly, diffidently, and stopped a little way from them, awaiting word. Then did Sir Launcelot ride to him and place kindly arm about the youth and bring him among them all.
Now Sir Dagonet was with them and they rode forth.
With the equipage came the hounds, for the first day of their journey was to be given over to hunting. There came also the master of the hounds who was to return with them at the close of the hunt.
None other than the great Launcelot rode with Allan and none sat straighter and more at ease in his saddle than the boy as they passed the Queen, the Lady Olande, her two daughters and many other ladies of the realm. Nor did the boy see any other than the minx Yosalinde. But she—she did not seem to find him among the knights, yet he wondered how she could help but see him. He would have liked to call to her, "See, here am I among all these brave knights." Instead he rode past very erect. If she would not see him, what matter, since, he was there, one of the company.
Then, of a sudden, she smiled straight at him. So that for him was the full glory of the world. And we doubt not, for that smile he would have fought the bravest knight in all the world and found man's strength therein.
Now the company found itself in the woods and many hours journey away. So they rode hard for they liked not to tarry on the road.
Long after midday, King Arthur and his men spread out for the hunt. The forest in which they now found themselves held game and wild animals in plenty. Soon thereafter did the hounds give tongue for they had found the scent. No mean prey had they found though, for the quarry gave them a long race. Close behind the hounds came King Arthur and almost as close, Sir Percival and Sir Launcelot.
Now, at last, the stag, a noble animal with wondrous horns, lithe body and beautifully shaped limbs was at bay. Straight and true, at its throat, flew the leader of the pack, and sank its teeth deep into it, while above the King blew loud and long the death note of the chase. No need for other hounds nor for weapons of the men.
Dark had stolen over the forest when the men with huge appetites came to sup. Juicy venison steak was there, so was the wild duck and the pheasant in plenty. To the full they ate as did the few men at arms that were with them.
Yet none stayed awake long thereafter. It had been an arduous day. Allan alone was wide-awake; his eyes would not close. And he knew of a certainty that he was the most fortunate lad in all the world. When he should become a man, he would be—well, he was not certain whether he would be like unto the King, Sir Percival or Sir Launcelot. Yes, he did know, he would be like them all. Now there came mixed thoughts of a maid who waved her hand and smiled at him. And he felt of a precious ring upon his finger.
So now his eyes closed; he found himself seeking the Holy Grail. And during all of the night dreamed that he had found it.
Allan Meets a Stranger
The noble cortege, after the first day's hunt, continued on its journey.
It had reached Leek, in Stafford on the morn of the fifth day ere word came of Sir Tristram. Here, was heard from some, Sir Tristram was then on way to Scotland, and from still others, that he was bound for Kinkenadon in Wales.
"By my faith," spoke Sir Gawaine, "there are none that are more ready to testify to Sir Tristram's greatness and ability, too. Yet still, have I many doubts as to his being both on way to Scotland and to Wales as well."
"If it were left to me," said Sir Dagonet, "I would hie me to Ireland. A likely spot to find him, say I. For there are none who have said that they know of the good knight's journey thitherward."
"We, for ourselves, think it best," the king interrupted, "to tarry here this day. Our comrade, Pellimore, expresses great desire to have us partake of his hospitality and we are fain, so to do. What say you?"
"It were wisdom to do so, methinks," agreed Sir Percival. "Tomorrow we may find here some further news of Sir Tristram's way."
"Aye, sir knights," added Sir Launcelot, "for we need must know whether we continue our travel north or west from this point."
So all of them were housed within the castle walls. And Sir Pellimore spread bounteous feast before his guests at midday for he held it high honor to be host to such as these.
Now, as the repast had been completed, Allan grew restless. He was of a mind to ride forth and so craved permission from Sir Percival who gave ready consent.
Forth he went and rode for many an hour. And then, since the day had great heat, he found himself turn drowsy. Thereupon finding a pleasant, shaded spot, he quickly made a couch of cedar boughs and soon was fast asleep.
It seemed to the boy he had slept but few moments when his eyes opened wide with the certainty that other eyes were directed upon him. Nor was this mere fancy nor dream. Near him sat a monk, and from under the black hood the face that peered forth at him was gaunt, cadaverous, with eyes that seemed to burn straight through the lad. But for the eyes, this figure could well have been carven, so still and immovable did it sit there and gaze at the youth. Nor did the monk speak far many minutes even though he must have known that the boy was awake and watching him.
The sun now hung low in the sky. Allan knew that he must have been asleep for at least two hours. He knew, too, that he should rise and return to the castle, since the hour was already late and his time overspent. Yet did the monk's eyes hold him to the spot. Nor was the thing that held him there fear; rather could it be described as the feeling one has before a devout, sacred and holy presence. Despite the holy man's unworthy aspect he inspired no fear in the lad.
"Allan, boy," and the lad wondered that the monk knew him by name, "two things I know have been chief in your thoughts these days." Kindly was the monk's tone. "What then are these two things?"
No thought had the boy of the oddness of the monk's words, nor of his questions. Nor of the fact that the monk seemed to be there present. Somehow, the whole of it took on some great purport. Allan stopped not to wonder, which the two things the monk mentioned were uppermost in his mind but straightway made reply.
"Strange monk, I think and dream of the Holy Grail. And think too of Yosalinde, sister to my Lord Percival. And of naught else so much. But pray you, holy father, who are you?
"Truth, lad. As to who I am or as to where I come, know you this. I come to you from that same place as do all dreams.
"Aye lad. Dreaming and fancying shall ever be yours. These son, shall bring you the visions of tomorrow and many another day.
"I have come to tell you this, lad. But two years or more and you shall start in earnest on your search for the Grail. And whether you find the same, I shall not and cannot say, for the finding depends on you. The way shall be hard, youth of many dreams, though you will have help and guidance, too. But the great inspiration for it all shall come to you from the second of these, your two big thoughts.
"I sought you many a day, lad. Merlin has sounded the message for me to all the knights of Britain. Once before, years ago, I came to find the likely seeker for the Grail and thought that I had found him. Yet did the crucible's test find some alloy and so I had need to come again.
"Then," said Allan but barely comprehending, "you are none other than Sir Joseph of Armathea."
"Lad, it matters not as to who and what I am. It is of you, we are now concerned. Dear, dear, lad, they shall name you again and the name which shall be yours shall ever after be symbolic with the very best that manhood holds."
"Go your way, now. For I must speak with many more this day ere I return. A knight comes but now, with whom I must hold counsel. And I would fain speak to him, alone."
"True, father, I had best go. For Sir Percival will think me thoughtless, if not worse. As to what you have said, I can do but that best which is in me and ever seek to make that best better. And so, I ask your blessing."
The boy knelt. The monk, lean, black cowled, eyes glowing with a light that held the supernatural, placed hand upon the boy's head and gave him blessing. So then the boy mounted horse and was away.
He rode hard for he held great anxiety to return quickly. And all the time he rode he thought of the things the strange monk had told him, Some of it, he did not altogether understand. That was because of his youthfulness. It was to come back to him when many months had passed. This however, he knew, he was destined to make search for the Holy Grail. For so, the holy man had ordained.
Sir Percival, a bit anxious, was waiting for the lad when he returned.
"I went far and then fell asleep," Allan explained. "Nor did I awaken until the sun hung low." He did not speak of the meeting with the monk.
"It is well you are back, lad. For I was fast growing worried over the lateness of your return. Turn in then. I wot not, but that food will be found for you on which you can sup. Sir Launcelot went forth some hours ago. I fancy he went in search of you, though he would not admit this to be the purpose of his departure."
The Stranger and Sir Launcelot
Let us then turn to Sir Launcelot now making his way along the road over which Allan had been seen to depart. Though the knight had denied that he purposed to seek the lad, yet had his horse taken that way. A growing fondness for the boy which he had not made too obvious, for it was not his wont to show too easily his feelings. Display or show of emotion ever embarrassed him. He had noted the long absence of Allan and so had mounted his horse intent to all appearance on a short canter.
Half way to where Allan had made his couch, the road over which he had ridden branched right and left and some miles down came together again. Now when Allan returned he took the road to his right having ridden the other way earlier in the day. Sir Launcelot made for the road to the right of him and so missed the boy returning.
He found himself at the place at which the boy had slept. He dismounted to observe more closely. Then he beheld the holy man as he stepped from the shadows.
"Good day to you, holy father," the knight greeted him.
"God's blessing stay with thee, son. I have been expecting thee."
"Nay, father, not me. Other knight, mayhap. For I knew not myself I would be here."
"Yet did I know, Sir Launcelot. You came here to seek the youth Allan and knew not that you came in obedience to greater will than your own. And having come, you must, prithee, listen to the things that must be told you."
"Launcelot," and the monk spoke sternly and yet with great sadness, "as measured by men thou art the bravest knight in Christendom. Chivalrous, strong, yet gentle and ever ready to succor the weak and distressed. Your name shall be emblazoned as symbolic of chivalry." The strange man paused for a time.
"I speak now of the Holy Grail," he resumed. "Who would be better fitted to seek and find the Holy Grail? Are there any who hold greater desire to find the same? And who seeks to make himself more worthy?"
"And yet, though you seek until Judgment Day you will never find it. In the innermost soul of you, you know it to be so. The pity of it."
"Strange monk," and a dull red mantled the knight's cheeks, "those are bold words you speak. None but Launcelot himself can tell the things he may or may not do. And since I am not in search of father confessor, nor since I sought not this meeting, I pray thee offer not your counsel nor advice."
"The truth, then, sears, sir knight!" Now the monk's eyes flashed. Straight and tall he stood and his lean figure held so much of that which was not earthly, that even the mighty Launcelot was daunted.
"Who then has more right or reason to tell you of these things. It is I who first picked you, long since, as likely finder of the Holy Grail. And when I found you slipping ever so little, and well you know wherein you have failed me, I sent Merlin to all of you. For since he on whom I had built my faith could not measure to the test I had strong need to find someone else.
"For Britain must hold the Grail. Somewhere in it, there must be the man who measures up to the test, high though it be."
"Son, son, the things you could have done. The fineness of you, coarsened by the temptations you have met and not overcome. The joy you have found in things that are sordid and count for so little."
Low hung the knight's head, His anger had left him now. In its stead was a deep humility.
"Father, you bare my soul. And yet have I striven. High did I hold the ideals which first inspired me, I have overcome much, have tried to keep to the high set purpose. Yet I am but common clay, after all."
"Nay, nay son. I would all men held half thy nobility. Only," and now the monk's tone was again kindly, "there are some we weigh on much finer scales than others. We ask more of them, seek more from them. Forgive less, too. Perhaps we are wrong to desire so much from any mortal soul. Yet have we faith,—we believe."
"I find no complaint, holy father, in the measure you have set for me. For I saw the things, I had the vision to see them. Saw too, the things that were wrong even as I did these things."
"Yet, my son, a great task shall be yours. Now of the boy Allan." The monk paused.
"What of him, father? A fine lad is he. So young, yet is he too, to be burdened with great responsibilities? I pray thee, let him keep his youth."
"Launcelot, my son, when will you grow to thy true self? For there lies your failure. You who took your responsibilities as burdens, when you should have found great joy in that they were yours. Yet, now listen to me as to this boy Allan. I have seen him this day, have spoken to him of the Holy Grail. A dreaming youth, yet is he fired by fine inspiration and great ideals. He is ordained to seek it. That holds no strangeness for there are many such. As to whether he finds it or not is dependent upon him, as it was once upon yourself. And since you cannot find it, seek it as you will, I charge you with helping him keep clean souled. Should he do so, ere many years will pass, he may find it. For you, there will be the joy, the glory of service, of having helped. Without your help, success for him will be so much less likely. Will you help him Launcelot? Think well before you make reply."
Not at once did Sir Launcelot answer. Yet it was the best within him that did give final utterance.
"I promise you father, that such help as I can give the lad I shall. Much have I learned. And with these things that I have learned he shall be guided. No bitterness mine. Since I am not to be the finder of the Holy Grail, I pledge you now my aid to Allan."
"Launcelot, so little fails you for that needed greatness. None have I loved so much. If you have sinned you have been great and glorious even in the sinning.
"Never have you been finer than now. Allan will need your help, your strength. There shall be a maid too, to help him. The threads have also been woven for that now. When the time shall come, you will call this lad Galahad, the Chaste. Treat him ever as your son, Launcelot."
"Son and comrade, too, he shall be for me. Father, I thank you."
"So then I go, son. I could not love you more were you less a mortal sinner."
The Party Divides
When the morning came there was great indecision as to the further way, for no new information had come of Sir Tristram. Sir Gawaine now spoke for going north to Scotland. So too, was Sir Pellimore minded and Sir Gilbert as well. But Sir Percival spoke for Wales and so did Sir Neil.
"As for me," said Sir Dagonet, "I pick Wales, since Kinkenadon is the nearer to Ireland. My fool's head still fancies that we shall have need to turn there ere we shall find this errant knight."
Neither the King nor Sir Launcelot up to this time had expressed a choice. But now the King vouchsafed a plan.
"It seems to us good plan for our party to divide. Some of us to go north, some west. You Launcelot could well go with one party and we with the other. What say you friends?"
That plan suited them all. So then the King went with Sir Gawaine, Sir Pellimore, and Sir Gilbert, while Sir Launcelot accompanied Sir Percival, Sir Neil, Sir Dagonet and Allan. With each party, too, went three men-at-arms.
Our way shall be with Sir Percival.
At the end of the first half day they found themselves near the crossroads of Nantwich.
"We must soon find place for food," remarked Sir Percival and lustily they all agreed.
"See you castle beyond yonder crossroads?" questioned Sir Neil, "Sir Manstor lives there with his three brothers. Right skillful knights are these but woe the lone stranger who passes by. For these are villainous four."
"Right bitterly do you speak of them, Neil," remarked Sir Launcelot. "And why?"
"I pray fortune to permit me to meet with this Manstor. I stopped there for food one day. Then did this knight, his brothers by his side, demand the bag of gold I carried with me. Nor would single one among them battle with me. It would have fared ill with me but for two knights who passing by, came to my aid."
"Our vow," said Sir Launcelot thoughtfully, "is to find Sir Tristram. Yet can I see no harm in straying from our way an hour or two, can you, Percival?"
"Not if there is promise of such entertainment as this," was the reply.
"These knights," interrupted Sir Neil, "have stomach for neither joust nor other encounter when the odds are not with them. Nor will they venture to impede our way unless we number less than they."
"If greater or equal number withholds them," said Sir Dagonet. "I would favor them and withdraw. Then would there be one less doughty sword."
"Aye, Dagonet, we know your unselfish spirit," said Sir Neil and laughed.
"The knight does not live who has bested me, nevertheless," replied the jester, with pretended heat.
"The knight does not live who has had the chance," said Sir Percival. "Yet we love you none the less, brother."
Said now Sir Launcelot: "One of us could ride ahead. And, perchance, these scheming knights will think that easy prey comes and so strive to impede the way. Then when they bear down upon him we can appear and give them such entertainment as they have not had in many a day."
Now one of the men-at-arms came forward.
"And if you will, masters, yonder cruel knight is cruel master as well. And he holds my own brother within his prison walls for small cause. So I pray you, masters, succor him."
"Of a surety, Wonkin," said Sir Percival, "we shall make every effort to set your brother free. Neil and I shall go forward and so find ourselves seemingly enmeshed by them. Then will you, at proper time, Launcelot, come forward. And if Dagonet so wishes, he can protect our rear."
The two knights then hurried on. They had not far to go to the turn of the road and there the four knights within the castle grounds, seeing them, stood watching for a moment or so. Then each mounted his horse and in armor, rode forth from within the walls.
"We are knights on way to Wales," said Sir Percival in mild tone. "We seek food for our midday meal."
"Food we will give you right gladly," replied the oldest of the four. "But ask in payment such gold as you may have."
"That would be poor bargain," replied Sir Percival, still mild spoken. "We had liefer go our way to place which seeks not such high pay."
"That may you well do, strangers, yet must you still leave your gold behind. For we have great need of it."
"Yet no greater need for it than have we. Come, comrade, we must be on our way." So spoke Sir Percival to Sir Neil. And now the robber knights were certain that these were but timid men. So out came their swords as they rode at the two. But they found them ready and watchful. And though the odds were two to one, it was not hard matter to hold the robbers off until Sir Launcelot came charging into the melee.
As the four robbers turned to the newcomer and beheld his shield and armor, they knew that it was Launcelot. And knew too that this was trap set for them. Thereupon did Sir Manstor withdraw for the moment from the struggle and blow horn he carried—two long and one short note.
One of the brothers had already been unhorsed and most grievously wounded. Sir Manstor now came back to the aid of his brothers and of them all he was most skillful. So Sir Launcelot turned to him and him, the robber knight found more than a match.
But from within the walls came forty and more men at arms, some with bow and arrow and others with club and mace. And with them, two other knights.
When Sir Launcelot saw these, he called to his comrades. "Hard at them, hard."
For he had in mind to down these three before the others came.
Then did the three, that is, Launcelot, Percival and Neil with wondrous strength of arm, each by mighty blow, bring rider to the ground. And Sir Manstor was dead because of the fearful blow of Sir Launcelot. The other two were asprawl on the ground and but barely moving.
"I call this right skillfully done," said Sir Dagonet who now came toward them. He had watched but had not joined in the struggle.
Now, Wonkin and the two men at arms were there and so was Allan.
"Will you, good men, try out your bows on these hinds who are coming thitherward?" said Sir Percival.
Straightway then there flew three well aimed arrows. Then others flew and now answering arrows from the oncomers. But these did not harm for Wonkin and the other two stood under cover of trees and so were not easy targets.
Twice more they let their arrows fly and five men of the forty had been stopped.
Now as the others came at them with clubs and mace, Sir Launcelot commanded Wonkin and the other two to withdraw a hundred pace and from there continue to let their arrows fly. And this was great wisdom for else the three could not have long withstood the large number.
So now the knights with their great lances fought off the villains and the two knights who were with them. Very few who came within the reach of the long weapons escaped. And from their place the three men at arms shot arrow after arrow into the attackers.
Three of the knaves had hold of Sir Percival's horse and thereupon others swarmed upon him and what with the blows of their maces and clubs, he was in sorry plight. Nor could Sir Launcelot turn to help him for he was in great conflict with the two knights and a large number of them on foot and Sir Neil equally so. As for Allan he had already ridden down two of the attackers and had brought his weapon which was cross between sword and dagger down upon their skulls. Now as he turned he saw the plight of his lord. So did Sir Dagonet, who though timid had up to then made some ado to help. Whereupon both sped hard to Sir Percival's aid. And so skillful was the boy that he hewed down several of the knaves and Sir Dagonet too, soon found that others of Sir Percival's attackers were turning their attention to him. All of which gave needed time for Sir Percival to escape from his difficulty, draw sword and begin anew.