Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris




The Combat of Arthur and Accolan

The time for the battle having come, the two knights took their places at the opposite sides of the lists, neither knowing with whom he fought, and both bent on doing battle to the death. Then putting spurs to their steeds, they dashed across the field with headlong speed, each striking the other in the middle of the shield with his spear, and with such force that horses and men alike were hurled to the earth. In a moment both the combatants started up in warlike fury and drew their swords.

At this juncture there came among the spectators the damsel Nimue, she who had put Merlin under the stone. She knew, by the art that Merlin had taught her, how Morgan le Fay had plotted that Arthur should be slain that day, and she came to save his life if it lay in her power, for she loved the king as deeply as she hated Merlin.

Eagerly to battle went the two knights, hewing at each other like giants with their swords. But Arthur's blade bit not like Accolan's, which wounded him at nearly every stroke, so that soon his blood was flowing from a dozen wounds, while his opponent remained unhurt.

Arthur was in deep dismay on beholding this. That some treason had been practised on him he felt sure, for his sword bit not steel as a good blade should, while the sword in Accolan's hand seemed to have the trenchant edge of Excalibur.

"Sir knight," said Accolan, "keep well your guard if you care for life."

"Thus will I," answered Arthur, and he dealt him a blow on the helm that nearly brought him to the ground.

Accolan drew back from the staggering stroke, and then with a furious onset rushed on Arthur, and dealt him so fierce a blow that the king had much ado to keep his feet. Thus stroke by stroke went on the battle, each knight roused to fury, and each fighting with his utmost skill and strength; but Accolan lost scarcely a drop of blood, while Arthur's life-blood flowed so freely that only his knightly soul and unyielding courage kept him on his feet. He grew so feeble that he felt as if death was upon him, yet, though he staggered like a drunken man, he faced Accolan with the unquenched spirit of a noble knight.

All who saw the field marvelled that Arthur could fight after such a loss of blood. So valiant a knight none there had ever beheld, and many prayed the two brothers to come into accord and stop this deadly fray. But this Damas would not do, and though Ontzlake trembled for his cause he could not end the combat.

At this juncture Arthur withdrew a little to rest, but Accolan called him fiercely to the fight, saying, "I shall not suffer you to rest; neither of us must rest except in death."

With these words he advanced towards the king, who, with the strength of rage, sprang upon him and struck him so mighty a blow on the helm as to make him totter on his feet and nearly fall. But the blow had a serious ending, for Arthur's sword broke at the cross, the blade falling into the blood-stained grass, and only the hilt and pommel remaining in his hand.

When Arthur saw himself thus disarmed he felt sure that his hour of death had come, yet he let not his dread be seen, but held up his shield and lost no ground, facing his mortal foe as boldly as though he was trebly armed.

"Sir knight," cried Accolan, "you are overcome, and can no longer sustain the battle. You are weaponless, and have lost so much blood that I am loath to slay you. Therefore yield to me as recreant, and force me not to kill a helpless foe."

"That I may not do," said Arthur. "I have promised, by the faith of my body, to fight this battle to the uttermost; and I had rather die in honor than live in shame. If I lack weapon, I lack not spirit; and if you slay me weaponless, the shame be on you."

"That shame I can bear," said Accolan. "What I have sworn I will perform. Since you will not yield, you are a dead man."

This said, he struck Arthur a furious blow, that almost felled him to the earth, bidding him at the same time to crave for mercy if he would live. Arthur's only reply was to press upon him with his shield, and deal him such a buffet with the pommel of his sword as to send him staggering three paces back.

And now the damsel Nimue, stirred by the prowess of the king, and fearful of his death, determined to aid him by all her power of enchantment.

Therefore, when Accolan recovered himself and struck Arthur another stroke, she threw a spell upon him and caused the sword to fall from his hand to the earth. At once the king lightly leaped to it and seized it, thrusting Accolan fiercely back. As soon as his hand had touched the hilt he knew it for his sword Excalibur.

"You have been too long from me," he said, "and no small damage you have done me. Treason has been at work, and treason shall have its deserts."

Then, seeing the scabbard hanging by Accolan's side, he sprang suddenly forward and wrenched it from him, flinging it across the field as far as he could throw it.

[Illustration] from King Arthur I by Charles Morris

NIMUE


"Now, sir knight," cried Arthur, "my turn has come. You have nearly brought my life to an end with this sword, and I warrant that you shall be rewarded for the blood I have lost and the pain I have endured this day."

Therewith, furious as a wounded lion, Arthur rushed upon his foe, hurled him with all his strength to the earth, tore off his helm, and gave him such a blow upon the head that blood burst out from his ears, nose, and mouth.

"Now shall I slay you," said Arthur.

"Do so if you will," said Accolan. "You are the best knight I ever met, and I see now that God is with you. But I promised to do this battle to the uttermost, and never to yield me recreant. Therefore kill me if you will, for my voice shall never ask for mercy."

Then Arthur, looking closer, saw something familiar in his face.

"Tell me who you are," he cried; "of what country and court."

"Sir knight," said Accolan, "I am of the court of King Arthur, and my name is Accolan of Gaul."

Arthur heard this with deep dismay. For there came into his mind the enchantment of the ship, and his heart sank with fear of the treason of his sister.

"Tell me this also, sir knight," he asked, "from whom had you this sword?"

"Woe worth that sword," cried Accolan; "I have gotten my death by it."

"That may well be," answered Arthur, "and I fancy have got no more than you deserve."

"Yesterday," said the knight, "Morgan le Fay sent me that sword by a dwarf, that with it I might slay the knight with whom I should fight this day! And she would also pledge me to slay King Arthur, her brother, for she hates him above any man in the world."

"How know you that to be so?"

"I have loved her long, and know her purposes well, nor shall I longer keep them secret. If by craft she could slay Arthur, she would quickly dispose of her husband, King Uriens. Then it was her intent to make me king of this realm, and to reign herself as its queen. But all this now is at an end, for death is upon me."

"It would have been great wrong in you to destroy your lord," said Arthur.

"That I never could have had the heart to do," said Accolan. "But I pray you to tell me your name, and from what court you come?"

"I am from Camelot, and men know me as King Arthur. I am he against whom you plotted such deep treason."

Then Accolan cried out in anguish,—

"My fair, sweet lord, have mercy on me, for I knew you not."

"You knew me not at this time, Accolan, but you have confessed that you plotted treason against me, and laid plans to compass my death. Yet I blame you the less that Morgan le Fay has worked on you with her false arts. I have honored and loved her most of all my kin, and have trusted her as I would my wife, and this is how she repays me. By the faith of my body, if I live I shall be deeply revenged upon her for this."

Then he called to the keepers of the field, and said,—

"Here, fair sirs, are two knights who have fought nearly to the death through ignorance of each other. For had either of us known the other you would have seen no battle to-day, and no stroke given or returned."

Then Accolan called out to those who had gathered around,—

"Lords and knights, this noble warrior with whom I have fought is the man of most valor, manhood, and worship on English soil, for he is no less than our liege lord, King Arthur. Had I but dreamed it was he, I would have killed myself rather than have drawn sword against him."

At this surprising news the people fell upon their knees before the king and begged mercy and pardon.

"Pardon you shall have," said the king, "for you were ignorant of my person. It is my fault if harm came to me in disguise. And here you may all see what adventures and dangers knights-errant are exposed to; for, unknown to each other, I and one of my own knights have fought for hours, to the great damage of us both. We are both sorely hurt, but before seeking rest it is my duty to settle the dispute which gave rise to this combat. I have been your champion, Sir Damas, and have won your cause. But as the victor I claim the right to give judgment, and as I know you for a villain and coward, I adjudge unto your brother all the manor in dispute, with the provision that he hold it of you, and yearly give you in lieu of rent a palfrey to ride upon, which will become such a base poltroon much better than a war-horse. And I charge you, upon pain of death, to restore to these twenty knights their armor and property, and never again to distress a knight-errant. If complaint of such shall be made to me, by my head, you shall die for it. Sir Ontzlake, you are said to be a good and valiant knight, and true and worthy in your deeds. I desire you to come to my court as soon as possible, where you shall be one of my knights, and, if your deeds hereafter conform to the good report I have heard of you, you soon shall equal your brother in estate."

"I am at your command," said Ontzlake, "and thank you humbly for your goodness and bounty. As for this battle, I would have fought it myself, only that lately I was deeply wounded in a combat with a wandering knight."

"I would it had been so," said Arthur, "for treason was used against me in this combat, and had I fought with you I should not have been so badly hurt. My own sword was stolen and I was given a false and brittle blade, which failed me in my greatest need."

"Great pity it is that a king so noble and a knight so worthy should have been thus foully dealt with."

"I shall reward the traitor in short time, by the grace of God," said Arthur. "Now tell me how far I am from Camelot?"

"You are two days' journey distant."

"Then where can I obtain shelter and rest?"

"There is an abbey but three miles distant where you will find skilled leeches and good nursing."

Then King Arthur took his leave of the people, and repaired with Accolan to the abbey, where he and the knight were placed under medical care. Arthur's wounds, though deep and painful, proved not serious, and he rapidly recovered, but Accolan had lost so much blood that he died within four days. Then Arthur had the corpse sent on a horse-bier, attended by six knights, to Camelot, saying to the messengers,—

"Bear this body to my sister, Morgan le Fay, and say to her that I send it as a present. Tell her, moreover, that, through her sisterly kindness, I have again my sword Excalibur and the scabbard, and shall visit her ere long."