Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris

At the Castle of Maidens

When came the dawn of the first day of the tournament, many ladies and gentlemen of the court took their seats on a high gallery, shaded by a rich canopy of parti-colored silk, while in the centre of the gallery sat King Arthur and Queen Guenever, and, by the side of the king, Lancelot du Lake. Many other noble lords and ladies of the surrounding country occupied the adjoining seats, while round the circle that closed in the lists sat hosts of citizens and country people, all eager for the warlike sports.

Knights in glittering armor stood in warlike groups outside the entrance gates, where rose many pavilions of red and white silk, each with its fluttering pennon, and great war-horses that impatiently champed the bit, while the bright steel heads of the lances shone like star-points in the sun.

Within the lists the heralds and pursuivants busied themselves, while cheery calls, and bugle-blasts, and the lively chat of the assembled multitude filled the air with joyous sound.

Tristram de Lyonesse still dwelt with the old knight Sir Pellounes, in company with Sir Persides, whom he yet kept in ignorance of his name. And as it was his purpose to fight that day unknown, he ordered Gouvernail, his squire, to procure him a black-faced shield, without emblem or device of any kind.

So accoutred, he and Persides mounted in the early morn and rode together to the lists, where the parties of King Carados and the king of Northgalis were already being formed. Tristram and his companion joined the side of Carados, the Scottish king, and hardly had they ridden to their place when King Arthur gave the signal for the onset, the bugles loudly sounded, and the two long lines of knights rode together with a crash as of two thunder-clouds meeting in mid-air.

Many knights and horses went to the earth in that mad onset, and many others who had broken their spears drew their swords and so kept up the fray. The part of the line where Tristram and Persides was drove back the king of Northgalis and his men, with many noble knights who fought on the side of the Welsh king. But through the rush and roar of the onset there pushed forward Bleoberis de Ganis and Gaheris, who hurled Persides to the earth, where he was almost slain, for as he lay there helpless more than forty horsemen rode over him in the fray.

Seeing this, and what valiant deeds the two knights did, Tristram marvelled who they were. But perceiving the danger in which his comrade Persides lay, he rushed to the rescue with such force that Gaheris was hurled headlong from his horse. Then Bleoberis in a rage put his spear in rest and rode furiously against Tristram, but he was met in mid-career, and flung from his saddle by the resistless spear of the Cornish knight.

The king with the hundred knights now rode angrily forward, pressed back the struggling line, and horsed Gaheris and Bleoberis. Then began a fierce struggle, in which Bleoberis and Tristram did many deeds of knightly skill and valor.

As the violent combat continued, Dinadan, who was on the other side, rode against Tristram, not knowing him, and got such a buffet that he swooned in his saddle. He recovered in a minute, however, and, riding to his late companion, said in a low voice,—

"Sir knight, is this the way you serve an old comrade, masking under a black shield? I know you now better than you deem. I will not reveal your disguise, but by my troth I vow I will never try buffets with you again, and, if I keep my wits, sword of yours shall never come near my headpiece."

As Dinadan withdrew to repair damages, Bleoberis rode against Tristram, who gave him such a furious sword-blow on the helm that he bowed his head to the saddle. Then Tristram caught him by the helm, jerked him from his horse, and flung him down under the feet of the steed.

This ended the fray, for at that moment Arthur bade the heralds to blow to lodging, and the knights who still held saddle sheathed their swords. Tristram thereupon departed to his pavilion and Dinadan with him.

But Arthur, and many of those with him, wondered who was the knight with the black shield, who had with sword and spear done such wondrous deeds. Many opinions were given, and some suspected him of being Tristram, but held their peace. To him the judges awarded the prize of the day's combat, though they named him only the knight of the black shield, not knowing by what other name to call him.

When the second day of the tournament dawned, and the knights prepared for the combat, Palamides, who had fought under Northgalis, now joined King Arthur's party, that led by Carados, and sent to Tristram to know his name.

"As to that," answered Tristram, "tell Sir Palamides that he shall not know till I have broken two spears with him. But you may tell him that I am the same knight that he smote down unfairly the day before the tournament, and that I owe him as shrewd a turn. So whichever side he takes I will take the opposite."

"Sir," said the messenger, "he will be on King Arthur's side, in company with the noblest knights."

"Then I will fight for Northgalis, though yesterday I held with Carados."

[Illustration] from King Arthur I by Charles Morris


When King Arthur blew to field and the fray began, King Carados opened the day by a joust with the king with the hundred knights, who gave him a sore fall. Around him there grew up a fierce combat, till a troop of Arthur's knights pushed briskly in and bore back the opposite party, rescuing Carados from under the horses' feet. While the fight went on thus in one part of the field, Tristram, in jet-black armor, pressed resistlessly forward in another part, and dealt so roughly and grimly with Arthur's knights that not a man of them could withstand him.

At length he fell among the fellowship of King Ban, all of whom bore Cornish shields, and here he smote right and left with such fury and might that cries of admiration for his gallant bearing went up from lords and ladies, citizens and churls. But he would have had the worse through force of numbers had not the king with the hundred knights come to his rescue, and borne him away from the press of his assailants, who were crowding upon him in irresistible strength.

Hardly had Tristram escaped from this peril than he saw another group of about forty knights, with Kay the seneschal at their head. On them he rode like a fury, smote Kay from his horse, and fared among them all like a greyhound among conies.

At this juncture Lancelot, who had hitherto taken little part, met a knight retiring from the lists with a sore wound in the head.

"Who hurt you so badly?" he asked.

"That knight with the black shield, who is making havoc wherever he goes," was the answer. "I may curse the time I ever faced him, for he is more devil than mortal man."

Lancelot at these words drew his sword and advanced to meet Tristram, and as he rode forward saw the Cornish champion hurtling through a press of foes, bringing down one with nearly every stroke of his sword.

"A fellow of marvellous prowess he, whoever he be," said Lancelot. "If I set upon this knight after all his heavy labor, I will shame myself more than him." And he put up his sword.

Then the king with the hundred knights, with his following, and a hundred more of the Welsh party, set upon the twenty of Lancelot's kin, and a fearful fray began, for the twenty held together like wild boars, none failing the others, and faced the odds against them without yielding a step.

When Tristram, who had for the moment withdrawn, beheld their noble bearing, he marvelled at their valor, for he saw by their steadfastness that they would die together rather than leave the field.

"Valiant and noble must be he who has such knights for his kin," he said, meaning Lancelot; "and likely to be a worthy man is he who leads such knights as these."

Then he rode to the king with the hundred knights and said,—

"Sir, leave off fighting with these twenty knights. You can win no honor from them, you being so many and they so few. I can see by their bearing that they will die rather than leave the field, and that will bring you no glory. If this one sided fray goes on I will join them and give them what help I can."

"You shall not do so," said the king. "You speak in knightly courtesy, and I will withdraw my men at your request. I know how courage favors courage, and like draws to like."

Then the king called off his knights, and withdrew from the combat with Lancelot's kindred.

Meanwhile Lancelot was watching for an opportunity to meet Tristram and hail him as a fellow in heart and hand, but before he could do so Tristram, Dinadan, and Gouvernail suddenly left the lists and rode into the forest, no man perceiving whither they had gone.

Then Arthur blew to lodging, and gave the prize of the day to the king of Northgalis, as the true champion of the tournament was on his side and had vanished. Lancelot rode hither and thither, vainly seeking him, while a cry that might have been heard two miles off went up: "The knight with the black shield has won the day!"

"Alas, where has that knight gone!" said Arthur. "It is a shame that those in the field have let him thus vanish. With gentleness and courtesy they might have brought him to me at the Castle of Maidens, where I should have been glad to show him the highest honor."

Then he went to the knights of his party and comforted them for their discomfiture.

"Be not dismayed, my fair fellows," he said, "though you have lost the field, and many of you are the worst in body and mind. Be of good cheer, for to-morrow we fight again. How the day will go I cannot say, but I will be in the lists with you, and lend you what aid is in my arm."

During that day's fight Dame Bragwaine had sat near Queen Guenever, observing Tristram's valorous deeds. But when the queen asked her why she had come thither, she would not tell the real reason, but said only,—

"Madam, I came for no other cause than that my lady, La Belle Isolde, sent me to inquire after your welfare."

After the fray was done she took leave of the queen and rode into the forest in search of Sir Tristram. As she went onward she heard a great cry, and sent her squire to learn what it might mean. He quickly came to a forest fountain, and here he found a knight bound to a tree, crying out like a madman, while his horse and harness stood by. When he saw the squire, he started so furiously that he broke his bonds, and then ran after him, sword in hand, as if to slay him. The squire at this spurred his horse and rode swiftly back to Dame Bragwaine, whom he told of his adventure.

Soon afterwards she found Tristram, who had set up his pavilion in the forest, and told him of the incident.

"Then, on my head, there is mischief here afloat," said Tristram; "some good knight has gone distracted."

Taking his horse and sword he rode to the place, and there he found the knight complaining woefully.

"What misfortune has befallen me?" he lamented; "I, woeful Palamides, who am defiled with falsehood and treason through Sir Bors and Sir Hector! Alas, why live I so long?"

Then he took his sword in his hands, and with many strange signs and movements flung it into the fountain. This done, he wailed bitterly and wrung his hands, but at the end he ran to his middle in the water and sought again for his sword. Tristram, seeing this, ran upon him and clasped him in his arms, fearing he would kill himself.

"Who are you that holds me so tightly?" said Palamides.

"I am a man of this forest, and mean you no harm, but would save you from injury."

"Alas!" said the knight, "I shall never win honor where Sir Tristram is. Where he is not, only Lancelot or Lamorak can win from me the prize. More than once he has put me to the worse."

"What would you do if you had him?"

"I would fight him and ease my heart. And yet, sooth to say, he is a gentle and noble knight."

"Will you go with me to my lodging?"

"No; I will go to the king with the hundred knights. He rescued me from Bors and Hector, or they had slain me treacherously."

But by kind words Tristram got him to his pavilion, where he did what he could to cheer him. But Palamides could not sleep for anguish of soul, and rose before dawn and secretly left the tent, making his way to the pavilions of Gaheris and Sagramour le Desirous, who had been his companions in the tournament.

Not far had the next day's sun risen in the eastern sky, when King Arthur bade the heralds blow the call to the lists, and with warlike haste the knights came crowding in to the last day of the well-fought tournament.

Fiercely began the fray, King Carados and his ally, the king of Ireland, being smitten from their horses early in the day. Then came in Palamides full of fury, and made sad work among his foes, being known to all by his indented shield.

But this day King Arthur, as he had promised, rode in shining armor into the field, and fought so valorously that the king of Northgalis and his party had much the worse of the combat.

While the fight thus went on in all its fury, Tristram rode in, still bearing his black shield. Encountering Palamides, he gave him such a thrust that he was driven over his horse's croup. Then King Arthur cried,—

"Knight with the black shield, make ready for me!"

But the king met with the same fate from Tristram's spear that Palamides had done, and was hurled to the earth. Seeing this, a rush of the knights of his party drove back the foe, and Arthur and Palamides were helped to their saddles again.

And now the king, his heart burning with warlike fury, rushed fiercely on Tristram, and struck him so furious a blow that he was hurled from his horse. As he lay there Palamides spurred upon him in a violent rage, and sought to override him as he was rising to his feet. But Tristram saw his purpose and sprang aside. As Palamides rode past he wrathfully caught him by the arm and pulled him from his horse.

"Sword to sword let it be!" cried Tristram.

Palamides, nothing loth, drew his weapon, and so fierce a combat began in the midst of the arena that lords and ladies alike stood in their seats in eagerness to behold it. But at the last Tristram struck Palamides three mighty strokes on the helm, crying with each stroke, "Take this for Sir Tristram's sake!"

So fierce were the blows that Palamides was felled to the earth. Then the king with the hundred knights dashed forward and brought Tristram his horse. Palamides was horsed at the same time, and with burning ire he rushed upon Tristram, spear in rest, before he could make ready to meet him. But Tristram lightly avoided the spear, and, enraged at his repeated treachery, he caught him with both hands by the neck as his horse bore him past, tore him clean from the saddle, and carried him thus ten spears' length across the field before he let him fall.

At that moment King Arthur spurred upon the Cornish champion, sword in hand, and Tristram fixed his spear to meet him, but with a sword-blow Arthur cut the spear in two, and then dealt him three or four vigorous strokes before he could draw. But at the last Tristram drew his sword and assailed the king with equal energy.

This battle continued not long, for the press of battling knights forced the combatants asunder. Then Tristram rode hither and thither, striking and parrying, so that that day he smote down in all eleven of the good knights of King Ban's blood, while all in seats and gallery shouted in loud acclaim for the mighty warrior with the black shield.

This cry met the ears of Lancelot, who was engaged in another part of the field. Then he got a spear and came towards the cry. Seeing Tristram standing without an antagonist, he cried out,—

"Knight with the black shield, well and worthily have you done; now make ready to joust with me."

When Tristram heard this he put his spear in rest, and both with lowered heads rode together with lightning speed. Tristram's spear broke into fragments on Lancelot's shield; but Lancelot, by ill-fortune, smote him in the side, wounding him deeply. He kept his saddle, however, and, drawing his sword, rushed upon Lancelot and gave him three such strokes that fire flew from his helm, and he was forced to lower his head towards his saddle-bow. This done, Tristram left the field, for he felt as if he would die. But Dinadan espied him and followed him into the forest.

After Tristram left the lists, Lancelot fought like a man beside himself, many a noble knight going down before his spear and sword. King Arthur, seeing against what odds he fought, came quickly to his aid, with the knights of his own kindred, and in the end they won the day against the king of Northgalis and his followers. So the prize was adjudged to Lancelot.

But neither for king, queen, nor knights would he accept it, and when the cry was raised by the heralds,—

"Sir Lancelot, Sir Lancelot has won the field this day!" he bade them change, and cry instead,—

"The knight with the black shield has won the day."

But the estates and the commonalty cried out together,—

"Sir Lancelot has won the field, whoever say nay!"

This filled Lancelot with shame and anger, and he rode with a lowering brow to King Arthur, to whom he cried,—

"The knight with the black shield is the hero of the lists. For three days he held against all, till he got that unlucky wound. The prize, I say, is his."

"Sir Tristram it is," said the king. "I heard him shout his name three times when he gave those mighty strokes to Palamides. Never better nor nobler knight took spear or sword in hand. He was hurt indeed; but when two noble warriors encounter one must have the worst."

"Had I known him I would not have hurt him for all my father's lands," said Lancelot. "Only lately he risked his life for me, when he fought with thirty knights, with no help but Dinadan. This is poor requital for his noble service."

Then they sought Tristram in the forest, but in vain. They found the place where his pavilion had been pitched, but it was gone and all trace of its owner vanished. Thereupon they returned to the Castle of Maidens, where for three days was held high feast and frolic, and where all who came were warmly welcomed by King Arthur and Queen Guenever.