Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris

The Red Knight of the Red Lawns

Beaumains rode forward with the damsel till it was close upon the hour of noon, when he saw that they were approaching a rich and fair city, well walled, and with many noble buildings.

Between them and the city extended a new-mown meadow, a mile and a half in width, on which were placed many handsome pavilions.

"These pavilions belong to the lord who owns that city," said the damsel. "It is his custom, during fair weather, to joust and tourney in this meadow. He has around him five hundred knights and gentlemen of arms, and they have knightly games of all sorts."

"I shall be glad to see that worthy lord," said Beaumains.

"That you shall, and very soon."

She rode on till she came in sight of the lord's pavilion.

"Look yonder," she said. "That rich pavilion, of the color of India, is his. All about him, men and women, and horse-trappings, shields, and spears, are of the same rare color. His name is Sir Persant of India, and you will find him the lordliest knight you ever saw."

"Be he never so stout a knight," answered Beaumains, "I shall abide in this field till I see him behind his shield."

"That is a fool's talk," she replied. "If you were a wise man, you would fly."

"Why should I?" rejoined Beaumains. "If he be as noble a knight as you say, he will meet me alone; not with all his men. And if there come but one at a time I shall not fail to face them while life lasts."

"That is a proud boast for a greasy kitchen lout," she answered.

"Let him come and do his worst," said Beaumains. "I would rather fight him five times over than endure your insults. You are greatly to blame to treat me so vilely."

"Sir," she replied, with a sudden change of tone, "I marvel greatly who you are, and of what kindred you come. This I will admit, that you have performed as boldly as you have promised. But you and your horse have had great labor, and I fear we have been too long on the road. The place we seek is but seven miles away, and we have passed all points of peril except this. I dread, therefore, that you may receive some hurt from this strong knight that will unfit you for the task before you. For Persant, strong as he is, is no match for the knight who besieges my lady, and I would have you save your strength for the work you have undertaken."

"Be that as it may," said Beaumains, "I have come so near the knight that I cannot withdraw without shame. I hope, with God's aid, to become his master within two hours, and then we can reach your lady's castle before the day ends."

"Much I marvel," cried the damsel, "what manner of man you are. You must be of noble blood, for no woman ever before treated a knight so shamefully as I have you, and you have ever borne it courteously and meekly. Such patience could never come but from gentle blood."

"A knight who cannot bear a woman's words had better doff his armor," answered Beaumains. "Do not think that I heeded not your words. But the anger they gave me was the worse for my adversaries, and you only aided to make me prove myself a man of worth and honor. If I had meat in Arthur's kitchen, what odds? I could have had enough of it in many a place. I did it but to prove who were worthy to be my friends, and that I will in time make known. Whether I be a gentleman born or not, I have done you a gentleman's service, and may do better before we part."

"That you have, fair Beaumains," she said. "I ask your forgiveness for all I have said or done."

"I forgive you with all my heart," he replied. "It pleases me so to be with you that I have found joy even in your evil words. And now that you are pleased to speak courteously to me, it seems to me that I am stout at heart enough to meet any knight living."

As to the battle that followed between Beaumains and Persant, it began and ended much like those that we have related, Persant in the end being overcome, and gaining his life at the lady's request. He yielded himself and a hundred knights to be at Beaumains's command, and invited the travellers to his pavilion, where they were feasted nobly.

In the morning Beaumains and the damsel after breakfasting, prepared to continue their journey.

"Whither do you lead this knight?" asked Persant of the damsel.

"Sir knight," she replied, "he is going to the aid of my sister, who is besieged in the Castle Dangerous."

"Ah!" cried Persant, "then he will have to do with the Knight of the Red Lawns, a man without mercy, and with the strength of seven men. I fear you take too perilous a task, fair sir. This villain has done great wrong to the lady of the castle, Dame Lioness. I think, fair damsel, you are her sister, Linet?"

"That is my name," replied the damsel.

"This I may say," rejoined Persant: "the Knight of the Red Lawns would have had the castle long ago, but it is his purpose to draw to the rescue Lancelot, Gawaine, Tristram, or Lamorak, whom he is eager to match his might against."

"My Lord Persant of India," said Linet, "will you not make this gentleman a knight before he meets this dread warrior?"

"With all my heart," answered Persant.

"I thank you for your good will," said Beaumains, "but I have been already knighted, and that by the hand of Sir Lancelot."

"You could have had the honor from no more renowned knight," answered Persant. "He, Tristram, and Lamorak now bear the meed of highest renown, and if you fairly match the red knight you may claim to make a fourth in the world's best champions."

"I shall ever do my best," answered Beaumains. "This I may tell you: I am of noble birth. If you and the damsel will keep my secret I will tell it you."

"We shall not breathe it except with your permission," they replied.

"Then I will acknowledge that my name is Gareth of Orkney, that King Lot was my father, and that I am a nephew of King Arthur, and brother to Gawaine, Gaheris, and Agravaine. Yet none of these know who I am, for they left my father's castle while I was but a child."

While they were thus taking leave, Beaumains's dwarf had ridden ahead to the besieged castle, where he saw the Lady Lioness, and told her of the champion her sister was bringing, and what deeds he had done.

"I am glad enough of these tidings," said the lady. "There is a hermitage of mine near by, where I would have you go, and take thither two silver flagons of wine, of two gallons each; also bread, baked venison, and fowls. I give you also a rich cup of gold for the knight's use. Then go to my sister, and bid her present my thanks to the knight, and pray him to eat and drink, that he may be strong for the great task he undertakes. Tell him I thank him for his courtesy and goodness, and that he whom he is to meet has none of these qualities, but strong and bold as he is, cares for nothing but murder."

This message the dwarf brought back, and led the knight and damsel to the hermitage, where they rested and feasted on the rich food provided. They spent the night there, and in the morning heard mass and broke their fast. Then they mounted and rode towards the besieged castle.

Their journey soon brought them to a plain, where they saw many tents and pavilions, and a castle in the distance. And there was a great noise and much smoke, as from a large encampment. As they came nearer the castle Beaumains saw before him a number of great trees, and from these hung by the neck armed knights, with their shields and swords, and gilt spurs on their heels. Of these there were in all nearly forty.

"What means this sorrowful sight?" asked Beaumains, with a look of deep concern.

"Do not be depressed by what you see," said Linet. "You must keep in spirit, or it will be the worse for you and us all. These knights came here to the rescue of my sister, and the red knight, when he had overcome them, put them to this shameful death, without mercy or pity. He will serve you in the same way if he should vanquish you."

"Jesu defend me from such a shameful death and disgrace!" cried Beaumains. "If I must die, I hope to be slain in open battle."

"It would be better, indeed. But trust not to his courtesy, for thus he treats all."

"It is a marvel that so vile a murderer has been left to live so long. I shall do my best to end his career of crime."

Then they rode to the castle, and found it surrounded with high and strong walls, with double ditches, and lofty towers within. Near the walls were lodged many lords of the besieging army, and there was great sound of minstrelsy and merry-making. On the opposite side of the castle was the sea, and here vessels rode the waves and the cries of mariners were heard.

Near where they stood was a lofty sycamore-tree, and on its trunk hung a mighty horn made from an elephant's tusk. This the Knight of the Red Lawns had hung there, in order that any errant knight, who wished to battle for the castle, might summons him to the fray.

"But let me warn you," said Linet, "not to blow it till noon. For it is now nearly day, and men say that his strength increases till the noontide hour. To blow it now would double your peril."

"Do not advise me thus, fair damsel," said Beaumains. "I shall meet him at his highest might, and win worshipfully or die knightly in the field. It must be man to man and might to might."

Therewith he spurred his horse to the sycamore, and, taking the horn in hand, blew with it such a blast that castle and camp rang with the sound.

At the mighty blast knights leaped from their tents and pavilions, and those in the castle looked from walls and windows, to see what manner of man was this that blew so lustily. But the Red Knight of the Red Lawns armed in all haste, for he had already been told by the dwarf of the approach of this champion. He was all blood-red in hue, armor, shield, and spurs. An earl buckled on his helm, and they then brought him a red steed and a red spear, and he rode into a little vale near the castle, so that all within and without the castle might behold the battle.

"Look you be light and glad," said Linet to the knight, "for yonder is your deadly enemy, and at yonder window is my sister, Dame Lioness."

"Where?" asked Beaumains.

"Yonder," she said, pointing.

"I see her," said Beaumains. "And from here she seems the fairest lady I ever looked upon. I ask no better quarrel than to fight for her, and wish no better fate than to greet her as my lady," and his face grew glad as he looked up to the window.

As he did so the Lady Lioness made a grateful courtesy to him, bending to the earth and holding up her hands. This courtesy was returned by Beaumains; but now the Knight of the Red Lawns rode forward.

"Leave your looking, sir knight," he said. "Or look this way, for I warn you that she is my lady, and I have done many battles for her."

"You waste your time, then, it seems to me, for she wants none of your love. And to waste love on those who want it not is but folly. If I thought she would not thank me for it, I would think twice before doing battle for her. But she plainly wants not you, and I will tell you this: I love her, and will rescue her or die."

"Say you so? The knights who hang yonder might give you warning."

"You shame yourself and knighthood by such an evil custom," said Beaumains, hotly. "How can any lady love such a man as you? That shameful sight gives me more courage than fear, for I am nerved now to revenge those knights as well as to rescue yonder lady."

"Make ready," cried the red knight; "we have talked enough."

Then Beaumains bade the damsel retire to a safe distance. Taking their places, they put their spears in rest, and came together like two thunderbolts, each smiting the other so fiercely that the breast-plates, horse-girths, and cruppers burst, and both fell to the earth with the bridle-reins still in their hands, and they lay awhile stunned by the fall.

So long they lay indeed that all who looked on thought that both their necks were broken, and said that the stranger knight must be of mighty prowess, for never had the red knight been so roughly handled before.

But ere long the knights regained their breath and sprang to their feet. Then, drawing their swords, they ran like fierce lions together, giving each other such buffets on the helms that both reeled backwards, while pieces were hewed out from their armor and shields and fell into the field.

Thus they fought on till it was past noon, when both stopped for breath, and stood panting and bleeding till many who beheld them wept for pity. When they had rested awhile they again went to battle, now gnashing at each other with their swords like tusked boars, and now running together like furious rams, so that at times both fell to the ground; and at times they were grappled so closely that they changed swords in the wrestle.

This went on till evening was near at hand, and so evenly they continued matched that none could know which would win. Their armor was so hewn away that the naked flesh showed in places, and these places they did their utmost to defend. The red knight was a wily fighter, and Beaumains suffered sorely before he learned his methods and met him in his own way.

At length, by mutual assent, they granted each other a short time for rest, and seated themselves upon two hillocks, where each had his page to unlace his helm and give him a breath of the cold air.

While Beaumains's helm was off he looked at the castle window, and there saw the Lady Lioness, who looked at him in such wise that his heart grew light with joy, and he bade the red knight to make ready, for the battle must begin again.

Then they laced their helms and stepped together and fought freshly. But Beaumains came near to disaster, for the red knight, by a skilful sword sweep, struck his sword from his hand, and then gave him such a buffet on the helm as hurled him to the earth.

The red knight ran forward to his fallen foe, but Linet cried loudly,—

"Oh, Beaumains, where is thy valor gone? Alas, my sister sobs and weeps to see you overthrown, till my own heart is heavy for her grief."

Hearing this, Beaumains sprang to his feet before his foe could reach him, and with a leap recovered his sword, which he gripped with a strong hand. And thus he faced again his surprised antagonist.

Then the young knight, nerved by love and desperation, poured such fierce blows on his enemy that he smote the sword from his hand and brought him to the earth with a fiery blow on the helm.

Before the red knight could rise, Beaumains threw himself upon him, and tore his helm from his head with intent to slay him. But the fallen knight cried loudly,—

"O noble knight, I yield me to thy mercy."

"Why should you have it, after the shameful death you have given to so many knights?"

"I did all this through love," answered the red knight. "I loved a lady whose brother was slain by Lancelot or Gawaine, as she said. She made me swear on my knighthood to fight till I met one of them, and put to a shameful death all I overcame. And I vowed to fight King Arthur's knights above all, till I should meet him that had slain her brother."

Then there came up many earls, and barons, and noble knights, who fell upon their knees and prayed for mercy to the vanquished, saying,—

"Sir, it were fairer to take homage and fealty of him, and let him hold his lands of you, than to slay him. Nothing wrong that he has done will be undone by his death, and we will all become your men, and do you homage and fealty."

"Fair lords," said Beaumains, "I am loath to slay this knight, though his deeds have been ill and shameful. But as he acted through a lady's request I blame him the less, and will release him on these conditions: He must go into the castle and yield to the Lady Lioness, and make amends to her for his trespass on her lands; then if she forgives him I will. Afterwards he must go to the court of King Arthur and obtain forgiveness from Lancelot and Gawaine for the ill will he has borne them."

"All this I will do," said the red knight, "and give you pledges and sureties therefore."

Then Beaumains granted him his life, and permitted him to rise. Afterwards the damsel Linet disarmed Beaumains and applied healing unguents to his wounds, and performed the same service for the red knight. For ten days thereafter Beaumains dwelt with the red knight, who showed him all the honor possible, and who afterwards went into the castle and submitted himself to the Lady Lioness, according to the terms of his compact.