Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris

The Knight with the Covered Shield

When Tristram's strength had all come back again he took his leave of Sir Darras, and rode away with Palamides and Dinadan. Soon they came to a cross-way, and here Tristram said,—

"Good sirs, let us here take each his own road, and many fair adventures may come to us all."

To this they agreed, and Tristram rode on along the main highway, chance bringing him that night to a castle in which was Queen Morgan le Fay. Here he was given lodging and good cheer, but when he was ready to depart the next day the queen said to him,—

"Sir knight, it is one thing to enter this castle and another to leave it. You will not depart so easily as you came. Know that you are a prisoner."

"God forfend," said Tristram. "I am just released from prison, and have had enough of that regimen."

"You shall stay here, nevertheless, till I learn who you are and whence you came, but I promise you no hard quarters."

She set him, therefore, by her side at table, and made so much of him that a knight who loved her clutched his sword-hilt in jealous rage, half disposed to rush upon Tristram and run him through unawares.

"Tell me your name," said the queen, at the end of the repast, "and you shall depart when you will."

"Thanks for your promise, fair lady. My name is Tristram de Lyonesse."

"Then I am sorry I made so hasty a promise. But I will hold to my word if you will engage to bear a shield which I shall give you to the Castle of the Hard Rock, where King Arthur has announced that a tournament is to be held. I have heard of your deeds of arms at the Castle of Maidens, and hope you will do as much for me at this new tournament."

"Let me see the shield that you wish me to bear," asked Tristram.

So the shield was brought. It was golden on its face, and on it was painted a king and queen, with a knight standing above them with a foot on the head of each.

"This is a fair shield," said Tristram; "but what signifies the device?"

"It signifies King Arthur and Queen Guenever," said Morgan, "and a knight that holds them both in bondage."

"And who is the knight?"

"That you shall not know at present."

So Tristram took the shield, not dreaming that it was intended as a rebuke to Sir Lancelot, and promised to bear it at the tournament.

But as he rode away he was followed by Sir Hemison, the knight who loved Morgan le Fay, and whose jealous anger had been roused. Overtaking Tristram before he had gone far, he rushed upon him at the speed of his horse, crying, in a voice of thunder,—

"Sir knight, defend yourself!"

This Tristram did with good effect, for his assailant's spear broke upon his body, while he thrust him through and hurled him to the earth with a mortal wound.

"Fool, you have brought it on yourself," said Tristram. "It is not my fault if you got what you designed for me."

Then he rode on, and left the wounded knight to the care of his squire, who removed his helmet, and asked if his life was in any danger.

"There is little life in me," said the knight, "and that is ebbing fast. Therefore help me to my saddle, and mount behind me and hold me on so that I shall not fall, and so bring me to Queen Morgan le Fay. For deep draughts of death draw to my heart, and I would fain speak to her before I die."

The squire did as commanded, and brought his bleeding master to the castle, but he died as he entered the hall, falling lifeless at the feet of the lady of his love. Much she wept and great lamentation she made for his untimely fate, and buried him in a stately tomb, on which was written, "Here lieth Sir Hemison, slain by the hands of Tristram de Lyonesse."

On the next day Tristram arrived at the castle of Roche-dure, where he saw the lists prepared for the tournament, with gay pennons flying, while full five hundred tents were pitched in a fair meadow by the gates. Over the seats of honor were silken canopies, that shaded noble lords and beautiful ladies clad in gay apparel. Within the lists the kings of Scotland and Ireland held out strongly against King Arthur's knights, and dread was the noise and turmoil within.

Tristram at once joined in the fray, and smote down many knights; King Arthur marvelling the while at the device on his shield, while Guenever grew heavy at heart, for well she guessed its meaning.

Ever King Arthur's eye was on that shield, and much he wondered who the knight could be, for he had heard that Tristram was in Brittany, and he knew that Lancelot was in quest of him, while he knew no other knight of equal prowess.

As the combat went on, Arthur's knights drove back their antagonists, who began to withdraw from the field. On seeing this the king determined that the knight with the strange shield should not escape, so he armed and called Sir Uwaine, entering the lists with him and riding up to confront the unknown knight.

"Sir stranger," said the king, "before we fight, I require you to tell me where you got that shield."

"I had it from Morgan le Fay, sister to King Arthur," answered Tristram.

"Then, if you are worthy to bear it, you are able to tell me its meaning."

"That I cannot," answered the knight. "It was given me by Queen Morgan, not through any asking of mine. She told me not what it signified, nor do I know, but I promised to bear it worthily."

"In truth," said Arthur, "no knight should bear arms he cannot understand. But at least you will tell me your name."

"To what intent?" asked Tristram.

"Simply that I wish to know."

"That is small reason. I decline to tell you."

"If not, we must do battle together."

"What!" cried Tristram; "you will fight me on so small a cause? My name is my own, to be given or withheld as I will. It is not honorable for a fresh knight to challenge me to battle, after all I have done this day. But if you think you have me at advantage, you may find that I am able to hold my own."

Then they put their spears in rest and furiously dashed together across the lists. But King Arthur's spear shivered to splinters on Tristram's shield, while he himself got such a blow from the Cornish knight that horse and man fell headlong to the earth, the king with a dangerous wound in the side.

When Uwaine saw this he reined back his horse in haste, and crying loudly, "Knight, defend thyself!" he rode furiously on Tristram. But man fared no better than master. Uwaine was borne out of his saddle to the earth, while Tristram sat unmoved.

Then Tristram wheeled his horse and said,—

"Fair sirs, I had no need to joust with you, for I have done enough to-day; but you forced me to it."

"We have had what we deserved," answered Arthur. "Yet I would fain know your name, and would further learn if that device on your shield is intended as an insult to King Arthur."

"That you must ask Morgan le Fay: she alone knows. But report says she does not love her royal brother over much. Yet she told me not what it means, and I have borne it at her command. As for my name, it shall be known when I will."

So Tristram departed, and rode far over hill and dale, everywhere seeking for Lancelot, with whom he in his heart wished to make fellowship. As he went on he came by a forest, on the edge of which stood a tall tower, and in front of it a fair level meadow. And here he saw one knight fighting against ten, and bearing himself so well that it seemed marvellous that a single man could hold his own so bravely against such odds. He had slain half their horses, and unhorsed the remaining knights, so that their chargers ran free in the field. The ten had then assailed him on foot, and he was bearing up bravely against them.

"Cease that battle!" cried Tristram, loudly, as he came up. "Ten to one are cowards' odds." And as he came nearer he saw by his shield that the one knight was Sir Palamides.

"You would be wise not to meddle," said the leader of the ten, who was the villanous knight called Breuse San Pité. "Go your way while your skin is whole. As for this knight, he is our prey."

"Say you so!" cried Tristram. "There may be two words to that."

As he spoke he sprang from his horse, lest they should kill it, and attacked them on foot with such fury that with every stroke a knight fell before him.

This was more than they had bargained for, and Breuse fled hastily to the tower, followed by all that were able, while Tristram hotly pursued. But they quickly closed and barred the door, shutting him out. When he saw this he returned to Palamides, whom he found sitting under a tree, sorely wounded.

"Thanks for your timely aid," said the Saracen. "You have saved my life."

"What is your name?" asked Tristram.

"It is Sir Palamides."

"Then have I saved my greatest enemy; and I here challenge you to battle."

"What is your name?" asked Palamides.

"I am Tristram of Lyonesse."

"My enemy indeed! yet I owe you thanks for your rescue, nor am I in condition for jousting. But I desire nothing better than to meet you in battle. If you are as eager for it, fix day and place, and I will be there."

"Well said," answered Tristram. "Let it be in the meadow by the river at Camelot, there where Merlin set the tombstone."

"Agreed. I shall not fail you."

"How came you in battle with these ten dastards?"

"The chance of journeying brought me into this forest, where I saw a dead knight with a lady weeping beside him. I asked her who slew her lord, and she told me it was the most villanous knight in the world, named Breuse Sans Pité. I then took her on my horse and promised to see that her lord was properly interred. But as I passed by this tower its rascally owner suddenly rode from the gate and struck me unawares so hard that I fell from my horse. Before I could recover he killed the lady. It was thus the battle began, at which you arrived in good time."

"It is not safe for you to stay here," said Tristram. "That fellow is out of our reach for the present, but you are not in condition to meet him again."

So they mounted and rode into the forest, where they soon came to a sparkling fountain, whose clear water bubbled freshly from the ground. Here they alighted and refreshed themselves.

As they did so Tristram's horse neighed loudly and was answered by another horse near by. They mounted and rode towards the sound, and quickly came in sight of a great war-horse tied to a tree. Under an adjoining tree lay a knight asleep, in full armor, save that his helmet was placed under his head for a pillow.

"A stout-looking fellow that," said Tristram. "What shall we do?"

"Awake him," said Palamides.

Tristram did so, stirring him with the butt of his spear.

But they had better have let him sleep, for he sprang angrily to his feet, put on his helmet in haste, and mounting his war-horse seized his spear. Without a word he spurred upon Tristram and struck him such a blow as to fling him from his saddle to the earth. Then he galloped back and came hurling upon Palamides, whom he served in the same rude fashion. Leaving them laying there, he turned his horse and rode leisurely away.

When the two overthrown knights gained their feet again, they looked at one another with faces of shame and anger.

"Well, what now?" asked Tristram. "That is the worst waking I ever did in my life. By my troth, I did not fancy there was a knight in Arthur's realm that could have served you and me such a trick. Whatever you do, I am going after this woodland champion to have a fairer trial."

"So would I were I well," said Palamides. "But I am so hurt that I must seek rest with a friend of mine near by."

"I can trust you to meet me at the place appointed?"

"I have cause to have more doubt of you than you of me; for if you follow this strong knight you may not escape with whole bones from the adventure. I wish you success."

"And I wish you health."

With these words they parted, each riding his own way.

But news came to Tristram as he rode on that would have turned many a knight from that adventure. For the first day he found a dead knight and a lady weeping over him, who said that her lord had jousted with a strong champion, who had run him through. On the third day he met the good knights Gawaine and Bleoberis, both wounded, who said they had been so served by a knight with a covered shield.

"He treated me and Palamides the same way," said Tristram, "and I am on his track to repay him."

"By my faith, you had best turn back," said Gawaine.

"By my head, I will not," said Tristram, and he rode on in pursuit.

The next day he met Kay the seneschal and Dinadan in a meadow.

"What tidings have you?" he asked.

"Not good," they answered.

"Tell me what they are. I ride in search of a knight."

"What cognizance does he bear?"

"He carries a shield covered by a cloth."

"Then you are not far from him," said Kay. "We lodged last night in a widow's house, and that knight sought the same lodging. And when he knew we were of Arthur's court he spoke villanous things of the king, and worse of Queen Guenever. The next day we waged battle with him for this insult. But at the first encounter he flung me from my horse with a sore hurt. And when Dinadan here saw me down he showed more prudence than valor, for he fled to save his skin."

After some further words Tristram rode on; but days passed and he found not the knight with the covered shield, though he heard more tales of his irresistible prowess. Then, finding that his armor was bruised and broken with long use, he sent Gouvernail, his squire, to a city near by to bring him fresh apparel, and rested at a priory till he came.

On Gouvernail's return he donned his new armor, and turned his horse's head towards Camelot, seeking the point where he had engaged to do battle with Palamides. This was at the tomb of Lanceor, son of the king of Ireland, who had been slain by Balin, and whose lady Columbe had slain herself, as we have already told. His tomb had been set up near the river by Merlin, and it had become a place of pilgrimage for true lovers and faithful wedded pairs.

Tristram did not get there without more battling, for the roads around Camelot then swarmed with errant knights, eager to show their strength. Yet he was none the worse for these encounters when he rode up to the tomb where he hoped to find Palamides in waiting. But instead of the Saracen he saw a knight approaching in white armor, who bore a shield covered with a dark cloth.

"Sir knight, you are welcome; none more so," cried Tristram. "I have sought you far and near, and have an ugly fall to repay you for; and also owe you a lesson for your revilement of King Arthur and his fair queen."

"Shorter words and longer deeds would serve better," said the stranger knight. "Make ready, my good fellow, if one fall is not enough to satisfy you."

Then they rode apart to a fair distance, and putting spurs to their horses hurtled together with headlong speed. So fiercely met they, indeed, that horses and knights together went toppling to the earth, both those brave warriors kissing the dust.

With all haste they regained their feet, put their shields before them, and struck at each other with bright swords like men of might. The battle that followed was such a one as that ground had never seen, for those two knights seemed rather giants than men. For four hours they kept up the combat, neither speaking a word, till at the end their armor was hewn off in many places, and blood had flowed from their wounds till the grass was turned from green to crimson.

The squires looked on in wonder, and boasted of the might of their lords, though their hearts grew heavy when they saw the bright swords so reddened with blood.

At last the unknown knight rested on his weapon, and said,—

"Sir stranger, you are the best fighter I ever saw in armor. I would know you better, and beg to learn your name."

"I care not to tell it," said Tristram.

"Why not? I never make my name a secret."

"Then pray tell it, for I would give much to know the name of the stoutest knight I ever drew sword upon."

"Fair sir, my name is Lancelot du Lake."

"Alas, can this be so? Have I fought thus against the man I love best in the world?"

"Then who are you?"

"My name is Tristram de Lyonesse."

"Oh, what strange chance is this! Take my sword, Sir Tristram, for you have earned it well."

And he knelt and yielded Tristram his sword.

Tristram in turn knelt and yielded up his. And thus with exchange of words they gave each other the degree of brotherhood. Then they sat together on the stone, and took off their helms to cool their heated faces, and kissed each other with brotherly ardor.

When they had rested and conversed long in the most loving amity, and their squires had salved and bandaged their wounds, they mounted and rode towards Camelot.

Near the gates of the city they met Gawaine and Gaheris, who were setting out in search of Tristram, having promised King Arthur never to return till they could bring the valiant knight of Cornwall with them.

"Return, then, for your quest is done," said Lancelot. "I have found Sir Tristram, and here he is in person."

"Then, by my life, you are heartily welcome!" cried Gawaine. "You have eased me from great labor, and there are ten others seeking you. Why came you hither of yourself?"

"I had a challenge with Sir Palamides to do battle with him at Lanceor's tomb this day, and I know not why he has failed me. By lucky chance my lord Lancelot and I met there, and well have we tried each other's strength."

Thus conversing they came to the court, where King Arthur, when he learned the name of Lancelot's companion, was filled with joy. Taking Tristram warmly by both hands, he welcomed him to Camelot.

"There is no other man in the world whom I would so gladly have here," he said. "Much have you been sought for since you left the tournament, but in vain. I would fain learn your adventures."

These Tristram told, and the king was amazed when he learned that it was he who had overthrown him at the Castle of Hard Rock. Then he told of his pursuit of the knight with the covered shield, and of the deeds he had done.

"By our faith," cried Gawaine, Bleoberis, and Kay, "we can testify to that, for he left us all on the ground."

"Aha! who could this strong fellow have been?" asked Arthur. "Did any of you know him?"

They all declared that he was a stranger to them, though Tristram kept silent.

"If you know not, I do; it was Lancelot or none," cried the king.

"In faith, I fancy so," said Tristram, "for I found him to-day, and we had a four hours' fight together, before each found out the other."

"So," they all cried, "it is he who has beguiled us with his covered shield!"

"You say truly," answered Lancelot, with a smile. "And I called myself an enemy of King Arthur so that none should suspect me. I was in search of sport."

"That is an old trick of yours," said Arthur.

"One must go in disguise in these days, or go untried," laughed Lancelot.

Then Queen Guenever, and many ladies of the court, learning that Tristram was there, came and bade him welcome, ladies and knights together crying, "Welcome, Sir Tristram! welcome to Camelot!"

"Welcome, indeed," said Arthur, "to one of the best and gentlest knights of the world, and the man of highest esteem. For of all modes of hunting, you bear the prize, and of all bugle hunting calls you are the origin, and all the terms of hunting and hawking began with you; on all instruments of music no man surpasses you: therefore, you are trebly welcome to this court. And here I pray you to grant me a boon."

"I am at your command," said Tristram.

"It is that you abide in my court, and be one of my knights."

"That I am loath to do, for I have work laid out elsewhere."

"Yet you have passed your word. You shall not say me nay."

"Then be it as you will," said Tristram.

[Illustration] from King Arthur I by Charles Morris


These words spoken, Arthur took Tristram by the hand and led him to the Round Table, going with him round its circle, and looking into every seat that lacked a knight. When at length he came to that in which Sir Marhaus had formerly sat, he saw there engraved in letters of gold, "This is the seat of the noble knight Sir Tristram."

Then Arthur made Tristram a Knight of the Round Table with noble ceremony and great pomp, and with feasts that lasted many days. Glad were all there to have a knight of such prowess and high esteem in their company, and many friends Tristram made among his new brothers-in-arms.

But chief of all these was Lancelot, and for days together Lancelot and Tristram kept genial company, while their brotherhood gave joy to all, and most of all to King Arthur, who felt that the glory of his reign was now at its height, and that two such knights as these would spread the renown of the Round Table throughout the world.