Historical Tales: 13—King Arthur - Charles Morris

The Wager of Battle

When tidings came to King Mark that Tristram had returned to Cornwall, cured of his wounds, the king and all his barons were glad, and on the arrival of the knight he was treated with the greatest honor. No long time passed before he rode to the castle of his father, King Meliodas, who received him with fatherly love and pride, while the queen greeted him with the warmest joy. And that their knightly son should have wherewithal to make a fair show in the world, they parted with much of their lands and wealth to him, endowing him with broad estates and lordly castles.

[Illustration] from King Arthur I by Charles Morris


Afterwards, at his father's desire, who wished his son to gain all honor, Tristram returned to the court of Cornwall, where he was gladly welcomed. And here, though his love for La Belle Isolde lay deep in his heart, it was dimmed by later feelings, for there were many fair ladies at the court, and the young knight was at that age when the heart is soft and tender.

In the end it happened that a jealousy and unfriendliness arose between King Mark and him. This grew with time, and in the end the king, who was base and treacherous of soul, waylaid Tristram, aided by two knights of his counsel, and sought to slay him. But so valiantly did he defend himself that he hurled the three to the earth, wounding the king so deeply that he was long in recovering.

The king now grew to hate his young guest bitterly, and laid plans to destroy him. Finally, it occurred to him to send Tristram to Ireland for La Belle Isolde, whose beauty and goodness the young knight had praised so warmly that King Mark had it in his heart to wed her. But his main purpose in sending Tristram to Ireland was to compass his destruction, for he knew how he was hated there.

Tristram was not blind to the danger into which this mission might bring him, and suspected the purpose of the king, but his love of adventure was so great that for it he was ready to dare any risk.

As for Isolde, absence and affection for other ladies had dimmed his passion for her, so that for the time his love was forgotten, and he came to look upon it as a youthful episode not knowing how deeply it still lay under all these later feelings. He, therefore, accepted the mission, and made ready to go in royal state.

He selected for his companions a number of the ablest knights of the court, and saw that they were richly arrayed and appointed, with the hope that such a noble train might win him favor at the Irish court. With this array he departed, and set sail for the coast of Ireland.

But when they had reached the mid-channel a tempest arose that blew the fleet back towards the coast of England, and, as chance had it, they came ashore near Camelot. Here they were forced to land, for their ships were no longer seaworthy. Tristram, therefore, set up his pavilion upon the coast of Camelot, and hung his shield before it.

That same day two knights of Arthur's court, Sir Morganor and Sir Hector de Maris, chanced to ride that way, and, seeing the shield, they touched it with their spears, bidding the knight of the pavilion to come out and joust, if he had an inclination to do so.

"I hold myself ready alike for sport or battle," answered Tristram. "If you tarry a little while, you will find me ready to meet you."

This said, he armed himself, and mounting his horse rode against his two challengers with such fortune that he first smote Sir Hector to the earth, and then Sir Morganor, felling them both with one spear. Rising painfully to their feet, the disconcerted knights asked Tristram who he was and of what country.

"My noble sirs, I am a knight of Cornwall," he answered. "You have been in the habit of scorning the warriors of my country, but you see we have some good blood there."

"A Cornish knight!" cried Hector. "That I should be overcome by a knight from that land! I am not fit to wear armor more." And in despite he put off his armor and left the place on foot, too full of shame to ride.

As it turned out, fortune had worked more favorably for Tristram than he supposed. For King Anguish was then on his way to Camelot, whither he had been summoned by King Arthur as his vassal, for a purpose which he was not told.

It happened that when he reached Camelot neither King Arthur nor Lancelot was there to give judgment on the charge against him, but the kings of Carados and of Scotland were left as judges. And when King Anguish demanded why he had been summoned, Blamor de Ganis, a Knight of the Round Table, accused him of treason, declaring that he had treacherously slain a cousin of his at his court in Ireland.

This accusation threw King Anguish into great trouble, for he did not dream that he had been brought for such a purpose, and knew well that there was but one answer to make to such a charge. For the custom in those days was that any man who was accused of murder or treason should decide the case by the Wager of Battle, fighting his accuser to the death, or finding a knight who would take up his quarrel. And murders of all kinds in those days were called treason.

King Anguish was thrown into a sorrowful frame of mind, for he knew that Blamor de Ganis was a knight of prowess beyond his own strength, nor had he a suitable champion in his train. He therefore withheld his answer, and the judges gave him three days for his decision.

All this was told to Tristram by his squire Gouvernail, who had heard it from people of the country.

"Truly," said Tristram, "no man in England could bring me better tidings, for the king of Ireland will be glad of my aid, since no knight of this country not of Arthur's court will dare fight with Blamor. As I wish to win the good will of King Anguish, I will take on myself his battle. So, Gouvernail, go to the king for me, and tell him there is a champion ready to assume his cause."

Gouvernail thereupon went to Camelot, and greeted King Anguish, who returned his greeting and asked his errand.

"There is a knight near at hand who desires to speak with you," was the reply. "He bade me say that he was ready to do you knightly service."

"What knight may he be?" asked the king.

"Sir, it is Tristram of Lyonesse. For the grace you showed him in your country he is ready to repay you here, and to take the field as your champion."

"God be praised for this welcome news!" cried the king. "Come, good fellow, show me the way to Sir Tristram. Blamor will find he has no boy to handle."

He mounted a hackney, and with few followers rode under Gouvernail's guidance till they came to Tristram's pavilion. The knight, when he saw his visitor, ran to him and would have held his stirrup, but this the king would not permit. He leaped lightly from his horse and took Tristram warmly in his arms.

"My gracious lord," said Tristram, "I have not forgot the goodness which you formerly showed me, and which at that time I promised to requite by knightly service if it should ever be in my power."

"I have great need of you, indeed, gentle sir," answered the king. "Never before was I in such deep necessity of knightly aid."

"How so, my noble lord?" asked Tristram.

"I shall tell you. I am held answerable for the death of a knight who was akin to Lancelot, and for which I must fight his relative, Blamor de Ganis, or find a knight in my stead. And well you know the knights of King Ban's blood are hard men to overcome in battle."

"That may be," said Tristram, "yet I dread not to meet them. For the honor which you showed me in Ireland, and for the sake of your gracious daughter La Belle Isolde, I will take the battle on two conditions: first, that you swear that you are in the right, and had no hand in the knight's death; second, that if I win in this fight you grant me the reward I may ask, if you deem it reasonable."

"Truly, I am innocent, and you shall have whatever you ask," said the king.

"Then I accept the combat," said Tristram. "You may return to Camelot and make answer that your champion is ready, for I shall die in your quarrel rather than be recreant. Blamor is said to be a hardy knight, but I would meet him were he the best warrior that now bears shield and spear."

King Anguish then departed and told the judges that he had his champion ready, and was prepared for the wager of battle at any time that pleased them. In consequence, Blamor and Tristram were sent for to hear the charge. But when the knights of the court learned that the champion was he who had vanquished Marhaus and Palamides, there was much debate and shaking of the head, and many who had felt sure of the issue now grew full of doubt, the more so when they learned the story of Hector de Maris and his companion.

But the combatants took their charge in all due dignity, and then withdrew to make ready for the battle. Blamor was attended by his brother Sir Bleoberis, who said to him, feelingly,—

"Remember, dear brother, of what kin we are, being cousins to Lancelot du Lake, and that there has never been a man of our blood but would rather die than be shamed in battle."

"Have no doubt of me," answered Blamor. "I know well this knight's record; but if he should strike me down through his great might, he shall slay me before I will yield as recreant."

"You will find him the strongest knight you have ever had to do with. I know that well, for I had once a bout with him at King Mark's court. So God speed you!"

"In God and my cause I trust," answered Blamor.

Then he took his horse and rode to one end of the lists, and Tristram to the other, where, putting their spears in rest, they spurred their gallant steeds and rushed together with the speed of lightning. The result was that Blamor and his horse together were hurled to the earth, while Tristram kept his seat. Then Blamor drew his sword and threw his shield before him, bidding Tristram to alight.

"Though a horse has failed me," he said, "I trust that the earth will stand me in good stead."

Without hesitation Tristram consented, springing to the ground, sword in hand, and the combatants broke at once into fierce battle, fighting like madmen, till all who saw them marvelled at their courage and strength. Never had knights been seen to fight more fiercely, for Blamor was so furious and incessant in his attacks, and Tristram so active in his defence, that it was a wonder they had breath to stand. But at last Tristram smote his antagonist such a blow on the helm that he fell upon his side, while his victor stood looking grimly down upon him.

When Blamor could gain breath to speak, he said,—

"Sir Tristram de Lyonesse, I require thee, as thou art a true knight, to slay me, for I would not live in shame, though I might be lord of the earth. You must slay me, indeed, if you would win the field, for I shall never speak the hateful word of surrender."

When Tristram heard this knightly defiance he knew not what to do. The thought of slaying one of Lancelot's blood hurt him sorely, but his duty as a champion required him to force his antagonist to yield, or else to slay him. In deep distress of mind he went to the kingly judges and kneeled before them, beseeching them for the sake of King Arthur and Lancelot, and for their own credit, to take this matter out of his hands.

"It were a pity and shame that the noble knight who lies yonder should be slain," he said, "yet he refuses to yield. As for the king I fight for, I shall require him, as I am his true knight and champion, to have mercy on the vanquished."

"That yield I freely," said King Anguish. "And I heartily pray the judges to deal with him mercifully."

Then the judges called Bleoberis to them and asked his advice.

"My lords," he replied, "my brother is beaten, I acknowledge, yet, though Sir Tristram has vanquished his body, he has not conquered his heart, and I thank God he is not shamed by his defeat. And rather than he should be shamed I require you to bid Tristram to slay him."

"That shall not be," replied the judges. "Both his adversaries, the king and his champion, have pity on him, and you should have no less."

"I leave his fate to you," said Bleoberis. "Do what seems to you well."

Then, after further consultation, the judges gave their verdict that the vanquished knight should live, and by their advice Tristram and Bleoberis took him up and brought him to King Anguish, who forgave and made friends with him. Then Blamor and Tristram kissed each other and the two brothers took oath that neither of them would ever fight with their noble antagonist, who took the same oath. And from the day of that battle there was peace and love between Tristram and all the kindred of Lancelot forever.

The happy close of this contest made great rejoicing in Arthur's court, King Anguish and his champion being treated with all the honor that could be laid upon them, and for many days thereafter feasting and merry-making prevailed. In the end the king and his champion sailed for Ireland with great state and ceremony, while many noble knights attended to bid them farewell.

When they reached Ireland, King Anguish spread far and wide the story of what Tristram had done for him, and he was everywhere greeted with honor and delight. Even the queen forgot her anger, and did all that lay in her power to give her lord's champion a glad welcome to the court.

As for La Belle Isolde, she met Tristram with the greatest joy and gladness. Absence had dimmed the love in both their hearts, and it no longer burned as of yore, yet only time and opportunity were needed to make it as warm as ever.