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Stories from Le Morte D'Arthur and the Mabinogion online

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opponents led by King Anguish of Ireland and the King of Scots.

Then it soon appeared that the two Kings with all their company
could do but little against the Knights of the Round Table, and
were sore pressed to maintain their ground. Seeing this, Sir
Launcelot said to Sir Lavaine: "Sir Knight, will ye give me your
aid if I go to the rescue of the weaker side? For it seems to me
they may not much longer hold their own unaided." "Sir," answered
Lavaine, "I will gladly follow you and do what I may." So the two
laid their lances in rest and charged into the thickest of the
fight and, with one spear, Sir Launcelot bore four knights from the
saddle. Lavaine, too, did nobly, for he unhorsed the bold Sir
Bedivere and Sir Lucan the Butler. Then with their swords they
smote lustily on the left hand and on the right, and those whom
they had come to aid rallying to them, they drove the Knights of
the Round Table back a space. So the fight raged furiously,
Launcelot ever being in the thickest of the press and performing
such deeds of valour that all marvelled to see him, and would fain
know who was the Knight of the Crimson Sleeve. But the knights of
Arthur's court felt shame of their discomfiture, and, in especial,
those of Launcelot's kin were wroth that one should appear who
seemed mightier even than Launcelot's self. So they called to each
other and, making a rally, directed all their force against the
stranger knight who had so turned the fortunes of the day. With
lances in rest, Sir Lionel, Sir Bors, and Sir Ector, bore down
together upon Sir Launcelot, and Sir Bors' spear pierced Sir
Launcelot and brought him to the earth, leaving the spear head
broken off in his side. This Sir Lavaine saw, and immediately, with
all his might, he rode upon the King of Scots, unhorsed him and
took his horse to Sir Launcelot. Now Sir Launcelot felt as if he
had got his death-wound, but such was his spirit that he was
resolved to do some great deed while yet his strength remained. So,
with Lavaine's aid, he got upon the horse, took a spear and, laying
it in rest, bore down, one after the other, Sir Bors, Sir Lionel,
and Sir Ector. Next he flung him into the thickest of the fight,
and before the trumpets sounded the signal to cease, he had
unhorsed thirty good knights.

Then the Kings of Scotland and Ireland came to Sir Launcelot and
said: "Sir Knight, we thank you for the service done us this day.
And now, we pray you, come with us to receive the prize which is
rightly yours; for never have we seen such deeds as ye have done
this day." "My fair lords," answered Sir Launcelot, "for aught that
I have accomplished, I am like to pay dearly; I beseech you, suffer
me to depart." With these words, he rode away full gallop, followed
by Sir Lavaine; and when he had come to a little wood, he called
Lavaine to him, saying: "Gentle Knight, I entreat you, draw forth
this spear head, for it nigh slayeth me." "Oh! my dear lord," said
Lavaine, "I fear sore to draw it forth lest ye die." "If ye love
me, draw it out," answered Launcelot. So Lavaine did as he was
bidden, and, with a deathly groan, Sir Launcelot fell in a swoon to
the ground. When he was a little recovered, he begged Lavaine to
help him to his horse and lead him to a hermitage hard by where
dwelt a hermit who, in bygone days, had been known to Launcelot for
a good knight and true. So with pain and difficulty they journeyed
to the hermitage, Lavaine oft fearing that Sir Launcelot would die.
And when the hermit saw Sir Launcelot, all pale and besmeared with
blood, he scarce knew him for the bold Sir Launcelot du Lac; but he
bore him within and dressed his wound and bade him be of good
cheer, for he should recover. So there Sir Launcelot abode many
weeks and Sir Lavaine with him; for Lavaine would not leave him,
such love had he for the good knight he had taken for his lord.

Now when it was known that the victorious knight had departed from
the field sore wounded, Sir Gawain vowed to go in search of him. So
it chanced that, in his wanderings, he came to Astolat, and there
he had a hearty welcome of the Lord of Astolat, who asked him for
news of the tournament. Then Sir Gawain related how two stranger
knights, bearing white shields, had won great glory, and in
especial one, who wore in his helm a crimson sleeve, had surpassed
all others in knightly prowess. At these words, the fair Elaine
cried aloud with delight. "Maiden," said Gawain, "know ye this
knight?" "Not his name," she replied; "but full sure was I that he
was a noble knight when I prayed him to wear my favour." Then she
showed Gawain the shield which she had kept wrapped in rich
broideries, and immediately Sir Gawain knew it for Launcelot's.
"Alas!" cried he, "without doubt it was Launcelot himself that we
wounded to the death. Sir Bors will never recover the woe of it."

Then, on the morrow, Sir Gawain rode to London to tell the court
how the stranger knight and Launcelot were one; but the Fair Maid
of Astolat rose betimes, and having obtained leave of her father,
set out to search for Sir Launcelot and her brother Lavaine. After
many journeyings, she came, one day, upon Lavaine exercising his
horse in a field, and by him she was taken to Sir Launcelot. Then,
indeed, her heart was filled with grief when she saw the good
knight to whom she had given her crimson sleeve thus laid low; so
she abode in the hermitage, waiting upon Sir Launcelot and doing
all within her power to lessen his pain.

After many weeks, by the good care of the hermit and the fair
Elaine, Sir Launcelot was so far recovered that he might bear the
weight of his armour and mount his horse again. Then, one morn,
they left the hermitage and rode all three, the Fair Maid, Sir
Launcelot, and Sir Lavaine, to the castle of Astolat, where there
was much joy of their coming. After brief sojourn, Sir Launcelot
desired to ride to court, for he knew there would be much sorrow
among his kinsmen for his long absence. But when he would take his
departure, Elaine cried aloud: "Ah! my lord, suffer me to go with
you, for I may not bear to lose you." "Fair child," answered Sir
Launcelot gently, "that may not be. But in the days to come, when
ye shall love and wed some good knight, for your sake I will bestow
upon him broad lands and great riches; and at all times will I hold
me ready to serve you as a true knight may." Thus spoke Sir
Launcelot, but the fair Elaine answered never a word.

So Sir Launcelot rode to London where the whole court was glad of
his coming; but from the day of his departure, the Fair Maid
drooped and pined until, when ten days were passed, she felt that
her end was at hand. So she sent for her father and two brothers,
to whom she said gently: "Dear father and brethren, I must now
leave you." Bitterly they wept, but she comforted them all she
might, and presently desired of her father a boon. "Ye shall have
what ye will," said the old lord; for he hoped that she might yet
recover. Then first she required her brother, Sir Tirre, to write a
letter, word for word as she said it; and when it was written, she
turned to her father and said: "Kind father, I desire that, when I
am dead, I may be arrayed in my fairest raiment, and placed on a
bier; and let the bier be set within a barge, with one to steer it
until I be come to London. Then, perchance, Sir Launcelot will come
and look upon me with kindness." So she died, and all was done as
she desired; for they set her, looking as fair as a lily, in a
barge all hung with black, and an old dumb man went with her as
helmsman.

Slowly the barge floated down the river until it had come to
Westminster; and as it passed under the palace walls, it chanced
that King Arthur and Queen Guenevere looked forth from a window.
Marvelling much at the strange sight, together they went forth to
the quay, followed by many of the knights. Then the King espied the
letter clasped in the dead maiden's hand, and drew it forth gently
and broke the seal. And thus the letter ran: "Most noble Knight,
Sir Launcelot, I, that men called the Fair Maid of Astolat, am come
hither to crave burial at thy hands for the sake of the unrequited
love I gave thee. As thou art peerless knight, pray for my soul."

Then the King bade fetch Sir Launcelot, and when he was come, he
showed him the letter. And Sir Launcelot, gazing on the dead
maiden, was filled with sorrow. "My lord Arthur," he said, "for the
death of this dear child I shall grieve my life long. Gentle she
was and loving, and much was I beholden to her; but what she
desired I could not give." "Yet her request now thou wilt grant, I
know," said the King; "for ever thou art kind and courteous to
all." "It is my desire," answered Sir Launcelot.

So the Maid of Astolat was buried in the presence of the King and
Queen and of the fellowship of the Round Table, and of many a
gentle lady who wept, that time, the fair child's fate. Over her
grave was raised a tomb of white marble, and on it was sculptured
the shield of Sir Launcelot; for, when he had heard her whole
story, it was the King's will that she that in life had guarded the
shield of his noblest knight, should keep it also in death.




BOOK X

QUEEN GUENEVERE




CHAPTER XXXI

HOW MORDRED PLOTTED AGAINST SIR LAUNCELOT


Before Merlin passed from the world of men, imprisoned in the great
stone by the evil arts of Vivien, he had uttered many marvellous
prophecies, and one that boded ill to King Arthur; for he foretold
that, in the days to come, a son of Arthur's sister should stir up
bitter war against the King, and at last a great battle should be
fought in the West, when many a brave knight should find his doom.

Now, among the nephews of Arthur, was one most dishonourable; his
name was Mordred. No knightly deed had he ever done, and he hated
to hear the good report of others because he himself was a coward
and envious. But of all the Round Table there was none that Mordred
hated more than Sir Launcelot du Lac, whom all true knights held in
most honour; and not the less did Mordred hate Launcelot that he
was the knight whom Queen Guenevere had in most esteem. So, at
last, his jealous rage passing all bounds, he spoke evil of the
Queen and of Launcelot, saying that they were traitors to the King.
Now Sir Gawain and Sir Gareth, Mordred's brothers, refused to give
ear to these slanders, holding that Sir Launcelot, in his knightly
service of the Queen, did honour to King Arthur also; but by
ill-fortune another brother, Sir Agravaine, had ill-will to the
Queen, and professed to believe Mordred's evil tales. So the two
went to King Arthur with their ill stories.

Now when Arthur had heard them, he was wroth; for never would he
lightly believe evil of any, and Sir Launcelot was the knight whom
he loved above all others. Sternly then he bade them begone and
come no more to him with unproven tales against any, and, least of
all, against Sir Launcelot and their lady, the Queen.

The two departed, but in their hearts was hatred against Launcelot
and the Queen, more bitter than ever for the rebuke they had
called down upon themselves; and they resolved, from that time
forth, diligently to watch if, perchance, they might find aught to
turn to evil account against Sir Launcelot.

Not long after, it seemed to them that the occasion had come. For
King Arthur having ridden forth to hunt far from Carlisle, where he
then held court, the Queen sent for Sir Launcelot to speak with him
in her bower. Then Agravaine and Mordred got together twelve
knights, friends of Sir Gawain, their brother, and persuaded them
to come with them for they should do the King a service. So with
the twelve knights they watched and waited in a little room until
they saw Sir Launcelot, all unarmed, pass into the Queen's chamber;
and when the door was closed upon him, they came forth, and Sir
Agravaine and Sir Mordred thundered on the door, crying so that all
the court might hear: "Thou traitor, Sir Launcelot, come forth from
the Queen's chamber. Come forth, for thy treason against the King
is known to all!"

Then Sir Launcelot and the Queen were amazed and filled with shame
that such a clamour should be raised where the Queen was. While
they waited and listened in dismay, Sir Mordred and Sir Agravaine
took up the cry again, the twelve knights echoing it: "Traitor
Launcelot, come forth and meet thy doom; for thy last hour is
come." Then Sir Launcelot, wroth more for the Queen than for
himself, exclaimed: "This shameful cry will kill me; better death
than such dishonour. Lady, as I have ever been your true knight,
since the day when my lord, King Arthur, knighted me, pray for me
if now I meet my death." Then he went to the door and cried to
those without: "Fair lords, cease this outcry. I will open the
door, and then ye shall do with me as ye will." With the word, he
set open the door, but only by so much that one knight could enter
at a time. So a certain Sir Colgrevance of Gore, a knight of great
stature, pushed into the room and thrust at Sir Launcelot with all
his might; but Sir Launcelot, with the arm round which he had
wrapped his cloak, turned aside the sword and, with his bare hand,
dealt Colgrevance such a blow on the helmet that he fell grovelling
to the earth. Then Sir Launcelot thrust to and barred the door, and
stripping the fallen knight of his armour, armed himself in haste
with the aid of the Queen and her ladies.

All this while, Sir Agravaine and Sir Mordred continued their
outcry; so when he was armed, Sir Launcelot called to them to cease
their vile cries and the next day he would meet any or all of them
in arms and knightly disprove their vile slander. Now there was not
one among those knights who dared meet Sir Launcelot in the open
field, so they were resolved to slay him while they had the
advantage over him. When Sir Launcelot understood their evil
purpose, he set wide the door and rushed upon them. At the first
blow he slew Sir Agravaine, and soon eleven other knights lay cold
on the earth beside him. Only Mordred escaped, for he fled with all
his might; but, even so, he was sore wounded.

Then Sir Launcelot spoke to the Queen. "Madam," said he, "here may
I no longer stay, for many a foe have I made me this night. And
when I am gone, I know not what evil may be spoken of you for this
night's work. I pray you, then, suffer me to lead you to a place of
safety." "Ye shall run no more risk for my sake," said the Queen;
"only go hence in haste before more harm befall you. But as for me,
here I abide. I will flee for no traitor's outcry."

So Sir Launcelot, seeing that at that time there was naught he
might do for Queen Guenevere, withdrew with all his kin to a little
distance from Carlisle, and awaited what should befall.




CHAPTER XXXII

THE TRIAL OF THE QUEEN


When Mordred escaped Sir Launcelot, he got to horse, all wounded as
he was, and never drew rein till he had found King Arthur, to whom
he told all that had happened.

Then great was the King's grief. Despite all that Mordred could
say, he was slow to doubt Sir Launcelot, whom he loved, but his
mind was filled with forebodings; for many a knight had been slain,
and well he knew that their kin would seek vengeance on Sir
Launcelot, and the noble fellowship of the Round Table be utterly
destroyed by their feuds.

All too soon, it proved even as the King had feared. Many were
found to hold with Sir Mordred; some because they were kin to the
knights that had been slain, some from envy of the honour and
worship of the noble Sir Launcelot; and among them even were those
who dared to raise their voice against the Queen herself, calling
for judgment upon her as leagued with a traitor against the King,
and as having caused the death of so many good knights. Now in
those days the law was that if any one were accused of treason by
witnesses, or taken in the act, that one should die the death by
burning, be it man or woman, knight or churl. So then the murmurs
grew to a loud clamour that the law should have its course, and
that King Arthur should pass sentence on the Queen. Then was the
King's woe doubled; "For," said he, "I sit as King to be a rightful
judge and keep all the law; wherefore I may not do battle for my
own Queen, and now there is none other to help her." So a decree
was issued that Queen Guenevere should be burnt at the stake
outside the walls of Carlisle.

Forthwith, King Arthur sent for his nephew, Sir Gawain, and said to
him: "Fair nephew, I give it in charge to you to see that all is
done as has been decreed." But Sir Gawain answered boldly: "Sir
King, never will I be present to see my lady the Queen die. It is
of ill counsel that ye have consented to her death." Then the King
bade Gawain send his two young brothers, Sir Gareth and Sir
Gaheris, to receive his commands, and these he desired to attend
the Queen to the place of execution. So Gareth made answer for
both: "My Lord the King, we owe you obedience in all things, but
know that it is sore against our wills that we obey you in this;
nor will we appear in arms in the place where that noble lady shall
die"; then sorrowfully they mounted their horses, and rode to
Carlisle.

When the day appointed had come, the Queen was led forth to a place
without the walls of Carlisle, and there she was bound to the stake
to be burnt to death. Loud were her ladies' lamentations, and many
a lord was found to weep at that grievous sight of a Queen brought
so low; yet was there none who dared come forward as her champion,
lest he should be suspected of treason. As for Gareth and Gaheris,
they could not bear the sight and stood with their faces covered in
their mantles. Then, just as the torch was to be applied to the
faggots, there was a sound as of many horses galloping, and the
next instant a band of knights rushed upon the astonished throng,
their leader cutting down all who crossed his path until he had
reached the Queen, whom he lifted to his saddle and bore from the
press. Then all men knew that it was Sir Launcelot, come knightly
to rescue the Queen, and in their hearts they rejoiced. So with
little hindrance they rode away, Sir Launcelot and all his kin with
the Queen in their midst, till they came to the castle of the
Joyous Garde where they held the Queen in safety and all reverence.

But of that day came a kingdom's ruin, for among the slain were
Gawain's brothers, Sir Gareth and Sir Gaheris. Now Sir Launcelot
loved Sir Gareth as if he had been his own younger brother, and
himself had knighted him; but, in the press, he struck at him and
killed him, not seeing that he was unarmed and weaponless; and in
like wise, Sir Gaheris met his death. So when word was brought to
King Arthur of what had passed, Sir Gawain asked straightway how
his brothers had fared. "Both are slain," said the messenger.
"Alas! my dear brothers!" cried Sir Gawain; "how came they by their
death?" "They were both slain by Sir Launcelot." "That will I never
believe," cried Sir Gawain; "for my brother, Sir Gareth, had such
love for Sir Launcelot that there was naught Sir Launcelot could
ask him that he would not do." But the man said again: "He is
slain, and by Sir Launcelot."

Then, from sheer grief, Sir Gawain fell swooning to the ground.
When he was recovered, he said: "My Lord and uncle, is it even as
this man says, that Sir Launcelot has slain my brother Sir Gareth?"
"Alas!" said the King, "Launcelot rode upon him in the press and
slew him, not seeing who he was or that he was unarmed." "Then,"
cried Gawain fiercely, "here I make my avow. Never, while my life
lasts, will I leave Sir Launcelot in peace until he has rendered me
account for the slaying of my brother." From that day forth, Sir
Gawain would not suffer the King to rest until he had gathered all
his host and marched against the Joyous Garde. Thus began the war
which broke up the fellowship of the Round Table.




CHAPTER XXXIII

HOW SIR GAWAIN DEFIED SIR LAUNCELOT


Now it came to the ears of the Pope in Rome that King Arthur was
besieging Sir Launcelot in his castle of the Joyous Garde, and it
grieved him that there should be strife between two such goodly
knights, the like of whom was not to be found in Christendom. So he
called to him the Bishop of Rochester, and bade him carry word to
Britain, both to Arthur and to Sir Launcelot, that they should be
reconciled, the one to the other, and that King Arthur should
receive again Queen Guenevere.

Forthwith Sir Launcelot desired of King Arthur assurance of liberty
and reverence for the Queen, as also safe conduct for himself and
his knights, that he might bring Dame Guenevere, with due honour,
to the King at Carlisle; and thereto the King pledged his word.

So Launcelot set forth with the Queen, and behind them rode a
hundred knights arrayed in green velvet, the housings of the horses
of the same all studded with precious stones; thus they passed
through the city of Carlisle, openly, in the sight of all, and
there were many who rejoiced that the Queen was come again and Sir
Launcelot with her, though they of Gawain's party scowled upon him.

When they were come into the great hall where Arthur sat, with Sir
Gawain and other great lords about him, Sir Launcelot led
Guenevere to the throne and both knelt before the King; then,
rising, Sir Launcelot lifted the Queen to her feet, and thus he
spoke to King Arthur, boldly and well before the whole court: "My
lord, Sir Arthur, I bring you here your Queen, than whom no truer
nor nobler lady ever lived; and here stand I, Sir Launcelot du Lac,
ready to do battle with any that dare gainsay it"; and with these
words Sir Launcelot turned and looked upon the lords and knights
present in their places, but none would challenge him in that
cause, not even Sir Gawain, for he had ever affirmed that Dame
Guenevere was a true and honourable lady.

Then Sir Launcelot spoke again: "Now, my Lord Arthur, in my own
defence it behoves me to say that never in aught have I been false
to you. That I slew certain knights is true; but I hold me
guiltless, seeing that they brought death upon themselves. For no
sooner had I gone to the Queen's bower, as she had commanded me,
than they beset the door, with shameful outcry, that all the court
might hear, calling me traitor and felon knight." "And rightly they
called you," cried Sir Gawain fiercely. "My lord, Sir Gawain,"
answered Sir Launcelot, "in their quarrel they proved not
themselves right, else had not I, alone, encountered fourteen
knights and come forth unscathed."

Then said King Arthur: "Sir Launcelot, I have ever loved you above
all other knights, and trusted you to the uttermost; but ill have
ye done by me and mine." "My lord," said Launcelot, "that I slew
Sir Gareth I shall mourn as long as life lasts. As soon would I
have slain my own nephew, Sir Bors, as have harmed Sir Gareth
wittingly; for I myself made him knight, and loved him as my
brother." "Liar and traitor," cried Sir Gawain, "ye slew him,
defenceless and unarmed." "It is full plain, Sir Gawain," said
Launcelot, "that never again shall I have your love; and yet there
has been old kindness between us, and once ye thanked me that I
saved your life." "It shall not avail you now," said Sir Gawain;
"traitor ye are, both to the King and to me. Know that, while life
lasts, never will I rest until I have avenged my brother Sir
Gareth's death upon you." "Fair nephew," said the King, "cease your
brawling. Sir Launcelot has come under surety of my word that none
shall do him harm. Elsewhere, and at another time, fasten a quarrel
upon him, if quarrel ye must." "I care not," cried Sir Gawain
fiercely. "The proud traitor trusts so in his own strength that he
thinks none dare meet him. But here I defy him and swear that, be
it in open combat or by stealth, I shall have his life. And know,
mine uncle and King, if I shall not have your aid, I and mine will
leave you for ever, and, if need be, fight even against you."
"Peace," said the King; and to Sir Launcelot: "We give you fifteen
days in which to leave this kingdom." Then Sir Launcelot sighed
heavily and said: "Full well I see that no sorrow of mine for what
is past availeth me." Then he went to the Queen where she sat, and
said: "Madam, the time is come when I must leave this fair realm
that I have loved. Think well of me, I pray you, and send for me
if ever there be aught in which a true knight may serve lady."
Therewith he turned him about and, without greeting to any, passed
through the hall, and with his faithful knights rode to the Joyous
Garde, though ever thereafter, in memory of that sad day, he called


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