Gilbert's King Arthur's Knights


   It befell upon a time when King Arthur was Pendragon, or overlord of the island of Britain, that Earl Evroc held an earldom of large dominion in the north under King Uriens. And the earl had seven sons, the last being but a child still at play about his mother's chair as she sat with her maidens in the bower.
   Lord Evroc was a valiant and a mighty warrior, ever battling against the hated pagans, when their bands of blue-eyed fierce fighters landed on his coasts. And when peace was on the land, he went about on errantry, jousting in tournaments and fighting champions.
   His six elder sons did likewise, and all were famed for their knightly prowess.
   But the mother sat at home, sad of mood. For she hated war, and would rather have had her lord and her six tall sons about her in the home. And in her heart she resolved that she would plead with Evroc to let her have her little son Perceval to be a clerk or a learned bard, so that he should stay at home with her and run no risk of death.
   The sorrow she was ever dreading smote her at length. For a messenger came one day, saying that Earl Evroc her lord had been slain at Bamborough, in a mighty melee between some of the best and most valiant knights of Logres and Alban, and two tall sons with him.
   As the years passed, and her little son began to run, three black days came within a little of each other, for on these days messengers came with the sad news of the death of her other boys. One of them had been done to death by an evil troll on the lonely wastes by the Roman wall; two others were slain by the shores of Humber, repelling a horde of fair-haired Saxon raiders; and the other was killed at a ford, where he had kept at bay six bandit knights that would have pursued and slain his wounded lord.
   Then, in her grief, the widow dame resolved that she would fly with her little son, and make a home for him in some wilderness, where never sounds or sights of war or death would come, where knights would be unknown, and no one would speak to him of arms and battles. And thus did she do, and she left the hall where she had lived, and removed to the deserts and wastes of the wilderness, and took with her only her women, and a few boys and spiritless men, too old or feeble to fight, or to think of fighting.
   Thus she reared the only son left for her, teaching him all manner of nobleness in thought and action and in learning, but never suffering him to see a weapon, nor to hear a tale of war or knightly prowess.
   He grew up loving all noble things, gentle of speech and bearing, but quick to anger at evil or mean actions, merciful of weak things, and full of pity and tenderness.
   Yet was he also very strong of body, fleet of foot, quick of eye and hand. Daily he went to divert himself in the great dark forest that climbed the high mountains beside his home, or he roamed the wide rolling moors. And he practised much with the throwing of stones and sticks, so that with a stick he could hit a small mark at a great distance, and with a sharp stone he could cut down a sapling at one blow.
   One day he saw a flock of his mother's goats in the forest, and near them stood two hinds. The boy wondered greatly to see the two deer which had no horns, while the goats had two each; and he thought they had long run wild, and had lost their horns in that way. He thought he would please his mother if he caught them, so that they should not escape again. And by his great activity and swiftness he ran the two deer down till they were spent, and then he took them and shut them up in the goat-house in the forest.
   Going home, he told his mother and her servants what he had done, and they went to see, and marvelled that he could catch such fleet creatures as the wild red deer.
   Once he overheard his mother say that she yearned for fresh venison, but that the hunter who was attached to her house was lying wounded by a wild boar. Always Perceval had wondered what the little dark man did whom they called the hunter, who was always so secret, so that Perceval could never see where he went or when he returned from the forest.
   So he went to the hut where Tod the hunter lay sick, and charged him by the love and worship he bore to the countess, that he should tell him how he could obtain fresh venison. And the dwarf told him.
   Then Perceval took a few sticks of stout wood, with points hardened by fire, and went into the forest as Tod had told him, and seeing a deer he hurled a stick at it and slew it. And then he brought it home.
   The countess was greatly wroth that Tod had taught him how to slay, and she said that never more should the dwarf serve her. And Tod wept, but when he was well again the countess would not suffer him to stay, but said he should leave the hall and never come there again.
   She commanded Perceval never to slay any more living things, and the lad promised. But hard was it to keep his word, when he was in the forest and saw the wild things passing through the brakes.
   Once, as he strayed deep in the wood, he came upon a wide glade or laund, with two green hillocks in the middle thereof. And feeding upon the grass was a great buck, and it had a silver ring round its neck. Perceval wondered at this beast being thus adorned, and went up to it to stroke it.
   But the buck was fierce, and would have gored him with its horns, but Perceval seized them, and after a great struggle he threw the animal, and held it down, and in his wrath he would have slain it with a sharp stick. With that a swarm of little angry trolls poured from the hollow hillocks with great cries, and seizing Perceval would have hurt him.
   But suddenly Tod ran among them, and commanded them to release him. And in the end Tod, who came himself of the troll folk, made the little people pass the words of peace and friendship with Perceval, and ever after that the boy went with the trolls, and sported with them in wrestling, running, and other games; and he learned many things of great wisdom from them concerning the secrets of the earth and air and the wind, and the spirits that haunt waste places and standing stones, and how to put to naught the power of witches and wizards.
   Tod ever bade them treat the young lord with reverence. "For this is he who shall do great deeds," he said. "He shall be a stainless knight, who shall gain from evil the greatest strength, and, if God wills, he shall beat down the evil powers in this land."
   But the lad knew not what he meant, though he was very content to have the trolls for his friends.
   One day Perceval was in the forest far up the mountain, and he looked over the blue distance far below across the moor, and saw a man riding on a wide road which he had never noticed before. And the man rode very fast, and as he went the sun seemed to flash from him as if he was clothed in glass. Perceval wondered what he was, and resolved to go across the moor to the road he had seen.
   When he reached the road he found it was very broad, and banked on either side, and went straight as the flight of a wild duck right across the moor, and never swerved by the hills or pools, but went over in its way. And as he stood marvelling men had builded it, he heard a strange rattling sound behind him, and, turning, he saw three men on horseback, and the sun shone from them as he had seen it shine from the first horseman.
   The foremost checked his horse beside Perceval, and said:
   "Tell me, good soul, sawest thou a knight pass this way either this day or yesterday?"
   "I know not what a knight is," answered Perceval.
   "Such a one as I," said the horseman, smiling good-naturedly, for it was Sir Owen, one of King Arthur's knights.
   "If ye will tell me what I ask, I will tell you," said Perceval.
   "I will answer gladly," said Sir Owen, smiling, yet wondering at the fearless and noble air of this youth in so wild a waste.
   "What is this?" asked Perceval, and pulled the skirt of the hauberk.
   "It is a dress made of rings of steel," answered Sir Owen, "which I put on to turn the swords of those I fight."
   "And what is it to fight?"
   "What strange youth art thou?" asked Sir Owen. "To fight is to do battle with spears or swords, so that you would slay the man that would slay you."
   "Ah, as I would have slain the buck that would have gored me," said Perceval, nodding his head.
   Many other questions the youth asked eagerly, as to the arms they bore and the accoutrements and their uses. And at length he said:
   "Sirs, I thank you for your courtesy. Go forward swiftly, for I saw such a one as ye go by here but two hours ago, and he flashed in the sun as he rode swiftly. And now I will be as one of you."
   Perceval went swiftly back to his mother's house and found her among her women.
   "Mother," he said, "I have seen a great and wonderful sight on the great road across the moor."
   "Ah, my dear son, what was that?" she asked.
   "They were three honourable knights," he said.
   "And, mother, I will be a knight also."
   With a great shriek his mother swooned away, and the women turned him from the room and said he had slain his mother.
   Much grieved was Perceval that he had hurt his mother, and so, taking his store of pointed sticks, he went off into the forest, and strayed there a long time, torn between his love for his mother and the strange restlessness which the sight of the three warriors had caused in him.
   As he wandered, troubled, his quick ear caught the clang of metal, though he knew not what it was. And swiftly he ran towards the sound a long way, until he came into a clearing, and found two knights on horse-back doing mighty battle. One bore a red shield and the other a green one.
   He looked eagerly at this strange sight, and the blood sang in his veins. And then he saw that the green knight was of slighter frame than the other, and was weakening before the strokes of the red knight.
   Full of anger at the sight, Perceval launched one of his hard-wood javelins at the red knight. With such force did it go, and so true was the aim, that it pierced the coif of the knight, and entered between the neck and the head, and the red knight swayed and then clattered to the ground, dead.
   The green knight came and thanked Perceval for thus saving his life.
   "Are knights then so easy to slay?" asked the lad.
   "Methought that none might pierce through the hauberk of a knight, and I sorrow that I have slain him, not thinking what I did."
   "He was a full evil knight," said the other, "and deserved death richly for his many villainies and oppressions of weak orphans and friendless widows."
   The knight took the body of the dead knight to be buried in a chapel, and told Perceval he could have the horse. But the lad would not have it, though he longed greatly to possess it, and the green knight took it with him.
   Then Perceval went home, sad, yet wild with wonder at what he had done. He found his mother well again, but very sorrowful. And for fear of giving her pain, he did not tell her of the knight he had slain.
   She called him to her, and said:
   "Dear son of mine, it seems I may not keep thy fate from thee. The blood of thy warlike generations before thee may not be quenched, whatever fond and foolish plans I made to keep thee from knowledge of battle and weapons. Dear son, dost thou desire to ride forth into the world?"
   "Yes, mother, of a truth," said Perceval. "I shall not be happy more until I go."
   "Go forward then," she said, weeping, "and God be with thee, my dear son. And as I have no man who is strong of his hands, thou must go alone, yet will I give thee gold for thy proper garnishing and lodging. But make all the haste ye may to the court of King Arthur at Caerleon-upon-Usk, for there are the best and the boldest and the most worshipful of knights. And the king will give thee knighthood. And wherever thou seest a church, go kneel and repeat thy prayers therein; and if thou hearest an outcry, go quickly and defend the weak, the poor, and the unprotected. And be ever tender towards women, my son, and remember that thy mother loves thee and prays for thy stay in health and life. And come thou to see me within a little while."
   And he thanked her, saying he would do naught that should shame her, but would remember all the nobleness of her teaching; also, that he would return to see her within a little while.
   Perceval went to the stable and took a bony piebald horse, which seemed the strongest, and he pressed a pallet of straw into the semblance of a saddle, and with pieces of leather and wood he imitated the trappings he had seen on the horses of the knights.
   Then, after taking leave of his mother, he rode forth, sad at first for leaving her in sorrow and tears, but afterwards glad that now he was going into the world to become a knight. And for armour he had a rough jerkin, old and moth-eaten, and for arms he had a handful of sharp-pointed sticks of hard wood.
   He journeyed southwards two days and two nights along the great straight road, which went through the deep dark forests, over desert places and over the high mountains. And all that time he ate nothing but wild berries, for he had not thought to bring food with him.
   While he was yet but a little way from the court of King Arthur, a stranger knight, tall and big, in black armour, had ridden into the hall where sat Gwenevere the queen, with a few of the younger knights and her women. The page of the chamber was serving the queen with wine in a golden goblet richly wrought, which Lancelot had taken from a knight whom he had lately slain.
   The stranger knight had alighted before the chair of Gwenevere, and all had seen that full of rage and pride was his look. And he caught sight of the goblet in the hand of Gwenevere, and he snatched it from her, spilling the wine over her dress and dashing it even into her face.
   "Now am I well lighted here," he said, "for this is the very goblet which thy robber knight Sir Lancelot reaved from my brother, Sir Wilder. And if any of you knights here desire to wrest this goblet from me, or to avenge the insult I have done your queen, let him come to the meadow beside the ford, and I will slay him, ay, if it be that traitor Sir Lancelot himself."
   All the young knights hung their heads as he mounted his horse and insolently rode out ot the hall; for it seemed to them that no one would have done so daring an outrage unless he fought with evil magic, so that the strength and prowess of the mightiest knight would be put to naught.
   Then Perceval entered the hall, and at sight of him upon his rough piebald horse, with its uncouth trappings and the old and mouldy jerkin upon the youth, the knights and others broke forth in excessive laughter, as much at the sight as to cover their discomfiture and fear of the knight who had just gone.
   But Perceval took no note of their laughter, but rode up the hall to where Sir Kay the seneschal stood, wrathful at the outrage on the queen which he had not dared to avenge instantly. And Perceval looked about and saw a knight more richly dressed than the others, and, turning to Kay, he said:
   "Tell me, tall man, is that King Arthur yonder?"
   "What wouldst thou with Arthur, knave?" asked Kay angrily.
   "My mother told me to seek King Arthur," responded Perceval, "and he will give me the honour of knighthood."
   "By my faith, thou farmer's churl," said Kay, "thou art richly-equipped indeed with horse and arms to have that honour."
   Thereupon the others shouted with laughter, and commenced to throw sticks at Perceval, or the bones left by the dogs upon the floor.
   Then a dwarf pressed forward between the laughing crowd and saluted Perceval. And the lad rejoiced to recognize him. It was Tod, who had been his friend among the trolls of the mountains, and with Tod was his wife. They had come to the court of Arthur, and had craved harbourage there, and the king of his kindness had granted it them. But by reason of the prophecy which the trolls knew of concerning the great renown which Perceval was to gain, they had been dumb of speech since they had last seen the young man.
   And now at sight of him their tongues were loosed, and the ran and kissed his feet, and cried together:
   "The welcome of Heaven be unto thee, goodly Perceval, son of Earl Evroc! Chief of warriors art thou, and stainless flower of knighthood!"
   "Truly," said Kay wrathfully, "thou art an ill-conditioned pair, to remain a year mute at King Arthur's court, and now before the face of goodly knights to acclaim this churl with the mouldy coat chief of warriors and flower of knighthood!"
   In his rage he beat Tod the dwarf such a blow, that the poor troll fell senseless to the ground; and the troll-wife he kicked, so that she was dashed among the dogs, who bit her.
   "Tall man," said Perceval, and men marvelled to see the high look on his face and the cold scorn in his eyes, "I will have vengeance on thee for the insult and ill-treatment thou hast done these two poor dwarfs. But tell me now which of these knights is Arthur?"
   "Away with thee," shouted Cay, enraged. "If thou wouldst see Arthur, go to the knight with the goblet who waits for thee at the ford, and take the goblet from him and slay him. Then when thou comest back clad in his armour, we will speak further with thee."
   "I will do so, angry man," said Perceval, and amid the shouts of laughter and the sneers of the crowd he turned his horse's head and rode out of the hall.
   Going to the meadow beside the ford, he saw a knight riding up and down, proud of his strength and valour.
   "Tell me, fellow," said the knight, who bore on his shield the device of a black tower on a red field, "didst thou see any one coming after me from the court yonder?"
   "The tall man that was there," said Perceval, "bade me to come to thee, and I am to overthrow thee and to take from thee the goblet, and as for thy horse and thy arms I am to have them myself."
   "Silence, prating fool!" shouted the knight; "go back to the court and tell Arthur to come himself, or to send a champion to fight me, or I will not wait, and great will be his shame."
   "By my faith," said Perceval, "whether thou art willing or unwilling, it is I that will have thy horse and arms and the goblet."
   And he prepared to throw his javelin sticks.
   In a proud rage the knight ran at him with uplifted lance, and struck him a violent blow with the shaft between the neck and the shoulder.
   "Haha! lad," said Perceval, and laughed, "that was as shrewd a blow as any the trolls gave me when they taught me their staff play; but now I will play with thee in my own way."
   Thereupon he threw one of the pointed sticks at the knight, with such force and with such sureness of aim that it went in between the bars of his vizor and pierced the eye, and entered into the brain of the knight. Whereupon he fell from his horse lifeless.
   And it befell that a little while after Percevel had left the court, Sir Owen came in, and was told of the shameful wrong put upon the queen by the unknown knight, and how Sir Kay had sent a mad boy after the knight to slay him.
   "Now, by my troth," said Owen to Kay, "thou wert a fool to send that foolish lad after the strong knight. For either he will be overthrown, and the knight will think he is truly the champion sent on behalf of the queen, whom the knight so evilly treated, and so an eternal disgrace will light on Arthur and all of us; or, if he is slain, the disgrace will be the same, and the mad young man's life will be thrown away."
   Thereupon Sir Owen made all haste, and rode swiftly to the meadow, armed; but when he reached the place, he found a youth in a mouldy old jerkin pulling a knight in rich armour up and down the grass.
   "By'r Lady's name!" cried Sir Owen, "what do you there, tall youth?"
   "This iron coat," said Perceval, stopping as he spoke, "will never come off him."
   Owen alighted marvelling, and went to the knight and found that he was dead, and saw the manner of his death, and marvelled the more. He unloosed the knight's armour and gave it to Perceval.
   "Here, good soul ", he said, "are horse and armour for thee. And well hast thou merited them, since thou unarmed hast slain so powerful a knight as this."
   He helped Perceval put on his armour, and when he was fully dressed Owen marvelled to see how nobly he bore himself.
   "Now come you with me," he said, "and we will go to King Arthur, and you shall have the honour of knighthood from the good king himself."
   "Nay, that will I not," said Perceval, and mounted the dead knight's horse. "But take thou this goblet to the queen, and tell the king that wherever I be, I will be his man, to slay all oppressors, to succour the weak and the wronged, and to aid him in whatever knightly enterprise he may desire my aid. But I will not enter his court until I have encountered the tall man there who sent me hither, to revenge upon him the wrong he did to my friends, Tod the dwarf and his wife." And with this Perceval said farewell and rode off. Sir Owen went back to the court, and told Arthur and the queen all these things. Men marvelled who the strange young man could be, and many sought Tod and his wife to question them, but nowhere could they be found.
   Greater still was their marvelling when, as the weeks passed, knights came and yielded themselves to King Arthur, saying that Perceval had overcome them in knightly combat, and had given them their lives on condition that they went to King Arthur's court and yielded themselves up to him and his mercy. The king and all his court reproved Kay for his churlish manner, and for his having driven so splendid a youth from the court.
   And Perceval rode ever forward. He came one day towards the gloaming to a lonely wood in the fenlands, where the wind shivered like the breath of ghosts among the leaves, and there was not a track or trace of man or beast, and no birds piped. And soon, as the wind shrilled, and the rain began to beat down like thin grey spears, he saw a vast castle rise before him, and when he made his way towards the gate, he found the way so overgrown with weeds that hardly could he push his horse between them. And on the very threshold the grass grew thick and high, as if the door had not been opened for a hundred winters.
   He battered on the door with the butt of his lance; and long he waited, while the cold rain drove and the wind snarled.
   After a little while a voice came from above the gateway, and glancing up he saw a damsel looking through an opening in the battlements.
   "Choose thou, chieftain," said she, "whether I shall open unto thee without announcing thee, or whether I shall tell her that rules here that thou wishest to enter."
   "Say that I am here," said Perceval. "And if she will not house me for the night, then will I go forward."
   Soon the maiden came back and opened the door for him, and his horse she led into the stable, where she fed it; and Perceval she brought into the hall. When he came into the light and looked at the girl, he thought he had never seen another of so fair an aspect.
   She had an old garment of satin upon her, which had once been rich, but was now frayed and tattered: and fairer was her skin than the bloom of the rose, and her hair and eyebrows were like the sloe for blackness, and on her cheeks was the redness of poppies. Her eyes were like deep pools in a dark wood. And he thought that, though she was very beautiful, there was great arrogance in her look and cruelty in her lips.
   When Perceval went towards the dais of the hall he saw a tall and stately lady in the high seat, old of years and reverend of aspect, though sorrowful. Several handmaids sat beside her, sad of face and tattered of dress. All welcomed him right kindly. Then they sat at meat, and gave the young man the best cheer that they had.
   When it was time to go to rest, the lady said:
   "It were well for you, chieftain, that you sleep not in this castle."
   "Wherefore," said Perceval, "seeing that the storm beats wildly without and there is room here for many?"
   "For this reason," said the lady, "that I would not that so handsome and kindly a youth as you seem should suffer the doom which must light upon this my castle at dawn."
   "Tell me," said Perceval, "what is this castle, and what is the doom you speak of?"
   "This castle is named the Castle of Weeds," replied the lady, "and the lands about it for many miles belonged to my husband, the Earl Mador. And he was a bold and very valiant man; and he slew Maelond, the eldest son of Domna, the great witch of Glaive, and ever thereafter things were not well with him. For she and her eight evil sisters laid a curse upon him. And that in spite of this, that he slew Maelond in fair fight, for all that he was a false and powerful wizard. And Domna came to my husband, when he was worn with a strange sickness, and as he lay on his deathbed. And she said she should revenge herself upon his daughter and mine, this maiden here, when she shall be full twice nine years of age. And she will be of that age ere dawn tomorrow morn, and at the hour will the fierce Domna and her fearful sisters come, and with tortures slay all that are herein, and take my dear daughter Angharad, and use her cruelly."
   The maiden who had opened to Perceval was that daughter, and she laughed harshly as her mother spoke.
   "Fear not for me, mother," she cried. "They will deck me in rich robes, and I shall not pine for fair raiment, as I have pined these ten years with thee."
   The lady looked sadly upon her as she heard her words.
   "I fear not, my daughter, that they will take thy life," she said, "but I dread this - that they will destroy thy soul!"
   And Angharad laughed and said:
   "What matter, so it be that I live richly while I live!"
   "Nay, nay," said Perceval, and in his voice was a great scorn, "it is evil to speak thus, and it belies your beauty, fair maiden. Rather a life of poverty than one of shamefulness and dishonour. Thus is it with all good knights and noble dames, and thus was it with our dear Lord."
   Then turning to the lady, he said:
   "Lady, I think these evil witches will not hurt thee. For the little help that I may give to thee, I will stay this night with thee."
   After he had prayed at the altar in the ruined chapel of the castle, they led him to a bed in the hall, where he slept.
   And just before the break of day there came a dreadful outcry, with groans and shrieks and terrible screams and moanings, as if all the evil that could be done was being done upon poor wretches out in the dark.
   Perceval leapt from his couch, and with naught upon him but his vest and doublet, he went with his sword in hand to the gate, and there he saw two poor serving-men struggling with a hag dressed all in armour. Behind her came eight others. And their eyes, from between the bars of their helms, shone with a horrible red fire, and from each point of their armour sparks flashed, and the swords in their grisly hands gleamed with a blue flame, so fierce and so terrible that it scorched the eyes to look upon them.
   But Perceval dashed upon the foremost witch, and with his sword beat her with so great a stroke that she fell to the ground, and the helm on her head was flattened to the likeness of a dish.
   When she fell, the light of her eyes and her sword went out, and the armour all seemed to wither away, and she was nothing but an old ugly woman in rags. And she cried out:
   "Thy mercy, good Perceval, son of Evroc, and the mercy of Heaven!"
   "How knowest thou, hag," said he, " that I am Perceval?"
   "By the destiny spun by the powers of the Underworld," she said, " and the foreknowledge that I should suffer harm from thee. And I knew not that thou wert here, or I and my sisters would have avoided thee. But it is fated," she went on, "that thou come with us to learn all that may be learned of the use of arms. For there are none in Britain to compare with us for the knowledge of warfare."
   Then Perceval remembered what he had heard the trolls - the people of the Underworld - say, though he had not understood their meaning. The stainless knight," they said, "shall gain from evil greater strength, and with it he may confound all evil."
   "If it be thus fated", he said, "I will go with thee. But first thou shalt swear that no evil shall happen to the lady of this castle nor to her daughter, nor to any that belong to them.
   "It shall be so," said the witch, "if, when the time comes, thou art strong enough to overcome my power. But if thou failest, Angharad is mine to do with as I will."
   Then Perceval took leave of the lady of the Castle of Weeds, and of Angharad. And the lady thanked him with tears for saving their lives, but the girl was cold and scornful and said no word of thanks. Then Perceval went with the witches to their Castle of Glaive.
   He stayed with them for a year and a day, learning such knowledge of arms, and gaining such strength, that it was marvel to see the feats which he performed. And while he lived with them they strove to bend him to their wills, for they saw how great a knight he would become in prowess and in knightly deeds. They tempted him every hour and every day, telling him what earthly power, what riches and what great dominions would be his, if he would but swear fealty to the chief witch, Domna, and fight for her against King Arthur and his proud knights.
   Perceval prayed daily for strength to withstand the poison of their tongues, and evermore he held himself humble and gentle, and thought much of his widowed mother in her lonely home in the northern wastes, and of the promise he had made her. Sometimes he thought of Angharad, how beautiful she was, and how sad it was that she had so cold a heart, and was so cruel in her words.
   Anon the witch Domna came to him, and said that he had now learned all that she could teach him, and he must go and prove himself against greater powers than he had ever yet known. If he prevailed not in that battle, the ladies of the Castle of Weeds would become the prey of the witches, and greater power of evil would they have in the world than ever before. Then she gave him a horse and a full suit of black armour.
   So Perceval took the horse, and armed himself and rode forth. And anon he came to a hermit's cell beside a ruined chapel, and he alighted and went into the chapel, and stripped himself, and laid all his armour, his lance, and his sword before the high altar.
   Prayerfully he gave his arms to the service of God, and devoted them one by one to do only knightly and pure deeds, to rescue the oppressed and the weak, to put down the proud, and to cherish the humble.
   And as he ended praying, the armour stirred of itself, and though it had been black before, now did the darkness fade from it, and it all became a pure white. While he marvelled, a faint light glowed over hauberk, helm, shield, sword, and lance, and there was an exceeding sweet savour wafted through the place. And ghostily, as in a silver mist, he saw above the altar the likeness of a spear, and beside it a dish or salver. And at the wondrous sight his breath stayed on his lips. Then slowly the vision faded from his sight.
   He arrayed himself in his armour that was now of a dazzling white, and he rode forth and thought to go towards Camelot, where was the court of King Arthur. But he felt that some power drew him aside through the desolate ways of a hoar forest, where all the trees were ancient and big, and all bearded with long moss.
   In a little while he saw a vast castle reared upon a rock in the midst of the forest. He rode up to it, and marvelled that it was all so quiet. Then he beat upon the door with the butt of his lance, and the door opened, and he entered into the wide dark hall. On the pallets under the wall he saw men lying as if dead. And in the high seat at the head of the hall sat a king, old and white, but richly clothed, and he seemed dead like all the rest. All were clad in garments of an ancient kind, as if they had lived and died a thousand years agone, yet had not rotted into dust. On the floor, about the wide heap of ashes where the fire had burned, the hounds still lay as if asleep, and on the posts the hawks sat stiff upon their perches.
   Much did Perceval marvel at this strange sight, but most of all he marvelled to see where a shaft of light from a narrow window gleamed across the hall full upon a shield hung on the fire-pillar beside the high seat in which the king sat like one dead.
   Perceval caused his horse to pick its way through the hall, and he approached the shield. And he saw that it was of shining white, but whiter than the whiteness of his own, and in the centre thereof was a heart. As he sat looking thereat, he marvelled to see that the heart seemed to stir as if it were alive, and began to throb and move as if it beat. Then the whiteness of the shield began to dazzle like to a light that mortal eves could not bear.
   He lifted his hand and took the shield by its strap from the peg on which it hung, and as he did so, a great sigh arose from within the hall, as if at one time many sleepers awoke. And looking round, he saw how all the men that had seemed dead were now on their knees, with bent heads and folded hands as if in prayer.
   The king in the high seat stirred and sat upright, and looked at Perceval with a most sweet smile.
   "The blessing of God is upon thee, young White Knight," said he, "and now is my watch and ward all ended, and with these my faithful companions may I go."
   "Tell me, sir," said Perceval, "what means this?"
   "I am Marius," said the king, "and I was that Roman soldier who took pity of the gentle Saviour dying in His agony upon the rood. And I helped to take Him from the cross. For my pity did God, whom till then I had not known, deal with me in marvellous wise. And this shield was mine, and a holy hermit in a desert of Syria did bless it, and prophesy concerning it and me. I came to this land of Britain when it was full of evil men, warring fiercely together, and all in heathen darkness. I preached the Word of Christ, I and my fellows that came with me, until the heathens rose up and would slay me. And by that time I was wearied and very old, and wished to die. Then a man of God came to me at night, a man of marvel, and he caused this castle to be builded in this ancient wood, and he put my shield upon the post, and bade me and my dear friends sleep. 'For,' said he, 'thou hast earned thy sleep, and no evil shall be able to break in upon thy repose. But in the distant future one that is of the three white knights shall come and take this shield, and then thou and all that are with thee shall have the restfulness of death thou hast merited.' Go then, thou good knight," went on King Marius, "and may my shield encompass thee and ever guard thee."
   Perceval took the shield and left his own. He went forth into the forest some little way, and heard from the castle the singing of a joyful hymn. And, looking back, he saw that the castle had vanished. But still above him and about him was the sound of singing, of a sweetness indescribable, as if they sang who had gained all that they desired.
   Then Perceval rode forward till it was night; but never could he get sight of castle or knight's hold or hermit's cell where he could be houselled for the night. So he abode in the forest that night, and when he had prayed he slept beside his good horse until it was day.
   Just before the dawn he awoke to the sound of a great rushing wind all about him. Yet marvel it was to see that the trees in that hoar wood did not wave their branches, but all were still.
   Then he was aware of a sweet savour which surrounded him, and anon a gentle voice spoke out of the darkness.
   "Fair White Knight," said the voice, "it is ordained of thee that thou goest to the lands of the King Pellam in the north, where an evil power seeks to turn men from the New Law which Christ brought. And there at the Castle of the Circlet thou shalt fight a battle for the Saviour of the world. And whether thou shalt win through all, none know as yet. But in thy purity, thy humility, is thy strength. Fare thee well!"
   Much moved at these words, Perceval knelt and prayed, and then, as the dawn filtered through the trees, he mounted his horse and began his long journey to the north.
   On the seventh day he crossed a plain, and saw far in the north where the smoke as of fires rose into the clouds, and here and there he saw the fierce red gleam of flames. And he passed through a ford, and then he entered a land all black and desolate, with the bodies of the dead beside the way, unburied, and the houses all broken or burned. But one day, as he walked his horse beside a brook, over the long grass, he came upon a poor half-starved peasant who had not strength to run. And the man knelt before him, and bared his breast, and said, "Strike, sir knight, and end my misery!"
   But Perceval raised him in his arms and kissed him, and gave him bread and wine from his scrip, and when the poor man was revived, Perceval asked him what his words meant.
   "Ah, Sir White Knight!" said the man, whose tears fell as he spoke, "surely thou art an angel of heaven, not of the pit, such as have ravened and slaughtered throughout this fair land. For into the land came an evil and a pagan knight, the knight of the Dragon, and he willed that all should scorn and despise the good Christ, and should turn to the old gods of the standing stones and the oaken groves. And those that would not he slew, and their folk he trampled underfoot, and their herds and fields he destroyed and desolated. And I, fair lord, have lost my dear wife and my wee bairns, and I wonder why I fled and kept my life, remembering all I have lost."
   "Take heart." said Perceval, "and remember that it is God His mercy that chastiseth, and that while thou hast life thou hast hope. It is a man's duty, a man's nobility, to bear sorrows bravely, and still to work, to do all and to achieve. I think God will not long let this evil knight oppress and slay. In His good time He will cut him down."
   "Fair sir," said the peasant, "I thank thee for thy cheer, and I will take heart and trust in God's good time."
   And Perceval rode forward through the blackened land and found the forests burning and the fields wasted.
   Anon he came to the edge of a plain, and saw a great castle in the distance. And there came to him a damsel, weeping, and when he craved of her to tell him why she mourned, she stayed, and looked at him as if astounded. Then she cried with a great cry of joy:
   "Oh, tell me, fair sir, who art thou? Thou hast the white armour which it was foretold the spotless knight should wear, and on thy shield is the Heart as of Him that bled to save the world."
   "I know not what you say," replied Perceval, "but my name is Perceval, son of Evroc, and I seek the wicked knight that doeth all this evil."
   "Then thou art the White Knight," said the damsel, "and now I pray that God aid thee, for my lady and all this poor land have need of thee. Come thou to my mistress, the lady of the Chaplet."
   Therewith she led him to the castle, and the lady thereof came out to him. She was of a sad countenance, but of a great beauty, though poorly clothed.
   "Fair sir," she said, "my maiden hath told me who thou art, and I sorrow that one so noble as thou seemest shall essay to overcome the fiend knight of the Dragon. Yet if thou shouldst prevail, all men in this tortured land will bless thee, and I not the least. For daily doth the evil knight slay my poor knights, and cometh and casteth their blackened and burned bodies before my hall. And many of my poor folk hath he slain or enslaved, and others hath he caused to follow his evil worship, and many of my rich and fair lands hath he wrested from me."
   "Therefore, fair lady," said Perceval, "I would seek him without delay, for to essay the force of my body upon him, by the grace of God."
   He went forward across the plain to a brook, and having forded the water he came to a wide hollow where the ground was all baked and burned, and the trees were charred and black. Here and there lay pieces of arrnour, red and rusted, as if they had been in a fierce fire; and in one place was the body of a knight freshly slain, and he was charred and black.
   Then, as Perceval looked about him, he saw the dark hole of a cave in a bank beside the hollow, and suddenly therefrom issued a burst of horrible fire and smoke, and with a cry as of a fiend a black knight suddenly appeared before him on a great horse, whose eyes flashed with fire and whose nostrils jetted hot vapours.
   "Ha! thou Christian!" cried the knight in a horrible voice, "what dost thou here? Wouldst thou have thy pretty white armour charred and blackened and thyself killed by my dragon's power?"
   Then Perceval saw how the boss of the Black Knight's shield was the head of a dragon, its forked tongue writhing, its teeth gnashing, and its eyes so red and fiendish that no mortal, unless God's aid, could look on it and live. From its mouth came a blinding flash as of lightning and beat at Perceval, but he held up his shield of the Throbbing Heart, and with angry shrieks the Black Knight perceived that the lightning could not touch the shield.
   Then from his side the evil knight tore his sword, and it flamed red as if it was heated in a fierce furnace, and thrusting forward he came and beat at Perceval. But the White Knight warded off the blows with his shield, which the flaming sword had no power to harm.
   Then did the Black Knight marvel greatly, for never had a knight, however skilled, withstood him for either the lightning of the dragon shield had burnt him, or the stroke of his flaming sword had slain him swiftly. And by this he knew that this knight was Perceval.
   "Thou knowest not who it is thou fightest," said the Black Knight, with a scornful laugh. "Thou must put forth more than the skill thou didst learn of the witches of Glaive if thou wouldst overcome me. For know ye, that I am a fosterling of Domna the witch, and she taught me more than ever she taught you. Now prepare ye to die."
   Then Perceval knew that this indeed was the fight which Domna had foretold, and that if he failed in this, ruin and sorrow would be the lot of many.
   And Perceval began to thrust and strike full valorously and skilfully, but naught seemed to avail him. Thus for a long time they went about, thrusting and striking. Always the strength of the Black Knighf seemed as unwearied as that of a demon, while Perceval felt his arm weaken, as much from the great strokes he gave, as from the burning fires that darted at him from the dragon shield.
   Then Perceval cried in prayer for aid, and asked that if Christ would have this land saved for His glory, strength should be given him to slay this fiendish oppressor.
   Forthwith strength seemed to nerve his arm mightily, and lifting his sword he struck at the shield of the knight, and so vehement was the blow that he cut down the shield even to the head of the dragon. Feeling the wound, the dragon gave forth a great flame, and Perceval wondered to see that now his own sword burned as if on fire.
   Then, while the Black Knight marvelled at this stroke, Perceval struck at him more fiercely and beat in the other's helm, so that the fiend knight bent and swayed in his saddle. But recovering, he became so wroth that, with his fiery sword, he heaved a mighty blow at Perceval, and cut through his hauberk even to the shoulder, which was burned to the bone.
   Ere the other could withdraw himself, Perceval thrust his sword to the hilt into the loathsome throat of the dragon. Thereupon the dragon gave so terrible a cry that the earth seemed to shake with the horror of it, And in its wrath and pain the dragon's head turned upon the Black Knight its master, and vomited forth fire so fierceIy, that it scorched and burned him utterly, so that he fell from his horse dead.
   Perceval, dizzy and weak from the battle, alighted from his horse, and went towards the knight, that he might slay the dragon. But suddenly he swooned and fell, and his consciousness went from him.
   When Perceval came to his senses again, he found himself upon a Pallet, and the rough walls of a room were about him, while above him was the window, as it seemed, of an abbey or convent. And he was so weak he could not lift his hand.
   Some one came to him, and he recognized Tod the troll.
   "Ah, good Tod," said he faintly. "Where am I?"
   "Now God be praised," said Tod, and smiled joyfully.
   "For the nuns feared ye might not win through the poison of your wound which the dragon knight did give you. 'Twas I who had followed you, lord, since that you did leave the hold of the witches, and when you swooned I brought you here, to the convent of the White Nuns. And now that I know ye live, I go to your lady mother to tell her the good news, for she is weary to know tidings of you."
   "Go, good Tod," said Perceval, "and say I will come for her blessing when I may mount my horse again."
   When Tod had left him, there came a nun to him, and he knew her for Angharad, who had been so proud and scornful when he left her at the Castle of Weeds. And he asked her how she had fared, and why she was a nun.
   "To repent me of my evil mind," she said. "For when you left us I did not in my heart thank ye that you had saved my mother and me from death and worse. And the witches came to me and tempted me with riches and power, even as they were tempting you while you were with them. I heard how you withstood them, and I scorned you and hated you and said you would yield some day. And then you left the witches, having learned all their strong powers, yet having withstood them, and I marvelled much. I heard men say you were one of three stainless knights of the world that should achieve the Holy Graal, because of your great humility and purity, and that great honour and glory would be yours, because you put not your trust in your own strength. Then I repented and would not listen to the evil women. But they followed me, whispering and tempting, and then for terror I sought a holy hermit, and he brought me here, and now I am at peace, and my proud heart is humble."
   "By my faith, sister," said Perceval, "I am rejoiced to hear thee. For I thought when I saw thee that thou hadst a proud and a hard heart. But as thou wert a beauteous and lovely maiden I thought much of thee; and had it not been foreordained otherwise, I would have loved thee above all women and wedded thee."
   The sister's pale face flushed.
   "Nay, but thou hadst a greater glory in store for thee," she said. "For thou shalt find the Holy Graal and restore it to this kingdom, and with it weak men shall forsake their leanings to the old law of hate, and cleave only to Christ and His new law of love."
   "It is as God may will it," said Perceval.
   In a little while he strengthened and rose from his pallet, and fared forth towards the north where his widowed mother sat in her lonely hall, waiting for him whose fame was sweet in every man's mouth.
   As he passed through the land, he saw how it had already begun to smile again. Men went to their work unafraid, the corn was brightening on the hills, the cattle lowed, women sang at their work, and children played. And all blessed him as he rode.
   Thus was ended at last the sorrow in the land of King Pellam.