Howard Pyle's King
Arthur and his Knights
Chapter Second. How King Arthur Fought With the Sable Knight and How He Was Sorely
Wounded. Likewise How Merlin Brought Him Safe Away From the Field of Battle.
So King Arthur and Merlin rode together through the forest for a considerable while,
until they perceived that they must be approaching nigh to the place where dwelt the Sable
Knight whom the King sought so diligently. For the forest, which had till then been
altogether a wilderness, very deep and mossy, began to show an aspect more thin and open,
as though a dwelling-place of mankind was close at hand.
And, after a little, they beheld before them a violent stream of water, that rushed
through a dark and dismal glen. And, likewise, they perceived that across this stream of
water there was a bridge of stone, and that upon the other side of the bridge there was a
smooth and level lawn of green grass, whereon Knights-contestants might joust very well.
And beyond this lawn they beheld a tall and forbidding castle, with smooth walls and a
straight tower; and this castle was built upon the rocks so that it appeared to be
altogether a part of the stone. So they wist that this must be the castle whereof the page
and Sir Griflet had spoken.
For, midway upon the bridge, they beheld that there hung a sable shield and a brass
mall exactly as the page and Sir Griflet had said; and that upon the farther side of the
stream was an apple-tree, amid the leaves of which hung a very great many shields of
various devices, exactly as those two had reported: and they beheld that some of those
shields were clean and fair, and that some were foul and stained with blood, and that some
were smooth and unbroken, and that some were cleft as though by battle of knight with
knight. And all those shields were the shields of different knights whom the Sable Knight,
who dwelt within the castle, had overthrown in combat with his own hand.
"Splendor of Paradise!" quoth King Arthur, "that must, indeed, be a
right valiant knight who, with his own single strength, hath overthrown and cast down so
many other knights. For, indeed, Merlin, there must be an hundred shields hanging in
Unto this Merlin made reply, "And thou, Lord, mayst be very happy an thy shield,
too, hangeth not there ere the sun goeth down this eventide."
"That," said King Arthur, with a very steadfast countenance, "shall be
as God willeth. For, certes, I have a greater mind than ever for to try my power against
yonder knight. For, consider, what especial honor would fall to me should I overcome so
valiant a warrior as this same Sable Champion appeareth to be, seeing that he hath been
victorious over so many other good knights."
Thereupon, having so spoken his mind, King Arthur immediately pushed forward his horse
and so, coming upon the bridge, he clearly read that challenge writ in letters of red
beneath the shield:
Whoso Smiteth This Shield
Doeth So At His Peril.
Upon reading these words, the King seized the brazen mall, and smote that shield so
violent a blow that the sound thereof echoed back from the smooth walls of the castle, and
from the rocks whereon it stood, and from the skirts of the forest around about, as though
twelve other shields had been struck in those several places.
And in answer to that sound, the portcullis of the castle was immediately let fall, and
there issued forth a knight, very huge of frame, and clad all in sable armor. And,
likewise, all of his apparel and all the trappings of his horse were entirely of sable, so
that he presented a most grim and forbidding aspect. And this Sable Knight came across
that level meadow of smooth grass with a very stately and honorable gait; for neither did
he ride in haste, nor did he ride slowly, but with great pride and haughtiness of mien, as
became a champion who, haply, had never yet been overcome in battle. So, reaching the
bridgehead, he drew rein and saluted King Arthur with great dignity, and also right
haughtily. "Ha! Sir Knight!" quoth he, "why didst thou, having read those
words yonder inscribed, smite upon my shield? Now I do tell thee that, for thy
discourtesy, I shall presently take thy shield away from thee, and shall hang it up upon
yonder apple-tree where thou beholdest all those other shields to be hanging. Wherefore,
either deliver thou thy shield unto me without more ado or else prepare for to defend it
with thy person - in the which event thou shalt certainly suffer great pain and discomfort
to thy body."
"Gramercy for the choice thou grantest me," said King Arthur. "But as
for taking away my shield - I do believe that that shall be as Heaven willeth, and not as
thou willest. Know, thou unkind knight, that I have come hither for no other purpose than
to do battle with thee and so to endeavor for to redeem with my person all those shields
that hang yonder upon that apple-tree. So make thou ready straightway that I may have to
do with thee, maybe to thy great disadvantage."
"That will I so," replied the Sable Knight. And thereupon he turned his
horse's head and, riding back a certain distance across the level lawn, he took stand in
such place as appeared to him to be convenient. And so did King Arthur ride forth also
upon that lawn, and take his station as seemed to him to be convenient.
Then each knight dressed his spear and his shield for the encounter, and, having thus
made ready for the assault, each shouted to his war-horse and drave his spurs deep into
Then those two noble steeds rushed forth like lightning, coursing across the ground
with such violent speed that the earth trembled and shook beneath them, an it were by
cause of an earthquake. So those two knights met fairly in the midst of the centre of the
field, crashing together like a thunderbolt. And so violently did they smite the one
against the other that the spears burst into splinters, even unto the guard and the
truncheon thereof, and the horses of the riders staggered back from the onset, so that
only because of the extraordinary address of the knights-rider did they recover from
falling before that shock of meeting.
But, with great spirit, these two knights uplifted each his horse with his own spirit,
and so completed his course in safety.
And indeed King Arthur was very much amazed that he had not overthrown his opponent,
for, at that time, as aforesaid, he was considered to be the very best knight and the one
best approved in deeds of arms that lived in all of Britain. Wherefore he marvelled at the
power and the address of that knight against whom he had driven, that he had not been
overthrown by the greatness of the blow that had been delivered against his defences. So,
when they met again in the midst of the field, King Arthur gave that knight greeting, and
bespoke him with great courtesy, addressing him in this wise: 'Sir Knight, I know not who
thou art, but I do pledge my knightly word that thou art the most potent knight that ever
I have met in all of my life. Now I do bid thee get down straightway from thy horse, and
let us two fight this battle with sword and upon foot, for it were pity to let it end in
"Not so," quoth the Sable Knight - "not so, nor until one of us twain be
overthrown will I so contest this battle upon foot." And upon this he shouted,
"Ho! Ho! " in a very loud voice, and straightway thereupon the gateway of the
castle opened and there came running forth two tall esquires clad all in black, pied with
crimson. And each of these esquires bare in his hand a great spear of ash-wood, new and
well-seasoned, and never yet strained in battle.
So King Arthur chose one of these spears and the Sable Knight took the other, and
thereupon each returned to that station wherefrom he had before essayed the encounter.
Then once again each knight rushed his steed to the assault, and once again did each
smite so fairly in the midst of the defence of the other that the spears were splintered,
so that only the guard and the truncheon thereof remained in the grasp of the knight who
Then, as before, King Arthur would have fought the battle out with swords and upon
foot, but again the Sable Knight would not have it so, but called aloud upon those within
the castle, whereupon there immediately came forth two other esquires with fresh, new
spears of ash-wood. So each knight again took him a spear, armed himself therewith, chose
each his station upon that fair, level lawn of grass.
And now, for the third time, having thus prepared themselves thereof assault, those two
excellent knights hurled themselves together in furious assault. And now, as twice before,
did King Arthur strike the Sable Knight so fairly in the centre of his defence that the
spear which he held was burst into splinters. But this time, the spear of the Sable Knight
did not so break in that manner, but held; and so violent was the blow that he delivered
upon King Arthur's shield that he pierced through the centre of it. Then the girths of the
King's saddle burst apart by that great, powerful blow, and both he and his steed were
cast violently backward. So King Arthur might have been overcast, had he not voided his
saddle with extraordinary skill and knightly address, wherefore, though his horse was
overthrown, he himself still held his footing and did not fall into the dust. Ne'theless,
so violent was the blow that he received that, for a little space, he was altogether
bereft of his senses so that everything whirled around before his eyes.
But when his sight returned to him he was filled with an anger so vehement that it
appeared to him as though all the blood in his heart rushed into his brains so that he saw
naught but red, as of blood, before his eyes. And when this also had passed he perceived
the Sable Knight that he sat his horse at no great distance. Then immediately King Arthur
ran to him and catching the bridle-rein of his horse, he cried out aloud unto that Sable
Knight with great violence: "Come down, thou black knight! and fight me upon foot and
with thy sword."
"That will I not do," said the Sable Knight, "for, lo! I have overthrown
thee. Wherefore deliver thou to me thy shield, that I may hang it upon yonder apple-tree,
and go thy way as others have done before thee. "
"That will I not! " cried King Arthur, with exceeding passion, "neither
will I yield myself nor go hence until either thou or I have altogether conquered the
other." Thereupon he thrust the horse of the Sable Knight backward by the bridle-rein
so vehemently, that the other was constrained to void his saddle to save himself from
being overthrown upon the ground.
And now each knight was as entirely furious as the other, wherefore, each drew his
sword and dressed his shield, and thereupon rushed together like two wild bulls in battle.
They foined, they smote, they traced, they parried, they struck again and again, and the
sound of their blows, crashing and clashing the one upon the other, filled the entire
surrounding space with an extraordinary uproar. Nor may any man altogether conceive of the
entire fury of that encounter, for, because of the violence of the blows which the one
delivered upon the other, whole cantels of armor were hewn from their bodies and many deep
and grievous wounds were given and received, so that the armor of each was altogether
stained with red because of the blood that flowed down upon it.
At last King Arthur, waxing, as it were, entirely mad, struck so fierce a blow that no
armor could have withstood that stroke had it fallen fairly upon it. But it befell with
that stroke that his sword broke at the hilt and the blade thereof flew into three several
pieces into the air. Yet was the stroke so wonderfully fierce that the Sable Knight
groaned, and staggered, and ran about in a circle as though he had gone blind and knew not
whither to direct his steps.
But presently he recovered himself again, and perceiving King Arthur standing near by,
and not knowing that his enemy had now no sword for to defend himself withal, he cast
aside his shield and took his own sword into both hands, and therewith smote so dolorous a
stroke that he clave through King Arthur's shield and through his helmet and even to the
bone of his brain-pan.
Then King Arthur thought that he had received his death-wound, for his brains swam like
water, his thighs trembled exceedingly, and he sank down to his knees, whilst the blood
and sweat, commingled together in the darkness of his helmet, flowed down into his eyes in
a lather and blinded him. Thereupon, seeing him thus grievously hurt, the Sable Knight
called upon him with great vehemence for to yield himself and to surrender his shield,
because he was now too sorely wounded for to fight any more.
But King Arthur would not yield himself, but catching the other by the sword-belt, he
lifted himself to his feet. Then, being in a manner recovered from his amazement, he
embraced the other with both arms, and placing his knee behind the thigh of the Sable
Knight, he cast him backward down upon the ground so violently that the sound of the fall
was astounding to hear. And with that fall the Sable Knight was, awhile, entirely bereft
of consciousness. Then King Arthur straightway unlaced the helm of the Sable Knight and so
beheld his face, and he knew him in spite of the blood that still ran down his own
countenance in great quantities, and he knew that knight was King Pellinore, aforenamed in
this history, who had twice warred against King Arthur. (It hath already been said how
King Arthur had driven that other king from the habitations of men and into the forests,
so that now he dwelt in this poor gloomy castle whence he waged war against all the
knights who came unto that place.)
Now when King Arthur beheld whom it was against whom he had done battle, he cried out
aloud, "Ha! Pellinore, is it then thou? Now yield thee to me, for thou art entirely
at my mercy." And upon this he drew his misericordia and set the point thereof at
King Pellinore's throat.
But by now King Pellinore had greatly recovered from his fall, and perceiving that the
blood was flowing down in great measure from out his enemy's helmet, he wist that that
other must have been very sorely wounded by the blow which he had just now received.
Wherefore he catched King Arthur's wrist in his hand and directed the point of the dagger
away from his own throat so that no great danger threatened therefrom.
And, indeed, what with his sore wound and with the loss of blood, King Arthur was now
fallen exceedingly sick and faint, so that it appeared to him that he was nigh to death.
Accordingly, it was with no very great ado that King Pellinore suddenly heaved himself up
from the ground and so overthrew his enemy that King Arthur was now underneath his knees.
And by this King Pellinore was exceedingly mad with the fury of the sore battle he had
fought. For he was so enraged that his eyes were all beshot with blood like those of a
wild boar, and a froth, like the champings of a wild boar, stood in the beard about his
lips. Wherefore he wrenched the dagger out of his enemy's hand, and immediately began to
unlace his helm, with intent to slay him where he lay. But at this moment Merlin came in
great haste, crying out, "Stay! stay! Sir Pellinore; what would you be at? Stay your
sacrilegious hand! For he who lieth beneath you is none other than Arthur, King of all
At this King Pellinore was astonished beyond measure. And for a little he was silent,
and then after awhile he cried out in a very loud voice, "Say you so, old man? Then
verily your words have doomed this man unto death. For no one in all this world hath ever
suffered such ill and such wrongs as I have suffered at his hands. For, lo! he hath taken
from me power, and kingship, and honors, and estates, and hath left me only this gloomy,
dismal castle of the forest as an abiding-place. Wherefore, seeing that he is thus in my
power, he shall now presently die; if for no other reason than because if I now let him go
free, he will certainly revenge himself when he shall have recovered from all the ill he
hath suffered at my hands."
Then Merlin said, "Not so! He shall not die at thy hands, for I, myself, shall
save him." Whereupon he uplifted his staff and smote King Pellinore across the
shoulders. Then immediately King Pellinore fell down and lay upon the ground on his face
like one who had suddenly gone dead.
Upon this, King Arthur uplifted himself upon his elbow and beheld his enemy lying there
as though dead, and he cried out, "Ha! Merlin! what is this that thou hast done? I am
very sorry, for I do perceive that thou, by thy arts of magic, hath slain one of the best
knights in all the world."
"Not so, my lord King!" said Merlin; "for, in sooth, I tell thee that
thou art far nigher to thy death than he. For he is but in sleep and will soon awaken; but
thou art in such a case that it would take only a very little for to cause thee to
And indeed King Arthur was exceeding sick, even to the heart, with the sore wound he
had received, so that it was only with much ado that Merlin could help him up upon his
horse. Having done the which and having hung the King's shield upon the horn of his
saddle, Merlin straightway conveyed the wounded man thence across the bridge, and, leading
the horse by the bridle, so took him away into the forest.
Now I must tell you that there was in that part of the forest a certain hermit so holy
that the wild birds of the woodland would come and rest upon his hand whiles he read his
breviary; and so sanctified was he in gentleness that the wild does would come even to the
door of his hermitage, and there stand whilst he milked them for his refreshment. And this
hermit dwelt in that part of the forest so remote from the habitations of man that when he
ran the bell for matins or for vespers, there was hardly ever anyone to hear the sound
thereof excepting the wild creatures that dwelt thereabout. Yet, ne'theless, to this
remote and lonely place royal folk and others of high degree would sometimes come, as
though on a pilgrimage, because of the hermit's exceeding saintliness.
So Merlin conveyed King Arthur unto this sanctuary, and, having reached that place, he
and the hermit lifted the wounded man down from his saddle - the hermit giving many words
of pity and sorrow - and together they conveyed him into the holy man's cell. There they
laid him upon a couch of moss and unlaced his armor and searched his wounds and bathed
them with pure water and dressed his hurts, for that hermit was a very skilful leech. So
for all that day and part of the next, King Arthur lay upon the hermit's pallet like one
about to die; for he beheld all things about him as though through thin water, and the
breath hung upon his lips and fluttered, and he could not even lift his head from the
pallet because of the weakness that lay upon him.
Now upon the afternoon of the second day there fell a great noise and tumult in that
part of the forest. For it happened that the Lady Guinevere of Cameliard, together with
her Court, both of ladies and of knights, had come upon a pilgrimage to that holy man, the
fame of whose saintliness had reached even unto the place where she dwelt. For that lady
had a favorite page who was very sick of a fever, and she trusted that the holy man might
give her some charm or amulet by the virtue of which he might haply be cured. Wherefore
she had come to that place with her entire Court so that all that part of the forest was
made gay with fine raiment and the silence thereof was made merry with the sound of talk
and laughter and the singing of songs and the chattering of many voices and the neighing
of horses. And the Lady Guinevere rode in the midst of her damsels and her Court, and her
beauty outshone the beauty of her damsels as the splendor of the morning star outshines
that of all the lesser stars that surround it. For then and afterward she was held by all
the Courts of Chivalry to be the most beautiful lady in the world.
Now when the Lady Guinevere had come to that place, she perceived the milk-white
war-horse of King Arthur where it stood cropping the green grass of the open glade nigh to
the hermitage. And likewise she perceived Merlin, where he stood beside the door of the
cell. So of him she demanded whose was that noble war-horse that stood browsing upon the
grass at that lonely place, and who was it that lay within that cell. And unto her Merlin
made answer, "Lady, he who lieth within is a knight, very sorely wounded, so that he
is sick nigh unto death!"
"Pity of Heaven! " cried the Lady Guinevere. "What a sad thing is this
that thou tellest me! Now I do beseech thee to lead me presently unto that knight that I
may behold him. For I have in my Court a very skilful leech, who is well used to the cure
of hurts such as knights receive in battle."
So Merlin brought the lady into the cell, and there she beheld King Arthur where he lay
stretched upon the pallet. And she wist not who he was. Yet it appeared to her that in all
her life she had not beheld so noble appearing a knight as he who lay sorely wounded in
that lonely place. And King Arthur cast his looks upward to where she stood beside his bed
of pain, surrounded by her maidens, and in the great weakness that lay upon him he wist
not whether she whom he beheld was a mortal lady or whether she was not rather some tall
straight angel who had descended from one of the Lordly Courts of Paradise for to visit
him in his pain and distresses. And the Lady Guinevere was filled with a great pity at
beholding King Arthur's sorrowful estate. Wherefore she called to her that skilful leech
who was with her Court. And she bade him bring a certain alabaster box of exceedingly
precious balsam. And she commanded him for to search that knight's wounds and to anoint
them with the balsam, so that he might be healed of his hurts with all despatch.
So that wise and skilful leech did according to the Lady Guinevere's commands, and
immediately King Arthur felt entire ease of all his aches and great content of spirit. And
when the Lady and her Court had departed, he found himself much uplifted in heart, and
three days thereafter he was entirely healed and was as well and strong and lusty as ever
he had been in all of his life.
And this was the first time that King Arthur ever beheld that beautiful lady, the Lady
Guinevere of Cameliard, and from that time forth he never forgot her, but she was almost
always present in his thoughts. Wherefore, when he was recovered he said thus to himself:
"I will forget that I am a king and I will cherish the thought of this lady and will
serve her faithfully as a good knight may serve his chosen dame."
And so he did, as ye shall hear later in this book.