Stories of King Arthur and His Knights/Chapter 15

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After the damsel rode Fair-hands, now well provided with shield and spear, and known to Sir Launcelot, at least, as Sir Gareth and nephew to King Arthur. When he had overtaken the damsel, anon she said: "What dost thou here? Thou smellest all of the kitchen; thy clothes be foul with the grease and tallow that thou gainedst in King Arthur's kitchen; therefore turn again, foul kitchen-page. I know thee well, for Sir Kay named thee Fair-hands. What art thou but a lubber and a turner of spits, and a ladle washer?"

"Damsel," said Fair-hands, "say to me what ye will, I will not go from you, for I have undertaken, in King Arthur's presence, to achieve your adventure, and so shall I finish it, or I shall die therefore."

Thus as they rode along in the wood, there came a man flying all that ever he might. "Whither wilt thou?" said Fair-hands.

"O lord," he said, "help me, for yonder in a dell are six thieves that have taken my lord and bound him, and I am afeard lest they will slay him."

So Fair-hands rode with the man until they came to where the knight lay bound, and the thieves hard by. Fair-hands struck one unto the death, and then another, and at the third stroke he slew the third thief; and then the other three fled. He rode after them and overtook them, and then those three thieves turned again and assailed Fair-hands hard, but at the last he slew them also, and returned and unbound the knight. The knight thanked him, and prayed him to ride with him to his castle there a little beside, and he should honourably reward him for his good deeds.

"Sir," said Fair-hands, "I will no reward have except as God reward me. And also I must follow this damsel."

When he came nigh her, she bade him ride from her, "for," said she, "thou smellest all of the kitchen; thinkest thou that I have joy of thee? All this deed thou hast done is but mishapped thee, but thou shalt see a sight that shall make thee turn again, and that lightly."

Then the same knight who was rescued from the thieves rode after that damsel, and prayed her to lodge with him that night. And because it was near night the damsel rode with him to the castle, and there they had great cheer. At supper the knight set Sir Fair-hands afore the damsel.

"Fie, fie," said she, "sir knight, ye are uncourteous to set a kitchen-page afore me; him beseemeth better to stick a swine than to sit afore a damsel of high parentage."

Then the knight was ashamed at her words, and took Fair-hands up and set him at a sideboard, and seated himself afore him. So all that night they had good cheer and merry rest.

On the morn the damsel and Fair-hands thanked the knight and took their leave, and rode on their way until they came to a great forest. Therein was a great river with but one passage, and there were ready two knights on the farther side, to prevent their crossing. Fair-hands would not have turned back had there been six more, and he rushed into the water. One of the two encountered with him in the midst of the stream, and both spears were broken. Then they drew their swords and smote eagerly at one another. At the last Sir Fair-hands smote the other upon the helm so that he fell down stunned in the water, and there was he drowned. Then Sir Fair-hands spurred his horse upon the land, where the other fell upon him, and they fought long together. At the last Sir Fair-hands clove his helm and his head, and so rode unto the damsel and bade her ride forth on her way.

"Alas," she said, "that ever a kitchen-page should have that fortune to destroy two such doughty knights. Thou thinkest thou hast done doughtily, but that is not so, for the first knight's horse stumbled, and so he was drowned in the water; it was never by thy force or by thy might. And as for the second knight, by mishap thou camest behind him and slewest him."

"Damsel," said Fair-hands, "ye may say what ye will, but whomsoever I have ado with I trust to God to serve him ere he depart, and therefore I reck not what ye say, provided I may win your lady."

"Fie, fie, foul kitchen-knave, thou shalt see knights that shall abate thy boast. I see all that ever thou doest is but by misadventure, and not by prowess of thy hands."

"Fair damsel," said he, "give me goodly language, and then my care is past. Ye may say what ye will; what knights soever I shall meet, I fear them not, and wheresoever ye go I will follow you."

So they rode on till even-song time, and ever she chid him and would not cease. And then they came to a black lawn, and there was a black hawthorn, and thereon hung a black banner, and on the other side there hung a black shield, and by it stood a black spear great and long, and a great black horse covered with silk, and a black stone fast by, whereon sat a knight all armed in black harness, and his name was the Knight of the Black Lawns.

The damsel, when she saw this knight, bade Fair-hands flee down the valley. "Grammercy," said he, "always ye would have me a coward."

With that the Black Knight, when she came nigh him, spake and said, "Damsel, have ye brought this knight of King Arthur to be your champion?"

"Nay, fair knight," said she, "this is but a kitchen-knave, that was fed in King Arthur's kitchen for alms. I cannot be rid of him, for with me he rideth against my will. Would that ye should put him from me, or else slay him, if ye may, for he is a troublesome knave, and evilly he hath done this day."

"Thus much shall I grant you," said the Black Knight: "I shall put him down upon one foot, and his horse and his harness he shall leave with me, for it were shame to me to do him any more harm."

When Sir Fair-hands heard him say thus, he said, "Sir knight, thou art full generous with my horse and my harness; I let thee know it cost thee naught, and whether thou like it or not, this lawn will I pass, and neither horse nor harness gettest thou of me, except as thou win them with thy hands. I am no kitchen-page, as the damsel saith I am; I am a gentleman born, and of more high lineage than thou, and that will I prove on thy body."

Then in great wrath they drew back with their horses, and rushed together as it had been the thunder. The Black Knight's spear brake, and Fair-hands thrust him through both his sides, whereupon his own spear brake also. Nevertheless the Black Knight drew his sword and smote many eager strokes of great might, and hurt Fair-hands full sore. But at the last he fell down off his horse in a swoon, and there he died.

When Fair-hands saw that the Black Knight had been so well horsed and armed, he alighted down and armed himself in the dead man's armour, took his horse, and rode after the damsel. When she saw him come nigh, she said, "Away, kitchen-knave, out of the wind, for the smell of thy foul clothes offendeth me. Alas that ever such a knave as thou art should by mishap slay so good a knight as thou hast done. All this is my ill luck, but hard by is one that shall requite thee, and therefore again I counsel thee, flee."

"It may be my lot," said Fair-hands, "to be beaten or slain, but I warn you, fair damsel, I will not flee away or leave your company for all that ye can say, for ever ye say that they will kill me or beat me, yet it happeneth that I escape and they lie on the ground. Therefore it were as good for you to stop thus all day rebuking me, for away will I not till I see the uttermost of this journey, or else I will be slain or truly beaten; therefore ride on your way, for follow you I will, whatsoever happen."

As they rode along together they saw a knight come driving by them all in green, both his horse and his harness; and when he came nigh the damsel he asked her, "Is that my brother the Black Knight that ye have brought with you?"

"Nay, nay," said she, "this unlucky kitchen-knave hath slain your brother through mischance."

"Alas," said the Green Knight, "that is great pity that so noble a knight as he was should so unfortunately be slain, and by a knave's hand, as ye say that he is. Ah! traitor, thou shalt die for slaying my brother; he was a full noble knight."

"I defy thee," said Fair-hands, "for I make known to thee I slew him knightly and not shamefully."

Therewithal the Green Knight rode unto a horn that was green that hung on a green thorn, and there he blew three deadly notes, whereupon came two damsels and armed him lightly. Then he took a great horse and a green shield and a green spear, and the two knights ran together with all their mights. They brake their spears unto their hands, and then drew their swords. Now they gave many sad strokes, and either of them wounded other full ill.

At the last Fair-hands' horse struck the Green Knight's horse upon the side, and it fell to the earth. Then the Green Knight left his horse lightly, and prepared to fight on foot. That saw Fair-hands, and therewithal he alighted, and they rushed together like two mighty champions a long while, and sore they bled both.

With that came the damsel and said, "My lord, the Green Knight, why for shame stand ye so long fighting with the kitchen-knave? Alas, it is shame that ever ye were made knight, to see such a lad match such a knight, as if the weed overgrew the corn."

Therewith the Green Knight was ashamed, and gave a great stroke of might, and clave Fair-hands' shield through. When the young knight saw his shield cloven asunder he was a little ashamed of that stroke and of her language, and then he gave the other such a buffet upon the helm that he fell on his knees, and Fair-hands quickly pulled him upon the ground grovelling. Then the Green Knight cried for mercy, and yielded himself unto Sir Fair-hands, and prayed him to slay him not.

"All is in vain," said Fair-hands, "for thou shalt die unless this damsel that came with me pray me to save thy life."

Therewithal he unlaced his helm as if to slay him. "Let be," said the damsel, "thou foul kitchen-knave, slay him not, for if thou do, thou shalt repent it."

"Damsel," said Fair-hands, "your charge is to me a pleasure, and at your commandment his life shall be saved, and else not. Sir Knight with the green arms, I release thee quit at this damsel's request, for I will not make her wroth; I will fulfil all that she chargeth me."

And then the Green Knight kneeled down and did him homage with his sword, promising for ever to become his man together with thirty knights that held of him. Then said the damsel, "Me repenteth, Green Knight, of your damage and of the death of your brother the Black Knight; of your help I had great need, for I fear me sore to pass this forest."

"Nay, fear ye not," said the Green Knight, "for ye shall lodge with me this night, and to-morn I shall help you through this forest."

So they took their horses and rode to his manor, which was fast there beside. And ever the damsel rebuked Fair-hands, and would not suffer him to sit at her table. But the Green Knight took him and set him at a side table, and did him honour, for he saw that he was come of noble blood and had proved himself a full noble knight. All that night he commanded thirty men privily to watch Fair-hands for to keep him from all treason. And on the morn they arose, and after breaking their fast they took their horses and rode on their way.

As the Green Knight conveyed them through the forest he said, "My lord Fair-hands, I and these thirty knights shall be always at your summons, both early and late at your call wherever ye will send us."

"It is well," said Fair-hands; "when I call upon you ye must go unto King Arthur with all your knights."

So the Green Knight took his leave, and the damsel said unto Fair-hands, "Why followest thou me, thou kitchen-boy; cast away thy shield and thy spear and flee, for thou shalt not pass a pass here, that is called the pass Perilous."

"Damsel," said Fair-hands, "who is afraid let him flee, for it were shame to turn again since I have ridden so long with you."

"Well," said she, "ye shall soon, whether ye will or not."

In like manner on the next day Sir Fair-hands overcame a third brother, the Red Knight, and in like manner the damsel would have Fair-hands spare his life. Albeit she spake unto him many contemptuous words, whereof the Red Knight had great marvel, and all that night made three-score men to watch Fair-hands that he should have no shame or villainy. The Red Knight yielded himself to Fair-hands with fifty knights, and they all proffered him homage and fealty at all times to do him service.

"I thank you," said Fair-hands; "this ye shall grant me when I call upon you, to come afore my lord King Arthur and yield yourselves unto him to be his knights."

"Sir," said the Red Knight, "I will be ready and my fellowship at your summons."

So again upon the morn Sir Fair-hands and the damsel departed, and ever she rode chiding him in the foulest manner.

"Damsel," said Fair-hands, "ye are uncourteous so to rebuke me as ye do, for me seemeth I have done you good service, and ever ye threaten me I shall be beaten with knights that we meet; but ever for all your boasts they lie in the dust or in the mire, and therefore I pray you rebuke me no more. When ye see me beaten or yielded as recreant, then may ye bid me go from you shamefully, but first I let you wit I will not depart from you, for I were worse than a fool if I should depart from you all the while that I win honour."

"Well," said she, "right soon there shall come a knight that shall pay thee all thy wages, for he is the most man of honour of the world, except King Arthur."

"The more he is of honour," said Fair-hands, "the more shall be my honour to have ado with him. Have no doubt, damsel, by the grace of God I shall so deal with this knight that within two hours after noon I shall overcome him, and then shall we come to the siege of your lady's castle seven miles hence by daylight."

"Marvel have I," said the damsel, "what manner of man ye be, for it may never be otherwise but that ye be come of noble blood, for so foul and shamefully did never woman rule a knight as I have done you, and ever courteously ye have suffered me, and that came never but of gentle blood."

"Damsel," said Fair-hands, "a knight may little do that may not suffer a damsel, for whatsoever ye said unto me I took no heed to your words, for the more ye said the more ye angered me, and my wrath I wreaked upon them that I had ado withal. And therefore all the missaying that ye missaid me furthered me in my battle, and caused me to think to show and prove myself at the end what I was. For peradventure, though I had meat in King Arthur's kitchen, yet I might have had meat enough in other places. All that I did to prove and to assay my friends, and whether I be a gentleman born or not, I let you wit, fair damsel, I have done you gentleman's service, and peradventure better service yet will I do ere I depart from you."

"Alas," she said, "good Fair-hands, forgive me all that I have missaid or done against thee."

"With all my heart," said he, "I forgive it you, and damsel, since it liketh you to say thus fair to me, wit ye well it gladdeth mine heart greatly, and now me seemeth there is no knight living but I am able enough for him."

With this Sir Persant of Inde, the fourth of the brethren that stood in Fair-hands' way to the siege, espied them as they came upon the fair meadow where his pavilion was. Sir Persant was the most lordly knight that ever thou lookedst on. His pavilion and all manner of thing that there is about, men and women, and horses' trappings, shields and spears were all of dark blue colour. Anon he and Fair-hands prepared themselves and rode against one another that both their spears were shattered to pieces, and their horses fell dead to the earth. Then they fought two hours and more on foot, until their armour was all hewn to pieces, and in many places they were wounded. At the last, though loath to do it, Fair-hands smote Sir Persant above upon the helm so that he fell grovelling to the earth, and the fierce battle was at an end. Like his three brethren before, Sir Persant yielded himself and asked for mercy, and at the damsel's request Fair-hands gladly granted his life, and received homage and fealty from him and a hundred knights, to be always at his commandment.

On the morn as the damsel and Sir Fair-hands departed from Sir Persant's pavilion, "Fair damsel," said Persant, "whitherward are ye away leading this knight?"

"Sir," she said, "this knight is going to the siege that besiegeth my sister in the Castle Perilous."

"Ah, ah," said Persant, "that is the Knight of the Red Lawns, the most perilous knight that I know now living, a man that is without mercy, and men say that he hath seven men's strength. God save you, sir, from that knight, for he doth great wrong to that lady, which is great pity, for she is one of the fairest ladies of the world, and me seemeth that this damsel is her sister. Is not your name Linet?"

"Yea, sir," said she, "and my lady my sister's name is Dame Liones. Now, my lord Sir Persant of Inde, I request you that ye make this gentleman knight or ever he fight with the Red Knight."

"I will with all my heart," said Sir Persant, "if it please him to take the order of knighthood of so simple a man as I am."

But Fair-hands thanked him for his good will, and told him he was better sped, as the noble Sir Launcelot had already made him knight. Then, after Persant and the damsel had promised to keep it close, he told them his real name was Gareth of Orkney, King Arthur's nephew, and that Sir Gawaine and Sir Agravaine and Sir Gaheris were all his brethren, he being the youngest of them all. "And yet," said he, "wot not King Arthur nor Sir Gawaine what I am."

The book saith that the lady that was besieged had word of her sister's coming and a knight with her, and how he had passed all the perilous passages, had won all the four brethren, and had slain the Black Knight, and how he overthrew Sir Kay, and did great battle with Sir Launcelot, and was made knight by him. She was glad of these tidings, and sent them wine and dainty foods and bade Sir Fair-hands be of good heart and good courage.

The next day Fair-hands and Linet took their horses again and rode through a fair forest and came to a spot where they saw across the plain many pavilions and a fair castle and much smoke. And when they came near the siege Sir Fair-hands espied upon great trees, as he rode, how there hung goodly armed knights by the necks, nigh forty of them, their shields about their necks with their swords. These were knights that had come to the siege to rescue Dame Liones, and had been overcome and put to this shameful death by the Red Knight of the Red Lawns.

Then they rode to the dykes, and saw how strong were the defences, and many great lords nigh the walls, and the sea upon the one side of the walls, where were many ships and mariners' noise, with "hale" and "ho." Fast by there was a sycamore tree, whereupon hung a horn, the greatest that ever they saw, of an elephant's bone. This the Knight of the Red Lawns had hung up there that any errant knight might blow it, if he wished the Knight of the Red Lawns to come to him to do battle. The damsel Linet besought Fair-hands not to blow the horn till high noon, for the Red Knight's might grew greater all through the morn, till, as men said, he had seven men's strength.

"Ah, fie for shame, fair damsel," said Fair-hands, "say ye never so more to me, for, were he as good a knight as ever was, I shall never fail him in his most might, for either I will win honour honourably, or die knightly in the field."

Therewith he spurred his horse straight to the sycamore tree, and blew the horn so eagerly that all the siege and all the castle rang thereof. And then there leaped out knights out of their tents, and they within the castle looked over the walls and out at windows. Then the Red Knight of the Red Lawns armed himself hastily, and two barons set his spurs upon his heels, and all was blood red, — his armour, spear, and shield. And an earl buckled his helm upon his head, and then they brought him a red steed, and so he rode into a little vale under the castle, that all that were in the castle and at the siege might behold the battle.

Sir Fair-hands looked up at a window of the castle, and there he saw the Lady Liones, the fairest lady, it seemed to him, that ever he looked upon. She made courtesy down to him, and ever he looked up to the window with glad countenance, and loved her from that time and vowed to rescue her or else to die.

"Leave, Sir Knight, thy looking," said the Red Knight, "and behold me, I counsel thee, and make thee ready."

Then they both put their spears in their rests, and came together with all the might that they had. Either smote other in the midst of the shield with such force that the breastplates, horse-girths, and cruppers brake, and both fell to the earth stunned, and lay so long that all they that were in the castle and in the siege thought their necks had been broken. But at length they put their shields afore them, drew their swords, and ran together like two fierce lions. Either gave other such buffets upon the helm that they reeled backward; then they recovered both, and hewed off great pieces of their harness and their shields.

Thus they fought till it was past noon, and never would stint, till at last they lacked wind both, and stood panting and blowing a while. Then they went to battle again, and thus they endured till even-song time, and none that beheld them might know whether was like to win. Then by assent of them both they granted either other to rest; and so they sat down on two molehills, and unlaced their helms to take the cool wind. Then Sir Fair-hands looked up at the window, and there he saw the fair lady, Dame Liones. She made him such countenance that his heart waxed light and jolly; and therewith he bade the Red Knight of the Red Lawns make ready to do battle to the uttermost.

So they laced up their helms and fought freshly. By a cross stroke the Red Knight of the Red Lawns smote Sir Fair-hands' sword from him, and then gave him another buffet on the helm so that he fell grovelling to the earth, and the Red Knight fell upon him to hold him down. Then Linet cried to him aloud and said that the lady beheld and wept. When Sir Fair-hands heard her say so he started up with great might, gat upon his feet, and leaped to his sword. He gripped it in his hand, doubled his pace unto the Red Knight, and there they fought a new battle together.

Now Sir Fair-hands doubled his strokes and smote so thick that soon he had the better of the Red Knight of the Red Lawns, and unlaced his helm to slay him, whereupon he yielded himself to Fair-hands' mercy.

Sir Fair-hands bethought him upon the knights that he had made to be hanged shamefully, and said, "I may not with my honour save thy life."

Then came there many earls and barons and noble knights, and prayed Fair-hands to save his life and take him as prisoner. Then he released him upon this covenant that he go within to the castle and yield himself there to the lady, and if she would forgive him he might have his life with making amends to the lady of all the trespass he had done against her and her lands.

The Red Knight of the Red Lawns promised to do as Sir Fair-hands commanded and so with all those earls and barons he made his homage and fealty to him. Within a while he went unto the castle, where he made peace with the Lady Liones, and departed unto the court of King Arthur. There he told openly how he was overcome and by whom, and also he told all the battles of Fair-hands from the beginning unto the ending.

"Mercy," said King Arthur and Sir Gawaine, "we marvel much of what blood he is come, for he is a noble knight." But Sir Launcelot had no marvel, for he knew whence he came, yet because of his promise he would not discover Fair-hands until he permitted it or else it were known openly by some other.

Dame Liones soon learned through her brother Sir Gringamore that the knight who had wrought her deliverance was a king's son, Sir Gareth of Orkney, and nephew of King Arthur himself. And she made him passing good cheer, and he her again, and they had goodly language and lovely countenance together. And she promised the noble knight Sir Gareth certainly to love him and none other the days of her life. Then there was not a gladder man than he, for ever since he saw her at the window of Castle Perilous he had so burned in love for her that he was nigh past himself in his reason.