"Lucius, the Emperor and lord of Rome, to King Arthur, his enemy, these, according to his deservings. I marvel very greatly, and disdain whilst yet I marvel, the pride and ill-will which have puffed you up to seek to do me evil. I have nothing but contempt and wonder for those who counsel you to resist the word of Rome, whilst yet one Roman draws his breath. You have acted lightly, and by reason of vanity have wrought mischief to us who are the front and avengers of the world.
You resemble a blind man, whose eyes the leech prepares to open. You know not yet, but very soon you will have learned, the presumption of him who teaches law to the justice of Rome. It is not enough to say that you have acted after your kind, and sinned according to your nature. Know you not whom you are, and from what dust you have come, that you dare to dispute the tribute to Rome! Why do you steal our land and our truage? Why do you refuse to render Caesar that which is his own? Are you indeed so strong that we may not take our riches from your hand? Perchance you would show us a marvellous matter.
Behold--you say--the lion fleeing from the lamb, the wolf trembling before the kid, and the leopard fearful of the hare. Be not deceived.
Nature will not suffer such miracles to happen. Julius Caesar, our mighty ancestor--whom, maybe, you despise in your heart--conquered the land of Britain, taking tribute thereof, and this you have paid until now. From other islands also, neighbours of this, it was our custom to receive truage. These in your presumption you have taken by force, to your own most grievous hurt. Moreover, you have been so bold as to put yet greater shame and damage upon us, since Frollo, our tribune, is slain, and France and Britain, by fraud, you keep wrongfully in your power. Since, then, you have not feared Rome, neither regarded her honour, the senate summon you by these letters, and command you under pain of their displeasure, to appear before them at mid August, without fail or excuse. Come prepared to make rest.i.tution of that you have taken, whatever the cost; and to give satisfaction for all those things whereof you are accused. If so be you think to keep silence, and do naught of that you are bidden, I will cross the Mont St.
Bernard with a mighty host, and pluck Britain and France from your hand. Do not deem that you can make head against me, neither hold France in my despite. Never will you dare to pa.s.s that sea, for my dearer pleasure; yea, were your courage indeed so great, yet never might you abide my coming. Be persuaded that in what place soever you await me, from thence I will make you skip. For this is my purpose, to bind you with bonds, and bring you to Rome, and deliver you, bound, to the judgment of the senate."
When this letter was read in the hearing of those who were come to Arthur's solemnity, a great tumult arose, for they were angered beyond measure. Many of the Britons took G.o.d to witness that they would do such things and more also to those amba.s.sadors who had dared deliver the message. They pressed about those twelve ancient men, with many wild and mocking words. Arthur rose hastily to his feet, bidding the brawlers to keep silence. He cried that none should do the Romans a mischief, for they were an emba.s.sy, and carried the letters of their lord. Since they were but another's mouthpiece, he commanded that none should work them harm. After the noise was at an end, and Arthur was a.s.sured that the elders were no longer in peril, he called his privy council and the lords of his household together, in a certain stone keep, that was named the Giant's Tower. The king would be advised by his barons--so ran the summons--what answer he should give to the messengers of Rome. Now as they mounted the stairs, earl and prince, pell mell, together, Cador, who was a merry man, saw the king before him. "Fair king," said the earl gaily, "for a great while the thought has disturbed me, that peace and soft living are rotting away the British bone. Idleness is the stepdame of virtue, as our preachers have often told us. Soft living makes a sluggard of the hardiest knight, and steals away his strength. She cradles him with dreams of woman, and is the mother of chambering and wantonness. Folded hands and idleness cause our young damoiseaux to waste their days over merry tales, and dice, raiment to catch a lady's fancy and things that are worse. Rest and a.s.surance of safety will in the end do Britain more harm than force or guile. May the Lord G.o.d be praised Who has jogged our elbow. To my mind He has persuaded these Romans to challenge our country that we may get us from sleep. If the Romans trust so greatly in their might that they do according to their letters, be a.s.sured the Briton has not yet lost his birthright of courage and hardness. I am a soldier, and have never loved a peace that lasts over long, since there are uglier things than war." Gawain overheard these words. "Lord earl," said he, "by my faith be not fearful because of the young men.
Peace is very grateful after war. The gra.s.s grows greener, and the harvest is more plenteous. Merry tales, and songs, and ladies' love are delectable to youth. By reason of the bright eyes and the worship of his friend, the bachelor becomes knight and learns chivalry."
Whilst the lords jested amongst themselves in this fashion, they climbed the tower, and were seated in the chamber. When Arthur marked that each was in his place, silent and attentive to the business, he considered for a little that he had to speak. Presently he lifted his head, and spoke such words as these. "Lords," said the king, "who are here with me, nay, rather my companions and my friends, companions alike, whether the day be good or evil, by whose sustenance alone I have endured such divers quarrels, hearken well to me. In the days that are told, have we not shared victory and defeat together, partners, you with me, as I with you, in gain and in loss? Through you, and by reason of your help in time of trouble, have I won many battles. You have I carried over land and sea, far and near, to many strange realms. Ever have I found you loyal and true, in business and counsel. Because of your prowess I hold the heritage of divers neighbouring princes in subjection. Lords, you have hearkened to the letters carried by the amba.s.sadors of Rome, and to the malice they threaten if we do not after their commandment. Very despiteful are they against us, and purpose to work us bitter mischief. But if G.o.d be gracious to His people, we shall yet be delivered from their hand. Now these Romans are a strong nation, pa.s.sing rich and of great power. It becomes us therefore to consider prudently what we shall say and do in answer to their message, looking always to the end. He who is a.s.sured of his mark gets there by the shortest road. When the arrows start to fly, the sergeant takes shelter behind his shield. Let us be cautious and careful like these. This Lucius seeks to do us a mischief. He is in his right, and it is ours to take such counsel, that his mischief falls on his own head. To-day he demands tribute from Britain and other islands of the sea. To-morrow he purposes in his thought to receive truage of France. Consider first the case of Britain, and how to answer wisely therein. Britain was conquered by Caesar of force.
The Britons knew not how to keep them against his host, and perforce paid him their tribute. But force is no right. It is but pride puffed up and swollen beyond measure. They cannot hold of law what they have seized by violence and wrong. The land is ours by right, even if the Roman took it to himself by force. The Romans really reproach us for the shame and the damage, the loss and the sorrow Caesar visited upon our fathers. They boast that they will avenge such losses as these, by taking the land with the rent, and making their little finger thicker than their father's loins. Let them beware. Hatred breeds hatred again, and things despiteful are done to those who despitefully use you. They come with threats, demanding truage, and reproving us for the evil we have done them. Tribute they claim by the right of the strong, leaving sorrow and shame as our portion. But if the Romans claim to receive tribute of Britain because tribute was aforetime paid them from Britain, by the same reasoning we may establish that Rome should rather pay tribute to us. In olden days there lived two brothers, British born, namely, Belinus, King of the Britons, and Brennus, Duke of Burgundy, both wise and doughty lords. These stout champions arrived with their men before Rome, and shutting the city close, at the end gained it by storm. They took hostages of the citizens to pay them tribute, but since the burgesses did not observe their covenant, the brethren hanged the hostages, to the number of four and-twenty, in the eyes of all their kinsfolk. When Belinus went to his own place, he commended Rome to the charge of Brennus, his brother. Now Constantine, the son of Helena, drew from Brennus and Belinus, and in his turn held Rome in his care. Maximian, King of Britain, after he had conquered France and Germany, pa.s.sed the Mont St. Bernard into Lombardy, and took Rome to his keeping. These mighty kings were my near kinsmen, and each was master of Rome. Thus you have heard, and see clearly, that not only am I King of Britain, but by law Emperor of Rome also, so we maintain the rights of our fathers. The Romans have had truage of us, and my ancestors have taken seisin of them. They claim Britain, and I demand Rome. This is the sum and end of my counsel as regards Britain and Rome. Let him have the fief and the rent who is mightier in the field. As to France and those other countries which have been removed from their hands, the Romans should not wish to possess that which they may not maintain. Either the land was not to their mind, or they had not the strength to hold it.
Perchance the Romans have no rights in the matter, and it is by reason of covetousness rather than by love of law, that they seek this quarrel. Let him keep the land who can, by the right of the most strong. For all these things the emperor menaces us very grievously. I pray G.o.d that he may do us no harm. Our fiefs and goods he promises to take from us, and lead us captive in bonds to Rome. We care not overmuch for this, and are not greatly frighted at his words. If he seek us after his boast, please G.o.d, he will have no mind to threaten when he turns again to his own home. We accept his challenge, and appeal to G.o.d's judgment, that all may be rendered to his keeping, who is able to maintain it in his hand."
When Arthur the king had made an end of speaking in the ears of his barons, the word was with those who had hearkened to his counsel. Hoel followed after the king. "Sire," said he, "you have spoken much, and right prudently, nor is there any who can add wisdom to your speech.
Summon now your va.s.sals and meinie, together with us who are of your household. Cross the sea straightway into France, and make the realm sure with no further tarrying. From thence we can pa.s.s Mont St.
Bernard, and overrun Lombardy. By moving swiftly we shall carry the war into the emperor's own land. We shall fright him so greatly that he will have the less leisure to trouble Britain. Your movements, moreover, will be so unlooked for that the Romans will be altogether amazed, and quickly confounded. Sire, it is the Lord's purpose to exalt you over all the kings of the earth. Hinder not the will of G.o.d by doubtfulness. He is able to put even Rome in your power, so only it be according to His thought. Remember the books of the Sibyl, and of the prophecies therein. The Sibyl wrote that three kings should come forth from Britain, who of their might should conquer Rome. Of these three princes, two are dead. Belinus is dead, and Constantine is dead, but each in his day was the master of Rome. You are that third king destined to be stronger than the great city. In you the prophecy shall be fulfilled, and the Sibyl's words accomplished. Why then scruple to take what G.o.d gives of His bounty? Rise up then, exalt yourself, exalt your servants, who would see the end of G.o.d's purpose. I tell you truly that nothing of blows or hurt, neither weariness nor prison nor death, counts aught with us in comparison with what is due to the king's honour. For my part, I will ride in your company, so long as this business endures, with ten thousand armed hors.e.m.e.n at my back.
Moreover, if your treasury has need of moneys for the quarrel, I will put my realm in pledge, and deliver the gold and the gain to your hand. Never a penny will I touch of my own, so long as the king has need."
After Hoel had ended his counsel, Aguisel, King of Scotland, who was brother to Lot and to Urian, stood on his feet. "Sire," said he, "the words you have spoken in this hall, where are gathered the flower of your chivalry, are dear to their ears, for we have listened to the disdainful messages of Rome. Be a.s.sured that each of your peers will aid you to the utmost of his power. Now is the time and occasion to show forth the counsel and help we can afford to our king. Not one of us here who is a subject of your realm, and holds his manors of the crown, but will do his duty to his liege, as is but just and right. No tidings I have heard for a great while past sounded so good and fair as the news that presently we shall have strife with Rome. These Romans are a people whom I neither love with my heart, nor esteem in my mind, but hate because they are very orgulous and proud. Upright folk should avoid their fellowship, for they are an evil and a covetous race, caring for no other matter but to heap treasure together, and add to their store. The emperor of this people, by fraud and deceit, has fastened this quarrel upon us, sending you letters with an emba.s.sy. He deems that Britain is no other than it was, or he would not demand his measure of tribute, pressed down and running over. The Roman has raised such a smoke that his fingers will quickly be scorched in the flame. Moreover, had the Roman kept quiet, even had he refrained from threats, it becomes our honour, of our own choice, to enter on this war, to avenge the wrongs of our fathers, and to abase his pride. The Romans' logic is that they are ent.i.tled to receive tribute at our hands, by reason that their fathers, in their day, took truage of our ancestors. If this be so, it was no free-will offering of our fathers, but was wrenched from them by force. So be it. By force we take again our own, and revenge ourselves for all the pilling of the past. We are a perilous people, who have proved victors in divers great battles, and brought many a bitter war to a good end.
But what profit is ours of nil these triumphs, so long as we cry not 'check' to Rome! I desire not drink to my lips when athirst, nor meat to my mouth when an hungered, as I desire the hour when we hurtle together in the field. Then hey for the helm laced fast, the lifted shield, for the brandished sword, and the mighty horse. G.o.d! what spoil and rich ransom will he gain whose body G.o.d keeps with His buckler that day. Never again will he be poor till his life's end.
Cities and castles will be his for the sacking; and mules, sumpters, and destriers to the heart's desire. On then, comrades, to the conquest of Rome, and to the parcelling of the Romans' lands. When the proud city is destroyed, and its wardens slain, there remains yet a work for us to do. We will pa.s.s into Lorraine, and seize the realm. We will make our pleasaunce of all the strongholds of Germany. So we will do, till there endures not a land to the remotest sea but is Arthur's fief, nor one only realm to pluck them from his power. Right or wrong this is our purpose. That my blow may be heavy as my word, and the deed accord with the speech, I am ready to go with the king, and ten thousand riders with me, besides men-at-arms in such plenty that no man may count them."
When the King of Scotland had spoken, there was much stir and tumult, all men crying that he would be shamed for ever who did not his utmost in this quarrel. Arthur and his baronage being of one mind together, the king wrote certain letters to Rome, and sealed them with his ring. These messages he committed to the emba.s.sy, honouring right worshipfully those reverend men. "Tell your countrymen," said the king, "that I am lord of Britain: that I hold France, and will continue to hold it, and purpose to defend it against the Roman power.
Let them know of a surety that I journey to Rome presently at their bidding, only it will be not to carry them tribute, but rather to seek it at their hand." The amba.s.sadors, therefore, took their leave, and went again to Rome. There they told where and in what fashion they were welcomed of the king, and reported much concerning him. This Arthur--said these ancient men--is a lord amongst kings, generous and brave, lettered and very wise. Not another king could furnish the riches spent on his state, by reason of the attendance of his ministers, and the glory of their apparel. It was useless to seek tribute from Arthur, since in olden days Britain received tribute of Rome.
Now when the senate had heard the report of the messengers, and considered the letters wherewith they were charged, they were persuaded of amba.s.sador and message alike that Arthur neither would do homage nor pay them the tribute they demanded. The senate, therefore, took counsel with the emperor, requiring him to summon all the empire to his aid. They devised that with his host he should pa.s.s through the mountains into Burgundy, and giving battle to King Arthur deprive him of kingdom and crown. Lucius Tiberius moved very swiftly. He sent messages to kings, earls, and dukes, bidding them as they loved honour to meet him on a near day at Rome, in harness for the quest. At the emperor's commandment came many mighty lords, whose names I find written in the chronicles of those times. To meet Lucius came Epistrophius, King of the Greeks, Ession, King of Broeotia, and Itarc, King of the Turks, a pa.s.sing strong and perilous knight. With these were found Pandras, King of Egypt, and Hippolytus, King of Crete.
These were lords of very great worship, a hundred cities owning their tyranny. Evander drew from Syria, and Teucer from Phrygia; from Babylon came Micipsa, and from Spain, Aliphatma. From Media came King Bocus, from Libya, Sertonus, from Bithyma, Polydetes, and from Idumea, King Xerxes Mustansar, the King of Africa, came from his distant home, many a long days' journey. With him were black men and Moors, bearing their king's rich treasure. The senate gave of their number these patricians: Marcellus and Lucius Catellus, Cocta, Cams, and Metellus.
Many other lords gladly joined themselves to that company, whose names for all my seeking I have not found. When the host was gathered together, the count of the footmen was four hundred thousand armed men, besides one hundred and eighty thousand riders on horses. This mighty army, meetly ordered and furnished with weapons, set forth on a day to give Arthur battle from Rome.
Arthur and his baronage departed from the court to make them ready for battle. The king sent his messengers to and fro about the land, calling and summoning each by his name, to hasten swiftly with his power, so that he valued Arthur's love. Not a knight but was bidden to ride on his allegiance, with all the men and horses that he had. The lords of the isles, Ireland, Gothland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway and the Orkneys, promised for their part one hundred and forty thousand men, armed and clad according to the fashion of their country. Of these not a horseman but was a cunning rider, not a footman but bore his accustomed weapon, battle-axe, javelin, or spear Normandy and Anjou, Auvergne and Poitou, Flanders and Boulogne promised, without let, eighty thousand sergeants more, each with his armour on his back.
So much it was their right and privilege to do, they said. The twelve peers of France, who were of the fellowship of Guenn of Chartres, promised every one to ride at Arthur's need, each man with a hundred lances. This was their bounden service, said these peers. Hoel of Brittany promised ten thousand men, Aguisel of Scotland two thousand more. From Britain, his proper realm, that we now call England, Arthur numbered forty thousand hors.e.m.e.n in hauberks of steel. As for the count of the footmen--arbalestriers, archers, and spearmen--it was beyond all measure, for the number of the host was as the grains of the sand. When Arthur was certified of the greatness of his power, and of the harness of his men, he wrote letters to each of his captains, commanding him that on an appointed day he should come in ships to Barfleur in Normandy. The lords of his baronage, who had repaired from the court to their fiefs, hastened to make ready with those whom they should bring across the sea. In like manner Arthur pushed on with his business, that nothing should hinder or delay.
Arthur committed the care of his realm, and of Dame Guenevere, his wife, to his nephew, Mordred, a marvellously hardy knight, whom Arthur loved pa.s.sing well. Mordred was a man of high birth, and of many n.o.ble virtues, but he was not true. He had set his heart on Guenevere, his kinswoman, but such a love brought little honour to the queen. Mordred had kept this love close, for easy enough it was to hide, since who would be so bold as to deem that he loved his uncle's dame? The lady on her side had given her love to a lord of whom much good was spoken, but Mordred was of her husband's kin! This made the shame more shameworthy. Ah, G.o.d, the deep wrong done in this season by Mordred and the queen.
Arthur, having put all the governance in Mordred's power, save only the crown, went his way to Southampton. His meinie was lodged about the city, whilst his vessels lay within the haven. The harbour was filled with the ships. They pa.s.sed to and fro; they remained at anchorage; they were bound together by cables. The carpenter yet was busy upon them with his hammer. Here the shipmen raised the mast, and bent the sail. There they thrust forth bridges to the land, and charged the stores upon the ship. The knights and the sergeants entered therein in their order, bearing pikes, and leading the fearful houses by the rein. You could watch them crying farewell, and waving their hands, to those remaining on the sh.o.r.e. When the last man had entered in the last ship the sailors raised the anchors, and worked the galleys from the haven. Right diligently the mariners laboured, spreading the sails, and making fast the stays. They pulled stoutly upon the hoists and ropes, so that the ships ran swiftly out to sea.
Then they made the ropes secure, each in its wonted place. The captain who was charged with the safety of the ship set his course carefully, whilst pilot and steersman needfully observed his word. At his bidding they put the helm to port, to lee, as they might better fill their sails with the wind. As need arose the shipmen drew upon the cords and bowlines, or let the canvas fall upon the deck, that the vessel might be the less beaten of the waves. Thus, loosing and making fast, letting go and bringing quickly to the deck, hauling and tugging at the ropes--so they proceeded on their way. When night was come, they steered their courses by the stars, furling the sails that the wind should not carry them from their path. Very fearful were the mariners of the dark, and went as slowly as they were able. Pa.s.sing bold was he, that first courteous captain, who builded the first ship, and committing his body to the wind and waves, set forth to seek a land he might not see, and to find such haven as men had never known.
Now it came to pa.s.s that whilst the host voyaged in great content with a fair wind towards Barfleur, that Arthur slept, for he was pa.s.sing heavy, and it was night. As the king slumbered he beheld a vision, and, lo, a bear flying high in air towards the east. Right huge and hideous of body was the bear, and marvellously horrible to see. Also the king saw a dragon flying over against him towards the west. The brightness of his eyes was such, that the whole land and sea were filled with the radiance of his glory. When these two beasts came together, the dragon fell upon the bear, and the bear defended himself valiantly against his adversary. But the dragon put his enemy beneath him, and tumbling him to the earth, crushed him utterly in the dust.
When Arthur had slept for awhile, his spirit came to him again, and he awoke and remembered his dream. The king called therefore for his wise clerks, and related to them and his household the vision that he had seen of the bear and; of the dragon. Then certain of these clerks expounded to the king his dream, and the interpretation thereof. The dragon that was beholden of the king signified himself. By the bear was shown forth a certain horrible giant, come from a far land, whom he should slay. The giant desired greatly that the adventure should end in another fashion; nevertheless all would be to the king's profit. But Arthur replied, "My interpretation of the dream is other than yours. To me it typifies rather the issue of the war between myself and the emperor. But let the Creator's will be done."
After these words no more was spoken until the rising of the sun.
Very early in the morning they came to haven at Barfleur in Normandy.
Presently the host issued from the ships, and spread themselves abroad, to await the coming of those who tarried on the way. Now they had but dwelled for a little while in the land when tidings were brought to the king that a marvellously strong giant, newly come from Spain, had ravished Helen, the niece of his kinsman, Hoel. This doleful lady the giant had carried to a high place known as St.
Michael's Mount, though in that day there was neither church nor monastery on the cliff, but all was shut close by the waves of the sea. There was none in the country so hardy and strong, whether gentle or simple of birth, that dared to do battle with the giant, or even to come where he lay. Often enough the folk of the land had gathered themselves together, and compa.s.sed about the rock both by land and sea, but little had they gained from their labour. For the giant had beaten their boats amongst the rocks, so that they were slain or drowned. Therefore they left him to himself, since there was none to hinder his pleasure. The peasants of the realm were exceeding sorrowful. Their enemy spoiled their houses, harried their cattle, bore away their wives and children, and returned to his fastness on the mount. The villeins lurked in the woods from his wrath. They perished of misery in secret places, so that the whole land was barren, because there was none to labour in the fields. This marvellous giant had to name Dinabuc. Not a soul but prayed that he might come to an evil end. When Arthur heard these lamentable tidings he called to him Kay the seneschal and Bedevere his cupbearer, for he would open his counsel to no other man. He told them his purpose to depart from the camp that same night privily, taking none with him, save themselves alone. None but they would know of his errand, for he rode to the mount to be a.s.sured as to whether he or the giant was the stouter champion. All through the night the three rode together, sparing not the spur. At daybreak they came upon the ford that leads across the water to the mount. Looking towards the mount they beheld a burning fire upon the hill, that might be seen from very far. Over against the mount was set another hill, near by, and of lesser height, and upon this hill also a fire of coals. Arthur gazed from hill to mountain. He doubted where the giant lodged, and in which of these two high places he should come upon him. There was no man to ask of his dwelling, nor to tell of his outgoings. Arthur bade Bedevere to go first to the one and then to the other hill, seeking news of the giant. When he had found that which he sought, he must return swiftly, bringing good tidings. Bedevere set forth upon his quest. He entered into a little boat, and rowed over to that mount which was nearer. He could cross in no other manner, for the tide was very full, and all the sand was covered of the sea. Bedevere got him from the boat, and began to climb the hill. As he climbed he stood still for a s.p.a.ce, and hearkened. From above Bedevere might hear a noise of sore weeping, and loud lamentation, and doleful sighs. The knight grew cold at the heart root by reason of his exceeding fear, since he deemed to have come upon the giant at his play. Presently the courage returned to his breast, and drawing the sword from its sheath, he advanced stoutly up the hill. Bedevere considered within himself that it were better for a knight to die, rather than know himself a coward. He reproached himself for his tearfulness, and in heart and hope desired only to bring the adventure to a good end. His wish proved but vain. When Bedevere won the summit of the mountain, there was no giant, but only a flaming fire, and close by the fire a new-digged grave. The knight drew near this fire, with the sword yet naked in his hand. Lying beside the grave he found an old woman, with rent raiment and streaming hair, lamenting her wretched case. She bewailed also the fate of Helen, making great dole and sorrow, with many shrill cries.
When this piteous woman beheld Bedevere upon the mount, "Oh, wretched man," she exclaimed, "what is thy name, and what misadventure leads you here! Should the giant find thee in his haunt, this very day thy life will end in shame and grief and hurt. Flee, poor wretch, upon thy road, before he spies thee. Be pitiful to thyself, nor seek to die, for who art thou to deliver thyself from his wrath!" "Good dame," made reply Sir Bedevere, "give over weeping and answer my words. Tell me who you are, and why you shed these tears. For what reason do you abide in this isle, and crouch beside this tomb? Answer me plainly concerning your adventure." "Fair lord," replied the ancient lady, "I am a forsaken and a most unhappy woman. I make my lamentation for a damsel, named Helen, whom I nourished at my breast, the niece of Duke Hoel of this realm. Here lies her body in this tomb, that was given to me to cherish. Alas, for her who was set upon my knees! Alas, for her I cherished in my bosom! A certain devil ravished her away, and me also, bearing us both to this his lair. The giant would have had to do with the maiden, but she was so tender of her years that she might not endure him. Pa.s.sing young was the maid, whilst he, for his part, was so gross and weighty of bone and flesh, that her burden was more than she could bear. For this the soul departed from her body. Alas, wretch that I am, I remain alive, and she, my joy and my love, my sweetness and my delight, was foully done to death by this giant. Nothing was left for me to do, but to put her body in the earth." "For what reason do you abide in this hill," asked Sir Bedevere, "since Helen is gone before?" "Will thou learn of the reason," said the ancient damsel, "then it shall not be hidden; for easy it is to see that thou art a gentle and a courteous man. When Helen had gone her way in shame and sorrow, the giant constrained me to abide that I might suffer his pleasure. This he did, although my heart was hot because I had seen my lady die in sore anguish. Force keeps me in this haunt, force makes me his sport. You cannot think that I stay of my own free will on the mount. I but submit to the will of the Lord. Would to G.o.d that I were dead, as for a little more I should be slain of the giant. But if I am older of years, I am also stronger, and harder, and more firm in my purpose, than ever was my frail Lady Helen. Nevertheless I am well-nigh gone, and have little longer to endure. Perchance even this very day will be my last. Friend, tarry here no further whomsoever thou mayst be. Flee while you can, for behold the fire smokes upon the mountain, and the devil makes him ready to ascend, according to his custom. Be not snared within his net. Depart, and leave an old woman to her tears and sorrow; for I have no care to live, since Helen and her love are spoiled with dust."
When Bedevere heard this adventure he was filled with pity. With his whole heart he comforted the damsel as gently as he might. He left her for a season, and hastening down the hill came straightway to the king. Bedevere showed his lord of all that he had heard and seen. He told over the tale of that ancient nurse lamenting by a grave; of Helen who was dead, and of the giant's haunt upon the higher of the hills which smoked. Arthur was pa.s.sing heavy at Helen's fate. He wasted no time in tears, nor suffered himself to be fearful. Arthur bade his companions get into their harness, and ride with him to the ford. The tide was now at the ebb, so that they crossed on their horses, and came speedily to the foot of the hill. There they dismounted, giving their mantles and destriers to the charge of the squires. Arthur, Bedevere, and Kay, the three together, began briskly to climb the mount. After they had climbed for a while Arthur spake to his fellows: "Comrades, I go before to do battle with the giant. For your part you must follow a little after. But let neither of you be so bold as to aid me in my quarrel, so long as I have strength to strive.
Be the buffets what they may, stand you still, unless he beats me to the ground. It is not seemly that any, save one, should have lot in this business. Nevertheless so you see me in utmost peril and fear, come swiftly to my succour, nor let me find death at his hands." Sir Kay and Sir Bedevere made this covenant with their lord, and the three knights together set forth again up the hill. Now when Arthur drew near to the summit of the mount, he beheld the giant crouched above his fire. He broiled a hog within the flame upon a spit. Part of the flesh he had eaten already, and part of the meat was charred and burning in the fire. He was the more hideous to see because his beard and hair were foul with blood and coal. Arthur trusted to take him thus unready, before he could get to his mace. But the giant spied his adversary, and all amarvelled leapt lightly on his feet. He raised the club above his shoulder, albeit so heavy that no two peasants of the country could lift it from the ground. Arthur saw the giant afoot, and the blow about to fall. He gripped his sword, dressing the buckler high to guard his head. The giant struck with all his strength upon the shield, so that the mountain rang like an anvil. The stroke was stark, and Arthur stood mazed at the blow, but he was hardy and strong, and did not reel. When the king came to himself, and marked the shield shattered on his arm, he was marvellously wroth. He raised his sword and struck full at the giant's brow. The blow was shrewd, and would have brought the combat to an end had not the giant parried with his mace. Even so, his head was sorely hurt, and the blood ran down his face, that he might not see. When the giant knew that he was wounded to his hurt, he became in his rage as a beast possessed. He turned grimly on his adversary, even as the boar, torn of the hounds and mangled by the hunting knife, turns on the hunter. Filled with ire and malice the giant rushed blindly on the king. Heedless of the sword, he flung his arms about him, and putting forth the full measure of his might, bore Arthur to his knees. Arthur was ardent and swift and ready of wit. He remembered his manhood, and struggled upright on his feet. He was altogether angered, and fearful of what might hap.
Since strength could not help, he called subtlety to his aid. Arthur made his body stiff like a rod, and held himself close, for he was pa.s.sing strong. He feigned to spring on his foe, but turning aside, slipped quickly from under the giant's arms. When Arthur knew his person free of these bands, he pa.s.sed swiftly to and fro, eluding his enemy's clasp. Now he was here, now there, ofttimes striking with the sword. The giant ran blindly about, groping with his hands, for his eyes were full of blood, and he knew not white from black. Sometimes Arthur was before him, sometimes behind, but never in his grip, till at the end the king smote him so fiercely with Excalibur that the blade clove to his brain, and he fell. He cried out in his pain, and the noise of his fall and of this exceeding bitter cry was as fetters of iron tormented by the storm.
Arthur stood a little apart, and gazed upon his adversary. He laughed aloud in his mirth; for his anger was well-nigh gone. He commanded Bedevere, his cupbearer, to strike off the giant's head, and deliver it to the squires, that they might bear it to the host, for the greater marvel. Bedevere did after his lord's behest. He drew his sword, and divided the head from the shoulders. Wonderfully huge and hideous to sight was the head of this giant. Never, said Arthur, had he known such fear; neither had met so perilous a giant, save only that Riton, who had grieved so many fair kings. This Riton in his day made war upon divers kings. Of these some were slain in battle, and others remained captive in his hand. Alive or dead, Riton used them despitefully; for it was his wont to shave the beards of these kings, and purfle therewith a cloak of furs that he wore, very rich.
Vainglorious beyond measure was Riton of his broidered cloak. Now by reason of folly and lightness, Riton sent messages to Arthur, bidding him shave his beard, and commend it forthwith to the giant, in all good will. Since Arthur was a mightier lord and a more virtuous prince than his fellows, Riton made covenant to prefer his beard before theirs, and hold it in honour as the most silken fringe of his mantle.
Should Arthur refuse to grant Riton the trophy, then nought was there to do, but that body to body they must fight out their quarrel, in single combat, alone. He who might slay his adversary, or force him to own himself vanquished, should have the beard for his guerdon, together with the mantle of furs, fringes and garniture and all.
Arthur accorded with the giant that this should be so. They met in battle on a high place, called Mount Aravius, in the far east, and there the king slew Riton with the sword, spoiling him of that rich garment of furs, with its border of dead kings' beards. Therefore, said Arthur, that never since that day had he striven with so perilous a giant, nor with one of whom he was so sorely frighted. Nevertheless Dinabuc was bigger and mightier than was Riton, even in the prime of his youth and strength. For a monster more loathly and horrible, a giant so hideous and misshapen, was never slain by man, than the devil Arthur killed to himself that day, in Mont St. Michel, over against the sea.
After Arthur had slam the monster, and Bedevere had taken his head, they went their way to the host in great mirth and content. They reached the camp, and showed the spoil to all who would, for their hearts were high with that which they had done. Hoel was pa.s.sing sorrowful for that fair lady, his niece, making great lamentation for a while over her who was lost in so fearsome a fashion. In token of his dolour he budded on the mount a chapel to Our Lady St. Mary, that men call Helen's Tomb to this very day. Although this fair chapel was raised above the grave of this piteous lady, and is yet hight Tombelame, none gives a thought to the damsel after whom it is named.
Nothing more have I to relate concerning this adventure, and would tell you now of that which happened to the host.
When the men of Ireland, and those others for whom Arthur tarried, had joined themselves to the host, the king set forth, a day's march every day, through Normandy. Without pause or rest he and his fellowship pa.s.sed across France, tarrying neither at town nor castle, and came speedily into Burgundy. The king would get to Autun as swiftly as he might, for the Romans were spoiling the land, and Lucius their emperor, together with a great company, purposed to enter in the city.
Now when Arthur drew to the ford, leading across the waters of the Aube, his spies and certain peasants of those parts came near and warned him privily concerning the emperor, who lay but a little way thence, so that the king could seek him, if he would. The Romans had sheltered them in tents, and in lodges of branches. They were as the sand of the sh.o.r.e for mult.i.tude, so that the peasants marvelled that the earth could bring forth for the footmen and horses. Never might the king store and garner in that day, for where he reaped with one, Lucius the emperor would reap with four. Arthur was in no wise dismayed at their words. He had gone through many and divers perils, and was a valiant knight, having faith and affiance in G.o.d. On a little hill near this river Aube, Arthur builded earthworks for his host, making the place exceeding strong. He closed the doors fast, and put therein a great company of knights and men at arms to hold it close. In this fortress he set his harness and stores, so that he could repair thither to his camp in time of need. When all was done Arthur summoned to his counsel two lords whom he esteemed for fair and ready speech. These two lords were of high peerage. Guerin of Chartres was one, and the other was that Boso, Earl of Oxford, right learned in the law. To these two barons Arthur added Gawain, who had dwelt in Rome for so long a s.p.a.ce. This Arthur did by reason that Gawain was a good clerk, meetly schooled, and held in much praise and honour by his friends in Rome. These three lords the king purposed to send as an emba.s.sy to the emperor. They were to bear his message, bidding the Romans to turn again to their own land, nor seek to enter France, for it pertained to the king. Should Lucius persist in his purpose, refusing to return whence he came, then let him give battle on the earliest day, to determine whether Arthur or he had the better right.
This thing was certain. So long as Arthur had breath he would maintain his claim to France, despite the Roman power. He had gained it by the sword, and it was his by right of conquest. In ancient days Rome, in her turn, held it by the same law. Then let the G.o.d of battles decide whether Britain or Rome had the fairer right to France.
The messengers of the king apparelled themselves richly for their master's honour. They mounted on their fairest destriers, vested in hauberks of steel, with laced helmets, and shields hung round their necks. They took their weapons in their hands, and rode forth from the camp. Now when certain knights and divers bold and reckless varlets saw the emba.s.sy make ready to seek the emperor, they came to Gawain and gave him freely of their counsel. These exhorted him that when he reached the court, to which he fared, he should act in such fashion, right or wrong, that a war would begin which had threatened overlong.
Yea, to use such speech that if no matter of dispute should be found at the meeting, there might yet be quarrel enough when they parted.
The emba.s.sy accorded, therefore, that they would so do as to constrain the Romans to give battle. Gawain and his comrades crossed a mountain, and came through a wood upon a wide plain. At no great distance they beheld the tents and lodges of the host. When the Romans saw the three knights issue from the wood, they drew near to look upon their faces and to inquire of their business. They asked of them concerning whom they sought, and if for peace they had come within the camp. But the three knights refused to answer, for good or evil, until they were led before the lord of Rome. The emba.s.sy got from their horses before the emperor's pavilion. They gave their bridles to the hands of the pages, but as to their swords concealed them beneath their mantles. The three knights showed neither salutation nor courtesy when they stood in the emperor's presence. They rehea.r.s.ed over Arthur's message, whilst Lucius hearkened attentively to their words. Each of the amba.s.sadors said that which pleased him to be said, and told over what he held proper to be told. The emperor listened to each and all without interruption.
After he had considered at his leisure he purposed to reply. "We come from Arthur, our lord," said Gawain, "and bear to thee his message. He is our king, and we are his liegemen, so it becomes us to speak only the words he has put in our mouth. By us, his amba.s.sadors, he bids you refrain from setting a foot in France. He forbids you to intermeddle with the realm, for it is his, and he will defend his right with such power, that very certainly you may not s.n.a.t.c.h it from his hand. Arthur requires you to seek nothing that is his. If, however, you challenge his claim to France, then battle shall prove his t.i.tle good, and by battle you shall be thrown back to your own land. Once upon a time the Romans conquered this realm by force, and by force they maintained their right. Let battle decide again whether Rome or Britain has the power to keep. Come forth to-morrow with thy host, so that it may be proven whether you or we shall hold France. If you fear this thing, then go your way in peace, as indeed is best, for what else is there to do! The game is played, and Rome and you have lost." Lucius the emperor made answer that he did not purpose to return to his realm.
France was his fief, and he would visit his own. If he might not pursue his road to-day, why, then to-morrow. But in heart and hope he deemed himself mighty enough to conquer France, and to take all in his seisin. Now Quintilian, the nephew of the emperor, was seated by his side. He took the word suddenly from his uncle's mouth, for he was a pa.s.sing proud youth, quick to quarrel, and very bitter in speech. "The Britons," cried he, "are known to all as a vainglorious people. They threaten readily, and they boast and brag more readily still. We have listened to their menaces, but we remember they are of those who boast the more because they act the less." Quintilian, as I deem, would have continued with yet other grievous words, but Gawain, who was hot with anger, drew forth his sword, and springing forward, made the head fly from his shoulders. He cried to his comrades that they should get to their horses, and the earls won their way from the pavilion, Gawain with them, and they with him. Each seized his steed by the bridle, and climbed nimbly in the saddle. Then they rode forth from the camp, shield on shoulder, and lance in hand, asking no leave of any.
The patricians within the pavilion sat silent for a s.p.a.ce after that bitter stroke. The emperor was the first to come from his amazement.
"Why sit you here?" cried Lucius; "follow after those men who have set this shame upon us. Ill fall the day, if they come not to my hand!"
The bravest of his household ran from the tent crying for harness and horses. From every side arose the shouting, "Swiftly, swiftly; bridle and spur; gallop, gallop." The whole host was mightily moved together.
They set saddles on destriers, and led the steeds from the stable.
They girt their baldrics about them, and taking their lances, spurred after the fugitives. The three barons p.r.i.c.ked swiftly across the plain. They looked this way and that; often glancing behind them to mark how nearly they were followed. The Romans pursued them pell-mell; some on the beaten road, and others upon the heavy fields. They came by two, or three, or five, or six, in little clumps of spears. Now a certain Roman rode in advance of his fellows, by reason of his good horse, which was right speedy. He followed closely after the Britons, calling loudly, "Lords, stay awhile. He knows himself guilty who flees the pursuer." At his word Guerin of Chartres turned him about. He set his buckler before him, and lowering the lance, hurtled upon his adversary. Guerin rode but the one course. He smote the Roman so fiercely, midmost the body, that he fell from his destrier, and died.
Guerin looked on the fallen man. He said, "A good horse is not always great riches. Better for you had you lain coy in your chamber, than to have come to so shameful an end." When Boso beheld this adventure of Guerin, and heard his words, he was filled with desire of such honour.
He turned his horse's head, and seeing before him a knight seeking advancement, ran upon him with the spear. Boso smote his adversary in the throat, where the flesh is soft and tender. The Roman fell straightway to the ground, for his hurt was very grievous. Boso cried gaily to his stricken foe, "Master Roman, you must needs be fed with gobbets and dainties. Take now your rest, till your comrades may tend you. Then give them the message that I leave you in their care." Among the pursuers spurred a certain patrician named Marcellus, who was come of a very n.o.ble house. This Marcellus was amongst the last to get in his saddle, but by reason of the strength and swiftness of his destrier he rode now with the foremost. He had forgotten his lance, in his haste to follow his fellows. Marcellus strove hotly to overtake Gawain. He rode furiously with b.l.o.o.d.y spur and loosened rein. His horse approached nearly to Gawain's crupper, and the knight was persuaded that in no wise might he shake off his pursuer. Already Marcellus had stretched forth his hand, promising Gawain his life if he would yield as his prisoner. Gawain watched his hunter wanly. When Marcellus was upon him, Gawain drew his rein sharply, so that the Roman overran the chace. As he pa.s.sed, Gawain plucked forth his sword, and smote Marcellus terribly on the helmet. No coif could have hindered the stroke, for it divided the head down to the very shoulders. Marcellus tumbled from his horse and went to his place.
Then said Gawain, of his courtesy, "Marcellus, when you greet Quintilian deep in h.e.l.l, tell him, I pray, that you have found the Britons as bold as their boast. Tell him that they plead the law with blows, and bite more fiercely than they bark." Gawain called upon his companions, Guerin and Boso, by their names, to turn them about, and enter the lists with their pursuers. The two knights did cheerfully after his counsel, so that three Romans were shocked from their saddles. Then the messengers rode swiftly on their way, whilst the Romans followed after, seeking in all things to do them a mischief.
They thrust at the Britons with lances, they struck mightily with the sword, yet never might wound nor hurt, neither bring them to the earth, nor make them their captives. There was a certain Roman, a kinsman of Marcellus, who bestrode a horse that was right speedy. This Roman was very dolent, because of his cousin's death, for he had seen his body lying in the dust. He spurred his steed across the plain, and gaining upon the three knights, made ready to avenge his kinsman's blood. Gawain watched him ride, with lifted sword, as one who deemed to smite the shield. When Gawain perceived his purpose, he dropped the lance, for he had no need of a spear. He drew his sword, and as the Roman, with brand raised high above his head, prepared to strike, Gawain smote swiftly at the lifted limb. Arm and sword alike flew far off in the field, the fist yet clasped about the hilt. Gawain dressed his glaive again. He would have bestowed yet another buffet, but the Romans hastened to the succour of their fellow, and he dared not stay.
In this fashion the huntsmen followed after the quarry, till the chase drew near a wood, close by the entrance to that fortress Arthur had newly built.
Now Arthur had appointed six thousand hors.e.m.e.n of his host to follow after his messengers. He commanded these hors.e.m.e.n to go by hill and valley to guard against surprise. They were to watch diligently for the amba.s.sadors, affording them succour, so they were beset. This great company of spears was hidden in the wood. They sat upon their horses, helmet on head, and lance in hand, scanning the road for the return of Arthur's emba.s.sy. Presently they were aware of many armed men riding swiftly across the plain, and in their midst three knights, in harness, fleeing for their lives. When the Britons marked the quarry, and were a.s.sured of the hunters, they cried out with one voice, and burst from their ambush. The Romans dared not abide their coming, but scattered on the plain. The Britons rode hardly upon them, doing them all the mischief they might, for they were pa.s.sing wroth to see their comrades handselled so despitefully. Many a Roman had reason to rue his hunting, for some were seized and made captive, others were sorely wounded, and divers slain. There was a certain rich baron named Peredur. Amongst the captains of Rome not one was counted his peer.
This captain had ten thousand armed men in his bailly, who marched at his bidding. Tidings were carried to Peredur of the snare the Britons had limed. Peredur moved promptly. He hastened with ten thousand shields to the plain, and by sheer force and numbers bore the Britons back to the wood, for they were not mighty enough to contend against him in the field. The Britons held the wood strongly, and defended it right manfully. Peredur might not take it for all his cunning, and lost there largely of his company. The Britons lured the Romans within the covert, and slew them in the glooms. So hot and so perilous was the melley, fought between the valley and the wood.
Arthur took thought to the tarrying of his messengers, and remembered that those came not again whom he sent to their aid. The king summoned Yder, the son of Nut, to his counsel. He committed to his charge seven thousand horses and riders, and despatched them after the others, bidding him seek until he found. Yder drew to the plain. Gawain and Boso yet strove like champions, and for the rest there was not one but did what he could. From afar Yder heard the cry and the tumult as the hosts contended together. When the Britons beheld Yder's company, they were refreshed mightily in heart and hope. They a.s.sailed their adversaries so fiercely that they won back the ground which was lost.
Yder led his hors.e.m.e.n like a brave knight and a cunning captain.
He charged so vigorously with his company, that many a saddle was emptied, many a good horse taken, and many a rider shocked. Peredur sustained the battle stoutly, and wheeling about, returned to the field. He was a crafty captain, knowing well the hour to charge and to wheel, to press hard on the fugitive, or to wait. Many a fair charge did he lead that day. He who was valiant, found Peredur yet more bold.
Whoso was minded to tourney, found Peredur yet more willing to break a spear. His bailly smote more terribly with the sword than ever they were stricken, so that three hundred hors.e.m.e.n and over lay dead upon the field. When the Britons marked the deeds of Peredur they could not be contained. They broke from their ranks and companies, and ran upon the foe. They were desirous beyond measure to joust with their adversaries, and to show forth their prowess. Above all things they were covetous of honour, so that for chivalry they brought the battle to confusion. So only they strove hand to hand with the Romans, they gave no thought to the end. Peredur wished nothing better. He held his bailly closely together, pushing home and drawing off according to need. Many a time he charged amongst the Britons, and many a time he returned, bringing his wounded from their midst. Boso of Oxford regarded the battle. He saw his dead upon the ground. He marked the craft with which Peredur--that great captain--sustained the Romans, and knew well that all was lost, save that Peredur were slain. How might the courage of a rash and foolish company prevail against the discipline of the Roman host! Boso called about him the best and bravest of his captains. "Lords," he said, "give me your counsel. You, in whom Arthur put his trust, have entered on this battle without any commandment of our lord. If well befalls, all will be well; if ill, he will require his sergeants at our hands. Should we be vile and niddering enough to gain no honour on the field, very surely we shall receive yet more shame as our portion when we come into his presence.
Our one hope is to fight against none, great or small, save only with Peredur. Alive or dead he must be made captive, and delivered into Arthur's power. Until Peredur be taken we shall never draw off in honour from the stour, but must suffer yet greater loss than before.
If then you would make him prisoner, follow after where I will lead, and do that thing which you shall see me do." The captains, therefore, plighted faith to follow his ensample, and in no wise to depart from his command.
Boso brought together as many hors.e.m.e.n as he might, and ranged them in order of battle. He sent out spies to bring him tidings where that Peredur should be met, who led the Romans so craftily. The spies departed on their perilous errand, and returning presently, proclaimed that Peredur rode with the host in that place where the press was thickest, and the battle drew never to an end, Boso rode with his company straight to the heart of the stour. He hurtled upon the Romans, and looking on Peredur, fought his way to his side. When their horses stood together, Boso flung his arms about his adversary, and dragged him amongst the Britons. Then of his will he hurled himself to the ground, and with him tumbled Sir Peredur. A very marvellous adventure was it to behold Boso fall from his destrier in the hottest of the battle, clasping Peredur closely in his arms. The two champions strove mightily, but Boso was above, and for nothing would unloose his hold. The bailly of Peredur hastened fiercely to the rescue of their captain. Those whose lances were still unbroken charged till the staves were splintered; when their lances failed them at need, they laid on with their swords, working havoc amongst the Britons. At any price the Romans would rescue their captain, and the Britons were in the same mind to succour Boso in his jeopardy. Never might heart desire to see battle arrayed more proudly. Never was there a fairer strife of swords, never a more courteous contention of valiant men.
Plume and helmet were abased to the dust, shields were cloven, the hauberk rent asunder, ash staves knapped like reeds, girths were broken, saddles voided, and strong men thrown, and brave men wounded to the death. The thunder of the shouting filled the field. The Britons cried as Arthur had taught them, and the Romans answered with the name of Rome. The one party did all that valiant men were able to guard their captive in their midst, and the other to pluck their captain from amongst them. So confused was the contention, so disordered the combat, that men as they strove together hardly knew Roman from Briton, friend from foe, save only by the cry they shouted, and by the tongue they spoke in the stour. Gawain flung himself in the press, hewing a path towards Boso, with mighty strokes of the sword.
With point and edge, thrust and cut, he beat down many, and put divers to flight. Not a Roman of them all could prevail against him, nor, so he might, would strive to hinder him in his road. From another side of the field Yder set his face to the same end. A woodman was he, clearing a b.l.o.o.d.y path amongst the trees. Guerin of Chartres aided him like a loyal comrade, each covering his fellow with the shield. The three champions drew before Peredur and Boso, and dragged them to their feet. They brought a steed to Boso, and gave a sword to his hand. As for Peredur, the crafty captain who had done them so many and such great mischiefs, they held him strongly. They carried him from the press to their own lines for the greater surety. There they left him, bound, under the charge of trusty warders, and straightway returned to the battle. Now the Romans had lost their captain. They were as a ship upon the waters, without a rudder, that drifts here and there, having neither aim nor direction, at the bidding of the winds and waves. Such was the plight of the bailly which was spoiled of its captain, for an army without a constable is less an army than a flock of sheep. The Britons dealt mercilessly with their beaten foe. They pressed hardly upon the Romans, smiting down and slaying many. They made captives of the fallen, stripping them of wealth and armour, and pursued hotly after the fugitives. These they bound with cords, and came again in triumph to their companions in the wood, together with their prisoners. The Britons carried Peredur, the wise captain, to the camp, and bestowed him upon Arthur, their lord. They rendered also to his hand divers other prisoners of less value than he. Arthur thanked them for their gift. He promised to recompense each for his goodwill, when he returned a victor to his realm. Arthur set his captives fast in prison, whence they could in nowise break out. Afterwards he took counsel with his barons to convey the prisoners to Paris, and guard them close in his castle, until the king's pleasure concerning them was known. He feared to keep them with the host, lest--watch as he would--they should escape from his ward. Arthur made ready a strong company to bring them to Paris, and set governors over them. He gave Peredur and his fellows into the charge of four earls of high lineage, namely, Cador, Borel, Richier, and Bedevere his butler. These barons rose very early in the morning, and brought the Romans from their prison. Like careful warders they put the captives in their midst, and set out on their journey, riding right warily.
Now Lucius, the emperor, had learned from his spies that the earls purposed to start at daybreak on their road to Paris. Lucius prepared ten thousand riders on horses. He bade them travel the whole night through, outstripping the Britons, and devise such ambush as would rescue their comrades from these barons. He committed this company to Sertorius, lord of Libya, and Evander, the King of Syria. With these princes were Caritius and Catellus Vulteius, patricians of Rome. Each of these lords was a wealthy man of his lands, and a skilful captain in war. Lucius had chosen them from all their fellows, and laid his charge straitly upon them, to succour their comrades in their need.
These were the lords of the host. The ten thousand hors.e.m.e.n in mail set out at nightfall on their errand. Certain peasants of the land went with them, to guide them by the surest way. They travelled throughout the night, sparing not the spur, till they came forth on the Paris road. There they searched out a likely place where they might hide them in ambush, and held themselves close and coy until it was day. Very early in the morning the p.r.i.c.kers of the host sent tidings that the Britons were near at hand. Arthur's men rode in all surety, deeming they had nought to fear. They were ordered in two companies. Cador and Borel led the first company, and were the vanguard of the host. A little s.p.a.ce after came Richier, the earl, and Bedevere, the king's cupbearer. These had Peredur and his fellows in their care. Six hundred hors.e.m.e.n in harness followed at the earls'
backs, having the captives in their midst. They had tied their wrists behind them, and fastened their feet with ropes under the bellies of the horses. So they p.r.i.c.ked, all unwitting, into the snare the Romans had spread. When Cador and Borel were in the net, the Romans sallied forth from their hiding. The hard ground trembled beneath the thunder of the destriers' hoofs. They charged home fiercely amongst their adversaries, but for all their amazement the Britons sustained the shock like men. Bedevere and Richier gave ear to the tumult, and the noise of the shouting. Their first thought was to the prisoners. These they set in a sure place, giving them to the charge of their squires, and commanding that they should be guarded strictly. Then they hastened amain to the breaking of spears. The adversaries clashed together with all their strength. The Romans drifted here and there, in little clumps of lances, for their mind was less to discomfit the Britons than to release the captives from their bonds. For their part the Britons kept their order, and fared boldly among the enemy.
Pa.s.sing heavy were the Romans because of the prisoners they might not find. Very grievous was the count of their hors.e.m.e.n who perished in the search. Now the captains divided the Britons by companies into four strong columns of battle Cador of Cornwall commanded the folk of his earldom; Bedevere the Frenchmen of Beauce, Borel had with him the levies of L