This is a chapter of King Arthur and His Knights by Blanche Winder.
King Arthur held his court not only at beautiful Camelot, but also at a place called Caerlon. The castle there had seven doors, with a magnificent porter seated at each one, to open and shut it when the knights and ladies passed.
Well, one evening a handsome unknown youth, dressed in yellow satin, came running up to the castle and told a porter that there was a mysterious white stag in the wood over the river. The porter hurried to tell Arthur; for, ever since the fairy hunt of which you have read, the king had vowed there should never be a white stag near his castle that he would not follow. So, as soon as the dawn broke next morning, the whole court set off a-hunting — horns blowing, hounds baying, and horses prancing. The white stag meant a fairy adventure for one of the knights, of that everybody was certain.
Now, Queen Guinevere was late that morning, and the hunt was almost out of sight when she came tripping down the stone stairs into the castle hall. She asked where Arthur had gone and was told by her ladies that he had ridden off to hunt a great white stag in the ferny woods. Guinevere pouted for a minute; then, all at once, she clapped her hands joyfully and declared that she would go a-hunting after the king! So she and her maidens dressed themselves quickly and set off on horseback.
As they rode through the trees they heard a great galloping behind them, and up came one of the very handsomest knights of the Round Table. He had long golden hair, and a long golden sword, and a blue-purple scarf around his shoulders, with a golden apple at every corner. His legs were bare, the better to grip the sides of his horse, which was very strong and tall, and had a long black mane, and a tail that was even blacker and longer.
“It is good young Geraint!” cried the ladies. “Oh, handsome and brave Geraint, are you coming with us and with the queen?”
Now, Geraint had really intended to gallop after Arthur as fast as he could, for he, too, was late this morning. But, when the ladies asked him if he were going to escort the queen, he could not possibly say he was not. So he bowed very low, drew in his prancing horse, and joined the pretty company of maidens, giving up all idea of an adventure.
But no sooner had he drawn near the side of the queen than the adventure, which he thought he had given up, came riding through the wood towards him, in the shape of an enormous knight with his face quite hidden under his helmet. On one side of this giant stranger rode a lady dressed in rich brocade; on the other pranced a hideous little dwarf. As they trotted abreast through the wood, Guinevere pulled up her horse and stared at them in amazement. Then the newcomers also drew rein and, standing still at a little distance, seemed to talk among themselves.
The queen, frankly curious, shook her horse’s bridle and trotted off across the turf to speak to them. The dwarf was the nearest to her and, pausing as she came up to him, she asked him the name of the big knight with the hidden face. But the dwarf, who was the ugliest little man you ever saw in your life, answered by striking the queen with a long wand that he carried in his hand.
Then such a shout as you never heard before rang through the wood from Geraint! All the ladies, too, cried out in anger. Before anybody could do anything, however, off galloped the strange knight, with the lady and the dwarf on either hand. And off after them tore young Geraint, calling that he would avenge the queen!
Such a chase the three led him, right through the wood, and over the mountain, and down into a valley where you could see the towers and roofs of a great city. Through the gates they rode, with Geraint still hard on their heels. He saw that all the people stood still and saluted the knight and the lady as they galloped past, and he noticed, even in his haste, that the courtyards of the houses were full of men, who were polishing shields, and burnishing swords, and washing armor, and shoeing horses. Then the knight and the dwarf and the lady galloped up a hill to a great castle. Its gates were immediately opened with sounds of welcome. The three rode in, and the entrance was closed and barred behind them.
As Geraint pulled up his horse, weary and bitterly disappointed, he saw that he was close to a ruined palace, which could be approached by way of an old marble bridge that spanned a deep river. He crossed the bridge and was met on the other side by an old man, who wore very ragged clothing, but whose voice was gentle and manner gracious. This old man invited the knight into the ruined palace, where he was met by an old woman, also in rags, but sweet and dignified. With her was her daughter, whose face and hair were beautiful above her poor rough clothing. They, too, greeted Geraint in soft voices and offered him meat and drink.
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As he ate, the beautiful girl, who was named Enid, looked after his horse, and he watched her with deep admiration in his eyes. Then the poor old couple told him that they were the real lord and lady of the city, but had been turned out of their home by the knight of the Sparrowhawk. He was the knight whom Geraint had been following, and he lived now in the castle, and every year he held a tournament in the meadow just below it. In this meadow, a Sparrowhawk, set up between two high three-pronged spears, was always the prize of the day. Whoever won it was called “Knight of the Sparrowhawk” for a whole year, with the right to live in the castle and to rule over the land. But, as the knight himself always won, by fair means or foul, there was not really much use in anybody else doing battle for the prize.
Geraint listened, and his heart beat high with hope. “I will fight for the Sparrowhawk tomorrow,” he cried. “I will conquer the knight whose dwarf insulted Queen Guinevere, and I will force him to return your castle and your riches to you, from whom he stole them.”
The poor old couple shook their heads.
“No knight can fight for the Sparrowhawk unless the lady is with him whom he thinks the fairest lady in the world. Long ago, this magic was made in the meadow. It is because the knight of the Sparrowhawk never stirs without his lady that he is always able to win.”
“His lady may be beautiful, but she is not half so beautiful as your daughter yonder!” cried Geraint eagerly.
The words were no sooner out of his mouth than the old couple rose to their feet in great excitement.
“If you indeed believe that,” said they, “take our daughter with you into the meadow tomorrow! We will find armor for you, and she will make it possible for you to win.”
The next morning dawned beautiful and clear, and a great gathering came together, very early indeed, in the meadow where the Sparrowhawk was set up between the two three-pronged spears. When everybody had arrived, a great blast of trumpets was blown at the castle gates, they were flung open, and out rode the enormous knight, with, as usual, the dwarf upon his right hand, and the lady upon his left. He drew rein, and his heralds cried out the proclamation. Was there anyone present who would come forward and fight for the Sparrowhawk?
Nobody stirred, and the great knight turned to his lady and bade her go, take the Sparrowhawk upon her hand, and bring it to him. But, just as she was about to set off, a young knight in old rusty armor, on a very tired, half-lame horse, rode forward, and at his side a maiden in rags walked quietly, with neither shoes nor stockings upon her little white feet, and only a coarse hood upon her head.
“My lady is fairer than yours!” shouted young Geraint. “Come! I will fight you for the Sparrowhawk and call down the magic of the meadow to help me!”
Then the two knights rushed upon each other with a great crash of arms, while the lady in the rich brocade and the lady in rags looked on. Everybody had burst out laughing at Geraint and his rusty armor. But soon their laughter changed to amazement and admiration, for, with right goodwill, the young stranger hacked and struck until he proved himself by far the cleverer and stronger. And at last a great ringing shout went up from the whole multitude of watchers, for they saw the great knight of the castle thrown to the ground, stunned and motionless, while Geraint rode up to the Sparrowhawk, took it wrist, and, carrying it to a very old man and a very old woman among the crowd, presented it to them with the grace of a prince making an offering to his lawful king and queen.
Then another shout went up from the people! They recognized in the poor beggars their rightful lady and their rightful lord. Leaving Geraint to look after the fallen knight, they escorted the old man and woman back into the castle that had been stolen from them. There Geraint presently followed, with beautiful Enid, and with the great defeated knight bound in chains. As for the lady and the dwarf, they had already fled. But all the people were shouting with excitement and gladness; for, indeed, they were delighted to see their true lord and lady restored to their own home.
Then sweet Enid went upstairs to her own dainty chamber and dressed herself in soft silks and a gossamer veil. She came down looking like a princess, and Geraint fell more deeply in love with her than ever. He said he would take her to Arthur’s court, and there they would be married. Also, he explained, he could not marry his fair lady until the insult to Queen Guinevere had been wiped out.
So they set off: Geraint and his lady, and the knight in chains behind.
When they reached Caerlon, Geraint led both his bride and his prisoner into the presence of the queen. The big knight apologized humbly as anyone could wish, and was sent away again. But Geraint married Enid, with everyone’s full approval, and the queen herself gave the wedding dress, and the happy pair remained at the court of King Arthur for the rest of their lives.