This is a chapter of King Arthur and His Knights by Blanche Winder.
King Leodogran, as you know, was an old friend of King Uther Pendragon, who had given him the charge of Merlin’s wonderful round table. The round table was kept in the banqueting hall of Leodogran’s big stone castle at Cameliard. All the knights who feasted there were under a vow, and the words of this vow were some of the noblest words that have ever been spoken in the history of the world. As well as the round table, Leodogran’s castle held another great treasure — his only daughter Guinevere, the most beautiful and gracious maiden in the whole wide earth.
Guinevere flitted about the castle like a fairy princess, so golden was her hair, so blue were her eyes, so peach-pink her delicate cheeks. When her father’s step was heard on the flags of the stone floors, Guinevere would lay everything aside and hasten to meet and tend him.
One morning, the king of Cameliard, who had been away for some days, came galloping back to the castle on his war horse and cried to the servants to let down the portcullis —the great entrance door— to raise the bridge over the moat and to prepare for a siege. His enemies were riding in hundreds over the near hills. The knights of the round table came hurrying into the great hall, their pages running after them, to buckle on their master’s armor. But, instead of a page, Leodogran was waited upon by his own daughter, the princess Guinevere. Praying to heaven to protect him, she watched the king ride out at the head of his noble knights. Then she herself looked after the preparations for the siege of the castle before, running lightly up the winding stone stairs, she took up her stand by the window of a high tower, from which she could watch the battle.
What a clash of armies she saw outside! Here, there, and everywhere flashed Leodogran in his bright armor, supported always by the knights of the round table. For long they held their own, but by and by Princess Guinevere felt her heart shaken with sudden fear. She saw the knights pressed hard on every side by an army stronger in numbers than themselves. They were being driven back towards the castle walls. Princess Guinevere went numb and cold with dismay. Then, all at once, she heard a shout of encouragement and triumph. Down among her father’s foes came riding an unknown knight, the noblest in bearing that the princess had ever seen. Above his head floated a banner which showed a dragon wrought in gleaming gold! In his hand shone a sword of brilliant steel, its handle set thickly with diamonds, rubies, and pearls.
In and out, backwards and forwards, glittered the golden sign of the dragon, while the strange knight’s sword flashed among the enemy like a flame. He had slain hundreds of Leodogran’s enemies, when, quite suddenly, an old man appeared by his bridle and threw his war horse back upon its haunches.
“Enough!” cried this old man. “Enough! Do you not see that the battle is won?”
The stranger knight paused and slowly pushed his sword into its sheath. Then up rode King Leodogran, grim, blood-stained, and weary, and bent low in his saddle.
“Beautiful and courageous knight!” said Leodogran. “How can I thank you? Come — follow me into my castle. I do not know who you are, but you have saved my home for me and anything in it is yours for the asking.”
Then the big portcullis was raised again, the bridge let down over the moat. Two and two, kings and knights, they all rode into the courtyard of the castle.
How busy everybody in the castle was, to be sure! Pages, with big baskets on their arms, were strewing the floors with bright fresh rushes. Cooks in the kitchen were roasting, and stewing, and baking. And delighted smiling maidens were pouring cool scented water into basins, taking white clean towels out of the presses, and bringing soft rich robes into the big hall, ready to lay on the knights’ shoulders when the pages had taken off the stained and heavy armor.
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King Leodogran led the stranger knight to the seat of honor and bade him rest. As the tired soldier sank down upon a couch of sweet-smelling rushes, he saw a lovely lady coming forward from among the sewing maidens who were waiting on the knights. She wore the prettiest gold headdress, the daintiest silk gown in the world, and she carried her silver basin and white towel very carefully indeed. It was the princess Guinevere, hastening to wait, courteously and lovingly, on her father, the king. But, as she curtseyed deeply to him, he waved her from him and pointed to his guest.
“Wait, first, on the stranger knight,” said Leodogran. “Had it not been for his help, the castle of Cameliard would have fallen.”
So Guinevere turned from her father to the stranger knight. And, the moment the eyes of the knight and the maiden met, the two fell in love!
How wonderful it seemed to both! The soldier in his armor looked adoringly at the sweet face under the golden headdress. Guinevere, for her part, hardly lifted her shy blue eyes from the ground as she tended the stranger. The old man, who had entered the castle with the knights, smiled as he watched them, and, drawing near to Leodogran, pointed out the pretty sight.
“You offered anything your castle held, to your deliverer,” said he. “I think I know what gift your visitor will be asking!”
King Leodogran started and looked dismayed. “Who is he?” he asked. “And who, old man, are you?”
The king stared very closely at his unknown visitor.
“No matter — no matter!” said he. “But what of your promise to give the knight anything he asks?”
“My promise shall be kept,” said Leodogran proudly. And the old man smiled again.
Then everyone in the hall began to move towards the banqueting room, and the two hundred and fifty knights took their places at the round table, which was spread for a great feast. King Leodogran stood watching them, and the stranger knight stepped forward and joined him, looking at him very earnestly.
“Good and great king,” said he, “I am from a distant court and do not know your customs. What is this round table and who are these knights who have taken their places about it?”
Leodogran answered gravely:
“Brave stranger,” he said, “that round table was left in my charge by a great king — Uther Pendragon himself. Whoever takes his place at it must share in a noble vow. Will you sit among my two hundred and fifty knights? Will you join in the words of the vow?”
The knight’s face had become very bright and eager when he heard the name of Uther Pendragon. He made a quick step forward and took his seat at the table.
“Will you admit me to your fellowship?” he cried in a piercing voice.
Then all the two hundred and fifty knights sprang to their feet, and two hundred and fifty voices rang out in the great vow.
“To right the wrong, to punish the guilty, to feed the hungry, to help the feeble, to obey the law, and never to turn away from a woman in distress; this is the vow of the knights of the round table!”
The sound of voices ceased, and everybody turned to the stranger, who had drawn his sword and was holding it on high. Word for word, he repeated the vow in a ringing voice.
Leodogran stepped forward and held up his hand for silence.
“Sir knight,” he said, “who are you?”
With a triumphant smile, the stranger answered:
“I am Arthur, king of Britain, and proud to have become a knight of the round table——”
He paused for a moment, then moved swiftly forward and knelt, on one knee, before Guinevere:
“And prouder still, King Leodogran, to put my sword, my spear, my life, at the service of this fair and beautiful lady!”
Then the old man came towards them, and King Leodogran knew him for Merlin, the great magician. Merlin took Guinevere’s hand and held it towards her father, and Leodogran placed it in Arthur’s quick clasp, and, raising him to his feet, bent very low before him.
“My liege and lord,” said he, “I would have given my daughter gladly to the knight who saved Cameliard. How much more joyfully I give her to Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon, king of Britain, and knight of the round table.”