O NE day in May Queen Guinevere invited ten ladies and ten knights to ride a-Maying with her the next morning in the woods. So at the appointed time they assembled, all dressed in green silk and green velvet, the color of young grass. The knights wore white plumes in their helmets and the ladies wore white May-blossoms in their hair. They rode off very happily, telling the king that they would return before noon.
Now the good King Bagdemagus, for whom Sir Lancelot had fought, had a bad son named Sir Malgrace. For a long time he had wanted to capture the queen and carry her off to his castle. He had been afraid to try, however, because of her large bodyguard. All the young Knights of the Round Table liked to ride with her and protect her. They took good care of all the ladies of the Court, but they loved the queen most.
When Sir Malgrace heard that the queen was out a-Maying with only a few knights, and these not fully armed, he determined to take her prisoner. So he called together eighty men-at-arms and a hundred archers, and set out. Soon he came upon her and her attendants. They were sitting on a little hill, with wreaths of flowers and leaves on their arms and necks. Before they could rise to their feet, Sir Malgrace and his men dashed upon them.
"Traitor!" cried the queen. "What would you do?"
"I will carry you to my castle, fair queen," he said. "And never again shall you go free."
"I will not go with you," said the queen.
Then the ten knights drew their swords and set on the hundred and eighty men of Sir Malgrace. They fought so well that they overthrew forty. Still, they could do little against such numbers, and soon all were wounded. When the queen saw this, she cried out:
"Sir Malgrace, do not slay my noble knights, and I will go with you. I would rather die than cause them further harm."
The knights said that they would rather perish than be prisoners to Sir Malgrace. However, upon an order from their lord, the archers tied up the wounds of the queen's followers, and put them on horseback. Then the whole company rode slowly towards the castle of Sir Malgrace.
Sir Malgrace kept close to the queen for fear she would escape. Once when they were in a thick part of the wood he rode ahead to break the branches so that they should not strike her face. Then the queen whispered to a little maiden who rode near her:
"If you can do so, slip away from the company. You are so small that perhaps they will not notice you. Take this ring and give it to our greatest knight, Sir Lancelot, and pray him to come and rescue me."
The little maid waited until she thought the time for escape had come, and rode off as quietly as she could. Sir Malgrace saw her go, and suspected that the queen had sent her. He ordered his archers to shoot at the child, but she escaped unhurt.
"Madam," said Sir Malgrace to the queen, "I know well that you have sent for Sir Lancelot, but you may be sure that hither he shall never come."
Then Sir Malgrace ordered his archers to stand guard on the road and shoot down any knight they saw.
"But if he should be Sir Lancelot," be sure that you do not venture very close to him, for he is hard to overcome."
Meantime the little maid reached Arthur's Court in safety. She found the king and his knights very anxious because the queen had not returned. She told her story, and gave the queen's ring to Sir Lancelot.
"Bring me my armor!" shouted Sir Lancelot. "I will rescue my good and dear queen before the night falls. I would rather see her safe here again than own all France."
He put on his armor and mounted his white horse and rode off without delay. The little maid led him to the place where the ten knights had fought with the hundred and eighty. From this point he traced them by the blood on the grass and on the road. At last he reached the archers.
"Turn back," they said. "No one may pass here."
"That I will not," said Sir Lancelot. "I am a Knight of the Round Table, and therefore have the right of way throughout the land."
At that they shot their arrows at him. He was wounded with many of them, and his white horse was killed. Sir Lancelot tried to reach the men, but there were so many hedges and ditches in the way that he could not. They hastened back to tell Sir Malgrace that a knight whom they had not succeeded in killing was coming to the castle.
Sir Lancelot tried to walk, but his armor was too heavy for him to carry in his wounded state. He dared not leave any of it behind, for he would need it all in fighting. Just as he was wondering what he could do, a carter passed him, driving a rough wagon.
"Carter," said Sir Lancelot, "let me ride in your wagon to the castle of Sir Malgrace."
The carter was amazed, for in that day a knight never entered into a cart unless he was a condemned man going to hanged. Sir Lancelot, however, did not stop to explain. He jumped into the cart and told the driver to go quickly.
Some of the ladies of Queen Guinevere were looking out of the window, and one said to her:
"See, my queen, there is a poor knight going to be hanged."
The queen looked out of the window and recognized Sir Lancelot by the three lions blazoned upon his shield. She was overjoyed, and waved him a glad greeting as he came up to the castle gate.
Sir Lancelot beat on the gate with his shield, and cried:
"Come out, false traitor, Sir Malgrace; come out and fight. If you do not, you will be branded as a coward forever."
At first Sir Malgrace thought that he would keep his gates shut fast and not answer the challenge. But in those days it was a sign of great cowardice not to accept a challenge. Moreover, since Sir Lancelot had been able to reach the castle in spite of the archers, he was afraid other Knights of the Round Table might do the same. Then they would besiege him and force him to surrender. Still he was afraid to fight. So he went to Queen Guinevere and said:
"Fair queen, remember how I saved your ten knights when I could have killed them. Now I am sorry I took you prisoner. I beg that you will go to Sir Lancelot and urge him not to fight. Then I will entertain him in this castle with the best I have, and to-morrow you shall all go back to the court."
Then the queen said:
"Peace is always better than war. I will do the best I can."
So she went down to Sir Lancelot, who still beat upon the gate, and besought him to come in peaceably, for Sir Malgrace was sorry for what he had done. Sir Lancelot was unwilling, for he knew that Sir Malgrace was a traitor, deserving punishment. Still, he could not refuse the queen anything she asked him, and, therefore, he entered the castle.
Sir Malgrace greeted him with politeness, and served to him and to the others of Arthur's Court, a great banquet. After that, to the surprise of every one, he rose and accused the queen of treason. All the company was astonished. Sir Lancelot was very angry.
"If you say the queen is a traitress," he cried, "you shall fight with me, although you were afraid just now."
"I am not afraid to fight," said Sir Malgrace.
"When and where will you meet me in combat?" asked Sir Lancelot.
"In eight days," replied Sir Malgrace, "in the field near Westminster."
Sir Lancelot agreed to this. Then Queen Guinevere rose with all her attendants and went into the courtyard. Their horses were brought them and they mounted. Sir Lancelot was the last to pass out of the banquet hall. As he was going through the door he stepped upon a trap which Sir Malgrace had prepared for him. The trapdoor fell and dropped him into a dark dungeon.
When the queen and her knights and ladies had ridden out of the courtyard, they noticed that Sir Lancelot was not with them. They supposed, however, that he had ridden off by himself, as was often his custom, so they went without him to Camelot, and told the king what had happened. He was very angry at Sir Malgrace's accusation, but he was sure that Sir Lancelot would punish Sir Malgrace and so vindicate Queen Guinevere.
Meantime, the unhappy Sir Lancelot lay bruised in the dungeon, feeling very sure that Sir Malgrace meant to starve him to death. He lay hungry and thirsty for nearly two days. Then Sir Malgrace peeped in to see if he were dead.
"Ah, traitor!" cried Sir Lancelot, "I shall overcome you yet."
At that Sir Malgrace shut the trapdoor hastily, as if he were afraid that Sir Lancelot could leap up ten feet in the air. That one look, however, cost the wicked knight dear, for the daughter of the porter saw him shutting the trapdoor, and was curious to know who was in the dungeon. So at night she opened the trapdoor and let herself down by a rope.
When she saw Sir Lancelot she was very sorry for him. He offered her much money if she would free him. At last she said:
"I will do it for love of Queen Guinevere and not for money."
She let him climb up by the rope, and took him out of the courtyard. He was so sick that he went to a hermit's hut and rested for several days. When next Sir Malgrace looked into the dungeon he heard no movement. Then he rejoiced greatly, for he thought Sir Lancelot was dead.
When the eighth day had come, all the Knights of the Round Table assembled in the tournament field and waited for Sir Lancelot to appear. They all thought he would surely come. But Sir Malgrace rode jauntily about the field. Many of the knights wondered at his courage, not knowing the reason for is confidence.
The herald blew his trumpet once, but Sir Lancelot did not appear; twice, and still he did not come. Then up started several knights and begged the king to let them fight instead of Sir Lancelot.
"He has been trapped," they said, "or he would be here."
While the king was hesitating whom to choose, in rode Sir Lancelot. He dashed up to Sir Malgrace.
"Here I am, traitor," he said. "Now do your worst."
Then they fought, but at the first stroke Sir Malgrace fell to the earth.
"Mercy!" he cried, "I yield to you, Sir Knight. Do not slay me. I put myself in the king's hands and yours."
Sir Lancelot was much vexed. He wanted to kill Sir Malgrace for his treachery, and yet, since the man had asked for mercy, he could not. So he said:
"What, coward, would you stop already? Shame upon you! Get up and fight."
"I shall not rise unless you take me as one who has yielded," answered the knight.
Then Sir Lancelot said:
"Traitor, I make you this offer: I will take off my helmet, unarm my left side, and tie my left hand behind my back. In that way I will fight with you."
Upon hearing this, Sir Malgrace rose to his feet, sure now of killing Sir Lancelot.
"My lord King," cried Sir Malgrace, "you have heard this offer. I accept."
The king was very sorry that Sir Lancelot had made the offer. However, it was impossible to withdraw it. A squire came and disarmed Sir Lancelot, so that his head and left side were without cover; and since he had only one arm to fight with, he could not use his shield.
Then Sir Malgrace dashed at him, aiming for his left side. Sir Lancelot waited till he was very near, and then lightly stepped aside. Before Sir Malgrace could turn, Sir Lancelot lifted his spear and struck his enemy such a blow that he broke his breastplate and pierced his heart.
The body of Sir Malgrace was carried off the field and taken to the castle of his good father; Queen Guinevere was proclaimed innocent of treason; and Sir Lancelot was honored more than ever by his king and his queen.