Herewithal the story is silent of Messire Gawain, and saith that Lancelot seeketh Perceval in like manner as did Messire Gawain, and rideth until that he cometh to the hermitage where he hanged the thieves. Joseus made right great joy of him. He asked him whether he knew any tidings of the son of the Widow Lady.
"I have seen him sithence that he came from King Arthur's court but once only, and whither he is gone I know not."
"Sir," saith Lancelot, "I would see him right fain. King Arthur sendeth for him by me."
"Sir," saith the hermit, "I know not when I may see him again, for when once he departeth hence he is not easy to find."
Lancelot entereth the chapel with the hermit, and seeth the shield that Perceval brought from King Arthur's court beside the altar.
"Sir," saith Lancelot, "I see his shield yonder. Hide him not from me."
"I will not do so," saith the hermit. "This shield, truly, is his, but he took with him another from hence, of gold with a green cross."
"And know you no tidings of Messire Gawain?"
"I have not seen Messire Gawain sithence tofore I entered into this hermitage. But you have fallen into sore hatred on account of the four robbers that were knights whom you hanged. For their kinsmen are searching for you in this forest and in other, and are thieves like as were the others, and they have their hold in this forest, wherein they bestow their robberies and plunder. Wherefore I pray you greatly be on your guard against them."
"So will I," saith Lancelot, "please God."
He lay the night in the hermitage, and departeth on the morrow after that he hath heard mass and prayeth God grant he may find Perceval or Messire Gawain. He goeth his way amidst the strange forests until that he cometh to a strong castle that was builded right seemly. He Looketh before him and seeth a knight that was issued thereout, and was riding a great pace on a strong destrier, and carded a bird on his fist toward the forest.
When he saw Lancelot coming he drew up. "Sir," saith he, "Be welcome."
"Good adventure to you," saith Lancelot. "What castle is this?"
"Sir, it is the Castle of the Golden Circlet. And I go to meet the knights and dames that come to the castle, for this day is the day ordained for the adoration of the Golden Circlet."
"What is the Golden Circlet?" saith Lancelot.
"Sir, it is the Crown of Thorns," saith the knight, "that the Saviour of the world had on His head when He was set upon the Rood. Wherefore the Queen of this castle hath set it in gold and precious stones in such sort that the knights and dames of this kingdom come to behold it once in the year. But it is said that the knight that was first at the Graal shall conquer it, and therefore is no strange knight allowed to enter. But, so please you, I will lead you to mine own hold that is in this forest."
"Right great thanks," saith Lancelot, "But as yet it is not time to take lodging."
He taketh leave of the knight, and so departeth and looketh at the castle, and saith that in right great worship should the knight be held that by the valour of his chivalry shall conquer so noble a hallow as is the Golden Circlet when it is kept safe in a place so strong. He goeth his way right amidst the forest, and looketh forth before him and seeth coming the damsel that hath the knight carried in the litter for the dead.
"Damsel," saith Lancelot, "Be welcome."
"Sir, God give you good adventure! Sir," saith the damsel, "Greatly ought I to hate the knight that slew this knight, for that he hath forced me thus to lead him in this wise by fell and forest. So also ought I to mislike me much of the knight that it standeth upon to avenge him, whom I may not find."
"Damsel," saith Lancelot, "Who slew this knight?"
"Sir," saith she, "The Lord of the Burning Dragon."
"And who ought of right to avenge him?"
"Sir," saith she, "The knight that was in the Red Launde at the assembly, that jousted with Messire Gawain, and had the prize of the tournament."
"Did he better than Messire Gawain?" saith Lancelot.
"Sir, so did they adjudge him; for that he was a longer time in the assembly."
"A good knight was he, then," saith Lancelot, "sith that he did better than Messire Gawain!"
"By my head," saith the damsel, "You say true, for he is the Best Knight of the World."
"And what shield beareth he?" saith Lancelot.
"Sir," saith the damsel, "At the assembly he bore white arms, but before that, he had arms of another semblance, and one shield that he had was green, and one gold with a green cross."
"Damsel," saith he, "Did Messire Gawain know him?"
"Sir, not at all, whereof is he right sorrowful."
"Is he, then," saith he, "Perceval, the son of the Widow Lady?"
"By my head, you say true!"
"Ha, God!" saith Lancelot, "the more am I mazed how Messire Gawain knew him not. Damsel," saith he, "And know you whitherward they are gone?"
"Sir," saith she, "I know not whither, nor have I any tidings, neither or the one nor the other."
He departeth from the damsel and rideth until the sun was set. He found the rocks darkling and the forest right deep and perilous of seeming. He rode on, troubled in thought, and weary and full of vexation. Many a time Looketh he to right and to left, and he may see any place where he may lodge. A dwarf espied him, but Lancelot saw him not. The dwarf goeth right along a by-way that is in the forest, and goeth to a little hold of robber-knights that lay out of the way, where was a damsel that kept watch over the hold. The robbers had another hold where was the damsel where the passing knights are deceived and entrapped. The dwarf cometh forthright to the damsel, and saith: "Now shall we see what you will do, for see, here cometh the knight that hanged your uncle grid your three cousins german."
"Now shall I have the best of him," saith she, "as for mine own share in this matter, but take heed that you be garnished ready to boot."
"By my head," saith the dwarf, "that will I, for, please God, he shall not escape us again, save he be dead."
The damsel was of passing great beauty and was clad right seemingly, but right treacherous was she of heart, nor no marvel was it thereof, for she came of the lineage of robbers and was nurtured on theft and robbery, and she herself had helped to murder many a knight. She is come upon the way, so that Lancelot hath to pass her, without her kerchief. She meeteth Lancelot and saluteth him and maketh him right great joy, of semblant.
"Sir," saith she, "Follow this path that goeth into the forest, and you will find a hold that my forefathers stablished for harbouring of such knights as might be passing through the forest. The night is dark already, and if you pass on further no hold will you find nearer than a score leagues Welsh."
"Damsel," saith Lancelot, "Gramercy heartily of this that it pleaseth you to say, for right gladly will I harbour me here, for it is more than time to take lodging, and with you more willingly than another."
On this wise they go their way talking, as far as the hold. There was none therewithin save only the dwarf, for the five robber knights were in their hold at the lower end of the forest. The dwarf took Lancelot's horse, and stabled him, then went up into the hall above, and gave himself up wholly to serving him.
"Sir," saith the damsel, "Allow yourself to be disarmed, and have full assurance of safety."
"Damsel," saith he, "Small trouble is it for me to wear mine arms, and lightly may I abide it."
"Sir," saith she, "Please God, you shall nor lie armed within yonder. Never yet did knight so that harboured therein."
But the more the damsel presseth him to disarm, the more it misliketh him, for the place seemeth him right dark and foul-seeming, wherefore will he not disarm nor disgarnish himself.
"Sir," saith she, "Meseemeth you are suspicious of something, but no call have you to misdoubt of aught here within, for the place is quite safe. I know not whether you have enemies?"
"Damsel," saith Lancelot, "Never yet knew I knight that was loved of everybody, yet sometimes might none tell the reason thereof."
Lancelot, so saith the story, would not disarm him, wherefore he made the table be set, and sate thereat beside the damsel at meat. He made his shield and his helmet and spear be brought into the hall. He leant back upon a rich couch that was therewithin, with his sword by his side, all armed. He was weary and the bed was soft, so he went to sleep. Howbeit, the dwarf mounteth on his horse that he had left still saddled, and goeth his way to the other hold where the robbers were, all five, that were Lancelot's mortal enemies. The damsel remained all alone with him that she hated of a right deadly hate. She thought to herself that gladly would she slay him, and that, so she might compass it, she would be thereof held in greater worship of all the world, for well she knew that he was a good knight, and that one so good she had never slain. She filched away the sword that was at his side, then drew it from the scabbard, then looketh to see where she may lightliest smite him to slay him. She seeth that his head is so covered of armour that nought appeareth thereof save only the face, and she bethinketh her that one stroke nor two on the helmet would scarce hurt him greatly, but that and she might lift the skirt of his habergeon without awakening him she might well slay him, for so might she thrust the sword right through his heart. Meanwhile, as she was searching thus, Lancelot, that was sleeping and took no heed thereof, saw, so it seemed him, a little cur-dog come therewithin, and brought with him sundry great mongrel ban-dogs that ran upon him on all sides, and the little cur bit at him likewise among the others. The ban-dogs held him so fast that he might not get away from them. He seeth that a greyhound bitch had hold of his sword, and she had hands like a woman, and was fain to slay him. And it seemed him that he snatched the sword from her and slew the greyhound bitch and the biggest and most masterful of the ban-dogs and the little cur. He was scared of the dream and started up and awoke, and felt the scabbard of his sword by his side, that the damsel had left there all empty, the which he perceived not, and soon thereafter he fell on sleep again. The dwarf that had stolen his horse cometh to the robber knights, and crieth to them, "Up, Sirs, and haste you to come and avenge you of your mortal enemy that sent the best of your kindred out of the world with such shame! See, here is his horse that I bring you for a token!" He alighteth of the horse, and giveth him up to them. Right joyous are the robbers of the tidings he telleth them. The dwarf bringeth them all armed to the hold.
Lancelot was awake, all scared of the dream he had dreamed. He seeth them enter within all armed, and the damsel crieth to them: "Now will it appear," saith she, "what you will do!"
Lancelot hath leapt up, thinking to take his sword, but findeth the scabbard all empty. The damsel that held the sword was the first of all to run upon him, and the five knights and the dwarf set upon him from every side. He perceived that it was his own sword the damsel held, the one he prized above all other. He taketh his lance that was at his bed's head and cometh toward the master of the knights at a great sweep, and smiteth him so fiercely that he thrusteth him right through the body so that the lance passeth a fathom beyond, and beareth him to the ground dead. His spear broke as he drew it back. He runneth to the damsel that held the sword, and wresteth it forth of her hands and holdeth it fast with his arm right against his flank and grippeth it to him right strait; albeit she would fain snatch it again from him by force, whereat Lancelot much marvelled. He swingeth it above him, and the four knights come back upon him. He thinketh to smite one with the sword, when the damsel leapeth in between them, thinking to hold Lancelot fast, and thereby the blow that should have fallen on one of the knights caught the damsel right through the head and slew her, whereof he was right sorrowful, howsoever she might have wrought against him.
When the four knights saw the damsel dead, right grieved were they thereof. And the dwarf crieth out to them: "Lords, now shall it be seen how you will avenge the sore mischief done you. So help me God, great shame may you have and you cannot conquer a single knight."
They run upon him again on all sides, but maugre all their heads he goeth thither where he thinketh to find his horse; but him findeth he not. Thereby well knoweth he that the dwarf hath made away with him, wherefore he redoubled his hardiment and his wrath waxed more and more. And the knights were not to be lightly apaid when they saw their lord dead and the damsel that was their cousin. Sore buffets they dealt him of their swords the while he defended himself as best he might. He caught the dwarf that was edging them on to do him hurt, and clave him as far as the shoulders, and wounded two of the knights right badly, and he himself was hurt in two places; but he might not depart from the house, nor was his horse there within, nor was there but a single entrance into the hall. The knights set themselves without the door and guard the issue, and Lancelot was within with them that were dead. He sate himself down at the top of the hall to rest him, for he was sore spent with the blows he had given and received. When he had rested himself awhile, he riseth to his feet and seeth that they have sate them down in the entrance to the hall. He mounteth up to the windows and flingeth them down them that were dead within through the windows. Just then the day appeared, fair and clear, and the birds began to sing amidst the forest, whereof the hall was overshadowed. He maketh fast the door of the hall and barreth it and shutteth the knights without; and they say one to the other and swear it, that they will not depart thence until they have taken him or famished him to death. Little had Lancelot recked of their threats and he might have had his horse at will, but he was not so sure of his stroke afoot as a-horseback, as no knight never is. Him thinketh he may well abide the siege as long as God shall please, for the hall was well garnished of meat in right great joints. He is there within all alone, and the four knights without that keep watch that he goeth not, but neither wish nor will hath he to go forth afoot; but, and he had had his horse, the great hardiment that he hath in him would have made that he should go forth honourably, howsoever they without might have taken it and what grievance soever they might have had thereof.