The story saith that King Arthur goeth his way and Lancelot and Messire Gawain with him, and they had ridden so far one day that night came on in a forest and they might find no hold. Messire Gawain marvelled him much that they had ridden the day long without finding neither hold nor hermitage. Night was come and the sky was dark and the forest full of gloom. They knew not whitherward to turn to pass the night.
"Lords," saith the King, "Where may we be able to alight to- night?"
"Sir, we know not, for this forest is fight wearisome."
They make the squire climb up a tall tree and tell him to look as far as he may to try whether he may espy any hold or house where they may lodge. The squire looketh on all sides, and then telleth them he seeth a fire a long way off as if it were in a waste house, but that he seeth nought there save the fire and the house.
"Take good heed," saith Lancelot, "in which quarter it is, so that you may know well how to lead us thither."
He saith that right eath may he lead them.
With that he cometh down and mounteth again on his hackney, and they go forward a great pace and ride until they espy the fire and the hold. They pass on over a bridge of wattles, and find the courtyard all deserted and the house from within great and high and hideous. But there was a great fire within whereof the heat might be felt from afar. They alight of their horses, and the squire draweth them on one side amidst the hall, and the knights set them beside the fire all armed. The squire seeth a chamber in the house and entereth thereinto to see if he may find any meat for the horses, but he cometh forth again the swiftest he may and crieth right sweetly on the Mother of the Saviour. They ask him what aileth him, and he saith that he hath found the most treacherous chamber ever he found yet, for he felt there, what with heads and what with hands, more than two hundred men dead, and saith that never yet felt he so sore afeared. Lancelot went into the chamber to see whether he spake true, and felt the men that lay dead, and groped among them from head to head and felt that there was a great heap of them there, and came back and sate at the fire all laughing. The King asketh whether the squire had told truth. Lancelot answereth him yea, and that never yet had he found so many dead men together.
"Methinketh," saith Messire Gawain, "Sith that they are dead we have nought to fear of them, but God protect us from the living."
While they were talking thus, behold you a damsel that cometh into the dwelling on foot and all alone, and she cometh lamenting right grievously.
"Ha, God!" saith she, "How long a penance is this for me, and when will it come to an end?"
She seeth the knights sitting in the midst of the house. "Fair Lord God," saith she, "Is he there within through whom I am to escape from this great dolour?"
The knights hearken to her with great wonderment. They look and see her enter within the door, and her kirtle was all torn with thorns and briars in the forest. Her feet were all bleeding for that she was unshod. She had a face of exceeding great beauty. She carried the half of a dead man, and cast it into the chamber with the others. She knew Lancelot again so soon as she saw him.
"Ha, God !" saith she, "I am quit of my penance! Sir," saith she, "Welcome may you be, you and your company!"
Lancelot looketh at her in wonderment. "Damsel," saith he, "Are you a thing on God's behalf?"
"Certes, Sir," saith she, "Yea! nor be you adread of nought! I am the Damsel of the Castle of Beards, that was wont to deal with knights so passing foully as you have seen. You did away the toll that was levied on the knights that passed by, and you lay in the castle that demanded it of them that passed through the demesne thereof. But you had me in covenant that so the Holy Graal should appear unto you, you would come back to me, for otherwise never should I have been willing to let you go. You returned not, for that you saw not the Graal. For the shame that I did to knights was this penance laid upon me in this forest and this manor, to last until such time as you should come. For the cruelty I did them was sore grievous, for never was knight brought to me but I made his nose be cut off or his eyes thrust out, and some were there as you saw that had their feet or their hands stricken off. Now have I paid full dear thereof since, for needs must I carry into this chamber all the knights that are slain in this forest, and within this manor must I cast them according to the custom thereof, alone, without company; and this knight that I carried in but now hath lain so long in the forest that wild beasts have eaten half of his body. Now am I quit of this foul penance, thanks to God and to you, save only that I must go back when it shall be daylight in like manner as I came here."
"Damsel," saith Lancelot, "Right glad am I that we should have come to lodge the night here within, for love of you, for I never saw I damsel that might do so cruel penance."
"Sir," saith she, "You know not yet what it is, but you will know it ere long this night, both you and your fellows, and the Lord God shield you from death and from mischief! Every night cometh a rout of knights that are black and foul and hideous, albeit none knoweth whence they come, and they do battle right sore the one against other, and the stour endureth of a right long while; but one knight that came within yonder by chance, the first night I came hither, in like manner as you have come, made a circle round me with his sword, and I sate within it as soon as I saw them coming, and so had I no dread of them, for I had in remembrance the Saviour of the World and His passing sweet Mother. And you will do the same, and you believe me herein, for these are knights fiends."
Lancelot draweth his sword and maketh a great circle round the house-place, and they were within.
Thereupon, behold you the knights that come through the forest with such a rushing as it seemed they would rend it all up by the roots. Afterward, they enter into the manor and snatch great blazing firebrands and fling them one at another. They enter into the house battling together, and are keen to fall upon the knights, but they may not. They hurl the firebrands at them from afar, but they are holding their shields and their swords naked. Lancelot maketh semblant as though he would leap towards them, and sore great cowardize it seemeth him nor to go against them.
"Sir," saith the damsel, "Take heed that you go not forth of the circle, for you will be in sore jeopardy of death, for well you see what evil folk be these."
Lancelot was nor minded to hold himself back, but that he would go toward them sword drawn, and they run upon him on all sides, but he defendeth him stoutly and smiteth the burning firebrands so that he maketh red-hot charcoal fly, and thrusreth his sword amidst their faces. King Arthur and Messire Gawain leap up to help Lancelot and smite upon these evil folk and cut them limb from limb, and they bellow like fiends so that the whole forest resoundeth thereof. And when they fell to the ground, they may no longer endure, but become fiends and ashes, and their bodies and their horses become devils all black in the shape of ravens that come forth of their bodies. They marvel right sore what this may be, and say that such hostel is right grievous.
When they had put them all to the worse, they sate them down again and rested; but scarce were they seated or ever another rout of yet blacker folk came about them, and they bare spears burning and flaming, and many of them carried dead knights that they had slain in the forest, and dropped them in the midst of the house, and then bid the damsel carry and set them with the others. Howbeit, she answereth that she is quit of their commandment and service, nor no longer is forced to do nought for them sith that she hath done her penance. They thrust forward their spears toward the King and the two knights, as though they were come to avenge their companions; but they all three leapt up together and attacked them right stoutly. But this rout was greater and of knights more hideous. They began to press the King and his knights hard, and they might not put them to the worse as they did the others. And while they were thus in the thickest of the conflict, they heard the stroke of a bell sounding, and forthwith the knight fiends departed and hurried away a great pace.
"Lords," saith the damsel, "Had this sound not been heard, scarce might you have endured, for yet another huge rout of this folk was coming in such sort as that none might have withstood them, and this sound have I heard every night, whereby my life hath been saved."
Josephus telleth us that as at this time was there no bell neither in Greater Britain nor in Lesser; but folk were called together by a horn, and in many places there were sheets of steel, and in other places clappers of wood. King Arthur marvelled him much of this sound, so clear and sweet was it, and it well seemed him that it came on God's behalf, and right fain was he to see a bell and so he might. They were the night until the morrow in the house, as I tell you. The damsel took leave of them and so departed. As they came forth of the hold, they met three hermits that told them they were going to search for the bodies that were in this manor so that they might bury them in a waste chapel that was hard by, for such knights had lain there as that henceforward the haunting of the evil folk would be stayed in such sort as that they would have no more power to do hurt to any, wherefore they would set therewithin a worshipful hermit that should build up the place in holiness for the service of God. The King was right joyful thereof, and told them that it had been too perilous. They parted from the hermits and entered into a forest, nor was there never a day so long as King Arthur was on pilgrimage, so saith the history, but he heard the sound of one single bell every hour, whereof he was right glad. He bade Messire Gawain and Lancelot that they should everywhere conceal his name, and that they should call him not Lord but Comrade. They yielded him his will, and prayed to Our Lord that he would guide and lead them to such a castle and such a hostel as that they might be lodged honourably therein. They rode on until evening drew nigh, and they found a right fair hold in the forest, whereinto they entered and alighted. The damsel of the hold came to meet them and made them right great cheer, then made them be disarmed, afterward bringeth them right rich robes to wear. She looketh at Lancelot and knoweth him again.
"Sir," saith she, "You had once, on a day that is past, right great pity of me, and saved me my honour, whereof am I in great unhappiness. But better love I to suffer misease in honour, than to have plenty and abundance in shame or reproach, for shame endureth, but sorrow is soon overpassed."
Thereupon behold you the knight of the hold, whither he cometh from shooting in the forest and maketh carry in full great plenty venison of deer and wild boar. He alighted to greet the knights, and began to laugh when he saw Lancelot.
"By my head," saith he, "I know you well For you disappointed me of the thing I best loved in the world, and made me marry this damsel that never yet had joy of me, nor never shall have."
"Faith, Sir," saith Lancelot, "You will do your pleasure therein, for she is yours. Truth it is that I made you marry her, for you were fain to do her a disgrace and a shame in such sort that her kinsfolk would have had shame of her."
"By my head," saith the knight, "the damsel that I loved before loveth you no better hereof, nay, rather, fain would she procure your vexation and your hurt and your shame if she may, and great power hath she in this forest."
"Sir," saith Lancelot, "I have sithence spoken to her and she to me, and so hath she told me her will and her wish."
Thereupon the knight bade the knights take water, and the lady taketh the basins and presenteth water to the knights.
"Avoid, damsel," saith the King, "Take it away! Never, please God, shall it befall that we should accept such service from you."
"By my head," saith the knight, "But so must you needs do, for other than she shall not serve you to-night in this matter, or otherwise shall you not eat with me this night there within."
Lancelot understandeth that the knight is not overburdened of courtesy, and he seeth the table garnished of good meat, and bethinketh him he will not do well to lose such ease, for misease enough had they the night before. He maketh the King take water of the lady, and the same service did she for all of them. The knight biddeth them be seated. The King would have made the lady sit beside him at the table, but the knight said that there she should not sit. She goeth to sit among the squires as she was wont to do. The knights are sorry enough thereof, but they durst not gainsay the will of her lord. When they had eaten, the knight said to Lancelot, "Now may you see what she hath gained of me by your making me take her perforce, nor never, so help me God, so long as I live shall she be honoured otherwise by me, for so have I promised her that I love far more."
"Sir," saith Lancelot, "To my thinking you do ill herein and a sin, and meseemeth you should have great blame thereof of them that know it, and may your churlishness be your own, for nought thereof take I to myself."
Lancelot telleth the King and Messire Gawain that were he not lodged in his hostel, and had him outside of the hold, he would willingly have set the blood of his body on it but he would have handled him in such sort as that the lady should be maintained in greater honour, either by force or by prayer, in like manner as he did when he made him marry her. They were right well lodged the night and lay in the hold until the morrow, when they departed thence, and rode right busily on their journeys until they came into a very different land, scarce inhabited of any folk, and found a little castle in a combe. They came thitherward and saw that the enclosure of the castle was fallen down into an abysm, so that none might approach it on that side, but it had a right fair gateway and a door tall and wide whereby one entered. They beheld a chapel that was right fair and rich, and below was a great ancient hall. They saw a priest appear in the midst of the castle, bald and old, that had come forth of the chapel. They are come thither and alighted, and asked the priest what the castle was, and he told them that it was the great Tintagel.
"And how is this ground all caved in about the castle?"
"Sir," saith the priest, "I will tell you. Sir," saith he, "King Uther Pendragon, that was father of King Arthur, held a great court and summoned all his barons. The King of this castle that then was here was named Gorlois. He went to the court and took his wife with him, that was named Ygerne, and she was the fairest dame in any kingdom. King Uther sought acquaintance of her for her great beauty, and regarded her and honoured her more than all the others of his court. King Gorlois departed thence and made the Queen come back to this castle for the dread that he had of King Uther Pendragon. King Uther was very wroth with him, and commanded him to send back the Queen his wife. King Godois said that he would not. Thereupon King Uther Pendragon defied him, and then laid siege about this castle where the Queen was. King Gorlois was gone to seek for succour. King Uther Pendragon had Merlin with him of whom you have heard tell, that was so crafty. He made him be changed into the semblance of King Gorlois, so that he entered there within by Merlin's art and lay that night with the Queen, and so begat King Arthur in a great hall that was next to the enclosure there where this abysm is. And for this sin hath the ground sunken in on this wise."
He cometh with them toward the chapel that was right fair, and had a right rich sepulchre therein.
"Lords, in this sepulchre was placed the body of Merlin, but never mought it be set inside the chapel, wherefore perforce it remained outside. And know of a very truth that the body lieth not within the sepulchre, for, so soon as it was set therein, it was taken out and snatched away, either on God's behalf or the Enemy's, but which we know not."
"Sir," saith King Arthur, "And what became of King Gorlois?"
"Sir." saith he, "The King slew him on the morrow of the night he lay with his wife, and so forthwith espoused Queen Ygerne, and in such manner as I tell you was King Arthur conceived in sin that is now the best King in the world."
King Arthur hath heard this as concerning his birth that he knew not, and is a little shamed thereof and confounded on account of Messire Gawain and Lancelot. He himself marvelleth much thereof, and much it misliketh him that the priest hath said so much. They lay the night in the hold, and so departed thence on the morrow when they had heard mass. Lancelot and Messire Gawain, that thought they knew the forest, found the land so changed and different that they knew not whither they were become, and such an one as should come into the land that had been King Fisherman's, and he should come again another time within forty days, should not find the castle within a year.
Josephus telleth us that the semblances of the islands changed themselves by reason of the divers adventures that by the pleasure of God befell therein, and that the quest of adventures would not have pleased the knights so well and they had not found them so different. For, when they had entered into a forest or an island where they had found any adventure, and they came there another time, they found holds and castles and adventures of another kind, so that their toils and travails might not weary them, and also for that God would that the land should be conformed to the New Law. And they were the knights that had more toil and travail in seeking adventures than all the knights of the world before them, and in holding to that whereof they had made covenant; nor of no court of no king in the world went forth so many good knights as went forth from the court of King Arthur, and but that God loved them so much, never might they have endured such toil and travail as they did from day to day; for without fait, good knights were they, and good knights not only to deal hard buffets, but rather in that they were loyal and true, and had faith in the Saviour of the World and His sweet Mother, and therefore dreaded shame and loved honour. King Arthur goeth on his way and Messire Gawain and Lancelot with him, and they pass through many strange countries, and so enter into a great forest. Lancelot called to remembrance the knight that he had slain in the Waste City whither behoved him to go, and knew well that the day whereon he should come was drawing nigh. He told King Arthur as much, and then said, that and he should go not, he would belie his covenant. They rode until they came to a cross where the ways forked.
"Sir," saith Lancelot, "Behoveth me go to acquit me of my pledge, and I go in great adventure and peril of death, nor know I whether I may live at all thereafter, for I slew the knight, albeit I was right sorry thereof, but or ever I slew him, I had to swear that I would go set my head in the like jeopardy as he had set his. Now the day draweth nigh that I must go thither, for I am unwilling to fail of my covenant, whereof I should be blamed, and, so God grant me to escape therefrom, I will follow you speedily."
The King embraceth him and kisseth him at parting and Messire Gawain also, and they pray God preserve his body and his life, and that they may see him again ere it be long. Lancelot would willingly have sent salute to the Queen had he durst, for she lay nearer his heart than aught beside, but he would not that the King nor Messire Gawain should misdeem of the love they might carry to their kinswoman. The love is so rooted in his heart that he may not leave it, into what peril soever he may go; rather, he prayeth God every day as sweetly as he may, that He save the Queen, and that he may deliver his body from this jeopardy. He hath ridden until that he cometh at the hour of noon into the Waste City, and findeth the city empty as it was the first time he was there.
In the city wherein Lancelot had arrived were many waste houses and rich palaces fallen down. He had scarce entered within the city when he heard a great cry and lamentation of dames and damsels, but he knew not on which side it was, and they say: "Ha, God, how hath the knight betrayed us that slew the knight, inasmuch as he returneth not! This day is the day come that he ought to redeem his pledge! Never again ought any to put trust in knight, for that he cometh not! The others that came hither before him have failed us, and so will he also for dread of death; for he smote off the head of the comeliest knight that was in this kingdom and the best, wherefore ought he also to have his own smitten off, but good heed taketh he to save it if he may!"
Thus spake the damsels. Lancelot much marvelled where they might be, for nought could he espy of them, albeit he cometh before the palace, there where he slew the knight. He alighteth, then maketh fast his horse's reins to a ring that was fixed in the mounting-stage of marble. Scarce hath he done so, when a knight alighteth, tall and comely and strong and deliver, and he was clad in a short close-fitted jerkin of silk, and held the axe in his hand wherewith Lancelot had smitten off the head of the other knight, and he came sharpening it on a whetstone to cut the better. Lancelot asketh him, "What will you do with this axe?"
"By my head," saith the knight, "That shall you know in such sort as my brother knew when you cut off his head, so I may speed of my business."
"How?" saith Lancelot, "Will you slay me then?"
"That shall you know," saith he, "or ever you depart hence. Have you not loyally promised hereof that you would set your head in the same jeopardy as the knight set his, whom you slew without defence? And no otherwise may you depart therefrom. Wherefore now come forward without delay and kneel down and stretch your neck even as my brother did, and so will I smite off your head, and, if you do nor this of your own good will, you shall soon find one that shall make you do it perforce, were you twenty knights as good as you are one. But well I know that you have not come hither for this, but only to fulfil your pledge, and that you will raise no contention herein."
Lancelot thinketh to die, and is minded to abide by that he hath in covenant without fail, wherefore he lieth down on the ground as it were on a cross, and crieth mercy of God. He mindeth him of the Queen, and crieth God of mercy and saith, "Ha, Lady" saith he, "Never shall I see you more! but, might I have seen you yet once again before I die, exceeding great comfort had it been to me, and my soul would have departed from me more at ease. But this, that never shall I see you more, as now it seemeth me, troubleth me more than the death whereby behoveth me to die, for die one must when one hath lived long enough. But faithfully do I promise you that my love shall fail you not yet, and never shall it be but that my soul shall love you in the other world like as my body hath loved you in this, if thus the soul may love!"
With that the tears fell from his eyes, nor, never sithence that he was knight, saith the story, had he wept for nought that had befallen him nor for heaviness of heart, but this time and one other. He taketh three blades of grass and so eateth thereof in token of the holy communion, then signeth him of the cross and blesseth him, riseth up, setteth himself on his knees and stretcheth forth his neck. The knight lifteth up the axe. Lancelot heareth the blow coming, boweth his head and the axe misseth him. He saith to him, "Sir Knight, so did not my brother that you slew; rather, he held his head and neck quite still, and so behoveth you to do!"
Two damsels appeared at the palace-windows of passing great beauty, and they knew Lancelot well. So, as the knight was aiming a second blow, one of the damsels crieth to him, "And you would have my love for evermore, throw down the axe and cry the knight quit! Otherwise have you lost me for ever!"
The knight forthwith flingeth down the axe and falleth at Lancelot's feet and crieth mercy of him as of the most loyal knight in the world.
"But you? Have mercy on me, you! and slay me not!" saith Lancelot, "For it is of you that I ought to pray mercy!"
"Sir," saith the knight, "Of a surety will I not do this! Rather will I help you to my power to save your life against all men, for all you have slain my brother."
The damsels come down from the palace and are come to Lancelot.
"Sir," say they to Lancelot, "Greatly ought we to love you, yea, better than all knights in the world beside. For we are the two damsels, sisters, that you saw so poor at the Waste Castle where you lay in our brother's house. You and Messire Gawain and another knight gave us the treasure and the hold of the robber- knights that you slew; for this city which is waste and the Waste Castle of my brother would never again be peopled of folk, nor should we never have had the land again, save a knight had come hither as loyal as are you. Full a score knights have arrived here by chance in the same manner as you came, and not one of them but hath slain a brother or a kinsman and cut off his head as you did to the knight, and each one promised to return at the day appointed; but all failed of their covenant, for not one of them durst come to the day; and so you had failed us in like manner as the others, we should have lost this city without recovery and the castles that are its appanages."
So the knight and the damsels lead Lancelot into the palace and then make him be disarmed. They hear presently how the greatest joy in the world is being made in many parts of the forest, that was nigh the city.
"Sir," say the damsels, "Now may you hear the joy that is made of your coming. These are the burgesses and dwellers in the city that already know the tidings."
Lancelot leaneth at the windows of the hall, and seeth the city peopled of the fairest folk in the world, and great thronging in the broad streets and the great palace, and clerks and priests coming in long procession praising God and blessing Him for that they may now return to their church, and giving benison to the knight through whom they are free to repair thither. Lancelot was much honoured throughout the city. The two damsels are at great pains to wait upon him, and right great worship had he of all them that were therewithin and them that came thither, both clerks and priests.