Therewithal the history is silent of Lancelot, and speaketh word of the King and Messire Gawain, that are in sore misgiving as concerning him, for right gladly would they have heard tidings of him. They met a knight that was coming all armed, and Messire Gawain asketh him whence he came, and he said that he came from the land of the Queen of the Golden Circlet, to whom a sore loss hath befallen; for the Son of the Widow Lady had won the Circlet of Gold for that he had slain the Knight of the Dragon, and she was to keep it safe for him and deliver it up to him at his will.
"But now hath Nabigant of the Rock reft her thereof, and a right outrageous knight is he and puissant; wherefore hath he commanded a damsel that she bring it to an assembly of knights that is to be held in the Meadow of the Tent of the two damsels, there where Messire Gawain did away the evil custom. The damsel that will bring the Golden Circlet will give it to the knight that shall do best at the assembly. Nabigant is keenly set upon having it, and maketh the more sure for that once aforetime he hath had it by force of arms. And I am going to the knights that know not these tidings, in order that when they shall hear them, they shall go to the assembly."
Therewithal the knight departeth. The King and Messire Gawain have ridden so far that they come to the tent where Messire Gawain destroyed the evil custom by slaying the two knights. He found the tent garnished within and without in like manner as it was when he was there, and Messire Gawain made the King be seated on a quilted mattress of straw, right costly, and thereafter be disarmed of a squire, and he himself disarmed him, and they washed their hands and faces for the rust wherewith both of them were besmuttered. And Messire Gawain found the chests unlocked that were at the head of the couch, and made the King be apparelled of white rich stuffs that he found, and a robe of cloth of silk and gold, and he clad himself in the like manner, neither was the chest not a whit disfurnished thereby, for the tent was all garnished of rich adornments. When they were thus dight, a man might have sought far or ever he should find so comely knights.
Thereupon, behold you the two Damsels of the Tent coming.
"Damsels," saith Messire Gawain, "Welcome may you be."
"Sir," say they, "Good adventure may you have both twain. It seemeth us that you take right boldly that which is ours, yet never for neither of us would you do a thing whereof you were beseeched."
"Messire Gawain" saith the elder, "No knight is there in this kingdom but would be right joyous and he supposed that I loved him, and I prayed you of your love on a day that is past, for the valour of your knighthood, yet never did you grant it me. How durst you have affiance in me of aught, and take the things that are mine own so boldly, when I may not have affiance in you?"
"Damsel, for your courtesy and the good custom of the land; for you told me when the evil customs were overthrown, that all the honours and all the courtesies that are due to knights should ever be ready within for all them that should come hither for harbour."
"Messire Gawain, you say true, but of right might one let the courtesy tarry and pay back churlishness by churlishness."
"The assembly of knights will begin to-morrow in this launde that is so fair. There will be knights in plenty, and the prize will be the Circlet of Gold. Now shall we see who will do best. The assembly will last three whole days, and of one thing at least you may well make boast between you and your comrade, that you have the fairest hostel and the most pleasant and the most quiet of any knights at the assembly."
The younger damsel looketh at King Arthur. "And you," saith she, What will you do? Will you be as strange toward us as Messire Gawain is friendly with others?"
"Damsel," saith the king, "Messire Gawain will do his pleasure and I mine. Strange shall I not be in respect of you, nor toward other damsels; rather shall they be honoured on my part so long as I live, and I myself will be at your commandment."
"Sir," saith she, "Gramercy greatly. I pray you, therefore, that you be my knight at the tournament."
"Damsel, this ought I not to refuse you, and right glad at heart shall I be and I may do aught that shall please you; for all knights ought to be at pains for the sake of dame or damsel."
"Sir," saith she, "what is your name?"
"Damsel," saith he, "My name is Arthur, and I am of Tincardoil."
"Have you nought to do with King Arthur?"
"Damsel, already have I been many times at his court, and, if he loved me not nor I him, I should not be in Messire Gawain's company. In truth, he is the King in the world that I love best."
The damsel looketh at King Arthur, but wotteth not a whir that it is he, and full well is she pleased with the seeming and countenance of him. As for the King, lightly might he have trusted that he should have her as his lady-love so long as he remained with her; but there is much to say betwixt his semblant and his thought, for he showeth good semblant toward the damsel, that hath over much affiance therein, but his thought is on Queen Guenievre in what place soever he may be. For nought loveth he so well as her.
The damsels made stable the horses and purvey for the bodies of the knights right richly at night, and they lay in two right rich beds in the midst of the hall, and their arms were all set ready before. The damsels would not depart until such time as they were asleep. The harness of the knights that came to the assembly came on the morrow from all parts. They set up their booths and stretched their tents all round about the launde of the forest. King Arthur and Messire Gawain were risen in the morning and saw the knights come from all parts. The elder damsel cometh to Messire Gawain and saith unto him, "Sir," saith she, "I will that you bear to-day red arms that I will lend you, for the love of me, and take heed that they be well employed, and I desire that you should not be known by your arms; rather let it be said that you are the Red Knight, and you shall allow it accordingly."
"Damsel, Gramercy greatly!" saith Messire Gawain, "I will do my endeavour in arms the best I may for love of you."
The younger damsel cometh to King Arthur; "Sir," saith she, "My sister hath made her gift and I will make mine. I have a suit of arms of gold, the richest that knight may wear, that I will lend you, for methinketh they will be better employed on you than on ever another knight; so I pray you that you remember me at the assembly in like manner as I shall ofttimes remember you."
"Damsel," saith the King, "Gramercy! No knight is there that should see you but ought to have you in remembrance in his heart for your courtesy and your worth."
The knights were come about the tents. The King and Messire Gawain were armed and had made caparison their horses right richly. The damsel that should give the Golden Circlet was come. Nabigant of the Rock had brought great fellowships of knights together with him, and ordinance was made for the assembly.
The younger damsel saith to King Arthur: "Well may you know that no knight that is here this day hath better arms than are yours, wherefore take heed that you show you to be good knight for love of me."
"Damsel," saith King Arthur, "God grant that I be so."
So they laid hold on their reins and mounted their horses, that made great leaping and went away a great gallop. Saith the younger damsel to her sister: "What think you of my knight, doth he not please you?"
"Yea," saith the elder, "But sore misliketh me of Messire Gawain for that he is not minded to do as I would have him. But he shall yet aby it dear."
King Arthur and Messire Gawain strike into the midst of the assembly like as it were two lions unchained, and at their first coming they smite down two knights to the ground under the feet of their horses. Messire Gawain taketh the two horses and sendeth them by a squire to the Damsels of the Tent, that made much joy thereof. After that were they not minded to take more booty as of horses or arms, but searched the fellowships on one side and the other; nor was there no knight that came against them but they pierced his shield or bore him to the ground, insomuch as none was there that might endure their buffets. Nabigant espieth Messire Gawain and cometh toward him, and Messire Gawain toward him again, and they hurtle together either on other so strongly that Messire Gawain beareth Nabigant to the ground, him and his horse together all in a heap. And King Arthur was not idle, for no knight durst come against him but he overthrew him, so as that all withdrew them back and avoided his buffets. And many knights did well that day at the assembly, but none might be the match of either of them twain in deeds of arms, for, save it were Lancelot or Perceval, were no knights on live that had in them so much hardiment and valour. After that it was evensong the knights drew them back to their tents, and they say all that the Knight of the Golden Arms and the Knight of the Red Arms had done better than they all at the assembly. King Arthur and Messire Gawain come back to the tent of the damsels, that make disarm them and do upon them the rich robes and make great joy of them. Thereupon, behold you, a dwarf that cometh: "Damsels, make great joy! for all they of the assembly say with one accord that your knights have done best this day."
King Arthur and Messire Gawain sate to eat, and right well were they served of every kind of meats and of great cups of wine and sops in wine. King Arthur made the younger damsel sit beside him, and Messire Gawain the elder in like manner, and when they had eaten they went to lie down and fell on sleep, for right sore weary were they and forespent of the many buffets they had given and received, and they slept until the morrow.
When the day appeared they rose up. Thereupon, behold you the younger damsel where she cometh and saluteth King Arthur. "And you, damsel!" saith King Arthur, "God give you joy and good adventure!"
"Sir," saith she, "I will that you bear to-day these white arms that you see here, and that you do no worse to-day than yesterday you did, sith that better you may not do."
"Messire Gawain," saith the elder damsel, "Remember you of the King there where his land was compassed about of a wall of stone, and you harboured one night in his castle, what time you went to seek for the sword wherewith John Baptist was beheaded, when he was fain to take away the sword from you, whereof you had so sore misliking? Natheless, he yielded you up the sword upon covenant that you should do that which a damsel should first ask you to do thereafter, and you promised him loyally that so would you do?"
"Certes, damsel," saith Messire Gawain, "Well do I remember the same."
"Now, therefore," saith the damsel, "would I fain prove whether you be indeed so loyal as men say, and whether you will hold your covenant that you made. Wherefore I pray and beseech you that this day you shall be he that doth worst of all the knights at the assembly, and that you bear none other arms save your own only, so as that you shall be known again of all them that are there present. And, so you will not do this, then will you have failed of your covenant, and myself will go tell the King that you have broken the promise that you made to him right loyally."
"Damsel," saith Messire Gawain, "Never yet brake I covenant with none, so it were such as I might fulfil or another on my behalf."
King Arthur made arm him of the white arms that the younger damsel had given him, and Messire Gawain of his own, but sore it irked him of this that the damsel hath laid upon him to do, sith that needs must he lose worship and he hold to his covenant, albeit not for nought that is in the world will he fail of the promise he hath made. So they come into the assembly.
King Arthur smiteth with his spurs like a good knight and overthroweth two knights in his onset, and Messire Gawain rideth a bandon betwixt two fellowships to be the better known. The most part say, "See! There is Messire Gawain, the good knight that is King Arthur's nephew."
Nabigant of the Rock cometh toward him as fast as his horse may carry him, lance in rest. Messire Gawain seeth him coming toward him right furiously. He casteth his shield down on the ground and betaketh him to flight as swiftly as he may. They that beheld him, some two score or more, marvel thereof, and say, "Did ever one see the like overpassing cowardize!"
Nabigant saith that he never yet followed a knight that was vanquished, nor never will follow one of such conditions, for no great prize would it be to take him and win his horse. Other knights come to joust with him, but Messire Gawain fleeth and avoideth them the best he may, and maketh semblance that none is there he durst abide. He draweth toward King Arthur for safety. "The King hath great shame of this that he seeth him do, and right sore pains hath he of defending Messire Gawain, for he holdeth as close to him as the pie doth to the bramble when the falcon would take her. In such shame and dishonour was Messire Gawain as long as the assembly lasted, and the knights said that he had gotten him off with much less than he deserved, for that never had they seen so craven knight at assembly or tournament as was he, nor never henceforth would they have dread of him as they had heretofore. From this day forward may many lightly avenge themselves upon him of their kinsfolk and friends that he hath slain by the forest. The assembly brake up in the evening, whereof the King and Messire Gawain were right well pleased. The knights disarm them at their hostels and the King and Messire Gawain at the damsels' tent.
With that, behold you the dwarf that cometh.
"By my head, damsels, your knights go from bad to worse! Of him in the white arms one may even let pass, but Messire Gawain is the most coward ever saw I yet, and so he were to run upon me to-morrow and I were armed like as is he, I should think me right well able to defend me against him. 'Tis the devil took him to a place where is such plenty of knights, for the more folk that are there the better may one judge of his ill conditions. And you, Sir," saith he to the King, "Wherefore do you keep him company? You would have done best to-day had he not been there. He skulked as close by you, to be out of the buffets, as a hare doth to the wood for the hounds. No business hath good knight to hold company with a coward. I say not this for that I would make him out worse that he is, for I remember the two knights he slew before this tent."
The damsel heareth the dwarf talking and smileth thereat, for she understandeth that blame enough hath Messire Gawain had at the assembly. The knights said at their hostels that they knew not to whom to give the Circlet of Gold, sith that the Knight of the Golden Armour and he of the Red Armour were not there; for they did the best the first day of the assembly, and much they marvelled that they should not come when it was continued on the morrow.
"Gawain," saith the King, "Sore blame have you had this day, and I myself have been all shamed for your sake. Never thought I that so good a knight as you might ever have known how to counterfeit a bad knight as you did. You have done much for the love of the damsel, and right well had she avenged herself of you and you had done her great annoy. Howbeit, and to-morrow your cowardize be such as it hath been to-day, never will the day be when you shall not have blame thereof."
"By my faith." saith Messire Gawain, "Behoveth me do the damsel's pleasure sith that we have fallen by ill-chance into her power."
They went to bed at night and took their rest as soon as they had eaten, and on the morrow the damsel came to Messire Gawain.
"I will," saith she, "that you be clad in the same arms as was your comrade on the first day, right rich, that I will lend you, and I will, moreover, that you be knight so good as that never on any day were you better. But I command you, by the faith you pledged me the other day, to obey this caution, that you make yourself known to none, and so any man in the world shall ask your name, you shall say that you are the knight of the Golden Arms."
"Damsel," saith Gawain, "Gramercy, I will do your pleasure."
The younger damsel cometh back to the King: "Sir," saith she, "I will that you wear new arms: You shall bear them red, the same as Messire Gawain bore the first day, and I pray you be such as you were the first day, or better."
"Damsel, I will do my best to amend myself and my doings, and right well pleased am I of that it pleaseth you to say."
Their horses were caparisoned and the knights mounted, all armed. They come together to the tournament with such an onset as that they pass through the thickest of the press and overthrew knights and horses as many as they encountered. King Arthur espieth Nabigant that came right gaily caparisoned, and smiteth him so passing strong a buffet in the midst of his breast that he beareth him down from his horse, in such sort that he breaketh his collar-bone, and presenteth the destrier, by his squire, to the younger damsel, that maketh great joy thereof. And Messire Gawain searcheth the fellowships on all sides, and so well did he search that scarce was one might endure his blows. King Arthur is not idle, but pierceth shields and beateth in helms, the while all look on in wonderment at him and Messire Gawain. The story saith that the King would have done still better, but that he put not forth his full strength in deeds of arms, for that Messire Gawain had done so ill the day before, and now he would fain that he should have the prize.
The damsel that held the Golden Circlet was in the midst of the assembly of knights, and had set it in a right rich casket of ivory with precious stones, right worshipfully. When the damsel saw that the assembly was at an end, she made all the knights stay, and prayed them they should speak judgment true, concealing nought, who had best deserved of arms, and ought therefore of right to have the Golden Circle. They said all, that of right judgment the Knight of the Golden Arms and he of the Red Arms ought to have the prize above all the others, but that of these two, he of the Golden Arms ought to have the prize, for so well did he the first day as that no knight might do better, and on the last day likewise, and that if he of the Red Arms had put forth his full strength on the last day, he would have done full as well or better. The Circlet of Gold was brought to Messire Gawain, but it was not known that it was he; and Messire Gawain would fain that it had been given to my Lord King Arthur. The knights departed from the assembly. The King and Messire Gawain came back to the tent and brought the Golden Circlet, whereof the damsels made great joy. Thereupon, behold you! the dwarf that cometh back.
"Damsels, better is it to lodge knights such as these than Messire Gawain the coward, the craven that had so much shame at the assembly! You yourselves would have been sore blamed had you lodged him. This knight hath won the Golden Circlet by force of arms, and Messire Gawain nought but shame and reproach."
The damsel laugheth at this that the dwarf saith, and biddeth him on his eyes and head, begone!
The King and Messire Gawain were disarmed.
"Sir," saith the damsel, "What will you do with the Golden Circlet?"
"Damsel," saith Messire Gawain, "I will bear it to him that first won it in sore peril of death, and delivered it to the Queen that ought to have kept it safe, of whom it hath been reft by force."
The King and Messire Gawain lay the night in the tent. The younger damsel cometh to the King.
"Sir, many feats of arms have you done at the assembly, as I have been told, for love of me, and I am ready to reward you."
"Damsel, right great thanks. Your reward and your service love I much, and your honour yet more, wherefore I would that you should have all the honour that any damsel may have, for in damsel without honour ought none to put his affiance. Our Lord God grant you to preserve yours."
"Damsel," saith she to the other that sitteth before Messire Gawain, "This Knight and Messire Gawain have taken counsel together. There is neither solace nor comfort in them. Let us leave them to go to sleep, and ill rest may they have, and Lord God defend us ever hereafter from such guests."
"By my head," saith the eider damsel, "were it not for the Golden Circlet that he is bound of right to deliver again to the Queen that had it in charge, who is my Lady, they should not depart from this land in such sort as they will. But, and Messire Gawain still be nice as concerneth damsels, at least I now know well that he is loyal in anotherwise, so as that he will not fail of his word."
With that the damsels departed, as did likewise the King and Messire Gawain as soon as they saw the day. Nabigant, that was wounded at the tournament, was borne away on a litter. Meliot of Logres was in quest of Messire Gawain. He met the knights and the harness that came from the assembly, and asked of many if they could tell him tidings of King Arthur's nephew, Messire Gawain, and the most part answer, "Yea, and right bad tidings enough."
Then they ask him wherefore he demandeth.
"Lords," saith he, "His liege man am I, and he ought of right to defend my land against all men, that Nabigant hath taken from me without right nor reason, whom they are carrying from thence in a litter, wherefore I am fain to beseech Messire Gawain that he help me to recover my land."
"In faith, Sir Knight," say they, "We know not of what avail he may be to others that may not help himself. Messire Gawain was at the assembly, but we tell you for true, it was he that did worst thereat."
"Alas," saith Meliot of Logres, "Then have I lost my land, and he hath become even such an one as you tell me."
"You would readily believe us," say they, "had you seen him at the assembly!"
Meliot turneth him back, right sorrowful.
King Arthur and Messire Gawain depart from the tent, and come a great pace as though they fain would escape thence to come nigher the land where they would be, and great desire had they of the coming of Lancelot. They rode until that they came one night to the Waste Manor whither the brachet led Messire Gawain when he found the dead knight that Lancelot had slain. They lodged there the night, and found there knights and damsels of whom they were known. The Lady of the Waste Manor sent for succour to her knights, saying that she held there King Arthur that slew other knights, and that his nephew Messire Gawain was also there within, but dearly would she have loved that Lancelot had been with them that slew her brother. Knights in plenty came to her to do hurt to King Arthur and Messire Gawain, but she had at least so much courtesy in her that she would not suffer any of them to do them ill within her hold, albeit she kept seven of their number, full of great hardiment, to guard the entrance of the bridge, so that King Arthur and Messire Gawain might not depart thence save only amidst the points of their spears.
This high history witnesseth us that Lancelot was departed from the Waste City wherein he was much honoured, and rode until that he came to a forest where he met Meliot of Logres, that was sore dismayed of the tidings he had heard of Messire Gawain. Lancelot asketh him whence he cometh, and he saith from seeking Messire Gawain, of whom he had tidings whereof he was right sorrowful.
"How," saith Lancelot, "Is he then otherwise than well?"
"Yea," saith he, "As I have heard tell: for he wont to be good knight and hath now become evil. He was at the assembly of knights whereof I met the harness and the fellowships, and they told me that never yet was such cowardize in any knight, but that a knight who was with him did right well. But howsoever he may have borne himself, right fain am I to find him, for, maugre what any may say, I may scarce believe that he is so bad after all."
"Sir," saith Lancelot, "I will seek him for you, and you can come along with me and it seemeth you good."
Meliot of Logres betaketh him back with Lancelot. They ride until they happen by chance upon the Waste Manor where the King and Messire Gawain were lodged; and they were armed, and were minded to go forth from thence. But the seven knights guarded the issue, all armed. The King and Messire Gawain saw that no good would it do them to remain there within, wherefore they passed over the bridge and came perforce to the place where the seven knights were watching for them. Thereupon, they went toward them all armed and struck among them, and the knights received them on the points of their lances.
Thereupon, behold you! Lancelot and the knight with him, whom they had not been looking for. Lancelot espied the King and Messire Gawain; then the knights cried out and struck among them as a hawk striketh amongst larks, and made them scatter on one side and the other. Lancelot hath caught one at his coming, and smiteth him with his spear through the body, and Meliot of Logres slayeth another. King Arthur knew Lancelot, and right glad was he to see him safe and sound, as was Messire Gawain likewise. Lancelot and Meliot of Logres made clear the passage for them. The knights departed, for longer durst they not abide. The damsel of the castle held a squire by the hand, that was right passing comely. She knew Lancelot, and when she saw him she called him.
"Lancelot, you slew this squire's brother, and, please God, either he or another shall take vengeance thereof."
Lancelot holdeth his peace when he heareth the dame speak, and departeth from the Waste Hold. Meliot of Logres knew Messire Gawain and Messire Gawain him again, and great joy made they the one of the other.
"Sir," saith Meliot, "I am come to lay plaint before you of Nabigant of the Rock that challengeth me of the land whereof I am your man, and saith that he will defend it against none but you only. Sir, the day is full nigh, and if you come not to the day, I shall have lost my quarrel, and you held me thereof in covenant what time I became your man."
"Right fainly will I go," saith Messire Gawain.
He goeth his way thither accordingly by leave of the King and Lancelot, and saith that he will return to them the speediest he may.
King Arthur and Lancelot go their way as fast as they may toward the land that was King Fisherman's. Messire Gawain rideth until he cometh to the land of Nabigant of the Rock. Meliot doeth Nabigant to wit that Messire Gawain was come, and that he was ready to uphold his right by him that was his champion. Nabigant was whole of the wound he gat at the assembly, and held Messire Gawain of full small account for the cowardize that he saw him do, and bid his knights not meddle betwixt them two, for, and Messire Gawain had been four knights he thought to vanquish them all. He issueth forth of his castle all armed, and is come there where Messire Gawain awaited him. Messire Gawain seeth him coming, and so draweth on one side, and Nabigant, that was stark outrageous, setteth his spear in rest and cometh toward Messire Gawain without another word, and smiteth him on the shield so that he maketh his spear fly all in pieces. And Messire Gawain catcheth him right in the midst of his breast, and pierceth him with his spear through the thick of his heart, and he falleth to the ground dead; and the knights run upon Messire Gawain; but he lightly delivereth himself of them, and Meliot of Logres likewise. Messire Gawain entereth the castle by force, doing battle against all the knights, and holdeth them in such a pass as that he maketh them do homage to Meliot of Logres, and deliver up to him the keys of the castle. He maketh them come to an assembly from the whole of the land they had reft away from him, and thereafter departeth and followeth after King Arthur. In the forest, he overtaketh a damsel that was going on her way a great pace.
"Damsel," saith Messire Gawain, "Lord God guide you, whither away so fast?"
"Sir," saith she, "I am going to the greatest assembly of knights you saw ever."
"What assembly?" saith Messire Gawain.
"Sir," saith she, "At the Palace Meadow, but the knight I am seeking is he that won the Circlet of Gold at the Meadow of the Tent. Fair Sir, can you give me any tidings of him?" saith she.
"Damsel," saith Messire Gawain, "What would you do herein?"
"Certes, Sir, I would right fain find him. My Lady, that kept the Circlet of Gold for the son of the Widow Lady, that won it aforetime, hath sent me to seek him."
"For what intent, damsel?" saith Messire Gawain.
"Sir, my Lady sendeth for him and beseecheth him by me, for the sake of the Saviour of the World, that if he had ever pity of dame or damsel, he will take vengeance on Nabigant that hath slain her men and destroyed her land, for she hath been told how he that won back the Golden Circlet ought of right to take vengeance upon him."
"Damsel," saith Messire Gawain, "Be not any longer troubled hereof, for I tell you that the knight that won the Golden Circlet by prize of arms hath killed Nabigant already."
"Sir," saith she, "How know you this?"
"I know the knight well," saith he, "And I saw him slay him, and behold, here is the Circlet of Gold that I have as a token hereof, for that he beareth it to him that hath won the Graal, to the intent that your Lady may be quit of her charge."
Messire Gawain showeth her the Golden Circlet in the casket of ivory, that he kept very nigh himself. Right joyful was the damsel that the matter had thus fallen out, and goeth her way back again to tell her Lady of her joy. Messire Gawain goeth on his way toward the assembly, for well knoweth he that, and King
Arthur and Lancelot have heard the tidings, there will they be. He goeth thitherward as fast as he may, and as straight, and scarce hath he ridden away or ever he met a squire that seemed right weary, and his hackney sore worn of the way. Messire Gawain asked him whence he came, and the squire said to him. "From the land of King Arthur, where is great war toward, for that none knoweth not what hath become of him. Many folk go about saying that he is dead, for never sithence that he departed from Cardoil, and Messire Gawain and Lancelot with him, have no tidings been heard of him; and he left the Queen at Cardoil to take his place, and also on account of her son's death, and the most part say that he is dead. Briant of the Isles and my Lord Kay with him are burning his land, and carrying off plunder before all the castles. Of all the Knights of the Table Round are there now no more than five and thirty, and of these are ten sore wounded, and they are in Cardoil, and there protect the land the best they may."
When Messire Gawain heareth these tidings, they touch his heart right sore, so that he goeth the straightest he may toward the assembly, and the squire with him that was sore fordone. Messire Gawain found King Arthur and Lancelot, and the knights were come from all the kingdom to the piece of ground. For a knight was come thither that had brought a white destrier and borne thither a right rich crown of gold, and it was known throughout all the lands that marched with this, that the knight that should do best at the assembly should have the destrier and the crown, for the Queen that ware it was dead, and it would behove him to guard and defend the land whereof she had been Lady. On account of these tidings had come thither great plenty of folk and of folk. King Arthur and Messire Gawain and Lancelot set them of one side. The story saith that at this assembly King Arthur bare the red shield that the damsel gave him; Messire Gawain had his own, such as he was wont to bear, and Lancelot a green shield that he bare for the love of the knight that was slain for helping him in the forest. They struck into the assembly like lions unchained, and cast down three knights at their first onset. They searched the fellowships on every side, smote down knights and overthrew horses.
King Arthur overtook no knight but he clave his shield to the boss: all swerved aside and avoided his buffets. And Messire Gawain and Lancelot are not idle on the other hand, but each held well his place. But the more part had wonderment looking at the King, for he holdeth him at bay like a lion when the staghounds would attack him. The assembly lasted throughout on such wise, and when it came to an end, the knights said and adjudged that the Knight of the Red Shield had surpassed all other in doing well. The knight that had brought the crown came to the King, but knew him not a whit: "Sir," saith he, "You have by your good deeds of arms won this crown of gold and this destrier, whereof ought you to make great joy, so only you have so much valour in you as that you may defend the land of the best earthly Queen that is dead, and whether the King be alive or dead none knoweth, wherefore great worship will it be to yourself and you may have prowess to maintain the land, for right broad is it and right rich and of high sovranty.
Saith King Arthur, "Whose was the land, and what was the name of the Queen whose crown I see?"
"Sir, the King's name was Arthur, and the best king in the world was he; but in his kingdom the more part say that he is dead. And this crown was the crown of Queen Guenievre that is dead and buried, whereof is sore sorrow. The knights that may not leave Cardoil lest Briant of the Isles should seize the city, they sent me to the kingdom of Logres and charged me with the crown and destrier for that I have knowledge of the isles and foreign lands; wherefore they prayed me I should go among the assemblies of knights, that so I might hear tidings of my Lord King Arthur and my Lord Gawain and Lancelot, and, so I might find them, that I should tell them how the land hath fallen into this grievous sorrow."
King Arthur heareth tidings whereof he is full sorrowful. He draweth on one side, and the knights make the most grievous dole in the world. Lancelot knoweth not what he may do, and saith between his teeth that now hath his joy come to an end and his knighthood is of no avail, for that he hath lost the high Queen, the valiant, that heart and comfort gave him and encouragement to do well. The tears ran down from his comely eyes right amidst his face and through the ventail, and, had he durst make other dole, yet greater would it have been. Of the mourning the King made is there nought to speak, for this sorrow resembleth none other. He holdeth the crown of gold, and looketh full oft at the destrier for love of her, for he had given it her; and Messire Gawain may not stint of making dole.
"Certes", saith he, "Now may I well say that the best Queen in the world and of most understanding is dead, nor never hereafter shall be none of equal worth."
"Sir," saith Lancelot to the King, "So it please you, and Messire Gawain be willing, I will go back toward Cardoil, and help to defend your land to the best I may, for sore is it discounselled, until such time as you shall be come from the Graal."
"Certes," saith Messire Gawain to the King, "Lancelot hath spoken well, so you grant him your consent."
"That do I with right good will," saith the Kind, "And I pray him right heartily that he go thither and be guardian of my land and the governance thereof, until such a time as God shall have brought me back."
Lancelot taketh leave of the King and goeth his way back, all sorrowing and full of discontent.