King Arthur had just brought a great war to an end, and in honor of his victory he was holding a royal feast with the kings and princes that were his vassals and all the knights of the Round Table, when twelve grave and ancient men entered the banquet-hall where he sat at table. They bore each an olive-branch in his hand, to signify that they were ambassadors from Lucius the Emperor of Rome, and after they had reverently made obeisance to King Arthur, they delivered their message as follows:
"The high and mighty Emperor Lucius sends you greeting, O King of Britain, and he commands you to acknowledge him as your lord, and to pay the tribute which is due from this realm, and which, it is recorded, was paid by your father and others who came before him. Yet you rebelliously withhold it and keep it back, in defiance of the statutes and decrees made by the first Emperor of Rome, the noble Julius Caesar, who conquered this country. And be assured that if you disobey this command, the Emperor Lucius will come in his might and make war against you and your kingdom, and will inflict upon you a chastisement that shall serve for ever as a warning to all kings and princes not to withhold the tribute due to that noble empire to which belongs dominion over the whole world."
Thus they spoke, and King Arthur having heard their request, bade them withdraw, saying that he would take the advice of his counselors before giving them his answer; but some of the younger knights that were in the hall declared that it was a disgrace to all who were at the feast that such language should be used to the King in their hearing, and they would fain have fallen upon the ambassadors and slain them. But King Arthur, hearing their murmurs, declared that any insult or wrong suffered by the ambassadors should be punished with death. Then he sent them to their quarters, escorted by one of his knights, who was ordered to provide them with whatever they wanted.
"Let nothing be grudged these men of Rome," said the King "though the demand they make is an affront alike to me and to you who are of my court. I should be dishonored were the ambassadors not treated with the respect due to them, seeing that they are great lords in their own land."
As soon as the ambassadors had left the hall, King Arthur asked his knights and lords what was their advice and counsel in the matter. The first to give his opinion was Sir Cador of Cornwall.
"Sir," said Sir Cador, "the message brought by these lords is most welcome to me. We have spent full many days at rest and in idleness, and now my hope is that you will wage war against the Romans. In that war we shall, I have little doubt, win great honor."
"I am sure," answered King Arthur, "that this affair is welcome to you, but I seek, above all, your aid in devising a grave and suitable answer to the demand they have made. And let no man doubt that I hold that demand to be a grievous insult. The tribute they claim, in my opinion, not only is not due, but cannot be due; for more than one British knight having been Emperor of Rome, it is, I hold, the duty of Rome to acknowledge the lordship of Britain, rather than of Britain to acknowledge that of Rome. What think ye?"
"Sir," replied King Anguish of Scotland, "you ought of right to be lord over all other kings, for throughout Christendom there is neither knight nor man of high estate worthy to be compared with you. My advice is, never yield to the Romans. When they reigned over us, they oppressed our principal men, and laid heavy and extortionate burdens upon the land. For that cause I, standing here, solemnly vow vengeance upon them for the evil they then did, and, to support you in your quarrel, I will at my own cost furnish twenty thousand good fighting men. This force I will command in person, and I will bring it to your aid whenever you choose to summon me."
In like manner, the King of Little Britain, as Brittany was called in those days, undertook to furnish thirty thousand men; and all the others who were present agreed to fight on King Arthur's side, and to assist him to the utmost of their power. So he, having thanked them heartily for the courage and good will towards him that they displayed, had the ambassadors summoned back into the banquet-hall and addressed them thus:
"I would have you go back to him who sent you, and I would have you say to him that I will pay no heed to any orders or demands that may be brought from him; and as for tribute so far am I from allowing that there is any tribute due from me or to any other man or prince upon earth, be he heathen or Christian, that I claim lordship over the empire he now has. And say further to him, that I have determined and resolved to go to Rome with my army, to take possession of the empire and to subdue all that behave themselves rebelliously. Therefore, let your master and all the other men of Rome get themselves ready to do homage to me, and to acknowledge me as their emperor and governor, and let them know that if they refuse, they will be punished befittingly."
Then King Arthur bade his treasurer give handsome gifts to the ambassadors, and repay in full the cost of their journey, and he assigned Sir Cador as their escort to see them safely out of the country. So they took their leave, and going to Sandwich, sailed thence, and passed through Flanders and Germany over the Alps into Italy to the court of the Emperor.
When the Emperor heard what message King Arthur had entrusted to them, and understood that this was indeed the reply to his demand for tribute, he was grievously angry.
"Of truth," he said, "I never doubted that King Arthur would obey my commands and submit, as it befits him and all other kings to submit themselves to me."
"Sir," answered one of the ambassadors, "I beseech you not to speak thus boastfully. In very truth my companions and myself were dismayed when we saw King Arthur face to face, and my fear is that you have made a rod for your own back, for his intention is to become lord over this empire. His threats, I warn you, are no idle talk. He is a very different man from what you hoped he was, and his court is the most noble upon earth. Never had any one of us beheld such magnificence as we beheld there on New Year's Day, when nine kings, besides other princes, lords, and knights, sat at table with King Arthur. Nor do I believe that there could be found anywhere another band of knights worthy to be matched with the knights who sit at his Round Table, nor a more manly man than the King himself. And since I verily believe his ambition is such that he would not be satisfied though he had conquered the whole world, my advice is that you have careful watch kept upon the borders of your lands and upon the ways over the mountains, for I am certain that you would do wisely to guard yourself well against him."
"Well," answered Lucius, "my intention is before Easter to cross the Alps and to descend into France and seize the lands that belong to him there. With me I shall take my mighty warriors from Tuscany and Lombardy, and all the subjects and allies I have shall be summoned to my aid."
Then the Emperor picked out wise old knights and sent them east and west throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe, to summon his allies from Turkey, Syria, Portugal, and the other distant lands that were subject to him; and in the meantime he assembled his forces from Rome, and from the countries between Rome and Flanders, and he collected together as his bodyguard fifty giants who were sons of evil spirits. Putting himself at the head of this mighty host, Lucius departed from Rome, and marching through Savoy, crossed the mountains, meaning to lay waste the lands King Arthur had conquered. He besieged and took a castle near Cologne, which he garrisoned with Saracens and unbelievers. Then he passed on, plundering and pillaging the country, till he entered Burgundy, where he halted to collect the whole of his army before invading and laying utterly waste the land of Little Britain.
In the meantime preparations were being made on the side of the British. A parliament was held at York, and there it was resolved that all the navy of the kingdom should be got ready and assembled within fifteen days at Sandwich. Sir Baudewaine of Britain, and Sir Constantine, the son of Sir Cador of Cornwall, were chosen by the King to be his viceroys during his absence; and to them, in the presence of all his lords, he confided the care of his kingdom, and he also entrusted to them Queen Guinevere. She, when the time drew near for the departure of her lord, wept and lamented so piteously that at last she swooned, and was carried away to her chamber by the ladies that attended upon her. Then King Arthur mounted his horse, and, putting himself at the head of his troops, made proclamation in a loud voice that should death befall him during this expedition, his wish was that Sir Constantine, who was his heir by blood, should succeed to his possessions and to his throne.
So King Arthur and his army came to Sandwich, where they found awaiting them a great multitude of galleys and vessels of all sorts, on which they embarked and set out to sea. That night, as the King lay asleep in his cabin, he dreamed a marvelous dream. A dreadful dragon appeared, flying out of the west. Its head was all enameled with azure enamel. Its wings and its claws glistened like gold. Its feet were black as jet. Its body was sheathed in scales that shone as armor shines after it has been polished, and it had a very great and remarkable tail. Then there came a cloud out of the east. The grimmest beast man ever saw rode upon this cloud; it was a wild boar, roaring and growling so hideously that it was terrifying to hear it. The dragon flew down the wind like a falcon and struck at this boar; but it defended itself with its grisly tusks, and wounded the dragon in the breast so severely that its blood, pouring into the sea in torrents, made all the waves red. Then the dragon turned and flew away, and having mounted up to a great height, again swooped down upon the boar and fastened its claws in the beast's back. The boar struggled, and raged, and writhed, but all in vain. It was at the mercy of its foe, and so merciless was the dragon that it never loosened its grip till it had torn the boar limb from limb and bone from bone, and scattered it piecemeal upon the surface of the sea.
Then King Arthur awoke, and, starting up in great dismay, sent for a wise man that was on board the ship and bade him interpret the dream.
"Sir," the wise man said, "the dragon which you saw in your dream surely betokens your own self, its golden wings signifying the countries you have won with your sword, and its marvelous tail the knights of the Round Table. As for the boar that was slain, that may betoken either a tyrant that torments his people, or some hideous and abominable giant with whom you are about to fight. And the dream foreshadows victory for you. Therefore, though it was very dreadful, you should take comfort from it and be of a good heart."
Before long the sailors sighted land, and the army disembarked at a port in Flanders, where many great lords were awaiting the arrival of King Arthur, as had been ordained. And to him, soon after he had arrived, there came a husbandman bringing grievous news. A monstrous giant had for years infested the country on the borders of Little Britain, and had slain many people and devoured such numbers of children that there were none left for him to prey upon. And being in search of victims, and coming upon the Duchess of Little Britain as she rode with her knights, he had laid hands upon her and carried her off to his den in a mountain. Five hundred men that followed the duchess could not rescue her, but they heard such heartrending cries and shrieks that they had little doubt she had been put to death.
"Now," said the husbandman, "as you are a great and noble King and a valiant conqueror, and as this lady was wife to Sir Howel, who is your own cousin, take pity on her and on all of us, and avenge us upon this vile giant."
"Alas," King Arthur replied, "this is a grievous and an evil matter. I would give all my kingdom to have been at hand, so that I might have saved that fair lady."
Then he asked the husbandman whether he could show him the place where the giant would be found, and the man said that was easy to do, for there were always two fires burning outside the den he haunted. In that den, the husbandman believed, was stored more treasure than the whole realm of France contained.
Then the King took Sir Kay and Sir Bedivere apart privately into his tent, and bade them secretly get ready their horses and armor, and his own, for it was his intention that night, after evensong, to set out on a pilgrimage to St. Michael's Mount with them, and nobody besides them was to accompany him. So when evening came, the King, and Sir Kay, and Sir Bedivere armed themselves, and taking their horses, rode as fast as they could to the foot of St. Michael's Mount. There the King alighted and bade his knights stay where they were, while he himself ascended the mount.
He went up the hillside till he came to a huge fire. Close to it was a newly made grave, by which was sitting a sorrowful widow wringing her hands and making great lamentation. King Arthur saluted her courteously, and asked for whom she was weeping. She prayed him to speak softly, for "Yonder," said she, "is a monstrous giant that will come and destroy you should your voice reach his ears. Luckless wretch, what brings you to this mountain?" asked the widow. "Fifty such knights as you could not hold their ground against the monster."
"Lady," he replied, "the mighty conqueror King Arthur has sent me as his ambassador to this giant, to inquire why he ventures thus to misuse and maltreat the people of the land."
"A useless embassy in very truth!" she said. "Little does he care for King Arthur, or for any other man. Not many days have passed since he murdered the fairest lady in the world, the wife of Sir Howel of Little Britain; and had you brought with you King Arthur's own wife, Queen Guinevere, he would not be afraid to murder her. Yet, if you must needs speak with him, you will find him yonder over the crest of the hill."
"This is a fearful warning you give me," said the King. "Yet none the less, believe me, will I accomplish the task that has been allotted me."
Having climbed up to the crest of the hill, King Arthur looked down, and close below him he saw the giant basking at his ease by the side of a great fire.
"Thou villain!" cried the King—"thou villain! short shall be thy life and shameful shall be thy death. Rise and defend yourself. My sword shall avenge that fair duchess whom you murdered."
Starting from the ground, the giant snatched up his great iron club, and aiming a swinging blow at King Arthur's head, swept the crest off his helmet. Then the King flew at him, and they wrestled and wrestled till they fell, and as they struggled on the ground King Arthur again and again smote the giant with his dagger, and they rolled and tumbled down the hill till they reached the sea-beach at its foot, where Sir Kay and Sir Bedivere were waiting their lord's return. Rushing to his aid, the two knights at once set their master free, for they found that the giant, in whose arms he was locked, was already dead.
Then King Arthur sent Sir Kay and Sir Bedivere up the hill to fetch the sword and shield that he had let fall and left there, and also the giant's iron club and cloak, and he told them they might keep whatever treasure they found in his den, for he desired nothing besides the club and the cloak. So they went and did as they were bidden, and brought away as much treasure as they desired.
When the news of the oppressor's death was spread abroad, the people came in throngs to thank the King, who had delivered them; but he bade them rather give thanks to Heaven. Then, having distributed among them the treasure his knights had not needed, and having commanded Sir Howel to build upon the hill which the giant had haunted a chapel in honor of St. Michael, he returned to his army, and led it into the country of Champagne, where he pitched his camp in a valley.
That evening two men, of whom one was the Marshal of France, came into the pavilion where King Arthur sat at table. They brought news that the Emperor was in Burgundy, burning and sacking towns and villages, so that, unless King Arthur came quickly to their succor, the men of those parts would be forced to surrender themselves and their goods to Rome.
Hearing this, King Arthur summoned four of his knights—Sir Gawaine, Sir Bors, Sir Lionel, and Sir Badouine—and ordered them to go with all speed to the Emperor's camp, and all upon him either to leave the land at once or make ready for battle, since King Arthur would not suffer the people to be harried any longer. These four knights, accordingly, rode off with their followers, and before very long they came to a meadow, where, pitched by the side of a stream, they saw many stately tents, and in the middle of them one which, it was plain, must be the Emperor's, for above it floated a banner on which was an eagle.
Then they halted and took counsel what it would be best to do, and it was agreed that the rest of the party should remain in ambush in the wood while Sir Gawaine and Sir Bors delivered the message they brought. Having heard it, the Emperor Lucius said they had better return and advise King Arthur to make preparations for being subdued by Rome and losing all his possessions. To this taunt Sir Gawaine and Sir Bors made angry replies, whereupon Sir Gainus, a knight who was near of kin to the Emperor, laughed, and said that British knights behaved as if the whole world rested on their shoulders. Sir Gawaine was infuriated beyond all measure by these words, and he and Sir Bors fled as fast as their horses could put legs to the ground, dashing headlong through woods and across streams, till they came to the spot where they had left their comrades in ambush.
The Romans followed in hot pursuit, and pressed them hard all the way. One knight, indeed, had almost overtaken them, when Sir Bors turned and ran him through with his spear. Then Sir Lionel and Sir Badouine came to their assistance, and there was a great and fierce encounter, and such was the bravery of the British that they routed the Romans and chased them right up to their tents. There the enemy made a stand, and Sir Bors was taken prisoner; but Sir Gawaine, drawing his good sword, vowed that he would either rescue his comrade or never look King Arthur in the face again, and falling upon the men that had captured Sir Bors, he delivered him out of their hands.
Then the fight waxed hotter and hotter, and the British knights were in such jeopardy that Sir Gawaine dispatched a messenger to bring him help as quickly as it could be sent, for he was wounded and sorely hurt. King Arthur, having received the message, instantly mustered his army; but before he could set out, into the camp rode Sir Gawaine and his companions, bringing with them many prisoners. And the only one of the band who had suffered any hurt was Sir Gawaine, whom the king consoled as best he could, bidding his surgeon at once attend to his wounds.
Thus ended the first battle between the Britons and the Romans. That night there was great rejoicing in the camp of King Arthur; and on the next day all the prisoners were sent to Paris, with Sir Launcelot du Lake and Sir Cador, and many other knights to guard them. On the way, passing through a wood, they were beset by a force the Emperor Lucius had placed there in ambush. Then Sir Launcelot, though the enemy had six men for every one he had with him, fought with such fury that no one could stand up against him; and at last, in dread of his prowess and might, the Romans and their allies the Saracens turned and fled as though they had been sheep and Sir Launcelot a wolf or a lion. But the skirmish had lasted so long that tidings of it had reached King Arthur, who arrayed himself and hurried to the aid of his knights. Finding them already victorious, he embraced them one by one, saying that they were indeed worthy of whatever honors had been granted them in the past, and that no other king had ever had such noble knights as he had.
To this Sir Cador answered that they might one and all claim at least the merit of not having deserted their posts, but that the honor of the day belonged to Sir Launcelot, for it passed man's wit to describe all the feats of arms he had performed. Then Sir Cador told the King that certain of his knights were slain, and who they were, whereupon King Arthur wept bitterly.
"Truly," he said, "your valor nearly was the destruction of you all. Yet you would not have been disgraced in my eyes had you retreated. To me it seems a rash and foolhardy thing for knights to stand their ground when they find themselves overmatched."
"Nay," replied Sir Launcelot, "I think otherwise; for a knight who has once been put to shame may never recover the honor he has forfeited."
There was among the Romans who escaped from that battle a senator. He went to the Emperor Lucius and said, "Sir, my advice is that you withdraw your army, for this day has proved that grievous blows are all we shall win here. There is not one of King Arthur's knights that has not proved himself worth a hundred of ours."
"Alas," cried Lucius, "that is coward's talk and to hear it grieves me more than all the losses I have sustained this day."
Then he ordered one of his most trusty allies to take a great force and advance as fast as he possibly could, the Emperor himself intending to follow in all haste. Warning of this having been brought secretly to the British camp, King Arthur sent part of his forces to Sessoigne to occupy the towns and castles before the Romans could reach him. The rest he posted up and down the country, so as to cut off every way by which the enemy might escape.
Before long the Emperor entered the valley of Sessoigne, and found himself face to face with King Arthur's men, drawn up in battle array. Seeing that retreat was impossible—for he was hemmed in by his enemies, and had either to fight his way through them or surrender—he made an oration to his followers, praying them to quit themselves like men that day, and to remember that to allow the Britons to hold their ground would bring disgrace upon Rome, the mistress of the world.
Then, at the Emperor's command, his trumpeters sounded their trumpets so defiantly that the very earth trembled and shook; and the two hosts joined battle, rushing at one another with mighty shouts. Many knights fought nobly that day, but none more nobly than King Arthur. Riding up and down the battle-field, he exhorted his knights to bear themselves bravely; and wherever the fray was thickest, and his people most sorely pressed, he dashed to the rescue and hewed down the Romans with his good sword Excalibur. Among those he slew was a marvelous great giant called Galapus. First of all, King Arthur smote off this giant's legs by the knees, saying that made him a more convenient size to deal with, and then he smote off his head. Such was the hugeness of the body of Galapus, that, as it fell, it crushed six Saracens to death.
But though King Arthur fought thus fiercely, and Sir Gawaine and all the other knights of the Round Table did nobly, the host of their enemies was so great that it seemed as if the battle would never come to an end, the Britons having the advantage at one moment and the Romans at another.
Now, among the Romans, no man fought more bravely than the Emperor Lucius. King Arthur, spying the marvelous feats of arms he performed, rode up and challenged him to a single combat. They exchanged many a mighty blow, and at last Lucius struck King Arthur across the face, and inflicted a grievous wound. Feeling the smart of it, King Arthur dealt back such a stroke that his sword Excalibur clove the Emperor's helmet in half, and splitting his skull, passed right down to his breast-bone.
Thus Lucius, the Emperor of the Romans, lost his life; and when it was known that he was slain, his whole army turned and fled, and King Arthur and his knights chased them, slaying all they could overtake. Of the host that followed Lucius, more than a hundred thousand men fell that day.
King Arthur, after he had won the great battle in which the Emperor Lucius was slain, marched into Lorraine, and so on through Brabant and Flanders into Germany, and across the mountains into Lombardy, and thence into Tuscany, and at last came to Rome, and on Christmas Day he was crowned emperor by the Pope with great state and solemnity. And he stayed in Rome a little while, setting in order the affairs of his possession, and distributing among his knights posts of honor and dignity, and also great estates, as rewards for their services.
After these affairs had been duly arranged, all the British lords and knights assembled in the presence of the King, and said to him:
"Noble Emperor, now that, Heaven be thanked for it, sthis great war is over, and your enemies so utterly vanquished that henceforward, as we believe, no man, however great or mighty he may be, will dare to stand up against you, we beseech you to grant us leave to return to our wives and our homes, that there we may rest ourselves."
This request King Arthur granted, saying that it would be wise, seeing they had met with such good fortune so far, to be content with it and to return home. Also he gave orders that there should be no plundering or pillaging of the country through which they had to pass on their way back, but that they should, on pain of death, pay the full price for victuals or whatever else they took.
So King Arthur and his host set off from Rome and came over the sea and landed at Sandwich, where Queen Guinevere came to meet her lord. And at Sandwich and throughout the land there were great festivities, and noble gifts were presented to the King; for his people rejoiced mightily both because he had returned safely home, and because of the great victories he had achieved.