Gareth was a little prince. His home was an old grey castle, and there were great mountains all round the castle. Gareth loved these mountains and his beautiful home at the foot of them. He had lived there all his life.
Gareth had no little boys or girls to play with, for there were no houses near his mountain home.
But Gareth was happy all day long. Sometimes in the bright summer mornings the streams would call to him. Then he would follow them up the mountains, till he found the place where the streams ended in tiny silver threads.
Sometimes the birds and beasts, his woodland friends, would call to him, and then Gareth would wander about in the forest with them till evening came. Then he would tell his mother the wonderful things he had seen, and the wonderful things he had heard in the forests and on the mountain-sides.
Gareth’s mother, the Queen of Orkney, loved the little prince so much that she was never dull. She had no one to talk to except her little son, for her husband was old, so old that he could not talk to his Queen. And if she talked to him, he was almost too deaf to hear what she said.
But though the Queen was never dull, she was sometimes unhappy. She was afraid that some day, when Gareth was older, he would want to leave her to go into the world, perhaps to go to the great King Arthur’s court, as his three brothers had done.
Now Gareth had already heard stories about the brave deeds of King Arthur’s knights. He knew that they were strong men, and that they fought for the weak people, and that they often had great adventures, when they were sent to punish the King’s enemies. And Gareth longed to be a man, for ‘when I am a man, I will be one of Arthur’s knights, too,’ he thought.
At last, one day, his mother knew that what she had been afraid of had come to pass. She knew that Gareth would not be content to stay among the mountains much longer. But when he threw his arms round her, and coaxed her to let him go, she thought, ‘Surely I can keep him a little longer.’ And she said, ‘Your father is old, and your brothers have left me, you will not leave me alone, Gareth. You will stay and be a great huntsman and follow the deer.’ But all the time her heart whispered, ‘He will not stay.’
And Gareth said, ‘Let me go, sweet mother. Now I am a man, I must do a man’s work. “Follow the deer!” No; now I must follow the King.’
But still his mother would not let him go. ‘The next time he asks me, I will try another way,’ she thought. And when Gareth came again and pleaded to be allowed to go to the court, she said, ‘Yes, you may go, if for one whole year you will tell no one your name, or that you are a prince, and if for that whole year you will go into the King’s kitchen and work there.’ ‘These things will be too difficult for my princely boy,’ she thought.
But Gareth wanted to go so much, that he promised not to tell any one his name, nor that he was a prince. ‘And I will go to the court, only to work in the King’s kitchen for a year,’ promised Gareth proudly. And then his mother knew that her plan had failed, and she wept.
But Gareth was glad. He got up early one morning, and without saying good-bye to his mother, for he could not bear to see her sad face again, he left his mountain home, and went out into the wide world.
When three men, dressed like ploughmen, left the castle, no one would have known that one of them was a prince. For Gareth had left all his beautiful clothes behind him, and was dressed just like the two servants he took with him. But still he was glad, for though he remembered he was going to work in a kitchen, he thought a year would soon pass, and then, perhaps, King Arthur would make him one of his knights.
On a certain day, every year, there was a great feast at Arthur’s court. Now the King would not sit down to the feast till he had heard if any of his people were in trouble, and if they wished one of his knights to go to help them. And on this day too, people could come into the King’s presence to ask for any boon or good thing they wished. Gareth reached the court, with his two servants, on one of these feast-days.
‘The King will listen to my wish to-day. I will go to him at once,’ thought Gareth. And leaning on the shoulders of his servants, so as to look less princely, he came into the large dining-hall.
‘Grant me only this boon,’ Gareth entreated the King, ‘that I may work in your kitchen and eat and drink there for a year. After that I will fight.’
And King Arthur looked at Gareth, and saw that though he leaned on his servants he was tall and strong, and that though he wore rough clothes, he was as noble-looking as any of his knights.
‘You ask but a small boon,’ said the King. ‘Would you not rather serve me as my knight?’
And Gareth longed to say ‘Yes.’ But as he could not break the promise he had given to his mother, he said again, that the only boon he asked was to be allowed to work in the King’s kitchen.
Then the King sent for Sir Kay, the steward of his kitchen, and told him to make Gareth one of his kitchen-boys. But Sir Kay did not wish this noble-looking lad in his kitchen, and he made fun of him and mocked him, because he would not tell his name, nor where his home was.
But Sir Lancelot, the noblest knight in all the land, was kind to Gareth, and Gareth’s brother, Sir Gavaine, who had gone to Arthur’s court long ago, was kind to him too. Yet Sir Gavaine did not know that Gareth was his brother, for the little prince he had left at home looked very different to the King’s new kitchen-boy.
In the kitchen Gareth soon began to find out what a difficult task he had undertaken, for the sake of one day being a knight. He ate his meals with rough kitchen-boys, and as Gareth’s mother had taught her little prince daintily, he did not like their rough ways; and at night he slept in a shed with dirty kitchen-boys.
And because Sir Kay did not like Gareth, he would bustle and hurry him, and make him work harder than any of the other lads, and give him all the roughest work to do. It was Gareth who had to draw the water and cut the wood, while the other servants played.
But when at last his work was done, Gareth would listen gladly as the servants talked of Lancelot and the King. He loved to hear how Lancelot had twice saved the King’s life, and how since then there had grown up a great friendship between the King and his brave knight.
And Gareth was glad when he heard that though Lancelot was first in all the tournaments or mock battles, yet on the battle-field his hero King was mightiest of all.
But when the servants’ talk was rough and rude, Gareth would not listen, but sang some of his old mountain-songs, carolling like any lark, and the servants stopped their talk to listen.
It seemed a long year to Gareth, the longest year in all his life, but at last it came to an end. A whole year had passed, and another of the King’s great feast-days had begun.
Gareth woke up on that morning, thinking, ‘Now at last I can be one of King Arthur’s knights; now at last I am free.’
In the dining-room he sprang eagerly to the King’s side. ‘A boon, King Arthur, grant me this boon,’ he cried, ‘that I serve you no longer as a kitchen-page, but as a knight.’
Arthur loved the noble-looking lad, and was pleased with his eagerness. ‘I make you my knight, to win glory and honour for our land,’ said the King. But the secret of Gareth’s knighthood was to be kept from all but Sir Lancelot, till the new knight, Sir Gareth, had won for himself great fame.
‘You shall begin at once,’ said the King. And he promised Gareth that he should be the first of all his knights to leave his court that day.
As he spoke, a beautiful lady called Lynette came into the hall, in great haste. ‘A knight to rescue my sister, King Arthur,’ she cried.
‘Who is your sister, and why does she need a knight?’ asked the King.
And Lynette told Arthur that her sister was called the Lady Lyonors, and that Lyonors was rich and had many castles of her own, but a cruel knight, called the Red Knight, had shut her up in one of her own castles. The name of the castle in which she was a prisoner was Castle Dangerous. And the Red Knight said he would keep Lady Lyonors there, till he had fought King Arthur’s bravest knight. Then he would make Lyonors his wife. ‘But,’ said Lynette, ‘my sister will never be the bride of the Red Knight, for she does not love him.’
Then Arthur, looking round his knights, saw Gareth’s eyes growing bright, and heard Gareth’s voice ringing out, ‘Your promise, King.’
And the King said to Gareth, ‘Go and rescue the Lady Lyonors from the Red Knight.’
‘A kitchen-page go to rescue the Lady Lyonors!’ shouted Sir Kay in scorn.
When Lynette heard that, she was angry, and said, ‘I came for Sir Lancelot, the greatest of all your knights, and you give me a kitchen-boy.’ In her anger, she walked out of the palace gates, and rode quickly down the streets. She neither looked nor waited to see if Gareth followed.
‘I will wait for nothing,’ thought the new knight, and he hurried after Lynette to the palace gates, but there he was stopped.
Gareth’s mother had not forgotten that a year had passed since her boy had left her. In her quiet castle she had been busy planning a surprise for her prince.
‘Gareth will be a knight to-day,’ she thought. ‘I will send our dwarf to him with a noble war-horse and armour fit for a knight. Surely he will begin his adventures the more gladly, that I help to send him forth,’ she murmured, thinking half-regretfully of the long year she had made him spend in the kitchen.
And Gareth was glad when he saw his mother’s gift; and when he had put on the armour, there was no more handsome knight in all King Arthur’s court than Sir Gareth. He mounted his horse, and, telling the dwarf to follow, rode quickly after Lynette.
But Gareth had not gone far, when he heard shouts behind him, and, turning, he saw that Sir Kay was riding after him.
‘If it is possible, I will bring my kitchen-boy boy back again,’ thought Sir Kay, ‘for he works well.’ ‘Have you forgotten that I am your master?’ he shouted, as he reached Gareth.
‘You are no longer my master,’ said Gareth, ‘and I know that you are the most unkind of all Arthur’s knights.’
Then Sir Kay was so angry that he drew his sword, and Gareth drew his and struck Sir Kay so hard a blow, that he tumbled off his horse, and lay on the ground as if he were dead. Then Gareth took away his old master’s sword and shield, and telling the dwarf to take Sir Kay’s horse, he once more hurried on to reach Lynette.
Both Lancelot and Lynette had seen Sir Gareth fight with Sir Kay, for the King had asked Sir Lancelot to ride on before Gareth, that he might know if his new knight could use his sword.
When Lancelot had seen Sir Kay fall to the ground, he rode back to the court to tell King Arthur that his knight, Sir Gareth, was strong and true. And he sent men to bring home the wounded Sir Kay.
Now Lynette was more cross than ever because Lancelot had left her, and when Gareth at last rode up to her, she cried rudely, ‘You are only a kitchen-knave. Your clothes smell of cooking, and your dress is soiled with grease and tallow. Ride further off from me.’
But what she said was not true, for Gareth had put on the beautiful armour his mother had sent him.
As Lynette mocked, Gareth rode quietly behind. In spite of her unkindness, he was happy. After the long days spent in the hot kitchen, the forest breeze seemed to touch him more gently than in the old days, and the trees seemed to him more beautiful. But though the streams seemed more clear, they still called to him, just as the streams in his own mountains used to do.
But Gareth had not much time to think of the trees and streams, for suddenly he heard the steps of some one hurrying through the forest, crushing the fallen twigs and crisp leaves underfoot in his great haste. Was it an adventure?
‘Where are you running to?’ said Gareth, as a man came in sight.
‘O sir, six thieves have fallen upon my lord, and bound him to a tree, and I am afraid they will kill him.’
‘Show me where your lord is,’ said Gareth. And they rode together to the place where the knight was tied to a tree.
Then Gareth struck the first robber down with his sword, and killed another, and slew the third as he turned to run away.
‘There were six thieves,’ thought Gareth; but when he turned to look for the other three, they were nowhere to be seen. They had all run away in great fright.
Then Gareth unbound the knight. And the knight was very grateful, and said, ‘Come and stay at my castle to-night, and to-morrow I will reward you.’
‘I want no reward,’ said Gareth. ‘And besides, I must follow this lady.’ But when he rode up to Lynette, she said, ‘Ride further off, for still you smell of the kitchen.’ ‘You are no knight, though you killed the robbers.’
Then the knight who had been set free rode up, and asked Lynette to come to his castle, and as it was getting dark in the forest, she was glad to stay with him that night.
At supper-time, the knight put a chair for Gareth beside Lynette.
‘Sir Knight, you are wrong to put a kitchen-knave beside me,’ said the lady, ‘for I am of noble birth.’
‘The noble-looking knight a kitchen-knave! What does the lady mean!’ But he took Gareth to another table, and sat there himself with him.
The next morning Gareth and Lynette thanked the knight, and rode on, till they came to another great forest, and at the end of the forest they reached a broad river. There was only one place where the river was narrow and could be crossed, and this passage was guarded by two knights.
‘Will you fight two knights,’ mocked Lynette, ‘or will you turn back again?’
‘Six knights would not make me turn back,’ said Gareth, as he rushed into the river. One knight rushed in from the further side, and Gareth and he fought with their swords in the middle of the stream. At last Gareth smote him on the helmet so violently that he fell down into the water and was drowned.
Then Gareth spurred his horse up the bank where the other knight stood waiting for him, and this knight fought so fiercely that he broke Gareth’s spear. Then they both drew their swords, and fought for a long time, till in the end Gareth won the victory.
Gareth then crossed over the river again to Lynette, and told her to ride on, for the passage across the river was clear.
‘Alas, that a kitchen-page should kill two brave knights!’ cried Lynette. ‘But do not think your skill killed these men.’ And she told Gareth she had seen the horse of the first knight stumble, and that that was why he was drowned. ‘And, as for the second knight, you came behind and slew him like a coward,’ she said.
‘Lady,’ said Gareth, ‘say what you like; but lead on, and I follow to deliver your sister.’ So Gareth and the lady rode on till evening.
In the evening they came to a strange and dreary country, where everything looked black. On one side of a black hawthorn hung a black banner, on the other side hung a black shield. Beside the shield there was a long black spear, and close to the spear there was a great black horse, covered with silk, and the silk was black. And looking blacker than all the rest was a huge black rock.
Through the darkness they could see some one sitting near the rock. It was a knight, and he was armed in black armour, and his name was ‘the Knight of the Black Land.’
Lynette saw the knight. ‘Flee down the valley, before the Black Knight saddles his horse,’ she called to Gareth. But she knew that even the Black Knight would not frighten her kitchen-knave.
The Black Knight saddled his horse and rode up to them. ‘Is this your knight, and has he come to fight me?’ he asked Lynette.
‘He is only a kitchen-boy, he is no knight of mine,’ Lynette answered. And in a cruel voice she added, ‘I wish you could slay him and take him out of my way; but he does wonderful deeds with his sword, and has just slain two knights.’
‘If he is no knight, I will take his horse and armour, and let him go. It would be a shame to take his life,’ said the Black Knight.
Gareth was very angry when he heard this. ‘I am on my way to Castle Dangerous, and I mean to reach it,’ he said to the Black Knight. ‘And as for my horse and armour, you cannot have them unless you take them from me in fair fight.’
Then they began to fight on foot, and the Black Knight wounded Gareth, but Gareth smote him with such strength, that his sword cut through the knight’s armour, and then the Black Knight fell to the ground and died. This was the fiercest fight Gareth had ever fought, and it lasted for an hour and a half.
Once more Gareth went back to Lynette a conqueror, but still she cried, ‘Do not come near me, kitchen-knave. You have slain a noble knight. Let me ride on alone.’
‘Whatever happens I will follow you till we reach the Lady Lyonors,’ said Gareth.
They were coming near to Castle Dangerous now, but before they reached it, a knight dressed all in green stopped them.
And Gareth fought the Green Knight too. But when he had struck him to the ground, the Green Knight begged Gareth to spare his life.
‘It is useless to ask me to spare your life, for you shall die, unless the Lady Lynette asks me to set you free,’ said Gareth. And he began to undo the helmet of the Green Knight, as if he meant to slay him.
‘I will never ask a favour of a kitchen-page,’ said Lynette haughtily. ‘I will never ask you to spare the Green Knight’s life.’
‘Spare my life,’ entreated the Green Knight, ‘and I and my thirty followers will serve you for ever.’
‘It is useless for you to ask me,’ repeated Gareth. ‘Only the Lady Lynette can save your life.’ And again he lifted his sword, as if to slay the Green Knight.
‘You will not slay him, for if you do, you will be sorry,’ stammered Lynette, as she saw Gareth’s sword coming down to kill the knight.
Gareth heard Lynette’s voice, and at once put away his sword, and gave the Green Knight his freedom.
In his gratitude the knight persuaded Gareth and Lynette to stay with him that night, ‘and in the morning I will help you to reach Castle Dangerous,’ he said.
That evening at supper-time, Lynette again mocked Gareth. He had never asked her to be more gentle to him, but now he said, ‘Mock me no more, for in spite of all your taunts I have killed many knights, and cleared the forests of the King’s enemies.’
Now Lynette had begun to feel ashamed of her unkindness, and as she listened to Gareth, and thought how loyally he had served her, she felt sorry that she had been so unkind. And she asked Gareth to forgive her for being so rude.
‘I forgive you with all my heart,’ said Gareth, and at last they rode on happily side by side.
Then Gareth sent his dwarf on in front to tell Lynette’s sister that they were near her castle. And the Lady Lyonors asked the dwarf a great many questions about his master.
‘He is a noble knight and a kind master,’ said the dwarf; and he told the lady of all the adventures they had met on their way to her castle. And Lyonors longed to see the knight who had fought so often and so bravely to reach her.
And now there was only the Red Knight between Gareth and the Lady Lyonors.
On the great tree, outside the castle, Gareth saw hanging the bodies of forty knights, with their shields round their necks and their spurs on their heels. As he looked at this terrible sight, Gareth was afraid.
Then Lynette reminded him of all his victories, and of how even the Black Knight had yielded to him. But what encouraged Gareth more than all Lynette said was that, when he looked up to the castle, he saw a beautiful lady at one of the windows. She smiled and waved her hands to him, and he knew that this was the Lady Lyonors. Then all his courage came back.
‘This is the fairest lady I have ever seen,’ thought Gareth. ‘I ask nothing better than to be allowed to do battle for her, and win her from the Red Knight.’
Outside the castle, hanging on a sycamore tree, was a great horn, made of an elephant’s bone, and whoever wished to fight the Red Knight must blow this horn.
Gareth looked again at the window where Lyonors still watched, and hesitating no longer, blew the horn so piercingly and so long, that he woke all the echoes of the wood.
Then the Knight of the Red Lands armed himself in great haste, and his barons brought him a red spear, and a steed covered with red silk. And the Red Knight rode proudly down into the valley, to slay Gareth, as he had slain the other forty knights.
‘Do not look any longer at the castle window,’ said the Red Knight roughly to Gareth. ‘The Lady Lyonors is mine. I have fought many battles for her.’
‘I know that the Lady Lyonors does not love you nor your ways, for they are cruel,’ said Gareth, ‘and I will rescue her from you, or die.’
‘Look at the dead knights on those trees, and beware,’ said the Red Knight, ‘or soon I will hang your body beside theirs.’
‘That is a sight that makes me only more anxious to fight,’ said Gareth, ‘for you break the rules of all true knights by your cruelty.’
‘Talk no more,’ said the Red Knight, ‘but get ready for the combat.’
Then Gareth told Lynette to go further off, to a place of safety.
And the two knights smote each other so fiercely in the front of their shields that they both fell off their horses, still holding the reins in their hands. And they lay stunned on the ground so long, that those who were watching from the castle thought their necks were broken.
But after a time, leaving their horses, they fought on foot. And the battle was so rough that great pieces of their shields and armour were knocked off, and left lying on the field.
And they fought till twelve o’clock. But by that time they were so worn out that they staggered about, scarcely knowing where they went, and their wounds bled so much that they were faint.
They fought till evening, and then they both agreed to rest for a little while.
Then Gareth took off his helmet, and looked up to the castle window. And when he saw the Lady Lyonors looking down at him, with great kindness in her eyes, his heart felt all at once light and glad.
And her kindness made him strong, and he started up quickly and called to the Red Knight to fight, ‘and this time to the death,’ said Gareth.
In his fury the Red Knight knocked the sword out of Gareth’s hand, and before he could get it again, he gave him such a blow on his helmet that Gareth stumbled and fell to the ground.
Then Lynette called out, ‘O Gareth, have you lost your courage? My sister weeps and breaks her heart, because her true knight has fallen.’
When Gareth heard that, he got up, and with a great effort leaped to where his sword lay, and caught it in his hand, and began to fight as if he fought a new battle.
And his strokes fell so quickly on his foe, that the Red Knight lost his sword and fell to the ground, and Gareth threw himself on him to slay him. But the knight begged piteously for his life.
‘Go to the castle and yield your homage to the Lady Lyonors,’ said Gareth. ‘And if she is willing to pardon you, you are free, after you restore the lands and castles you have taken from her.’
Then the Red Knight gladly restored all he had stolen. And after he had been forgiven by the Lady Lyonors, he journeyed to the court, and told Arthur all that Sir Gareth had done.
And Lynette came and took off Gareth’s armour and bathed his wounds, and he rested in his tent for ten days.
‘I will go to the castle and ask Lyonors to come home with me and be my wife,’ thought Gareth, as soon as his wounds were healed. But when he came to the castle, he found the drawbridge pulled up, and many armed men were there, who would not let him enter.
‘But Lyonors, I must see Lyonors,’ thought Gareth. ‘Surely she will wish to see me,’ and he looked wistfully up to the window, and there beautiful as ever, was his Lady Lyonors.
‘I cannot love you altogether,’ said Lyonors, ‘till you have been King Arthur’s knight for another year, and helped to clear the land from his enemies.’
Though he was a good knight, Gareth’s heart was heavy as he listened. ‘If I do not see Lyonors for a year,’ he thought, ‘the months will pass more slowly and seem more empty than those long months I spent in the King’s kitchen.’ But as Gareth was a right loyal knight, he bowed to his lady’s will. He had freed the castle from the Red Knight, and now it was open to every one, only he himself was banished. And he went away sadly but faithfully to find new adventures.
And when Gareth slept in the forests or on the wild mountain-sides, he often dreamed of the day that would come when his year’s wanderings were over, when Lyonors would be his wife, and together they would go back to King Arthur’s court, and he would at last be known to every one as Sir Gareth and a prince.
He dreamed, too, of the happier day, when he would take the beautiful Lyonors to his mother, and show her the mountain home he loved so well.