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"We owe too much to Lancelot to
listen to the false tales of evil tongues."

With this they turned and walked away in anger and grief, as Arthur came
up.

"What is this?" asked the king. "Is there bad blood between you
brethren?"

"They do not care to hear the truth," said Agravaine, "but to my fancy
it has been kept too long from your knowledge. We are your sister's
sons, King Arthur, and it is our duty to be honest and open with you."

"What would you say?" asked the king.

"Simply what we and all your court know well, that there are such doings
between Lancelot and your queen as are a disgrace to this realm of
England. He is a traitor to your person and your honor, and this we
stand ready to prove."

"This is a perilous charge you make," said Arthur, deeply moved. "Nor am
I ready to believe such a tale on your mere word. You have gone far,
gentlemen; too far, I deem, without abundant proof."

"My lord," said Mordred, "we speak not without due warrant, and proof
you shall have. What we advise is, that you ride out to the hunt
to-morrow. Lancelot, you will find, will have some excuse to hold back.
Then, when night draws near, send word to the queen that you will lie
out all that night. Let this be done, and we promise you we shall take
him with the queen. If we do it will go hard with Lancelot; for we shall
not lightly see our king brought to shame."

"Be it so," said the king, after deep thought, for he was little
inclined to believe ill of Lancelot. "I will do as you say. Understand,
sir knights, I have heard all this before; yet I believe it not, and I
consent to your scheme only to put an end to the vile voice of scandal."

On the next morning, as agreed upon, Arthur rode to the hunt; but
Lancelot excused himself, as his enemies had predicted, on the plea that
he was in no mood for the chase. When night came near a messenger from
the king brought word to Guenever that the hunting party had been drawn
far away, and would not return that night.

Meanwhile Mordred and Agravaine selected twelve knights, all of them
enemies of Lancelot, to whom they told their purpose, and set them on
guard in the castle of Carlisle, where the court then was. Of Lancelot's
friends few were in the court, for nearly all had gone with the king to
the hunt.

When night came, Lancelot told Bors, who dwelt with him, that he had a
fancy to go and speak with the queen.

"Do not go to-night, I pray you," said Bors.

"Why not to-night?"

"I fear some plot of that rogue, Agravaine, who has it in his heart to
work you ill. I have heard a whisper, and fear that the king's absence
to-night is part of a plot, and that an ambush is laid to do you harm."

"Have no dread of that," said Lancelot. "I wish only some minutes'
conversation with the queen, and will quickly return again."

"I should rather you would not go. I am in doubt that some evil may come
of it."

"Why say you this nephew? Do you deem that I am a coward, or that the
queen is my mistress, as the evil-tongued say? I go because she has sent
for me, desiring to see me. Am I the man to deny her request because
there are foul-mouthed slanderers abroad?"

"Go, then, since I see you will. God speed you, and send you back safe
and sound."

Lancelot thereupon wrapped himself in his mantle, and taking his sword
under his arm made his way to the castle, which was some distance from
his residence. Here he sought and entered the queen's chamber, where she
awaited him with her ladies.

But no sooner had he done so, and scarcely had he spoken a word to his
royal lady, than Mordred, Agravaine, and their followers burst in tumult
from the chamber in which they had been concealed, and loudly
exclaimed,--

"Traitor knight! Lancelot du Lake, false and caitiff wretch, now art
thou taken in thy treason!"

So loud they cried that their voices rang throughout the court, and they
crowded round the door of the queen's chamber, bent on taking Lancelot
unarmed, and slaying him at the feet of Guenever. Fortunately the door
was of solid oak, and a damsel of the queen had hastily shot the bolts.

"Alas!" cried the queen, "what vile plot is this? Mischief is around us,
Lancelot!"

"Is there any armor in your chamber?" asked Lancelot. "If so, give it to
me, and I will face this malicious crew."

"There is none," said the queen. "I see no hope, and fear our love has
come to a fatal end. There seems to be a host of armed knights without.
They will kill you, Lancelot, and death will come to me through their
vile charge of unchastity."

"Why did I not even wear as much of my armor as I fought Meliagrance
with!" cried Lancelot, in distress. "If I had but listened to Sir Bors!
Never was I caught in such a trap before."

As they spoke the tumult without increased, and Mordred and Agravaine
cried together,--

"Come out, thou traitor knight! Think not to escape, for we have you
like a rat in a trap. Come out and meet your just deserts."

"Shall I bear this?" cried Lancelot, flaming into anger. "The dogs! a
dozen of them in armor against one man in his mantle! I would rather
meet death at once than stand and hear their reviling tongues."

Then he took the queen in his arms and kissed her, saying,--

"Most noble Christian queen, I beseech you, as you have ever been my
special good lady, and I your poor knight, and as I never failed you in
right or wrong since the day that King Arthur made me knight, that you
will pray for my soul if I be here slain. For you may be sure that Sir
Bors and my other kindred, with Lavaine and others of my friends, will
rescue you from harm, and I beg you to go with them and live like a
queen on my lands."

"That will I not, Lancelot," said the queen. "If you are slain for me,
then death may come when it will, for I shall not live long to mourn
you."

"Then, since my last hour seems to have come, and our love and life must
cease together, so let it be; but some of those barking curs shall go
with me to the shades. I am heavier at heart for you than for myself.
Ah, that I had but a knight's armor!"

"I would that God would be content with my death, and suffer you to
escape," said the queen.

"That shall never be," said Lancelot. "God defend me from such a shame.
And now may the Lord Jesus be my shield and my armor."

This said, he wrapped his mantle around his arm, and approached the
door. As he did so the strong oaken portal trembled under their blows,
for they had got a great form out of the hall, and were using it as a
battering-ram.

"Save your trouble, you crew of mischief," said Lancelot. "Think you
that Lancelot du Lake needs to be come at like a rabbit in its hutch? I
fear you not, and dread not to face an army of such hounds."

"Come out, then, or let us into that chamber. It avails you nothing to
strive against us all; but we will promise to spare your life till we
have brought you to King Arthur."

"Will you?" said Lancelot, "or do you think to slay me where I stand? I
trust you not, liars."

Then he unbarred the door and with his left hand held it open a little,
so that but one man could enter at a time. As he did so, Colgrevance of
Gore, who stood nearest, pressed forcibly through the opening, and
struck a spiteful blow at Lancelot with his sword. This Lancelot
parried, and returned so fierce a stroke with his own good blade, that
he cut through the helmet and skull of the knight, and stretched him
dead upon the floor.

Then, with all his great strength, he dragged the bleeding corpse within
the chamber, closed the door against the pressure of all who bore upon
it, and replaced the bars. "So much for this daring fool," he cried.
"Thank heaven, I have an armor now! I shall not be quite a sheep at the
shambles."

As he spoke he was hastily stripping the armor from the body of the dead
knight. This done, he quickly arrayed himself in it, with the aid of the
queen and her ladies.

Meanwhile the assault on the door continued, and Mordred and Agravaine
kept up their cry,--

"Traitor knight! come out of the queen's chamber!"

"Hold your peace," cried Lancelot. "You shall not prison me here, I
promise you that, and if you take my counsel, you will depart. I am
ready to agree on my knighthood to appear to-morrow before the king, and
answer there that I came not to the queen with any evil purpose; and
this I stand ready to prove by word or deed."

"Out on you, traitor!" cried Mordred. "Have you, we will, and slay you
if we wish, for the king has given us the choice to save you or slay
you."

"Is that your last word, sirrahs? Then keep yourselves, for I am not of
the breed that die easily."

As he spoke, he flung down the bars and threw the door wide open. Then
he strode proudly and mightily among them, sword in hand and clad in
full armor, and at the first blow from his mighty hand stretched
Agravaine dead upon the floor. Like a maddened lion that charges upon a
herd of sheep, he now rushed upon them, striking fiercely to right and
left, and felling men with every blow, till in a little while twelve
more of his assailants lay cold in death, for there was not a man of
them all could stand one blow from his powerful arm.

Of the whole party only Mordred remained alive, and he fled wounded with
craven haste. Then Lancelot, leaning on his blood-dripping sword, turned
to the queen, who stood looking at his deeds of might, with white lips
and starting eyes.

[Illustration: Copyright by Frederick Hollyer, London, England.

SIR LANCELOT IN THE QUEEN'S CHAMBER.]

"All is at an end now," he said. "Henceforth King Arthur is my foe, and
I am like a wolf at bay. Yet I fear your enemies will work you fatal
harm, and would have you go with me, and let me be your
knight-protector."

"That I dread to do," said the queen, "for vile slander would follow my
footsteps. I had better face my foes. If they devise to put me to death,
then you may come to my rescue, and no one then can blame me for going
with you."

"That shall I do," said Lancelot. "And I promise to make such havoc
among all men who mean you harm as I have done among those who lie
here."

Then he kissed her, and each gave the other a ring; and so he left the
queen and went to his lodgings.




CHAPTER II.

THE RESCUE OF THE QUEEN.


Little sleep came that night to Lancelot and his friends.



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