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The Knight of the Ill-Shapen Coat
Upon a day of spring when the skies were bright, and the earth was fair with promise, there came to the court of King Arthur a young man of whom no knight present knew anything, and, making due reverence to the King, he besought him that he would make him one of his knights.
King Arthur looked upon the youth, and he saw that he was of a fair presence, and a likely form, and held himself nobly withal. And upon his back he bare a coat fashioned of cloth of gold, but which fitted him so ill that it mattered little what form lay beneath.
Said the King: "Tell me, thou valorous youth, what is thy name?"
The youth replied: "Sir, my name is Brewnor-le Noyre; and if thou wilt make me a knight of thine, thou wilt discover the quality of my blood."
Then said Sir Kay, who was the Seneschal: "Let thy name be what it may, the name thou meritest is La-Cote-Male-Taile; for never have I seen a less well-shapen coat."
Now King Arthur was ever a gentle knight, and he would not have it that this comely boy should be mortified. Wherefore he questioned him: "Tell me the meaning of the coat, for I trow it is not worn without a reason."
The youth replied: "Sir, I had a father, a good and gentle knight. And on a day it chanced that he fell asleep, wearing this coat. And, while he slept, one whose name I know not fell upon him, and hacked him to pieces – a foul deed! Wherefore as the coat was then, so I wear it; and it shall be upon me till I have avenged my father's death."
When this story was related, and the youth related it right well, there spake two of King Arthur's knights, pleading for the boy, that he should be made a knight. "For he hath a pleasing presence," said they, "and an eye that falls not; and we say that there lies in him the making of a right noble knight."
Therefore the King consented, saying that on the morrow he would grant their prayer.
Now on the morrow, the King went a-hunting, taking a goodly company of his knights with him. And with those that were left behind, he left the stranger, whom Sir Kay had named La-Cote-Male-Taile; and they were, all of them, with the Queen Guenever.
And as they attended her in the King's absence there brake loose from its tower of stone, a great lion that was caged there, and came after the Queen and her knights very furiously.
Then the knights fled all but twelve of them; and these twelve knew not how to serve the Queen and themselves.
But the stranger, whom Sir Kay had so mock-named, drew out his sword, and without more ado he set himself upon the lion, granting it so lusty a blow upon the head that it fell dead.
Whereupon he betook himself to his place, and uttered no word.
Now when King Arthur was returned from the chase, he was told how the stranger had guarded the Queen in the absence of the older knights; how with his own hand, and with little consciousness of courage, he had slain the lion; and how no knight had thought to do this thing.
Said the King: "It was a true word which he spake to me that I should discover his blood's quality. This lad will prove a knight of renown." And with that he made him knight.
Then craved the youth permission that he should be known only by the name of La-Cote-Male-Taile. And that prayer the King granted him, though he was ill-pleased that the knight had been so named.
Later, but on the same day, there came to King Arthur's court, a damsel with eyes of fire, and a mouth of sweetness, who bare with her a great black shield. And the only device upon this shield was a white hand that held a sword.
When King Arthur beheld her, he asked her what her errand was; and she replied:
"Sir, I have travelled many nights and days, to bring this shield to thy court. For it belonged to a knight who had vowed to perform a great deed of arms. But an adventure fell upon him, wherein he was wounded full sore so that he died. Now he was a knight of a great purity and courage. Wherefore I seek one like unto him that he may take upon himself the quest of the shield; but I trow that it is an arduous quest."
Now no knight spake that he would take the quest upon himself.
Then reached forward Sir Kay, and took the shield in his hand and held it.
And the damsel asked of him what his name might be, and when she had heard it, she said: "The quest is not thine, for it requires a better knight than thou, Sir Kay."
Whereupon Sir Kay replied with anger: "I but took the shield to feel the weight of it, for I like not thee nor thy quest."
But the damsel little heeded him or his wrath; and having looked long at the knights, she said not that she liked any of them.
Then proffered Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile, saying that he would take the quest upon himself with great joy, since he had but that day been made a knight and sought adventure.
"What name is thine?" asked the damsel, fixing her glance upon him.
He replied, "My name is La-Cote-Male-Taile."
"'Tis an apt title," said she, "for never have I seen such a coat. As for the adventure, it is likely that it will bruise thy skin to match thy coat, if thou take it upon thee."
"Nevertheless," said the knight, "I will take it, and whithersoever it leadeth me, thither will I go. Wherefore, I pray thee that we set forth speedily."
And immediately she made ready to go; and there was brought to the knight a great horse, and his armour, and his spear. And when he was ready, he bade them all farewell for a time; and with the damsel he set forth upon the quest.
And she, riding beside him, shed upon him the fire of her eyes; and from the sweetness of her mouth she sent out words that were not sweet, but passing sour. And the knight thought that she bare him contempt for his youth's sake, and because he had gone upon no other quest.
Now they had gone but a short distance when Sir Dagonet came riding behind them; and it was he who was the King's fool. And when he had overtaken Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile he called to him that he would joust with him.
Then Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile smote him over his horse's croup; and he left them.
And ever as they rode on, the damsel made greater mock of the knight, telling him that the King had sent a fool after him to joust with him, since he esteemed him worthy of no other knight. But the knight kept himself in patience, and answered her never a word.
Then rode they on, and when they had gone two days' journey they came upon Sir Bleoberis, who proffered to Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile that he would joust with him. And when Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile had agreed to this, Sir Bleoberis rained upon him blows of such a violence that they speedily sent him off his horse and laid him upon the ground.
"By my word," cried Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile, "thou shalt finish the fight on foot!" And he made himself ready in a fury.
"Nay," said Sir Bleoberis, "I am not minded to fight on foot, nor did I so proffer." And with that he rode away.
Then did the damsel cast the fire of her eyes anew upon Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile, and twisting the sweetness of her mouth, she said, "Thou hast failed in a new thing, coward knight!"
"Misname me not !" cried he. "Surely it were no cowardly thing to be unhorsed by such a knight as Sir Bleoberis! In a while I shall prove to thee that no craven's blood cools in my veins."
But the damsel would not be quieted; and she poured out upon him continually a flood of bitter speech. Thus they journeyed on, having no great pleasure in each other's company, I trow.
And when they had gone another two days' journey, they came upon Sir Palomides, a goodly knight, who proffered to Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile that he would joust with him.
"Now shall we see the same thing as before!" cried the damsel in the knight's ear. And indeed so it proved, for Sir Palomides gave the younger knight so violent a blow that he sent him from his horse blundering to the ground.
Then was Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile again angry, the more so as he expected the damsel's derision; and he would have fought with Sir Palomides on foot, but the knight would have none of that. Therefore they parted.
And the damsel's speech waxed even more bitter against the knight of the ill-shapen coat.
Now they had gone on but a little way when they came upon Sir Mordred, who had been but a short distance in advance of them; and he journeyed with them.
"Now," thought Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile, "she will cease to beshrew me, being ashamed in another's company."
But not so: the damsel had no heed for Sir Mordred; and, if possible, her speech was less sweet than before. Whereat Sir Mordred wondered.
The three had journeyed another three days when they came upon the castle Orgulus. Now in passing this castle a knight shall either joust, or be taken prisoner. For such is the custom.
Then Sir Mordred and Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile made ready, and when they were abreast of the castle, there came out two knights, riding with skill, and being of a sinister presence.
"Now shall we see again that which we have seen!" said the damsel.
But the younger knight took no heed of her, and as for Sir Mordred, he understood not the speech.
Then came the knights of the castle Orgulus upon them; and one of them flew upon Sir Mordred, and so beset him that he laid him upon the ground. And the other flew upon Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile, and they fought so furiously that they came both of them upon the ground.
Now Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile sprang upon his opponent's horse, and rushing upon that knight who had unhorsed Sir Mordred, he wounded him so that he fought no more. Then returned he to his own man – who had mounted the horse of Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile and fell upon him. And, having unhorsed him, he killed him. But this knight had taken flight into the castle ere he met his death, and Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile after him; and when he was dead, there came close upon one hundred knights and assailed Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile.
And he set his back against the wall of a lady's chamber and fought with them. Then came a lady and took the horse of Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile which he had left behind him; and she led it away while he fought with the hundred knights, and tied it to the postern.
Then came she near to him and whispered: "Knight, thou doest well, but how wilt thou gain thy horse and escape, for I have tied it to yonder postern; and all these knights lie in the way."
When Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile heard this whisper of the lady, he set his shield to cover him, and threw himself upon the knights where they were thickest, and won his way through them. And when he reached the postern, he saw four knights there, and two of these he slew, and the other two he put to such confusion that they fled. Then he mounted his horse, and rode away.
And having come upon the damsel and Sir Mordred where they stood talking of him, for the damsel was well certain that he was slain, he told them how he had won his way out, despite the hundred knights and the device of the lady.
But the damsel professed not to believe him. And she called to her a courier in whom she had a great trust, who went with her on all her journeys; and before the face of the two knights, she bade the courier ride to the castle, and ask how the knight fared who had fought there.
Now the courier was not a long time gone; and when he returned he spake out, telling how the knights had cursed him, saying that never had they seen a knight such as that knight about whom he questioned, and how he had slain twelve of them, and had won his way to the postern, and had ridden away. "He is a fiend," they said, "and no earthly knight."
Then looked Sir MoMred sideways at the maiden; but Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile forbore to look at her. As for that ill-spoken wench she hung her head, and said not one word.
Now they rode on; and as they rode, Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile being silent, and wrapt in his thoughts, Sir Mordred thought well to rebuke the maiden for the wrong she did her knight. And, regarding the matter of Sir Bleoberis and Sir Palomides, he reminded her how easy it was for an older knight to unseat one younger, who was yet unused to his steed. And of the refusal of the knights to fight with Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile on foot, he told her that it might well be that they so refused lest they should be overcome by the young knight, who doubtless was better able to show his valour when his horse no longer hampered him.
To these speeches the damsel listened, making no reply; but when the day was over she was as uncourteous to the young knight as before.
For seven days they journeyed. At the end of that time there overtook them that knight, most renowned of all King Arthur's Round Table, Sir Launcelot du Lake.
Then went Sir Mordred from them, pursuing his own way, and Sir Launcelot was instead their companion; but they knew not who he was.
Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile thought: "Will she revile me again before this stranger?"
And indeed, the damsel began at once so to do, twitting him with all the untoward events that had happened in their journey; and as for such things as had happened to do the young knight honour, she either made no mention of them, or else twisted them to suit her mood.
Then was Sir Launcelot wroth, for he liked little this humour of the damsel, and he rebuked her sharply that she behaved so uncourteously to her knight.
Not a whit cared she. True she let Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile rest in peace for a time; but that was because her tongue's energy was directed toward Sir Launcelot. And, knowing him not, she stung him with the same reproofs as she had given her knight.
And when they had gone some distance in this fashion, Sir Launcelot left them for a time, to go upon a quest of his own.
Then came Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile and his damsel to the castle Pendragon. And from the castle there came riding out six knights, and one of them proffered that Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile should joust with him.
Thereupon Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile smote him, and he had no sooner done so than the other five knights fell upon him in a body and all unexpectedly, in unknightly fashion; and they smote him from his horse, and took him prisoner into the castle, and the unkind damsel with him.
And after a little time came Sir Launcelot riding that way, for he had accomplished his quest, and would fain find Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile. And on the way, ere he had yet reached the castle Pendragon, he came upon a knight who proffered him to joust. And they fell to.
Then Sir Launcelot smote the knight from his horse, and they fought on foot, and that right mightily, till at last Sir Launcelot brought the knight to his knees.
Then the knight yielded himself, and he besought Sir Launcelot that he would tell him his name, for he had never before been brought to yield, nor had he endured such a fight as this with Sir Launcelot.
Sir Launcelot told him that he was Sir Launcelot du Lake. And the knight related to him how a knight had been taken prisoner at the castle Pendragon and a damsel with him.
"I trow well that he is my comrade," said Sir Launcelot; "and I must go and rescue him ;" and with that he departed. And the knight could scarce bring himself to believe that he had fought with that great Sir Launcelot; and he thought it small shame to be defeated by such a noble knight.
When Sir Launcelot reached the castle Pendragon there came out six knights to meet him; and they fell upon him, all at one time, and with great fury. Then Sir Launcelot drove his spear with such a skill that he sorely wounded three of them, and left them upon the ground; and as he went on he encountered the other three, who had drawn aside the better to fall upon him anew, and he wounded them also. And after that, he rode furiously into the castle. Then came the lord of the castle to do battle with Sir Launcelot; and they flew together with a great noise, and with such force that their horses fell to the ground.
Therefore they betook themselves to their swords, and fought on foot, and their strokes fell with such a swiftness that they could not be counted.
Then gave Sir Launcelot a blow so great that he brought the lord of the castle to his knees; and he pulled his helmet from him. Therefore the lord, seeing that he would be slain, yielded himself to Sir Launcelot; and Sir Launcelot bade him that he should release all the prisoners that he held within his castle.
When this was done, there was found among them the knight Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile and his damsel. And when they found themselves released, the knight sought his horse and harness that he might go on his way.
Then came into the castle a messenger from that knight with whom Sir Launcelot had jousted on his way to the castle Pendragon; and the messenger wished to know how Sir Launcelot had fared. But Sir Launcelot had already ridden from the castle.
Then was the lord of the castle exceedingly glad that he had been overcome by a knight of such great fame as Sir Launcelot. And Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile knew who it was who had ridden with them, and he was right joyful; but the damsel was heavy with shame and uttered not one word.
Now when the damsel and her knight had left that castle named Pendragon, and had journeyed on, they came upon Sir Launcelot, who was ahead, and overtook him.
Then they thanked him right courteously, for he had done many mighty deeds for them; and they implored him that he would still be their companion.
"For a while yet will I ride with ye," said Sir Launcelot; "but on this condition be it; that the damsel shall no more upbraid her knight with evil words. For I esteem him a right noble knight; and it is for his sake, and to save him from destruction, that I go with ye now."
"Alack," cried the damsel, "think not that I reproved him because in my heart I thought ill of the knight! Nay, rather, was my heart filled with love. For that reason I chided him sorely, for I knew the quest to be a dangerous one; and I would fain have driven him away by my bitter speech."
And from that moment she chided him no more. Now they had done some days' journey when they came upon the borders of the country of Sursule, and they found there a village with a strong bridge like a fortress. And upon the bridge were gathered knights and yeomen who stopped the way.
When they beheld Sir Launcelot and Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile, they called to them how, because of the black shield which one of them carried, they might not enter within the bridge, excepting one at a time.
Then said Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile to Sir Launcelot: "I pray thee, let me enter first, for I would fain take upon me this adventure. If I fare well in it, then will I send for thee; and if I die, I die as should a knight."
Now Sir Launcelot was unwilling to suffer him to go; but after a time he granted his prayer.
Then Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile entered within the bridge; and there met him two brothers, and these were named Sir Plaine de Force and Sir Plaine de Amours; and they did battle with him. Now Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile smote first Sir Plaine de Force and afterwards Sir Plaine de Amours from his horse. Then did they seize their swords and rush upon him; and he, having alighted also from his horse, met them; and they rained upon him heavy blows with a great fury. And upon the head, and shoulders, and on his breast they wounded him.
"The pain of my wounds is bitter, but the pain of defeat were worse!" thought Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile; and he drew together what strength was within him. And falling upon them anew, with a mighty courage, he brought both knights to their knees, so that they had to yield them or be slain.
So they yielded them. And Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile chose that horse which was the best, and rode on. And having reached another bridge and fortress, he encountered another brother whose name was Sir Plenorius; and with him he fought till their horses fell. Whereupon they continued the fight on foot, and with their swords. And for two long hours they fought, and longer, and gave mighty strokes.
And Sir Launcelot as he stood watching, was filled with fear for the young knight, for he had already fought one battle with great skill, receiving many wounds.
At last Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile fell to the ground through weakness and the pain of his wounds.
But Sir Plenorius had pity on him, saying: "Hadst thou been fresh as I was when I met thee, this thing had not come about. Thou hast endured right well, and I will tend thee with all gentleness till thy hurt be cured."
And he carried him into the tower.
Then came a voice calling to Sir Plenorius, bidding him that he should give up his prisoner, or else do battle with the knight who called him. And Sir Plenorius got upon his horse, and rode violently to that spot where Sir Launcelot stood calling; and like two mighty rushing winds the two knights flew together.
Then smote they great blows with their spears, till their horses fell with the fury of them.
And when the horses had fallen, they left them there, and fell upon each other with their swords. And they fought with a fury so great that no man has ever seen the like.
As for the damsel, she perceived that Sir Launcelot thought her knight of right good account, thus to fight for him.
And after a time, Sir Launcelot brought Sir Plenorius to his knees, but that after many sad blows, for he was a valorous knight and well-skilled.
And when Sir Plenorius had yielded himself, Sir Launcelot met three other of his brethren, and defeated these also. When he had done this he would have given to Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile the fortresses and the bridges.
But the knight would have none of them. "Nay," said he, "I will not take these from Sir Plenorius, for he is a right valiant knight, and of a generous heart. My lord, I pray thee instead to let them remain with Sir Plenorius and his brethren, bearing this condition that he come to King Arthur's court and be a knight of his, and his brethren with him."
Now Sir Launcelot agreed to this condition, for he had liking for Sir Plenorius, believing him to be a brave knight and of a pure life.
And Sir Launcelot remained in that country till Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile was recovered of his wounds; and he fared well, having pleasure in abundance, and many good games.
And when the days were passed of the knight's sickness they returned to the court of King Arthur, the quest of the black shield being accomplished. And as they passed the castle of Pendragon Sir Launcelot gave that castle to Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile, since the lord of it would not become King Arthur's knight.
At Pentecost following, Sir La-Cote-Male-Taile was made a knight of the King's Round Table; and he proved a mighty knight and noble.
For his wife he chose that damsel who had brought to him the black shield. And she twisted no more the sweetness of her lips; but gave him kindly words.