The beautiful Queen Bellicent had many sons, all of whom had gone out in the world except the youngest. His name was Gareth. His two brothers, Gawain and Modred, were with the good King Arthur, and Gareth longed to join them. His mother, however, would not let him go.
“You are not yet a man,” she said. “You are only a child. Stay a little longer with me.”
So Gareth stayed. One day he came to his mother and said:
“Mother, may I tell you a story?”
“Gladly,” she replied.
“Then, mother, once there was a golden egg which a royal eagle had laid, away up in a tree. It was so high up that it could hardly be seen. But a youth, who though poor was brave, saw it, and longed for it. He knew that if he could get it, it would bring wealth and prosperity to him. So he tried to climb. One who loved him stopped him, saying, ‘You will fall and be killed if you try to reach that height.’ Therefore the poor boy did not climb, and so did not fall; but he pined away with longing till his heart broke and he died.”
Queen Bellicent answered;
“If the person who held him back had loved him, that person would have climbed, and found the egg, and given it to the youth.”
“That could not be,” said Gareth. “Mother, suppose the egg were not gold, but steel, the same steel that Arthur’s sword Excalibur is made of.”
The queen grew pale, for she now understood his meaning.
But Gareth spoke on:
“Dear mother, the gold egg is the glory to be won at Arthur’s Court; I am the poor youth, and you are the one who holds me back. Mother, let me go!”
Then Bellicent wept, and she said:
“Oh, my son, do not leave me. You love me more that Gawain and Modred. You are all I have left in the world.”
But Gareth replied:
“Mother, I waste my strength here.”
“No, no,” she said. “You shall hunt; you shall follow the deer and the fox, and so grow strong. Then I will find you a beautiful wife, and we shall all live together till I die.”
Gareth shook his head.
“No, mother. I do not want a wife until I have proved myself to be a worthy and brave knight. I wish to follow Arthur, my good king and uncle.”
“Perhaps he is not the true king and your uncle,” Bellicent said. “At least wait a little till he has shown himself to be the greatest king in the world. Stay with me.”
“Nay, mother,” he said. “I must go.”
Then the queen thought of a plan which she hoped would soon make him willing to stay home.
“If I let you go, my son, you must make me a promise. The promise will prove your love to me.”
“I will make a hundred promises,” cried young Gareth, “if you will only let me go.”
“Then,” she said, “you must go in disguise to the court of Arthur. You must hire yourself out as a kitchen boy. You shall wash the pots and pans for a whole year and tell no one that you are the son of a queen.”
Queen Bellicent was sure that Gareth would not wish to make such a promise. He was silent a long, long time. He had hoped to take part at once with the Knights of the Round Table in great deeds. At last he said:
“I may be a kitchen boy and still be noble in heart and mind. Besides, I can look on at the tournaments. I shall see King Arthur and Sir Lancelot and Sir Kay. Yes, mother, I will go.”
Queen Bellicent was very sad. All the days before Gareth’s departure her eyes followed him until he felt that he could not bear to see her grieve longer. So in the middle of the night he rose quietly and woke two of his faithful servants. They dressed themselves like plowmen and started towards Camelot.
It was Easter time and the young grass was a bright green. The birds were beginning their chirping, although it was not yet light. As the dawn came, they saw the early morning mist sweeping over the mountain and forest near Arthur’s city of Camelot. Sometimes the mist drew away and showed in the distance the towers gleaming like silver.
One of the servants said:
“Let us go no farther, my lord Gareth. I am afraid. That is a fairy city.”
The second said:
“Yes, lord, let us turn back. I have heard that Arthur is not the real king, but a changeling brought from fairyland in a great wave all flame. He has done all his deeds with the help of Merlin’s enchantment.”
The first one spoke again:
“Lord Gareth, that is no real city. It is a vision.”
But Gareth laughed and said:
“Arthur is real flesh and blood, a brave man, and a just king. Come with me to the gate of his city, and do not be afraid.”
When they reached the gate of the city, they stared in amazement. It was made of silver and mother-of-pearl. In the center was carved the figure of the Lady of the Lake, with her arms outstretched in the form of a cross. In one hand she held a sword, and in the other a censer. On both sides of her figure was carved the story of the wars of King Arthur. Above all were the figures of the three queens who were to help Arthur in time of need.
The three looked till their eyes were dazzled. Then they heard a peal of music, and the gate slowly opened. An old man with a long gray beard came out to greet them, and returning led them up past the gardens and groves and roofs and towers of Camelot to Arthur’s great palace on the summit of the hill.
Gareth hardly thought of the splendors of the palace. He approached the arched doorway of the Assembly Hall, thinking only as his heart beat quickly, that at last he was to see the good King Arthur. Even before he entered he heard the voice of the king. For it was one of the days when Arthur was giving judgment to his people.
The king sat on a throne made of gold and ivory and ebony. On its arms and back were carved great dragons. Arthur wore a gold crown which was not brighter than his own beautiful hair and beard. His blue eyes were as calm and clear as the sky in summer time. His trusty knights stood about him on each side of the throne. The tallest of these, who had a worn, browned face, and piercing dark eyes, under frowning brows, must be, Gareth knew, the famous knight, Sir Lancelot.
As Gareth entered, a widow came forward and cried to Arthur:
“Hear me, oh, King! Your father, King Uther, took away a field from my husband, who is now dead. The king promised us gold, but he gave us no gold, nor would he return our field.”
Then Arthur said:
“Which would you rather have, the gold or the field?”
The woman wept, saying:
“Oh, King, my dead husband loved the field. Give it back to me.”
“You shall have your field again,” said Arthur, “and besides I will give you three times the amount of gold it is worth to pay you for the years King Uther had it.”
Gareth thought that Arthur was indeed a just king. And while this was passing through his mind, another widow came forward and cried:
“Hear me, oh, King! Heretofore you have been my enemy. You killed my husband with your own hands. It is hard for me to ask justice or favor of you. Yet I must. My husband’s brother took my son and had him slain, and has now stolen his land. So I ask you for a knight who will do battle and get my son’s land for me, and revenge me for his death.”
Then a good knight stepped forward and said:
“Sir King, I am her kinsman. Let me do battle for her and right her wrongs.”
But Sir Kay, Arthur’s foster brother, said:
“Lord Arthur, do not help a woman who has called you her enemy in your own hall.”
“Sir Kay,” replied Arthur, “I am here to help all those who need help in my land. This woman loved her lord, and I killed him because he rebelled against me. Let her kinsman go and do battle against the man who has wronged her. Bring him here, and I will judge him. If he is guilty he shall suffer.”
While Gareth was still listening to the king’s words, a messenger entered from Mark, the king of Cornwall. He carried a wonderful gold cloth which he laid at Arthur’s feet, saying:
“My lord, King Mark sends you this as a sign that he is your true friend.”
But Arthur said:
“Take back the cloth. When I fight with kings who are worthy men, after I have conquered them I give them back their lands, and make them my subject-kings and Knights of the Round Table. But Mark is not fit to be a king. He is cruel and false. I will not call him friend.”
The messenger stepped back in alarm. Arthur said to him kindly:
“It is not your fault that Mark is unworthy. Stay in this city until you are refreshed and then go back home in safety.”
While the king judged other cases, Gareth looked around the great hall. Underneath the fourteen windows he saw three rows of stone shields, and under each shield was the name of a knight. If a knight had done one great deed, there was carving on his shield; if he had done two or more, there were gold markings. If he had done none, the shield was blank. Gareth saw that Sir Lancelot’s shield and Sir Kay’s glittered with gold. He looked for the shields of his brothers, Sir Gawain and Sir Modred. Sir Gawain’s was marked with gold, but Sir Modred’s was blank.
Meanwhile, Arthur had judged all the cases. Then Gareth came forward timidly and said:
“Lord King, you see my poor clothes; give me leave to serve for twelve months in your kitchen without telling my name. After that I will fight.”
“You are a fair youth,” Arthur replied, “and you deserve a better gift. However, since this is all you ask, I will put you under the care of Sir Kay, who is master of the kitchen.”
Sir Kay looked at Gareth with scorn.
“This youth has come from some place where he did not get enough to eat,” he said, “and so he thinks of nothing but food. Yet if he wants food, he shall have it, provided he does his work well.”
Sir Lancelot, who stood near by, said:
“Sir Kay, you understand dogs and horses well, but not men. Look at this youth’s face; see his broad forehead and honest eyes, and beautiful hands. I believe he is of noble birth, and you should treat him well.”
“Perhaps he is a traitor,” Sir Kay said. “Perhaps he will poison King Arthur’s food. Yet I believe he is too stupid to be a traitor. If he were not stupid, of if he were noble, he would have asked for a different gift. He would have asked for a horse and armor. Let him go to my kitchen.”
So Gareth went to the kitchen. And there he worked faithfully at hard tasks, such as cutting wood and drawing water. Sir Lancelot spoke to him kindly whenever he passed him, but Sir Kay was always very strict and severe. Sometimes Gareth grew discouraged and wished his mother had not exacted such a promise of him.
Whenever there was a tournament he was happy. He liked to watch the horses prancing, and the brave knights riding, with the sun shining on their helmets and lances. And he would say to himself:
“Only wait till the twelve months have passed, and then I shall ask King Arthur to let me do some brave deed. Perhaps someone will come to the hall and demand to have a wrong righted. Then I shall beg the king to let me do that act of justice.”
Such thoughts kept him cheerful. And indeed, before many weeks, his chance came for doing a great deed.