Although Arthur had been crowned king, he was by no means sure that all the nobles of the land would accept him as ruler. In accordance with the custom of the time, he gave a feast in order to find out who were his friends and who his enemies. All who came to the feast would, he supposed, consent to be his followers.
He chose the largest hall in London, and had the walls hung with rich cloths. Upon the floor, strewn with rushes, were placed trestles, and across these, boards were laid. Upon them fine white linen was spread, and golden saltcellars, wine-bowls, and water-jugs set about.
When the guests assembled there were so many that Arthur was delighted, for he thought they were all his friends. He sat at the head of one table, and Sir Hector sat at the head of the other. Arthur wore a cold crown on his head, but it was no brighter than his hair, and the blue turquoises with which it was set were no bluer than his eyes. From his shoulders to the ground hung a magnificent red robe with gold dragons embroidered upon it.
The cooks and squires came in from the kitchen carrying food, their ruddy faces beaming from the heat of the fires. First of all, sixty boars’ heads were borne in on silver platters. Then followed, on golden dishes, peacocks and plovers which had been so skillfully cooked that their bright colors were preserved. After the guests had eaten all they cared for of this food, tiny roasted pigs were brought in, and set on all fours upon the tables. By this time, all the gold and silver goblets which had been filled with wine needed refilling. Then the squires carried in beautiful white swans on silver platters, and roasted cranes and curlews on plates that glowed like the sun. After that came rabbits stewed in sweet sauce, and hams and curries. The last course consisted of tarts and preserves, dates and figs and pomegranates.
The supper began about five o’clock, and the guests ate and drank far into the night. Although it was past Easter time, the weather was a little cold, and so upon the stone flagging between the two long tables the king ordered fires to be lighted. The bright flames darted up flashing on the gold threads woven in the hangings of the walls, and on the steel armor of the lords, and gleaming on the jewels set in the gold and silver goblets which the squires were carrying about. At one side sat a band of musicians singing of the glories of King Arthur and his ancestors, and accompanying themselves on their harps.
After the guests had risen from the tables and gone to their camps, Arthur sent messengers to them with rich gifts of horses and furs and gold. But most of the lords received the messengers scornfully.
“Take back these gifts to the beardless boy who has come of low blood,” they said; “we do not want them. We have come here to give him gifts of hard blows with our hard swords.”
The messengers were astonished to hear these things spoken of their good king. Nevertheless, they told Arthur all that had been said to them. He sent no answer back, but he called together all the lords who he was sure were loyal to him, and asked their advice. They said to him:
“We cannot give you advice, but we can fight.”
“You speak well, my lords,” answered Arthur, “and I thank you for your courage. Will you take the advice of Merlin? You know that he has done much for me, and he is very wise.”
The lords and barons answered that they would do whatever Merlin advised. When Merlin came to the council hall he said:
“I warn you that your enemies are very strong. They have added to their numbers so that now you have against you eleven mighty kings.”
At this the lords looked dismayed.
“Unless our lord Arthur has more men than he can find in his own realm,” said Merlin, “he will be overcome and slain. Therefore I give you this counsel. There are two brothers across the sea; both are monarchs and both very strong. One is King Ban of Benwick, and the other is King Bors of Gaul. Now these two have an enemy, also a powerful ruler. Therefore, send to the brothers, King Bors and King Ban who are now both in Benwick, and say to them that if they will help Arthur in his war against the eleven kings, Arthur will help them against their common enemy.”
“That is very good counsel,” said the king and the lords.
So they chose Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias as messengers, and these two hurried away, hopeful of success. When they reached the town in Benwick where King Bors and King Ban were, knights came forth to hear their message. As soon as it was learned from whom they had come they were led into the presence of the brothers. Both were very large men. King Bors was dark, and was dressed in black armor. King Ban was dark, too; the colors that he wore on his shield were green and gold. He was the father of Sir Lancelot, the knight who afterwards became the most powerful of the followers of Arthur.
The two kings received Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias with much favor.
“Tell King Arthur,” they said, “that we will come to him as quickly as we can.”
Then they gave splendid gifts to Sir Ulfius and Sir Brastias, who hurried back to Arthur with the message.
In a short time King Bors and King Ban arrived with ten thousand of their soldiers, and as Arthur had ten thousand, they felt certain of victory. They went into Wales, a country which Arthur’s followers knew well, and waited confidently for the enemy.
The eleven kings collected a great host of sixty thousand men, fifty thousand on horseback and ten thousand on foot. They marched towards the place where Arthur was, and set up their camp near a wood about a mile distant. When Merlin knew this, he said to Arthur and the two kings:
“This is my advice: Set upon your enemies at midnight when they are unprepared, and then you will have the advantage.”
So Arthur and the two royal brothers and the twenty thousand soldiers crept up to where the eleven kings and their men lay. They took a road circling round the wood. Moving with great caution, they drew nearer and nearer until they could see first the campfires in a circle around the white tents; and then, against the flashing flames, the dark figures of the men who were keeping guard. Sometimes they were afraid that the noise they made would alarm their enemies, but on account of a heavy windstorm, they were unheard. When his men were quite near, Arthur gave the word of command. The whole army uttered a great shout, and ran forward in companies upon their enemies. In a few minutes they had knocked down most of the tents, and killed many soldiers.
It was a dreadful thing to be attacked in the dark without warning. But the eleven kings were brave men, even though they were so unjust to Arthur in trying to take his kingdom from him, and made a good fight. Perhaps they would have made a better one if they had known how few the men were under Arthur.
Before day dawned, Merlin told Arthur to draw back his troops. This he did, leaving about ten thousand of the enemy dead behind him. He, however, had not lost very many men.
At daybreak Arthur and his followers saw that the lay of the land could be used to their advantage. Between them and the enemy was a narrow road, bounded on one side by a lake, and on the other side by a dense wood. One part of this wood, however, was thin enough to allow men to hide in it.
“Now,” said Merlin, “let King Bors and King Ban take their soldiers and hide in the wood for a long time. Then, my lord Arthur, stand up before the enemy with your men.”
“Why shall we do this?” asked Arthur.
“Because,” said the wise old man, “when the eleven kings see how few in number your troops are, they will let you proceed down the passage. They will think that if you march close to them they can overcome you. But you can fill up this narrow road with more and more men from the wood. Then the enemy cannot surround you.”
“That seems very good,” said Arthur.
“And at last,” continued Merlin, “when the eleven kings are weary, let King Bors and King Ban come forth. Then surely the courage of our enemies will fail.”
The plan was carried out. Arthur’s men marched down the passage. The green wood was on one side, and on the other was the lake, the water of which was so clear that it reflected the bodies of the soldiers with their shields and helmets. The sun shone on their armor. The little birds in the woods sang as they passed. But the men were thinking of nothing but the expected battle.
When they had come close to the enemy, they saw the eleven kings all in a row, mounted on big handsome horses. Their fifty thousand men were behind them. Suddenly these rode forward and the battle began.
It was a fierce fight. In a very short time the field was covered with overthrown men and horses. Broken shields and helmets lay on the ground, and many of the knights who had been fighting on horseback were unhorsed, and were fighting on foot. Arthur galloped here and there among his enemies, conquering with his trusty sword all with whom he fought. The woods and the water rang with his sword strokes. The noise drowned the sweet songs of the birds, but still they sang, and flew about gaily, all unaware of the grim death-struggle going on beneath them.
Finally the time arrived for bringing forward King Bors and his men. The great dark king went thundering down upon his enemies. When the King of Orkney saw him coming, he cried:
“Oh, we are in great danger! I see King Bors, one of the best and bravest kings in the world, and he is helping our enemy.”
Then the other kings were astonished, for they did not know that Arthur had sent outside his country for help.
“But we will fight on,” they said, “no matter how powerful he is.”
While they were still fighting, but with great loss of courage, they heard the loud sounds made by the hoofs of other tramping horses, and King Ban rode down on them, followed by his men. His black brows were frowning, and his green and gold colors glittered in the sun
“Alas, alas!” cried the King of Orkney, “now in truth are we lost, for here is another king, no less great than his brother Bors. But we must neither flee nor yield.”
The eleven kings, being agreed to this, continued the battle, though so many of their men were killed that the King of Orkney wept. When he saw some of his men running away, he wept still more, for he thought it was better to die than to be a coward.
Though they did not intend to run away, the eleven kings thought it would be wise to retreat to a little copse near by. It was late and they were tired and wished to rest before fighting again. King Bors and King Ban could not help admiring these rulers.
“In truth,” said King Ban, “they are the bravest men I ever saw. I would they were your friends.”
“Indeed, so would I,” replied Arthur; “but I have no hope of that, for they are determined to destroy me, and so we must fight on.”
At this moment Merlin rode up on his great black horse.
“Have you not done enough?” he cried to Arthur. “Of their sixty thousand men there are left but fifteen thousand. It is time to stop, I say. If you fight on, they will win the day. The tide will turn against you.”
Arthur hesitated and Merlin said:
“The eleven kings have a great trouble coming of which they are ignorant. The Saracens have landed in their countries to the number of over forty thousand. So your enemies will have so much fighting to do that they will not attack you again for three years.”
Then Arthur was glad, for it had grieved him deeply to fight so long and to lose his good soldiers.
“We will fight no more,” he said.
“That is well,” replied Merlin. “Now give presents to your soldiers, for to-day they have proved themselves equal to the best fighters in the world.”
“True indeed!” exclaimed King Bors and King Ban.
So Arthur gave gifts to his own men; and a great deal of gold to the brother kings, both for themselves and for their soldiers. And the two kings went home rejoicing.