In which Launcelot pulls the cart trick
Once back at Meliagrance’s castle, Guenever’s knights had their wounds bound, which was good, but they were kept under constant guard, which was bad. No one at Camelot knew where they went, which was what Meliagrance was counting on! If Arthur and Launcelot didn’t know where Guenever was, they couldn’t rescue her.
Guenever cunningly sent a message to Launcelot via child endangerment. She found a child of her chamber and gave him one of her special Guenever-courier rings (last mentioned in Book XI). His instructions: to sneak out and ride away, through the security cordon, across hostile countryside. There’s a tense sequence where the child — again, Malory makes no bones about this kid being underage — heroically stole a horse and rode off. Meliagrance and his guards spotted him as he left, and gave chase, with arrows whizzing by and horses galloping, but this heroic and recklessly endangered kid successfully escaped.
Meliagrance immediately called all his knights together, and warned them: Launcelot coming was, at this point, inevitable. He outlined some rules of engagement.
- If you see Launcelot, try shooting him with arrows.
- If he’s on a horse, shoot the horse with arrows.
- If he’s on foot and a volley of arrows doesn’t take him down, run away.
- Do not try to melee with Sir Launcelot under any circumstances, not even if you outnumber him by dozens.
Then Meliagrance sent out teams of thirty archers to lie in wait along the roads, to guard against Launcelot.
Our heroic child soldier, meanwhile, made it all the way to Camelot! He found Launcelot and told him all about the ambush: Pellas finally justifying his seed, Guenever captured, Meliagrance a traitor, yadda yadda. Launcelot recognized Guenever’s ring and knew the kid wasn’t lying, so there’s nothing else for it: he told the kid to let Sir Lavaine know where he went, mounted up, and rode to the rescue.
Naturally he came first to the archers’ post. They had a little back-and-forth, Launcelot threatening and the archers threatening and Launcelot calling them campers and so on, and then things got violent. The archers had set up an elaborate earthworks defense for themselves, ditches and moats and fences, such that Launcelot couldn’t get up to where they were. Meanwhile they laid into him with arrows, killing his horse. So this battle was one-sided, with Launcelot stymied, which really irritates him.
Seriously, Malory says he was full sore annoyed as well as full loath to give up. He paced around, all frustrated, just around the corner and out of sight of the archers.
Luckily, just as Launcelot was about to give up, a cart appeared!
Launcelot flagged the cart down. “Ho there, teamsters! Where are you headed?”
“We’re taking this load of lumber to the castle of Sir Meliagrance,” said the lead teamster. “That was kind of a stupid question. I mean, you can see the cart of lumber right here, and Meliagrance’s castle is the only thing on this road.”
“How about I hop in the back and hide under the lumber, and ride into the castle with you?”
“Yeah, no. No, I don’t think our boss Sir Meliagrance would like that,” replied the lead teamster. “In fact, we should –“
That’s as far as he gets before Launcelot leaped up onto the cart, drew his sword, and slit the guy’s throat. He shoved the corpse out of the driver’s seat and turned to the second teamster.
“I repeat the question.”
The second teamster was way into being alive, and begs for mercy so pitifully that Launcelot nearly felt bad. Then he promised to take Launcelot into the castle, and to tell no one.
So Launcelot rode in the cart, right up to the castle, and then Malory remembers that Launcelot needs his horse to escape later on, and darn it, not only had Launcelot ditched his horse, but the horse got killed by the archers! What’s a man with a shaky grasp of narrative integrity to do?
Answer: And Sir Launcelot’s horse followed the cart, with more than forty arrows broad and rough in him. Because that makes sense.
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