The creature that rushed from the wood, across the path of Britomart, Sir Guyon, and Prince Arthur, was a milk-white pony. On its back was a lovely lady, whose face shone as clear as crystal, though it was now white with fear. Her garments were all worked with beaten gold, and the trappings of her steed were covered with glittering embroidery. The pony fled so fast that nothing could hold it, and they could scarcely see the lady. She kept casting backward glances, as if she feared some evil that closely pursued her, and her bright yellow hair flew out far behind in the wind like the trail of a blazing comet.
The name of the lady was Florimell.
As the Knights stood gazing after her, there rushed from the same thicket a rough, clownish woodman, fiercely urging on his tired horse through thick and thin, over bank and bush, hoping by some means to get hold of Florimell. He was a huge, cruel-looking fellow, and in his hand he carried a sharp boar-spear.
Directly Prince Arthur and Sir Guyon saw this they stayed not a moment to see which would be first, but both spurred after as fast as they could to rescue the lady from the villain.
Britomart waited some time to see if they would return, but finding they did not come back she again set forward on her journey with steadfast courage. She intended no evil, nor did she fear any.
At last, when she had nearly reached the edge of
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Mantled with greene, it selfe did spredden wyde,
On which she saw six knights, that did darrayne
Fiers battail against one with cruel might and mayne.''
the wood, she spied far away a stately Castle, to which she immediately directed her steps. This castle was a fine building, and placed for pleasure near the edge of the forest, but in front of the gate stretched a wide, green plain.
On this plain Britomart saw six knights, who were all engaged in cruel battle against one Knight. They attacked him with great violence all at the same time, and sorely beset him on every side, so that he was nearly breathless; but nothing could dismay him, and he never yielded a foot of ground, although he was sorely wounded. He dealt his blows stoutly, and whichever way he turned he made his enemies recoil, so that not one of all the six dared face him alone. They were like cowardly curs having some savage creature at bay, who run about here and there to snatch a bite at their prey whenever his back is turned.
When Britomart saw this gallant Knight in such distress and danger, she ran quickly to his rescue, and called to the six others to cease their attack on a single enemy. They paid no attention, but rather increased their spiteful fury, till Britomart, rushing through the thickest crowd, broke up their band, and compelled them, by force, to listen to peace. Then she began mildly to inquire the cause of their dispute and outrageous anger.
Thereupon the single Knight answered, "These six tried by force to make me give up my own dear lady, and love another. I would rather die than do such a thing. For I love one lady, the truest one on earth, and I have no desire to change. For her dear
sake I have endured many a bitter peril and met with many a wound."
"Then, certainly, you six are to blame," said Britomart, "for it would be a great shame for a knight to leave his faithful lady--it would be better to die. Neither can you compel love by force."
Then spoke one of the six. "There dwells within this Castle a fair lady whose beauty has no living rival. She has ordained this law, which we approve--that every knight who comes this way, and has no lady of his own, shall enter her service, never to leave it. But if he has already a lady whom he loves, then he must give her up, or else fight with us to prove that she is fairer than our lady."
"Truly," said Britomart, "the choice is hard. But, suppose the knight overcame, what reward would he get?"
"Then he would be advanced to high honour, and win the hand of our lady," was the answer. "Therefore, sir, if you love any one--"
"I certainly will not give up my love, nor will I do service to your lady," replied Britomart. "But I will revenge the wrong you have done to this Knight."
Then she rode at the six with her enchanted spear, and overthrew three of them before they were well aware of it. The fourth was dismayed by the Knight to whose rescue she had come, and the two others gave in before she touched them.
"Too well we see our own weakness and your matchless power," they said. "Henceforth, fair sir,
according to her own law, the lady is yours, and we plight our loyalty to you as liegemen."
So they threw their swords under Britomart's feet, and afterwards besought her to enter into the castle, and reap the reward of her victory.
Britomart consenting, they all went in together.