Sir Kenneth, the Knight of the Couchant Leopard, is one of the knights who follows King Richard the Lion-Hearted to the Holy Land during the Third Crusade. At the time, Richard is ill with a fever, and the Council of Kings and Princes has sent Kenneth on a mission to Theodorick of Engaddi, a religious hermit who acts as a go-between for both Christians and Muslims. Richard is not aware of the mission, for the other leaders in the Crusade are jealous of him and his power, and they resent his high-handed methods and his conceit. In the desert, Kenneth meets and fights with a Saracen, an infidel who does not know at first that Kenneth carries a pass from Saladin, the leader of the Muslims. Neither warrior is injured in the fight, and since at the time there is a truce between the Christians and the Muslims, they continue their journey together. The Saracen promises to conduct Kenneth to Theodorick’s convent retreat.
Theodorick shows Kenneth a crypt containing a piece of the cross of Christ. As the knight kneels before the holy relic, a group of nuns, novices, and others living at the convent come into the holy place singing and strewing flowers. One of the robed ladies, King Richard’s kinswoman Lady Edith Plantagenet, several times passes by him at his devotions, each time dropping a single rose at his side. Although she and Kenneth have never spoken, they love each other. Marriage is impossible for them, however, because Lady Edith is related to the English king and Kenneth is only a poor Scottish knight. Both his low birth and his nationality form a barrier between them, for England and Scotland are constantly at war. Edith is at the convent because she is one of the ladies attending Richard’s wife, Queen Berengaria, who is on a pilgrimage to pray for the king’s recovery.
Forcing himself to put Lady Edith out of his mind, Kenneth delivers his message to Theodorick, who promises to carry it to Saladin. When Kenneth returns to Richard’s camp, he brings with him El Hakim, a Muslim physician. Saladin has sent this learned man to cure Richard’s fever, for although the two rulers are enemies, they respect each other’s valor and honor. El Hakim uses a talisman to make a potion that brings down the king’s fever. Still weak but restored to health, Richard is grateful to Kenneth for bringing the physician but furious with him for acting as a messenger for the Council of Kings and Princes without his knowledge. Richard feels certain that the other leaders will soon withdraw from the Crusade, for the Christians are greatly outnumbered by the infidels. It will be impossible for Richard to continue the war with his small band of followers.
The other leaders are growing increasingly restless and dissatisfied. Two of them in particular wish to see Richard disgraced: Conrade, the marquis of Montserrat, wants to gain a principality in Palestine for himself, and the Grand Master of the Knights Templars wants Richard killed and out of the way. The other leaders merely want to give up the Crusade and return to their homes. Conrade’s sly hints and slurs against Richard move the archduke of Austria to place his flag next to Richard’s standard on the highest elevation in the camp. Learning of this act, Richard rises from his bed and, though still weak, tears down the archduke’s flag and stamps on it. Then he orders Kenneth to guard the English flag and see to it that no other flag is placed near it.
Queen Berengaria has grown bored with life in the camp. She sends Kenneth a false message saying that Edith wants him to come to her tent. He is bewildered by the message and torn between his love for Edith and his duty to King Richard. At last, overwhelmed by love, he leaves his trusted...
(The entire section is 1522 words.)