Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1522
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.
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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 dog on guard and walks to Edith’s tent. There he overhears the plotters giggling over their joke. When Edith learns of the trick, she disclaims any part in it and sends Kenneth at once back to his post. There he finds the royal standard of England gone and his dog apparently on the verge of death.
El Hakim appears suddenly and says that he can cure the animal with his talisman. He also offers to take Kenneth to the Muslim camp to escape the king’s wrath, but Kenneth refuses to run away. Instead, he confesses his desertion to Richard and is instantly condemned to death. Everyone tries to save him: The queen even confesses to the trick she played on him, but Richard will not be moved. Kenneth refuses to plead his own cause; he believes that he deserves to die for deserting his post. In preparation for his execution, he asks for a priest and makes his confession. Then El Hakim asks the king for a boon in return for saving the royal life with his talisman. He is granted the favor he requests: the privilege of taking Kenneth with him when he leaves Richard’s camp. Kenneth is thus saved from death and becomes an outcast from the Christian camp.
The other leaders of the Crusade continue their scheming to rob Richard of his power. At last, the Grand Master persuades Conrade to join him in a plot to kill the king. They capture a dervish—a member of a wild tribe of desert nomads who are rabidly devout Muslims—disguise him, and send him, pretending to be drunk, to Richard’s tent. The king’s guards are lax, but one of the gifts that Saladin has sent the king, a mute Nubian slave, is extremely loyal to him. As the assassin raises his poniard to strike the king, the slave dashes him to the ground. In the scuffle, the Nubian receives an arm wound from the dagger. Richard knows that the knife’s blade has probably been poisoned, and he sucks the slave’s wound to save him from the poison’s effects.
The grateful slave writes a note promising that if Richard will have all the leaders pass in review, he, the slave, can identify the one who stole the royal flag. The slave is, in reality, Kenneth in disguise. After curing Kenneth’s dog, El Hakim had told the knight that the animal undoubtedly could identify his assailant. Richard agrees to the plan for seeking out the culprit, and as the suspected plotters pass by in review, the dog attacks Conrade of Montserrat. Conrade denies his guilt, but Richard declares that his innocence can be decided only by trial of arms. The king asks Saladin to choose a neutral ground for the match and courteously invites Saladin to be present at the combat to test Conrade’s innocence or guilt.
At the place of combat, where Richard and Saladin meet for the first time without their battle armor, Saladin is revealed to be El Hakim. Richard confesses that he had known the slave to be Kenneth, whom he also names as the king’s champion. In the fight, Conrade is seriously wounded and is hastily carried away by the Grand Master of the Knights Templars, who fears that Conrade will reveal the whole plot against the king. Richard then reveals to the queen and Lady Edith that Kenneth is really David, the earl of Huntingdon and prince royal of Scotland. The king has learned his true identity from one of Kenneth’s retainers. The noble knight, having vowed not to reveal himself until the Crusaders have taken the Holy City, has refused to break his oath even to save his life.
The king promises to give Kenneth Edith’s hand in marriage, although their betrothal belies Theodorick’s earlier prophecy that Edith would marry Saladin. Abashed, the old hermit confesses that he interpreted the signs incorrectly. His vision had been that a kinswoman of the king would marry Richard’s enemy in a Christian marriage. Theodorick had thought his vision meant that Saladin would be converted and marry Edith. The true prophecy was that the king’s kinswoman would marry Kenneth, a Scot and thus an enemy of the English king; being Christians, they would have a Christian wedding.
At a noontime repast provided by Saladin in honor of his friends, Saladin kills the Grand Master of the Knights Templars because he has learned that the Grand Master, while bending over Conrade to hear his confession, stabbed Conrade with a dagger so that he could not confess the plot against Richard. Richard and Saladin both realize that the Crusade has failed and that the Christian forces can never hope to overcome the Saracens. The two men part as friends, each honoring the other’s skill and valor. A short time later, Edith and Kenneth are married, and Kenneth receives the lucky talisman as a wedding gift from Saladin. Although the magic token later effects some cures in Europe, it never again has the power it had in the hands of the famous infidel.