Gateway to the Classics: Stories of Charlemagne by Alfred J. Church
Stories of Charlemagne by  Alfred J. Church

How Fierabras Defied King Charles

B alan, who was admiral of the Moors in Spain, had a son, Fierabras by name, who was the most marvellous giant that ever was born of woman. There was no man that could be matched with him for height, and bigness of limb, and strength of body. This Fierabras was King of Alexandria, and ruled the whole land of Babylon from the Red Sea eastwards. Russia also he possessed, and Cologne; he was lord, moreover, of Jerusalem, and had possession of the Sepulchre of our Lord. It happened on a certain day that this man came riding furiously to the camp where King Charles lay with his army, and asked that some one should come forth and fight with him. No man answering him or coming forth, he fell into a great rage and sware by his god Mahomet that he would not depart from the place till he should have done battle with some Christian man; but still no one came forth to him. Then he cried with a very loud and terrible voice, "King of Paris, send out to me your strongest and bravest knight, be he Roland, or Oliver, or Thierry, or Ogier the Dane, that he may fight with me. Nay, and if you will send out against me six or seven of your strongest knights, I swear by my god Mahomet that I will not refuse to fight with them all. But if you will not send out any man, then I will assuredly assail your camp before nightfall this very day, and strike off your head, and lead away Roland and Oliver as prisoners. You have come into this my land without cause, and verily you shall depart without honour."

When he had thus spoken he lay down under a tree, and having tied his horse to one of the boughs, took off his armour. This done, he cried to the King, "Send now Roland or Oliver to fight with me. And if these dare not come alone then let two others come together with them; and if the four be afraid let six come. Ten kings have I slain already in single combat; there was not one of them, for all that they were mighty men of valour, that could stand against me."

When King Charles heard these threatenings and challenges he said to Richard of Normandy, "Who is this knight that speaks so boldly?"

Duke Richard answered, "This, my lord King, is the strongest of all men born of women, and he is persuaded that there is no king in the whole world that is a match for him."

"For all that," said the king, "I will find one of my knights that shall encounter him. But tell me his name."

"His name," answered Duke Richard, "is Fierabras. He is an infidel, and has done much harm to Christian men. For he slew our lord the Pope, and hanged many holy men and women, and to this day he holds possession of the holy Sepulchre of our Lord."

"I am the more firmly resolved," said the King, "hearing what you say, that one of my knights shall meet him." Thereupon he turned to Roland and said, "I pray you, dear nephew, go forth and meet this Turk in battle."

But Roland answered him, "Not so, fair uncle; why should I do your bidding in this matter? Do you bear in mind what happened but yesterday, when we were so near to being taken by the heathen, how they fell upon us with fifty thousand men and how we the younger knights bore the burden and brunt of the day and suffered many grievous wounds, so that Oliver my comrade was brought near to death, and indeed, but for your help, we had all perished? And do you remember further how last night, when we were resting in our tents, you, being full of wine, declared stoutly that your old knights would have borne themselves better than we of the younger sort had done? Now it shall be seen how these said old knights shall stand up against this heathen man, for indeed of the younger no one will go forth against him."

When the King heard this he smote Roland his nephew in the face with his gauntlet so sharply that the blood gushed out abundantly. Thereupon Roland drew his sword and would have smitten his uncle had he not been held by the bystanders. And the King cried, "Now, this is a most monstrous thing for any man, much more a kinsman. Seize him, for he shall die the death for this wickedness." But when the courtiers made as if to lay hands upon him Roland cried, "Now, if any man touch me I will cleave his head in two." Nor did any man dare to come near him. But Ogier the Dane said, "Now, Roland, you did ill to threaten your uncle, whom you are bound to honour above all men." "It is true," answered Roland. "I was greatly provoked; nevertheless I repent of my deed."

The King said to the Peers of France, "I am much troubled in this matter. First Roland my nephew, that should have been zealous to help me, threatens to slay me, and then there is no man that is willing to do battle with this pagan."

"Take courage, my lord King," said the Duke Naymes, "some one will be found to do you this service." But the King refused to be comforted.

Now Oliver lay sick in bed, for he had been sorely wounded in battle. But when he heard how the King and Roland had fallen out, and how Fierabras had defied the King and his army, and no man had gone forth to meet him, he straightway rose from his bed and began to stretch and try himself to see whether by any means he could bear his armour. In so doing he made his wounds bleed afresh. But when he had bound them again as best he could, he said to Garin his squire, "Come, bring me my arms, for I will go out and meet this pagan." Said Garin the squire, "Now, my lord Oliver, have pity on yourself. You will compass your own death." Oliver answered, "Do my bidding, for this is an occasion of honour that no man should miss." So Oliver put on his armour, Garin helping him. This done, he took his sword, Hautclere by name, which he loved above all things. Then they brought him Ferraunt his horse, ready saddled and bridled. And Oliver leapt lightly into the saddle without so much as touching it, and put his shield into place, and took a spear very long and sharply pointed. Then he struck his horse with his spurs, and Ferraunt leapt up under him. It was a noble sight to see, so gallant was the knight and so brave the steed.

Oliver rode up to the King's tent and saluted him, saying, "My lord, I have served you faithfully for these three years past without reward or wages. I pray you, therefore, that you give me this day the thing I shall desire of you." The King answered, "Most noble Earl, I will do this with a good will. There is not in this land of France a city or town or castle that I will not give you at your desire." But Oliver said, "My lord King, I ask neither towns nor castles, but only this—that you suffer me to do battle with this pagan."

When the other knights heard this they were not a little shamed that a wounded man should take up the challenge, while they themselves held back. "What is this," they said, "that Oliver, who was hurt well-nigh to death, would now go forth to battle!" As for the King, he said, "Now, Oliver, you have surely lost your wits. You know that you have been sorely wounded, and yet you will run into a worse danger. Go back to your bed and rest; assuredly I will not suffer you to do battle with this pagan."

Then Ganelon, who was afterwards the traitor, rose up in his place and said, "Sir, this is against the custom of France that you should deny Oliver his request." The King was very angry and said, "Ganelon, you are not well disposed in this matter. If this be as you say, then Oliver shall fight with this pagan, and if he fight, then he can hardly escape death. But mark you this: I swear by my faith that if he be slain or taken in this battle, then not all the gold in the world can save you from a shameful death; aye, and all your house shall perish with you."

"Sir King," said Ganelon, "may God and Our Lady keep me!" but to himself he said secretly, "Now God forbid that Oliver should come back safe. Rather may this pagan smite off his head!" But when King Charles saw that he could not hinder Oliver from doing battle with Fierabras, he said, "Now may God be with you, and help you, and bring you back with joy!" and he reached to him his glove, which Oliver took with much pleasantness and humility.

But Reyner, that was father to Oliver, when he saw his son ready to go forth, came to the King, and knelt down at his feet, and cried in sore trouble, "Now, my lord King, have pity on my son and me. He is young and presumptuous, full of pride and ambition, but so sorely wounded that he cannot fight; forbid him, therefore, to go forth." But the King said to Reyner, "What I have given I may not withdraw." Then Oliver stood up and spake with a loud voice, "Sir King and all you lords of France, if I have offended any man in word or deed, I pray him to forgive me." There was not a man but wept to hear these words. The King himself wept, and commended him to the keeping of God.

Oliver rode forth and came to the tree where Fierabras lay at ease and unarmed. The giant did not so much as look at him, but turned away his head, for he despised Oliver as being but little of stature in comparison with himself.

Oliver said to him, "Awake, you have called me many times this day; lo! now I have come. And first tell me your name." Fierabras answered him, "I am Fierabras, of Alexandria. It was I that destroyed the city of Rome and slew the Pope, and carried away the holy things. And Jerusalem is mine, and the place where, as you say, your God is buried."

Oliver said, "If these things are true, it is time that you should suffer due punishment for your misdeeds. But enough of talking. Make ready and arm yourself, or else, by the God in whom I believe, I will smite you where you lie! "When Fierabras heard him speak so fiercely, he began to laugh, and said, "You are a bold talker, but first tell me who you are, and of what rank." Oliver answered, "Before night come, pagan, you shall know full well who I am. But now hear this: my lord the King has sent this message by my mouth: "Renounce Mahomet your God, and all other idols, and believe in the true God that made heaven and earth and all that is therein. Meanwhile take your choice of two things: either depart out of this country, taking nothing with you, or stand forth and fight with me."

Fierabras said, "Fellow, you are not able to meet me, even were I without arms. But tell me now thy name and lineage." Oliver answered, "My name is Garin, and I am a poor knight; King Charles has sent me to do battle with you; make ready, therefore, for battle." But Fierabras would not consent. "Now tell me, Sir Garin," said he, "why Roland, or Oliver, or Ogier the Dane, who are all, men say, of high renown, have not come out against me." "They have not come," answered Oliver, "because they think too meanly of you."

This he said with such vehemence that his wounds opened again. When Fierabras saw the blood he said, "Are you perchance wounded, Sir Garin?" "Not I," answered Oliver; "this blood that you see comes from my horse where I spurred him." But Fierabras saw that the blood was not from the horse and said: "You speak no truth when you say that you are not hurt. This is no horse's blood but of your own body that I see. Now drink of this flagon of balm that I took from the city of Jerusalem. When you have drunken you shall be whole in body, and then you shall be fit to defend yourself in battle." But Oliver would have none of it. "This," said he, "is but folly."

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