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

How Charlemagne Sought Vengeance

N ot many hours after these things King Charles came to Roncesvalles. It was a grievous sight that he saw; there was not a foot of earth on which there lay not the body of some Frenchman or heathen. And the King cried aloud, calling the dead men by name. "Where are you, Roland?" he said; "and you, Oliver? "All the Twelve Peers whom he had left behind to guard the passes he called, but no man answered. Charles wept for sadness of heart, and his nobles wept with him; there was not one of all that company but had lost son or brother or comrade or friend. Then spake up the Duke Naymes, "Sire," said he, "see you that cloud of dust, two leagues away? 'Tis the dust of a great multitude, even of the heathen army. Ride, Sire, and take vengeance for these warriors whom you have lost."

"What!" answered the King, "are they already so far? Then must we make haste, for they have robbed me of the very flower of France." Then he turned to his nobles, and called four by name, and said to them, "Guard this field, these valleys and these hills. Let the dead lie as they are, but take good care that no beast of the field touch them, nor any follower of the camp. Make sure that no one lay a hand upon them till I come back." And the four answered, "So will we do, Sire;" and the King left with them a thousand horsemen for a guard.

This done, he made haste to pursue the army of the heathen. The day was drawing to sunset, but yet he overtook the enemy before darkness fell. Some say that God wrought a great miracle for the King, staying the sun in the heaven, till he should have avenged him of his enemies. Be that as it may, this is certain, that he overtook the Saracens and slew them with a great slaughter. Many fell by the sword, and they who escaped the sword threw themselves into the river, the river Ebro, and thus perished by drowning. And the men of France cried, mocking them, "You have seen Roland; but it has not turned to your good."

And now the night came on, and the King said, "We must think of our camp; 'tis over-late to return to Roncesvalles." "It is well," answered his nobles. So they unsaddled their horses, and laid themselves down on the green grass and slept. None kept watch that night. As for the King, he lay down to rest in a certain meadow, his spear by his pillow, for he would not be far from his arms. His good sword Joyous was on his side. It was a marvellous weapon, for it had in its hilt the iron of the spear with which the side of the Lord Christ was pierced as He hung upon the cross. For a time the King thought with tears about the good knights whom he had lost, Roland his nephew, and many another who had fallen on his field. But at last his weariness overcame him, and he slept. And as he slept he dreamed two dreams. In the first dream he saw how there gathered a great tempest in the heavens, with thunders and lightnings and hail and wind, and how this fell upon his army, and how the lances caught fire, and how the shields glowed with heat, and the corslets rattled with the stroke of the hail. After this he saw how a multitude of wild beasts, bears, and leopards, and snakes, and monsters such as griffins rushed upon the host as to devour them. And he heard the men cry, "Help us, King Charles, help us!" But when he would have gone to help them a great lion out of the forest flew on him. Then he and the great beast wrestled together. But who prevailed, he knew not. He did not wake from his sleep, but his dream was changed. And the second dream that he dreamed was this: He thought he was at his palace at Aachen, and that he sat upon steps, holding a bear that was bound with a double chain. And in his dream he saw how that there came out of the forest of Ardennes thirty other bears who spake each with the voice of a man. "Give him back to us, Sire," they said. "It is not right that you should keep him so long. He is our kinsman, and we must help him." And then—this was his dream—a fair greyhound came and attacked the greatest of these wild beasts. But who was the conqueror in this conflict also, he could not see. After this King Charles awoke from his sleep.

Meanwhile King Marsilas came in his flight to Saragossa. He gave his sword and his armour to his servants, and laid himself down in sore distress upon the green grass under an olive-tree. He had lost his right hand, and was faint with the bleeding. Loudly did his Queen Branimonde lament over him. As for his servants they cursed King Charles and the land of France, and vehemently reproached their god Apollyon. "Villain of a god!" they cried, "why dost thou put us to such shame? Why dost thou so confound our King? This is an ill return to those who do thee honour." So saying they took from the god his sceptre and crown, and brake him to pieces with their staves. Never before was a god so ill-treated of his worshippers.

Then said the Queen to herself, in the midst of her tears, "Now a curse upon these gods who have failed us in the day of battle. We have the Emir only who can help us. Surely he cannot be so base as not to fight against these men of France!" So King Marsilas sent an ambassador praying him for help. "Of a truth," he said, "if you fail me I will cast away my gods, and take upon me the faith of Christ, and make peace with King Charles."

When the Emir heard this he gathered together the people of his four kingdoms, and put them on board a fleet of ships, and set forth to sea. Quickly did they come to the land of Spain; nor did they halt till they came to the city of Saragossa. Then the servants of the Emir spread on the grass a carpet of white silk, and on it they set an ivory chair. The Emir sat upon it, and his chiefs stood round about.

"Listen!" said the Emir, "This Charles has troubled the land of Spain too long. I will attack him in his own country, even in France. Nothing shall hinder me from bringing him to my feet or slaying him." And as he spake he struck his knee with the gauntlet of his right hand. Then he called to him two of his chiefs and said, "Go now to King Marsilas and say to him: I come to help you against the men of France. Come and pay me homage, and I will make war upon King Charles, even in his own land of France. Verily if he do not fall at my feet and beg for pardon, and renounce the faith of Christ, I will tear his crown from his head. Take him also, for a token, this gauntlet and this staff of gold." And all his nobles cried, "It is well said."

So the two envoys went, carrying, one the gauntlet and the other the staff. When they had passed through the gates of Saragossa, they saw a great multitude of men lamenting. "The gods have dealt ill with us," said they; "our King is wounded to the death, and his son is dead, and Spain will be the prey of the Christian dogs." When they were come to the palace they made their salutations, saying, "Now may Apollyon and Mahomet have King Marsilas and Queen Branimonde in their keeping!" "Nay," said the Queen, "what folly is this? Our gods have deserted us. See what they suffered to befall the King my husband." The envoy answered, "A truce to such words! The Emir our master bade us say, "I will deliver King Marsilas; as for this Charles, I will attack him in his own land of France. This gauntlet and this staff he sends for a proof of his words." Queen Branimonde made answer, "You have no need to go to France. Here in this land of Spain you may meet King Charles, and of a truth you will find him a great warrior."

Then said the King, "You see, my lords, that I am in evil case. I have none to come after me, neither son nor daughter. A son I had but yesterday, but the Count Roland slew him. Say to your master for me, I yield you this land of Spain; only guard it against the Christians! And bid him come to me; I will give him useful counsel about King Charles; and take him the keys of this city of Saragossa. As for Charles he is encamped by the river Ebro, seven leagues hence. There will the Emir find him, for of a truth the men of France will not refuse the battle."

Then the envoys returned to the Emir, and told him all that happened—how King Charles had left Roland and the Peers to guard the passes, and how they had been slain, and what great loss King Marsilas had suffered, and how he yielded to him the whole land of Spain, and how King Charles and his men were in camp by the Ebro. Then the Emir commanded his men that they should make ready for the march. "Make haste," he said, "or these Frenchmen will escape us."

Meanwhile King Charles had made search for the body of his nephew, the Count Roland, and for the others that had fallen with him. And when these had been found, he caused that the rest should be buried with great honour, but three of the bodies, Roland, to wit, and Oliver, and Turpin the Archbishop, he commanded to be set aside. The hearts of these three were taken out of their bodies and wrapped in silk, and then enclosed in coffins of white marble. But the bodies were wrapped in deer-skins, with store of spices, and set each in a carriage, that they might be taken to the town of Blois.

When these things had been done, there came two envoys from the Emir, bearing this message. "The Emir brings against you a great army from the land of Arabia. Take heed, therefore, for he will make proof of you to-day, whether you are indeed a man of courage."

The King made no answer to these words, save that he cried to his men, with a loud voice, "To arms! To arms! "Then without delay he armed himself, donning his corslet and lacing his helmet, and taking in his hand his good sword Joyous, and when he had mounted his good steed he rode forth in front of his army. "Never was more kingly man!" said all the army. And the King said, as he looked upon the army, "Who would not trust such men? If only these heathen stand their ground, surely they shall pay dearly for the death of Roland." "God grant it be so!" said the Duke Naymes. Then the King called to him two lords: "You shall take the place of Roland and Oliver; one of you shall carry the sword, and one the horn." And after this he set his whole army in array.

Meanwhile the envoys of the Emir returned to him. "We have seen King Charles," they said. "He is brave, and brave are they that follow him, nor will they fail the King. You will have to do battle with them. Therefore arm yourself." "That is good news for all that are of a good courage," said the Emir. "Sound the trumpets, that my people may make themselves ready." A mighty warrior was he, with deep chest and broad shoulders, over which his hair fell in curls, with fair face and shining eyes; of his courage he had given proofs without number. What a gallant knight he had been, were he but a Christian man! He had a sword of renown, which he called Precious, and a great boar-spear, Matté by name. A gallant knight also was the Prince Malprime, his son. "Forward, Sire," said the Prince to his father. "Shall we see King Charles to-day?" "Yes," answered the Emir, "for he is a brave man, and all speak of him with honour. Nevertheless, now that he has lost the Count Roland his nephew, he can scarcely hold his ground before us. Yet we shall have a great battle to fight. "Be it so," said the Prince. "I ask from you the honour of striking the first blow." "It shall be yours," said the Emir.

Then the Emir set his battle in array, so that the two hosts stood over against each other. There was neither hill nor valley nor forest between them; each was in full sight of the other. Splendid and terrible they were to view, so brightly shone the helmets and bucklers and shields and spears. And bright and clear was the sound of the trumpets; but the brightest and clearest of all was the horn of Charles the great King. And first the Emir rode forth in front of his army. "Follow me!" he cried to his army, "I will show you the way." And he brandished his spear, turning the point towards the King of France. And King Charles, on his part, when he saw the Emir, and his standard, the Dragon, borne after him, cried with a loud voice, "Lords of France, you have fought many battles, and now there is yet one more for you to fight. See, then, this host of heathens. Many they are in number. But what matters the multitude of them? Follow me!" Thereupon he spurred his charger. The good steed bounded forward, and all the men of France cried out, "A brave man is our King; not one of us will fail him." The first that dealt a blow to the enemy was the Count Rabel. Spurring his horse, he charged Torlen, the King of Persia, and struck his shield fairly with his spear. The good steel pierced shield and corslet, and the King fell dead upon the field. "Strike! strike for Charles and the Right! "cried all the men of France when they saw the Persian fall.

On the other side the Prince Malprime, son to the Emir, rode forward on his white horse, charging into the midst of the army of France, and striking down warrior after warrior. "See!" cried the Emir, "see, my son, how he is seeking for the King of the French! There is no better soldier than he. Follow him and the victory shall be yours, and all the prizes of victory, lands, and castles, and gold and fair women." Nor did the chiefs of the heathen delay to charge. Fiercely did they ride forward, and the battle raged over the plain. When the Duke Naymes saw how the Prince Malprime was breaking the ranks of France, dealing death at every blow, he charged him, spear in rest. He drave the point through the upper rim of his shield and through his corslet, deep into his side, and laid him dead on the field. But when King Canaben, who was uncle to the Prince, saw what had befallen his nephew, he rode at the Duke, and, drawing his sword, dealt him a great blow on the helmet. Half of the helmet and laces wherewith it was laced were shorn off by the stroke, and the edge of the sword touched the flesh itself. The Duke yet clung with one arm to the neck of his horse; if the heathen deal him another such blow he is lost. But, thanks to God, King Charles came to his help. He struck King Canaben through the vizor of his helmet with his boar-spear, and with the one blow laid him dead to the ground.

Elsewhere in the field the Emir wrought great havoc in the ranks of France, slaying chief after chief, among them the old man Richard, Duke of the Normans. Behind him followed many heathen knights. Many valorous deeds they did. Where the Emir led the ranks of the heathen there the men of France suffered grievous loss, and now there came one who brought him tidings of ill. "The Prince Malprime, your son, is slain," said the man; "also King Canaben, your brother, is slain." The Emir had well-nigh died of grief to hear such evil news; but he called to him one of his wisest counsellors. "Come near," said he; "you are loyal and wise, and I have ever followed your counsel. Tell me now, will the day go for the Arabs or for the men of France?" "Sire," the sage replied, "you are in evil case. As for your gods, look not to them for help. Call now your Turks and Arabs, and, above all, your Giants to the front. With them you may yet win the day."

Then the Emir put his horn to his mouth and blew a call, loud and clear. The Turks and the Arabs and the Giants answered thereto. Mighty warriors they were, and fierce was the charge they made; so fierce that they brake the army of France in twain. But when Ogier the Dane saw what had befallen the King's army he said to him, "See you how the heathen are breaking our ranks and slaying our men. If you would bear your crown where it should be borne you must strike with all your might."

Then the King rode forward, and with him the Duke Naymes, and Ogier the Dane, and Geoffrey Count of Anjou. All quitted themselves as good knights, but there was none who bore himself so bravely as Ogier the Dane. Many he slew, among them the heathen knight who carried the Emir's standard. Sore discouraged was the Emir when he saw his standard in the dust, but the heart of King Charles was high with hope. "Sons of France, will you help me?" he cried. "'Tis a wrong even to ask us," said they; "cursed be he who shall not strike with his whole heart!" And now, as the day drew to the evening, these two met in combat, King Charles and the Emir. Fierce was the encounter between them, and many and sore were the blows they dealt the one to the other. At last it chanced that the bands of each man's saddle was cleft through, so that they fell both to the ground. Quickly did they rise to their feet, and drawing their swords, closed fiercely in fight. It was, indeed, a battle to the death. First the Emir spoke, saying, "King Charles, you have slain my son; you have wrongfully invaded my land. Yet if you will pay me homage I will grant it to you to hold in fief." "That were a foul disgrace," King Charles made answer; "never will I grant to a heathen either peace or life. Become a Christian, and you shall have all that I have to give." "These are but idle words," answered the Emir; I had sooner die." And as he spake he dealt King Charles a mighty blow upon the helmet. The sword brake the iron, and shore away a palm's breadth of the scalp. The King reeled in his place, and had well-nigh fallen to the ground. But God willed otherwise, for the angel that guarded him whispered in his ear, "Charles, what doest thou?" And when he heard the angel's voice he thought no more of danger or death. Gathering all his strength into one mighty blow, he severed the enemy's head in twain. Down to the chin he cleft it, and the Emir fell dead upon the plain.

So soon as the heathen saw that their leader was slain they fled in hot haste, and the men of France pursued them even to the walls of Saragossa. There stood Queen Branimonde, with her priests about her, waiting and watching for news of the war. But when the Queen saw the multitude of them that fled she hastened to King Marsilas, and said to him, "O Sire, our people are vanquished, and the Emir is dead." When King Marsilas heard these words he turned him to the wall, and covered his face and wept. So great was his grief that his heart was broken in his breast, and he died.

As for the town, none of the heathen had any thought of defending it. They suffered the gates to be broken down without any hindrance, and the Queen surrendered to King Charles all the towers, great and small. Of a truth, he works well who works with God.

As soon as it was day King Charles bade his men break down all the things that the heathen counted holy. As for the people, they were brought to the water of baptism. Such as were not willing to be baptized into the faith, these the King caused to be hanged, or slain with the sword, or burnt with the fire. But the greater part readily obeyed the King's command, and were made good Christians, one hundred thousand of them at the least.

After these things the King departed from Saragossa, leaving a thousand men to keep the town for him. He took Queen Branimonde with him; also he took the bodies of Roland and Oliver and of Turpin the Archbishop, and caused them to be honourably buried at Blois.

When King Charles was come back to the fair town of Aachen, it was told him that a fair lady desired to see him. So he commanded that she should be brought before him. When she came back she was Alda the Fair. She said, "Tell me, O King, where is the Earl Roland?" He is promised to be my husband. The King was greatly troubled to hear these words. He wept and tore his white beard. "My sister," he said, when he found his speech, "my dear sister. You ask me news of a dead man. But comfort yourself. Roland we shall see no more, but you shall have my son Lewis, he that is to be Warden of the Marches, in his place. "These are strange words," said Alda the Fair;" God and His blessed saints forbid that I should live now that my Roland is dead," and as she spake she grew deadly pale, and fell at the King's feet, and when they took her up, lo! she was dead. When the King saw this he called to him four countesses and bade them carry her to a nunnery that was hard by. All that night these noble ladies watched by her dead body; the day following she was buried by the altar with great honour.

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