THE Princess Angelica, frightened at sight of the fierce Moor wading in the river and searching for his lost helmet, fled through the forest as fast as her poor palfrey could carry her. Ah, how she wished now for the magic ring which had so often befriended and saved her! With its aid she might have bidden defiance to danger, and flown safely and quickly back to Cathay. But, having it not, she was fain perforce to fare like other folk, and plod painfully and slowly, on foot or on horseback, from one place to another. Yet whither now should she go? That was a question which she could not answer. It seemed to her that all men were her foes, and her chief thought was to keep safely out of sight of every one. For a day and a night, and half the following day, she wandered through dark and dreary woods, or across barren and lonely moorlands, shrinking from every sound, and affrighted even by the rustling of the leaves.
At about noon on the second day, the princess found herself so wearied with her long flight, and so overcome by the heat, that she could go no farther. She was close to a thicket of flowering hawthorns and wild-rose bushes, overshadowed by tall oak trees. So cool and secluded was the place, that it seemed to invite her to stop and rest. Down from the saddle she sprang among the untrodden flowers; and she gently removed the bridle from her faithful palfrey's head; and turned him loose to graze along the river's bank. Then, within the thicket, she found a pleasant bower, where the leaves and twigs were so interlaced that the light of day could scarcely struggle through; and there, on a bed of moss and flowers, the over-wearied maiden sank down and sought repose. On either side of the thicket a brooklet strayed, singing a pleasant lullaby as it murmured over the pebbles; and the gentle zephyr stole through the leaves and branches, and lovingly kissed the maiden's cheek, and told her of happier and more peaceful climes. Scarcely had she touched her woodland couch, when her eyes closed in slumber; and she forgot her terror and her flight and her great weariness, and dreamed only of her palace home in the sunrise land of Cathay.
How long the princess slept, I cannot tell. But when she awoke, she fancied that she heard the tramp of a horse not far from her resting place. It was not the light tread of her palfrey, but sounded more like the heavy step of a war steed. She arose softly, and peeped out through the leaves and branches. An armed knight sat by the river's bank, while his steed stood cropping the grass close by. In doleful mood seemed this knight; his head was resting upon his hand; his eyes were downcast and sad. Long time sat he there, silent and thoughtful; and then he began to bewail some cruel mishap that had overtaken him.
"Ah, me!" cried he. "How false and cruel is fortune! What avails the victory that we have won, when the hopes which were nearest my heart have come to naught? Better would it have been, had I died on the field of battle."
Angelica, in her safe hiding-place, heard the knight's piteous plaint. She fancied that she knew that voice: she had certainly heard it before. She longed to see the face of the speaker. A dry twig snapped under her feet: the knight, in alarm, sprang up and looked around. It was indeed he: it was Sacripant the Circassian king, her father's friend and her own. It was for her sake that he had come from the Far East, and joined himself to the foes of France and Christendom; and it was for her sake that he had fought so valiantly in the late battle. For he hoped, that, by thus proving his valor as a warrior, the heart of the maiden would be kindly inclined toward him. But now, after the battle had been fought and won, he could hear no tidings of Angelica, and it had been whispered that she had returned alone to Cathay. And the sorrowful king moaned, and beat his breast, and bewailed that he had ever been born.
The princess heard the words of the dolorous knight, and was not slow to learn the cause of his grief. But her heart was still her own, and she felt neither love nor pity for him. Yet she was sadly in need of a friend; and she knew that Sacripant, with all his faults, would prove kind and true. She resolved, therefore, to make herself known to him. So, softly as the summer's breeze in the meadows, she stepped from her hiding-place; and, radiant with mingled smiles and tears, she glided to the place where he sat.
"God bless you!" said she, laying her white hand on his shoulder; "and may he put all troublesome thoughts out of your mind."
Never was brave knight so wonder-stricken. He could scarcely believe that it was indeed Angelica who stood thus unexpectedly before him: he thought that it was her spirit, or that some cunning wizard was deceiving him. But when she spoke to him again, and called him by name, his doubts vanished, and he welcomed her most joyfully. Then the two sat down together on the grassy bank, and talked of plans for the future; and they resolved that they would forever quit the land of France, where both had met with only disappointments, and together hasten back to Cathay.
While they were yet talking, a noise was heard in the wood close by,—the sound of tramping feet and clanging armor. Sacripant, not knowing whether it was a friend or a foe, at once donned his helmet, mounted his steed, and placed his lance in rest. A single knight, clad in steel, came threading his way through the wood. He wore over his armor a snow-white mantle bordered with ermine; above his helmet there waved a large white plume; and the steed which he rode was the color of milk. His shield, too, was white, and on it were emblazoned the arms of Montalban. When Sacripant saw that it was a Christian who approached, he challenged him at once to engage in deadly combat. The stranger was no whit alarmed by the overbearing mood and tone of the Circassian. He said not a word in answer, but quietly laid his lance in rest, and made ready for the onset. Both knights struck spurs at the same moment, and, with the fury of untamed lions, rushed toward each other. The lances of both were broken in twain; and, as each struck the other, the earth seemed to tremble beneath them, and the woods and hills rang with the sound. The Circassian's horse fell dead upon the ground; and the White Knight's steed was brought to its knees. Sacripant was so entangled in the trappings of his horse, and so weighted down with his armor, that it was some time before he could gain his feet. But the stranger, deeming that he had done enough for his own honor's sake, touched his horse gently with the spur, and rode carelessly away. Not a word did he say, nor did he glance once back to the place where the discomfited Pagan lay.
With troubled face, and many half-smothered curses, the Circassian arose from the ground. He cared not so much for the bruises which he had gotten by the fall, as for the disgrace of being thus unhorsed in the presence of the princess. But Angelica, as if scarcely noticing his mishap, consoled and cheered him with kind, courageous words.
"Surely, sir knight," said she, "it was not your fault that you tumbled upon the grass, but rather that of the awkward beast who lies dead at your feet. Come, my lord, cheer up, and let us out of the wood, and away to dear Cathay!"
While she was speaking, a messenger mounted on a fleet horse, and bearing pouch and horn, rode toward them. Both man and beast were covered with dust, and seemed weary with long travel.
"Kind sir," said the messenger to the Circassian, "have you lately seen a warrior pass this way, bearing a white shield, and riding a milk-white steed?"
"Indeed," said Sacripant, "I have seen him to my sorrow. It was such a knight who but a few minutes ago threw me headlong into the grass, and then went proudly on his way. Tell me his name, I pray thee, that I may remember him another day."
"Willingly will I tell you," answered the rider; "for you will be proud to know that you have been defeated by no common warrior. The knight with the white shield is none other than Bradamant the warrior maiden, the fair sister of Reinold of Montalban." And with these words and a laugh of derision, the man put spurs to his jaded horse, and hastened on his way, leaving the Circassian chief but little pleased with his news. Angry, ashamed, and disheartened, Sacripant mounted the palfrey of Angelica; and, taking that princess up behind him, the two rode silently away through the wood.
The White Knight, who, as we have learned, was Bradamant the warrior maiden, kept steadily on her way until she came to a road which wound round the base of a steep mountain. Here was a very pleasant place, overshadowed with oaks and twining vines, and looking out upon the quiet green orchards and vineyards in the valley below. A fountain of water, clear and cold, gushed out from among the rocks; and Bradamant dismounted to drink. But, just as she was raising her helmet, she saw a stranger sitting in the shade close by. He seemed to be a knight, young, sad-eyed, and melancholy; and the shallow smile which played about his lips betrayed his kinship to the house of Ganelon of Mayence. His horse was tethered, not far away, to the low-hanging branches of a beech; and his shield and helmet were cast carelessly upon the ground at his feet. Curious to know the cause of the stranger's sadness, Bradamant kindly asked him what mishap had brought those tears into his eyes, that look of woe into his face.
"Fair sir," said the sorrowful knight, "my name is Pinabel. I loved a maiden fairer than dream can picture, gentler than words can describe. And she, I am sure, thought well of me. One day, as we sauntered happily along the banks of the Rhone, a strange shadow crossed our path. We looked up; and to our great amazement we saw a winged horse—yes, a winged horse—circling like an eagle high in the air above us. Round and round he soared, now rising among the clouds, now sinking to a level with the treetops, and seeming merely to amuse himself. Then all at once, like a falcon let loose from the wrist, or an arrow shot from the bow, he darted down upon us. Before I could cry out, or hinder, he had seized the maiden in his talons, and was bearing her away to his mountain eyry. Vain was it to try to save her. He carried her over the dark and barren valleys, and the rough hill-country of the Pyrenees. There, in the midst of the caverned mountains, is a fair and wondrous castle planted on the top of a craggy rock, and shining in the sunlight like a beacon fire. Men say that it was built by a mountain sprite, and that a Moorish magician keeps it, and that the winged horse is but a servant who does his bidding. All round are horrid cliffs, and giddy precipices, and dark gorges, and roaring torrents; nor can one find the least sign or trace of a pathway to this robber's nest. It was thither that the winged steed carried the hapless maiden."
"But followed you not the monster to his den?" asked Bradamant.
"I did," answered Pinabel. "But of what avail is it to contend with a sorcerer? Six days I rode around the mountain, eying the prison towers, to which no wingless creature ever climbed, and daring their wizard lord to meet me in combat on the plain. But the robber staid close in his mountain keep, and sallied not forth at my call. Then there came one day into the valley two noble knights, who, like me, had been bereft of that which they held most dear. One was Gradasso, the Pagan king of Sericane; and the other looked strangely like Roger, the pride of the Moorish court. Boldly they rode across the plain, and halted not until they reached the foot of the tall cliffs. Then Gradasso blew his bugle until the whole valley rang, and the rocks and crags seemed to tremble with the sound. And soon afterward I saw the winged horse, with the wizard on his back, leap from the steel-bright tower above. Upward, at first, he sprang, and higher and higher he soared, until he seemed a mere speck in the sky. Then, like a well-trained falcon, he shot straight down upon his prey. I heard a swooping, whizzing sound in the air above me. I closed my eyes, and fell to the earth; for I dared not look upon so fearful a combat. When at length all was quiet again, I raised my eyes, and saw the wizard seated on his steed, and holding a prisoner in either hand, calmly returning to his castle home."
Bradamant listened with great interest to Pinabel's story, and she besought him to lead her to the place where this wonderful castle stood. She would give battle to the wizard, she said; she would free the prisoners whom he held in durance there; she would restore to Pinabel the maiden whom he had lost. The sad-eyed knight readily agreed to lead her to the place,—it could be reached in three or four days,—but he felt not at all hopeful of the result.
"If you wish to risk these dangers," said he, "it matters nothing to me. You will challenge the cunning wizard; he will swoop down upon you ere you can raise a finger; he will take you under his arm, and carry you gently to his prison house. Yet I am ready to do your bidding."
Then the knight mounted his steed, and the two rode onward together. But the traitorous Pinabel had noted the arms of Montalban emblazoned on the white shield of Bradamant, and he began to plan in his mind how he might betray and kill her. For many a league they rode, over rocky hills, and through wooded valleys until the sun went down, and darkness began to settle around them.
"It would be well," said Pinabel, "to seek some place of shelter from the night, and the storm which I see is brewing. I know of a farmer's cot, just over the ridge of this mountain, where I have often rested, and found a hearty welcome. Let us ride to it by the nearest way."
So saying, he left the beaten road, and spurred his horse up the rough side of the mountain. He hoped to lose the White Knight in the thick wood which crowned its top, or lead her unawares over the side of some high precipice. But Bradamant kept close behind him, and foiled all his wicked plans; for, to tell the truth, she had little faith in this sad-eyed kinsman of Ganelon.
Just after passing the crest of the mountain, the two knights were surprised at seeing a light streaming up as it were from the ground. On drawing nearer, they found that it came from the bottom of a well-like cavern,—a great cleft in the rock,—whose steep, smooth sides descended sheer twenty yards and more. Pinabel was the first to dismount and look over the edge of the chasm.
"Ah, me!" cried he as if in great surprise. "What villany is this I see!"
The warrior maiden, eager to know the meaning of his words, leaped from her horse and ran to look down into the cavern. But she saw nothing save the smooth walls of polished rock, and a narrow door at the bottom, through which streamed a flood of light as from a torch. She asked Pinabel what he had seen.
"I saw," said he, "a most beautiful damsel, clad in the garb of a princess, trying in vain to scale those slippery walls. And while I looked, a fierce ruffian, who seemed to be her jailer, seized her rudely, and dragged her back through the narrow door into the inner cave."
"If I had any means of reaching her, I would save her," said Bradamant earnestly. "Ah! what would I not give for a rope, a ladder, some way of getting down to the bottom of this well!"
She glanced around her. An elm tree, tall and straight, grew on the brink of the cave. It would be but an easy matter to make a ladder, she thought. So with her sword she cut down the longest, straightest branch, and shaped and trimmed it to suit her wishes. Yet, when she thrust this rudely-made ladder into the cave, she found that it lacked several feet of reaching the bottom.
Bradamant and Pinabel
"Do you hold on to the upper end," said she to Pinabel, "and I will climb down. I may at least get low enough to peep through the door, and see what is going on in the inner cave."
The treacherous fellow seemed very willing to do her bidding; but she had not climbed far when he suddenly let go of the branch, and plunged the helpless Bradamant down to the bottom of the great well. Had not the stout elm branch broken her fall, the warrior maiden would have been killed outright. As it was, she lay for some time, stunned and helpless, upon the hard stone floor; while the wretched Pinabel, chuckling with delight, mounted his steed and rode away.
"Only too gladly," said he to himself, "would I hurl Reinold and all his kin of Montalban down into the same deep grave."
When Bradamant recovered her senses and arose, she saw that the door which led into the inner cave was still open; and the bright light which she had seen from above now shone full into her face. Without fear or hesitation, she passed boldly through the narrow entrance-way, and came soon into a large, well-lighted chamber. This place seemed to be an underground temple, roomy and square, with vaulted roof upheld by fluted columns of marble and alabaster. In front of the central altar was a large lamp, whose clear-burning flame lighted up all the space around, and shone through the passageway and the door into the well-like entrance beyond. The warrior maiden, in thankfulness for her delivery from death, and touched by the softening influences of the place, knelt before the altar and prayed. But, ere the prayer was finished, a secret wicket in the wall opened silently, and a weird woman, barefooted, and with dishevelled hair, entered the room.
"Ah, Bradamant," said she, "you have come at last! Long have we waited for you, yet we knew that you would not fail us."
"Where am I?" asked Bradamant, rising. "And who are you, who seem to know me so well?"
"My name is Melissa," answered the woman. "Men sometimes call me Melissa the witch. The temple in which you are was built by Merlin, the great wizard in the days of King Arthur. You have heard how he was outwitted by the Lady of the Lake, and how he laid himself down in a cavern cell, and could never rise again? This is the cavern. And in the innermost chamber he still lies, not dead, but sleeping; and his voice still foretells the doom of those who come to consult him. Wouldst thou see the place where lies this ancient seer? Come with me."
Then the weird woman led Bradamant through a long, dark passageway, to the chamber in which the sage Merlin reposed. The bed, or tomb, in which he lay, was built of marble and red jasper and many precious stones, and shone like a sunbeam in the darkness. And the room was paved with rich gems; the ceiling was covered with gold; the walls were hung with the rarest tapestry. Bradamant trembled with awe as she gazed around upon this strange scene. She wondered why it was that the Fates, against whose decrees no man may struggle, had brought her hither. She wondered if it were true that Merlin still lived, and if he would vouchsafe to tell what fortunes were held in store for her. She was about to speak, when a voice solemn and grand was heard, coming as it were from the tomb.
"Brave warrior maiden," said the voice, "may all thy dearest wishes have fulfilment!"
And long the wizard talked with her, urging her not to give up the undertaking she had begun. And he promised her that in the end she should be the most favored of women, the mother of kings and heroes as noble as those of ancient Rome.
Then Melissa led the warrior maiden back into the chapel; and the two sat down, and talked long hours together concerning the deeds of the past and the things which were still to betide. And the weird woman said, "If thou art still intent on the quest of the winged horse and his master, and the steel-bright mountain fortress where they dwell, it were well that thou shouldst know their history." And then she told this story to Bradamant.
In the first place, you must know that old Atlantes, the wizard who built the fortress of which we are speaking, is one of the most knowing of sorcerers, and that he has a nephew named Roger, who is the bravest and noblest of the Moorish princes. Years ago, when Roger was but a child, the old wizard opened the book of fate, and read, much to his sorrow, that the boy was destined in early manhood to leave his home and his kindred, and the friends who had cherished him, and ally himself with their Christian foes. Then Atlantes began to plan how he might fight against the Fates. And by his magic arts he built in a day and a night that mountain stronghold; and he adorned it with every thing that is pleasant or beautiful, and placed in it every thing that would amuse the young prince whose prison home it was to be. And he brought wise men from foreign lands to teach the boy, and minstrels from north and south to while away the tedious hours with music. And, as Roger grew into young manhood, the bravest knights and the fairest ladies were enticed into the castle, and there imprisoned to keep him company. "His life," said the old wizard, "shall be as pleasant and as gay as it is possible for the life of a prisoner to be. But, whatever the Fates may say, he shall not leave his kin, nor shall he become a Christian."
At about this time Agramant, the king of Africa, began to think of invading France. Very bitter did he feel toward Charlemagne for wrongs which his people had suffered; very greatly did he covet the vine-clad hills of Gascony. He called his wise men around him, and they discussed their plans together.
"There is but one way by which you can succeed against the French," said the oldest of his counsellors. "You must enlist under your banner young Roger, the Prince of Morocco. He will prove a host within himself; and, without his help, you will fail."
"But how are we to get him?" asked Agramant. "You know how zealously his old uncle guards him in his steel-clad castle among the Pyrenees. No one can go in or out of that castle; and the wizard, with his winged horse and his magic, is as much to be feared as an army of Christians. Indeed, it would be easier to conquer Charlemagne single-handed than to take Roger from his uncle."
"To do this," said the wise man, "you must oppose magic with magic."
"You speak in riddles," answered the king. "Explain yourself."
"You have heard of Angelica, the fair Princess of Cathay?" asked the wise man.
The king nodded.
"You have doubtless also heard that she wears a magic ring on her finger, and that this ring, placed between her lips, makes her invisible to the sight of men?"
The king nodded again.
"Well, then, you must get possession of that ring."
The king flew into a great passion. "You trifle with me!" he cried. "You set me a task,—yes, two of them. I ask you how I am to outwit and overcome Charlemagne. You answer by telling me to enlist Prince Roger in my army, and to get possession of Angelica's ring, either of which is harder than fighting all the kings in Christendom. Should I ask you how I am to get the ring, you would answer by telling me to do some other task equally impossible."
"Not so, great king," was the humble answer. "You have here in your court the greatest thief in the world, the dwarf Brunello. It is well known that you would like to rid yourself of him, and that you would have done so long ago if he had not had a charmed life. Send him to Cathay, and offer him, in case he can steal the magic ring for you, the governorship of one of your outlying provinces. If he fail, you will have good riddance of him; for he can never come back. If he succeed, it will still be well; for, being made governor, he will steal from his subjects, and not from you."
The king was pleased with the wise man's advice, and he forthwith sent Brunello on his mission to Cathay. He promised him, that, if he came safely back with the ring, he should have the rich province of Tingitana for his own. Now, the dwarf was somewhat of a magician himself; and he had but little trouble in reaching Albracca, and stealing the ring from the finger of the princess while she slept. How he made his way back to the West it matters but little to us now. We are only concerned in knowing that at this very moment he is on his way to the Pyrenees with the magic ring on his finger, intent upon trying its powers against the wizard skill of Atlantes.
"And now," said Melissa to Bradamant, "if you would outwit Atlantes, and overthrow the magic castle wherein are imprisoned the bravest knights and the fairest ladies of France, you must get possession of Angelica's ring ere Brunello has tested its powers."
"How is that to be done?" asked Bradamant.
Much more did the gentle Melissa whisper in the warrior maiden's ear; and all night long they sat in that quiet cave temple, talking of the bright future, and the glorious possibilities which Merlin had promised to the true and great-hearted Bradamant. And at the earliest break of day the weird woman led her guest through a long, dark gallery, out of the cave temple, into a narrow glen deep hidden between two mountains.
All day they travelled on foot through narrow gorges, and by the side of roaring torrents, and beneath frowning precipices, until at eventide they came to the sea and a broad highway that followed the shore. Here Melissa bade the warrior maiden a hearty godspeed, and turned another way, intent on other duties. And Bradamant went fearlessly onward, until, late in the evening, she came to a little roadside inn. There she found the dwarf Brunello, a hideous little man, hunch-backed and misshapen, and uglier than pen can describe. She lost no time in making his acquaintance. But the wily thief, who supposed he was talking to one of Charlemagne's warriors, was on his guard, and answered her questions with many cunning falsehoods. He told her that he was a poor laborer driven by the ruthless Saracens from his home in Gascony; and that he was now on his way to Charlemagne to lend the king what little aid he could in driving the invaders from the land. Then he, in turn, questioned Bradamant concerning her name, her home, and her kinsfolk. But the warrior maiden met guile with guile, and answered him with many a feigned story; and her eyes glanced cautiously toward his hand to assure herself that the magic ring was there.