EARLY the following morning Bradamant was awakened by hearing a great noise in the courtyard of the inn. She quickly donned her armor and ran to the window to see what was the cause of the disturbance. The host and all his family were gazing upward as if at some wonderful thing in the heavens. Every one about the house seemed greatly excited, and all were talking and shouting and gesticulating in the wildest manner possible. Even the dwarf Brunello was on the balcony, shading his eyes with his hand, and looking upward with an interest too strong to be hidden.
"What is it?" asked Bradamant.
"A winged horse," answered the dwarf.
"A winged horse! Where? Ah, yes, there he is!"
Bradamant saw the creature very plainly, sailing serenely through the air above them, and making his way toward the west. His wings were very broad, and, as the rays of the rising sun fell upon them, they seemed colored with every hue of the rainbow. Upon his back sat a knight clad in glittering armor, and holding an open book in his hand. And so rapid was the flight of the strange animal, that in a few moments he was lost to sight among the far-off clouds and mountain tops.
"A very strange creature that is," said the host, ever ready to amuse his guests. "It is what we call a hippogriff, and I have been told that there is not such another beast in the world. The man who rides him is a great wizard. He reads books, and dabbles with the metals, and gazes at the stars. His name is Atlantes; and they say, that, on the other side of the mountains, he has the most wondrous castle that ever was built. I have been told that it is made of steel, and that it crowns a crag so steep and high that no creature without wings can reach it."
"And does the wizard live there all alone?" asked Bradamant.
"Ah, no!" answered the host. "He has many fine guests, and others arrive every day. The noblest men and women of France are in attendance at his court."
"How can that be when the only road to the castle is through the air?"
"Oh! he has his own way of inviting his guests. Whenever he sees a knight more handsome or more noble than the common sort, he merely swoops down upon him with his hippogriff, picks him up, and carries him aloft to his mountain eyry. Many fair ladies and young damsels have been stolen from their homes, and doomed to imprisonment in the wizard's airy palace. And we can only guess whether they are happy or miserable there, for who once goes up to those shining halls can ne'er come down again."
"How I should like to try a passage at arms with old father Atlantes!" cried Bradamant. "I wonder if he would think me worth carrying up to his lofty den."
"It is very likely that he would have you there ere you could deal one stroke with sword or lance," answered the host, shaking his head.
"I have made up my mind to try the venture, at any rate," said the maiden. "Is there anyone here who knows the way to the thief's retreat, and who will serve me as a guide?"
"May it please you, sir knight," spoke the dwarf very quickly, "I myself will show you the way. I have here a little book in which the road is set down and the whole country described. I shall only be too glad to serve you."
Bradamant thanked him very kindly, and the two began at once to make ready for the journey. As the White Knight had no steed of her own, she bargained with the host for a palfrey which he had to sell,—a light-footed creature, well suited to the road, but ill fitted for the combat. And, before the sun was very high, the knight and the dwarf bade their friends at the inn good-by, and set out on their dangerous venture. Bradamant, clad in her white armor, and bearing a long lance and the white emblazoned shield of Montalban, rode erect and proud as any peer of the realm; while the dwarf, with becoming humbleness, followed at some distance, riding upon a lowly mule. Through a deep valley they passed, and over rugged hills, and through untrodden woods, until they reached the foot of the snowy mountains. Then, with many a mishap and many a weary turn, they climbed the rocky slopes, and came to that place where one may look down and see on one side Spain, on the other the fair fields of France. Then, following a narrow path, they painfully wended their way down again, and came at last to a broad, low plain, and, glancing upward to the craggy slopes on the farther side of the valley, they saw the object of their search,—the wizard's air-built castle. The bright towers of steel could be plainly seen, glinting and glistening in the sunlight, but so high that the neighboring cliffs seemed left far below.
"Behold!" cried the dwarf, riding up close to the knight,—"behold the enchanter's dwelling, the prison house where many ladies and cavaliers pine their days away!"
Bradamant knew that the time had come for her to take the magic ring; but she scorned to harm a creature of so base a sort as the dwarf,—weak, unarmed, and unskilled in self-defence as he was. So, while he gazed in rapt wonder at the high-built towers, she suddenly seized his hands, and slipped the precious ring from his finger. Then she lifted him from his mule, and with strong cords bound him to a neighboring tree. The poor dwarf, with tears and groans and piteous cries, begged her to set him free. But she knew the cunning thief too well, and staid not to listen to his pleas. Leisurely adown the hillside she rode, until she reached the treeless meadow close under the castle; then pausing, she raised her bugle to her lips, and blew a shrill blast, the sound of which was echoed from cliff to cliff, and from valley to valley, until both earth and sky seemed to ring. And, ere the sound had died away, the winged courser, with his master on his back, leaped from the shining towers above, and soared leisurely up into the mid-air. Then slowly he began to settle toward the earth, circling down, nearer and nearer to the fearless warrior maiden. But Bradamant noticed that the wizard carried neither lance, nor sword, nor other weapon, but that on his left arm he bore a small round shield covered all over with crimson silk, and in his right hand was the open book from which he seemed to be always reading.
As the wizard with his winged steed charged down upon our heroine, she aimed blow after blow with her lance at the silk-covered shield which he held before him; but every stroke glanced harmlessly aside. At last, growing tired of this kind of fray, she dismounted from her palfrey, and drew her sword. The wizard, feeling now that he had amused himself long enough, began to lift the silken cover from his shield. Bradamant had learned from the weird woman Melissa what sort of shield this was. The magic light which shone from its polished sides had the power to blind, disarm, and overthrow all who looked upon it; and it was by means of this shield, and not through any strength or skill of his own, that the wizard won all his victories. Yet such was the virtue of Angelica's magic ring, that it rendered its wearer proof against all enchantments of this kind.
With the ring tightly clasped in her left hand, and her sword in her right, Bradamant went boldly forward to meet her foe; but, as she saw the shining shield laid bare, she closed her eyes, as if overcome by its glare, and fell to the ground. The wizard, well pleased, made his steed alight; and, covering the shield again with the crimson cloth, he hung it upon the pommel of his saddle, and dismounted. With a strong cord in his hand he went leisurely forward to bind his prisoner. He had captured scores of valiant knights in this way, and no thought of any mishap had ever entered his mind. So you may imagine his astonishment, when Bradamant, who had only been feigning, rose quickly, and seized him, and bound him fast with his own strong cord. The first thought of the warrior maiden was to slay the wicked wizard; but when she saw that he was a very old man, with sorrowing, wrinkled face, and snow-white hair, she pitied his age and his grief, and would not harm him.
"Ah, brave knight!" said the helpless old man, "you have conquered me, and all my magic has come to naught. Slay me, I pray thee, for life is no longer worth the living."
"Tell me, first," said Bradamant, "why you carry on this cruel and unknightly warfare against your fellowmen. Why have you built those prison towers?"
"It was all for young Roger's sake," answered the wizard. "He is the noblest and fairest of men, and the only being on earth that I love. I built the castle for him. I stored it with every comfort, and I brought to it every pleasure that the four quarters of the globe could afford. I have sought out the most worthy knights and the handsomest ladies in Christendom and in Paynimry for his companions. I have kept them in prison, it is true; but it is a prison more delightful than many a palace."
"Ah, sir wizard!" said Bradamant, "you should know that a prison, however gilded and painted, is a prison still. Liberty is the sweetest of enjoyments. So come with me at once, and open your gates, and set your prisoners free."
Old Atlantes, writhing and groaning in helpless distress, obeyed. He led the way to the narrow cleft and the steep, hidden path, up which Roland, as I have related, had ridden blindly into prison. They climbed the rugged precipice, and stood at the golden gate of the castle. Here they paused. From the threshold, whereon were graven wondrous signs and many a magic rune, the wizard lifted a broad flat stone. In a little chamber underneath the sill were ranged all kinds of crucibles and pots and strangely shaped lamps, wherein burned secret fires such as only sorcerers know how to kindle.
"Oh, sad, sad day!" sighed the old man, groaning and trembling in deep distress. "Sad day that sees the end of my dearest hopes! But then it becomes not poor mortals to struggle against the decrees of Fate."
Then he took the magic vessels, and one by one he hurled them over the precipice into the depths below. As the last one fell, and was shattered on the rocks, a wondrous thing took place. The fairy castle, with its steel-bright walls, and its tall towers, and its broad battlements, and pleasant halls, and narrow courtyard, and golden gate, faded away into nothingness; and in its place was a bleak and cheerless mountain cave, through which the cold winds whistled and shrieked, and in which there was neither light, nor comfort, nor aught that could give pleasure or enjoyment. And out through the rocky cave mouth where erst had stood the golden gate, there passed in long procession the prisoners who had been entrapped in the wizard's toils. First came the knights, each clad in full armor, and riding his own war-steed; and as they went out they gazed around in utter amazement, not knowing where they were, nor remembering aught of that which had happened to them. There were all the noblest chiefs of Paynimry,—Roger the Moorish prince, for whose sake all this witchery had been planned; and Sacripant the king of Circassia; and Ferrau the dark-browed Moor, wearing no helmet; and Gradasso of Sericane. There, too, were Roland, and Astolpho of England, and a great host of noblemen and warriors of lesser note. Then came the ladies and the fair young damsels, all mounted on prancing palfreys, and in their wonder scarcely knowing whether to rejoice at this unexpected turn of fortune, or to look upon it as the beginning of new and unknown evils. And last of all came Angelica, the matchless Princess of Cathay, who, like the others, had been entrapped into the wizard's prison-house. And as the sad, glad, bewildered company wound round the rugged hill in their slow and difficult descent to the plain, Bradamant thought that never in the world had there been seen a nobler and more varied array of valor and of beauty. She looked around to speak to the old wizard; but he had skulked away, grieved, ashamed, and disappointed, to hide himself from the eyes of mankind. And, when the last of that strange procession had passed, Bradamant herself followed them to the plain below; and there, without a word, they parted, each choosing his own way.