"I WOULD rather have that horse than aught else that now is or ever has been."
It must have been a rare animal indeed to bring this exclamation from the mouth of young Ogier the Dane, while he was fighting a hand-to-hand duel with Brunamont, the giant king and champion of the Moors. He knew that his life depended upon the issue of that fight, and yet he could not think of anything but his enemy's steed; and, as he stood thrusting and parrying with his sword, he kept repeating to himself:
"Ah! if Fortune and the good angels would only give me that horse!"
And at last Fortune did favor him. Fierce Brunamont was overthrown and left senseless upon the field, the Moorish host was routed with great slaughter, and Ogier secured the steed which he had coveted so much. And when he mounted the handsome creature and rode between the tents where flew the banners of Charlemagne, there was not a prouder man in all Europe than he. His fellow warriors cheered him for the gallant victory which he had helped to win; but his mind was all on the horse. He kept patting the animal on the neck and saying over and over again:
"Now thanks to fairy Fortune, that has given me this steed, whom I wished for more than anything else in the broad world! So long as I live there shall nothing persuade me to part with my good Broiefort—the war-horse whom Fortune allowed me to win fairly at the risk of my life."
It was a matter of common talk,—and therefore true,—that Broiefort had been reared in Arabia, whence all the best horses come. Save for his forehead, in which there was a snow-white new moon, and his two fore feet, which were also white, he was the color of polished ebony. He was very strong, and his arching neck and slender legs and shapely head were admired by everybody that saw him. He was teachable, gentle, wise, and brave, and it was not long until he loved Ogier as well as Ogier loved him. For many years after the famous battle with Brunamont, the flaxen-haired Dane and the black Arabian were never separated for a day, and people remarked that it was as rare to see Ogier without Broiefort as to see a sword without its hilt.
There came a time, however, after both were beginning to grow old, that there was a turn in the tide of their good fortune. An accident, which had happened through no fault of Ogier's, had caused Charlemagne to become his enemy. The faithful old warrior was banished from France, and all the rich estates which had been his were forfeited. He had no longer a penny, nor even so much land as he could lie down upon. But why should he despair? He still had Broiefort. On the good horse's back he would ride out of France and seek a home and fortune among strangers. He rode over the Alps into Italy and told his story to Didier, the king of the Lombards. Didier was glad to welcome so famous a warrior: he would make him one of the foremost men in his kingdom. And so Ogier put his hands into the hands of the Lombard king and did him homage, and received in return the command of two castles on the river Rhone.
But Charlemagne would not allow his former friend and warrior-chief to rest in peace, even in the domains of the Lombard king. No sooner did he hear that Didier had befriended the exiled Dane than he sent a messenger into Lombardy, demanding that Ogier should be returned to France, chained like a greyhound.
"Never will I do so base a thing!" cried Didier. "Sooner than desert the friend who has sworn fealty to me, I will see all Lombardy overrun by my foes, my own palace in ashes, and myself laid low with the thrusts of Charlemagne's spears!"
The messenger returned to France with this answer, and Didier and Ogier made ready for war; for well they knew that Charlemagne was not a man to be trifled with.
Early the next spring a mighty army, led by Charlemagne himself, crossed the Alps for the purpose of overrunning Lombardy and capturing the exiled Dane. A bloody battle was fought on the plains of St. Ajossa—such a battle as neither Lombard nor Frank had ever seen before. For hours the conflict raged; and everywhere Ogier and the steed Broiefort were in the thickest of the fray. Never did man and horse fight more bravely. The old knight's shield was pierced in thirty places, his helmet was split in twain, he was wounded with seven spears; and yet, even after he knew that the day was lost, he kept on fighting like a tiger.
"Everywhere Ogier and his steed were in the thickest of the fray."
At last Ogier is unhorsed. Broiefort, maddened for the moment, flees across the field, pursued by a hundred soldiers. Flinging right and left with his heels, he kills three squires and five horses, and puts a whole company of Frenchmen to flight. Not a weapon can be made to touch him. Men say that he has a charmed life. Coming to the top of a little knoll, he turns his head and looks back. He sees his master in the midst of the mêlée, surrounded by enemies, with one knee on the ground, fighting a losing fight. Shall he desert his friend in his greatest need?
He wheels about and returns to the field, scattering his three hundred pursuers before him. Ogier has begun to lose hope. His sword is broken. The Frenchmen are closing upon him. Suddenly he hears a neigh, and looking up he sees Broiefort pressing toward him through the crowd. In another moment he has swung himself into the saddle, and knight and steed are flying over the plain with—as truthful old stories tell us—fifteen thousand men in hot pursuit. But who can overtake Broiefort?
Late in the evening, Ogier, wearied with the long ride and overcome by the pain of his wounds, thought that it would be safe for him to stop and rest. He dismounted near a spring of water which gurgled out from beneath a huge rock, and, after slaking his thirst, he bathed his hot head in the stream, and washed the smoking sides and mud-bespattered legs of his steed. Then, sitting on the ground with his back resting against the rock, he soon fell asleep; but Broiefort stood by him to watch.
Half an hour passed quietly, and then a faint sound was heard far down the road. The horse pricked up his ears and listened. Very soon he could distinguish quite plainly the thump, thump of galloping hoofs coming closer every moment, and he knew that it meant danger. He whinnied to awaken his master; but Ogier slept on. He came closer to him, and stamped his feet against the rock; Ogier stirred a little, but did not waken. Then he stamped still harder, and neighed shrilly three times; but his master, dreaming of battle, did not hear him. By this time their pursuers were in sight. Ten men—yes, a thousand men—with lances poised and swords drawn, ready to fall upon Ogier wherever they might find him. were coming pell-mell along the highway!
Broiefort was desperate. He seized his master by the collar, and lifting him to his feet shook him roughly. Ogier awoke just in time. He vaulted quickly into the saddle, while the lances of his foremost pursuers almost grazed his armor. His faithful steed leaped forward, and in a few moments he was safely out of reach and out of hearing again.
For three whole days Broiefort carried his master through mountain passes and forests, so closely pressed that there was no time to stop anywhere for food or rest. For three months the chase was kept up, although the pursuers now and then lost track of the fugitives long enough to allow Ogier to rest a night in some out-of-the-way castle, where Broiefort was sure to be regaled with a measure of oats. At last, after many adventures, they reached one of Ogier's old strongholds on the river Rhone, where—according to the historian—they were besieged by Charlemagne with an army of ten thousand warriors.
There were only three hundred men—vassals of Ogier—in the castle, but the most of them were known to be good and true, and the Dane felt that, for a time at least, he was safe from any harm that the besiegers could do him. Broiefort was given a warm stall, with plenty of straw, in the cellar, and as there was a great stole of provisions in the castle, the inmates were all as comfortable as need be. Ogier knew that no power on earth could batter down the walls of the castle, for they were of Saracen work,—that is, the mortar had been boiled in blood,—and hence they were proof against every kind of weapon. All that the garrison had to do, therefore, was to prevent the besiegers from putting up scaling-ladders, and this required only a little watchfulness.
At length, however, Charlemagne caused a wooden tower to be built in front of the gate—a tower seven stories high, on which a thousand knights and a hundred and seventy archers could stand, and from which they hurled missiles and shot countless arrows over the castle wall. Then, indeed, sad days began for Ogier. One by one his men were picked off the walls by the sharpshooters in the high tower; one by one his squires and the faithfullest defenders of the castle met their death. Finally, there was no one left alive but himself and the horse Broiefort—two besieged by ten thousand. But they had held out well; for, according to the old song-writers, it was now seven years since Charlemagne had begun the siege.
And now Ogier bethought him that if he could escape to his native country, Denmark, his own kinsfolk might befriend and shelter him. The chance was worthy of a trial, at least. Very early one morning, therefore, he went down to visit Broiefort in his stall. There was not another handful of oats in the castle; not a grain of corn, not a wisp of hay was to be found. Ogier himself had not had a mouthful of food for two days. To hold the place longer was to starve.
"Horse," said Ogier, stroking the creature's neck and sides,—"horse, so good and brave and proud! You have stood by me well. A firm friend you have been in many a strait. I wonder if you will help me once again?"
Broiefort understood every word; he whinnied softly in reply; he struck his foot upon the stone pavement as if to say that he was ready to be going. Ogier brought out his saddle, now so long unused, and the bridle with the golden bits. Broiefort leaped into the air for very gladness. And when his master threw the rich trappings upon his back, tightened the saddle-girths, and laid the reins over his neck, he seemed beside himself with joy. Then Ogier donned his own armor, buckled his good sword to his side, and put his bright steel helmet upon his head. Leading the horse across the courtyard, he opened the castle gate quietly and peeped out. The besiegers were all asleep in their tents; even the sentinels were sprawled upon the ground, dreaming of their homes and their loved ones in faraway Aquitaine.
Ogier let down the drawbridge very softly, and then, mounting Broiefort, he rode out of the fortress which had sheltered him so long. Good Broiefort seemed to understand everything. With eyes open very wide and ears alert to catch every sound, he stepped so lightly that the most wakeful of the besiegers did not hear him. The birds were singing in the tree-tops as they passed through Charlemagne's camp, but not a soldier was stirring. Once safely outside the lines, Broiefort changed his whole manner. Throwing up his head and pointing his ears forward, he broke into a long, steady gallop—a gait which he could keep up all day without tiring. And thus Ogier, safe out of the reach of his foes, rode northward through sunny France.
On the fifth day they had put so many miles between themselves and the besiegers that the great Dane began to feel himself safe. In another day they would cross the Rhine, and then on to Denmark! At about noon they stopped to rest by a spring which bubbled up from the ground near the foot of a rocky hill. Ogier, very tired from his long ride, and thankful that the worst of it was over, lay down upon the grass and soon fell asleep. Broiefort, not thinking that any watch was needed, now that they were so far from their enemies, wandered here and there, nipping the young clover that was just beginning to blossom in the fields.
He was very hungry and the clover was very good, and hence he did not notice a company of priests and knights that came riding down the highway, or, if he noticed them, he did not think of their harming his master. He therefore kept on grazing, and neglected to awaken Ogier and warn him of the possible danger. At the head of the company was the archbishop of Rheims, who had been making his usual rounds among the sick people of the neighborhood, and was returning to his palace. He was himself a warrior of no little note, and therefore delighted always to have a retinue of knights and squires around him. One of these young men, seeing Ogier asleep upon the ground, was so struck by his noble appearance that he rode back quickly and told his master. The archbishop, curious to know who it might be, spurred his horse and, followed by his whole company, cantered down to the spring. The old man was astounded when he saw that it was Ogier, for he had marched with the Dane in many a campaign, and fought by his side in many a hard-won battle.
He would have given a whole year's revenue if he had not seen him, for it pained his heart to think that he was obliged to make a prisoner of his old friend and comrade and deliver him into the hands of the king. But his oath of fealty to Charlemagne would not allow him to do otherwise. At his command, therefore, one of his knights secured Ogier's sword, another his shield, and another the good horse Broiefort. Then twenty men with drawn swords stood around the fugitive while the archbishop awakened him.
"My old-time friend, Ogier," he said, "awake and look around you! You can see that it is useless for you to resist; for here are forty men, most of them armed, while you are unarmed and alone. Yield yourself, then, as our prisoner!"
But Ogier was not the man to be taken so easily. He sprang to his feet, and with a blow of his great fist crushed the head of the knight who stood nearest to him. Then he tore the saddle from the back of one of the priest's pack-horses, and with it dealt furiously about him until ten of his assailants were laid sprawling in the dust, and the rude weapon was broken in pieces in his hands. But the struggle was of no avail, for other knights closing in upon him, he was wounded sorely, and finally bound hand and foot with strong ropes. He begged his captors that they would kill him then and there, rather than give him up to Charlemagne. They made no answer, however, but put him astride of a mule, tied his feet together underneath, and took him into Rheims, where the archbishop ordered him to be placed in his own prison.
As for Broiefort, the gallant horse was taken to Meaux, where he was made to draw a heavy two-wheeled cart loaded with stones and bricks and mortar. For seven years he toiled, half-fed, broken-spirited, hopeless. His once beautiful coat became rough and ragged, showing the outlines of every rib beneath; his mane, unkempt and uncared for, was knotted in many a snarl; his long tail, which had once been his pride, was filled with burs and thorns; his breast and shoulders were galled by the ill-fitting harness; his eyes lost their fire, and his chin drooped with despair.
For seven years, also, Ogier languished in prison. Charlemagne would have been glad to put him to death, but he knew that every knight in France would cry out against it. So long, however, as the good archbishop lived, the brave Dane fared much better than his horse. Every day he was given a gallon of wine to drink, and two loaves of bread and the half of a pig to eat. The ladies and squires and burgesses of Rheims came often to his cell to visit him, and the archbishop played chess with him almost every evening. His beard became white as snow, but his arms remained as big and as strong as ever, and he never lost hope.
By and by, however, sad changes came to France and to Ogier. The archbishop was slain in that famous fight at Roncesvalles, where all the flower of French chivalry perished. The prison at Rheims passed into the hands of other keepers. All of Ogier's old friends were dead, and it was not long until Ogier himself seemed to be forgotten.
Charlemagne was hard beset by his foes. A pagan king named Brehus invaded France from the south, and threatened to overrun the whole empire. Battle after battle was fought, and the French, having no leaders, were beaten every time. Everybody was in despair. People began to compare the former glorious times with the present. They thought of Roland and of Oliver, and of Reinold, and of the brave archbishop of Rheims, who used to lead them in battle—all dead, now. Then they thought of Ogier, and wondered if he, too, was dead.
"If we only had Ogier to lead us!" said some.
And the cry was echoed by many others: "If we only had Ogier to lead us!"
"Ogier is not dead. He is still in the prison at Rheims," said a young knight, a kinsman of the late archbishop. "Let every brave Frenchman petition the king to set him free!"
Thereupon, three hundred knights, all sons of counts, dukes, or princes, marched in a body to Charlemagne's tent, crying: "Ogier! Ogier! Give us Ogier the Dane for our leader!"
The king was angry at first, but seeing that something must be done, he said at last: "I know not whether Ogier be alive or dead. If, however, he be still alive, I will fetch him and make him your leader as you desire."
He sent at once to Rheims to inquire if Ogier were still in prison. Yes, the keeper thought that there was some such man shut up in one of the lower dungeons. The squires who had brought the king's message fancied that they heard him in his dismal cell, fighting the snakes and water-rats which had come into the place from the river. They called to him, and he answered. Then ropes were let down and he was drawn up into the daylight to which he had been for a long time a stranger. He was given a bountiful meal and clad in rich garments, such as he had worn in former days, and then led into the presence of the king.
Charlemagne offered to pardon the Dane and to return to him all the vast estates which had once been his, on condition that he would lead the French host against the pagan army under King Brehus. The old hero stood up, as tall and as proud, and seemingly as strong as ever, and answered that if he might wear his own armor and ride the good war steed Broiefort, he would undertake to drive every pagan out of France; otherwise he could not go into battle, but would return to his dungeon and leave the country to its fate.
Ogier's armor was quickly found, but nobody remembered anything about his steed. The king offered his own war-horse to the Dane, but when Ogier leaned his great weight upon it the animal was crushed to the ground. Several other steeds were tried, but all with the same result. Finally, an old priest who had just arrived from Meaux said that he believed that Broiefort himself was still alive, and was used as a draft-horse by the monks of the abbey. Ten squires were sent out at once to bring the old horse to his master.
Ogier wept when he saw the sad plight of his once beautiful war steed, and Broiefort would have done the same had it been possible for horses to weep, so great was his joy. As it was, the fire came back into his eyes; he lifted his head with somewhat of the old-time pride; he scratched his feet with delight; he fondled his master with his jet-black nose, and whinnied softly, as though he wanted to speak. Ogier put his arm over him, and leaned with his whole weight. The horse stood up bravely, and shrank not in the least beneath him. Then the grooms washed the steed in warm spring water, and combed and oiled his mane and tail, and trimmed his fetlocks, and polished his hoofs, and covered him with a richly embroidered cloth, and put the golden bits in his mouth. You would not have known him as the draft-horse that had hauled stones for the abbot of Meaux—he was the Broiefort who fought in the famous battle of St. Ajossa. Brave Ogier wept again, but this time for joy, when he mounted the grand old steed and rode forth to give battle to the pagan invaders.
There is no need to describe that last fierce fight which ended in a hand-to-hand combat between Ogier and King Brehus. In all his lifetime the gallant Dane had never met so equal a foe; and had it not been for Broiefort's aid he would not have come out of the fray alive. The combat was a long one, and the fate of France depended upon the issue. The sun had set, and the twilight was deepening into darkness, and yet neither of the combatants seemed able to gain any advantage over his foe. At last the treacherous pagan, by an overhanded sweep of his long sword, struck Broiefort squarely on the neck. The faithful horse, with a cry of anguish, fell dead to the earth. Never had anything caused Ogier so great grief. But his anger held down his sorrow, and nerved him to desperation. He made one final terrible thrust with his sword, and his pagan foe was stretched lifeless by the side of the steed he loved so well.
Ogier took for his own the gray war-horse, Marchevallé, which King Brehus had ridden in the battle. But nothing could ever console him for the loss of his faithful friend, Broiefort, the matchless black Arabian.