Charlemagne had a sister named Bertha, who was very much in love with a young knight, Milon by name.
Charlemagne knew that Milon was poor and obscure, and said to his sister, "Why do you desire so unworthy a match? Your suitor is poor and unknown, and you would be laughed at in this court where all the knights have many possessions and are well known for their bravery and many deeds of adventure."
To this Bertha had but one answer and that was enough for her and the poor knight, Milon. "My lord and king, my heart chooses Milon. I shall wed no other."
The king stormed at his sister and drove her from his court. "If you will choose Milon, then you choose between him and me, and this court. Go live with him in his poverty and if you find consolation in his love, you are welcome to it. I shall have none of you or him henceforth." And the angry king sent his sister away, but she went gladly, for Milon was waiting outside.
For a number of years Bertha and her knight were very happy. Of course, they were poor and long since forgotten by her brother, the king, and those who waited on him. But Bertha cared very little, for was not Roland, her young son, the image of his father, and was not his father a brave and gentle knight, even if he did not have the favor of the king?
Milon would say to his son, "Roland, you will some day be a knight, for you are nephew to King Charlemagne; you must never forget your mother, who is a gentle lady, nor must you do anything unworthy of a knight." The boy looked very solemn, and promised his father to do as he said.
Now Milon was at one time engaged in rescuing some persons from a dreadful flood. The waters were coming in vast waves and many lives were in danger. The brave Milon spurred his horse into the angry waters, but was overcome in the rush of the flood and was carried beneath. He perished in the knightly act of serving others, and poor Bertha and the young Roland were left alone in the world.
Bertha was at last reduced to great extremity of want and hunger. She had no food, while Charlemagne was feasting with his lords not far away. Roland looked angrily into his mother's wasted face, and thought bitterly of the king's abundance, and of his cruelty toward his sister, the boy's mother.
"I shall go to the king, my uncle, and tell him my mother needs food. I shall not be afraid, for she is a gentle lady, and since my father is gone, I am the only knight she has to defend her."
So saying, Roland marched off to the castle, into the banquet hall, and up to the table where the king was feasting. Without saying a word the boy took a dish of meat from the table and started away with it.
The servants started to stop the lad, but the king, somewhat amused, called out, "Let the lad alone. Such assurance as that betokens courage, and perhaps he needs the meat more than these here, who, by my sword, have eaten enough."
Soon Roland returned, and this time he marched boldly up to where the king was seated and took his cup full of rich wine. This was a little more than Charlemagne had counted on, and so he challenged the lad, saying, "What means this, my son, that you take the king's meat and then the king's wine? Do you not know that this is the royal table?"
Roland, not a bit abashed, replied, "This meat and wine are for my mother, a gentle lady in distress. I am her cupbearer, her page, and her knight. She is in need, and I am out for her succor. Not having anything at home, I came to find it here."
"And who is your mother?" asked the king.
"My mother is the Lady Bertha, your sister, my lord. My father was the brave knight, Milon, now dead. I am your nephew, Roland, who hopes some day to be a knight in your service." And Roland bowed low with the reverence which his father had taught him was due the king.
The king was greatly moved. He had forgotten his sister entirely. Turning to the young Roland, he ordered him to go to his mother and bring her at once to court. It was not long before Bertha appeared. She and her son knelt before the king, who took her by the hand and raised her from her knees.
"My sister and my nephew," said the king, "my heart reproaches me for the wrongs I have done you both. Bertha shall live in peace and plenty hereafter and Roland shall be a page in my service."
And thus Roland came to the court of Charlemagne.
Another version of the story is that Milon was not really drowned, but that he became reconciled to Charlemagne, and came with Bertha to live at the king's' castle and followed him as a knight, and that Roland was the squire of his own father. Either version makes a good story, and one may take his choice.
If we accept the latter story we find Milon and Bertha with Roland, now grown into a fine young squire of fifteen or sixteen years of age, following his father in all his adventures.
Charlemagne heard that the robber knight of the forest of Ardennes had a priceless jewel which was set in his shield. The king called his own knights together, and ordered them to go forth separately, each with his own squire, or page, and find the robber knight. Having overcome the robber in battle, the knight must bring the jewel to the king himself.
A day was set for the return of the knights whether they were successful or not, and the king promised to give each one a patient hearing. The knights set forth, Milon among them, accompanied by Roland, his squire and armor bearer. The forest of Ardennes was searched high and low, each knight hoping to meet the robber knight and win the jewel.
Milon spent many days in a vain search for the knight, when one day, exhausted by a long ride, he dismounted from his horse, removed his heavy armor, and lay down under a tree. Soon he was fast asleep with Roland keeping watch by his side.
It came into Roland's mind that he might win renown himself, if he could ever meet the robber knight alone. Carefully he put on his father's armor, seized his sword, sprang on his horse, and rode into the forest in search of adventures. He had not gone very far when he saw a gigantic horseman approaching, and by the glittering stone set in his shield he recognized the robber of which all the knights were in quest.
Up to this time the robber had been invincible. Roland called out to him, "Halt, Sir Knight, and yield thee to my arms, or else prepare to meet my charge."
The robber knight laughed in scorn, lowered his visor, and placed his lance at rest. Roland prepared for the charge, and put spurs to his horse. Both steeds sprang forward and the men came together in the forest with a great noise. For the first time in his life the robber knight was unhorsed and fell to the ground.
In a great rage the knight sprang up and drew his sword. Roland quickly dismounted and met his advance. For a long hour they fought, blows resounding on the armor, until both combatants were nearly exhausted. By a gallant stroke the sword of Roland pierced the joints of the robber's armor and the keen blade entered his bosom.
In a short while the robber was dead, and Roland, wrenching the jewel from the shield, concealed it in his breast. Riding back to his father, who was still asleep, Roland took off his armor, and removed all dust, and blood, and other signs of conflict. When the knight awoke he had no idea his son had been engaged in a deadly combat.
Resuming the quest Milon soon came upon the dead body of the knight. "Ah! someone has been ahead of me, and slain the robber, and taken his jewel. I shall now have to report to the king that while I slept another was fighting his enemies," said he.
Sadly Milon rode back to the court, and waited for the other knights to return, wondering which one had brought back the shining jewel. One by one they came in, but judging by their downcast looks none of them was victorious.
The day came for Charlemagne to receive them. Seated on his throne he bade the knights enter and relate their adventures. One after another approached him, and all told him of how they had scoured the forest, and had at last found the robber knight slain and the jewel gone, but no one knew who the victorious knight was.
Milon came last of all. His brow was lowered, and he hesitated in his step. Behind him came Roland, bearing a shield in the center of which shone the radiant jewel. Milon knew nothing of this, for Roland had kept his secret.
Milon began his story, saying that he had also found the dead giant, and the jewel gone, but had no idea who the knight was that had slain the robber.
The king laughed and said, "Sir Milon, look behind you and behold the jewel for which you have been seeking."
Looking around, to his astonishment he saw Roland bearing his shield, and the blazing stone in the center.
Roland now told his story, at which all were amazed, and some envious. The king, however, was delighted, praised his nephew for his skill and bravery, and made him a knight. Roland became one of the most famous of the paladins that were attached to the service of Charlemagne.