M EANWHILE King Marsil was gathering all his host. From far and near came the heathen knights, all impatient to fight, each one eager to have the honour of slaying Roland with his own hand, each swearing that none of the twelve Peers should ever again see France.
Among them was a great champion called Chernuble. He was huge and ugly, and his strength was such that he could lift with ease a burden which four mules could scarcely carry. His face was inky black, his lips thick and hideous, and his coarse long hair reached the ground. It was said that in the land from whence he came, the sun never shone, the rain never fell, and the very stones were black as coal. He too, swearing that the Franks should die and that France should perish, joined the heathen host.
Very splendid were the Saracens as they moved along in the gleaming sunshine. Gold and silver shone upon their armour, pennons of white and purple floated over them, and from a thousand trumpets sounded their battle song.
To the ears of the Frankish knights the sound was borne as they rode through the valley of Roncesvalles.
"Sir Comrade," said Oliver, "it seemeth me there is battle at hand with the Saracen foe."
"Please Heaven it may be so," said Roland. "Our duty is to hold this post for our Emperor. Let us strike mighty blows that nothing be said or sung of us in scorn. Let us fight these heathen for our country and our faith."
As Oliver heard the sounds of battle come nearer, he climbed to the top of a hill, so that he could see far over the country. There before him he saw the Saracens marching in pride. Their helmets, inlaid with gold, gleamed in the sun. Gaily painted shields, hauberks of shining steel, spears and pennons waved and shone, rank upon rank in countless numbers.
Quickly Oliver came down from the hill, and went back to the Frankish army. "I have seen the heathen," he said to Roland. "Never on earth hath such a host been gathered. They march upon us many hundred thousand strong, with shield and spear and sword. Such battle as awaiteth us have we never fought before."
"Let him be accursed who fleeth!" cried the Franks. "There be few among us who fear death."
"It is Ganelon the felon, who hath betrayed us," said Oliver, "let him be accursed."
"Hush thee, Oliver," said Roland; "he is my step-sire. Let us hear no evil of him."
"The heathen are in fearful force," said Oliver, "and our Franks are but few. Friend Roland, sound upon thy horn. Then will Charlemagne hear and return with all his host to help us."
For round Roland's neck there hung a magic horn of carved ivory. If he blew upon this in case of need, the sound of it would be carried over hill and dale far, far onward. If he sounded it now, Charlemagne would very surely hear, and return from his homeward march.
But Roland would not listen to Oliver. "Nay," he said, "I should indeed be mad to sound upon my horn. If I call for help, I, Roland, I should lose my fame in all fair France. Nay, I will not sound, but I shall strike such blows with my good sword Durindal that the blade shall be red to the gold of the hilt. Our Franks, too, shall strike such blows that the heathen shall rue the day. I tell thee, they be all dead men."
"Oh Roland, friend, wind thy horn," pleaded Oliver. "To the ear of Charlemagne shall the sound be borne, and he and all his knights will return to help us."
"Now Heaven forbid that my kin should ever be pointed at in scorn because of me," said Roland, "or that fair France should fall to such dishonour. No! I will not sound upon my horn, but I shall strike such blows with my sword Durindal that the blade shall be dyed red in the blood of the heathen."
In vain Oliver implored. "I see no dishonour shouldst thou wind thy horn," he said, "for I have beheld the Saracen host. The valleys and the hills and all the plains are covered with them. They are many and great, and we are but a little company."
"So much the better," cried Roland, "my desire to fight them grows the greater. All the angels of Heaven forbid that France, through me, should lose one jot of fame. Death is better than dishonour. Let us strike such blows as our Emperor loveth to see."
Roland was rash as Oliver was wise, but both were knights of wondrous courage, and now Oliver pleaded no more. "Look," he cried, "look where the heathen come! Thou hast scorned, Roland, to sound thy horn, and our noble men will this day do their last deeds of bravery."
"Hush!" cried Roland, "shame to him who weareth a coward's heart."
And now Archbishop Turpin spurred his horse to a little hill in front of the army. "My lords and barons," he cried, turning to them, "Charlemagne hath left us here to guard the homeward march of his army. He is our King, and we are bound to die for him, if so need be. But now, before ye fight, confess your sins, and pray God to forgive them. If ye die, ye die as martyrs. In God's great paradise your places await you."
Then the Franks leapt from their horses and kneeled upon the ground while the Archbishop blessed them, and absolved them from all their sins. "For penance I command that ye strike the heathen full sore," he said.
Then springing from their knees the Franks leapt again into their saddles, ready now to fight and die.
"Friend," said Roland, turning to Oliver, "thou wert right. It is Ganelon who is the traitor. But the Emperor will avenge us upon him. As for Marsil, he deemeth that he hath bought us, and that Ganelon hath sold us unto him. But he will find that it is with our swords that we will pay him."
And now the battle began. "Montjoie!" shouted the Franks. It was the Emperor's own battle cry. It means "My joy," and came from the name of his famous sword Joyeuse or joyous. This sword was the most wonderful ever seen. Thirty times a day the shimmering light with which it glowed changed. In the gold of the hilt was encased the head of the spear with which the side of Christ had been pierced. And because of this great honour the Emperor called his sword Joyeuse, and from that the Franks took their battle cry "Montjoie." Now shouting it, and plunging spurs into their horses' sides, they dashed upon the foe. Never before had been seen such pride of chivalry, such splendour of knightly grace.
With boasting words, King Marsil's nephew came riding in front of the battle. "Ho, felon Franks!" he cried, "ye are met at last. Betrayed and sold are ye by your king. This day hath France lost her fair fame, and from Charlemagne is his right hand torn."
Roland heard him. With spur in side and slackened rein, he dashed upon the heathen, mad with rage. Through shield and hauberk pierced his spear, and the Saracen fell dead ere his scoffing words were done. "Thou dastard!" cried Roland, "no traitor is Charlemagne, but a right noble king and cavalier."
King Marsil's brother, sick at heart to see his nephew fall, rode out with mocking words upon his lips. "This day is the honour of France lost," he sneered.
But Oliver struck his golden spurs into his steed's side! "Caitiff, thy taunts are little worth," he cried, and, pierced through shield and buckler, the heathen fell.
Bishop Turpin, too, wielded well both sword and lance. "Thou lying coward, be silent evermore!" he cried, as a scoffing heathen king fell beneath his blows. "Charlemagne our lord is true and good, and no Frank shall flee this day."
"Montjoie! Montjoie!" sounded high above the clang of battle, as heathen after heathen was laid low. Limbs were lopped, armour flew in splinters. Many a heathen knight was cloven through from brow to saddle bow. The plain was strewn with the dying and the dead.
In Roland's hand his lance was shivered to the haft. Throwing the splintered wood away, he drew his famous Durindal. The naked blade shone in the sun and fell upon the helmet of Chernuble, Marsil's mighty champion. The sparkling gems with which it shone were scattered on the grass. Through cheek and chine, through flesh and bone, drove the shining steel, and Chernuble fell upon the ground, a black and hideous heap. "Lie there, caitiff!" cried Roland, "thy Mahomet cannot save thee. Not unto such as thou is the victory."
Chernuble, Marsil's mighty champion
On through the press rode Roland. Durindal flashed and fell and flashed again, and many a heathen bit the dust. Oliver, too, did marvellous deeds. His spear, as Roland's, was shivered into atoms. But scarcely knowing what he did, he fought still with the broken shaft, and with it brought many a heathen to his death.
"Comrade, what dost thou?" said Roland. "Is it now the time to fight with staves? Where is thy sword called Hauteclere with its crystal pommel and golden guard?"
"I lacked time in which to draw it," replied Oliver, "there was such need to strike blows fast and hard."
But now he drew his shining Hauteclere from its scabbard, and with it he dealt such blows that Roland cried, "My brother art thou, Oliver, from henceforth. Ah! such blows our Emperor would dearly love to see."
Furious and more furious waxed the fight. On all sides might be heard the cry of "Montjoie! Montjoie!" and many a blow did Frank and heathen give and take. But although thousands of Saracens lay dead, the Franks too had lost many of their bravest knights. Shield and spear, banner and pennon, broken, bloodstained and trampled, strewed the field.
Fiercer, wilder still, the battle grew. Roland, Oliver, Archbishop Turpin and all the twelve Peers of France fought in the thickest of the press. Many of the heathen fled, but even in flight they were cut down.
Meanwhile over France burst a fearful storm. Thunder rolled, lightning flashed, the very earth shook and trembled. There was not a town in all the land but the walls of it were cracked and riven. The sky grew black at mid-day, rain and hail in torrents swept the land. "It is the end of the world," the people whispered in trembling fear.
Alas, they knew not! It was the earth's great mourning for the death of Roland, which was nigh.
The battle waxed horrible. The Saracens fled, and the Franks pursued till of that great heathen host but one was left. Of the Saracen army which had set out in such splendour, four hundred thousand strong, one heathen king alone remained. And he, King Margaris, sorely wounded, his spear broken, his shield pierced and battered, fled with the direful news to King Marsil.
The Franks had won the day, and now mournfully over the plain they moved, seeking their dead and dying comrades. Weary men and worn were they, sad at the death of many brother knights, yet glad at the might and victory of France.