The Brotherhood of the Champions
" 'To Coventry the dragon and the ring
Shall Wat the shipman and his comrade bring:
To England Wat shall carry England's knight,
And Dunsmore Heath shall witness England's plight.
In England shall he win and lose his wife;
The dragon's lord shall end the dragon's life.'
I can make nothing of that prophecy, save that you shall save England from a dragon, and come to sorrow there, if you are truly he whom I am to take by ship to my country. You have the dragon on your breast, you bear the ring, and you seek to go to Coventry. So my vision showed me."
"What is all this talk of vision?" said St. George, growing impatient at the delay. "Do you mean to take me to England? If so, set on; if not, let be, and do not affront my ears with your talk."
"You speak justly, sir. Dickon, go, unmoor the boat and bring it to the quay. Sir Knight, we can take in our little ship only yourself. If you have a horse, it must bide here. I shall find you good steeds in England. It was all set forth in my vision."
The man Dickon hastened away, and took a skiff, and rowed off to a little old battered boat that lay moored among the rest. She looked very frail and crank for such an enterprise on such a day. She was a thing of small burden, not much bigger than a row-boat. Dickon by himself could handle her, and brought her alongside the quay. Meanwhile, at the prompting of Wat, St. George went to his inn and gave orders for Bucephalus to be kept till he returned, and bade farewell to the good beast. Then he went back to the quay and entered the crazy boat.
As they steered out of the harbour Wat told him the tale of his vision. For three nights running he had dreamed the same thing. Terrible sounds and sights had passed through his mind, but they were all confused, and he could remember nothing of them. They ceased suddenly, and he seemed to be in great peace and calm, as it were in a meadow of soft grass and cool airs. He lay thus in a condition of great delight, when in a moment, coming he knew not how or whence, a benign figure stood before him, and spoke in a clear voice: "Go to the quay on Friday at noon, and seek there an English knight, whom you shall know by the signs of a dragon and a ring that gives warning of danger. He is to go to Coventry, and you shall bear him thither. If you do this, your way shall be guarded, and you shall prosper; but if you refuse, you shall perish miserably." The figure told him also of certain provisions for the journey, and then vanished, and Wat awoke. So plain had been the vision that at first he did not know he had been to sleep. But on the first night he paid little heed to it. On the second it came again, and he was afraid, for he did not yet trust the words he heard, but thought they foretold evil to himself. But when he dreamed the same again on the third night, he doubted no more, but did as he was ordered, and found St. George to prove the truth of the vision.
By the time the telling of this dream was done, the little boat was out in the open sea, and the waves were clapping and hissing under her bows. She rose and fell, leapt and shivered with each buffet. Spray dashed over her gunwales, and ever and again her hull sank so far down in the trough of the waters that she seemed to be in a green cup or hollow channel; then she would slide upwards, her bows nosing the air, and smack!—the prow would beat the water again, with a whirl of foam.
So they fared across the Channel, in a sea where no other boat durst venture. It seemed as if Heaven smiled upon St. George, for when they were gone a good part of the way across, the wind shifted a little, dropping towards the south; and the sun shone in a clear sky, so that the waves, with their white crests, looked like ermine upon a cloth of gold, and the white cliffs, growing nearer and nearer, till St. George could see the sheep grazing upon the green slopes of the hollows, gleamed like a silver rim to the burnished waters.
Soon Dover was in sight, with its castle and the ancient light-tower standing high above the little town. The boat came alongside a little quay, in the lee of the wind, and the sails fell idle, while Wat and Dickon poled her along the quay wall to a landing-place. St. George felt great joy at the thought of the good English earth that in a moment he would be treading. The harbour seemed, as it were, home to him, and as the boat came to at some steps, he sprang ashore with a leap that sent the gunwale under water for a moment with its force.
"England!" he cried aloud. "Come, my good friends, on to Coventry, if you are to lead me thither. Leave your boat and set forth."
"Softly, sir," answered Wat. "I will not lose a good boat for all the prophecies and visions in the world. You cannot live by dreams; I must have my boat to win me bread. You shall come to your journey's end in time, sir; all is prepared. Dickon, warp her to the moorings."
They took the boat along to a mooring-place and tied her up. It seemed to St. George that they would never finish the task. It was near sundown, and he had yet to go half across England—more than eight score miles—by noon on the next day. If he travelled without ceasing, he would have to go nearly ten miles every hour from that moment onwards; and he had no horse, and knew not where he could find one, or fresh ones as he went on his hasty way. Little wonder that he was anxious.
"Now, Sir Knight," said Wat, when at last he came to land with his comrade, "you will see a thing that I cannot understand, if my dream is true. And if my dream is not true, I doubt you will not see Coventry by noon to-morrow."
"I will show you that you can live by dreams," answered St. George bravely. "I have faith in your dream; it shall bring life to Sabra and to me—for I could not live without her. Your vision shall come true; I know it in my heart. Now bestir you, and fulfil its commands, whatever they be."
"Trust me, sir," answered the man. "First you must eat and drink. For this I was bidden in my dream to lead you to the inn of the Roaring Lion. Dickon knows where that is; he will take you. As for me, I have to busy myself with finding you a horse. Dickon, do your part. In half an hour we must leave Dover behind us."
He turned away from them, and went along a passage leading to some old houses. St. George gazed after him anxiously; he did not understand what was to happen.
Dickon touched him on the arm. "Follow me, sir; they await you at the Roaring Lion."
St. George began to follow him, amazed. Suddenly a suspicion came into his mind. What if this Lord Siward, who had wronged Sabra, had powerful kinsmen who might avenge his death by setting spies to entrap and kill St. George if he came to England? What if Wat and Dickon were in their pay, leading him into some deadly ambush?
The champion drew his sword, and clutched Dickon roughly by the shoulder. "Look me in the face, knave!" he cried in a terrible voice. "Swear to me on your life that there is no plot against me in what you do. Who await me at this inn of the Roaring Lion? Why am I to go thither?"
Dickon looked at him fairly and squarely. "I swear on my life," he said solemnly, "and by whatever else I hold dear and sacred, that I am serving you faithfully and truly, and I know of no harm that will befall you. Kill me first if any man attacks you."
St. George believed him. "I take your word," he answered. "But I do not understand these strange doings. Why should your comrade help me because of a dream?"
"Wat is an old man," said Dickon, "and he knows much of the wisdom that is hidden from the young. He can read the stars as if they were a book written in a fair hand (for he can read writing also, which a man like me cannot do). He said to me that the knight whom he was to befriend must be under the special protection of Heaven, for the good of Christendom and England. There has been much evil in England in the past, with magicians and enchanters and the black arts; but these things are losing their power, and I think you, Sir Knight, must be one of those who war against them."
"You speak truly, my friend; all my life I have been fighting the powers of evil."
As they spoke thus they reached the inn of the Roaring Lion. The host met St. George at the door. "You are the knight who must ride to Coventry?" he asked. "I have a table set for you, sir: be pleased to come with me." And he led him to a room where there was spread a meal of good food and a flagon of wine. Hard by stood a serving-man to wait upon the guest.
"You, good fellow," said the host to Dickon, "I have a feast for you also; follow me, and leave your knight to his repast, for I am told that he has little time to waste."
They went away. St. George fell to gladly, and when he had eaten and drank, felt a new man, ready for the long, hard journey in front of him.
There was a jingling of harness and noise of hoofs outside. He rose and attired himself again for the road. Then he went down into the courtyard of the inn. There were Wat and Dickon, with three fine horses, all ready for a journey.
"This is yours, sir," said Wat, leading the finest of the horses to him. "We get fresh beasts at Rochester. We must tarry here no longer. Dickon and I will go with you to London, and there we must leave you."
St. George would have paid the innkeeper, but he would take no money. So the champion gave him instead a precious jewel, and bestowed a piece of gold upon the serving-man; and so, as the setting sun began to throw the town into the long shadows of the hills, he and his two guides rode out from the inn-yard, under the archway, into the London road, and clattered off at a good round gallop.
It was not very long before they came to Canterbury; but they made no halt there, but rode out by the West Gate and made all speed to Rochester. There, at an inn hard by the castle, fresh horses were in readiness, as though St. George was awaited; and in a little while they were off again on the road to London. When they came thither, Wat guided St. George to an inn in Southwark, and told him that he might wait there an hour, and rest and refresh himself. Then a new horse would be ready for him, and he must ride as best he could to Windsor. At Windsor, and again at Oxford and Banbury, there would be a fresh steed, and at Warwick, if it were not by any ill chance too late, he might rest and even sleep a little, so as to ride thence to Coventry, no very long stage, with his strength as much restored as might be. At each inn where he stopped (and Wat told him the names of them), he was to give the password, "St. George for England," and he would be served faithfully by all.
Then the two good mariners bade the champion farewell; they were men of the sea, Wat said, and every man must stick to his own craft or trade. He had been bidden in his vision to go no farther than London. The champion bestowed on each a great emerald, and they departed.
St. George felt lonely when they had gone. But he busied himself with food and drink, for a long journey through the night was before him. He was not certain of his way, but there were few roads, and he could not easily go astray.
It was dark when he left Southwark and clattered over London Bridge. Whenever any guard hailed him, as at Lud Gate, when he went out of the City of London on the west side, he gave the word, "St. George for England," and immediately bars were drawn and gates flung open, and he could ride where he wished. All through the night he rode thus. Men slept soundly in those days, and did not journey by night save upon such grave errands as this. Not a soul did he meet in the hours of darkness. But at Windsor and at Oxford, which he reached near dawn, men were awake in readiness for him.
It was after he left Oxford that misfortune befell him. The road split, and he chose the wrong fork of it. So long had he been absent from England, and so little had he known of his own land, that he was not aware of his error until he passed a peasant and asked him how far away Banbury was.
"Nigh twenty mile, sir, and a bad road," answered the man. This is the road to Stow. You must bear to your right." He told him certain landmarks to follow. It was now broad day.
St. George thanked him and rode onwards as he had been directed. But by now the strain of his journey was telling on him; he could hardly stay in his saddle. Nevertheless, he struggled onwards, and at last, half unconscious from weariness, rode into the inn yard at Banbury. He gave his horse to a serving-man, spoke the password, went into a public room of the inn, and fell asleep on a settle.
They let him sleep. But a more than mortal power was watching over him. He woke about half-past ten o'clock in the morning. He had an hour and a half left, and some twenty miles to travel, with a fresh horse awaiting him at Warwick. He ate some food quickly and galloped off.
At Warwick he waited no longer than to change his horse, but was off again in a moment. And now the sun was high in the heavens; it was near midsummer, and the rays beat down upon him mercilessly. Foam flew from his horse; the dust swirled in clouds behind him; but onwards he pressed, ever and again putting his hand to his side to feel if his weapons were ready. Coventry came in sight. People began to appear upon the road, all hastening to the town, as though something unwonted were toward. As he came into the town itself he found it thronged with citizens, but the thunder of his horse's hoofs drove them out of his way. On, on he went, and suddenly the market-place opened before him. There, in the midst, stood a great stake on a mound, and bound to it was Sabra. There was no fear upon her face, but only a high courage and pride. Near her were bundles of faggots, and even as St. George came into the square attendants were beginning to carry these towards the stake. So mighty were the Lord Siward's kinsmen that they had prevailed upon the judge to give her the death of a witch rather than of a Princess. The chief of these kinsmen, Sir Egremort, Baron of Chester, was within the circle of guards, who kept back the great press of folk all round—a tall, black-bearded man on a dapple-grey charger. He watched Sabra with a look of cruel joy. Near him sat a judge on a throne of office, and round him were secretaries and notaries, and a herald, and divers officers of the law.
As St. George broke through the guards in his headlong gallop he loosed his sword Ascalon in its sheath. Now, if ever, it should not fail him.
The judge rose from his throne. All round the people murmured and cried, not knowing who the strange knight on the foaming horse might be. The men carrying faggots looked at the champion curiously for a moment, then went about their task again. One broached a cask of oil, and began to sprinkle it upon the wood as they piled it round the Princess.
"Hold, Sir Knight!" cried the judge. "Why do you ride thus furiously and break through our guard?"
"Sir," replied St. George, saluting him, for he saw that the judge was in authority there, "I am told that this lady needs a champion. I will take up her cause, and approve it upon the body of any who come against me."
At that the crowd shouted, for they had grown to love the Princess Sabra in the little time she had been amongst them; and they believed that she would not have killed the Lord Siward but for a great reason. The Princess smiled gently. She knew that St. George would come. If he were by her, it was no matter what befell her.
"You deliver this challenge?" asked the judge.
"Yes," said St. George; "and if any man seeks death, sure and just and swift, let him take up my challenge." For he knew in his heart that no man there could withstand him. As he spoke he flung his gauntlet on the ground.
"I take up your challenge!" cried Sir Egremort; and he rode forward and stooped down from his horse, and picked up the glove with the point of his sword. "This woman is a witch and a murderess; she shall die!"
"Tell me your name and lineage, Sir Knight," said St. George. "I cannot fight here in my own country and among Christian men against one who is not of noble birth; and you must needs be of strange birth," he added, taunting Sir Egremort, at the very sight of whom he felt enraged, as if by instinct, "if you would take up such a cause against an innocent lady."
"I am Sir Egremort, Baron of Chester, and I am of the family of the Lord Siward, Earl of Coventry, whom this foreign woman slew. Who are you, who take up so unworthy a cause?"
"I am George, son of Sir Albert, formerly High Steward of England; and this lady is the Princess Sabra, daughter of King Ptolemy of Egypt. Never a word more after this day shall you speak on this earth, base knight! Make your peace with God, and settle your worldly affairs, for I shall surely kill you—aye, and any more that follow the ways of your vile Siward!"
"Let the herald cry that a champion is come for the prisoner," said the judge. "Let him proclaim the state of these knights. Then shall the innocence of this woman be put to the proof by combat."
The herald made proclamation as he was ordered. Then the two knights stood forth to do battle. They were to fight with swords on foot.
Never did St. George take up so easy a combat. They crossed blades, and in a second, as the sparks from the first meeting of the steel were still flashing, St. George swung Ascalon crossways and struck Sir Egremort's head from his body.
There rose a great cheering from the people. The champion ran to the stake and cut the bonds that held the Princess, and took her hand in his.
"Men of Coventry!" he cried in a loud voice, "I have done battle for my lady, as the custom of chivalry bade me. Henceforth she is innocent in the eye of the law. But you know what manner of enemy she had to meet, and that she could not save herself from dishonour save as she did. You know also of what lineage I come, and how dear my father was to you. Now I proclaim to you that in due time I shall go to Egypt with the Princess Sabra, there to be married to her, since her father is King of that country. Thereafter I must needs war against the hosts of the pagans. But when the battle of Christendom is won, then shall I come to live among you here, and do you whatsoever knightly service may be needful. It may be that great need may arise; I have heard many strange prophecies."
There were many things that Sabra and St. George had to say to one another now that they were together again. And before he took the Princess to Egypt to wed her in her own land, according to custom, St. George had to set in order the affairs of his father's estate, which had been held in stewardship for him during all the years of his absence. This he did, and he obtained audience also of the King of England, and was by him confirmed and established in his inheritance, and given a post of honour at the court whensoever he might be in England.
But the time came soon when he must go back to the East, and he set forth duly with Sabra. No need was there now for furious haste, or for the aid of men warned by dreams. Nevertheless he was not to go without adventure. He travelled back to the East by a different road from that by which he had come with such desperate speed. He went to Calais for his good steed Bucephalus, and thence he made for the Lowlands and Germany. His way lay at first through the vast forest of the Ardennes, where in those days, in the thick, dark trees, often great danger lurked for man and beast. It was near nightfall when they came thither.
The track was narrow, though clean cut and straight. So dense were the trees that they were like a wall on either side, shutting off all light and sound. The very steps of Bucephalus on the soft woodland path (for Sabra rode pillion behind St. George) echoed dully against the green barrier. There was no other sound, until suddenly Sabra cried out in fear, and shivered.
"What is it, dear lady?" asked St. George. He had seen and heard nothing to cause terror.
"I heard a serpent hiss," she said.
"There was no sound; I heard nothing," answered St. George gently. But even as he spoke he heard a faint rustling, as of a snake in the undergrowth.
"It is there again!" cried Sabra. "Look, my lord, look! There are fierce eyes moving there!"
She pointed to the right. In the dark green were six little points of flame, swaying quickly from side to side, and a hissing sound came from them.
As they looked they heard the same sound in front, and immediately afterwards to the left; and in a few moments all the twilit wood seemed to be full of moving bright eyes peering at them. But at first they could not see any living creatures to which the eyes belonged. There was no sign of life but those swaying stars in the dark green, and a fierce, angry hissing, and the rustling of leaves, as if something were sliding stealthily along through them.
St. George looked to right and left. Then he looked down the path in front of him, and on the white, clear surface he saw a great snake gliding swiftly towards him. But it was unlike any snake yet seen by mortal eyes, for it had three heads. It was ten or twelve feet long, and dark green in colour, with a faint marking in light blue on its back. Each grisly head was set upon a neck a foot long, or more, and the six eyes gleamed with a bright flame. The jaws were open, so that the white poison fangs gleamed, and the black forked tongues flickered swiftly to and fro.
The thing came on very rapidly. St. George saw that it might strike Bucephalus before he could touch it. He slipped quickly to the ground, leaving the reins to Sabra, and drawing his sword with his left hand as he dismounted. On foot he had the advantage of the venomous creature. He shifted his sword swiftly to his right hand, and leant forward on one leg, sweeping with his blade as far as his arm could reach. The snake was well within his stretch of arm and sword, and Ascalon made light work of such a victim. The blade smote the reptile just below the place where the three necks joined to one body, and struck off all three, as it were, on one branch. The heads dropped to the ground, the mouths shutting fiercely; the long body writhed hideously for a moment, and then lay limp and still.
St. George turned swiftly to see if Sabra was safe. She was sitting on Bucephalus as if tied to the good horse, stiff and staring. On her right was another great serpent, rearing high from the ground, the three heads waving differently this way and that.
The champion gave a great cry. It seemed as if he could hardly save the Princess, so near was the monstrous reptile. But even as he shouted he sprang and swung his sword. Two heads he cleaved from the body, and the third he struck off with an upward blow as he recovered himself.
There was a great rustling in the bushes, and then silence. No longer were the gleaming eyes to be seen. The serpents had all fled.
"Be of good heart, dear one," said St. George. There are no more of these gliding secret foes. We have scared them all away."
There was a noise in the distance like thunder—a rumbling, roaring sound that yet seemed as though some human creature had caused it by design.
"Oh, my lord, I fear very greatly!" said Sabra. "This forest is enchanted. The earth will open and swallow us. Did you not hear its hollow call to us?"
"No, dear lady; it was but far-off thunder," answered St. George, mounting in front of her again. She clasped him by the waist, as if he alone could make her safe.
They rode on, not speaking. The roaring sound grew louder. The path became wider, the trees less close, the light brighter. Soon they emerged into an open space. On the far side, with dense forest at the back of it, stood a great castle, huge and tall like the giant's fortress where the champion had lodged when he fled from Persia to Morocco. But the gates of this castle stood wide open. In the courtyard St. George thought he saw yet more of the three-headed snakes, and he felt in his heart that either some terrible giant or some evil wizard lived in the grim place.
He was not many minutes in doubt. As they drew nearer to the castle, its lord stalked forth, shouting fiercely. He was a giant, twenty feet high, and he had two heads. He was the more horrible because the two faces were not alike. One had a fierce black beard that swept to the giant's chest, but the other had only a long moustache.
"Who are you?" roared the monster. "Why have you killed two of my servants?"
He carried in his hand a huge knotted club, and as he spoke he waved it threateningly. But St. George was undaunted.
"I am a peaceful knight faring through this Christian land, having the care of this Princess and her safety in my hands. I journey to the East. Let me pass without interruption upon my way. I have seen no servants of yours, except some foul snakes, of whom I slew two."
"Oho!" cried the giant. "The serpents are my servants. But tell me, are you he whom they call George of England?"
"That is my name," answered St. George; "I am a knight who does battle for Christendom according to the powers that are in me."
"Ha, Sir George!" shouted the giant triumphantly (it was the bearded mouth which spoke; the other head was silent, but its cruel eyes showed its understanding of its comrade's words). "Sir George is the knight I am awaiting. Osmond the wizard gave me news of you. You will go no farther East than this castle. I shall take you and bind you, and then you shall be crushed slowly to death between two stones. Your Princess shall be my slave until the Saracens have driven all the Christians into the sea and taken possession of this land. I shall give her to them; I know not what they will do to her."
St. George felt Sabra clutch him tightly. "For that saying you die!" he said sternly. "Osmond I will kill with my own hand when I lead the army of Christendom against him."
He sprang from Bucephalus. "While I fight, dear lady," he said in a low voice to Sabra, "ride swiftly on and take refuge in the forest as soon as you can. I shall slay this villain, and will come to you; but go, lest he do you some mischief before I kill him."
He drew his sword, and advanced towards the giant on foot. "Now, monster, you shall learn not to boast," he said. And swiftly, before the giant could heave his great club up to strike, St. George ran in and smote off his left hand.
The giant howled savagely, and dashed at the champion. But St. George easily escaped his clumsy rush, and struck low and hard at his leg, and wounded him in the right ankle. The monster staggered, and fell upon one knee; and that fall was almost the undoing of the English knight, for he leapt forward to take advantage of it, and himself slipped and stumbled. In a flash the giant, recovering himself more quickly than seemed possible to so huge a creature, brought his club down. But his aim was not true; his wounds hindered him, and the club missed St. George by a hair's breadth.
Quickly the two sprang apart. As he moved, St. George saw out of the corner of his eye that Sabra had slipped past with Bucephalus, and was making for the forest beyond. The knowledge that she was safe—for a time, at any rate—gave him fresh vigour. He darted in and out at the giant, his blade flashing round him, cutting, pricking, dealing little wounds, till the monster knew not where to strike. The giant fell into a frenzy, and brandished his club wildly. His wounds began to tell upon him, and he grew more and more feeble, until at last St. George smote him deep in the side, a mortal blow. He reeled and fell, and the champion, coming close without fear, struck off first one of his ugly heads and then the other.
St. George went swiftly into the castle. But he found nothing there which called for his aid or strength. There were many servants, in great terror at the sight of the combat between the champion and the giant, and now afraid that the victor would put them to death. But St. George did them no harm. He asked certain questions of them, and learnt that there were no prisoners in the castle at that time. He was told also that not long before a message had come to the giant from the enchanter Osmond, warning him that an English knight would pass that way, whom he was to be sure to slay or take prisoner. St. George saw that never would Christendom or himself have peace until this wicked enchanter was dead.
Then he took fresh provisions from the giant's well-filled store, and set out to overtake Sabra. Soon enough he found her, resting on a fallen tree-trunk in the forest, with Bucephalus close at hand, cropping some sweet grass. But near her, by her side, were creatures that at first sight filled St. George with dismay. Two great lions crouched by her, one resting its head on her knee, the other lying at ease upon its side, looking up at her. They made a purring noise like a cat's, but louder and even terrible in sound.
St. George drew his sword hastily. "Do not move, Sabra," he cried. "Do not disturb them. Leave them to me."
But Sabra only laughed merrily. "Put up your sword," she answered. "These are my friends; they will do no harm to us."
St. George sheathed his sword slowly. He did not understand.
"I do not know why they came to me," continued Sabra, "nor why they are so gentle towards me. Thus it was: When I came to this fallen tree, I thought I would await you here, and I dismounted and sat down. No sooner was I seated than these brave beasts came running to me gladly like dogs, and lay down by me as you see. They did not so much as cast an eye on Bucephalus, nor did the good steed pay any heed to them."
"It is a sign from Heaven of your goodness and purity, dear lady," said St. George, laying his hand on a lion's mane. The beast did not stir. "Had you been a coward, or false to me, or a wrong-doer in any way, the high nature of these royal creatures would have been enraged at the sight of you. But they know you for what you are, all goodness and gentle thoughts and loyalty. Come, let us bid them farewell and go on our way."
Sabra fondled the lions gently, and then mounted the horse behind St. George again. The lions looked sadly upon her, as though they were loth to see her depart; and they followed behind Bucephalus, with drooping tails and downcast heads, almost to the edge of the forest, which in due time St. George reached safely. Then they stood watching till Sabra was out of their sight.
It was a journey of many weeks to the Christian host, and the way was full of hardships, but no other peril by land or sea befell the champion and his lady, and at last they came in safety to their old comrades. Great rejoicings were there in the Christian army over the return of St. George; for by now the lands conquered from the pagans were wellnigh set in order under Christian Princes, and it was time that the heathen should be attacked in the regions whither they had fled to gather fresh forces. But first there were marriages to be made, and great feasts to be held. All the champions and the leaders of the Christian army journeyed to Egypt, where King Ptolemy, now baptized a Christian, was reigning again, more justly and wisely than before. At his court St. George married Sabra, and for three months thereafter all the land was given over to rejoicings.
Then at last St. George set to work to gather and marshal the Christian forces. The leaders of the pagans were known to be now with the enchanter Osmond, at the court of the Soldan of Persia, against whom St. George already had a heavy debt for his imprisonment long before. From every quarter of Christendom more knights came; messengers were sent into every land to summon men, and money and arms were bestowed by those who could not, for any reason, serve in person. But it was more than a year before the great army was provisioned and ready for marching.
In that time a son was borne by Sabra; the name of Guy was given him. He was to make that name famous in after years, for he became no other than the renowned Guy, Earl of Warwick. During the wars that now began Sabra followed St. George as nearly as she could with safety, and bore him two other sons, named Alexander and David.
It was long before the Christian army, mighty though it was, could make headway against the paynim hosts. They divided their forces into three. One band went by way of the isthmus from Egypt into Palestine, and drove from the Holy Land all the pagans there. Another went south to the region of Sinai and Arabia, and marched thence northwards towards Persia. The third started from Constantinople, and crossed over into Asia Minor, and pushed the Saracens back thence. Slowly the three armies advanced, growing nearer to one another with every victory, until at last they were marching upon Persia in a great half-circle, closing gradually upon the Soldan and his wild host. Narrower and narrower grew their curve, until at length the pagans came to a stand under the walls of the ancient city of Ispahan. There a great battle was fought. It lasted five days without ceasing, and at the end of it the Christians were victorious. They slew more than half the Saracen army; of the rest, some surrendered, while others fled with the Soldan and Osmond the Wizard to the strong city of Belgor, many leagues distant.
A great part of the Christian army went to Belgor and besieged the fortress. Others occupied themselves with restoring peace and prosperity to Persia, gathering the neglected crops, doing justice between the peasants who had had no part in the war, rebuilding ruined cities, setting free prisoners and succouring oppressed Persians.
Belgor held out many months. The black arts of Osmond were strong to repel attacks with all manner of strange devices. He would cause the earth to tremble when scaling-ladders were set against the strong walls; he made springs dry up or become impure, so that at one time many Christians died of thirst; he called down lightning from the sky upon the battering-rams and engines of the besiegers. But all was in vain. He had within the walls an enemy whom he could not long hold at bay—hunger. The Saracens at last had no food left, and they must sally out and fight, or die of starvation.
So one morning the great gates were thrown open, and the pagans rushed forth, mad with despair and hunger and fury, yelling like men possessed, their eyes glaring, their unkempt hair streaming behind them. But the Christians were ready for them, and met them firmly; and then began the fiercest battle of all that long war.
It went ill with the Saracens. The Christian knights were stronger and less wearied; they had not been shut up in a fortress with very little food. But suddenly Osmond, in a frenzy of despair, tried his last hope. He knew a spell so powerful that by it he could call up hosts of evil spirits who would do his will. But so terrible were the words he must utter to conjure them up, and so deep and horrible was the enchantment, that it would deprive him of all his strength then and for ever after.
Nevertheless, he knew that unless this spell could be used, he and all the Saracens with him were doomed. Better to lose his magical power and be as other men than cease to be at all, he thought. He put on his wizard's robe, and chose certain herbs from his store. Inside the city gates he drew a large pentagram, and cast the herbs into a brazier in the midst of it. As they burnt, he rocked to and fro, crying out in a strange language. Foam came to his lips, and the herbs burnt with a green smoke that dazed the wits of all who smelt it, so that they became as drunken men. As the smoke died down and became a mere wisp, Osmond chanted yet louder and faster; and with the end of the spell he leapt swiftly from the pentagram. From the earth at every corner of it little jets of smoke began to rise, and as they swirled up to the height of a man, they took mortal shape. But there was a more than mortal light in their eyes, which burnt as with smouldering fires; and their bodies did not stay in one shape or limit, but grew big and little, thin or gross, by turns.
Osmond spoke some orders to them in an unknown tongue. With cries so shrill that they struck terror into all, the evil spirits flew against the Christians. Every moment more issued from the ground, until at length Osmond fell in a swoon from weariness at his terrible task.
The swords of the knights were of no avail against the demons; the blades passed through their bodies with a thin sound, and left no wound. The spirits, with more than human strength, caught the Christians by arm, or leg, or shoulder, and tossed them high into the air to a great height, so that they were killed or maimed by the fall. In a little time what had been a victory was like to be a disaster.
Suddenly St. George thought of a symbol that should have been ever in his mind, even in the thick of warfare. He sent a squire with a message. In a few moments a trumpet was heard, sounding a call which every Christian knight knew. They sank down upon their knees, paying no heed to the enemy, as the banner of the Cross was borne high through their midst.
Against that holy sign no evil thing could stand. With shrill cries the evil spirits vanished, and the Christians were left with only mortal enemies to fight. Aflame with new hope, they attacked again; and in a little while there was not a Saracen left free upon the field, save those who had gained liberty by death. The wizard Osmond was slain by St. George himself. He had recovered from his swoon, and boldly enough sought to take up arms; but there was no force left in him, and St. George cut him down with one blow, thus keeping his word to the giant of the forest.
The Soldan of Persia was one of those who were captured. They brought him before St. George, and with him his chief viziers.
"Do you remember me, Soldan?" asked St. George, when the Sovereign was led in, bound strongly, for his spirit was untamed, and he did not cease to struggle even in that extremity.
"I forget no dog of a Christian who has crossed me!" roared the Soldan, his face working with passion. "If I were free, I would tear your tongue from its roots; I would pull out your eyes, and trample on you; I would torment you so subtly that you would long for even a painful death as if it were a pleasant thing! I hate you! I hate all Christians!"
And he broke into cursings and threats so horrible that the Christian knights could not bear to hear his words. St. George signed that he should be taken away. Fighting and shouting, he was led away and cast into the very dungeon in which he had once imprisoned St. George. There, in blind fury, he dashed out his brains against the stone walls.
The viziers were held to ransom, and paid many thousand pieces of gold to the conquerors, who spent the treasure in building churches and restoring the cities that the Saracens had laid waste. All through the bounds of heathendom the seven champions and their comrades went, setting up law and order where lately there had been nothing but cruelty and wrong-doing.
In due time they brought peace and justice into all Christian lands, and won many converts to the Christian faith. There still lived in many regions giants and evildoers and robbers, but they went in fear of their lives, and showed themselves but little.
When their task was at length accomplished, the seven Champions went with St. George to England; and they held a great ceremony of thanksgiving for the success of their arms, and afterwards there were public rejoicings for many weeks. When all the feasting and revelry was ended, the Champions went each to his own country, to enjoy leisure and rest awhile, until some call should come to them to take up arms afresh and sally forth together once more.