A Book of Myths
Leaving them behind with twenty thousand men, and with Ganelon commanding the vanguard, Charlemagne started.
“Christ keep you!” he said on parting with Roland—“I betak you to Crist.”
And Roland, clad in his shining armour, his lordly helmet on his head, his sword Durendala by his side, his horn Olifant slung round him, and his flower-painted shield on his arm, mounted his good steed Veillantif, and, holding his bright lance with its white pennon and golden fringe in his hand, led the way for his fellow-knights and for the other Franks who so dearly loved him.
Not far from the pass of Roncesvalles he saw, gleaming against the dark side of the purple mountain, the spears of the Saracens. Ten thousand men, under Sir [Pg 277] Gautier, were sent by Roland to reconnoitre, but from every side the heathen pressed upon them, and every one of the ten thousand were slain—hurled into the valley far down below. Gautier alone, sorely wounded, returned to Roland, to tell him, ere his life ebbed away, of the betrayal by Ganelon, and to warn him of the ambush. Yet even then they were at Roncesvalles, and the warning came too late. Afar off, amongst the beech trees, and coming down amongst the lonely passes of the mountains, the Franks could see the gleam of silver armour, and Oliver, well knowing that not even the most dauntless valour could withstand such a host as the one that came against them, besought Roland to blow a blast on his magic horn that Charlemagne might hear and return to aid him. And all the other Douzeperes begged of him that thus he would call for help. But Roland would not listen to them.
And or I se my brest blod throughe my harnes ryn
Blow never horn for no help then.”
Through the night they knew their enemies were coming ever nearer, hemming them in, but there were no night alarms, and day broke fair and still. There was no wind, there was dew on the grass; “dew dymmd the floures,” and amongst the trees the birds sang merrily. At daybreak the good Bishop Turpin celebrated Mass and blessed them, and even as his voice ceased they beheld the Saracen host close upon them. Then Roland spoke brave words of cheer to his army and commended their souls and his own to Christ, “who suffrid for us [Pg 278] paynes sore,” and for whose sake they had to fight the enemies of the Cross. Behind every tree and rock a Saracen seemed to be hidden, and in a moment the whole pass was alive with men in mortal strife.
Surely never in any fight were greater prodigies of valour performed than those of Roland and his comrades. Twelve Saracen kings fell before their mighty swords, and many a Saracen warrior was hurled down the cliffs to pay for the lives of the men of France whom they had trapped to their death. Never before, in one day, did one man slay so many as did Roland and Oliver his friend—“A Roland for an Oliver” was no good exchange, and yet a very fair one, as the heathen quickly learned.
Red his corselet, red his shoulders,
Red his arm, and red his charger.”
In the thickest of the fight he and Oliver came together, and Roland saw that his friend was using for weapon and dealing death-blows with the truncheon of a spear.
‘In this game ’tis not a distaff,
But a blade of steel thou needest.
Where is now Hauteclaire, thy good sword,
‘Here,’ said Oliver; ‘so fight I
That I have not time to draw it.’
‘Friend,’ quoth Roland, ‘more I love thee
Ever henceforth than a brother.’”
When the sun set on that welter of blood, not a single Saracen was left, and those of the Frankish rearguard who still lived were very weary men.
[Pg 279] Then Roland called on his men to give thanks to God, and Bishop Turpin, whose stout arm had fought well on that bloody day, offered up thanks for the army, though in sorry plight were they, almost none unwounded, their swords and lances broken, and their hauberks rent and blood-stained. Gladly they laid themselves down to rest beside the comrades whose eyes never more would open on the fair land of France, but even as Roland was about to take his rest he saw descending upon him and his little band a host of Saracens, led by Marsile himself.