Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race

Page: 79

Roland for the Rearguard

Charlemagne was very loath to grant his request, but on the advice of Duke Naimes, most prudent of counsellors, he gave to Roland his bow, and offered to leave with him half the army. To this the champion would not agree, but would only have twenty thousand Franks from fair France. Roland clad himself in his shining armour, laced on his lordly helmet, girt himself with his famous sword Durendala, and hung round his neck his flower-painted shield; he mounted his good steed Veillantif, and took in hand his bright lance with the white pennon and golden fringe; then, looking like the Archangel St. Michael, he rode forward, and easy it was to see how all the Franks loved him and would follow where he led. Beside him rode the famous Peers of France, Oliver the bold and courteous, the saintly Archbishop Turpin, and Count Gautier, Roland’s loyal vassal. They chose carefully the twenty thousand French for the rearguard, and Roland sent Gautier with one thousand of their number to search the mountains. Alas! they never returned, for King Almaris, a Saracen chief, met and slew them all among the hills; and only Gautier, sorely wounded and bleeding to death, returned to Roland in the final struggle.

Charlemagne spoke a mournful “Farewell” to his nephew and the rearguard, and the mighty army began to traverse the gloomy ravine through the dark masses of rocks, and to emerge on the other side of the Pyrenees. All wept, most for joy to set eyes on that dear land of fair France, which for seven years they had not seen; but Charles, with a sad foreboding of disaster, hid his eyes beneath his cloak and wept in silence.

[Pg 137]

Charles is Sad

“What grief weighs on your mind, sire?” asked the wise Duke Naimes, riding up beside Charlemagne.

“I mourn for my nephew. Last night in a vision I saw Ganelon break my trusty lance—this Ganelon who has sent Roland to the rear. And now I have left Roland in a foreign land, and, O God! if I lose him I shall never find his equal!” And the emperor rode on in silence, seeing naught but his own sad foreboding visions.

The Saracen Pursuit

Meanwhile King Marsile, with his countless Saracens, had pursued so quickly that the van of the heathen army soon saw waving the banners of the Frankish rear. Then as they halted before the strife began, one by one the nobles of Saragossa, the champions of the Moors, advanced and claimed the right to measure themselves against the Twelve Peers of France. Marsile’s nephew received the royal glove as chief champion, and eleven Saracen chiefs took a vow to slay Roland and spread the faith of Mahomet.

“Death to the rearguard! Roland shall die! Death to the Peers! Woe to France and Charlemagne! We will bring the Emperor to your feet! You shall sleep at St. Denis! Down with fair France!” Such were their confident cries as they armed for the conflict; and on their side no less eager were the Franks.