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The Story of Roland by  James Baldwin

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THE BATTLE

[299] HARD pressed was Charlemagne by his Pagan foes. Great, indeed, was the peril of the French. The enemy, under Marsilius and Agramant of Africa, hemmed them in on every side: they shut them up within the city walls, and battered at the city gates. All France was in distress: all Christendom seemed in danger. Where now were the heroes upon whose valor and strength the hosts of Charlemagne were wont to rely? The faithful Roland was a helpless prisoner still in the mountain keep of old Atlantes. Oliver was sick from a grievous wound, and unable to leave his chamber. Ogier the Dane had fallen into disgrace, and dared not come into the presence of the king. Reinold of Montalban still tarried in Britain. Of all the mighty peers of the realm, Duke Namon alone was with the king; yet age had dimmed the old counsellor's eye, and unnerved his hand, and he was no longer a hero in battle as he had been in the earlier days.

And every day the French host looked with eagerness and hope for the coming of Roland or Reinold; [300] but no tidings were heard of them. And some went boldly to the king, and prayed him to pardon Ogier his offences, and call him to their aid. But the king would not. And, to make the matter worse, fresh hordes of Saracens came daily to strengthen the besiegers. Rodomont, the lion-hearted king of Algiers, and Dardinel, the gentlest born of all the Moorish heroes, crossed the sea, and joined their forces to those of Marsilius and Agramant; and the Saracen lines pressed closer and still more closely upon the outposts of the French.

Just at the time when all hope seemed lost, a herald made his way into the city, bearing glad news. Had Roland come at last? No; but Reinold, with eight thousand Scotch and English fighting-men, horse and foot, was but a day's journey away. Hope sprang anew in the hearts of the besieged, and their drooping spirits rallied. The next night, by means of bridge and boats, Reinold and his little army silently crossed the river, and early in the morning they attacked the besieging Moors. Reinold, on his famed horse Bayard, led the charge, leaving his brave Scots fully a bow-shot length behind. At very sight of the well-known hero, the Moorish lines began to waver; the lances quivered in the hands of the Pagan knights; their feet trembled in the stirrups; they were ready to retreat. Never had warrior been seen who rode with a prouder grace, or fought with greater skill. Well worthy was Reinold to be called a son of Mars. Many were the valiant feats of arms that he performed that day, and many were the [301] foes who fell before him. At last, having splintered his good lance, he drew his sword Flamberge, and rode like a destroying hurricane into the Pagan ranks. Right and left the Saracens parted before him. Their arms seemed made of brittle glass, so easily were they shattered by the descending blade. Their bucklers of oak and tanned hides, their quilted vests and twisted turbans, seemed but as thinnest drapery under the lightning-strokes of Flamberge. And the swarm of Pagans who flocked to the field fell in his way like the yellow corn before the sickle of the reaper.

The battle thickened. The Moorish hosts for miles around seemed aroused, and rushing to the combat. The trumpets bellowed forth their deep, sonorous battle-call. The drums beat to arms. On every side were heard the twang of the bow, the whiz of the sling, the crash of lances, dire shrieks, and dismal groans, and loud laments, and all the terrible din of battle. From the more distant parts of the field fresh recruits came and filled up the gaps which Reinold and his Scotchmen had made; and it seemed as though the number of the foe grew greater rather than less. The meadows which but yesterday had been so green and fair were red now with human blood; and where the violets and buttercups had bloomed before, now heaps of slain men and slaughtered steeds were seen.

While this fearful battle was raging outside of the walls, Rodomont, the fierce Algerian chief, rode around to the other side of the city. Single-handed he broke [302] through the unguarded gates. From one street to another, like a raging lion, he roamed. On every hand he slew, he burned: he spared no one. Charlemagne, who was intent on aiding Reinold in front, knew nothing of this foe who had come in from the rear. Two thousand Englishmen had cut their way through the Moorish lines, and the gates were opened to receive and welcome them. The king was about to order a sally to be made; his warriors were in line, waiting his word of command, when suddenly a squire, all pale with dread, and panting for breath, rushed into his presence.

"Alas, alas!" he cried, scarcely able to say more, "the foe is within the walls! Turn, look around, and see the red flames and the curling smoke, and hear the cries of the terror-stricken townsfolk!"

Charlemagne waited not a moment. With his bravest knights he turned, and hastened to meet and drive back this unexpected foe. But he found ruin and desolation everywhere. The palaces were burned; the churches were in flames; women and children were hurrying to and fro, seeking places of safety. The king, supposing that a large force of the Moors had broken through the walls, rallied his men around him, and made his way toward the citadel; for he gave up all else as lost, and thought to make a last stand in that strongly walled fortress. But Rodomont, drunk with blood and victory, and despising all mankind, with a sword in one hand and a torch in the other, was already there. He had followed the terror-stricken people to [303] the very gates of the castle; and these he was shaking and smiting, as if he would force an entrance. From the roof above him the warders threw down every sort of missile they could lay hold of, hoping to crush their terrible foe. But Rodomont, fearless and unharmed, and like a demon glittering bright in his armor, still hewed furiously at the gate. At this moment the king and his knights hove upon the scene. Great was their surprise to learn that all this panic and destruction had been the work of a single man. All together they dashed upon the Pagan. Eight lances struck at once against the armor of Rodomont, but all glanced off harmless. The Algerian chief bore a charmed life, and easier would it be to pierce an anvil with a needle than to have smitten him with any weapon. At the call of Charlemagne other knights rushed upon the Pagan. They barricaded all outlets, and sought to take him prisoner. But Rodomont walked straight through their midst, and seemed not to think that any danger threatened him. With long steps and slow, he made his way toward the river; but he was hindered and galled on every side by a mob of knights and daring men-at-arms. Now and then he turned upon his foes, and fought them like a lion at bay. At length he reached the river-bank, and cast himself, all armed as he was, into the foaming water. Across the stream, without any seeming effort, he swam, as if borne up by corks and wafted by the wind. He climbed upon the farther shore, and, without looking back at his baffled foes, strode leisurely away.

[304] Meanwhile the battle outside of the walls continued with ever-increasing fury. The carnage lulled not, nor slackened, but wilder grew, and worse. Many times the Moors began to waver; and they would have given way before the terrible onsets of Reinold and his Scotchmen, had they not been rallied by their gallant young chief, King Dardinel. This chief bore a shield upon which were red and white quarterings, the same as those emblazoned on Roland's arms; and very rare was his skill in combat, and very great his valor. And when Reinold saw that the fate of the battle depended upon him, he cried out, "This is an evil plant, which it were well to uproot ere it becomes too great and strong." Then, spurring his horse toward the young chieftain, he caned out, "Poor child, whose buckler is that thou bearest? It is a dangerous thing for one like thee to carry. Come, show us how thou canst defend the chosen colors of our own chief Roland! Doubtless thou hast gotten them by fraud, and thou shalt lose them by force."

Dardinel was not at all dismayed by the threatening tone and manners of the Montalban hero. "More honor than dishonor shall be mine from these quarterings of red and white," he answered. "You shall see, that, though I am a child, I know well how to defend that which I bear. I trust in God, and I shall not disgrace my father's teaching."

When he had spoken, the boy raised his sword, and rushed manfully to the conflict. But his weapon fell [305] harmlessly upon Reinold's helmet; and before he could turn about or defend himself, that knight dealt him so furious a blow in the breast, that he reeled in his saddle, and fell lifeless to the ground. As the violet uprooted by the plough lies fading in the scorching sunshine, or as the poppy droops its head and in its beauty dies, so perished this young flower of Moorish chivalry. And with him died the hopes of all his followers.

The Saracens, dismayed and beaten, now began a wild retreat, and had not Marsilius of Spain wisely led them into a fortified camp which he had made ready, some miles away, few, if any of them, would ever have escaped from France. That night the French host encamped upon the battlefield; and watchfires high and bright were built all around that bloody plain. And the remnant of the Moors lay uneasily behind their hastily built earthworks, and planned how they might steal away and escape under the friendly mantle of darkness.


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