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Stories of Charlemagne by  Alfred J. Church


 

 

HOW OLIVER AND OTHERS WERE TAKEN PRISONERS

[145]

F
IERABRAS, knowing himself to be vanquished, cried to Oliver, "I crave your mercy, noble knight, and I pray that I may be baptized; for how can I refuse to believe in the God by whose help you have now overcome me? Therefore I surrender myself to you, and beg for your protection." When Oliver heard him speak and saw in what a strait he was, he had great compassion on him, and laid him under a tree, and so bound up his wounds that he staunched the bleeding. When he had done this, Fierabras said, "Now, noble sir, carry me away from this place, for of my own strength I cannot go." Oliver answered. "Nay, but you are of so great a weight that I may not take you." Then said [146] the giant again, "Take me to the King, for verily I am very near my end. And if you cannot bear me, then take my horse and mount thereon, and lay me across the saddle, and put my sword by thy side. And mark this: there lie in wait in that wood yonder 40,000 men—soldiers of mine, whom I set there this very day, bidding them there abide till I should return from the battle." Oliver was ill-content with these words; nevertheless he took the giant and laid him across the saddle of his horse, and went his way. Then there charged from the wood a great host of pagans, among whom was a certain Brullant, and another, Sortybrant by name.

When Oliver saw these he struck his spurs into his horse, but the beast was so heavily burdened that he could not go so fast as the enemy pursued. When the men of France saw this, they made all haste to go to the help of Oliver, Roland first of all, and Richard of Normandy, and Guy of Burgundy, and Duke Thierry, and as was meet, Oliver's own father, Duke Reyner. Meanwhile Brullant, having outstripped his companions, came near, for he rode a horse that was as swift as a greyhound. Then Oliver said to Fierabras, "Now, Sir King, I must needs put you down, and this I [147] do with much discontent. But you see that I am in a great strait, for if these men overtake me then shall I of a certainty be slain, and King Charles will never see me more." Fierabras answered, "Noble Oliver, will you now leave me? Surely I shall be in very evil case if you so desert me." Oliver said, "Nay, but I will not leave you, and will fight for you with all my strength to the very end." So saying he put upon himself the pagan's breastplate, which was in better case than his own, and took his sword Hautclere in his hand, and turned himself to meet the enemy. Thereupon came Brullant the Saracen riding fiercely at him, and struck him in the breast with his spear, so that the shaft brake; but Oliver was wounded. When Fierabras saw this he said, "Sir Oliver, you have done enough for me; now take thought for yourself. But lay me first somewhere out of the way, if it may be." So Oliver laid him under a tree out of the way. And when he had done this he saw a great multitude of Saracens about him on every side. Seeing, therefore, that there was no way for him to escape, he prayed to God that it might be granted to him not to die at that time, but rather to live till he should come to his end in company with Roland his comrade, After this [148] he drew Hautclere his sword, and smote the first man that he encountered—he was the son of the greatest lord that was in the army of the Saracens—and cleft his body to the breast, so that he fell down dead. Whereupon Oliver took his shield, for his own had been broken to pieces. This done he charged the enemy; one of the leaders he slew at the first stroke, and not a few afterwards. He bore himself right bravely, but it was not in mortal man to prevail against such a host. First his horse was slain under him, and though he rose again from the earth and stood upon his feet, and dealt many mighty blows, slaying many, yet he was overcome by the strength and number of the Saracens. His shield was broken in thirty places, and his breastplate pierced through with darts, and his body wounded many times. At the last, being overcome by weariness and great bleeding, he fell to the ground. Then the Saracens took hold of him as he lay, and bound him with cords, and blindfolded his eyes, and setting him on a horse, so carried him away. All this time he did not cease to cry out for help, calling by name on King Charles and on Roland, who was his comrade. Nor did these turn a deaf ear to his cries, but came with all haste to help him, if it might be. And [149] among them was Roland, and Ogier the Dane, and Guy of Burgundy, yes, and King Charles himself. There was not one of them but slew a Saracen, but Oliver they could not rescue, because they that had him in charge fled with all speed, so that the men of France could not by any means come up with them. Nor was this all the trouble, for many of the Christians were slain, and others were taken prisoners, as Gerard of Montdidier and Geoffrey Langevin. These the Saracens bound to horses and carried away with all haste. When Charlemagne saw this he was so angry that he well-nigh lost his wits. "Help! help!" he cried to the men of France. "Will you not save your comrades? It will be an ill day for France if these men are carried away into captivity." Nor were Roland and his comrades slow to do the King's bidding, for they spurred their horses, and pursued after the enemy, seeking if by any means they might deliver the prisoners. And ever Roland was in front, having his good sword Durendal in his hand. Many blows did he deal with it, and few were they that were smitten and yet lived. For the space of five miles they followed after the Saracens, and still as they followed they slew, but nevertheless they could not come up with Oliver and [150] the rest of the prisoners, so quickly did they who had them in charge carry them away. As for Roland, though he swore that he would not turn back before he had delivered his comrades from captivity, yet he was constrained to depart from his purpose, for now the night began to fall, and no man knew by which way he should go. So the King, seeing that there was much danger lest the Saracens should lay an ambush for his army, bade them halt and turn back to the camp. And this they did very unwillingly.

As King Charles rode back, he found Fierabras lying under a tree much spent with the bleeding of his wounds. When he saw him, he said, "I have good cause to hate you, pagan that you are, for you are the cause whereby many of my men have been slain and taken prisoners, among them Oliver, than whom there is no one in the whole world dearer to me."

When Fierabras heard these words, he sighed and said, "Most noble King, I pray you of your mercy to pardon me and cause to be made a Christian man, so that, if I should be healed of my wounds, I may do all that is in me to advance the Christian faith, and to deliver the Holy Sepulchre. And now I [151] beseech you to order that I may be baptized without delay."

When the King heard him speak in this fashion he felt a great compassion for him, and bade his knights carry him to a convenient lodging. And when the men of France saw of how great stature and beauty he was, they marvelled much, for indeed, when he was without his armour, there was no fairer man to be seen in all the world. Then they sent in all haste for Turpin the Archbishop, who when he was come baptized him in the name of Florin. Nevertheless he was still called Fierabras to the day of his death. Then the King sent his physicians and sages to search out his wounds, who having examined him, when they found that he had not been hurt in any mortal part, affirmed that he would be whole again in the space of two months.


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