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The Seven Champions of Christendom by  F. J. Harvey Darton
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ST. ANTHONY OF ITALY

I
BLANDERON'S CASTLE

[137]

S
T. ANTHONY'S road led him afar without adventure. He, too, fared out of England, by sea and forest and desert. But nothing worthy note befell him till at length, at the end of a great plain, he saw before him a high hill. Round the lower slopes of the hill were fir-trees innumerable, so close set that their shade looked black rather than green. Above them were the white walls of a huge castle. It covered all the top of the hill, and stood four-square to every quarter; at each corner of the battlements was a round tower.

St. Anthony thought that here at last might lie some adventure of repute. He went boldly along the track he was following; it led him through the forest of fir-trees, and ended at the gate of the castle.

The gate was a lattice of stout iron bars, fast shut, nor was any warder to be seen, nor any horn, or means of summoning one. It seemed as if the gate were not meant to be [138] an entrance to the castle, but no more than a way to keep strangers out. Above it, in the stone wall, was carved in letters picked out in gold this rhyme:

"Within this castle lives the scourge of kings;

Death lights on him who bold defiance brings."

Here, indeed, lived a worthy foe for the champion of Italy, though he did not yet know it; none other than the giant Blanderon, a monstrous enchanter who was in league with many wizards and evil powers. Not only did he do foul deeds himself, and by his spells and his strength capture many innocent prisoners and shut them up in his castle, but he was wont to have in his charge also the victims of many other vile magicians.

But this St. Anthony had not yet learned. He sought to enter the castle and find in it whatever there might be to find. The great gate being shut, he rode all round the walls in search of another; it was more than a mile round the whole circuit. But there was no gate save the one he had come to first; the walls were as smooth as glass, and as high as a tall tree.

The champion went back to the gate, and peered through the bars. There was no sign of life within. He dismounted and tethered [139] his horse, and took his sword, and beat with the handle of it upon the gate till the iron rang with the sound. For a moment he listened, and heard nothing. Then he struck the gate again, and the whole air in that still place was filled with the noise of beaten metal.

There was a deep roar within; a fierce voice shook the very air. Then came a rushing and a trampling, and the great voice roared again. St. Anthony saw through the bars of the gate, coming towards him in haste, a giant so huge and terrible that even his courage was aghast at the sight. He was as tall as four men, and in his hand he bore, instead of a club, an oak-tree that he had torn up by the roots. St. Anthony drew his sword hastily at the sight.

"Ah-h-h!" the giant roared; it was louder than the roar of a hungry lion. "Here comes another for my pantry!"

He gnashed his teeth, and twisted his lips up in a savage snarl. He kicked the bar that was across the gate on the inside, and it fell out, and the gates swung open. St. Anthony, undaunted, ran in; but he saw that it was of no avail to try to kill such a monster outright. He must weary him, or trick him into a false step, and must keep out of the reach of the tremendous club.

[140] The giant was already swinging the oak-tree round in fury, missing the champion by a hair's breadth. St. Anthony leapt aside, and Blanderon struck at him again; but once more the champion sprang away, and the tree missed him; yet it came so close that an outlying branch struck his knee, and almost threw him over. He recovered his balance, and drew a little farther off.

And then began as strange a fight as was ever seen, if that be a fight in which one is for ever attacking and the other for ever avoiding the attack. For full half an hour the champion of Italy ran hither and thither, and twisted, and leapt, and turned; and the giant rushed at him again and again, roaring and uttering terrible threats, and striking huge blows with the oaken club in vain.

At length Blanderon began to grow weary; and, indeed, St. Anthony was not so light-footed or light-hearted as when first he beat upon the castle gate with his sword. The giant staggered a little in his gait, and lifted his arm a little less vigorously when he had struck a blow. At last he gathered up his remaining strength, and swung the club up above his head with both hands; down it came, and if St. Anthony had been beneath there would have been no fellowship of the [141] Seven Champions for him. But for the last time he sprang aside. The giant's arms seemed almost paralysed by the shock of the blow; his knees bent beneath him, and he stumbled forward and fell in a heap upon his club.

There was St. Anthony's opportunity. He ran in, and struck swiftly at the giant's right arm, which was nearest to him. The good sword smote Blanderon just above the wrist, and cut the hand clean off.

With a roar of pain and fury the giant struggled to his feet, and ran at St. Anthony, leaving his club lying on the ground, and trying to clutch the champion with his left hand. And now, if Blanderon had been unwearied and unwounded, St. Anthony might not have escaped, for it was not so easy to avoid the giant's grasp as the blows of his clumsy club. But the monster was weakened, and his legs tottered as he ran, and he was half blinded by sweat and anger. As he ran he tripped over his own oak-tree club, and fell sprawling, and lay helpless. Straightway St. Anthony ran in again with his sword, and with two swift blows cut off the monster's head.

Himself weary, he sank upon the ground, and stretched himself out. But the ground [142] itself was enchanted, and no sooner had he lain down than he became cold and stiff, as though dead; all power of motion left him.

But meanwhile in the castle strange things had come to pass. The moment Blanderon was slain, his power over his prisoners was broken, though many there were in his prison who were not yet disenchanted, being under the spell of other magicians. It was wonderful to see those who had been set free coming to their senses, and wondering where they were, and recognising one another.

Among those from whom the spell had fallen was the fair Princess Rosalind. As soon as she was awakened, she looked round her, and remembered that the giant Blanderon had carried her off, she knew not how long before. She went to the castle battlements, and looked out to see if she could discover any cause of her new freedom. As soon as her eye fell on the courtyard, she beheld the giant stretched dead, with his head cut off, and close by him a gallant knight lying as if he, too, were dead.

She ran down to the courtyard, and felt the knight's heart; it still beat faintly, but he himself seemed to be in too deep a swoon to recover. The Princess went back into the castle, and searched all through the giant's [145] possessions for some draught or ointment which might be of avail. At last she came upon what seemed to be a suitable ointment, and this she took down to where St. Anthony lay. She began to rub his limbs with it, and to chafe his hands; and she took off his helmet gently, and rubbled his temples also. For a long while there was no result; but Princess Rosalind persevered. Nevertheless, she had almost given up hope, when the knight stirred a little, groaned, and awoke from his magic trance. She had broken the spell.

The Princess was the first thing he set eyes upon when he came to himself again, and he thought he had never seen anyone more lovely.

"What are you doing here, fair lady?" he asked, struggling to his feet.

"That is what I would ask of you, Sir Knight," she answered gently, "for you must have a wondrous tale to tell if it is you who slew this wicked giant and enchanter."

"I slew him, in truth," said St. Anthony. "But it was not a wondrous deed. I did but let him weary himself, and so deliver himself into my hands. I think some spell must have been cast upon me when I had killed him, for I sank down to rest on the [146] ground, and I knew no more till this moment, when I awoke to see you, fair lady."

And he looked at her with such love that she, too, felt that they were destined for one another.

"The ground, it may be, was enchanted, or was filled with a power of evil magic when the giant fell dead upon it; but now it seems that the power has passed, for you are whole and full of strength again. Tell me, Sir Knight, your name and estate."

"I am a Christian knight of Italy, by name Anthony," he answered. "But tell me, in turn, fair lady, who you may be?"

"I am the Princess Rosalind," she replied, "daughter of the King of Thrace. This cruel giant, whose name is Blanderon, carried me off once when I was hunting. I know not how long ago it was, for time itself is enchanted here, and not to be measured by mortal hours. This Blanderon was a magician, and in league with other wizards, all enemies of the human race. Many of their victims are shut up here, and I doubt whether they are all set free from their spells by this deed of yours. Belike you have only released those whom Blanderon himself enchanted. He told me there were many others. Come with me, Sir Anthony, and I will show you the saddest of them all, [147] unless it has been their happy fate to be set free also."

She led him to the other side of the castle, where was a garden full of sweet flowers, surrounded by a dark yew hedge. In one corner of it was a wide pool, or little lake, bordered by yew-trees cut into the shape of beasts and birds. On its waters swam six pure white swans, and upon the head of each was a little crown of gold.

"Alas, dear sisters!" cried Rosalind, when she saw them; and at the sound of her voice the swans swam towards her to the edge of the lake, and stretched out their long white necks to her piteously. "Oh, dearly loved ones, the time is not yet come for you to be free. This valiant knight has slain Blanderon, and broken the spell that is upon me; but we do not know who it is that has enchanted you, since it was not Blanderon. But we will discover the secret. With this knight's aid, all things are possible."

"What is this strange thing you say, Princess?" asked Sir Anthony. "You called these swans your sisters. How can that be?"

"They are indeed my dear sisters, Sir Anthony. Some vile magician whom we do not know did them this harm, and turned them into swans, and gave them into Blan- [148] deron's keeping. I pray you, come with me to the King my father in Thrace, and give him the good news of my freedom, and afterwards devise some way to free these poor birds of the spell."

They went back into the castle, and made provision for the journey. There were many good horses in the stables, and abundance of food, and arms, and raiment in the proper chambers. The other prisoners who had been set free by the death of Blanderon were likewise preparing to leave the castle. They thanked St. Anthony for his prowess, and bade him farewell and departed; and with the Princess on a white horse beside him he set out with good hope for Thrace, taking with him the keys of the castle.

It was a long journey to Thrace, but they accomplished it with light hearts, so glad were they to be together. They came at last within sight of the chief city. But before they reached it they heard far off the tolling of many bells mournfully, as if for a great funeral or a season of universal sorrow. St. Anthony asked a peasant whom they passed what it meant.

"It is the day of mourning for the King's daughters, my lord," said the man courteously. "On this day seven years ago they [149] all vanished, and no man knows how, or where they are to be found, or if they still walk this earth alive. It is said that some wicked magician stole them, but this is not known for certain. All we know is that they are gone from us, and that they were dearly beloved by the King and by us his subjects. He appointed this day to be kept always as a day of mourning until they are found, and very ready to mourn we are for such gentle ladies."

St. Anthony turned to the Princess, who had her face almost wholly veiled, because of the sun. "Show this good poor man who you are, Princess Rosalind," he said.

She uncovered her face. "Do you know me, friend?" she asked, looking at the peasant.

He fell on his knees with a cry of joy. "Oh, Princess! do I know you?" he said. "Do you not live in all our hearts, our Princess Rosalind? Tell me, if you will be so gracious, whence do you come? Where are your sisters? How have you been hid from us so long?"

I am alone, but for this brave knight," answered Rosalind. "My sisters are under a spell, and I am but now freed from one." And she told him all that had happened.

"Princess, this is a day of wonder, of sad- [150] ness and rejoicing together," he said, when she ended. "Let me go before you swiftly to my lord the King, and tell him this news."

He hurried away to the city, while they went more slowly on their weary horses. Presently the tolling bells ceased. He has given his message to the King," said St. Anthony. "Soon we shall be in your Sire's presence, and it may be that I must leave you and seek other adventures."

"No, no, dear Knight; do not leave me!" said the Princess. "I will go with you to the end of the world."

At that St. Anthony knew that they loved one another, and he was filled with joy. "Dear lady," he answered, "I am your servant always. If we cannot save your sisters, will you go into the world seeking fortune with me?"

"I will," she replied. And so they came into the chief city.

The King's palace was set in a great semicircle. Marble steps, with pedestals on either side on which were lions in stone, led up to the audience-chamber. But the King did not wait therein to receive his daughter. He hurried down the steps to greet her and St. Anthony; then he led them within, and was told all that had happened.

[151] He could not guess who had enchanted the six Princesses; but he resolved to go instantly to them, taking with him many knights, to see if haply he might find some means to break the spell. From St. Anthony he obtained the keys of the castle, and in a few days' time he set out with a great company of knights, and ladies also to serve the Princesses if they should be restored to human form.

St. Anthony and Princess Rosalind did not go with him. They were fatigued by their journey, and they had heard, also, of a great tournament to be held in honour of the wedding of the King of Greece's daughter, at which St. Anthony wished to joust. All the bravest knights of Christendom were to be at this tournament, and the champion had a hope that there he might meet once more his fellow-knights. He had taken counsel, moreover, with the King of Thrace and his Princess, and they believed that at such a great gathering of knights, if anywhere, news might be heard of the enchanter who had bewitched the six Princesses. So St. Anthony and Rosalind were married, with no splendour or festival, because of the lamentations for the swan-Princesses, and in due time they set out for the tournament in Greece.


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