Stories of Charlemagne and the Twelve Peers of France - Alfred J. Church

Of the Plot Against Roland

And now King Charles had come on his homeward journey to the city of Volterra (Count Roland had taken it and laid it in ruins three years before). There he awaited Ganelon and the tribute of Spain, and before many days had passed the traitor came. "Sire," said he, "I greet you in the name of God. I bring you the keys of Saragossa, also great treasure which King Marsilas has sent you, and twenty hostages, the noblest in the land. King Marsilas also bids me say that he is not to be blamed because he does not send the Vizier. The Vizier, with many thousands of armed men, took ship—I saw them with my own eyes—because they were not content to accept the law of Christ. But before they had sailed four leagues, there came suddenly upon them a great storm of wind, so that their ships sank. You will never see them more, for they were all drowned. As for the King himself, you may rest assured that before this month is spent he will follow you to France, and that he will receive the law of Christ, and will become your vassal holding the kingdom of Spain from you." "Thanks be to God for all these blessings," cried the King. And to Ganelon he said, "You have served me well, and shall have due recompense."

Then the trumpets sounded, and the army went on its way to France. That night the King had a certain dream in his sleep. He thought that he stood in the pass of Cizra, holding in his hand an ashen spear, and that Ganelon laid hold of it and shook it in such a fashion that it was broken into a thousand pieces, and the fragments flew up to the sky. After this he had another dream. He was in his chapel at his city of Aachen, and a bear bit him so cruelly on the right arm that the flesh was broken even to the bone. After the bear there came a leopard from the Ardennes, which made as if it would attack him. And lo! a greyhound came forth from the hall, and ran to him with great bounds. First the greyhound laid hold of the bear by the right ear, and then it assailed the leopard furiously.

"'Tis a great fight," cried they who stood by, but no one knew who would prevail.

The next day the King called his lords together. "You see," said he, "these narrow passes. Whom shall I place to command the rearguard? Choose you a man yourselves." Said Ganelon, "Whom should we choose but my son-in-law, Count Roland? You have no man in your host so valiant. Of a truth he will be the salvation of France." The King said when he heard these words, "What ails you, Ganelon? You look like to one possessed. But tell me—who shall command my vanguard?" "Let Ogier the Dane be the man," answered Ganelon. "There is no one who could acquit himself better."

When Count Roland knew what was proposed concerning him, he spake out as a true knight should speak. "I am right thankful to you, my father-in-law, that you have caused me to be put in this place. Of a truth the King of France shall lose nothing by my means, neither charger, nor mule, nor pack-horse, nor beast of burden." "You speak truly," said Ganelon; "I know it well." Then Roland turned to him again, and said, "Villain that you are, and come of a race of villainy, did you think perchance that I should let the gauntlet fall, as you let it fall when you would have taken it from the King?"

Then Roland turned to the King and said, "Give me the bow that you hold in your hand. It shall not fall from my hand as the gauntlet fell when Ganelon would have taken it from your hand." The King said to Roland, "Nephew, I will gladly give you the half of my army. That will provide for your safety without fail." "Not so, my lord," answered Roland, I need no such multitude. Give me twenty thousand only, so they be men of valour, and I will keep the passes in all safety. So long as I shall live, you need fear no man."

Then Roland mounted his horse. With him were Oliver his comrade, and Otho and Berenger, and Gerard of Roussillon, an aged warrior, and others, men of renown. And Turpin the Archbishop cried, "By my head, I will go also." So they chose twenty thousand warriors with whom to keep the passes.

Meanwhile King Charles had entered the valley of Roncesvalles, his vanguard being led by Ogier the Dane. High were the mountains on either side of the way, and the valleys were gloomy and dark. But when they had passed through the valley, then they saw the fair land of Gascony, and as they saw it they thought of their homes and their wives and daughters. There was not one of them but wept for very tenderness of heart. But of all that company there was none sadder of heart than the King himself, when he thought how he had left his nephew Count Roland behind him in the passes of Spain. Duke Naymes, who rode beside him, said, "What troubles you?" "There is cause enough," answered Charles. "I fear me much that this Ganelon will be the ruin of France. Did he not cause me to leave Roland behind me in the passes? And if I lose my nephew when shall I find his like again?" And he told the Duke of his dream, how Ganelon had broken the spear that he held in his hands.

And now King Marsilas began to gather his army. He laid a strict command on all his nobles and chiefs that they should bring with them to Saragossa as many men as they could gather together. And when they were come to the city, it being the third day from the issuing of the King's command, they saluted the great image of Mahomet, the false prophet that stood on the topmost tower. This done they went forth from the city gates. They made all haste, marching across the mountains and valleys of Spain till they came in sight of the Standard of France, where Roland and Oliver and the Twelve Peers were ranged in battle array.

The nephew of King Marsilas rode to the front of the army and said to his uncle, "Sire, I have served you faithfully, enduring much labour and trouble, fighting many battles, and winning not a few victories. And now all the reward that I ask is that you suffer me to smite down this Roland. I will slay him with the point of my spear if Mahomet will help me. So shall I deliver Spain from the enemy, these Frenchmen will give themselves up to you, and you shall have no more wars all the days of your life."

When King Marsilas heard these words, he reached out his hand, and gave his gauntlet to his nephew. Then said the young man, "You have given me a noble gift, my uncle. Now choose me eleven of your nobles, and we will fight with the Twelve Peers of France."

The first that came forth to offer himself for the battle was Fausseron, the King's brother. "My lord nephew," said he, "we will go together, you and I—between us we shall win this victory. Woe to King Charles's rear-guard. We will destroy it to a man."

The next that stood up was Corsablis, King of Barbary. He was an evil man and a treacherous, but that day he spoke as a loyal vassal of the King. "This is no time," he said, "for drawing back. If I find Roland, I will attack him without delay." After him rose nine other chiefs, till the number of champions was accomplished, twelve against the Twelve Peers of France.

The Saracen champions donned their coats of mail, of double substance most of them, and they set upon their heads helmets of Saragossa of well-tempered metal, and they girded them-selves with swords of Vienna. Fair were their shields to view, their lances were from Valentia, their standards were of white, blue, and red. Their mules they left with their servants, and, mounting their chargers, so moved forwards. Fair was the day and bright the sun, as their armour flashed in the light and the drums were beaten so loudly that the Frenchmen heard the sound.

Said Oliver to Roland, "Comrade, methinks we shall soon do battle with the Saracens." "God grant it," answered Roland. "'Tis our duty to hold the place for the King, and we will do it, come what may. As for me, I will not set an ill example."