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The Keeping of the Passes

The Emperor Charlemagne rested for a while at Cordova, and with him were his nobles, among whom were the Twelve Peers of France of great renown, and his vast army.

Charlemagne had made war in Spain for nigh seven years, and he had conquered almost the whole of that fair country; for there remained only the city of Saragossa over which King Marsilas still reigned. Charlemagne had great joy of his victories, for such lands as he conquered, these he made Christian, calling upon the heathen to renounce their idols and accept the true faith, before he would have mercy upon them.

The Emperor sat upon a fair throne in a spacious orchard, the while his young knights contested about him in many manly sports, and those who were old and wise commended their skill. And as he sat there, with a great nobleness of mien, and having much thankfulness in his heart, there came to him ten ambassadors from Saragossa, bringing word from that same King Marsilas.

The ambassadors rode upon white mules that were bedecked with much richness, they carried olive branches in their hands, and their bearing was courteous. And with them they brought four hundred mules that bore heavy burdens of gold and of silver; and they had with them besides, dogs, and noble lions, and bears, and camels, and other beasts.

When these men had approached near to the Emperor, they made due reverence, and said: "Sire, we are come as ambassadors from King Marsilas, who is in Saragossa; and we are among the noblest of his knights. Behold, the King hath sent to thee costly gifts: four hundred mules laden with gold and silver, with which thou mayest pay thy soldiers; and many stately beasts; and there are falcons besides.

"And the message that King Marsilas hath put into our lips is this message: that he wearies him of so much warfare, and perceives right well the valour of the noble knights of France; and it seems to him that the faith which is held by thee is a true faith. For these reasons his prayer is that thou wilt have pity on him. And if thou wilt leave this Kingdom of Spain to him, and wilt return to thine own country of France, he makes fair promise that he will follow thee thither within a month's time, and will be baptized into thy faith; and he will do thee homage, as thy vassal, for the Kingdom of Spain."

The Emperor sank his beard upon his breast and thought long upon this speech, and when he had reflected, he said: "The King, thy lord, hath long been mine enemy, how shall I know that he means well by me?"

The ambassadors replied: "He will send thee hostages, as many as thou wilt; for it is a true word that he is tired of warfare and would fain see this strife ended."

Said Charlemagne: "On the morrow we will speak again upon this matter; and if it be as ye have said, then shall my heart be glad."

And he ordered that provision should be made for the ambassadors.

And when the morrow was come, the Emperor called his nobles together; and he related to them how King Marsilas had sent ambassadors to him, and had professed himself to be weary of warfare, and had said that if Charlemagne would but return to France he would follow him thither, and would hold Spain as his vassal, and would be baptized into the true faith.

But Roland, who was nephew to the Emperor, and the knight feared most of all by the heathen, believed that King Marsilas harboured treachery in his heart, and that the message held false promises; and he recalled to the Emperor how King Marsilas had played him a trick in days gone by, and had slain two ambassadors who had been sent to him in good faith; and how he was a man of a crafty and ungenerous spirit.

But after Roland had spoken, there spake Gandon, he who would have been a most perfect knight had his word been as true as his body was fair; but he was a man of a weak character, who could be won over to evil things.

Ganelon said: "Sire, I see no reason to doubt the intention of King Marsilas. Hath not he, of his own accord, sent thee gifts of a great value, and ambassadors of a good name to speak for him? And is it not a true thing which he saith: that there hath been warfare enough to weary a man? For there remains only Saragossa, and, for my part, I esteem it wisdom in King Marsilas that he would treat with thee ere he lose all his lands; and he may well think that faith a true faith which hath worked for thee such victory as hath been thine.

"Now I say it were unseemly in a Christian King to reject the advances of a heathen when he would accept the true faith. For what, sire, have we conquered Spain, if not to bring glory to the Cross?"

When these words were spoken, they seemed to Charlemagne wise words, and generous counsel; and he turned to that wise and venerable noble, the Duke of Bavaria, and said: "What thinkest thou of these counsels which have been given to me by Roland and by Gandon?"

The Duke replied for albeit he was cautious, he was mellow with years, and without inclination to think ill of any man: "I think with Gandon that it were ill to refuse this offer of King Marsilas. Yet would I ask for hostages."

Charlemagne said: "It is good; we shall act on the advice. As for hostages, I may have as many of them as I will. Therefore I shall send a knight to treat with this King, and to bear to him a letter. Now which of ye shall go?"

Then proffered Roland, and Oliver, and the Duke of Bavaria, and many another. But the Emperor had good reasons why none of these should go. And, being weary with discussion of the matter, he said to the nobles: "Ye shall agree among yourselves who shall go."

And after some discussion Roland said that Ganelon should go; nor had he any ill-will toward Ganelon in suggesting this thing, since he would himself have gone gladly upon the errand; and the other knights agreed.

But Ganelon, when he had given his counsel to the Emperor, had not thought of himself as messenger in the matter. Nor did he desire to be that knight who should treat with King Marsilas, for he remembered the fate of those other ambassadors. And because there was ill-will between him and Roland on account of another matter, which comes not into this story, he believed that Roland spake in hatred when he proposed that Ganelon should go.

Therefore he looked upon Roland with a glance that was evil; and all knights saw that Ganelon was ill-pleased to go; and there was not one that would not have gone in his place had that been possible.

When Ganelon was ready to set forth, having received advice from his Emperor, and the staff and gauntlet which the ambassador carries, and also that letter which he was to deliver to Marsilas from Charlemagne, he looked again upon Roland before he went; and in a low voice he said: "Have a care, Count Roland; where Ganelon loses a feather he claims a wing. And it may be that thou shalt hear again of this matter."

Roland replied: "I have worked thee no ill, Gandon, therefore I fear nothing."

And Gandon set out.

And when he had journeyed some little distance, he came up with the ambassadors of King Marsilas, who had started a little while before him, to return to their king.

On the way these men conversed with Ganelon, and having treated him very pleasantly they begged of him that he would tell them if the Emperor thought kindly of the petition of their king,

Gandon replied: "He hath thought kindly, and it may be that he had thought more kindly still, had it not been for my Count Roland."

For his heart was full of bitterness against Roland that he had sent him upon this quest, and also on account of other matters.

The ambassadors said, casting eyes upon Ganeion that went threading into his soul: "We have heard of that mighty peer Roland, who is the friend of Oliver, and nephew to the Emperor. What hath he to say in the matter?"

Said Gandon: "The Emperor will not have your King as vassal for the whole of Spain; for hath not he promised one-half to Roland, that he shall be lord of it?" And he spake hotly and without consideration, for he grudged Roland his place with the Emperor.

The ambassadors were silent for a moment. Afterwards they again questioned Ganelon, saying: "We know the prowess of the great Charlemagne and his men of France, but surely he becomes sated with victory, for his years grow full. Doth not he speak of a time when he shall cease from war?"

Then spake Ganelon: "Charlemagne is as strong now as he hath ever been, and his years sit lightly upon him. Nevertheless, but for Roland, he would content him with less warfare. Roland it is ever, that proud peer, who inciteth him to the taking of new cities."

The ambassadors said angrily: "We like not this Roland, for he is valorous beyond any other knight of Charlemagne; and he hath grievously robbed us. Tell us how Charlemagne may be rid of him, and we will give thee great treasure, we and our lord."

And Ganelon, though at first he felt anger at this speech, and told himself he would work no evil against any brother-knight, afterwards consented to talk with the ambassadors about a means to compass Roland's downfall; for he felt his hate surge within him.

When Saragossa was reached, Ganelon came before King Marsilas, and, having saluted him with all courtesy, he related that message which he carried.

And he related it with truth, for the hate which he bore to Roland he bore only to Roland; to Charlemagne he was a faithful knight, where Roland was not concerned.

Said Gandon, standing straight and still: "This is the message of my lord, the great Charlemagne: that he is well pleased that ye desire baptism into the true faith, all ye of Saragossa, for so ye shall save your souls. As for Spain, he will yield to thee one-half of it, to hold as vassal; for the other half is for Count Roland. In one month's time ye shall follow him to France and be baptized, as hath been promised. But if ye follow not, saith my lord, then will he lay siege to Saragossa, and take the city; and thou and thy knights shall be degraded, and shall be carried away ."

King Marsilas was so filled with anger at this speech, that, rising from his throne, he would have killed Ganelon had not his chiefs restrained him.

But, they having persuaded him to quiet, Ganelon presented that letter which he carried. And the King brake it open and read it.

And in the reading he was again filled with anger; for he saw that the Emperor had not forgotten his treachery in the slaying of the ambassadors, and was even now doubtful of his word.

And indeed the Emperor had grave reason for his doubts, for there was little but craft hidden in the petition of this heathen.

Then the ambassadors, having gained the ear of the King, declared to him how Ganelon would aid him in bringing about the downfall of that great knight Roland, and perchance of Oliver, and of others of the Twelve Peers of France.

"When Charlemagne hath been so maimed in his power and his affection, he will no longer incline toward warfare, and our country shall be left to us in peace," they said; and at the words King Marsilas looked again upon Ganelon, and he perceived that he was a brave man on occasion, but weak through his passions, and that his hatred of Roland would make him traitor, so that he would serve them.

Therefore, coming again to Ganelon, he treated him softly, and told him how he thought well of the message of his lord; and asked him how they should be rid of Roland.

Said Ganelon: "I am true to Charlemagne, and in all things I shall be true to Charlemagne; but as for Roland, my soul hates him. Now this is my advice to ye, that ye send to the Emperor the hostages he demands, and ye shall treat him fairly, and with a good heart; and ye shall declare to him how, if he hasten to France, ye will follow him in a short period. Now when Charlemagne goes he will leave some behind to guard the passes; and I promise ye that in the rear-guard there shall be Roland, and Oliver, and others of the Peers of France.

"They will have but twenty thousand men, for that will be the number assigned, and the number of ye all is four hundred thousand men. Therefore ye shall come upon Roland, having parted your hosts, in divisions, fighting with him one, two, or maybe three or four battles. Thus will his strength be wrested from him, and he shall be in your hands.

"But if ye fall upon him in the pride of your full numbers, then will Roland blow a blast from that horn of his; and there will come Charlemagne, hastening back from that place where he may be; and ye shall suffer a great defeat. And Roland's fame shall be increased to your dismay."

When King Marsilas, his Vizier, and his chiefs heard these words, they were filled with admiration of the wisdom of Ganelon, and with joy at that which he proposed. And having loaded him with gifts for his Emperor, and promised further gold and silver and precious things, they allowed him to depart.

And ere he went the nobles of King Marsilas gave him presents of a kingly value, as to a comrade, and the Queen, too, gave him a gift and her smile, which was of a passing sweetness; and he swore again that he would aid them in the downfall of Roland.

And Ganelon went away, with joy and shame writ large upon his face.

When he returned to the Emperor, he found him at Volterra, for he had started upon his homeward way.

And Charlemagne, looking upon the face of Ganelon ere he saw it close, said: "I know not what news Ganelon brings, for he wears a look that bodes both good and ill."

The Duke, who was at his right hand, replied: "Sire, he bears with him much treasure. I trow that the King Marsilas thinks well of thy demands."

Then approached Ganelon, and he delivered to his lord the message of King Marsilas, that the King agreed to all that had been proposed; and he delivered also tribute which King Marsilas had sent to the Emperor, and the keys of Saragossa as a token that King Marsilas was the Emperor's vassal.

And Charlemagne said: "I take great pleasure in these things; for I would have Spain governed by Christian lords. To God be the glory!"

And he arranged that he would move on toward France without further delay.

Then came up the matter of the rear-guard which should remain to guard these narrow passes.

Ganelon said: "Sire, it would be well done to leave Roland, thy nephew, that valiant knight, for of his very name those heathen have a fear."

Charlemagne said: "The advice sounds good to me. What sayest thou, Roland?"

And Roland suspected the goodwill of Ganelon, for well he knew that the traitor had no love for him. He replied "Sire, I wish for naught better than to guard these passes for thee. And I thank Ganelon for his praise."

Then Ganelon changed colour, and he forbare to look at Roland.

And there remained with Roland, Oliver his comrade, and the Archbishop Turpin, a man of great wit and much valour, and in all, the Twelve Peers of France. And Charlemagne made offer to Roland of a great army of soldiers; but he would have no more than twenty thousand.

When all these things were arranged, Charlemagne departed, and he passed through the valley of Roncesvalles; and the noise of his army's passing grew fainter and fainter until it died.

Now that sound was not long dead when Roland heard another sound upon the air. First it was feeble and soft, like the hum of insects, then it was stronger and louder, like the ring of horses' hoofs; and afterwards it was a great noise.

Then said Oliver to Roland: "Lo, the drums! The Saracens are upon us. Now do I understand that look on the face of Gandon! Rest assured, he has sold us to the enemy."

Roland mounted upon a high hill; and when he had stood there for a while, he returned, and said: "The enemy are indeed upon us, and I have never seen the like; for in number they are as the sands of the sea."

Then Oliver also mounted to the hill-top, and when he had returned, he said to Roland:

"Count Roland, set thy horn to thy lips, and blow; for the heathen are passing many, and we are but a few; and it were well that Charlemagne should hear thy blast, and should return, and should help us. For we know not the end of the mischief which Ganelon hath brought upon us."

"Nay," said Roland, "I shall not yet sound my horn. Hath not Charlemagne set us here to do service for him, and we have done nothing? Not till I am sore pressed will I sound my horn. As for Ganelon, blame him not, for we know not that he had a hand in this."

Oliver was sore troubled, for it lay upon his soul that the close of this day would bring great grief to the heart of France. And again he besought Roland to sound his horn, that the blast of it might pass through the valleys, and reach the ear of Charlemagne.

But Roland would not.

Now the men of France were drawn up in array upon the plain; and they beheld the heathen who were close upon them; and the numbers of the heathen were at least one hundred thousand men; for so many had King Marsilas sent to engage with Roland; and they were led by his nephew, a man of courage but of evil heart.

Roland saw that it would be a hard battle, but he knew not that these were but a quarter of the men whom King Marsilas and his chiefs held ready for battle; else had he not refused to sound his ivory horn.

Then Roland called upon the knights that they should wage war with a good will, and bring honour to Charlemagne; and he said how he knew not what treachery had worked this evil, but that it might be brought to a good issue, by God's grace, did they all work together with a good heart.

Then that brave Archbishop Turpin, of whom mention hath been made, gave them absolution from their sins, every man; and having prayed to God, they awaited the onslaught of the heathen.

Now the nephew of King Marsilas came on bravely, for he had longed for this hour, which he believed would bring him much glory, when he should meet Roland in battle. And he feared not for the issues of the fight.

Therefore, before he fought with them, he lifted his voice and taunted the knights of France, telling them how they had been betrayed by one of their number, and had been left now by Charlemagne to die; and how France would that day lose her fair fame.

But Roland replied: "Not so, heathen. Had I but raised my horn to my lips, Charlemagne had returned with his men. As for our numbers, I had had more men had I wished for them, but I desired only these. And I warrant thou wilt find them enough for thee before the day is done."

Then said Aelroth – for such was his name: "I have with me twelve knights of a great valour, and with these I shall wipe out the Twelve Peers of France; and their fame shall be in the dust."

Roland replied naught in words. But as the armies came together, he flew upon Aelroth with a great fury; and with one blow he laid the heathen upon the plain, so that his boasting was over and he rose no more.

And Roland laid about him with great blows, such blows as had made him famous, and Oliver fought with a fury as great, and the other Peers also fought with valour; and against these rode out the knights of King Marsilas, who came on, each one with bold words and looks, and thrust themselves upon the French with a mighty force.

And as each came forward, he was laid upon the field, so great was the valour of Roland, and of Oliver, and of others beside. And of the champions of whom Aelroth had boasted, they found their deaths every one; for there was not one of the Twelve Peers that failed to kill one of them.

Still the heathen came on, and their numbers were so great that they appeared to have no end. They fought passing well, those Peers of France! Yet were they sore beset, because of the numbers of the heathen.

King Almiras was one of those who held a division for King Marsilas. He wound with his men through an unknown way, and by another pass; and he found the rear of the Frenchmen, and fell upon them there.

It was Walter, that brave peer, who engaged with them there, and he fought till he was sore wounded, and till the heathen were beaten back; and he had done even better work had Roland been free to aid him; but Roland was busily enough engaged in his own place.

Now King Almiras betook himself to King Marsilas, where he remained on a high place with his army, and he told him how the Frenchmen fought furiously; and how the Peers fought with such skill and exceeding valour that they were wonderful to see.

"Yet," said he, "are they sore distressed by our numbers; and their ranks are broken; and it may well be, if thou fall upon them now in a new attack, thou mayest take them every one."

Then King Marsilas made his army into two great divisions, and mighty divisions they were; and he gave one division to the Emir Grandoigne, that he might lead it; and the other he kept by him.

And he cried to his men in a mighty voice: "Roland hath repulsed us in this first battle, yet will we wage a second with him, and, if need be, a third. For I am resolved to bring to an end the glories of this great warrior."

And the Emir Grandoigne urged forward with his men; and they threw themselves clown the hill with a great fury. And when the Peers of France beheld them, they were disturbed, for they were as a rushing flood, without end or limit. And the men of France thought of Gandon with hatred and with bitter reproach. But the Archbishop called to them that they should think, not of Ganelon's treachery, but of France, and their own duty, and how to die as brave men.

Thus were they minded of their duty, and they spoke no more of Ganelon; but instead held themselves ready to do great deeds.

And they said: "Charlemagne shall suffer no shame through our work this day. We shall die as brave men, and having taken our toll of the heathen."

Now they encountered the heathen, and the shock of the encounter was as the meeting of great waters; for there was no man who would shrink back, nay, not one.

Right bravely they fought, and they thrust back Grandoigne once, nay, they thrust him back a second time. And Grandoigne fell upon their knights, and killed many. But when he came to Roland, then was his race run, and he would kill no more brave knights; for Roland gave him a blow that cleft him in twain, so that he fell immediately dead.

Yet the heathen came on again a fourth and a fifth time; and they were beaten back. Now the last time they were so beaten there remained of the Frenchmen less than one hundred.

Then was Roland sad almost to tears, looking upon what was left of the men of France; and he reproached himself in his heart that he had not, as Oliver had advised him, blown a blast upon his horn. For he had not fathomed Ganelon's treachery.

That time was over, and Charlemagne might not arrive now soon enough to help them. Nevertheless, that he might learn of their plight, and might avenge them, Roland raised his horn to his lips, and blew a blast that shook the air.

Now Charlemagne heard the sound, as it were an echo that faintly troubled the stillness. And he said: "It is the horn of Roland. Some evil hath come to him."

"Sire," said Ganelon, "what evil should come to Roland? Of a surety nothing evil hath befallen him. Thy thoughts are with him, and thy fancy plays on thee."

And the Emperor was silent, for he was not sure what he had heard.

But Roland blew again, a sharp shrill blast that cut the air and reached to the ear of the Emperor.

"Now," said he, "Roland surely calls. What hath befallen him I know not, but I know right well that he hath need of me." And he bade that they should return.

Now they had but turned them about, when Roland raised his horn to his lips for the third time; and he blew a call that went winding through the passes, full of sorrow, and grief, and farewell.

Said the Emperor: "There hath been treachery. Roland is nigh to death. Now if I lose him I lose half my life." And he went threading back the way he had come and with him his hosts.

Said Charlemagne a second time: "There hath been treachery." And after a while he said: "We can avenge Roland, if he be gone from us, but God grant that he be not gone.

Now the enemy was again upon that brave Roland and the remnant of the men of France; and it was King Marsilas who led the division, and with him was his only son. And they were minded to do great deeds. But Roland met them, and he slew the son of Marsilas, and cut off the King's right hand, and so fell upon him that he turned and fled.

But those who were with him fled not. Now among them was the King of Carthage, with his black warriors who knew not fear; and these fell upon the men of France; and the King wounded Oliver so that he might not live.

But Oliver, ere the breath went from his lips, slew the King so that he died from the one blow. And having called to Roland, he bade him farewell. And soon after Oliver died.

Then were there left of the men of France but three, Roland, and Walter, and that Archbishop whom they loved.

And these three fought fiercely against the enemy, waking in them such great fear that they durst not advance closely but threw spears and javelins and other weapons.

In this fashion was slain Walter, and the Archbishop was wounded near to death.

And Roland stood alone, fighting most furiously; and such havoc did he alone, and with his horse killed under him, that the heathen fled from him, and left him there.

Then went Roland into the field, seeking the bodies of those he loved; and when he had found the Peers of France, he bore them with an exceeding tenderness to the Archbishop where he lay dying, and set them before him. And he found Oliver, and bore him with tears; and set him in his place beside the other dead men.

Now the Archbishop gave his last blessing, and when he had given it he died, laying his head upon the grass.

And Roland felt upon himself a great faintness, and he knew that his life was nearly done. Then he looked upon his comrades, and when he had looked upon them, he made his way to a little hill where there were marble steps; and upon these steps he would have broken his sword before he died; but that he could not break it.

Then he set his horn and his sword upon the hillside, and lay upon them so that they were hidden. And he prayed to God to forgive all his sins.

And when he had prayed this prayer a second time, he rested his head upon his arm, and died.

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