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How Oliver Fought for France and the Faith
The French camp lay as still as a hive of drowsy bees. Scarce a sound of life issued from it. Above it the sky stretched in great blue vastnesses; beneath the sky the calm air hardly moved. Everywhere a deep stillness prevailed. Perhaps the stillness was the one sign of the great battle and victory of a few days since. It told of weary warriors within the tents; it told also of brave knights grievously wounded; it told of the peace that treads close upon the heels of victory.
But that peace was rudely broken. Suddenly upon the air came a heavy sound as of the thunder of horses' hoofs. It came nearer and nearer, a dull clamp-clamp upon the ground. The sunlight caught a moving glitter, and wrapped it round with radiance. As that radiance drew nearer the French camp, it grew greater, larger, an increasing flash of brightness, and as it grew there grew with it the loudness of that heavy clamping sound. Then there came into view, breaking the peace of the place, a horseman in armour, a horseman so immense that he seemed to fill the horizon and dominate the plain.
He rode upon a horse as great as he, and as he swept his furious way towards the French hosts, his steed's hoofs fell again and again upon the ground with a thunderous noise. He flashed across the plain like a lightning of sunlight, drawing rein at last before the royal tent of Charlemagne.
There he halted and upraised his voice, which was like the roar of some angry creature other than man.
"Behold, great Charlemagne," said he, "I have sought thy camp, and would honour thy knights by doing battle with them. Send out Roland or Oliver, or another of like prowess, that by showing him his littleness I may take pleasure in mine own strength. Nay, send out Roland and Oliver, and another with them; send out seven knights if thou wilt. Have not I in my time slain kings, and is not my strength equal to that of ten men?"
This furious roar came to the ears of Charlemagne, and he halted in his speech to his knights.
"Tell me," said he to one of the dukes, "who is this champion whose mouth is so full of words?"
The duke replied: "He is Fierabras the giant, son of Balan, an admiral of the Moors. By repute I know him well, and it is true that in his time he hath slain many valiant men and overcome kings. Moreover, he hath done many evil deeds among Christians, and it is he who hath in his possession the sacred tomb of our Lord."
The Emperor's brow grew dark as he heard these words in the silence that followed after the great shout of Fierabras. And as he meditated upon the misdeeds of this heathen who had so misused his strength and valour, he saw not the angry and downcast looks of his young knights, as they communicated with one another by hurried signs.
"My brave knights," said Charlemagne, lifting his glance from the ground, "which from among ye shall do battle with this braggart, for the defence of our faith, and the fair fame of France?"
After this question there came a murmur, as or men who would fain speak yet would not suffer themselves; but after the murmur there came a silence, and the knights answered not a word.
Then cast the Emperor the lightning of his glance upon the company, but not yet with anger in it, for he was all amazed, and did not understand.
Now the glance of the Emperor rested last upon Roland, who was his own nephew. He was also one of the Twelve Peers of France, who were for their valour known of all men. And Roland, feeling the sting of the Emperor's wonder, found his voice, uttering bitter words.
"Sire," said he, "cast thine ear back to listen to thine own words, and so find understanding of to-day's lack of speech. After that fight in which we, thy knights, fought valiantly, bringing to thee victory – and to Oliver, mine own friend, many wounds so that he is like to die – didst not thou, letting loose thy tongue in unwise speech, make little honour of our valour? For it is said that thy praise ran lightly, since thou didst declare that we, thy knights, had indeed fought bravely, but that our deeds were as shadows compared with what thine old knights had done in our place."
At these words Charlemagne's eyes shot wrath, and his face was as the sun when it sets in anger. For, indeed, he remembered the foolishness with which he had chidden, yet had the speech been uttered when the Emperor was weary and ill-advised, having in the glamour of his victory partaken of too much wine.
Now in his anger, and lacking the wit to excuse himself, he uttered bitter words, and Roland replied as bitterly, the while the knights held their glances from the Emperor, and the older men grew grave.
"Good Uncle," said Roland, "it were a vain thing for one of us to offer to do battle with the giant. Of all these old knights of thine whose praise slipt so glibly from thy tongue, surely one remaineth! Bid him that he do battle with Fierabras."
Then indeed bitterness rose to the Emperor's lips and would have overflowed, had not the roar of the giant again burst forth, swallowing all lesser sounds.
"Haste thee, Charlemagne," cried he, "and send forth one who shall do battle for thee! While I wait for him, I will refresh myself with sleep beneath yonder tree; let thy knight hail himself thither ere too long a time be past. But I swear to thee that, if thou send no one, then shall I come with my hosts, and when I have swung thy head in my hands, I will seize thy peers and degrade them, and I will wipe thine army out of this land."
When he had spoken these words, the giant wheeled about, and rode furiously to a tree that grew upon the plain. Having reached it, he stripped himself of his armour, and lay down as if he would sleep.
Then Charlemagne, pale with his great anger and the insults that the giant had offered him, broke into speech against Roland, and the quarrel between them waxed great, so that many were afraid. For Roland had ever been the favoured knight of the Emperor, as he had ever been the most valiant. Yet to-day the knight was bitter with remembrance of the Emperor's words and the wounds of Oliver; and Charlemagne was in great anger, so that he hardly knew what words he spake.
Fierabras the giant slept, but his challenge had carried far, reaching the ears of Oliver, Roland's friend, as he lay ill of his wounds.
Therefore Oliver called his squire, who was named Garin, and bade him that he should discover the meaning of the hubbub.
Garin was gone a long time. When he returned he related to Oliver, turning, shamed, his face toward the side of the tent, how Fierabras the heathen champion had offered battle; and with his head hanging he told how no knight would offer himself to fight with him, and of the great quarrel between Roland and Charlemagne.
Then was Oliver silent for a space, for he knew that his wounds ached in the body of Roland, making sorer the recollection of the Emperor's careless words.
And as Garin still waited, his breast full of shame, there came the voice of Oliver, bidding him that he should bring him his armour and set it upon him.
Garin brought the armour, and when Oliver had bathed his wounds and bound them, and had made himself ready, Garin would have put the armour upon him; but as Oliver stood up to receive it, his wounds gushed out afresh so that he was stained everywhere with his own blood.
"Sir Oliver," said Garin, trembling, "if thou goest forth, it is to thy death."
But Oliver replied, "If it be so, it be so – but I do not believe I go to my death."
Then having bound himself afresh, and his armour being upon him, Oliver mounted his horse, and bearing spear and sword – that good sword which he named Hautclere – he made his way to the tent of the Emperor.
When he had found it, he came before Charlemagne, who sat silent, and with glowing eyes bent upon the ground; and Charlemagne at first believed him to be a vision. Then perceiving that this was indeed his knight Oliver, he cried: "Sir Oliver, Sir Oliver, get thee back to thy bed! What folly is this that thou so deftest thy wounds? Wouldst thou call Death ere he have thought of thee?"
Oliver replied, heeding not the throbbing of his wounds: "Sire, I have found thee that I may crave of thee a favour. And since for many a year I have fought, asking nothing, I beg of thee to grant this, my request."
Now Charlemagne believed that Oliver had a fever upon him, so that he understood not his own words. Therefore he answered him with tenderness: "My good Oliver, thy favour is granted thee. Ask what thou wilt; there is naught among my possessions I would refuse to so well-beloved a knight. But haste thee back to thy bed, that thy wounds may be quiet and grow whole."
Oliver replied in a voice that rang clear as a silver trumpet: "My request has nothing to do with great possessions. It is, sire, that I be allowed to do battle with this heathen. When I have done this thing I will take heed of my wounds."
Then the Emperor slid his head upon his hands, and was troubled; for he had granted Oliver his request, not knowing the purport of it, and might not take back his royal word; yet he was assured that Oliver had no strength with which to fight Fierabras, and that he would speedily die through the severity of his wounds.
"Nay, Oliver," said he, "rest thee, and grow whole. A wounded knight cannot fight the giant."
But Oliver replied firmly: "It is my request, which has been granted to me. Therefore, sire, let me go."
And while the knights about the Emperor grew pale with many emotions, looking one upon another with grief in their glances, Oliver took from Charlemagne his glove that he might bear it with him to the fight.
Bearing the glove, Oliver turned gladly, and lifting up his head he cried before he went, "If I owe aught to any man, it shall be paid to him; and if I have sinned against any man, I pray him to forgive me my sins before I go."
Whereupon all bent their heads with sorrow, so greatly was Oliver beloved; and Roland turned pale as ashes, for that Oliver should fight, thus wounded, was to him worse than the thought of death.
But Oliver went forth with gladness, and when he had found Fierabras, he cried to him, "Awake, Fierabras, the great Charlemagne hath sped me forth to do battle with thee."
And at the cry the giant bestirred himself – though whether he had been asleep in reality is another matter; and when he perceived Oliver, he rose to his feet.
Then said Oliver, "This is the message of that great and Christian Emperor who hath sent me: ' Thou shalt forsake thine idols, and worship the one true God '"
But Fierabras replied, "I will not."
Then spake Oliver, "Wilt thou then leave this land, that we may make it Christian; and cease from thy persecutions?"
Then replied Fierabras, rearing his head and speaking proudly: "I am Fierabras, a heathen prince, and of great power. In my possession I hold the Tomb which is sacred to thee, and I have done evil to many Christians. These messages which thou bearest to me are but idle words, which I heed as lightly as I heed the wind that blows; for I hold in contempt thy country and thy faith."
Then was Oliver shaken with anger so that his wounds bled; and in a voice that was quiet because of his anger he answered, "Since thou hast spurned the alternative offered to thee, haste thee, heathen, and fight with me, for I am eager to begin."
"Help me, then," said Fierabras, "to put on mine armour, for it is of great weight." And Oliver helped him, fearing nothing; neither did the giant do him any ill.
Then, when his armour was upon him, Fierabras spake, saying, "Tell me thy name, Sir Knight, that I may know whom it is I vanquish."
"My name," said Oliver, "is Garin, and I am a poor and humble knight, whom few men honour." And he cast his eyes upon the ground, feeling giddy with his wounds.
But Fierabras cried with a roar: "Where then are Roland and Oliver, and these mighty peers of whom ye brag so finely? Where are all these, that they have not come to do me battle?"
Then replied Oliver: "The Emperor holds thee and thy boasting too lightly to send these knights."
At these words so great an anger came upon the giant that he had shouted in a frenzy, had not his glance fallen upon the face of Oliver, which was so pale that it was as the face of the dead.
"Nay, Sir Garin," said he with more gentleness, "it were impossible that thou shouldest fight with me, for I can see that thou art wounded near to death."
"Come, cease thy talk," said Oliver impatiently. "Since thou wilt give no heed to the Emperor's message, I would put an end to thee."
"My strength is as the strength of ten men," said Fierabras; "how can I fight with one who is wounded? Nay, Sir Knight, thy. blood stains thee as thou speakest; I pray thee, desist, and I will entreat thine Emperor that he send another knight."
"I will desist only when my life leaves me," cried Oliver. "As for thy vaunted strength, Fierabras, know that my God will give me strength beyond any that thou hast ever known, strength as much greater than thine as the sea is greater than the river." And he would parley no longer.
Therefore they betook them to a fair place on the plain in which to do battle, and from the French hosts came out many to watch the fight.
Fierabras, when he had made him ready, prayed to his idols, and having prayed he said to Oliver, "By that Cross and Tomb which thou holdest sacred, I ask of thee thy true name."
And Oliver replied, "I am Oliver, the friend of Roland, and one of the Twelve Peers of France."
"Now, it was plain to me," cried the giant, "that thou wert no knight of humble name and mean repute."
And with these words they flew together; and with such swiftness and force that their forms appeared but as quickly moving flashes of sunlight, and their spears in a trice were broken in twain.
Fierabras had three famous swords, which he named Pleasaunce, Baptism, and Grabon. From these he chose Pleasaunce, that he might give to that sword the joy of overcoming so brave a knight.
And, having gripped the sword, he flew again upon Oliver as if he would have cut him in pieces. But Oliver answered the thrust with one mightier and better placed, thus breaking off a part of the giant's helmet, which fell to the ground.
Said Charlemagne, under his breath, "God hath blessed us, and the fight is to our wounded Oliver."
But the words had but stirred the air when Oliver's shield received a blow that brake it; and it seemed that the knight staggered from the force of the blow and from the weakness his wounds bred in him. And Charlemagne drooped his head, and prayed.
Yet Oliver recovered himself bravely, crushing his strength into a thrust that had almost finished the giant; and again the contest waxed fierce.
Heavily breathed Fierabras as he fought, and Oliver, that valiant knight, while his wounds burnt his flesh, pressed close upon the giant, his eyes darting glances that were like flames.
"It is a valiant knight," thought Fierabras, and for the first time he questioned the issue of the fight; then with a new strength he fell hard upon Oliver, and to such good purpose, that he struck the knight's sword from his hand and sent it hurtling to the ground.
"Ah, Sir Oliver!" cried Fierabras, lifting up his voice in mockery. "Where is now the strength thy God hath promised thee, and of what avail would it be to thee since thou mayest not recover thy sword?"
Oliver answered nothing, being hard put to it in his thoughts to discover a way out of his difficulty. For he would have sought his sword where it lay, covering himself with his shield meanwhile, had not the shield lain in pieces upon the ground. As for his armour, it was battered and broken upon him. And the pain of his wounds waxed intolerable.
By reason of his pain the knight turned pale, the which perceiving, and reading aright, Fierabras was filled with compassion for this brave knight, whom he liked not ill.
"See, Sir Oliver," said he, "I will wait while thou liftest thy sword."
"Nay," cried Oliver, "that would be no victory which I should owe to thy clemency!"
And even as he spoke, he prayed in his heart for strength and succour. Thereafter the prayer having left his lips, Oliver looked about him, and immediately perceived the giant's second sword – Baptism – which lay behind him close to his hand; for in the heat of the fight they had neared the spot where the giant had placed his other swords.
"Behold, Fierabras," cried he, "by the aid of thine own sword shall I work thine undoing!" and he gripped the sword hardly and ran upon him with a mighty force.
Now Fierabras, whether by reason of his confusion and dismay on perceiving his own sword turned against him, or by reason of his weariness, received the onslaught but ill, and having dealt Oliver a cut that miscarried, received one in his turn that caught him heavily, piercing his side, so that he fell with a crash upon the ground.
Oliver, seeing his adversary so defeated, durst not himself move, lest, since all his strength had gone into the blow he had given, he should fall for lack of it.
Thus he bowed his head in humble gladness upon his breast, the while the French hosts rent the air with great cries of joy; and his thoughts wound into a prayer of thanksgiving to that Great God who had given to him the victory through the strength that He had bestowed.
the giant recovered from his wound, and was
baptized into the true faith. For the evil he had done, he made
recompense. Of the brave deeds he did thereafter, he made
I trow there were few knights more valiant than he.