In the days of the emperor Charles the Great there lived two young men named Huon and Gerard, sons of the duke of Bordeaux and heirs of his lands. Now by all the rules of chivalry they were bound to hasten to Paris as soon as their father died and do homage to the emperor as their liege lord; but, like many other youths, they were careless of their duties, and put off the long and tedious journey from day to day.
This conduct was particularly foolish, because there was present at the emperor’s court the famous earl Amaury, who, rich though he was, coveted the estates of the duke of Bordeaux, and whispered in the ear of his master that the young men were rebels and traitors. By this time Charles was old, and his mind, as well as his body, had waxed feeble; the crown was too heavy for him, and he was thinking of resigning it to his son Charlot. So Amaury cunningly represented to him that he must summon the young men to his court without delay, and then himself plotted with Charlot to waylay and kill them. But, though they made their plans with great care, fortune was on the side of Huon and Gerard, for they defended themselves so bravely that, though they were taken by surprise, Gerard only received a slight wound, while Charlot was slain by Huon.
When Amaury returned to Paris with these dreadful tidings, the emperor was beside himself with anger, and ordered Amaury to fight a duel with Huon, who was the elder of the two, and bid him take heed not to spare him. As Huon was young and slight, and Amaury one of the strongest men at the court, neither the emperor nor the earl ever had a moment’s doubt with whom the victory would lie; but if Amaury was more powerful, Huon was quicker on his feet, and before long he had stretched his enemy dead upon the ground.
The emperor was watching the fight from a window of his palace, and his anger at the triumph of Huon was so great that it very near killed him. Still, as the duel had been fairly fought, he dared not punish Huon, and he was forced to content himself with sending him on a mission to the king of Babylon, knowing well the perils which would beset him on the way.
The small vessel in which Huon sailed for Jerusalem met with so many dangers that oftentimes the young duke thought that he would be dead long before he had touched the shores of Palestine. Thrice they were attacked by pirates, who were hardly beaten off; twice such terrible storms arose that they were almost driven on the rocks, and once they had much ado to avoid being drawn into a whirlpool. But somehow or other they escaped everything, and Huon was safely landed on the holy soil with his uncle Garyn and a few followers.
He was at first so thankful to be on dry land again that he felt as if his journey was already over, but he soon found that the worst part was yet to come. Leaving Jerusalem behind them, the little band entered a desert, dreary and boundless as far as they could see. Hunger and thirst they suffered, and death felt very near them, when at last they reached a tiny hut, before which an old man was sitting. At the sight of Huon, thin and wasted as he had grown, the old man broke into sobs, crying that his face was like unto the face of the duke of Bordeaux, whom he had known when he was young.
‘Thirty years have I dwelt in these deserts,’ said he, ‘and never have my eyes lighted on the face of a Christian man.’
Then Huon answered that he was indeed the son of the duke of Bordeaux whom he had known in his youth, and while they rested each man told his tale.
‘It is indeed good fortune that guided you here,’ said Gerames when Huon had ended his story, ‘for without me and my counsel never would you have reached the kingdom of Babylon. There are two roads which lead to that great city; one will take you forty days, and the other fifteen days, but if you will be ruled by me you will travel by the longer.’
‘And wherefore?’ asked Huon, whose body was still sore from the hardships he had suffered, and whose ears had been tickled with the tidings of the soft couches and lovely gardens of Babylon the Great.
‘The short way leads through a wood which is the home of fairies and other strange creatures,’ answered Gerames, ‘and in it dwells Oberon, the king of them all, in stature no higher than a child of three years old, but with a face more beautiful than any worn by mortal man. His voice is softer and his words more sweet than we are wont to use; but beware of listening to them, for should you speak to him one word, you will fall into his power for ever. But if you hold your peace think not to escape that way, for he will be so wroth with you that he will cause all manner of tempests to spring up, and a great and black river to rise before you. Fear not to pass this river, black and swift though it be, for it is but a fantasy, and will not even wet the feet of your horse. And now that I have told you the ills that lie in that wood, I pray you hearken to my counsel, and ride by the way that is longer.’
Huon paused before he answered. In sooth, Gerames’ words had not awakened dread in his soul. Instead, he desired greatly to meet that dwarf, and to try whose will should prove strongest. So he answered that it would ill become a knight, and the son of his father, to shun a meeting with anyone, be he man or fairy, and it might be well for him to take the short road, for many adventures might befall him by the longer.
‘Sir,’ said Gerames, ‘be it as you will; whichever way you take I will go with you.’
Then Huon and Gerames rode at the rear of their company, and entered the wood where Oberon, king of the Fairies, abode. For two days they had neither food nor drink, and Huon repented him of his journey and wished that he had hearkened to Gerames, as perchance the other road might have been easier.
‘Let us all alight and seek for food,’ said he; but at that moment, Oberon, richly dressed, and covered with precious stones, appeared before them. A magic bow was in his hand, whose arrows never failed to hit the beast he aimed at, while round his neck was slung a horn. Now this horn was unlike any other in the whole world, for one blast of it could cure a man’s sickness, even if he was nigh to death, or make him feel satisfied if he lacked meat, or joyful though he was poor, or summon whomsoever he wanted, if he was distant a hundred days’ journey.
Seeing the doleful plight of the little company, Oberon blew the third blast, and, behold! Huon and his companions began to sing and dance, as if good fortune had come to them.
‘Ah, what strange thing has come to pass!’ cried the young knight. ‘But now I was like to fall from my horse from hunger, but in an instant I am filled and wish for nothing.’
‘Sir,’ said Gerames, ‘it is Oberon who has wrought this; but do not suffer yourself to be drawn into speech with him, or you will rue it.’
‘Have no fears for me,’ answered Huon, ‘I will be steadfast.’
He held his head very high when Oberon the dwarf came up, and begged the knight to speak to him; but Huon only leaped on his horse and signed to his men to do likewise. At that the dwarf waxed angry, and bade a tempest arise, and with it came such a rain and hail that they were sore affrighted. Many times Gerames prayed them to take courage, for these were devices of the fairy king, and would not really hurt them, and as long as they spoke no words they would be safe.
‘Have no doubt of me,’ answered Huon.
For a while they lost sight of the dwarf, and Huon vainly hoped that they had beaten him off, and that they were rid of him. But in a little time they reached a bridge which spanned a great river, and on the bridge was Oberon himself. Fain would they have slipped past him, but the bridge was narrow, and Oberon stood in the middle. Once more he spoke soft words to Huon, and offered to do him service, but Huon held his peace. Again Oberon was angered sorely, and blew a blast which hindered the company from riding onwards, while four hundred knights of his own came galloping up.
‘Slay these men at once,’ he cried, shaking with wrath, but their leader implored him to spare them for a space.
‘It will be time enough to kill them if they still keep silence,’ said he; and Oberon agreed that he would give them yet another chance, and Huon and his companions rode hastily onwards.
‘We have left him full five miles behind us,’ said Huon, drawing rein; ‘and now that he is not here to trouble us I will say that never in my life did I see so fair a creature. Nor do I think he can do us any ill. If he should come again, I fain would speak to him, and I pray you, Gerames, not to be displeased with me thereat.’
Gerames’ heart was heavy at these words, but he knew well the wilfulness of young men, and he answered nothing. For fifteen days they rode on, and Gerames began to hope that Oberon had given up their pursuit, when suddenly he again appeared.
‘Noble sir,’ he said to Huon, ‘have you resolved in good sooth not to speak to me? I know all your past life, and the task set you by the emperor, and without my help never will you come to the end of that business. Therefore, be warned by me, and go no further.’
‘You are welcome, sir,’ answered Huon at last, and Oberon laughed for very joy.
‘Never did you give a greeting so profitable as this one,’ he said, and they rode on together.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52