Many of you will remember reading of the death of Roland, fighting against the Infidels in the Pass of Roncesvalles. Well, there is another book called ‘Roland the Wrathful,’ or in Italian (in which it was written), ‘Orlando Furioso,’ telling of the adventures of the great Paladin when he was a young man, and those of his friends. It is of one of these stories about a lady named Bradamante that you are going to hear now.
From childhood, Bradamante had loved all feats of arms, and her chiefest joy was to mount the most fiery horses in her father’s stable. She grew up very tall and strong, as well as fair to see, and soon put on man’s armour, and began to take her part in tournaments, and it was rare indeed that she failed to carry off the prize. In truth, it was not long before her skill was said to be equal to that of Roland’s cousin, the renowned Rinaldo.
Of course so wise and beautiful a maiden had no lack of wooers, but Bradamante listened to none, save only to the brave Roger, who had quitted the Moorish court to seek adventures in the lands of Charlemagne the emperor. But she kept silence as to her love, and was content to wait till such time as Roger should think fit to claim her as his bride.
Suddenly the tidings came to her that Roger had vanished from among men, no one knew whither. As was her wont, Bradamante heard, and said nothing, but the next morning she sharpened her sword, and looked to the fastenings of her helmet, and rode off to seek him if perchance some ill had befallen him.
In this quest she met with some adventures of her own, but of these we have no time to tell. Bradamante, we may be sure, did not linger over them, but pushed on till she crossed a mountain, and reached a valley watered by a stream and shaded by large trees.
On the bank lay a young man with his head buried in his hands and seemingly in a state of deepest misery. He had flung his horse’s bridle over the branch of a beech, and on the same bough he had hung his shield and sword. His looks and posture were so forlorn that Bradamante was moved to pity, and he himself was nothing loth to confess his woes, pretending the while to take her for a man, though he knew well she was a maiden. He was journeying, such was his tale, to the court of Charlemagne with a company of spearmen to aid the emperor in the war he was waging with the Moorish king of Spain. In the company was riding a damsel whom the knight had but lately freed from the power of a dragon. The beauty of this damsel had fired his heart, and as soon as the Infidel was crushed he hoped to wed her. But as they rode along by the side of a rapid river a winged horse guided by a man in black was seen hovering in the air above the troop. Swifter than lightning he swooped down upon the maiden; the rider bent low and snatched her off her palfrey, and was out of sight in the heavens almost before he knew that she was gone.
‘Since that day,’ continued he, ‘I have sought her through forests and over mountains, wherever I heard that a wizard’s den was to be found. But each time it was a false hope that lured me on, and now my horse is spent and not another step can he go, though at length I know that hidden among yonder rocks is my captive maiden.’
‘If it is there she lies, I will free her,’ cried Bradamante; but the knight shook his head more grievously than before.
‘I have visited that dark and dreadful place,’ he said, ‘which indeed I think seems more like the valley of death than aught on this fair and lovely earth. Amidst black and pathless precipices stands a rock, and on its top is a castle whose walls are of steel. It was built, so I have since learned, by a magician, and none can capture it.’
‘But did you see no man who would take pity on you, and tell you what to do?’ asked Bradamante.
‘As I lingered, unable to tear myself away from that loathly prison, there appeared a dwarf guiding two knights whose faces I had often seen upon the battlefield and at court. One was Gradasso king of Sericane, the other and more valiant was the young Roger.’
‘And what did they there?’ asked Bradamante, casting down her eyes.
‘They had come to fight the wizard who dwells in the castle, so said the dwarf,’ replied the knight, ‘and I told them my sad tale, and they answered in knightly fashion, that as long as their lives should last they would fight for the freedom of my lady. Little need have I to tell how my bosom was rent as I stood aside waiting for the combat to begin.
‘Each good knight was eager that the first blow might fall to him, but it was Gradasso who seized the horn and blew a blast which rang through the castle.
‘In a moment there shot into the sky the winged horse bearing his master, clad as before in black armour. He hovered for a little space so high that even the eagle could scarcely have followed him, then darted straight downwards, and Gradasso felt a spear-thrust in his side. The knight struck sharply back, but his sword cleft the empty air, for the horse was already far out of reach. Roger ran to staunch the blood and bind up the wound, never thinking of what might befall himself. But, in truth, how could mortal men fight with a wizard who had studied all the magic of the East, and had a winged horse to help him? His movements were so swift that they knew not where to smite, and both Gradasso and Roger were covered with wounds and bruises, while their enemy had never once been touched.
‘Their strength as well as their courage began to fail in the stress of this strange warfare. The blows they dealt grew ever wilder and more feeble, when from off his shield which hung upon his arm the wizard drew a silken covering, and held the shield towards them as a mirror. As I looked and wondered, behold the knights fell upon their faces, and I also, and when next I opened my eyes I was alone upon the mountain.’
‘And Roger?’ said Bradamante.
‘Roger and Gradasso had doubtless been carried by the wizard to the dark cells of the prison, where my fair lady lies,’ answered the knight, and he again dropped his head upon his hands.
Now the knight was count Pinabello, the false son of a false race, and woe betide the man or maid who trusted him. But this Bradamante knew not, and thinking that the end of her quest was come cried joyfully:
‘Oh, take me to the castle, sir knight, with all the speed you may, and I shall be beholden to you for ever!
‘If you so desire it I will lead you there,’ answered the knight; ‘but remember that I have warned you that the danger is great! When you have climbed those walls of steel, you will find yourself a prisoner like the rest.’
‘I care nothing for that,’ said Bradamante.
So they set forth, but it was not by the road to the castle that Pinabello led the maiden. Wrapped in his gloom begotten of treachery and hate, he wandered from the path into a wood, where the trees grew so thickly that the sky was scarcely visible. Then a dark thought entered his mind. ‘She shall trouble me no more,’ he murmured as he went; and aloud, ‘The night is at hand, and ere it comes it were well that we found a shelter. Rest, I pray you, here a short while, and I will climb that hill and see if, as I expect, there is a tower not far off where we can lie. To-morrow we will proceed on our way.’
‘Let me go with you,’ answered Bradamante, ‘lest you should never find me again, or I the wizard’s castle,’ and, so saying, she guided her horse after his.
Thus they rode for some way, when Pinabello, who was in front, espied among the rocks a deep cavern with sides so steep and smooth that no mortal could have climbed them. He jumped off his horse and peered to the bottom, but no bottom could he see. Then his heart leaped at the thought that now, once and for all, he would be rid of Bradamante.
‘Ah, good knight, you did well to follow me,’ turning to greet her, as her horse came panting up the steep hill.
‘A damsel lies imprisoned in that dark place, and it is foretold that only a knight with a white mantle and a white plume in his helm can deliver her. Now I think that you must be that knight, and if you have the courage to go down into that cavern as I went, you will get speech of her, as I did.’
‘I will go right willingly,’ answered Bradamante, and looked about her for some means of descending into the cavern. Near the mouth was a stout oak, and Bradamante cut off a branch with her sword and plunged it down the mouth of the cave. She gave Pinabello one end to hold fast, and lowered herself carefully into the darkness.
‘Can you jump?’ asked the count suddenly, with a laugh, and, giving the bough a push, it fell with Bradamante into the pit.
But the traitor triumphed without a cause. In the swift passage down the cave the branch struck the bottom first, and, though it broke in pieces, Bradamante was saved from being dashed against the floor, where she lay for a while bruised and shaken.
When she became used to the darkness, she stood up and looked around her. ‘There may be some way out, after all,’ thought she, noting that the cave was less gloomy than she had fancied, and felt round the walls with her hands. On one side there seemed to be a passage, and going cautiously down it she found that it ended in a sort of church, with a lamp hanging over the altar.
At this moment there opened a little gate, and through it came a lady, bare-footed, with streaming hair.
‘O Bradamante,’ she said, ‘long have I awaited you, for Merlin, who lies here, prophesied before he entered this living tomb that ages hence you would find your way hither. He bade me come from a far-distant land, and be with you at the hour when his spirit, though dead, should tell of the glories of the race that will spring from you and Roger.’
‘I am not worthy of such honour,’ answered Bradamante, casting down her eyes, though her heart beat with joy at the thought that though she and Roger might be parted now, yet in the end they would be united. ‘Let my lord speak, and I will hearken to him.’
At that a voice rose from the sepulchre where Merlin had lain buried for many hundreds of years.
‘Since it is decreed that you shall be the wife of Roger, take courage, and follow the path that leads you to him. Let nothing turn you aside, and suffer no adventure to ensnare you till you have overthrown the wizard who holds him captive.’
The voice ceased, and Melissa, the kind magician who went through the world seeking to set wrongs right, showed from a book the glories that would attend the children of Bradamante.
‘To-morrow at dawn,’ she said when she had finished and put away the magic scroll —‘to-morrow at dawn I myself will lead you to the wizard’s castle. Till then it would be well for you to seek of the wisdom of Merlin guidance to overcome the dangers bestrewing your path.’
Next morning Melissa and Bradamante rode out from the cavern by a secret way, and passed over rushing rivers, and climbed high precipices, and as they went Melissa held discourse with Bradamante how best to set Roger free.
‘No man, however brave, could withstand the wizard, who has his magic mirror as well as his flying horse to aid him. If you would reach Roger, you must first get possession of the ring stolen from Angelica by Agramante, the African king, and given by him to Brunello, who is riding only a few miles in front of us. In the presence of this ring all charms and sorceries lose their power; but, take heed, for to outwit Brunello is no easy task.’
‘It is good fortune indeed that Brunello should be so near us,’ answered Bradamante joyfully; ‘but how shall I know him from other men?’
‘He is of low stature, and covered with black hair,’ replied Melissa; ‘his nose lies flat upon his face, and his skin is yellow, as the skin of those who come from the far lands beyond Scythia. You must fall to talking with him upon magic and enchantments, but beware lest he guess who you are or what your business, and lead him on till he offer himself your guide to the wizard’s castle. As you go, strike him dead, before he has time to spy into your heart, and, above all, before he can slip the ring into his mouth. Once he does that, you lose Roger for ever.’
Having thus said, Melissa bade Bradamante farewell, and they parted with tears and promises of speedy meeting. Forthwith Bradamante entered an inn hard by, where Brunello was already seated, and if she at once marked him amongst other men he no less knew her, for many a time he had seen her at jousts and tourneys.
Thus, both feigning, they fell into talk, and held discourse upon the castle and the knights who lay imprisoned therein. ‘Many an adventure as perilous have I dared,’ at length said Bradamante, ‘and never have I failed to trample under foot my foe. So, if our worthy host will but give me a guide, I myself will challenge this wizard to deadly combat.’
But Brunello would suffer no man to be her guide save himself, and together they climbed the mountain till they stood at the foot of the castle. ‘Look at those walls of steel that crown the precipice,’ began Brunello; but before he could say more a strong girdle was passed round his arms, which were fastened tightly to his side; and in spite of his cries and struggles Bradamante drew the ring off his finger and placed it on her own, though kill him she would not.
Then she seized the horn which hung from a cord, and, blowing a loud blast, waited calmly for the magician to answer.
Out he came on his flying steed, bearing on his left arm his silken-covered shield, while he uttered spells that had laid low many a knight and lady. Bradamante heard them all, and was no whit the worse for the blackest of them.
Furious at his defeat, the wizard snatched the cover from the shield, and Bradamante, knowing full well what was wont to follow, sank heavily on the ground. At this the wizard covered his shield once more, and guided his steed swiftly to where the maiden lay. After that, unclasping a chain from his body, he bent down to find her. It was then that she lifted her ringed hand, and there stood before her an old man with white hair and a face scarred with sorrow.
‘Kill me, I pray you, gentle lady,’ cried he; ‘yet know before I die that my love to Roger has been the cause of these heavy woes to so many gallant knights and fair damsels. I am that Atlantes who watched over him in childhood, and as he grew to manhood he was ever the first in all deeds of chivalry. So reckless was he, that many a time it needed all my magic to bring him back to life when seemingly he lay dead. At length, to keep him from harm, I built this castle, and filled it with all that was beautiful, and, as you know, with knights and ladies to be his companions. When everything was ready I captured Roger himself.’
‘Now, take my horse and shield, and throw open wide the castle doors — do what you will, but leave me only Roger.’
The heart of Bradamante was not wont to be deaf to the sorrows of others, but this time it seemed turned to stone.
‘Your horse and shield I have won for myself,’ she said; ‘and have you lived so long in the world without learning that it is idle to war against fate? It is fate which has given you into my hands, and it is useless to strive against it. Therefore, lead the way to the gate, and I will follow.’
They climbed in silence the long flight of steps leading to the castle; then Atlantes stooped and raised a stone on which was graven strange and magic signs. Beneath the stone was a row of pots filled with undying flames, and on these the wizard let the stone fall. In a moment there was a sound as if all the rocks on the earth were rent, the castle vanished into the air, and with it Atlantes.
Instead, a troop of knights and ladies stood before Bradamante, who saw and heard none save only Roger.
[From Orlando Furioso.]
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57