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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.



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