THE MAGIC BELTEffigy brass of Sir Hugh Hastings,
Elsing, Norfolk, 1347The message this my story bears
need not sound strange to courtly ears;
yet ne'er shall common mind descry
those shapes that light the noble eye--
let the rabble be
in deserved misery!
I sing delights for worthy hearts
to savor, whose zeal for knightly arts
we celebrate. Their gallantry
Defends the pride of chivalry.
Once there was a fine knight, courtly and rich, whose name was Conrad. Lords and ladies alike knew him well, both for his attendance at court and the kindness he was ever ready to show to all, be they strangers or members of the royal household. My story tells how it was his proud custom to exercise often in the tournament. Wherever riders strove on the field for the prizes of chivalry, his joyful battle-cry was sure to sound over them.
Now, he had married a lady of high birth, skilled in virtue and a great beauty. Her carriage was proud, as well it might be under the golden hair that flowed down about the velvet rose and white of her face. The clarity of her glance was matched only by a throat so pure and white that one expected to see a flush of red through it when she took a swallow of wine. The smooth roundness of her mouth, her shoulders and her breasts, with the pure heart beating gently beneath them, formed a lovely pattern flowing down to the curve of her womb, below which she wore a secret jewel of whose powers I can tell in song and story. Her arms and hands, her legs and feet matched perfectly the symmetry of her form. The house in which she lay shone inside at night from her beauty, as though lighted by the sun. She was as good as she was beautiful; the birds and animals of the forest would sing to her and greet her when she walked, the ruffled sea would grow calm if she waded on the shore, and whoever was graced with her smile continued three days hence impervious to any sorrow. Happy and blessed was the knight to whom she was married, and with whom she lived in peace!
It was in May, when the warblers and nightingales strove in song; the lady and her noble husband lay early one morning, just upon awakening. He took her face between his hands and kissed her.
"I know in my heart you are devoted to me," he said. "I have made my name as a knight in many a foreign land and kingdom, but my renown is small here in my own country. Because I know it will delight you, I mean to ride in the tourney to be held soon nearby. The knights are already gathering there, and I too will go."
"Indeed, go, my lord," she replied. "In this, as in all other matters, I am obedient to your will."
And so, with her blessings, he made ready and rode away. The day matured and grew warm after he had left, and the lady, as was her custom, retired to a cool, enclosed garden for the afternoon. While resting there, she chanced to look out through the hedge and saw a splendidly mounted and armed knight riding by. A hawk perched on his forearm, and in his fist he held the leashes of two fine greyhounds. Slung about his hips was a broad swordbelt that glittered with precious stones.
He caught sight of the lady watching him. Immediately struck by pains of attraction so strong as to approach a kind of madness, he spurred his horse to the garden gate and swung down, tethered horse and hounds to a nearby tree, strode through the gate, and tossed the hawk from his arm onto a lattice of the arbor.
The lady received him courteously. "It's very warm today--I'm sure you would like to escape the heat and sit down here until the sun begins to lose some of its fervor."
She had her girl bring a cup of wine, which she offered to her visitor. He nearly swooned from passion, but managed to take the cup and drink politely, and then passed it back to his stunning hostess. His heart was twisted with desire for her.
They sat in the garden until the afternoon heat had begun to lessen. Then the lady addressed him.
"Sir, I must inquire how you are so bold as to tarry. My husband would be angered to find you here, unless of course you are one of his kin, in which case I could not be more pleased by your presence, since then he surely would want you to be welcome."
"Oh, my lady," responded the knight, "oh, my lovely, lovely lady! I am a stranger here, nor any kin, nor do I know your husband."
"Sir, you must leave at once!" she returned.
"Ah, my sweet delight, my lady, I cannot. I am bound and helpless for love and desire of you."
"What, is it your honor to make a slut of me?" she snapped. "I'll hear no more!"
The knight kept his seat and ventured to speak again. "Mercy, my lady, my treasure, grant me life--I'll give you a hawk worth five hundred marks--only be kind to a poor knight! Save me with your favor! This hawk can catch anything that flies."
"I'll kill no fowl for my husband by such means," she replied indignantly.
"Why, then I have here two hounds, from which no prey, however swift or fierce, can escape. They are yours when love unites us."
"My honor for hounds? Never! Never shall it be said I was defiled for a dog. Such talk!"
"Ah, my lady, my light, my heartbreak, jewel of virtue, prove your grace toward me, and take my stallion. He is a mount for a knight--in his breast there lies a magic stone that gives him great strength and speed. Whoever rides him can never be overtaken, and he shall be yours if you will yield to me!"
"I'll not do your will nor sell myself for any horse, however fast he may run," she retorted. "No, no horse shall take my honor."
"My lady, my Mayblossom, sweet girl, delight of my eyes and mistress of my heart--release me from my misery! Have mercy upon me, whom you have so wounded! I have here a swordbelt, set with precious stones and woven with strands of gold. The stones come from far lands across the sea, from Africa, from the dark peoples of India and Syria--chrysolite there, and onyx, and this is chalcedony--this large stone, from the lands of the Greeks, is the only one of its kind. Look! From one side, it seems misty white, but from the other--lo! It glows dark, blood red. These stones have many strange powers, among them being that whoever wears them in battle is unconquerable, can never lose heart nor be struck down, is proof against fire or water and always gains the victory. My lady, do my will, and the belt is yours, with my hawk, my hounds and my horse!"
She cast her gaze down in confusion, while her lovely cheeks flushed, then paled, then flushed again. She called her maid, and whispered: "keep watch, and let no one come into the garden. Take the hawk and the hounds, and see that they're cared for. The horse too." Then she turned to the knight. "Kind sir, give me the belt. I have already had the hawk and hounds and stallion taken away."
The knight was overjoyed. "Now, sir," she whispered," what you wish is yours."
He got his belt off in a hurry, I can tell you, and gave it to her. A moment later the trees were swaying and rustling, the birds whistling, and the roses laughing at what was going on, and when they were through, there was still a place on the lawn where the grass, bent down in mirth, remembered what they had done, while the daisies around the edge bloomed a little brighter.
When at last the knight rose to take leave, the lovely woman addressed him. "Sir, now you've had your fun, but it seems to me you were foolish to throw away so much, the belt, your horse, and everything else, for a moment of pleasure."
"Nonsense, my lady," he protested. "You may think of the cost, but to me it was the best bargain I ever made. Still, you can give me just a little better measure, and kiss me once more!"
She did, and the knight regretfully took his leave. But one of the stableboys had witnessed the whole adventure. No sooner had the knight departed than the boy rode off at top speed to the tournament grounds to tell his master.
"My lord," he panted, "oh, sir, God forbid, but my lady is deceiving you! Yes I saw it, in the garden--a knight, a fine-looking fellow--he had her right there, and she just let him!"
>"What!" groaned Sir Conrad. "Ah, woe is me! I took a faithful bride, and now she turns around and disgraces me. I can never show my face in my own country again!" With that, he wrested his horse about, struck spurs into it and disappeared in a cloud of dust up the highway toward the lands to the west and north.
News of his flight filled his lady with sorrow. "Ah, well may my husband be angry with me. I regret that, as indeed I ought. But he'll get over it." The tattling stableboy quickly found himself unemployed, and with poor references.
However, there was no word at all from Sir Conrad, nor any news of where he might have gone. Two years passed. The lady began to think over her situation. Having just turned twenty, proud and spirited, she enjoyed full respect everywhere. She had behaved well and managed the estate to advantage during her husband's absence, and when May again began to disperse the chills of April, she collected her proceeds, amounting to a very good sum, put aside her sorrows and determined to set out through the greening forests in search of Sir Conrad.
"If my husband won't come back to me," she decided, "I'll go to him. I'll look until I find him, for he is the best of husbands, and I love him."
She got ready to go. She took the hawk on her fist, leashed the greyhounds, strapped on the jeweled belt, mounted the horse, and with ten squires in attendance rode bravely away. At last, after a long journey, she arrived in a fine city and stopped before an inn. The innkeeper came out to bid her a courteous welcome as she dismounted. Returning his greeting, she strode with full dignity into the public room, where the innkeeper called for wine. She drank the offered cup of welcome, and then turned to her squires. She charged them secretly to return home and there to show their loyalty by looking after all the household affairs in her absence. They pledged themselves to do so and rode away.
After spending several days resting at the inn, she took the innkeeper aside, telling him she wished to confide in him.
"My good man, can you keep a secret? You see, I am not a woman, but a knight. Although I may seem frail, I have strength enough, when I choose to use it. You find me thus disguised, in a foreign land, because I was forced to flee powerful enemies, who attacked and overcame me. Now I ask you to do a service for me. Take this money, and don't spare it. Find me twelve good squires, mounted, armed, and fitted out ready to fight. That's the sort of company I like! Then get dress proper for a knight, and the best armor you can find, well-polished, light, and strong."
The innkeeper did as requested. He even found a minstrel to complete her retinue. As I heard the story, the lady, when she had cut her hair and put on her new martial finery, made a splendid figure as she took leave from the innkeeper. She headed for Brabant, in which land she soon came to a lordly castle. There she bid her minstrel raise a loud cry. The master of the fortress, a duke, heard the noise.
"Quick about it," he ordered his servants. "See who our guests are, before you let them in."
"It's a splendid knight," cried a vassal, "and he must be really somebody--look at his men!"
"Admit him," commanded the duke. "He shall be welcome, and all his squires."
When the gate had been raised, the lady, in her knightly regalia, headed a resounding procession into the courtyard. Her scarlet surcoat, richly woven with gold bands, streamed back to show the glitter of jewels set in her belt. The helmet crooked in her arm was topped by white plumes, while in its place she wore a prize wreath in her bright hair. In any chivalrous company, she would have shone among the best of them.
Grooms caught the horses and led them to the stables, while the guests were conducted to the hall where the duke sat at table. Among the other guests at dinner was Sir Conrad, the lady's husband, next to whom she was seated. Of course, she recognized him at once, but said nothing.
"Sir," he addressed her, "tell me, from what land are you?"
"I am a Swabian," she replied.
"And may I know your name?"
"Sir, my name is Heinrich."
"Strangers here as we both are," offered Sir Conrad, "we would do well to be friends, as befits two knights."
"So shall it be, my dear comrade," she agreed. Thus the old vow that long had bound them was renewed, but now in a different union.
After the duke and his company had dined, he called for his huntsmen, and all set out into the forest. They soon picked up the trail of a bear, but as they began to close in, it proved to be so large and fierce that even the bravest hounds in the duke's pack would not attack it, only cowering instead and yelping at a safe distance. Sir Heinrich quickly unleashed her two greyhounds, which lunged savagely at the bear, tearing at it and biting it so that it soon tried to flee, but was pulled down and killed.
The duke, marvelling at the hounds' strength and fleetness, immediately bid five hundred marks for ownership of them. "No, my lord," Sir Heinrich replied, "they are not for sale."
They rode further into the preserve to a clearing, there to try their skill and sport at falconry. Sir Heinrich released her hawk, which killed more booty than all the other hunting birds together. Nothing could escape from it.
>Again the astonished duke offered Sir Heinrich a large sum, in hopes of buying the bird, but she again refused, as she had with the hounds. "No, my lord, I will never part with my hawk, as long as I live."
Now the hunters had had their sport and began the ride back to the castle. Coming to a broad meadow on the way, they all spurred their mounts in a race, but before they were halfway across, Sir Heinrich had already reached the other side. The duke offered her anything she wanted, lands or gold, for her horse, but she refused. "My lord, I will not sell my horse."
Sir Heinrich and Sir Conrad stayed on for some time as guests of the duke, who had let it be published that a great tournament would be held at his castle. Now the knights from all the lands around had begun to gather there, and among them was a proud Breton. Over his hauberk he wore a fine, silken surcoat that shone like fire; his horse, swift as a panther, pranced beneath blood-red trappings; the mere sight of him, so splendidly was he armed and mounted, instilled such respect that not a knight there would meet him lance to lance, except Sir Conrad, who put on his armor, stepped firmly in the stirrup and rode out. Bent well down behind his shield, his lance leveled, he galloped straight at the Breton, but was knocked from his horse and landed on the grass with a jolt.
News of his defeat spread through the court. Sir Heinrich, hearing of it, quickly prepared for battle. "I will surely meet him this day," she muttered grimly.
The duke tried to dissuade her. "No, no, Sir Heinrich, I ask you to leave that knight his triumph. He's more than a match for you. Why, he knocked down the best man here--you'd have no chance at all against him!"
"My lord, if you please," replied Sir Heinrich, "I will meet the Breton."
Her armor sparkled like crystal. The fine rings of her mail had been hardened in dragon's blood; her greaves were gilded; the ailettes guarding her shoulders and the well-padded side plates were covered with shimmering silk, contrasting with the glow of stones on the plastron covering her breast; fine braces, with joint caps, protected her arms; from her helmet sprouted her sign, composed of blossoms, and at her side the golden handle of her sword gleamed darkly. It hung from the magic belt, which protected its wearer from harm. Her surcoat, worn over her armor, glowed with golden roses against a background of smooth green silk, matching the design of her horse's trappings. Completing her armor were a great lance and a golden shield, on the center of which shone her blazon, a single white lily.
Her horse snorted and neighed at the ring of armor given off at every stride as Sir Heinrich took the field to a flourish of trumpets. Nor was the Breton caught unprepared. At the first joust, both lances were shattered, but neither rider was unhorsed. They each cried at once for another lance, and then rounded to face each other. They spurred their mounts grimly to clash again. This time the Breton lost. Sir Heinrich struck him down.
That was the signal for the general jousting to begin. Now the broad arena was full of riders, every man for himself, but wherever the jangle of Sir Heinrich's armor sounded, the knights scattered, leaving the field empty before her. In whatever direction she charged, there were loud cries of warning and dismay. When the day was over, Sir Heinrich owned thirty horses, won in the field, and all the company shouted with one voice her praise as champion.
Soon the knights had a chance to put their combative skills to a more serious test, for the duke was mounting a campaign against the stronghold of one of his enemies. Sir Heinrich and Sir Conrad were chosen on this occasion to ride out in advance as scouts. When they had drawn some distance ahead of the company, the fell into conversation.
"My dear friend," Sir Conrad began, "it would be a sign of our firm companionship for you to give me one of your possessions, your hounds, or the hawk, or your horse. I would be grateful for any one of them."
"Comrade, you are wasting your entreaties," Sir Heinrich replied. "Never will I give any of them to anyone. You don't know what you are asking!"
But Conrad persisted. "Then show me that you do think highly of me, and take me as your vassal, here and now--I fold my hands and vow always to be your man, to be loyal to you and defend your causes, with all my heart!"
"Well," mused Sir Heinrich, "I'll tell you what. There is something you could do for me. If you'll do it, you shall have the hawk."
"Of course, dear comrade, anything you wish!"
"You see," Sir Heinrich went on, "I have some rather special tastes. I have never touched a woman, because it happens that I prefer men. If you'll do my will, and then keep quiet about it, I'll be pleased to give you the hounds and the hawk."
"What?" cried Sir Conrad. "But you look so knightly, so manly, so . . . oh, no!"
"Well, do you want the hawk?" said Sir Heinrich.
"Yes, yes, but--what would I have to do?"
"You just lie down and leave the rest to me. But you must let me do whatever I want."
"And then I get the hounds and the hawk?"
"Yes," promised Sir Heinrich.
"You want to do it right now?"
"Right now. Lie down."
"Like this?" said Sir Conrad, stretching out cautiously on the grass.
"Oh, for God's sake, if you aren't one hell of a mess!" she exploded. "Just look at you, you filthy queer, look what you'll do for a couple of animals! And they're yours anyway!"
"What?" stammered Sir Conrad, sitting up.
"Don't you know me, you brute?" she screamed. "I'm your wife! I got all this stuff for you, so you could be the big knight. Anybody wearing this belt is unbeatable!"
Sir Conrad got to his feet. "How--where--did you get these things?"
"From a knight--yes, I let him have me, in the garden. Was that so wrong, for what I got? But you--you're ready to screw anything for a lousy bird! You put on a big show about your honor, running out on me and leaving the country--some honor! A buzzard's worth! What I did, at least, was natural--but you? You'll do anything, no matter how rotten, for the least of what I got! Some knight you are--some Christian!"
"My lady," began Sir Conrad, slowly. "My lady . . ."--he managed to hide a smile-- ". . . indeed I am your humble vassal. Ah, my dear, loyal, true wife--I beg your pardon."
"It was your fault," she pouted.
"So be it," he murmured.
"Yes, my lord, it was. But take your hawk and horse, your hounds and magic belt. You'll never lose a fight again."
With that, they turned back and rode home to their own country, where they lived together in dignity, honor, and love to the end of their days, another hundred years at least.