There came a sudden sound, breaking the shadowy silence of Longwood forest.
Crash followed crash, at short intervals, with the snapping of dry twigs and bush branches, and then came ringing, clear and sweet, three notes of a hunting horn.
Out into an open glade, where the sunlight fell upon the long, green grass of midsummer, there bounded a splendid stag – a stag royal, a stag of ten – fit to be the antlered monarch of the king's deer in Longwood.
Three leaps, and then the beautiful animal stood still; but as he turned, panting, and lowered his horns, it could be seen that he was wounded. The feather of an arrow in his flank told how deeply the shaft was driven.
He was at bay now, and splendid was his courage as he stood to battle with his pursuers.
Again, and nearer, nearer, sounded the horn; for the hunters were coming.
Out through the leafy barrier of the bushes at the edge of the glade bounded three eager deerhounds, one after another. Large dogs they were, brown-haired, lop-eared. Their baying had chimed in with the music of the horn. Better for them it were if one of the huntsmen had been there to hold them from their haste; for there is danger for any who rush rashly in upon a stag at bay.
Loud voices and the thud of galloping hoofs told that the hunters were close at hand; but they were too late in arriving. The foremost hound dashed fiercely on, his white teeth showing, and his eyes flashing with green light; but the ten-tined antlers passed under him and were lifted swiftly.
Away the hound was hurled, pierced fatally, and then a sudden side stroke disabled the second of the four-footed assailants. The third paused, lifting a forefoot doubtfully as he glanced from one to the other of his unlucky companions. A whizzing shaft passed over his head, and a cloth-yard arrow sped to its mark, inside the shoulder of the deer. The spreading antlers plowed the sod for a moment, and then all was over. A tall, powerful-looking man, who came riding up, sprang from his horse, and stood by the wounded dogs, exclaiming:
"These short-legged galloways have cost us two hounds! We had better stalk a deer than run him, unless we have swifter steeds."
"Stalking must serve our turn, now the dogs are gone," growled a shorter man who had come up and now stood beside him. "I would the legs of our nags had been longer!"
They were rough-looking men, and they spoke in the burred Saxon-English of Warwickshire five hundred years ago. It was another tongue from any now spoken in England.
The galloways, of whose legs they had complained, were the undersized and shaggy-maned horses they had ridden in that hunt. Such were plentiful then, but none other could be had save by those who could pay large prices.
"Fools are we," remarked another man. "And mayhap the horn blast has gone to the wrong ears with token of our doings.
"And what care we?" responded the tall hunter. "'Tis long since there hath been a royal keeper in any wood of Arden Forest. Earl Warwick himself never hunteth as far to the north as this. There's no harm in a horn, and I like well the sound, and the baying o' the dogs. We'll not again hear either very soon."
Others had now come up, but they said little. They lifted their game to the back of one of the galloways. The arrows were carefully extracted, cleaned, and restored to the quivers of their owners. The men were all stalwart fellows, and the bows they carried were tremendous weapons. When unstrung, such a bow would rest upon a man's foot and touch his nose, and only a strong and practiced arm could bend one. Besides the bows, they carried short, two-edged swords hanging at their belts, in which were also stuck broad-bladed knives or daggers. They wore no armor except light headpieces of steel, and their garments appeared to be made of leather. The body coats were like leather blouses, soiled and worn. They wore leggings of deerskin, but several were barefooted.
A brave-looking dozen were these hunters of Longwood. Their faces were not evil, and their talk was that of kindly men fond of adventure and of sport, but caring little whose deer they were taking.
The carcass of the stag had been bound to one of the horses, and the hunters were mounting, when a loud shout came from under the nearest oaks:
"Ho, there! Halt! What do ye, killing the king's deer?"
"Stand for your lives, men!" exclaimed Guy the Bow. "I'll not be taken!"
"Nor I!" roared a burly hunter at his side; "but – it's young Neville of Wartmont. I could not strike him."
Only five men came riding out from under the trees, but they were all well mounted, and were better armed than were the hunters. Every man of them wore linked mail, with shield and lance and sword, while at every saddlebow hung a mace or battleaxe. Their helmets were open in front, and the face of the foremost rider was that of a beardless boy. It was a very resolute face, however, and he raised his hand as he again demanded:
"In the king's name, what do ye?"
"We be free men," said Guy sturdily. "Little reason hath thy father's son to question our acts."
"Why not?" came back. "Yonder stag is a death-warrant for every man of you!"
"Not so," exclaimed the burly hunter. "I am Ben o' Coventry, and we all stand by Guy the Bow. Will thy mail shirt keep out a cloth-yard shaft, Richard Neville of Wartmont?"
An arrow was on every bowstring at that moment; but Guy the Bow spoke again.
"Thou art a boy, Richard Neville," he said. "I will tell thee somewhat thou shouldst know. Thou hast only the ruins of thy tower to dwell in; but when Earl Mortimer claimed thy father's barony, and sent his men to put his seneschal in holding, the yeomen of Wartmont and Longwood, and more from further on in Arden, stood by the Neville. The Mortimer raided our holdings, burning house and barn. He lost his head years on, and thy uncle is Earl of Warwick; but the bowmen of these parts had become used to taking Earl Mortimer's deer."
"They are the king's deer now," said Richard. "Ye know that well."
"They bear no mark," grumbled Ben, lowering his bow. "We'll call that stag for Mortimer, this day, in spite of the Neville. Take us not. Go back to your tower."
"My young lord," was spoken in a low voice from among the men in mail behind him, "let them alone. They are thine own men. It's only a deer more or less. There are foes enough. Hark to Ben once more."
"I heard thee, sir," said Ben gratefully. "He might do well to heed thy saying; but let him now hear what Guy may tell him."
"My young Lord of Wartmont," said Gay, "I had verily thought to go and see thee this day. Knowest thou not that Clod of Lee, the Club of Devon, hath been heard from this side the Avon? He was one of Mortimer's men, and he hateth thee and thine. He is a wolf's head, by all law. He and his outlaws would find at Wartmont much that such as they would seek. Go in haste and hold thy tower against them, if thou canst, and bother not thyself with a free hunt and a nag-load of venison."
"Thou art no king's forester," added Ben of Coventry. "These are times when a man may let well enough alone."
"He speaketh truly," whispered Richard's mailed adviser. "Ride we to the castle as fast as we may. Thy mother – "
"Not a dozen swordsmen are at the Mount!" exclaimed Richard. "My mother is unprotected! Guy the Bow, I thank thee for thy warning. What care I for a few deer? Only, watch thou and thy men; for the earl sendeth soon to put this part of the shire under close forest law. None may escape if work like this go on then."
"Thou art right, my young lord," responded Guy; "but the yeomen of Longwood have no fellowship with the wolves of Devon and Cornwall. It is said, too, that there be savage Welsh among these outlaws that spare neither woman nor child. Ride thou with speed, and God be with thee! Well for thee that they are not bowmen, like thy neighbors."
"Haste, my lord!" cried another of Richard's men. "There are many women and there are children at the tower."
"On! on!" shouted Richard; but his face was white, as he wheeled his horse southward.
Very terrible was the name which had been won by some of the robber bands of England. They had been more numerous during the reign of Edward the Second. His son, Edward the Third, was only fourteen years of age when he was crowned, and it was several years more before he really became king. Ever since then he had striven with only moderate success to restore order throughout his realm. Several notable bodies of savage marauders were still to be heard from only too frequently, while in many districts the yeomen paid as little attention to the forest laws as if they had been Robin Hood's merry men of Sherwood. This was not the case upon the lands of the great barons, but only where there was no armed force at hand to protect the game. The poachers were all the safer everywhere because of the strong popular feeling in their favor, and because any informer who should give the life of a man for that of a deer might thenceforth be careful how he ventured far into the woods. He was a mark for an arrow from a bush, and not many cared to risk the vengeance of the woodsmen.
On rode the young Neville and his four men-at-arms; but hardly had they disappeared among the forest glades before Ben of Coventry turned upon his galloway to ask:
"Guy the Bow, what thinkest thou? The Wartmont boy spoke not unkindly. There be kith and kin of the forest men at the tower. What if the Club of Lee should reach the moat and find the gate open? 'Tis a careless time."
"Hang up the stag and follow!" at once commanded Guy, captain of the hunt. "We have taken three the day. There will be venison at every hearth. If only for his father's sake – "
"We are not robbers, Guy the Bow," interrupted another of his followers. "We are true men. 'Twill be a wolf hunt instead of a deer hunt. I like it well."
They strung up the stag to a bough of a tree, and then wheeled with a shout and galloped away as merrily as if they had started another hart royal.
Three long miles away, easterly from the glade where the stag had fallen, the forest ended; and beyond the scattered dignities of its mighty oaks lay a wide reach of farm land. The fields were small, except some that seemed set aside for pastures and meadows. There were well-grown but not very well-kept hedges. There were a few farmhouses, with barns and ricks. Nearly in the center rose a craggy hill, and at the foot of this clustered a small hamlet. It was a sign of the troubles that Edward the Third had striven to quell that all along the outer border of the hamlet ran the tattered remnants of what once had been a strong line of palisades and a deep ditch.
The hill was the Wart Mount, and on its crest were massive walls with a high, square tower at one corner. Viewed from a distance, they seemed to be a baronial stronghold. On a nearer approach, however, it could be seen that the beauty and strength of Wartmont had been marred by fire, and that much of it needed rebuilding. Some repairs had been made on the tower itself. Its gateway, with moat and bridge, was in fair condition for defense. More than one road led across the open country toward the castle; but the highway was from the east, and travelers thereon were hidden from sight by the hill.
There was a great stir in the village, for a man came riding at full speed from one of the farmhouses, shouting loudly as he passed the old palisades:
"To the hill! To the castle! The wolves of Devon are nigh! They have wasted Black Tom's place, and have slain every soul!"
The warning had already traveled fast and far, and from each of the farmhouses loaded wains, droves of cattle, horses, sheep, were hurrying toward the hill. Women, with their children, came first, weeping and praying.
Far away, on the southerly horizon, arose a black cloud of smoke to tell of the end of Black Tom's wheatstacks and haystacks.
"Aye! aye!" mourned an old woman. "It's gone wi' fire! Alas! And the good king is in Flanders the day, and his people are harried as if they had no king."
"It's like the old time," said another, "when all the land was wasted. I mind the telling o' what the Scots did for the north counties till the king drave them across the border."
Well kept were the legends that were told from one generation to another in the days when there were no books or newspapers; and they were now rehearsed rapidly, while the affrighted farm people fled from their threatened homes, as their ancestors had many a time been compelled to do. Still they all seemed to have great faith in the castle, and to believe that when once there they would be safe.
The rider who brought the news did not pause in the village, but rode on, and dismounted at the bridge over the moat. Not stopping to hitch his panting horse, he strode into the open portal, sending his loud message of evil omen through the corridor beyond. Voice after voice took up the cry and carried it up through the tower and out into the castle yard, till it seemed to find weird echoes among the half-ruined walls. At no place were these altogether broken down. There was no breach in them. Large parts of the old structures were still roofed over, and along the battlements there quickly appeared the forms of old and young, peering out eagerly to see whatever there might be to see upon the lowland.
There were very few men, apparently; but in the lower rooms of the tower there were quickly clanking sounds, as shields and weapons and armor were taken down from their places.
A large open area was included within the outer walls, and there was room for quadrupeds as well as for human beings. Still there was a promise of close crowding, if all the fugitives on the roads were to be provided for.
Gathered now in the village street was a motley crowd of men. They were by no means badly armed, but they seemed to have no commander, and their hurried councils were of all sorts. Most seemed to favor a general retreat to the castle, but against this course was urged the fact that the marauders had not yet arrived, nor had all the people from the farms.
"Men!" exclaimed a portly woman with a scythe in her strong hands, "could ye not meet them at the palisades? Bar the gap with a wain. There are bows and crossbows among ye. Fight them there!"
"We could never hold them back," came doubtfully from one of the men. "They'd find gaps enough. It's only a stone wall can stop them."
"They'll plunder the village," the woman said.
"Better that than the blood of us all," responded the man. "We are few. Would the young lord were here with his men-at-arms!"
"He rode to the north the morn," she was told. "Only four were with him. The rest are far away with the earl. A summons came, telling that the Scots were over the border."
"Could not the north counties care for themselves, without calling on the midlands?" grumbled the woman.
At that moment there came a terrified shriek from the road-gap in the palisades. The last of several wains was passing in, and all the street was thronged with cattle.
"They come! They come!" screamed the women by that wain. "Oh, that they gat so nigh, and none to see! It's over with us the day! Yon is the Club, and his men are many!"
Partly mounted, but some of them on foot, a wild-looking throng of men came pouring across a stubble-field from the southward. It seemed as if they might be over a hundred strong. No marching order was observed. There was no uniformity in their arms. At the head of them strode a huge, black-haired, shaggy-bearded brute who bore a tremendous club of oak, bound at its heavier end with a thick ring of iron. He laughed and shouted as he came, as if with a savage pleasure over the wild deeds he had done and the prospect before him.
"Short work!" he roared to those behind him. "Burn all ye can not take. And then for the hills o' Wales! But we'll harry as we go!"
Other things he said that sounded as if he had an especial grudge against the king and against all who, like the Nevilles, had been his strong personal adherents.
The castle gateway was thronged, so that getting in was slow, but the yard was already filling fast. So were the rooms of the tower, and such as remained of the ruined buildings. Everywhere were distress and terror, except upon one face just inside the portal.
Tall and stately was Maud Neville, the widowed lady of Wartmont Castle. Her hair was white, but she was as erect as a pine, and all who looked into her resolute face might well have taken courage. Some seemed to do so, and around her gathered a score of stalwart retainers, with shields, axes, and swords. Some who had bows were bidden to man the loopholes on the second floor, and bide their time. Here, at least, if not in the village, there was a captain, and she was obeyed.
"Men," she said, "you know well what wolves these are. If they force their way into the keep, not one of us will be left to tell the tale."
A chorus of loyal voices answered her, and the men gripped their weapons.
So was it on that side of the hill; but on the other, toward the east, the highway presented another picture. Whether they were friends or foemen, there was none to tell; but they were a warlike band of horsemen. They were not mounted upon low-built galloways, but upon steeds of size and strength. The horsemen themselves wore mail and carried lances, and several of them had vizored helmets. They were ten in number, riding two abreast, and one of the foremost pair carried a kind of standard – a flag upon a long, slender staff. It was a broad, square piece of blue silk bunting, embroidered with heraldic devices that required a skilled reader to interpret them.
Strangely enough, according to the ideas and customs of the times, the rabble that followed Clod the Club had also a banner. It was a somewhat tattered affair; but it must once have been handsome. Its field was broad and white, and any eyes could see that its dimmed, worn blazon had been intended for three dragons. Perhaps the robber chief had reasons of his own for marching with a flag which must have been found in Wales. It may have aided him in keeping at his command some men who retained the old fierce hatred of the Welsh for the kings of England.
He and his savages had now reached the palisades. The village men retreated slowly up the street, while the remainder of those who could not fight passed across the drawbridge and entered the castle gate. More than one sturdy woman, however, had picked up a pike or an axe or a fork, and stood among her kindred and her neighbors.
Not all the cattle nor all the wains could be cared for; and a shout from the portal summoned the villagers to make more haste, that the gate might be closed behind them. Part of them had been too brave and part too irresolute, and there was no soldiership in their manner of obeying. They were, indeed, almost afraid to turn their backs, for arrows were flying now.
Well it was for them that there seemed to be so few good archers among the outlaws; for down went man after man, in spite of shields or of such armor as they had. Better shooting was done by the men of Wartmont themselves, and the archers in the tower were also plying their bows. It was this that made the Club of Devon shout to his wolves to charge, for the shafts were doing deadly work.
With loud yells, on they rushed; and further retreat was impossible. The foremost fighters on each side closed in a desperate strife, and the Wartmont farmers showed both skill and strength. Half of them carried battle-axes or poleaxes, and they plied them for their lives. Had it not been for Clod himself, the rush might even have been checked; but nothing could stand before him. He fought like a wild beast, striking down foemen right and left, and making a pathway for his followers.
Victory for the outlaws would have been shortly gained but for the help that came to the villagers.
"Onward, my men!" shouted Lady Maud, as she sprang across the narrow bridge. "Follow me! Save your kith and kin!"
"We will die with you!" cried out her retainers as they pushed forward, while the archers in the tower hurried down to join them.
Still they were too few; and the white head of the brave woman was quickly the center of a surging mass, her entire force being almost surrounded by the horde of robbers.
No shout came up the road. There was no sound but the rapid thud of horses' feet; but suddenly five good lances charged furiously in among the wolves. The foremost horseman went clean through them, but his horse sank, groaning, as a Welsh pike stabbed him, and his rider barely gained his feet as the horse went down. Sword in hand, then, he turned to face his foes, but he spoke not to them.
"Mother!" he shouted, "I am here!"
"Thank God for thee, my son!" responded the brave woman. "Thou art but just in time!"
Dire had been her peril, at that moment, but Richard's presence gave courage to the defenders, while his charge had staggered the outlaws. He was more than a match, with three of his dismounted men-at-arms at his side, for the foes immediately in front of them. His fourth follower lay several yards away, with his steel cap beaten in by a blow of the terrible club.