"Hah! hah! hah!" yelled Clod as he turned from that victim to press his way toward young Neville. "Down with him! Out of my path! Give the youngster to me!"
"Face him, my son!" said Lady Maud, "and Heaven's aid be with thee! Oh, for some o' the good king's men!"
"I have thee!" roared Clod, swinging high his club and preparing for a deadly blow.
Firm as a rock stood the young warrior, raising his shield to parry.
Down came the club, but forward flashed the sword with an under-thrust.
"O my son!" burst from the lips of the Lady of Wartmont. "My son hath fallen! Stand firm, men!"
Fallen, indeed, but so had Clod the Club, pierced through by the sword-thrust; and a fierce yell burst from his followers as they sprang forward to avenge him. They had been faring badly, but they were many and they were desperate. They might even yet have broken through the men of the tower who had stepped in front of Richard while his mother knelt to lift him, but for another turn in the strange fortunes of the day.
There was no warning, and all were too intent on the fray to note the arrival of newcomers; but now there came a sudden dropping of the outer men of the throng of robbers. Shaft after shaft, unerring, strongly driven, pierced them from back to breast.
"Shoot close!" shouted a voice. "Miss not. Steady, men! O Richard Neville of Wartmont, we are the killers of the king's deer!"
"Aye!" added Ben of Coventry. "We are with Guy the Bow, and 'tis a wolf-hunt!"
They were not many, but their archery was terrible. Fast twanged the bows, and fast the outlaws fell.
"Closer, men! Spare not any!" commanded Guy the Bow, and the line of galloways wheeled nearer.
It was too much. The remaining robbers would have fled if they could, but they were between two fires.
"O Richard!" murmured Lady Maud. "Thou art not dead?"
His fine dark eyes opened, just then, and a smile came faintly upon his lips as he replied:
"Only stunned, mother. The caitiff's club banged my shield down upon my head, but my steel cap bore it well, else my neck were broken. Did he go down?"
"He lieth among the ruck," she said. "But oh, thank God! The archers of Longwood have come! The fight is won!"
It was won, indeed; for neither the archers nor the Wartmont men were showing any mercy to the staggering, bewildered remnants of the outlaw band which had been such a terror to the Welsh border, and was to other counties almost as far inland as was Warwick itself. Never more would any peaceful hamlet or lonely tower be left in ruins to tell of the ruthless barbarity of the wolves of Devon.
Why they were so called, none knew; but it might be because that fair county had at one time suffered most from their marauding, or because fierce Clod the Club and some of his wild followers came from Lee on the Devon shore.
"Bloody work, my young Lord of Wartmont! Bloody work, my lady!"
"Thank God for thee, Guy the Bow!" she responded.
These, indeed, were many, for the women and children were pouring down from the castle. With weeping and with wailing they were searching for their own among the dead and the wounded. But even the mourners stood almost still for a moment, as a knightly cavalcade came thundering up the street.
The foremost horseman drew rein in front of Lady Maud and her son, and the taller of them demanded:
"O Lady Neville of Wartmont, what is this? The prince rideth toward Warwick. I am Walter de Maunay."
"His highness is most welcome," she said, with calm dignity. "So art thou, Sir Walter. Around thee are the dead wolves of Devon. Some of our own people have fallen. Would thou wert here an hour the sooner. God save the king!"
Rapid were the questions and the answers, but the Black Prince himself, as he was called, left all the talking to Sir Walter, while he dismounted to study the meaning of the fray.
He had singularly keen, dark eyes, and they flashed swiftly hither and thither, as if they were seeking to know exactly how this small battle had been fought and won.
"And this is the famous Clod the Club?" he said. "By whose hand was this thrust?"
"'Twas young Lord Richard," answered Guy the Bow. "Both went down, but the Neville was little hurt. 'Twas bravely done!"
"Richard Neville," exclaimed the prince, "thou hast won honor in this! I would that I had slain him. Thou art a good sword. The king hath need of thee."
"He shall go with me," added Sir Walter admiringly, as he gazed down upon the massive form of the slain robber. "Madame, give the king thy son."
"Yea, and amen," she said. "He is the king's man. I would have him go. And I will bide at Warwick Castle until he cometh again. Speak thou, Richard!"
"I am the king's man," replied Richard, his face flushing. "O my mother, bid me go with the prince. I would be a knight, as was my father, and win my spurs before the king; but I fain would ask one favor of his grace."
"Ask on," said the prince. "'Twere hard to refuse thee after this gallant deed of arms."
"This work is less mine," said Richard, "than of Guy the Bow and my good forestmen. But I trow that some of them have found unlawful marks for other of their arrows. I ask for them the grace and pardon of the king."
"They have sinned against the king's deer," loudly laughed Sir Walter de Maunay. "There needeth no promise. Thou hast not heard of his royal proclamation. Free pardon hath he proclaimed to all such men as thine, if they will march with him against the King of France. 'Tis fair pay to every man, and the fortune of war beyond sea."
No voice responded for a moment as the archers studied one another's faces.
"Richard," said his mother, "speak thou to them. They wait for thee."
"O Guy the Bow," said Richard, "wilt thou come with me – thou and thy men?"
There was speech from man to man behind Guy; but it was Ben of Coventry who said:
"Tell thy prince, Guy the Bow, that two score and more of bows like thine will follow Richard Neville to fight for our good king."
To address the prince directly was more than Guy could do; but he spoke out right sturdily:
"My master of Wartmont, thou hearest the speech of Ben. 'Tis mine also. We take the pardon, and we will take the pay; and we will go as one band, with thee for our captain."
"Aye," said another archer, "with the young Neville and Guy the Bow."
"Ye shall be the Neville's own company," responded the prince. "I like it well. So will they do best service."
"Aye, 'tis the king's way also," added Sir Walter de Maunay; and then the Lady of Wartmont led the way into the castle.
Richard went not forthwith, but conferred with his archers. He had care also for the injured and the dead, and to learn the harm done in the village and among the farms.
In a few minutes more, however, the banner of the prince was floating gayly from a corner of the tower, to tell to all who saw that the heir of the throne of England was under the Wartmont roof.
Lacking in many things, but not in stately hospitality or in honest loyalty, was the welcome given that night at Wartmont Castle to the heir of the English throne and to his company.
Truth to tell, the fortunes of this branch of the great house of Neville were not at their best. The brave Sir Edward Neville had fallen in Flanders fighting for the king. His widow and her only son had found themselves possessed of much land, but of little else. Too many acres of the domain were either forest or hill, that paid neither tithe nor rental. Not even Lady Maud's near kinship to the Earl of Warwick was as yet of any avail, for these were troublous times. Many a baron of high name was finding it more and more difficult to comply with the exactions of Edward the Third, and the king himself could hardly name a day when his very crown and jewels had not been in pawn with the money lenders.
The less of discomfort, therefore, was felt by Lady Maud; but she was grateful that the prince and the famous captain, Sir Walter, so frankly laughed away her apologies at their parting the next morn.
"I am but an esquire," said the prince. "My royal father biddeth me to wear plain armor and seek hard fare until I win my spurs. Thou hast given me better service than he alloweth me."
"Most noble lady," added Sir Walter, "I am proud to have been the guest of the widow of my old companion in arms – "
"Be thou, then, a friend to his son," she broke in earnestly.
"That will I," responded De Maunay, "but we may not serve together speedily. I go to confer with the Earl of Warwick. Then I am bidden to join Derby's forces in Guienne and Gascony. Hard goeth the war there. As for thy son, he, too, should come to Warwick with his first levies. The king hath ordered the power of the realm to gather at Portsmouth by the ninth day of next October."
"I must be there, mother," said Richard.
"Bring thy archers with thee, if thou canst," replied Sir Walter. "It is the king's thought that his next great field is to be won with the arrow, rather than the sword or the lance. But he will have only good bows, and them he will train under his own eye. It is time, now, for our going."
The young prince, like the knight, gave the respectful ceremony of departure to the Lady of Wartmont, but much of youthful frankness mingled with his words and manner to Richard.
"I envy thee, indeed," he said to him, "thy close with the Club of Devon. I have never yet had such a fortune befall me. I have seen fights by sea and land, but ever some other hand than mine struck the best blow."
"Thou wilt strike blows enough before thou art done, thou lion's cub of England," said Sir Walter admiringly, for he loved the boy. That was good reason, too, why he was with him on this journey with so small a company.
"Few, are they?" had Richard responded to a word from his mother concerning peril to the prince. "I have marked them, man by man. I think they have been picked from the best of the king's men-at-arms. A hundred thieves would go down before them like brambles before a scythe. And the prince told me he thought it scorn to need other guards than his own people – "
"And his own sword," she said, "and the lances of De Maunay and his men. But the roads are not safe."
"Thou wilt be securely conveyed to Warwick, O my mother," he said lovingly. "I will not leave thee until thou art within the earl's own walls."
This had been spoken early in the day after the conflict with the outlaws, and now the horsemen were in their saddles, beyond the bridge of the moat, waiting for the prince and the knight.
Their waiting ended, and it was fair to see how lightly the great captain and his young friend, in spite of their heavy armor, did spring to horseback.
Gracious and low was their last salute to the bare, white head of Lady Maud at the portal, and then away they rode right merrily.
"O my son!" exclaimed she, turning to Richard at her side, "I can wish no better fortune for thee than to be the companion of thy prince. I tell thee, thou hast won much by this thy defense of thy mother and thy people."
"Aye," said Richard, laughing, "but thou wast the captain. I found thee leading thy array, and I did but help at my best. I would Sir Walter were to be with us, and not with the Earl of Derby."
"There be men-at-arms as good as he," she said. "Thou wilt have brave leaders to learn war under. And, above all, thou wilt be with thy king. Men say there hath not been one like him to lead men since William the Norman conquered this fair land. Thou, too, art a Neville and a Norman, but forget thou not one thing."
"And what may that be, my mother?" asked Richard, wondering somewhat.
"Knowest thou not thy hold upon the people, nor why the bowmen of Arden forest come to thee rather than to another? Neville and Beauchamp, thou art a Saxon more than a Norman. Thy father could talk to the men of the woods in their old tongue. It dieth away slowly, but they keep many things in mind from father to son. Every man of them is a Saxon of unmixed blood, and to that degree that thou art Saxon thou art their kinsman. So hated they Earl Mortimer and would have none of him, and so he harried them, as thou hast heard. They will stand by thee as their own."
"So will I bide by them!" exclaimed Richard stoutly. "And now there is one yonder that I must have speech with. I pray thee, go in, my mother."
"That will I not," she said. "It behooveth me to pass through the hamlet, house by house, till I know how they fare the day. There are hurts among both men and women, and I am a leech. Are they not my own?"
"And well they love thee," said her son, and they walked on down the slope side by side.
That they did so love her was well made manifest when men, women, and children crowded around her. Every voice had its tale of things done, or seen, or heard, and there was wailing also, for the few who had escaped from near Black Tom's place were here, and others from farther on. Dark and dire had been the deeds of the robber crew from the Welsh border to the heart of Warwickshire, and great was the praise that would everywhere be given to the young lord of Wartmont manor and his brave men. The Club of Devon and his outlaws would be heard of or feared no more. 'Twas a deed to be remembered and told of, in after time, among the fireside talks of the midland counties.
The madame now had household visits to make not a few, and Richard listened long to the talk of the farmers and the village men. He seemed to have grown older in a day, but his mother said, in her heart:
"I can see that the folk are gladdened to find that he is so like to the brave knight, his father. God keep him, among the spears and the battle-axes of the French men-at-arms! I fear he is over young to ride with such as serve with the prince."
She could not think to hold him back, but he was her only son, and she was a widow.
Patiently, all the while, a little apart from the rest, had waited the burly shape of Guy the Bow, and with him was no other forester, but beside him stood his shaggy-maned galloway.
"Thou art come?" said Richard. "Brave thanks to thee and thine. What errand hast thou, if so be thou hast any for me?"
"I bided out of seeing till the prince and Lord de Maunay rode on," replied Guy. "Even now I would no other ears than thine were too near us."
"This way, then," said Richard, turning to walk toward the moat. "I have somewhat to say to thee as we go."
None joined them, and as they walked the archer was informed concerning the mandates of the king and the mustering by land and sea at Portsmouth.
"I have been there," said Guy, "in my youth. 'Tis not so far to go. 'Tis well in behind the Isle of Wight. I have been told by seafaring men that the French have never taken it, though they tried. A safe haven. But there are others as safe on the land. Part of my coming to thee is to ask that thou wilt venture to look in on one."
"I may not venture foolishly or without a cause," said Richard. "Thee I may trust, but all are not as thou art."
"All thou wilt see are keepers of good faith when they give troth," laughed Guy pleasantly, "or else more in Wartmont would know what to this day they know not. My Lord of Wartmont, plain speech is best. The men who are to go with thee are under the king's ban, as thou knowest. They will not put themselves within the reach of the sheriff of Warwickshire till they are sure of safety. They will hear the king's proclamation from thine own lips, for thou hast it from the prince himself. A man's neck is a thing he is prone to guard right well."
"Go and have speech with them? That will I!" exclaimed Richard promptly. "Nor is there time to lose. I will bid them bring my horse – "
"Not as thou now art," responded Guy. "Don thou thy mail. Be thou well armed. But men of thine from the castle may not ride with us. I have that to show thee which they may not see. Wilt thou trust me?"
"That will I," said Richard.
"And thine own sword is a good one," added the archer, with soldierly admiration in his face. "I have seen thy father in tourney. Thou wilt have good stature and strong thews, as had he in his day. They say 'twas a great battle when he fell among the press, and that many good spears went down."
"Aye. Go!" said Richard thoughtfully. "I will explain this thing to my mother. She needeth but to know that I go to meet a muster of the men."
"Nay," said Guy. "Fear thou not to tell my lady all. In her girlhood she was kept, a day and a night, where none could do her harm, for the Welsh were over the border, under Lewellyn the Cruel, and the castle of her father was not safe. She was not a Neville then, and the Beauchamps fled for their lives."
"What was the quarrel?" asked Richard.
"Little know I," replied the archer. "What have plain woodsmen to do with the feuds of the great? Some trouble, mayhap, between King Edward the Second and his earls. We aye heard of fights and ravages in those days, but there came none to harry us in Arden."
So they talked but little more, and Richard passed on into the castle followed by Guy the Bow.
Their first errand was to the hall of arms in the lower story, and the eyes of the forester glittered with delight as they entered.
"Thou couldst arm a troop!" he exclaimed. "What goodly weapons are these!"
"Wartmont hath held a garrison more than once," said Richard. "Pray God that our good king may keep the land in peace. But it needeth that his hand be strong."
"Strong is it," said Guy, "and the young prince biddeth fair. I like him well. But, my Lord of Wartmont, the noon draweth nigher and we have far to ride."
"Aye," said Richard; but he was taking down from the wall piece after piece and weapon after weapon, eying them as if he loved them well but was in doubt.
"No plate armor, my lord," said Guy. "It were too heavy if thou went on foot. Let it be good chain mail; but take thee a visored headpiece. With thy visor down strange eyes would not know thee too well. Leg mail, not greaves, and a good, light target rather than a horseman's shield. This is a rare good lance."
"That will I take," said Richard, as he tested a sword blade by springing it on the stone pavement of the hall. "I will hang a mace at my pommel."
"Thou art a bowman," said Guy. "Thy bow and quiver also can hang at thy saddle. Nay, not that heavy bit of yew. Thy arms are too young to bend it well. Choose thee a lighter bow."
"I will string it, then, and show thee," replied Richard, a little haughtily. "Yon is a target at the head of the hall. Wait, now."
The bow was strung with an ease and celerity which seemed to surprise the brawny forester. He took it and tried its toughness and handed it back, for Richard had taken an arrow from a sheaf beneath a window.
"Good arm, thine!" shouted Guy, for the shaft was drawn to the head and landed in the very center of the bull's eye of the wooden tablet at the hall end. "Thou art a Saxon in thy elbows. Canst thou swing an axe like this?"
He held out a double-headed battle-axe that seemed not large. It was not too long in the handle, but its blades were thick as well as sharp edged. It was no weapon for one at all weak-handed.
Clogs of wood lay near, with many cuts already upon them, as if there had been chopping done. Richard took the axe and went toward a clog of hard oak.
Click, click, click, in swift succession, rang his blows, and the chips flew merrily.
"Done!" shouted Guy. "Take that, then, instead of thy foolish mace. It will but bruise, while thine axe will cleave through mail or buff coat. Ofttimes a cut is better than a bruise, if it be well given. I would I had a good axe."
"Take what thou wilt," said Richard. "Put thee on a better headpiece, and change thy sword. If thou seest spears to thy liking, they are thine; or daggers, or aught else. We owe thee good arming."
"Speak I also for Ben o' Coventry," responded Guy. "He needeth a headpiece, for his own is but cracked across the crown, and his sword is not of the best."
"Choose as thou wilt for Ben," said Richard, "or for any other as good as he. Needeth he mail?"
"His buff coat is more to his liking," said Guy, "and men say that the king will not have his bowmen overweighted for fast walking. The weary man draweth never a good bow, nor sendeth his arrow home."
"Right is the king," replied Richard. "I am but a youth, but I can see that a foe might get away from heavy armor."
Guy was busy among the weapons and he made no answer. At that moment, however, there was a footfall behind him, and he sprang to his feet to make a low obeisance.
"Mother!" exclaimed Richard, "I was coming to tell thee."
But not to him was her speech, nor in Norman French, nor in the English dialect of the Warwickshire farmers. She questioned Guy in old Saxon, such as was not often heard since the edicts of the Norman kings had discouraged its use. Richard could speak it well, however, and he knew that Guy was explaining somewhat the errand before him.