"It is well," she said. "I will trust him with thee. The castle is safe. But hold him not too long, for I make myself ready to pass on to Warwick, to abide with the earl for a season."
"Right soon will he return," said Guy the Bow, "and good bows with him. The king shall be pleased with the company from Arden and Wartmont."
Small wonder was it, after all, that while all Welshmen retained their ancient tongue, and many Cornishmen, and the Manxmen all, and the Gaels of Scotland and the wild Erse of Ireland, so also many thousands – no one knew how many – in the rural districts of England, still preserved but little changed the language with which their fathers had answered to Harold, the last of the Saxon kings. Hundreds of years later the traces of it lingered in Warwickshire, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Lancashire, and elsewhere, in a manner to confuse the ears of modernized men from the towns and from the coasts, as well as all outland men who might believe that they understood English.
Well did Guy obey the commands of both Richard and his mother; for when, after a hearty breaking of his fast, he stood by the side of his galloway, that good beast had cause to whinny as he did, as if to inquire of his master what need there might be that he should so be packed with weapons and with steel caps for the heads of men. The gallant animal that was to carry Richard, on the other hand, was fitted out and laden as if at any moment his rider might be changed from a lance-bearing man-at-arms to a bowman on foot. Other baggage there was none, and Lady Maud, from her crenelated peephole in the Wartmont keep, saw her son and his companion ride slowly away through the village.
"Heaven guard him!" she murmured. "But he can not gain too well the hearts of the old race. They be hard-headed men and slow to choose a leader, but they are strong in a fray. I would the tallest of the forest deerslayers should go shoulder to shoulder with my son into the king's battles."
So she gazed until the pair of horsemen disappeared along the road; then she descended a flight of stairs and walked to the end of a corridor. Here was a door that opened into a high vaulted chamber, at the far end of which were candles burning before an altar and a crucifix. This was the chapel of the castle, and Lady Maud's feet bore her on, more and more slowly, until she sank upon her knees at the altar rail and sobbed aloud.
Well away now, up the valley, northward, rode Richard Neville and Guy the Bow, but they were no longer in any road marked by wheels of wains. They had left the highway for a narrow bridle path that was leading them into the forest.
"My Lord of Wartmont," said the archer, "I pray thee mark well the way as thou goest. Chance might be that thou shouldst one day travel it alone. Put thou thine axe to the bark of a tree, now and then, and let it be a mark of thine own, not like that of another. I think no man of knightly race now liveth who could guide thee, going or coming."
In an instant Richard's battle-axe was in his hand, and a great oak had received a mark of a double cross.
"There hangeth a shield in the gallery of the armory," he said, "that is blazoned in this wise.
"Mayhap in frays with the heathen," said Guy. "A sailor, once, at Portsmouth, one of our own kin, told me rare tales of the Moors that he had seen in the Spanish seas. He told me of men that were black as a sloe; but it is hard to believe, for what should blacken any man? He had seen a whale, too, and a shark three fathoms long. There be wonders beyond seas."
"And beyond them all is the end of the world," said Richard, "but the ships do not venture that far to their ruin."
So more and more companionlike and brotherly grew the young lord and the forester, as they rode on together, and it seemed to please Guy well both to loosen his own tongue and to ask many questions concerning matters of which little telling had ever yet come in among the forests of Arden.
The day waned and the path wound much, and there was increasing gloom among the trees and thickets, when Guy turned suddenly to Richard.
"Put down thy visor," he said sharply, "and draw thy sword. We are beset! Sling thy lance behind thee, and get thee down upon thy feet. This is no place to sit upon a horse and be made a mark of."
The actions of both were suited to the word on the instant, but hardly was Richard's helmet closed before an arrow struck him on the crest. But that he had been forewarned, it had smitten him through the face.
"Outlaws!" said Guy. "Robbers – not our own men. How they came here I know not. Down, quickly!"
Even as he spoke, however, his bow twanged loudly, and a cry went up from a dense copse beyond them.
"One!" he shouted, and he and Richard sprang lightly to the earth.
"Well my sword was out!" said the latter as he gained his feet, for bounding toward him were half a dozen wild shapes carrying blade and buckler.
"Down with them!" roared the foremost of the assailants; but Guy the Bow was in front of him, and in his hand was a poleaxe from Wartmont armory.
It was a fearful weapon in the hands of such a man as he, to whom its weight was as a splinter. It flashed and fell, and the lifted buckler before it might as well have been an eggshell for all the protection it gave to the bare head of the robber. He should have worn a helmet, but he would never more need cap of any kind. Useless, too, was the light blade that glinted next upon the shield of Richard, for it made no mark, while its giver went down with a thigh wound, struck below his buckler.
On swept the terrible blows of the poleaxe, and Guy had no man to meet but was nearly a head shorter than himself.
"They are all down!" he shouted. "Mount, my Lord of Wartmont; they in the copse have fled, but there may be more at hand. We will ride hard now. These are thieves from Lancashire, and they have not been heard of in these parts for many a day. I think they have been harried out of their own nests. They are but wolves."
"What kin are they?" asked Richard, as he regained his saddle.
"That I know not, nor do I know their speech," replied Guy. "But among them are no tall men nor many good bows. Ben o' Coventry hath been told by a monk from those parts that they are a kind of old Welsh that were left when the first King Edward smote their tribe to death. They will live in no town, nor will they obey any law, nor keep troth with any. But the monk told Ben that they were not heathen, and among them were men who could talk Latin like a priest. How that could be I know not."
"Nor I," said Richard; "but I tell thee, Guy the Bow, I like this war of the king's with France. We shall cross the sea, and we shall look upon strange lands and towns. I would not bide aye at Wartmont. I would see the world."
"That would not I," laughed Guy, "but if the king winneth battles and taketh towns there will be spoils to bring home. I will come back to own land and cattle, and thou canst build again thy castle walls and maintain thy state. I saw a piece of gold once."
"There is little enough of gold in England," said Richard; but the path was narrowing and they could no longer gallop abreast.
Not far had they pushed on, however, before Guy drew his rein and turned upon his galloway to say, in a hushed voice:
"My Lord of Wartmont, I dare not sound a horn. I pray thee dismount and come after me through the hazels. I know not of peril, but we need to go lightly."
"Aye," returned Richard, as he dropped from the saddle nimbly enough considering his arms. "I am with thee."
Path there seemed to be none in that dim light, but ere long, as he followed his guide, the hazel bushes on either side opened widely and before him spread a grassy level. Only that the grass was too luxuriant and that here and there were rushes, it might have seemed a pleasant glade.
"'Tis the southerly arm," said Guy, "of the great moss of Arden. There is little more of it till you get leagues north of this. Oh, but it's deep and fateful. He who steppeth into it cometh not up."
"What do we, then?" asked Richard.
"That which few may dare," replied Guy with one of his brave laughs. "But a piece onward and I will show thee. Here might be barred an army."
"That might they," said Richard, staring across the treacherous green level, below which, Guy told him, there was no bottom.
Beyond were shadowy lines that told of forest growths, and these were nearer as they led their horses onward.
"A bridge!" exclaimed Richard, as he caught a glimpse of a mass of logs and planks. "Is there crossing?"
"None but what the men of the woods can take away before dawn," said Guy. "It is a bridge that some have crossed who came not back again. I pray thee, speak not save in old Saxon. 'Tis the only tongue that may be heard inside o' the moss of Arden."
Richard spoke not aloud, but he was saying much in his thoughts.
"This, then, is the reason why the sheriff of Warwickshire had missed finding many that were traced to the forest. The takers of the king's deer know where to hide their venison. But even on this bridge a few axemen could hold back a troop. Yonder bushes could hide archery. He would be a bold captain, or crack-brained, who would lead men upon this narrow way."
The woodwork trembled somewhat with the weight of the two horses and the men, but it bore them well enough.
"Hail, thou!" came hoarsely from among the shadows as they reached the farther bank. "Come well. Thou hast him with thee."
"Greet them in Saxon," whispered Guy, and he also responded loudly:
"Hail, men, all! Is Ben o' Coventry with ye? This is Richard of Wartmont, with the king's word in his mouth. I gave him safe conduct, and his mother sendeth ye good greeting."
Something like a cheer arose from several voices, but the speakers were unseen until Guy and Richard had passed on many paces into the forest. Even then only dark and silent forms walked with them, and there were gleams of bright spearheads before them and behind.
"Every man hath his bow and his buckler," thought Richard, "and most of them are sturdy fellows. The king hath need of such. It is said that the outland men are smaller in the bones."
It was the prevailing opinion among the English of that day that one of their own was equivalent to four Frenchmen, and they counted as French nearly all of the dwellers beyond the Channel, except the Hollanders and the Danes, or Norsemen. The Norway folk were also, by the greater part, counted as Danes, and were believed to be hard fighters. So, among the country folk, still lingered the traditions of the ancient days, when Knut and his vikings had swept the coast and conquered the island.
It was a walk of a league, and there was some talking by the way, but the men all seemed in haste and they strode rapidly.
Then they were greeted by loud shouting, and Richard saw a red light grow beyond the trees.
"Here is cleared land," was his next thought, "and yonder is a balefire. Ho! In the king's name, what is this? Are there strongholds hidden among the woods?"
Before him, as he went forward, was an open area which may have contained hundreds of acres. He could see broad reaches of it by the glaring light of a huge heap of burning wood, a few score yards from the edge of the forest. Beyond the fire, as much farther, he could discern the outlines of a large building, and, even more distinctly, a long line of palisades in front of it.
"My lord," said Guy, "yonder is the hidden ward in Arden. If any that are great of thy kinsmen ever heard of it, they told thee not. There was thy mother fended, and there thy father lay long days, when Earl Mortimer's men were seeking his head. Thou art welcome, only let thy lips be as our own concerning our hold. It will be kept well should strangers come."
Richard glanced at the rugged forms around him, and at many more that were walking hither and thither in the firelight. All were armed, and he could well believe that they would make Guy's word good for him. They crowded around as he drew near, and there was an increasing heartiness in their manner and words as he continually replied to them in the forgotten tongue. He knew not of gypsies, or the thought might have come to him that these half-outlaws, every man a deerslayer, under the ban of the stern forest laws, had need, as had the Romany or "Bohemians" as they were called, to possess a speech of their own. It was a protection, inasmuch as it aided them in detecting intruders and in secretly communicating with each other.
There seemed to be no chief man, no captain, but all stood on a kind of rude equality, save that much deference was paid to Guy the Bow.
"Right on to the house, if it please thee, my lord," he said. "It is late, and there is roast venison waiting. Thou mayest well be hungered. Is all ready, Ben o' Coventry?"
"All that's to be eaten," responded Ben, "but the talking with the men must be done on the morrow. They from the upper woods are not in. It was well to slay the Lancashire thieves. Some have gone out after what thou and he did leave. They may not tell tales of aught they have seen in Arden."
A few words more of explanation informed Richard that he was there sooner than had been expected, and he was quite willing to let his wild entertainers have their own way.
"I would see all," he said, "and talk to all at once."
"There might be jealousies," whispered Guy. "Thou doest wisely. Here is the gate."
A vast oaken portal heavily strengthened with iron swung open in the line of the bristling palisades while he was speaking. There was a moat, of course, with a bridge of planks to the gate, over which Richard and those who were with him went in. The inclosure beyond was large, and in it was blazing more than one log heap, the better to light up the buildings.
Some would have called it a grange, if there had not been so much of it, for there were more houses than one, all grouped, attached or built on to a central structure. There was no masonry, but the woodwork was exceedingly heavy and strong. If there were more than one story to the grange, it must have been hidden under the high-pitched roofs, for there were no upper windows. Such of these as could be seen below were all closed with heavy swing shutters, nor was there any chimney on any roof.
This was the manner in which the West Saxons of Harold's time builded the palaces of their chiefs and earls.
When Lady Maud Neville arose from her knees at the altar rail there was a beautiful light upon her noble face. Her long, white hair had fallen around her shoulders, but for some reason she seemed to have grown younger.
"I will give him to the king!" she loudly exclaimed. "I have prayed that my son may be as was his father, a knight without a stain. But here I may not tarry. It were better I made ready for a journey even ere I sleep, for when Richard returneth there will be haste. There is much that I would not leave behind. I will load no wain with goods, but the pack beasts will bear full panniers."
She walked out of the chapel and her serving men and maidens met her, eager to do her bidding. After that there were chambers and storerooms to visit and coffers to open and packs to bind, for she was not ill supplied with the garments that were suited to her rank, and above all there were small caskets of dark wood that were not opened. It was said that there were gems and jewels in Wartmont, and the saying may have reached the ears of such as Clod the Club to bring him thither. If so, well was it that he and his would never come again.
Ever and anon, however, as the good lady passed a window, she would pause and look out toward the forest, as if in that direction there might be some one that she longed to see.
Day waned and the night came on, and all preparations appeared to be completed, for again she visited the chapel before retiring to her chamber. Long since had the great gate been closed, and the portcullis lowered and the bridge over the moat drawn in. Now, at last, the curfew bell sounded from the tower and the lights in castle and village went out, save one bronze lamp that still burned in that corner of the keep to which the lady herself had retreated.
It was a large room and lofty, with twain of narrow windows that were as if for archers to ply their arrows through them rather than for lighting the space within. The floor was strewn with dry rushes for luxury, and the garnishing was such as became the mistress of Wartmont. Heavily carved, of oak, were the tables and the high-backed chairs and the settles. The mirror over the chest of drawers must have come from Venice itself. There were curtains at the windows and around the high-post bedstead which might have been woven in Flanders or Normandy, for none such could be made in England. The walls were wainscoted to the height of a man's shoulder, but there were no tapestries to tell of great wealth. It was as if in this place of retirement had been preserved all that remained of the broken prosperity of this branch of the great house of Neville.
The lady slept not, nor even looked at the bed, but sank into a great cushioned chair and seemed to be lost in thought.
No words escaped her lips although much time went by. There was no hand to turn the hourglass on the bureau near her, nor could she have known at what hour she was startled to her feet.
Loud rang the summoning sound of a clarion at the great gate, and louder was the sudden answer of the alarum bell in the tower. She was at a window ere she knew, and she heard a shouting:
"Open, O ye of Wartmont! In the king's name! It is John Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick. Is our lord the prince within?"
"Open will we right gladly," sent back the warder at the gate. "But the prince and my Lord of Maunay rode on to Warwick in the morn."
"Saints preserve them!" uttered another voice. "But we must needs come in. Bid the Lady Maud rest. I will trouble her not until day."
"My noble kinsman!" she exclaimed, turning quickly from her window. "I will make haste to greet him. Well is it that I am robed. I will meet him speedily in the hall."
Even so she did, and the minutes were few before she stood face to face with a tall man of noble presence, in full armor save the helmet he had doffed on entering. He seemed in full vigor of life, but gray-headed, as became a statesman upon whom the king might lean.
Questions and answers followed fast, and all the while the Wartmont retainers were busily providing for the hundred horsemen who had ridden in the train of the earl. Of them were knights and nobles also, and some of these now stood near the lady and the earl. Strong was their speech, as was his, concerning the rashness which the prince had shown in riding across England with so small a company.
"Knoweth he not," said one, "that there is treason in the land?"
"Silence on that head, Geoffrey of Harcourt," responded the earl. "But we may trust he is safe in Warwick. Had we taken another highway we might have met him. But, madame, this is fine news of my young kinsman. Well for him that he hath won the favor of the prince and of that rare good lance, De Maunay. More than well is it also that he hath sallied forth promptly to gather his archery. It will please the king. Better bowmen are not than he will bring from Arden. Now, Lady Maud, hie thee to thy rest, and so will we all, for we are weary."
The remaining words were few, and once more the castle grew still, save for the stamping of restless horses in the courtyard and the busy chatter of the warders of Wartmont with the guard set by the earl.
Now there was another place in which all was quiet, only that on a heap of rushes and a spread garment lay a youth who slept not, but turned at times uneasily.
"I fear no treachery," he muttered, but not in Saxon. "I think these be true men. Yet I will leave my sword bare and my axe by it lest peril come. Who would have looked for a hold like this among these woods?"
Then his thoughts went back to that which he had seen on coming in. He had passed the moat and the portal with Guy the Bow, and through a short passage. Then he had entered a vast hall, in the middle of which blazed a fire, the smoke whereof escaped at a hole in the peak of the roof. At one end of this hall was a broad dais, two steps higher than the floor of beaten earth, and here had been spread a table for his refection. Kindly, indeed, and full of reverence for his rank and name, had been the words and manners of all who served, for none presumed to eat with him. No other man was there of gentle blood, and even Guy the Bow would have been angered had any trespassed upon his young captain. That was Richard, now, by the command of the prince himself, and the forestmen all honored the king, Saxons though they were. None were permitted to question, overmuch, although Guy himself went out to dispense whatever news was in his own keeping.