Even the second day passed in like manner, and it was far on in the third when the first happening came.
Not in any town or by any castle, but in the broad highway, there rode to meet them a glittering array of men-at-arms.
"Halt!" shouted Richard. "Form line at the roadside, till we know what this may mean. Yonder is a banner with the arms of Surrey. Why should such a flag be here? I know not the earl, nor is he a friend of the Warwick, Beauchamp or Neville."
So many, in those troubled days, were the feuds and heartburnings among the stout barons of England!
On came the lances, fully a score, with mounted esquires and serving men as many, and Richard sat alone upon his horse in the roadway, with Guy the Bow at his side bearing the prince's pennon.
Sharply the men-at-arms drew rein, and only one knight spurred forward.
"Richard of Wartmont!" he exclaimed. "Glad am I thou camest this way. They who wait thee on the other road must not know thy errand. Surrey is not here, but the Earl of Northampton."
"My Lord of Harcourt," responded Richard firmly, "I may not answer even thee, nor give my errand save to our liege the king, or to the prince."
"Thou wouldst deserve to lose thy head if thou didst," replied Sir Geoffrey of Harcourt. "Do thou, however, as if the prince bade thee. Go not to Warwick, but send thy archery there. Turn thou with me and ride for thy life until thou art out of reach of the king's enemies."
"Guy the Bow," said Richard, turning to him, "hast thou heard?"
"If it be also thy command," said Guy, "fear not for us. Little do we need of highways or of any man's permission. Let me have speech with the men."
"Bid them to reach Warwick town as best they may," said Richard.
To the roadside and to his company went Guy, and in a few moments more he raised a hand, and the few words he spoke were in Saxon.
Up again went the hand of Richard, with a loud "Ha! Ride!"
Now at that place was a great forest, with a deep ditch along the roadside.
As Richard lowered his hand, over the ditch went the line of galloways, and it was but a twinkling before all had vanished among the trees.
"Wartmont," exclaimed the knight, "thou hast thy men well in hand! I will tell the prince of this. Thou canst call them and thou canst send them."
"How is this?" loudly demanded a not unkindly voice, as another rider in splendid armor rode near them.
"My Lord of Northampton," said Sir Geoffrey, smiling, "Richard hath sent home his galloways, and they took their riders with them. He must not pause – "
"A few words only," said the earl; "I shall not hinder the king's service. Arundel gave thee a message. Was it delivered?"
"It was, my lord the earl," said Richard. "I may say to thee it was timely."
"Knowing from him what it was," said the earl, "I need ask no more on that head"; but he went on with what seemed to be only general inquiries as to the health of the archbishop and the gatherings of levies at York and elsewhere.
"Haste!" muttered Harcourt.
"On, then!" almost shouted the earl.
Silent and motionless upon their horses sat the men-at-arms as Harcourt and Richard galloped by.
Miles away, upon another road, a somewhat like band of warlike men were halted as if waiting, and to him who seemed their leader it was said, by a small, gray-headed man at his side:
"Could we but know the mind of the archbishop we might be able to tell the king why we pay not his contributions, and why thy retainers are not on the march for Portsmouth."
"We shall have his Grace's letters before the sun is down," hoarsely responded the knight addressed. "I would there might be somewhat in Wartmont's doublet to imperil the proud head of his uncle Warwick."
"Aye, my Lord of Surrey," said the gray-headed man, "it were overcunning of John Beauchamp to have the young Neville so near the prince. That house towereth too high. We will tumble it somewhat."
Small was the knowledge of Richard concerning the plots and perils through which he and his had ridden, but in a small, elegantly furnished room, at many a long mile's distance, there sat at that hour twain who spoke of him.
"My son," remarked one of them, "I will not say that thou and Warwick were overconfident to send a boy. The time for his return draweth near."
"'Tis far to ride," replied the younger of the pair, and he was very much the younger. "I sent Sir Geoffrey Harcourt to watch for him, else he might not come. My royal sire, Richard Neville and his archers might come and go where a knight and a score of men-at-arms would fail."
"Or turn traitor, as some have done," slowly responded the king. "The land reeks with treason, but half of it would have us go to France and be beaten, while the other half would have us stay at home and lose all to Philip of Valois."
So communed King Edward and the Black Prince, telling of the dangers which may beset a crown. Much had they to say concerning the power of the barons, but more of the building up of their strength among the people.
"Mark thou this, my son," said the king at last, "make thou the commons to be strong, and the crown is safe against the barons. When I can show thee bowmen defeating knights and men-at-arms, thou wilt see a new day for England. After that it shall not be long until a successful merchant shall be greater than an earl. Am not I also a merchant? Learn thou the art of the trader, for it is part of the wisdom of kings in the time that is coming."
All through his reign had commerce grown, and manufactures been encouraged by the king, while more and more with a strong hand he strove to restrain the barons. Not till a later day, however, were they to be broken; but, even as he now said, they were to go down partly by their own jealousies and feuds, but more by the power of the commons.
It was therefore a lesson in kingcraft that the prince was receiving from his father, but at the end of it the youth walked out along a corridor, murmuring:
"The king is sore disturbed. He hath great need to hear from York and of Scotland. Well for Richard Neville if he arrive speedily, for my royal father is not always safe in his mood. But he was pleased concerning the Neville and his archers."
It was sunset when Richard and Sir Geoffrey drew rein before a hostelry in a large hamlet.
"Dismount!" said the knight sharply. "I will give thee here a fresh horse, and thine shall follow. Ten leagues farther on, as I will give thee instruction, thou wilt get thee another. Ride till thou drop from thy saddle, but I trust thy toughness will bear thee through. If thou must sleep one night, camp thee in a wood, not in a house, lest thou awake and find thy pouch missing, or lest thou wake not at all."
The fresh horse was a good one, but now Richard, with full directions for the way, rode on alone, bearing still the banneret of the prince.
'Twas a fair night, and the full moon gave light as of the day. Mile after mile went by and all was well, but he came to an open level of broad highway whereon much could be seen afar.
"A man-at-arms?" said Richard. "He faceth this way. I may not let him stop me. I will close my visor and be ready for what may come."
He shut his helmet tightly and lowered his lance, loosening also the battle-axe at his saddle bow. He had need, for the strange man-at-arms uttered no warning, but dashed suddenly forward with lance in rest. 'Twas but the fortune of tourney, for the foeman rode well and he was large. His lance point glanced from the helmet of the young messenger, while Richard smote him full upon the breast.
Splintered to the hand was the lance, but the stranger reeled in the saddle, and before he could recover himself Richard had wheeled, axe in hand.
"In the king's name!" he shouted, "what doest thou with the king's messenger?"
Down came the battle-axe, striking the bridle arm of the stranger, so that while he drew his sword with his right hand he could not manage his horse.
"For the king!" shouted Richard.
"Down with thee, thou cub of Wartmont!" roared the stranger angrily. "I will take thy messages. Ha!"
'Twas a good blow, but it stopped upon the shield of the Neville, while once more the axe fell heavily with the curvet of Richard's horse. Sore wounded upon one thigh was now the man-at-arms, and his steed plunged viciously to one side.
"I will have thee!" he shouted, but his sword swept vainly through the air, while Richard charged again.
"Thy helm this time!" he muttered as his axe came down.
Cloven through was the steel headpiece, and the man-at-arms let fall his sword.
"Neville, I yield me!" he cried out. "Smite not again."
"Who art thou?" demanded Richard.
"That ask thou not, if thou art wise," responded the stranger. "For thee to know my name were thy death-warrant. Thou hast perils enough. Ride on, and tell the king that an old man-at-arms who could grind thee to powder hath been beaten by a lad. I have fought in twenty pitched fields, and now I must even ride home to save my broken head."
"I will harm thee not," said Richard, "but I fear thee not. Thy head were worth but little – "
"Trust me, it is safe," said the stranger. "The king will leave it where it is. I shall see thee again some day. Thou wilt be a good lance, but carry thou not too many king's errands. Fare thee well!"
He had regained control of his horse, and now he suddenly spurred away in the very direction by which Richard had come. Down sprang the latter to pick up the fallen lance and to fasten upon it the pennon his own had carried before it was broken. Then, as he mounted once more, he exclaimed aloud:
"Ride I now for my life! I shall be followed fast and far. I know not friend from foe, save that the nearer I get to the king the safer I shall be."
His good horse neighed cheerily, as if he knew that his rider had conquered, and a proud youth was Richard Neville.
"I have won my first passage at arms," he said. "I shall have somewhat whereof to tell the prince."
"Seven leagues from London, if that wagoner gave me the distance aright," said Richard to himself, "and this horse is sore wearied. Twain have tired under me since my lance was splintered on the shield of that felon knight."
Much and often had he wondered who might be the stranger man-at-arms, but of one thing he felt assured: only some baron of high name had used such speech and worn such armor. Now, at last, even his tough sinews were giving out, for he had ridden hard and slept little. Food had been easy to buy at wayside hostelries. He had ridden through towns and villages with no longer pauses than had been needful that he might ask the way or answer courteously the questions of persons of condition.
His fresh mounts had been freely furnished him on showing of the royal order, for none might lightly disobey the king.
"Surely I now am safe," he thought, "but the night is falling. I will even rest at an inn and go onward in the morning. I must sleep, lest I fall from my horse."
It was a huge, rambling tavern at the right of the highway, and as he drew rein before it a portly host came forth to welcome him.
"In the king's name," said Richard.
"And whence art thou?" asked the landlord.
"On the king's business," said Richard. "See thou to it that I have a fresh steed ready to bear me to London town with the dawn, lest harm come."
"We are all the king's men here," said the landlord heartily. "Canst thou not give us the news of the day? What of the Scots? for thou art from the north."
Richard was slowly, painfully dismounting, but at the same moment another man, not in armor, was springing upon horseback to haste away.
"Yea," said Richard, "I will tell thee the news. I am Richard Neville of Wartmont – "
"Ha! hold thou thy tongue, then, and come in!" sharply returned the host of the inn, but he spoke in pure Saxon. "Do I not know that thou art watched for? I am of Arden, and I knew thy father. By thy hand fell the Club of Devon."
"Aye," said Richard, "but what peril is so near the gates of London?"
"Peril to thee that thou reach them not," replied his new friend. "There be those who would know the king's secret counsel. Small would be their care for thy throat. Eat well. Sleep well. Then ride thou on before the light cometh."
In walked Richard, hardly able to stand, but a room was given him, and here he took off his armor that he might bathe while a repast was preparing. It refreshed him much, but when the landlord came in and found him clad only in his doublet, he loudly exclaimed:
"On with thy mail, my Lord of Wartmont! Let thy bare sword lie by thee. I think thy nag may die, but I have thee a better one ready. 'Tis my own best mare, and she will stand saddled in the stall until thou comest for her."
"I am overworn for fighting," said Richard. "I will even trust my bow rather than my sword or axe."
"As thou wilt," replied his host, but a serving man placed food upon the table, and Richard began to do it full justice.
None other was admitted to the room, and Richard dealt fairly, telling all news that he might tell.
"One thing know I," said the landlord. "The king's levies come in but slowly, and he is sore displeased. Not this year will he cross to France. If I hear truly, some of the great lords would rather march against him than against Philip, and they look for side help from the Scots."
So many true tales creep in at a hostel from the lips of those who tarry there, and the young messenger felt not only weary but half dispirited. The landlord had now gone forth, and for a few moments Richard was alone. The door was not fastened, however, and it opened without a sound to let in a man whose footsteps were unheard until he had passed to the table side.
"My son, peace be with thee! Thou art on the message of the king?"
Richard was startled, but he turned to look, and before him stood a black friar in his long serge robe, with sandals only on his feet. A thought came like a flash:
"I have heard that these holy men are with Philip of France rather than with Edward of England. I must beware of him, for they are cunning men."
Nevertheless he reverently greeted the friar and bade him be seated.
"Tell me, my son, what tidings bringest thou from the north, and from the saintly Archbishop of York?"
With all seeming freedom did Richard respond, but he mentioned not the Knight of Liddesdale, nor the temper of the Scottish king. Cunning indeed was the questioning, but of the letters, either way, naught was said. Rather was there much loose chat of the things by the way, and Richard declared:
"Little know I. I am but a youth."
"And well worn?" said the monk. "Now I will counsel thee, for thou well mayest trust such as I am. Rest thou here in peace, and I will convey to the king any matters from my old and dear friend and father in God, the archbishop. High, indeed, is my reverence for that holy man. Deep is my fealty to our good lord the king. Even give me thy message and I will depart."
"Thanks to thee, reverend father," said Richard. "But there is no haste. It were not well for thee to travel by night. Come thou in the morning, for now I can talk no more. Thou mayest ride my own horse, if thou shalt find him rested."
So the friar smiled, and gave Richard his blessing and departed, not having given any name. That was what came to Richard's mind quickly, but he said to himself:
"Who knoweth what name he would have given – his own, or another? I like him not, but if the host be right, he will not ride far upon that nag. Nor will he be overweighted with the king's errand. But I told him no untruth. Never before was I cunning, but I must care for my head."
So said the landlord, shortly, when he came and heard, but he added:
"Not in the house shalt thou sleep. Come thou with me, my lord. I will show thee a safer resting."
The darkness had fallen, and not even a lanthorn did they take with them as they made their way out of the inn to the barns. None met them, and they paused not until they were among hayricks in the rear.
"Yonder," said the landlord, pointing at a stable, "in the first stall on the right is thy good steed. Ride hard, but kill her not, and send her back to me. I would serve the king and beat his enemies. If thou sleepest too long, I will arouse thee."
Down sank Richard upon a heap of hay, but his bow and arrows were with him as well as his pennoned lance.
How long he slumbered he knew not, but he was feverish, restive, and his ears were not so dull in sleep that they did not catch a faint clang of steel. He woke, but he stirred not, and he lay listening.
"Put thou thy dagger deeply in below the lad's ear!" he heard one say. "He must die without speech. Curse on that hostel keeper! I fear me he hath betrayed us. We found not the king's messenger in the house. I think he is somewhere here away. Search well, but be silent."
Only dim was the lanthorn they carried, but Richard could see three men, and one of them wore mail, without a headpiece. He it was that spoke, and his sword was in his hand. The other twain were in buff coats, and of one of these his long, two-edged, dagger knife was already drawn. They saw not yet the young bowman in the hay, but he was fitting an arrow to the string.
"Ten yards! I must not miss. I will even smite him through the face," thought Richard.
Loudly twanged the bow, and out of the belt came a second arrow to the string.
"Through his buff coat," said Richard aloud, and he sent the shaft strongly, but he at the moment turned toward the stable, looking not behind him. He heard a cry and a gasp, however, and hoarse groaning, and a voice that exclaimed:
"God 'a' mercy, my Lord Bellamont is slain! So is the seneschal! Woe is me! I will summon the two warders."
Uncertainly he lingered a brief space to examine well the fallen men, and Richard made what haste he could.
"I can not run," he thought. "I hardly may climb to the saddle."
Nevertheless he did so, after leading out the goodly beast he was to ride. Nothing was lacking in her appointments, and she knew the way to the road-gate. Out spurred Richard, as loud shouts began to arise behind him. He gained the highway, and he could discern beyond him only one man on foot, in full armor.
"Halt, thou!" he shouted. "Stand, on thy life! I would have speech with thee!"
"In the king's name," shouted back Richard, "out of my way!"
"That will I not!" roared the knight. "Thou cub of Wartmont, draw rein!"
"Take that!" said Richard, spurring hard and striking with his lance.
'Twas a knight of skill in fence, however, and his target was over his visor to receive the thrust, so that he did but measure his length upon the road.
"Traitor!" shouted Richard. "Thou shalt answer for this to the king!"
"St. Andrew!" gasped the fallen man. "Has the boy escaped? John Beauchamp knew whom to send. But I will pay him bitterly for this."
"My lord duke," exclaimed one who came running to him, "De Bellamont is slain by the messenger!"
"Woe worth the day!" groaned the knight, arising slowly. "Back to the castle! I must get me to Flanders in haste. All is lost! We will but say that Bellamont was murdered by thieves at the inn."
On galloped Richard, glad to find how buoyant and free was the stride of the landlord's favorite; but his perils were not ended. A full half mile he rode, and he was thinking, "I will race no more lest I tire her needlessly, and the road to London town is yet long," when far beyond he dimly discerned the forms of mounted men and men on foot.
"'Tis but a lane here to the right," he said. "I care not whither it may lead me, so I fall not in with yonder troop. They are too many."
Then came to him something of his woodcraft, and he did but go out of the road before he turned to see what they might do. And he did wisely, for with one accord the horsemen and the footmen vanished.
"They were at a crossroad," thought Richard. "They deem I have taken the lane, and they have gone to cut me off at its ending. Now I will ride past them."
'Twas a shrewd planning, for when he reached the crossroads only one man could he discern, a man in the serge gown of a black friar, who stood and waited.
"Halt, thou, my son!" commanded the friar. "Greater men than thou art bid thee stand."
"In the king's name, I will not," said Richard, "but if thou needest a nag, thou wilt find one at the inn, as I promised thee. A good beast, truly, save that he is dead. So are some of the traitors who were there, enemies of the king, as thou art. Fare thee not well!"
He struck spurs as he finished, and the friar was left to wait for whom he might.
The gray dawn was showing in the east, and now it would seem that all danger had been left behind.
"Little know I," thought Richard. "Had I not been forewarned, I had trusted any great baron that he would forward the king's business. Now I will trust not one, till I reach London gate."
The noon sun of that day was shining through high, stained windows into the audience chamber of the king, in the Tower of London. It was not a day for him to linger in any palace, and his brows were but black with gloom as he listened to his counselors and to the affairs that were brought before him. These were many and weighty, and few were they who might dare to interrupt him; but he suddenly raised his head, and the dark frown vanished from his face.