The whole of the startling scene of the abduction of the Earl of Evesham's daughter occupied but a few seconds. Cuthbert was so astounded at the sudden calamity that he remained rooted to the ground at the spot where, fortunately for himself, unnoticed by the assailants, he had stood when they first burst from their concealment.
For a short time he hesitated as to the course he should take.
The men-at-arms who remained in the castle were scarce strong enough to rescue the child, whose captors would no doubt be reinforced by a far stronger party lurking near.
The main body of Sir Walter's followers were deep in the recesses of the forest, and this lay altogether out of the line for Wortham, and there would be no chance whatever of bringing them up in time to cut off the marauders on their way back.
There remained only the outlaws, who by this time would be in Langholm Forest, perhaps within a mile or two of the castle itself.
The road by which the horsemen would travel would be far longer than the direct line across country, and he resolved at once to strain every nerve to reach his friends in time to get them to interpose between the captors of the Lady Margaret and their stronghold.
For an instant he hesitated whether to run back to Erstwood to get a horse; but he decided that it would be as quick to go on foot, and far easier so to find the outlaws.
These thoughts occupied but a few moments, and he at once started at the top of his speed for his long run across the country.
The distance to the woods was some twelve miles, and in an hour and a half from the moment of his starting Cuthbert was deep within its shades. Where he would be likely to find the outlaws he knew not; and, putting a whistle to his lips, he shrilly blew the signal, which would, he knew, be recognized by any of the band within hearing.
He thought that he heard an answer, but was not certain, and again dashed forward, almost as speedily as if he had but just started.
Five minutes later a man stood in the glade up which he was running. He recognized him at once as one of Cnut's party.
"Where are the band?" he gasped.
"Half a mile or so to the right," replied the man.
Guided by the man, Cuthbert ran at full speed, till, panting and scarce able to speak, he arrived at the spot where Cnut's band were gathered.
In a few words he told them what had happened, and although they had just been chased by the father of the captured child, there was not a moment of hesitation in promising their aid to rescue her from a man whom they regarded as a far more bitter enemy, both of themselves and their race.
"I fear we shall be too late to cut them off," Cnut said, "they have so long a start; but at least we will waste no time in gossiping."
Winding a horn to call together some of the members of the band who had scattered, and leaving one at the meeting-place to give instructions to the rest, Cnut, followed by those assembled there, went off at a swinging trot through the glades towards Wortham Castle.
After a rapid calculation of distances, and allowing for the fact that the baron's men--knowing that Sir Walter's retainers and friends were all deep in the forest, and even if they heard of the outrage could not be on their traces for hours--would take matters quietly, Cnut concluded that they had arrived in time.
Turning off, they made their way along the edge of the wood to the point where the road from Evesham ran through the forest.
Scarcely had the party reached this point when they heard a faint clatter of steel.
"Here they come!" exclaimed Cuthbert.
Cnut gave rapid directions, and the band took up their posts behind the trees, on either side of the path.
"Remember," Cnut said, "above all things be careful not to hit the child, but pierce the horse on which she is riding. The instant he falls, rush forward. We must trust to surprise to give us the victory."
Three minutes later the head of a band of horsemen was seen through the trees. They were some thirty in number, and, closely grouped as they were together, the watchers behind the trees could not see the form of the child carried in their midst.
When they came abreast of the concealed outlaws, Cnut gave a sharp whistle, and fifty arrows flew from tree and bush into the closely gathered party of horsemen. More than half their number fell at once; some, drawing their swords, endeavoured to rush at their concealed foes, while others dashed forward in the hope of riding through the snare into which they had fallen. Cuthbert had levelled his crossbow, but had not fired; he was watching with intense anxiety for a glimpse of the bright-coloured dress of the child. Soon he saw a horseman separate himself from the rest and dash forward at full speed. Several arrows flew by him, and one or two struck the horse on which he rode.
The animal, however, kept on its way.
Cuthbert levelled his crossbow on the low arm of a tree, and as the rider came abreast of him touched the trigger, and the steel-pointed quarrel flew true and strong against the temple of the passing horseman. He fell from his horse like a stone and the well-trained animal at once stood still by the side of his rider.
Cuthbert leapt forward, and to his delight the child at once opened her arms and cried in a joyous tone,--
The fight was still raging fiercely, and Cuthbert, raising her from the ground, ran with her into the wood, where they remained hidden until the combat ceased, and the last survivors of the Baron's band had ridden past towards the castle.
Then Cuthbert went forward with his charge and joined the band of outlaws, who, absorbed in the fight, had not witnessed the incident of her rescue, and now received them with loud shouts of joy and triumph.
"This is a good day's work indeed for all," Cuthbert said; "it will make of the earl a firm friend instead of a bitter enemy; and I doubt not that better days are dawning for Evesham Forest."
A litter was speedily made with boughs, on this Margaret was placed, and on the shoulders of two stout foresters started for home, Cnut and Cuthbert walking beside, and a few of the band keeping at a short distance behind, as a sort of rear-guard should the Baron attempt to regain his prey.
There was now no cause for speed, and Cuthbert in truth could scarce drag one foot before another, for he had already traversed over twenty miles, the greater portion of the distance at his highest rate of speed.
Cnut offered to have a litter made for him also, but this Cuthbert indignantly refused; however, in the forest they came upon the hut of a small cultivator, who had a rough forest pony, which was borrowed for Cuthbert's use.
It was late in the afternoon before they came in sight of Evesham Castle. From the distance could be seen bodies of armed men galloping towards it, and it was clear that only now the party were returning from the wood, and had learned the news of the disappearance of the Earl's daughter, and of the finding of the bodies of her attendants.
Presently they met one of the mounted retainers riding at headlong speed.
"Have you heard or seen anything," he shouted, as he approached, "of the Lady Margaret? She is missing, and foul play has taken place."
"Here I am, Rudolph," cried the child, sitting up on the rude litter.
The horseman gave a cry of astonishment and pleasure, and without a word wheeled his horse and galloped past back at headlong speed towards the castle.
As Cuthbert and the party approached the gate, the earl himself, surrounded by his knights and followers, rode out hastily from the gate and halted in front of the little party. The litter was lowered, and as he dismounted from his horse his daughter sprang out and leapt into his arms.
For a few minutes the confusion and babble of tongues were too great for anything to be heard, but Cuthbert, as soon as order was somewhat restored, stated what had happened, and the earl was moved to fury at the news of the outrage which had been perpetrated by the Baron of Wortham upon his daughter and at the very gates of his castle, and also at the thought that she should have been saved by the bravery and devotion of the very men against whom he had so lately been vowing vengeance in the depths of the forest.
"This is not a time," he said to Cnut, "for talking or making promises, but be assured that henceforth the deer of Evesham Chase are as free to you and your men as to me. Forest laws or no forest laws, I will no more lift a hand against men to whom I owe so much. Come when you will to the castle, my friends, and let us talk over what can be done to erase your outlawry and restore you to an honest career again."
Cuthbert returned home tired, but delighted with his day's work, and Dame Editha was surprised indeed with the tale of adventure he had to tell. The next morning he went over to the castle, and heard that a grand council had been held the evening before, and that it had been determined to attack Wortham Castle and to raze it to the ground.
Immediately on hearing of his arrival, the earl, after again expressing his gratitude for the rescue of his daughter, asked him if he would go into the forest and invite the outlaws to join their forces with those of the castle to attack the baron.
Cuthbert willingly undertook the mission, as he felt that this alliance would further strengthen the position of the forest men.
When he arrived there was some considerable consultation and discussion between the outlaws as to the expediency of mixing themselves in the quarrels between the Norman barons. However, Cnut persuaded them that as the Baron of Wortham was an enemy and oppressor of all Saxons, it was in fact their own quarrel that they were fighting rather than that of the earl, and they therefore agreed to give their aid, and promised to be at the rendezvous outside the castle to be attacked, soon after dawn next morning. Cuthbert returned with the news, which gave great satisfaction to the earl.
The castle was now a scene of bustle and business; armourers were at work repairing head-pieces and breastplates, sharpening swords and battle-axes, while the fletchers prepared sheaves of arrows. In the courtyard a number of men were engaged oiling the catapults, ballistas, and other machines for hurling stones. All were discussing the chances of the assault, for it was no easy matter which they had set themselves to do. Wortham Hold was an extremely strong one, and it needed all and more than all the machines at their disposal to undertake so formidable an operation as a siege.
The garrison, too, were strong and desperate; and the baron, knowing what must follow his outrage of the day before, would have been sure to send off messengers round the country begging his friends to come to his assistance. Cuthbert had begged permission of his mother to ask the earl to allow him to join as a volunteer, but she would not hear of it. Neither would she let him mingle with the foresters. The most that he could obtain was that he might go as a spectator, with strict injunctions to keep himself out of the fray, and as far as possible beyond bow-shot of the castle wall.
It was a force of some 400 strong that issued from the wood early next morning to attack the stronghold at Wortham. The force consisted of some ten or twelve knights and barons, some 150 or 160 Norman men-at-arms, a miscellaneous gathering of other retainers, 200 strong, and some eighty of the forest men. These last were not to fight under the earl's banner, but were to act on their own account. There were among them outlaws, escaped serfs, and some men guilty of bloodshed. The earl then could not have let these men to fight under his flag until purged in some way of their offences.
This arrangement suited the foresters well.
Their strong point was shooting; and by taking up their own position, and following their own tactics, under the leadership of Cnut, they would be able to do far more execution, and that with less risk to themselves, than if compelled to fight according to the fashion of the Normans.
As they approached the castle a trumpet was blown, and the herald, advancing, demanded its surrender, stigmatized the Baron of Wortham as a false knight and a disgrace to his class, and warned all those within the castle to abstain from giving him aid or countenance, but to submit themselves to the earl, Sir Walter of Evesham, the representative of King Richard.
The reply to the summons was a burst of taunting laughter from the walls; and scarcely had the herald withdrawn, than a flight of arrows showed that the besieged were perfectly ready for the fray.
Indeed, the baron had not been idle. Already the dispute between himself and the earl had come to such a point that it was certain that sooner or later open hostilities would break out.
He had therefore been for some time quietly accumulating a large store of provisions and munitions of war, and strengthening the castle in every way.
The moat had been cleaned out, and filled to the brim with water. Great quantities of heavy stones had been accumulated on the most exposed points of the walls, in readiness to hurl upon any who might try to climb. Huge sheaves of arrows and piles of crossbow bolts, were in readiness, and in all, save the number of men, Wortham had for weeks been prepared for the siege.
On the day when the attempt to carry off the earl's daughter had failed, the baron, seeing that his bold stroke to obtain a hostage which would have enabled him to make his own terms with the earl, had been thwarted, knew that the struggle was inevitable.
Fleet messengers had been sent in all directions. To Gloucester and Hereford, Stafford, and even Oxford, men had ridden, with letters to the baron's friends, beseeching them to march to his assistance.
"I can," he said, "defend my hold for weeks. But it is only by aid from without that I can finally hope to break the power of this braggart earl."
Many of those to whom he addressed his call had speedily complied with his demand, while those at a distance might be expected to reply later to the appeal.
There were many among the barons who considered the mildness of the Earl of Evesham towards the Saxons in his district to be a mistake, and who, although not actually approving of the tyranny and brutality of the Baron of Wortham, yet looked upon his cause to some extent as their own.
The Castle of Wortham stood upon ground but very slightly elevated above the surrounding country. A deep and wide moat ran round it, and this could, by diverting a rivulet, be filled at will.
From the edge of the moat the walls rose high, and with strong flanking towers and battlements.
There were strong works also beyond the moat opposite to the drawbridge; while in the centre of the castle rose the keep, from whose summit the archers, and the machines for casting stones and darts, could command the whole circuit of defence.
As Cuthbert, accompanied by one of the hinds of the farm, took his post high up in a lofty tree, where at his ease he could command a view of the proceedings, he marvelled much in what manner an attack upon so fair a fortress would be commenced.
"It will be straightforward work to attack the outwork," he said, "but that once won, I see not how we are to proceed against the castle itself. The machines that the earl has will scarcely hurl stones strong enough even to knock the mortar from the walls. Ladders are useless where they cannot be planted; and if the garrison are as brave as the castle is strong, I think that the earl has embarked upon a business that will keep him here till next spring."
There was little time lost in commencing the conflict.
The foresters, skirmishing up near to the castle, and taking advantage of every inequality in the ground, of every bush and tuft of high grass, worked up close to the moat, and then opened a heavy fire with their bows against the men-at-arms on the battlements, and prevented their using the machines against the main force now advancing to the attack upon the outwork.
This was stoutly defended. But the impetuosity of the earl, backed as it was by the gallantry of the knights serving under him, carried all obstacles.
The narrow moat which encircled this work was speedily filled with great bundles of brushwood, which had been prepared the previous night. Across these the assailants rushed.
Some thundered at the gate with their battle-axes, while others placed ladders by which, although several times hurled backwards by the defenders, they finally succeeded in getting a footing on the wall.
Once there, the combat was virtually over.
The defenders were either cut down or taken prisoners, and in two hours after the assault began, the outwork of Wortham Castle was taken.
This, however, was but the commencement of the undertaking, and it had cost more than twenty lives to the assailants.
They were now, indeed, little nearer to capturing the castle than they had been before.
The moat was wide and deep. The drawbridge had been lifted at the instant that the first of the assailants gained a footing upon the wall. And now that the outwork was captured, a storm of arrows, stones, and other missiles was poured into it from the castle walls, and rendered it impossible for any of its new masters, to show themselves above it.
Seeing that any sudden attack was impossible, the earl now directed a strong body to cut down trees, and prepare a movable bridge to throw across the moat.
This would be a work of fully two days; and in the meantime Cuthbert returned to the farm.
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