Just before arriving at the refuge, they had passed along a very steep and dangerous path. On one side the rock rose precipitously, ten feet above their heads. On the other, was a fall into the valley below. The road at this point was far wider than usual.
Presently, the howl of a wolf was heard near, and soon the solitary call was succeeded by the howling of great numbers of animals. These speedily surrounded the hut, and so fierce were their cries, that Cnut changed his opinion as to the ease with which they could be defeated, and allowed that he would rather face an army of Saracens than a troop of these ill-conditioned animals. The horse trembled in every limb at the sound of the howling of the wolves; and cold as was the night, in spite of the great fire that blazed on the hearth, his coat became covered with the lather of fear. Even upon the roof above the trampling of the animals could be heard; and through the open slits of the windows which some travelers before them had stuffed with straw, they could hear the fierce breathing and snorting of the savage beasts, who scratched and tore to make an entrance.
"I think," Cuthbert said, "that we might launch a few arrows through these loopholes. The roof appears not to be over strong; and should some of them force an entrance, the whole pack might follow."
Dark as was the night, the black bodies were visible against the white snow, and the archers shot several arrows forth, each stretching a wolf dead on the ground. Those killed were at once pounced upon by their comrades, and torn to pieces; and this mark of savageness added to the horror which those within felt of the ferocious animals. Suddenly there was a pause in the howling around the hut, and then Cnut, looking forth from the loophole, declared that the whole body had gone off at full speed along the path by which they had reached the refuge. Almost immediately afterwards a loud shout for help was heard, followed by the renewed howling and yelping of the wolves.
"Good heavens!" Cuthbert exclaimed. "Some traveler coming after us is attacked by these horrible beasts. Let us sally out, Cnut. We cannot hear a Christian torn to pieces by these beasts, without lending him a hand."
In spite of the angry shouts and entreaties of the guide, the door thrust open, and the party, armed with their axes and bows, at once rushed out into the night. The storm had for the moment abated and they had no difficulty in making their way along the track. In fifty yards they came to a bend of the path, and saw, a little distance before them, a black mass of animals, covering the road, and congregated round a figure who stood with his back to the rock.
With a shout of encouragement they sprang forward, and in a few moments were in the midst of the savage animals, who turned their rage against them at once. They had fired two or three arrows apiece, as they approached, into them; and now, throwing down their bows, the archers betook themselves to their swords, while Cuthbert with his heavy battle-axe hewed and cut at the wolves as they sprang towards him. In a minute they had cleared their way to the figure, which was that of a knight in complete armour. He leant against the rock completely exhausted, and could only mutter a word of thanks through his closed visor.
At a short distance off a number of the wolves were gathered, rending and tearing the horse of the knight; but the rest soon recovering from their surprise, attacked with fury the little party. The thick cloaks of the archers stood them in good stead against the animals' teeth, and standing in a group with their backs to the rock, they hewed and cut vigorously at their assailants. The numbers of these, however, appeared almost innumerable, and fresh stragglers continued to come along the road, and swell their body. As fast as those in front fell, their heads cleft with the axes of the party, fresh ones sprang forward; and Cuthbert saw that in spite of the valour and strength of his men, the situation was well nigh desperate. He himself had been saved from injury by his harness, for he still had on his greaves and leg pieces.
"Keep together," he shouted to his men, "and each lend aid to the other if he sees him pulled down. Strike lustily for life, and hurry not your blows, but let each tell." This latter order he gave perceiving that some of the archers, terrified by this furious army of assailants with gaping mouths and glistening teeth, were striking wildly, and losing their presence of mind.
The combat, although it might have been prolonged, could yet have had but one termination, and the whole party would have fallen. At this moment, however, a gust-of wind, more furious than any which they had before experienced, swept along the gorge, and the very wolves had to crouch on their stomachs to prevent themselves being hurled by its fury into the ravine below. Then even above the storm a deep roar was heard. It grew louder and louder. The wolves, as if struck with terror, leaped to their feet, and scattered on either way along the path at full speed.
"What sound can this be?" Cnut exclaimed in an awestruck voice. "It sounds like thunder; but it is regular and unbroken; and, my lord, surely the earth quakes under our feet!"
Louder and louder grew the roar.
"Throw yourselves down against the wall of rock," Cuthbert shouted, himself setting the example.
A moment afterwards, from above, a mighty mass of rock and snow poured over like a cascade, with a roar and sound which nigh stunned them. For minutes--it seemed for hours to them--the deluge of snow and rock continued. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it ceased, and a silence as of death reigned over the place.
"Arise," Cuthbert said; "the danger, I think, is past. It was what men call an avalanche--a torrent of snow slipping down from the higher peaks. We have had a narrow escape indeed."
By this time the knight whom they had rescued was able to speak, and raising his visor, he returned his deepest thanks to those who had come so opportunely to his aid.
"I was well nigh exhausted," he said, "and it was only my armour which saved me from being torn to pieces. A score of them had hold of me; but, fortunately, my mail was of Milan proof, and even the jaws and teeth of these enormous beasts were unable to pierce it."
"The refuge is near at hand," Cuthbert said. "It is but a few yards round yonder point. It is well that we heard your voice. I fear that your horse has fallen a victim."
Assisting the knight, who, in spite of his armour, was sorely bruised and exhausted, they made their way back to the refuge. Cnut and the archers were all bleeding freely from various wounds inflicted upon them in the struggle, breathless and exhausted from their exertions, and thoroughly awe-struck by the tremendous phenomenon of which they had been witnesses, and which they had only escaped from their good fortune in happening to be in a place so formed that the force of the avalanche had swept over their heads The whole of the road, with the exception of a narrow piece four feet in width, had been carried away. Looking upwards, they saw that the forest had been swept clear, not a tree remaining in a wide track as far as they could see up the hill. The great boulders which had strewn the hill-side, and many of which were as large as houses, had been swept away like straws before the rush of snow, and for a moment they feared that the refuge had also been carried away. Turning the corner, however, they saw to their delight that the limits of the avalanche had not extended so far, the refuges, as they afterwards learned, being so placed as to be sheltered by overhanging cliffs from any catastrophe of this kind.
They found the guide upon his knees, muttering his prayers before a cross, which he had formed of two sticks laid crosswise on the ground before him; and he could scarce believe his eyes when they entered, so certain had he considered it that they were lost. There were no longer any signs of the wolves. The greater portion, indeed, of the pack had been overwhelmed by the avalanche, and the rest, frightened and scared, had fled to their fastnesses in the woods.
The knight now removed his helmet, and discovered a handsome yoking man of some four-or-five-and-twenty years old.
"I am," he said, "Baron Ernest of Kornstein. To whom do I owe my life?"
"In spite of my red cross," Cuthbert said, "I am English. My name is Sir Cuthbert, and I am Earl of Evesham. I am on my return from the Holy Land with my followers; and as we are passing through countries where many of the people are hostile to England, we have thought it as well for a time to drop our nationality. But to you I do not hesitate to tell the truth."
"You do well," the young knight said, "for, truth to say, the people of these parts bear but little love to your countrymen. You have saved my life when I was in the sorest danger. I had given myself up for lost, for even my armour could not have saved me long from these wretches; and my sword and life are at your disposal. You are young indeed," he said, looking with surprise at Cuthbert, who had now thrown back the hood of his cloak, "to have gained the honour of knighthood. You scarce look eighteen years of age, although, doubtless, you are older."
"I am scarce seventeen," Cuthbert said; "but I have had the good fortune to attract the notice of King Richard, and to have received the knighthood from his sword."
"None more worthy," said the young knight, "for although King Richard may be fierce and proud, he is the worthiest knight in Christendom, and resembles the heroes of romance rather than a Christian king."
"He is my lord and master," Cuthbert said, "and I love him beyond all men, and would give my life for his. He is the kindest and best of masters; and although it be true that he brooks no opposition, yet is it only because his own bravery and eagerness render hateful to him the indolence and cowardice of others."
They now took their seats round the fire. The archers, by the advice of the guide, rubbed their wounds with snow, and then applied bandages to them. The wallets were opened, and a hearty supper eaten; and all, wrapping themselves in their fur cloaks, were soon asleep.
For four days the gale continued, keeping the party prisoners in the hut. On the fifth, the force of the wind abated, and the snow ceased to fall. They were forced to take the door off its hinges to open it, for the snow had piled up so high that the chimney alone of the hut remained above its surface. With great difficulty and labour they cleared a way out, and then the guide again placing himself at their head, they proceeded on their way. The air was still and cold, and the sky of a deep, dark blue, which seemed even darker in contrast with the whiteness of the snow. At times they had great difficulty in struggling through the deep drifts; but for the most part the wind had swept the path clear. Where it was deepest, the tops of the posts still showed above the snow, and enabled the guide to direct their footsteps. They were, however, obliged to travel slowly, and it was three days before they gained the village on the northern slope of the mountains, having slept at refuges by the road.
"What are your plans?" the knight asked Sir Cuthbert that night, as they sat by the fire of the hostelry. "I would warn you that the town which you will first arrive at is specially hostile to your people, for the baron, its master, is a relation of Conrad of Montferat, who is said to have been killed by order of your king."
"It is false," Cuthbert said. "King Richard had appointed him King of Jerusalem; and, though he liked him not, thought him the fittest of those there to exercise sovereignty. He was the last man who would have had an enemy assassinated; for so open is he of disposition, that he would have fought hand to hand with the meanest soldier of his army, had he desired to kill him."
"I doubt not that it is so, since you tell me," the knight said courteously. "But the people here have taken that idea into their minds, and it will be hard to convince them otherwise. You must therefore keep up your disguise as a French knight while passing through this neighbourhood. Another week's journeying, and you will reach the confines of Saxony, and there you will, as you anticipate, be safe. But I would not answer for your life were you discovered here to be of English birth. And now tell me if there is aught that I can do for you. I will myself accompany you into the town, and will introduce you as a French knight, so that no suspicion is likely to lie upon you, and will, further, ride with you to the borders of Saxony. I am well known, and trust that my company will avert all suspicion from you. You have told me that your purse is ill-supplied; you must suffer me to replenish it. One knight need not fear to borrow of another; and I know that when you have returned to your home, you will bestow the sum which I now give you upon some holy shrine in my name, and thus settle matters between us."
Cuthbert without hesitation accepted the offer, and was well pleased at finding his purse replenished, for its emptiness had caused him serious trouble. Cuthbert's steed was led by one of the archers, and he himself walked happily alongside of Sir Ernest, followed by his retainers. Another long day's march brought them down to Innsbruck, where they remained quietly for a week. Then they journeyed on until they emerged from the mountains, crossed the Bavarian frontier, and arrived at Fussen, a strong city, with well-built walls and defenses.
They at once proceeded to the principal hostelry, where the young baron was well known, and where great interest was excited by the news of the narrow escape which he had had from the attack of the wolves. A journey across the Alps was in those days regarded as a very perilous enterprise in the winter season, and the fact that he should have been rescued from such a strait appeared almost miraculous. They stayed for two days quietly in the city, Cuthbert declining the invitation of the young noble to accompany him to the houses of his friends, as he did not wish that any suspicion should be excited as to his nationality, and preferred remaining quiet to having forced upon him the necessity of making false statements. As to his followers, there was no fear of the people among whom they mixed detecting that they were English. To the Bavarian inhabitants, all languages, save their native German, were alike unintelligible; and even had French been commonly spoken, the dialects of that tongue, such as would naturally be spoken by archers and men-at-arms, would have been as Greek to those accustomed only to Norman French.
Upon the third day, however, an incident occurred which upset Cuthbert's calculations, and nearly involved the whole party in ruin. The town was, as the young baron had said, governed by a noble who was a near relation of Conrad of Montferat, and who was the bitter enemy of the English. A great fete had been given in honour of the marriage of his daughter, and upon this day the young pair were to ride in triumph through the city.
Great preparations had been made; masques and pageants of various kinds manufactured; and the whole townspeople, dressed in their holiday attire, were gathered in the streets. Cuthbert had gone out, followed by his little band of retainers, and taken their station to see the passing show. First came a large body of knights and men-at-arms, with bright banners and trappings. Then rode the bridegroom, with the bride carried in a litter by his side. After this came several allegorical representations. Among these was the figure of a knight bearing the arms of Austria. Underneath his feet, on the car, lay a figure clad in a royal robe, across whom was thrown a banner with the leopards of England. The knight stood with his foot on this figure.
This representation of the dishonour of England at the hands of Austria elicited great acclamations from the crowd. Cuthbert clenched his teeth and grasped his sword angrily, but had the sense to see the folly of taking any notice of the insult. Not so with Cnut. Furious at the insult offered to the standard of his royal master, Cnut, with a bound, burst through the ranks of the crowd, leaped on to the car, and with a buffet
smote the figure representing Austria, into the road, and lifted the flag of England from the ground. A yell of indignation and rage was heard. The infuriated crowd rushed forward. Cnut, with a bound, sprang from the car, and, joining his comrades, burst through those who attempted to impede them, and darted down a by-street.
Cuthbert, for the moment amazed at the action of his follower, had on the instant drawn his sword and joined the archers. In the crowd, however, he was for a second separated from them; and before he could tear himself from the hands of the citizens who had seized him, the men-at-arms accompanying the procession surrounded him, and he was led away by them to the castle, the guards with difficulty protecting him from the enraged populace. Even at this moment Cuthbert experienced a deep sense of satisfaction at the thought that his followers had escaped. But he feared that alone, and unacquainted with the language of the country, they would find it difficult indeed to escape the search which would be made for them, and to manage to find their way back to their country. For himself, he had little hopes of liberty, and scarcely more of life. The hatred of the baron towards the English would now be heightened by the daring act of insult to the arms of Austria, and this would give a pretext for any deed of violence which might be wrought.
Cuthbert was, after a short confinement, brought before the lord baron of the place, in the great hall of the castle.
"Who are you, sir," the noble exclaimed, "who dares to disturb the marriage procession of my daughter, and to insult the standard of the emperor my master?"
"I am Sir Cuthbert, Earl of Evesham, a baron of England," Cuthbert said fearlessly, "and am traveling homeward from the Holy Land. My garb as a crusader should protect me from all interruption; and the heedless conduct of my retainer was amply justified by the insult offered to the arms of England. There is not one of the knights assembled round you who would not in like manner have avenged an insult offered to those of Austria; and I am ready to do battle in the lists with any who choose to say that the deed was a foul or improper one. In the Holy Land, Austrians and English fought side by side; and it is strange indeed to me that on my return, journeying through the country of the emperor, I should find myself treated as an enemy, and see the arms of King Richard exposed to insult and derision by the burghers of this city."
As Cuthbert had spoken, he threw down his mailed glove, and several of the knights present stepped forward to pick it up. The baron, however, waved them back.
"It is no question," he said, "of honourable fight. This is a follower of the murderer of my good cousin of Montferat, who died under the hands of assassins set upon him by Richard of England."
"It is false!" Cuthbert shouted. "I denounce it as a foul lie, and will maintain it with my life."
"Your life is already forfeited," the baron said, "both by your past connexion with Richard of England and as the insulter of the arms of Austria. You die, and to-morrow at noon your head shall be struck off in the great square before my castle."
Without another word Cuthbert was hurried off to his cell, and there remained, thinking moodily over the events of the day, until nightfall. He had no doubt that his sentence would be carried out, and his anxiety was rather for his followers than for himself. He feared that they would make some effort on his behalf, and would sacrifice their own lives in doing so, without the possibility of assisting him.
The next morning he was led out to the square before the castle. It was a large flagged courtyard. Upon one side was the entrance to the castle, one of whose wings also formed a second side to the square. The side facing this was formed by the wall of the city, and the fourth opened upon a street of the town. This side of the square was densely filled with citizens, while the men-at-arms of the baron and a large number of knights were gathered behind a scaffold erected in the centre. Upon this was a block, and by the side stood a headsman. As Cuthbert was led forward a thrill of pleasure ran through him at perceiving no signs of his followers, who he greatly feared might have been captured in the night, and brought there to share his fate.
As he was led forward, the young noble whose life he had saved advanced to the baron, and dropping on one knee before him, craved the life of Cuthbert, relating the event by which he had saved his life in the passage of the mountains. The baron frowned heavily.
"Though he had saved the life of every noble in Bavaria," he said, "he should die. I have sworn an oath that every Englishman who fell into my hands should expiate the murder of my kinsman; and this fellow is, moreover, guilty of an outrage to the arms of Austria."
The young Sir Ernest drew himself up haughtily.
"My lord baron," he said, "henceforth I renounce all allegiance to you, and I will lay the case before the emperor, our common master, and will cry before him at the outrage which has thus been passed upon a noble gentleman. He has thrown down the glove, and challenged any of your knights, and I myself am equally ready to do battle in his cause."
The baron grew red with passion, and he would have ordered the instant arrest of the young man, but as Sir Ernest was connected by blood with many present, and was indeed one of the most popular among the nobles of the province, the baron simply waved him aside, and ordered Cuthbert to be led to the block. The young Englishman was by the executioner divested of his armour and helmet, and stood in the simple attire worn by men of rank at that time. He looked around, and holding up his hand, conveying alike a farewell and a command to his followers to remain in concealment, he gazed round the crowd, thinking that he might see among them in some disguise or other the features of Cnut, whose tall figure would have rendered him conspicuous in a crowd. He failed, however, to see any signs of him, and turning to the executioner, signified by a gesture that he was ready.
At this instant an arrow from the wall above pierced the brain of the man, and he fell dead in his tracks. A roar of astonishment burst from the crowd. Upon the city wall at this point was a small turret, and on this were five figures. The wall around was deserted, and for the moment these men were masters of the position.
"Seize those insolent varlets!" the baron shouted, shaking his sword with a gesture of fury at them.
His words, however, were arrested, for at the moment another arrow struck him in the throat, and he fell back into the arms of those around him.
Quickly now the arrows of the English archers flew into the courtyard. The confusion which reigned there was indescribable. The citizens with shouts of alarm took to their heels. The men-at-arms were powerless against this rain of missiles, and the knights, hastily closing their visors, shouted contradictory orders, which no one obeyed.
In the confusion no one noticed the prisoner. Seizing a moment when the attention of all was fixed upon the wall, he leaped from the platform, and making his way unnoticed through the excited crowd of men-at-arms, darted down a narrow lane that divided the castle from the wall. He ran along until, 100 yards farther, he came to a staircase by which access to the battlements was obtained. Running lightly up this, he kept along the wall until he reached the turret.
"Thanks, my noble Cnut!" he exclaimed, "and you, my brave fellows. But I fear you have forfeited your lives. There is no escape. In a minute the whole force of the place will recover from their confusion, and be down upon us from both sides."
"We have prepared for that," Cnut said. "Here is a rope hanging down into the moat."
Glancing over, Cuthbert saw that the moat was dry; and after a final discharge of arrows into the crowd, the six men slid one after another down the rope and made their way at full speed across the country.
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