It was a bright morning in the month of August, when a lad of some fifteen years of age, sitting on a low wall, watched party after party of armed men riding up to the castle of the Earl of Evesham. A casual observer glancing at his curling hair and bright open face, as also at the fashion of his dress, would at once have assigned to him a purely Saxon origin; but a keener eye would have detected signs that Norman blood ran also in his veins, for his figure was lither and lighter, his features more straightly and shapely cut, than was common among Saxons. His dress consisted of a tight-fitting jerkin, descending nearly to his knees. The material was a light-blue cloth, while over his shoulder hung a short cloak of a darker hue. His cap was of Saxon fashion, and he wore on one side a little plume of a heron. In a somewhat costly belt hung a light short sword, while across his knees lay a crossbow, in itself almost a sure sign of its bearer being of other than Saxon blood. The boy looked anxiously as party after party rode past towards the castle.
"I would give something," he said, "to know what wind blows these knaves here. From every petty castle in the Earl's domain the retainers seem hurrying here. Is he bent, I wonder, on settling once and for all his quarrels with the Baton of Wortham? or can he be intending to make a clear sweep of the woods? Ah! here comes my friend Hubert; he may tell me the meaning of this gathering."
Leaping to his feet, the speaker started at a brisk walk to meet a jovial-looking personage coming down from the direction of the castle. The new comer was dressed in the attire of a falconer, and two dogs followed at his heels.
"Ah, Master Cuthbert," he said, "what brings you so near to the castle? It is not often that you favour us with your presence."
"I am happier in the woods, as you well know, and was on my way there now, when I paused at the sight of all these troopers flocking in to Evesham. What enterprise has Sir Walter on hand now, do you think?"
"The earl keeps his own counsel," said the falconer, "but I think a shrewd guess might be made at the reason of the gathering. It was but three days ago that his foresters were beaten back by the landless men, whom they caught in the very act of cutting up a fat buck. As you know, my lord though easy and well-disposed to all, and not fond of harassing and driving the people as are many of his neighbours, is yet to the full as fanatical about his forest privileges as the worst of them. They tell me that when the news came in of how his poor foresters looked coming back with broken bows and draggled plumes--for the varlets had doused them in a pond of stagnant water--he swore a great oath that he would clear the forest of the bands. It may be, indeed, that this gathering is for the purpose of falling in force upon that evil-disposed and most treacherous baron, Sir John of Wortham, who has already begun to harry some of the outlying lands, and has driven off, I hear, many heads of cattle. It is a quarrel which will have to be fought out sooner or later, and the sooner the better, say I. Although I am no man of war, and love looking after my falcons or giving food to my dogs far more than exchanging hard blows, yet would I gladly put on the buff and steel coat to aid in leveling the keep of that robber and tyrant, Sir John of Wortham."
"Thanks, good Hubert," said the lad. "I must not stand gossiping here. The news you have told me, as you know, touches me closely, for I would not that harm should come to the forest men."
"Let it not out, I beg you, Cuthbert, that the news came from me, for temperate as Sir Walter is at most times, he would, I think, give me short shift did he know that the wagging of my tongue might have given warning through which the outlaws of the Chase should slip through his fingers."
"Fear not, Hubert; I can be mum when the occasion needs. Can you tell me farther, when the bands now gathering are likely to set forth?"
"In brief breathing space," the falconer replied. "Those who first arrived I left swilling beer, and devouring pies and other provisions cooked for them last night, and from what I hear, they will set forth as soon as the last comer has arrived. Whichever be their quarry, they will try to fall upon it before the news of their arrival is bruited abroad."
With a wave of his hand to the falconer the boy started. Leaving the road, and striking across the slightly undulated country dotted here and there by groups of trees, the lad ran at a brisk trot, without stopping to halt or breathe, until after half an hour's run he arrived at the entrance of a building, whose aspect proclaimed it to be the abode of a Saxon franklin of some importance. It would not be called a castle, but was rather a fortified house, with a few windows looking without, and surrounded by a moat crossed by a drawbridge, and capable of sustaining anything short of a real attack. Erstwood had but lately passed into Norman hands, and was indeed at present owned by a Saxon. Sir William de Lance, the father of the lad who is now entering its portals, was a friend and follower of the Earl of Evesham; and soon after his lord had married Gweneth the heiress of all these fair lands--given to him by the will of the king, to whom by the death of her father she became a ward--Sir William had married Editha, the daughter and heiress of the franklin of Erstwood, a cousin and dear friend of the new Countess of Evesham.
In neither couple could the marriage at first have been called one of inclination on the part of the ladies, but love came after marriage. Although the knights and barons of the Norman invasion would, no doubt, be considered rude and rough in these days of broadcloth and civilization, yet their manners were gentle and polished by the side of those of the rough though kindly Saxon franklins; and although the Saxon maids were doubtless as patriotic as their fathers and mothers, yet the female mind is greatly led by gentle manners and courteous address. Thus then, when bidden or forced to give their hands to the Norman knights, they speedily accepted their lot, and for the most part grew contented and happy enough. In their changed circumstances it was pleasanter to ride by the side of their Norman husbands, surrounded by a colourful cavalcade, to hawk and to hunt, than to discharge the quiet duties of mistress of a Saxon farm-house. In many cases, of course, their lot was rendered wretched by the violence and brutality of their lords; but in the majority they were well satisfied with their lot, and these mixed marriages did more to bring the peoples together and weld them in one, than all the laws and decrees of the Norman sovereigns.
This had certainly been the case with Editha, whose marriage with Sir William had been one of the greatest happiness. She had lost him, three years before the story begins, fighting in Normandy, in one of the innumerable wars in which our first Norman kings were constantly involved. On entering the gates of Erstwood, Cuthbert had rushed hastily to the room where his mother was sitting with three or four of her maidens, engaged in work.
"I want to speak to you at once, mother," he said.
"What is it now, my son?" said his mother, who was still young and very pretty. Waving her hand to the girls, they left her.
"Mother," he said, when they were alone, "I fear that Sir Walter is about to make a great raid upon the outlaws. Armed men have been coming in all the morning from the castles round, and if it be not against the Baron de Wortham that these preparations are intended, and I think it is not, it must be against the landless men."
"What would you do, Cuthbert?" his mother asked anxiously. "It will not do for you to be found meddling in these matters. At present you stand well in the favour of the Earl, who loves you for the sake of his wife, to whom you are kin, and of your father, who did him good liegeman's service."
"But, mother, I have many friends in the wood. There is Cnut, their chief, your own first cousin, and many others of our friends, all good men and true, though forced by the cruel Norman laws to refuge in the woods."
"What would you do?" again his mother asked.
"I would take Ronald my pony and ride to warn them of the danger that threatens."
"You had best go on foot, my son. Doubtless men have been set to see that none from the Saxon homesteads carry the warning to the woods. The distance is not beyond your reach, for you have often wandered there, and on foot you can evade the eye of the watchers; but one thing, my son, you must promise, and that is, that in no case, should the Earl and his bands meet with the outlaws, will you take part in any fray or struggle."
"That will I willingly, mother," he said. "I have no cause for offence against the castle or the forest, and my blood and my kin are with both. I would gladly save the shedding of blood in a quarrel like this. I hope that the time may come when Saxon and Norman may fight side by side, and I maybe there to see it."
A few minutes later, having changed his blue doublet for one of more sober and less noticeable colour, Cuthbert started for the great forest, which then stretched to within a mile of Erstwood. In those days a large part of the country was covered with forest, and the policy of the Normans in preserving these woods for the chase, tended to prevent the increase of cultivation.
The farms and cultivated lands were all held by Saxons, who although nominally handed over to the nobles to whom William and his successors had given the fiefs, saw but little of their Norman masters. These stood, indeed, much in the position in which landlords stand to their tenants, payment being made, for the most part, in produce. At the edge of the wood the trees grew comparatively far apart, but as Cuthbert proceeded farther into its recesses, the trees in the virgin forest stood thick and close together. Here and there open glades ran across each other, and in these his sharp eye, accustomed to the forest, could often see the stags starting away at the sound of his footsteps.
It was a full hour's journey before Cuthbert reached the point for which he was bound. Here, in an open space, probably cleared by a storm ages before, and overshadowed by giant trees, was a group of men of all ages and appearances. Some were occupied in stripping the skin off a buck which hung from the bough of one of the trees. Others were roasting portions of the carcass of another deer. A few sat apart, some talking, others busy in making arrows, while a few lay asleep on the greensward. As Cuthbert entered the clearing, several of the party rose to their feet.
"Ah, Cuthbert," shouted a man of almost gigantic stature, who appeared to be one of the leaders of the party, "what brings you here, lad, so early? You do not usually visit us till evening, when you can lay your crossbow at a stag by moonlight."
"No, no, Cousin Cnut," Cuthbert said, "you cannot say that I have ever broken the forest laws, though I have looked on often and often, while you have done so."
"The abettor is as bad as the thief," laughed Cnut, "and if the foresters caught us in the act, I doubt they would make but little difference whether it was the shaft of my longbow or the quarrel from your crossbow which brought down the quarry. But again, lad, why did you here? for I see by the sweat on your face and by the heaving of your sides that you have run fast and far."
"I have, Cnut; I have not once stopped for breathing since I left Erstwood. I have come to warn you of danger. The earl is preparing for a raid."
Cnut laughed somewhat disdainfully.
"He has raided here before, and has not caught us. The landless men of the forest can hold their own against a handful of Norman knights and retainers in their own home."
"Ay," said Cuthbert, "but this will be no common raid. This morning bands from all the holds within miles round are riding in, and at least 500 men-at-arms are likely to do chase today."
"Is it so?" said Cnut, while exclamations of surprise, but not of apprehension, broke from those standing round. "If that be so, lad, you have done us good service indeed. With fair warning we can slip through the fingers of ten times 500 men, but if they came upon us unawares, and hemmed us in it would fare but badly with us, though we should, I doubt not give a good account of them before their battle-axes and maces ended the strife. Have you any idea by which road they will enter the forest, or what are their intentions?"
"I do not know," Cuthbert said; "all that I gathered was that the earl intended to sweep the forest, and to put an end to the breaches of the laws, not to say of the rough treatment that his foresters have met with at your hands. You had best, I think, be off before Sir Walter and his heavily-armed men are here. The forest, large as it is, will scarce hold you both, and I think you had best shift your quarters to Langholm Chase until the storm has passed."
"To Langholm be it, then," said Cnut, "though I love not the place. Sir John of Wortham is a worse neighbour by far than the earl. Against the latter we bear no malice, he is a good knight and a fair lord; and could he free himself of the Norman notions that the birds of the air, and the beasts of the field, and the fishes of the water, all belong to Normans, and that we Saxons have no share in them, I should have no quarrel with him. He grinds not his neighbours, he is content with a fair tithe of the produce, and as between man and man is a fair judge without favour. The baron, Sir John though, is a fiend incarnate; did he not fear that he would lose by so doing, he would gladly cut the throats, or burn, or drown, or hang every Saxon within twenty miles of his hold. He is a disgrace to his order, and some day when our band gathers a little stronger, we will burn his nest about his ears."
"It will be a hard nut to crack," Cuthbert said, laughing. "With such arms as you have in the forest the enterprise would be something like scaling the skies."
"Ladders and axes will go far, lad, and the Norman men-at-arms have learned to dread our shafts. But enough of the baron; if we must be his neighbours for a time, so be it."
"You have heard, my mates," he said, turning to his comrades gathered around him, "what Cuthbert tells us. Are you of my opinion, that it is better to move away till the storm is past, than to fight against heavy odds, without much chance of either booty or victory?"
A general chorus proclaimed that the outlaws approved of the proposal for a move to Langholm Chase. The preparations were simple. Bows were taken down from the boughs on which they were hanging, quivers slung across the backs, short cloaks thrown over the shoulders. The deer was hurriedly dismembered, and the joints fastened to a pole slung on the shoulders of two of the men. The drinking-cups, some of which were of silver, looking strangely out of place among the rough horn implements and platters, were bundled together, carried a short distance and dropped among some thick bushes for safety; and then the band started for Wortham.
With a cordial farewell and many thanks to Cuthbert, who declined their invitations to accompany them, the retreat to Langholm commenced.
Cuthbert, not knowing in which direction the bands were likely to approach, remained for a while motionless, intently listening.
In a quarter of an hour he heard the distant note of a bugle.
It was answered in three different directions, and Cuthbert, who knew every path and glade of the forest, was able pretty accurately to surmise those by which the various bands were commencing to enter the wood.
Knowing that they were still a long way off, he advanced as rapidly as he could in the direction in which they were coming. When by the sound of distant voices and the breaking of branches he knew that one at least of the parties was near at hand, he rapidly climbed a thick tree and ensconced himself in the branches, and there watched, secure and hidden from the sharpest eye, the passage of a body of men-at-arms fully a hundred strong, led by Sir Walter himself, accompanied by some half dozen of his knights.
When they had passed, Cuthbert again slipped down the tree and made at all speed for home. He reached it, so far as he knew without having been observed by a single passer-by.
After a brief talk with his mother, he started for the castle, as his appearance there would divert any suspicion that might arise; and it would also appear natural that seeing the movements of so large a body of men, he should go up to gossip with his acquaintances there.
When distant a mile from Evesham, he came upon a small party.
On a white palfrey rode Margaret, the little daughter of the earl. She was accompanied by her nurse and two retainers on foot.
Cuthbert--who was a great favourite with the earl's daughter, for whom he frequently brought pets, such as nests of young owlets, falcons, and other creatures--was about to join the party when from a clump of trees near burst a body of ten mounted men.
Without a word they rode straight at the astonished group. The retainers were cut to the ground before they had thought of drawing a sword in defence.
The nurse was slain by a blow with a battle-axe, and Margaret, snatched from her palfrey, was thrown across the saddle-bow of one of the mounted men, who then with his comrades dashed off at full speed.
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