Yule Logs/Sir Richard's Squires
SIR RICHARD'S SQUIRES
By C. W. WHISTLER
JUST one month after I became squire to Sir Richard de Courci, then of the Castle of Stoke Courci, that lies between Quantock Hills and the sea in our fair Somerset, I met Alan de Govet, about whom my story mostly is.
We had been to Taunton, and were riding homewards across the hills, and valley and river lay straight before us as fair a view as any in all England is that rich country between Mendips and Quantocks—yet I suppose that Sir Richard thought of it hardly at all, for he, as Queen Matilda's steward, was deep in all the new plans that were to set our exiled queen on her father's throne, and he rode thoughtfully after meeting De Mohun of Dunster that day.
But when we saw a gay little party of men in hunting dress, with hawks and hounds, come up the deep narrow lane to meet us, he roused, and turning to the twenty well-armed men behind us, asked who these were who came now.
"Why, then," said my knight, "if this is young De Govet, I must have a word or two with him. Bar the road while we speak."The men grinned, and closed up so that the lane was
"He came heavily to the roadside grass, where he lay stunned."
When we met, therefore, the hunting party must needs rein up, for they could not pass us.
"Pardon me, sir knight, but you bar the road," said the leader, raising his cap courteously.
"Only for the pleasure of speech with you," said my knight, saluting in turn. "I am De Courci, and I believe that I speak to Alan de Govet?"
The young man's face darkened as he answered, "Let me go my way, Sir Richard. I have nought to say to disloyal men."
"There are two sides to every question, young sir," the knight answered. "And since I am a Queen's man, and the De Govets are King's men, we have different views of what loyalty is. However, just now Stephen is king."
"Well, what would you with me?"
"Some time since I had a fair offer to make to your noble father—touching yourself—that is, if you are Alan de Govet. I have as yet had no answer."
The young man's face flushed angrily.
"Stand aside, sir," he said. "This is discourteous."
"Not if you are the man I take you for. Which, by the way, you have not owned as yet."
"I will own nothing, if thus asked," was the answer, and the stranger turned to his men.
But they had gone hastily at the first word about the rival claims of King and Queen, knowing what mostly came of such arguments nowadays.
Seeing which, he turned his horse leisurely, and without sign of fear, to follow them, and Sir Richard laughed, and rode alongside him, laying his hand on the horse's bridle.
"Stay—I must ask you to come to Stoke Courci with me, as your men have left you," he said.
In a moment the young man's sword was out, and at the same instant he seemed to rise from his saddle, lose his balance, and fall away from Sir Richard. His blow was wasted on air, as he came heavily to the roadside grass, where he lay stunned.
"Bring him home carefully," said Sir Richard to his men. "If he is Alan de Govet, we must have had him as a hostage sooner or later. If he is not—well, a De Courci can but apologise."
So we rode on, and I asked Sir Richard, wondering, why so good a rider fell, as did this young man.
"'Tis an old trick," the knight said; "you do but get your foot under his and lift him at the right moment. But I would not advise you to try it with one heavier than yourself."
Now when we reached the castle, our prisoner was brought in after us, seemingly not much the worse for his fall, and the Lady Sybilla, Sir Richard's ward, and mistress of the castle since his wife died, asked me who he might be. And when I told her that he was thought to be Alan de Govet, but that he would not own his name, she flushed a little, and said no more. Next day I had reason to think that she had heard of him before this. Very fair was this young lady, and heiress of many broad acres. She seemed much older than myself, but a boy of sixteen will think anything over twenty a great age.After breakfast on the next day I fed the hawks, and then came back into the great hall to see if my knight had any commands for me. There I found some sort of council on hand, and, from all appearances, no very peaceful one. Jehan of Stowey, the head man-at-arms, and one of his men guarded the two doors, and our chaplain, Father Gregorius, sat by the hearth, smiling uneasily. Sir Richard sat in his great chair on the daïs, facing his prisoner, and by his side was the Lady Sybilla, who was plainly in a towering rage, for her eyes flashed, and her little hand was clenched as if she was holding herself in check. And when I looked at De Govet, I saw that he was as angry as the lady. As for Sir Richard, he seemed
"Sir Richard sat in his great chair on the daïs."
Sir Richard took up the matter where he had broken it off when I entered.
"'Tis a mercy, Alan, that De Mohun of Dunster did not get hold of you. For that humour of yours of last night, when you would not own your name, would surely have landed you in the sachentege he keeps in his castle wherewith to wring answers from the silent. I would fain fit a more pleasant yoke to your neck," he said in a meditative way, watching De Govet's face amusedly.
Now of all the tortures that a Norman can invent, that of the sachentege is the worst; for the engine is made of a great beam of wood, fastened round the man's neck with a rough iron collar. As the beam is too heavy for one man to lift, and too long to be set on end, it is apt to wring confession of anything needed from him who is set therein after a time. Therefore I was surprised to hear the Lady Sybilla say suddenly—
"Borrow De Mohun's sachentege, I pray you."
"Fie, daughter," said Gregorius, shaking his head, but half smiling at the girl's anger. " It were a shame to set so gallant a youth in such bondage."
"Set me in the hateful thing rather," she said. "It were better than to marry me to this man of Stephen's, who would not own whatever name he has—being doubtless ashamed thereof."
At that De Govet started, and his face grew crimson. But Sybilla went on, growing more angry still.
"When Queen Maud comes I will go to her. She will see that I——"
"Hold," said Sir Richard suddenly; "enough of this. Go to your bower, girl, until you can be more patient with your guardian."
"Willingly," she said, with a proud toss of her head, and she swept out of the hall without a glance at us, and her waiting-woman followed her.
Then there was silence, and the knight and his captive looked at one another until a faint smile crossed De Govet's face. The chaplain looked anxious and disturbed, and it flashed of a sudden across my mind that if Queen Matilda was indeed coming to England shortly, it was the last thing that a King's man should have heard as yet.
Sir Richard tried to laugh, but it was uneasy.
"When do King Stephen and Maud his Queen come this way?" he asked Alan de Govet.
"When does Maud the Empress cross from Normandy?" retorted Alan.
Then both laughed. They understood one another by this time.
"Well," said Sir Richard, "shut up you must be, Alan, for a time at least. But if you will take my advice you will do as I wish you, and so find freedom and fortune as well."
"This is a pretty plan," said Alan. "Having caught a loyal King's man, you must needs marry him to your ward, you being Matilda's steward, whereby you save her fortunes when your new plots fail."
"Or yours when they succeed," answered Sir Richard. "Truly this is a pretty plan, as you say, and I am a benefactor to you both. Moreover, I think that you might seek further and fare worse."
"What is the benefit to yourself?" said Alan scornfully.
"Being a De Courci, I look for none, except may-be that to have a damsel in my charge hampers me somewhat; also, it is my duty to provide for her welfare as best I can. This is no new plan of mine, Alan. De Mohun or I were to take you sooner or later as a hostage, to ensure that your good father will bide quietly when there is a little fighting on hand presently. I have only caught you by chance rather sooner than I hoped."
"Well," said Alan, " the lady seems to think ill of your plans for her welfare."
"That is because her advice was not asked," laughed Sir Richard. "Now, what say you?"
"It is plain that I have heard too much to be let loose," said Alan, " and I will not be married against my will. Wherefore you have me in your own power."
"The choice is between the bonds of matrimony and the small dungeon I have here, unless you prefer to be sent to Dunster, where De Mohun will take good care of you. I think the first choice is best."
"What sort of dungeon have you here?" asked Alan coolly on this. " I have no mind for Dunster."
"Let him see it," said Sir Richard to Jehan, and Alan turned on his heel and followed the man-at-arms from the hall without a word.
"One would have thought that the looks of the Lady Sybilla would have needed no comparison with those of any dungeon," said our knight with a great laugh, when he had disappeared. "But it is a good youth, and I am glad that De Mohun got him not, else he would have been in the rack by this time. But we may not let him go, now that yon headstrong girl has let out what she has."
Presently Jehan brought Alan back. The former was grinning, but the latter was cool as ever. His gay cordovan boots were wet and muddy, as if he had been over the ankles in water.
"'Tis a good dungeon," he said, " and no chance of escape therefrom. I have no mind to dwell in it, therefore I will offer ransom for myself."
Sir Richard shook his head.
"I took you, Master de Govet, for weightier reasons than those of gain."
"That is to your credit," answered Alan. "It is discourteous to take an unarmed man by force, save for weighty reasons. Then I will pledge my word of honour not to escape if allowed reasonable liberty."
"Ho!" said Sir Richard, "is there no word about the Lady Sybilla?"
"We will not discuss that point further," said Alan loftily. "I do but seek to evade the dungeon."
"It seems that you know your mind, young man," Sir Richard said," and I am willing to meet you as far as I may. If I take your word, you must promise also to hold no communication with the King's party."
"I will consider myself in the dungeon for that matter. They will not miss my help."
"I am not so sure," said the knight thoughtfully. "If you are my guest you may hear and see much that they would be glad to learn."
"Turn me out, then," said Alan promptly. "I know nothing as yet."
Again Sir Richard shook his head and laughed.
"I must keep my hostage, for I am not alone in this matter, and have to answer to others. Now, do I have your word not to escape, and to be silent?"
Alan stepped forward and held out his hand.
"The word of a De Govet," he said.
Now from that time forward Alan took his captivity in good part, sending by a chapman some message to his father which Sir Richard approved, and which satisfied those at home, for shortly after they sent him all that a guest could need, even to his helm and mail and charger. I do not know what his people thought of his being a guest with so noted a Queen's man as our knight, but at that time the great plans were secret, and none seemed to have any suspicion of them beyond the circle of the leaders of Matilda's party.
I soon learnt, having often to ride with messages to one leader or another, what these plans were, and I can put them into few words. Earl Robert of Gloucester, our Queen's half-brother, was to rise at the head of all the nobles in the west, while King Malcolm of Scotland, her uncle, was to invade England from across the Border. Two years ago he had done the same, but failed for want of well-planned assistance, so that King Stephen was able to make terms with him. This had seemed the deathblow to Matilda's hopes at the time, but now things would surely go better. Stephen would be taken between two fires, and then the Queen would come from Normandy, and all would end in her favour.
So the great plotting went on, and meanwhile Alan de Govet and I grew to be great friends, for he was a good warrior, and took pains to teach me many things. Which pleased Sir Richard well, so that he seemed to forget that Alan was his captive, treating him always as a welcome guest.
The only person in all the castle, and village also, who did not like Alan was the Lady Sybilla, and she made no secret of her dislike. I thought it good of Alan to take the trouble to please her that he did, for we must needs see much of her. However, she was always most pleasant to me, and I liked to serve her in any way that I could. Father Gregorius was another friend of mine, and I learnt many things that a squire should know from him. He, too, liked Alan, and would often pass a sly jest on him about his choice between the dungeon and the lady's hand, at first. But as time went on Alan seemed to grow tired of the old jest, and waxed angry when it came. So Gregorius forgot it.
It was in April, towards the end, that I came to Stoke Courci, and from that time forward messengers came and went in much secrecy. Once Earl Robert came for a day from Dunster, with De Mohun; and once we rode to Wells to meet Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, the Justiciar, from whose help the Queen hoped much.
Now, in the beginning of July, I had been out with Sir Richard, and did not go into the castle when I had led the horses round to the stables, but sought Alan in the tiltyard, some one telling me that he had gone in that direction. And there I saw a thing that puzzled me, for it was unlike what one might have expected.
Two people walked under the trees on the far side of the tilting-ground, and they were the Lady Sybilla and Alan himself in deep converse. Alan seemed to be speaking a great deal and getting short answers; which was not surprising, as the lady was always proud and disdainful with him, so that Alan always seemed discomfited when she appeared. Just at this time, however, he did not seem so.
They did not see that I came, at first; and before they heeded me, I heard a few words.
"I will have nought to say to a man who is ashamed to own his own name," quoth Lady Sybilla.
"It was not shame, but policy," answered Alan.
"Ay—to escape from me."
Alan was silent for a moment, and then said—
"I have learnt to prize what once I had no thought of."
Then Sybilla saw me, and flushed.
"Ay—your name, you mean," she said to Alan, whose face was away from me. "Go to—win your name back by some deeds of arms, and then you may be worth speaking with."
With that she passed him and came towards me, beginning to hum some old tune or other lightly. As for Alan, he bided where she left him, not caring to follow.
"Come away," she said to me; "your comrade is in an evil temper."
"That is the first time I have seen him so," answered I; "needs must that I stay to cheer him; for I am not the cause of his ill-humour," and I laughed.
"Well then, go your way for an unmannerly squire," she retorted, turning away towards the castle.
"Nay, but, lady—" I began. But she went on quickly, with one last remark flung over her shoulder, as it were—
"I know where I am not wanted, at least."
"Now," thought I, "it is plain where the ill-temper lies." So I went to Alan, and asked what was amiss.
"Well," said he—for though he was five years or more older than I, we were close friends by this time—" maybe I am a fool to think twice of the matter; but, on my word, friend Ralph, one would think that I was in love."
I laughed heartily.
"Did you tell her so?" I asked.
"She has set me a task which, as a good squire, I am bound to undertake, whatever I may have said; and what chance a prisoner like myself has to do it, I cannot see."
"Winning a name to wit. I heard that much," I said. "But that we have often talked of. It does not need the words of a sharp-tongued damsel to set your thoughts in that direction."
"Your Saxon wits need sharpening with Norman whetstone," he answered gravely. "Know you not that the word of a fair lady has double weight in the matter of winning renown? So that one must straightway seek for what one might else have left to chance and good fortune."
"My Saxon mother-wit would tell me that all depends on who the lady who speaks the word may be," I answered, being used to a gentle jest of this sort from Alan, and by no means minding it, since I had well beaten him about the Norman pate with our good old Saxon quarterstaff—the one weapon whose use he disdained until I persuaded him to a bout with me. After which he learned to use it, because he said that it belonged to good forestry.
"Above wit comes the law of chivalry," he said then. "It matters not if the lady is queen or beggar-maid, so that her words be a spur to great deeds and knightly."
"I know where I am not wanted, at least."
Now, when Alan began in this strain he was apt to wax high-flown, causing Sir Richard to laugh at him at times. So I said—
"This sounds well. But there is nought for you to undertake, that I can see."
After that we sat and looked out to the long line of the blue Quantocks and spoke of foreign wars. But the time for brave deeds was nearer than we thought, for that night came a messenger with stirring news, and after speaking with him Sir Richard sent for us two.
"Alan," he said, "I have strange news for you, and I do not know how you will take what I have to tell you. Nor do I rightly know what to do with you now. The other leaders of our cause will not suffer me to let you go free, as I would willingly, because they do your father the honour of thinking that his hand must be held. As for myself, I have forgotten that you are aught but a guest, and you please me."
Alan smiled, and made a little bow at that, but said nothing.
"Now I must go northwards," said the knight; "and at once. Ralph must see to my arms, and he will go with me, all the better squire for your companionship. There is a campaign on hand, as you may guess."
"Northward," said Alan thoughtfully. "Are the Scots on foot across the Border?"
"Ay; that they are."
"Why, then, let me go with you and help fight them, Sir Richard. That is England's quarrel—whether king or queen has right to the throne."
Sir Richard smiled grimly.
"Mostly that is so. But now Malcolm comes again as ally of his niece, and with his help we mean to set her on the throne. I fear you will not fight on my side."
"I cannot," answered Alan. "I had hoped this was but some new Border raid or public quarrel."
He was silent for a while as my knight told me what I had to prepare for the journey. But presently he spoke again—
"Let me go with you, Sir Richard," he said. "You are most generous in your own wish to let me go free, and it is possible that in the far north, where there will be none to hinder you, you will let me join in one battle for my own king. I would return to you either in victory or defeat, if not slain. And if slain, any further trouble in keeping me is over."
"This is a strange request," said Sir Richard, watching Alan's eager face. "You must be tired of our little castle."
But I thought I knew why Alan was so ready to go north for a mere chance of fighting.
"Alan has a mind to do some mighty deeds or other," I said. "We spoke thereof this afternoon."
"When I came here I denied my name, as it were," said Alan quickly, preferring not to be questioned perhaps, "and I must needs win it back. Let me prove that I am not to be ashamed thereof."
"Nay, Alan. You withheld your name somewhat foolishly, may-be; but you denied it not. None can blame you," said Sir Richard kindly.
"Nevertheless it has been said that I must win it back, and, I pray you, let me have this chance."
"Ralph," said Sir Richard sternly, "is this your foolishness?"
"Not mine," I answered. "'Tis but a poor jest of the Lady Sybilla's."
The knight looked at Alan and began to smile. Alan grew red and then angry, and Sir Richard laughed.
"So!" he said. "If that is the lady's word, there is no help for it. But I knew not that you had used your leisure so well."
Now why Alan had not a word to say for himself at this I could not tell, but so it was. At last, after shifting from one foot to the other uneasily, he ceased his pretence at anger, and said—
"I am asking much, Sir Richard. But may it be so?"
"Come north at least, and we will see about the rest. If you fight for Stephen, however, you and I may be running tilt against one another unawares in some melée."
"You have unhorsed me once, Sir Richard," said Alan, in high glee, "and out of your way would I keep. Now, I do not know how to thank you."
"Why," said Sir Richard, "I am wont to need two squires, and have but one. If you are not too proud, journey as my second, and if aught is wanting in your gear I will supply it."
"It is honour for any squire to serve the De Courci," said Alan. "Your squire I will be in all good faith, until I must needs ask you to let me have one fight for whom I will."
I was glad enough that Alan was to go with us, as may be supposed, and gaily went to work to set my lord's armour in order, while Jehan of Stowey saw to mine. And presently, while I sat alone in the armoury singing as I polished the heavy, flat-topped, war helm, the Lady Sybilla came in, and sitting in the window-seat, began to talk with me about our journey.
By-and-by I told her that Alan de Govet was to go with us at his own request, and that because of her words this afternoon. She seemed to care little, for she looked out of the window and spoke of somewhat that she saw thence in the meadows by the stream.
Yet presently she said—
"So this Alan must needs blame me for making him eager to run into danger?"
"Your words, he says, are weighty, as being those of a lady. But I do not think that he blames you at all, Lady Sybilla."
"She seemed to care little."
"Well," she said, rising up suddenly, "as he must charge my words with his going, give him that to remind him that they are weighty."
She threw me a blue silken scarf she had worn all day and went out of the armoury, and I saw her no more. I was glad that she seemed at least to be inclined to make amends for her haughtiness and ill-considered words.
Presently I gave the scarf, with the message, to Alan, and he seemed pleased with both, asking me for more of the sayings of the haughty damsel, which amused me.
"Verily, Alan, I believe that you spoke truth just now when you said you were in love," I said, laughing.
"Nay; but I hardly said so much," he answered. "Well, it is war first, and anything else afterwards, just now."
Nevertheless, when we rode away next morning, with forty well-armed and mounted men-at-arms and a little train of pack-horses after us, Alan had the blue scarf round his sword arm, and his eyes were over his shoulder so long as we could see Sybilla standing on the drawbridge watching us go. May-be he had had another word or two with her, but I thought it foolish to pay so much heed to the gibes of a damsel, however fair.
Now I am going to say nothing about our long, pleasant journey northward, with the camping in forest or among hospitable farm folk, or, later, on wild moorland, for if I began I should not know how to leave out all the things that were new and strange to me.
But presently, when we were in Lancashire, we came to the tracts of desolation left by the Scots two years since, and a sort of dread grew up in my heart of men who could thus mar our fair land. Yet they were to help to set our Queen on her throne again, and those who had sent for them were wiser than I.
We went into no great towns, for Sir Richard did not wish men to inquire too closely into his journey and its object. But as we drew near Lancaster we learned that the gathering of the Scots to invade England was well known, and already word had gone round to the sheriff from Archbishop Thurstan of York to bid them gather their men to him.
Then Sir Richard thought it time to give Alan his freedom, as he had half promised, for he himself must needs cross the Border to speak with the King of Scots. And it so happened that near the old town he fell in with a knight, whom Sir Richard knew to be a Queen's man, riding towards Lancaster with twenty men at his heels.
"Ho! De Courci, what brings you so far north?"
"The same errand that brings you out, most likely," our knight answered. "We will go further north yet in company, as I hope."
The knight stared for a moment, and then a grim look crossed his face, which was scarred here and there.
"If you mean to march with Thurstan, well and good—but if you are going to join the Scots, as is likely, you and I shall be on opposite sides for once," he said bluntly.
"How is this?—where is your loyalty?"
"Loyalty, forsooth!" the knight answered. "My first loyalty is to England—and I care not who sent for the Scots. We of the north will give life to keep them back." So these two talked, angrily at times. But at last the strange knight said—
"I tell you, De Courci, that if you of the west and south knew what Malcolm's host is like as well as we northerners, you would give your right hand sooner than bring them to England. Go and see them, and then mind my words."
So the talk ceased. But presently Sir Richard told Alan that if he would, he might ride in company with this knight, who would give him a worthy place as his squire, and with whom he might remain until we returned after the campaign.
"I can say to De Mohun and Earl Robert that I have left you with this Sir John, and they will be content. May-be we shall meet again shortly, and then pass me by, I pray you, for the sake of comradeship, and—of that blue favour—however hot the battle may be."
So Sir Richard jested, but we were sorry to part from Alan, and he from us, when we left him with his new friend in Lancaster. I think that his soreness on being a captive had long passed, for now he could only thank our knight for his many kindnesses.
We crossed the Border, and made for the gathering place of the Scots. And when I saw them I knew that the northern knight spoke the truth, and that the worst thing for our Queen would be that she should have the blame of bringing this wild crowd of savage Galloway Picts and Highland Gaels into England.
And our knight knew it also. He gave his message to Malcolm, as in duty bound, and then would bide with the Scots no longer. Truly there were a few good Lowland and Norman knights with the King and his son, Prince Henry, but not enough to keep that untrained force in any sort of control.
"Sir John of Swaledale is right," Sir Richard said to me as we saw the wild clansmen gathered round their fires on the open hillside. "I am going to Archbishop Thurstan that I may do what I can to help to repair the wrong to England that we have done in calling in Malcolm again. You and Alan will fight for England side by side after all."
That was most welcome news for me, and for all our western men. I do not know how Sir Richard made excuse for returning to England, but none hindered our going, and we were welcomed at Durham by the knights who were gathered there, King's men and Queen's alike having foregone their quarrel at the bidding of the wise archbishop, whose words I heard read in the open market-place.
Then the Scots began to come on very swiftly, and at last we fell back from Durham to the place where our chiefs, the Earl of Albemarle, and Walter de Espee, chose to check their advance, at Northallerton in Yorkshire, where they had made some weak entrenchments on a gentle hillside that commanded the road from the north.
There was Alan, and one need not say how he rejoiced to see us, and take his place as Sir Richard's squire again.
"After all," our knight said, "I and my two squires will fight on the same side for one cause. And I think that Sybilla will be pleased to hear from us how her champion bore himself."
"I said nought of pleasing the Lady Sybilla," said Alan gruffly.
"Why—no more you did! Yet I thought that something of the kind brought you north," laughed our knight.
Then Alan tried to excuse his little discourtesy, and the more he did so the more we laughed, until he must laugh with us.
Now the reports of the vast numbers of the Scots would have left little heart in our men, if it had not been for the wise words and devices of Bishop Ralph of the Isles, who was here in the sick archbishop's place. He had a great mast stayed up in a waggon that stood in the midst of camp, the top of which was surmounted by a flashing silver pyx that held the consecrated wafer, and under that floated the banners of the patron saints of York and Beverley, Durham and Ripon, that this northern host might see the tokens of all they held holiest and dearest, and fight manfully to uphold them. Then he was wont to stand in the waggon and speak to us, promising help spiritual to those who fought for their land and homes, and bidding us have no fear of a host whose very greatness would hinder it, for want of discipline and order, either in victory or defeat.
So all were cheered, and though there is nothing at which men wonder more than at the swiftness of the advance of the Scots, we were ready for them before they came. Yet, but for Alan, it is certain that our army would have been surprised, and may-be cut to pieces, before any battle array could have been drawn up.
As the Scots came, they burnt and plundered on all sides, and at last our outposts could see the light of burning farms on the skyline, and we knew they were very near. Next night none were to be seen, and it seemed as if the Scots had halted and drawn together on finding that we were ready. Then the day following broke darkly and grey, with a dense fog everywhere that seemed to make it impossible that an army could move through it. Yet every horseman who could be spared was sent to patrol the hills to our northward, and Alan and I rode out together to our appointed stations with the rest, in the early morning.
We crossed valley and stream by tracks we knew well by this time, and as it happened, went further that day than any other, for one could see nothing but a few yards of stony track before one, and the cries of the curlews sounded wild round us, like the whistle of men to one another in the fog.
"What water is that I hear?" I said presently. There was a sound of a heavy rushing, but I knew of no brook here that would make that sound.
"It is more like the sound of a great flock of sheep," answered Alan, "but we have driven every one for miles."
Then our horses pricked their ears, and stared into the mist to our right front in a way that told us that other horses were near.
Alan held up his hand, "I hear voices!" he said. We listened, and presently I knew that what we heard was the thunder of the feet of a vast host of men, and now and then a voice came faintly, though whence we knew not, for nothing confuses sound so much as fog.
"The Scots!" said Alan, turning to me with his eyes shining under his helm.
"It is not possible," I said; "how could they find their way through this mist?"
"Any shepherd they have caught could guide them. Anyhow, we must see if I am right."
"Let us ride back to camp and give the alarm," I said.
"And be laughed at—for every one would say as you, that it is not possible. And all believe that the foe has halted. Bide here while I ride on, and if I shout 'De Courci!' ride back for your life and give the alarm."
"Faith," said I, "where you go, I go. If we cannot see them, neither can they see us. We may get near enough to hear what tongue they speak, and that is all we need."
"Come then," said Alan.
So we rode, as the keener senses of our horses bade us, down the hill towards our right more or less. We had to leave the pathway, but in returning we could not miss it if we breasted the hill anywhere, for it ran all along its crest. At the foot of the long hill we stayed again and listened, and now the sound of the marching host was deadened, because they were yet beyond some rising land.
What happened next was sudden, and took us unawares, for all the warning we had was a little crackle of deerskin-shod feet, and the snorting and restlessness of our horses.
Out of the mist seemed to grow half-a-dozen men silently and swiftly, and for a moment I sat and stared at them in amazement. They were the wild scouts of the enemy, the tartan-clad Pictish men of Galloway, belted with long claymores, shield on back, and spear or pole-axe in hand.
They halted suddenly, each where he stood and as he stood, staring at us, startled may-be as we were. Then one whistled shrilly, and cried in an eager voice, "Claymore!" and their weapons clashed as they went on guard and made for us in silence.
The whistle rang clear and echoed back, and then came a long roar of voices, and the sound of marching swelled up for a moment and then ceased altogether. The host had halted at the first sign of the enemy.
One minds all these things when in peril, and even as I noted this, Alan leant forward and snatched at my horse's bridle, swinging him round.
"Back!" he said. "What, are you dreaming? We have seen enough."
But a Scot was hanging on the other rein also, and only the plunging of the horse saved me from a blow from his long-handled axe.
"Be off, Alan," I cried; "I am hindered." And I drew sword and cut at the man who held me back, only wasting a good blow on his hide target.
But he left the horse's head and I turned him, to find that the wild figures were swarming round us, and that Alan was wheeling his great charger in a circle that no Scot dared enter.
"Uphill," he cried, seeing that I was free.
Then we spurred the horses and charged side by side, and they yelled and fell back before us. They feared the horses, and were unused to fighting with mounted men, and we won through them easily and galloped on up the hill.
Nevertheless the men of the heather were not to be shaken off so easily, but ran and leapt on either side of us, and as they ran, I saw one or two who had unslung bows, and were waiting, arrow on string, for a chance shot at us.We began to distance them very soon, and at last
"The next thing I knew was that my good steed was down on his nose among the stones."
"A weak bow enough," said Alan.
But if the Scottish bow was weak against mail, it could harm a horse, for the next thing that I knew was that my good steed was down on his nose among the stones, and I was lying half stunned before him, while those two wild Galloway kernes shouted and rushed at me.
Alan had shot on ahead as I fell, but in a moment he was round and back, saving me from the dirk of one man who was almost on me, with a quick lance-thrust. The other man, who was not so near, fled as he came, and we were alone. Alan dismounted and came to my help.
"Are you hurt?" he said, lifting me.
"Not much,—but the horse—how about him?" I asked.
"Not much either—for he has gone."
And indeed he had picked himself up and fled into the mist towards the foe.
"Mount behind me," said Alan, helping me up. Then I groaned and reeled against him. My ankle was sorely bruised by a rock on which it had been dashed in my fall, and at that time I thought it was broken, for I could not stand.
"Hold up, and I will help you mount," said Alan. And then the Galloway men swarmed out of the fog again, cautiously at first. Some waft of wind had thinned the hanging clouds for a moment, and Alan saw them sooner than before.
"Leave me—warn the camp," I said.
"The honour of a De Govet——"
And that was the last I heard of what Alan was about to say, for with the first step towards the saddle I fainted.
When I came to, with the cold air rushing on me, the first thing I saw was Alan's steadfast face above me, stern set and anxious, but unfaltering in gaze forward, and under me bounded the free stride of his great charger as though the double burden was nothing. Alan's left arm was round me, and I was across his saddle, while he was mounted behind it. He had no helm, and a stream of blood was across his face, and an arrow, caught by the point in the rings of his mail, rattled from his breast. His lance was gone, and his red sword hung by the sling from his wrist as he managed the bridle.
I stirred, and a smile came on his grim face.
"Art thyself again?" he said. "We are close on the camp."
Then he lifted his voice and shouted—I had a dim remembrance then that that shout had rung in my ears just as I came round—the old war-cry of his forebears at Hastings—and our knight's name.
"Dex aïe—De Courci—ho!"
And a murmur and then a shouting rose as our men heard and understood, and a dozen knights spurred forward to meet us and brought us in, scattering to take the news to the leaders as we passed the line of entrenchments, so that our tidings went before us.
Alan took me to our tents, and there was Sir Richard waiting, as he buckled on his sword. With him were two or three more knights, who gazed constantly at the mist as if trying to pierce it. The men were getting to their appointed posts as the alarm spread, with a quietness that told of anything but panic.
"Ho, Alan, you have been in close action," our knight said anxiously. "Are you or Ralph hurt?"
"A brush with some wild Galloway kernes, nought more," Alan answered, lowering me carefully into the strong grasp of Jehan of Stowey. "Have a care of the hurt foot, Jehan. That is all that is amiss, Sir Richard."
But I could not have Alan's doings set aside, and I told Sir Richard plainly how he had rescued me from the swarm of wild men who followed us.
Then came one whom I knew well by sight, our leader, the Earl of Albemarle, eager to hear from the mouth of Alan himself what he had learnt of the Scots.
And even as Alan told him, the mist began to lift under a breeze that sprang up. The white hanging cloud-wreaths fled up the hillsides whence we had ridden, and left them clear and bright—and already on the nearer rises the Galloway scouts were posted, and our pickets were coming in at full speed.
Then the Earl grasped Alan's hand and said—
"No time for more now—but you have saved a panic, and what comes therefrom. I will see you hereafter, if we both outlive this day; and if I fall and you do not, I will have left orders concerning you with others."
Then, as he saw the great waggon with its wondrous banner being drawn to the centre of our line, followed by Bishop Ralph and his clergy in their robes, he said—
"To your posts, knights—it will not be long that we have to wait now."
He rode away, and the men cheered him as he passed along the front of the line.
Then a squire said to Alan ruefully—
"I would I had as fair a tale to tell my lady as have you. She of the blue favour has whereof to be proud in her champion."
For there is little jealousy among the honest northern knighthood.
Then I saw that Sybilla's blue kerchief was round Alan's sword hilt, stained and rent, and Sir Richard caught my eye, and we both smiled. Alan made no answer, as the squire rode away after his lord.
Jehan brought Alan a new helm, and he and our knight went to their places in haste.
"Follow if you can sit a horse," Sir Richard said to me kindly.
And it is not to be supposed, that with Jehan's help in getting into the saddle, I would be anything but able to do so. One is not so dependent on stirrups as one is apt to think sometimes.
Now so many have written about the Battle of the Standard that I will not tell it again. It was all confused to me, and I could see but little of all that went on from where I was, just behind our knight, in the close ranks of the horsemen who were massed before the standard itself, where Bishop Ralph and his clergy remained unmoved, though the arrows rattled round them at times. It had been wonderful to see the whole army kneel as the good bishop blessed and shrived us all, and wonderful, also, to hear the "Amen" that rolled like low thunder down our ranks.
After that we bore for two long hours the shock of the wild clansmen, whose chief had sworn to go as far through our ranks that day as any of the mailed Lowland knights who despised his tartan. I think he kept his oath, for our footmen were borne back at first, and for a while things looked black for us.
Then the bowmen of the north shook themselves free from the confusion, and got to work, and the terrible rain of the long arrows drove back the Scots, whose rallying cry of "Albyn—Albyn!" failed them at last, and then our charge broke them and ended the day.
As we swept forward I saw a group of mail-clad knights round one whose helm was circled with gold, and I knew from the heather-topped spear that was his standard, that Prince Henry was before us. And I saw him turn to fly.
Presently, as we rode back, the Earl beckoned to Sir Richard.
"I would fain knight that brave squire of yours, De Courci, but——" he said, and stopped short.
"I know your difficulty, Lord Earl," our knight said, with a grim smile. "I am too well-known a Queen's man, and you must answer to Stephen for what honour you bestow. However, Alan de Govet is as good a king's man as yourself——"
They rode apart, and how much more Sir Richard told the Earl I cannot say, but they were merry over whatever it was. And the end of it all was in the solemn knighting of my comrade, together with some half-dozen others, before all the host, and at the foot of the great standard; of which I was as proud as if the golden spurs had been put on my own heels. The Earl spoke kindly to me also, telling me that I had yet a deed or two to do before I was old enough to win the same honour, so that I was well content.
The army began to break up in a few days, when all fear of rallying by the Scots was over, and then Sir Richard spoke to Alan of what was to come next.
"I took Alan the simple squire," he said, "and here is Sir Alan de Govet, my friend and good comrade. Wherefore old promises may be foregone, and I will only ask one thing instead, and that is that you will bide with the Earl, who will see to your advancement; for I must at least keep you away from De Mohun and the rest, else they will blame me."
Alan grew grave for a moment, and I saw his eyes go to where his sword hung on the tent-pole. Sir Richard saw that also, so he went on—
"I will tell your father what honour you have found here, and Ralph will tell—other folk at Stoke Courci. Have no fear that there will be trouble because you have not returned."
Alan smiled then.
"It was a good day when you took me, my knight," he said. "If only I may be counted as your friend when the troubles are over, I am well content."
"Ay, there will always be welcome for you with us."
So we parted, heavily enough, not knowing when we should meet again. There was trouble over all the land as we rode westwards; yet Stoke Courci was safe and quiet, because it was held by a lady only.
And when Sybilla, standing by the drawbridge, saw us come home, her bright face changed as she missed Alan from among us. Presently I told her all that he had done, but she was too wilful to seem glad that he was honoured.
"Well, there is some good in him, after all," she said, and so left me. Unless it was that she repented her old injustice to Alan, I could not tell why she had been weeping when I met her an hour or two later.
We might not stay long at Stoke Courci, for there was fighting over all the land. And at last, far away under Lincoln walls, where I won my spurs at the taking prisoner of King Stephen, I met Alan face to face in thickest fight; whereat we laughed and saluted, and passed to either side. I heard Sir Richard hail him also. There were many such meetings in those days.
Presently I saw Alan again—brought in as a prisoner taken with the King, downcast and almost despairing, for all his cause seemed lost. Then Sir Richard made himself surety for his safe keeping, and he was content to promise to bear arms against our Queen no more.
"Now, I must bestow you somewhere," said our knight. "And we have, as you know, a good dungeon at Stoke Courci. There was also a fair alternative to the said dungeon, if you have not forgotten."
Alan laughed a little then.
"I am a ruined man, Sir Richard, now, and can surely make choice no longer."
"Why, Alan, should I have spoken of it had I not meant to tell you that you may yet choose?"
One might see from Alan's face what he thought, but he said, looking at me—
"I am not so sure that I should be welcome at Stoke Courci."
"Come and see," quoth I, having reason to believe that he would be more than welcome, as one might say.
So we rode homewards together, and Sir Richard's plans fell out as he had wished, and that with no unwillingness on either side.
But, as every one knows, we had not done with King Stephen yet, and there were many years of trouble to come after he escaped. Presently he gained the day, and then it seemed likely that my knight and I might lose our lands. But, for the sake of the Battle of the Standard, we were passed over; and now, with the coming to the throne of King Henry, we are high in favour, with broad lands here in Somerset for me, and lands and castles here and in Kent for the De Courci who had served the Queen so well through good and ill.