Few of them had seen his face and fewer still had spoken with him, but they loved his name and his prowess and in secret they prayed for him to their ancient god, Wodin, and the lesser gods of the forest and the meadow and the chase, for though they were confessed Christians, still in the hearts of many beat a faint echo of the old superstitions of their ancestors; and while they prayed also to the Lord Jesus and to Mary, yet they felt it could do no harm to be on the safe side with the others, in case they did happen to exist.
A poor, degraded, downtrodden, ignorant, superstitious people, they were; accustomed for generations to the heel of first one invader and then another and in the interims, when there were any, the heels of their feudal lords and their rapacious monarchs.
No wonder then that such as these worshipped the Outlaw of Torn, for since their fierce Saxon ancestors had come, themselves as conquerors, to England, no other hand had ever been raised to shield them from oppression.
On this policy of his toward the serfs and freedmen, Norman of Torn and the grim, old man whom he called father had never agreed. The latter was for carrying his war of hate against all Englishmen, but the young man would neither listen to it, nor allow any who rode out from Torn to molest the lowly. A ragged tunic was a surer defence against this wild horde than a stout lance or an emblazoned shield.
So, as Norman of Torn rode down from his mighty castle to visit Father Claude, the sunlight playing on his clanking armor and glancing from the copper boss of his shield, the sight of a little group of woodmen kneeling uncovered by the roadside as he passed was not so remarkable after all.
Entering the priest's study, Norman of Torn removed his armor and lay back moodily upon a bench with his back against a wall and his strong, lithe legs stretched out before him.
"What ails you, my son?" asked the priest, "that you look so disconsolate on this beautiful day?"
"I do not know, Father," replied Norman of Torn, "unless it be that I am asking myself the question, 'What it is all for?' Why did my father train me ever to prey upon my fellows? I like to fight, but there is plenty of fighting which is legitimate, and what good may all my stolen wealth avail me if I may not enter the haunts of men to spend it? Should I stick my head into London town, it would doubtless stay there, held by a hempen necklace.
"What quarrel have I with the King or the gentry? They have quarrel enough with me it is true, but, nathless, I do not know why I should have hated them so before I was old enough to know how rotten they really are. So it seems to me that I am but the instrument of an old man's spite, not even knowing the grievance to the avenging of which my life has been dedicated by another.
"And at times, Father Claude, as I grow older, I doubt much that the nameless old man of Torn is my father, so little do I favor him, and never in all my life have I heard a word of fatherly endearment or felt a caress, even as a little child. What think you, Father Claude?"
"I have thought much of it, my son," answered the priest. "It has ever been a sore puzzle to me, and I have my suspicions, which I have held for years, but which even the thought of so frightens me that I shudder to speculate upon the consequences of voicing them aloud. Norman of Torn, if you are not the son of the old man you call father, may God forfend that England ever guesses your true parentage. More than this, I dare not say except that, as you value your peace of mind and your life, keep your visor down and keep out of the clutches of your enemies."
"Then you know why I should keep my visor down?"
"I can only guess, Norman of Torn, because I have seen another whom you resemble."
The conversation was interrupted by a commotion from without; the sound of horses' hoofs, the cries of men and the clash of arms. In an instant, both men were at the tiny unglazed window. Before them, on the highroad, five knights in armor were now engaged in furious battle with a party of ten or a dozen other steel-clad warriors, while crouching breathless on her palfry, a young woman sat a little apart from the contestants.
Presently, one of the knights detached himself from the melee and rode to her side with some word of command, at the same time grasping roughly at her bridle rein. The girl raised her riding whip and struck repeatedly but futilely against the iron headgear of her assailant while he swung his horse up the road, and, dragging her palfrey after him, galloped rapidly out of sight.
Norman of Torn sprang to the door, and, reckless of his unarmored condition, leaped to Sir Mortimer's back and spurred swiftly in the direction taken by the girl and her abductor.
The great black was fleet, and, unencumbered by the usual heavy armor of his rider, soon brought the fugitives to view. Scarce a mile had been covered ere the knight, turning to look for pursuers, saw the face of Norman of Torn not ten paces behind him.
With a look of mingled surprise, chagrin and incredulity the knight reined in his horse, exclaiming as he did so, "Mon Dieu, Edward!"
"Draw and defend yourself," cried Norman of Torn.
"But, Your Highness," stammered the knight.
"Draw, or I stick you as I have stuck an hundred other English pigs," cried Norman of Torn.
The charging steed was almost upon him and the knight looked to see the rider draw rein, but, like a black bolt, the mighty Sir Mortimer struck the other horse full upon the shoulder, and man and steed rolled in the dust of the roadway.
The knight arose, unhurt, and Norman of Torn dismounted to give fair battle upon even terms. Though handicapped by the weight of his armor, the knight also had the advantage of its protection, so that the two fought furiously for several minutes without either gaining an advantage.
The girl sat motionless and wide-eyed at the side of the road watching every move of the two contestants. She made no effort to escape, but seemed riveted to the spot by the very fierceness of the battle she was beholding, as well, possibly, as by the fascination of the handsome giant who had espoused her cause. As she looked upon her champion, she saw a lithe, muscular, brown-haired youth whose clear eyes and perfect figure, unconcealed by either bassinet or hauberk, reflected the clean, athletic life of the trained fighting man.
Upon his face hovered a faint, cold smile of haughty pride as the sword arm, displaying its mighty strength and skill in every move, played with the sweating, puffing, steel-clad enemy who hacked and hewed so futilely before him. For all the din of clashing blades and rattling armor, neither of the contestants had inflicted much damage, for the knight could neither force nor insinuate his point beyond the perfect guard of his unarmored foe, who, for his part, found difficulty in penetrating the other's armor.
Finally, by dint of his mighty strength, Norman of Torn drove his blade through the meshes of his adversary's mail, and the fellow, with a cry of anguish, sank limply to the ground.
"Quick, Sir Knight!" cried the girl. "Mount and flee; yonder come his fellows."
And surely, as Norman of Torn turned in the direction from which he had just come, there, racing toward him at full tilt, rode three steel-armored men on their mighty horses.
"Ride, madam," cried Norman of Torn, "for fly I shall not, nor may I, alone, unarmored, and on foot hope more than to momentarily delay these three fellows, but in that time you should easily make your escape. Their heavy-burdened animals could never o'ertake your fleet palfrey."
As he spoke, he took note for the first time of the young woman. That she was a lady of quality was evidenced not alone by the richness of her riding apparel and the trappings of her palfrey, but as well in her noble and haughty demeanor and the proud expression of her beautiful face.
Although at this time nearly twenty years had passed over the head of Norman of Torn, he was without knowledge or experience in the ways of women, nor had he ever spoken with a female of quality or position. No woman graced the castle of Torn nor had the boy, within his memory, ever known a mother.
His attitude therefore was much the same toward women as it was toward men, except that he had sworn always to protect them. Possibly, in a way, he looked up to womankind, if it could be said that Norman of Torn looked up to anything: God, man or devil—it being more his way to look down upon all creatures whom he took the trouble to notice at all.
As his glance rested upon this woman, whom fate had destined to alter the entire course of his life, Norman of Torn saw that she was beautiful, and that she was of that class against whom he had preyed for years with his band of outlaw cut-throats. Then he turned once more to face her enemies with the strange inconsistency which had ever marked his methods.
Tomorrow he might be assaulting the ramparts of her father's castle, but today he was joyously offering to sacrifice his life for her—had she been the daughter of a charcoal burner he would have done no less. It was enough that she was a woman and in need of protection.
The three knights were now fairly upon him, and with fine disregard for fair play, charged with couched spears the unarmored man on foot. But as the leading knight came close enough to behold his face, he cried out in surprise and consternation:
"Mon Dieu, le Prince!" He wheeled his charging horse to one side. His fellows, hearing his cry, followed his example, and the three of them dashed on down the high road in as evident anxiety to escape as they had been keen to attack.
"One would think they had met the devil," muttered Norman of Torn, looking after them in unfeigned astonishment.
"What means it, lady?" he asked turning to the damsel, who had made no move to escape.
"It means that your face is well known in your father's realm, my Lord Prince," she replied. "And the King's men have no desire to antagonize you, even though they may understand as little as I why you should espouse the cause of a daughter of Simon de Montfort."
"Am I then taken for Prince Edward of England?" he asked.
"An' who else should you be taken for, my Lord?"
"I am not the Prince," said Norman of Torn. "It is said that Edward is in France."
"Right you are, sir," exclaimed the girl. "I had not thought on that; but you be enough of his likeness that you might well deceive the Queen herself. And you be of a bravery fit for a king's son. Who are you then, Sir Knight, who has bared your steel and faced death for Bertrade, daughter of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester?"
"Be you De Montfort's daughter, niece of King Henry?" queried Norman of Torn, his eyes narrowing to mere slits and face hardening.
"That I be," replied the girl, "an' from your face I take it you have little love for a De Montfort," she added, smiling.
"An' whither may you be bound, Lady Bertrade de Montfort? Be you niece or daughter of the devil, yet still you be a woman, and I do not war against women. Wheresoever you would go will I accompany you to safety."
"I was but now bound, under escort of five of my father's knights, to visit Mary, daughter of John de Stutevill of Derby."
"I know the castle well," answered Norman of Torn, and the shadow of a grim smile played about his lips, for scarce sixty days had elapsed since he had reduced the stronghold, and levied tribute on the great baron. "Come, you have not far to travel now, and if we make haste you shall sup with your friend before dark."
So saying, he mounted his horse and was turning to retrace their steps down the road when he noticed the body of the dead knight lying where it had fallen.
"Ride on," he called to Bertrade de Montfort, "I will join you in an instant."
Again dismounting, he returned to the side of his late adversary, and lifting the dead knight's visor, drew upon the forehead with the point of his dagger the letters NT.
The girl turned to see what detained him, but his back was toward her and he knelt beside his fallen foeman, and she did not see his act. Brave daughter of a brave sire though she was, had she seen what he did, her heart would have quailed within her and she would have fled in terror from the clutches of this scourge of England, whose mark she had seen on the dead foreheads of a dozen of her father's knights and kinsmen.
Their way to Stutevill lay past the cottage of Father Claude, and here Norman of Torn stopped to don his armor. Now he rode once more with lowered visor, and in silence, a little to the rear of Bertrade de Montfort that he might watch her face, which, of a sudden, had excited his interest.
Never before, within the scope of his memory, had he been so close to a young and beautiful woman for so long a period of time, although he had often seen women in the castles that had fallen before his vicious and terrible attacks. While stories were abroad of his vile treatment of women captives, there was no truth in them. They were merely spread by his enemies to incite the people against him. Never had Norman of Torn laid violent hand upon a woman, and his cut-throat band were under oath to respect and protect the sex, on penalty of death.
As he watched the semi-profile of the lovely face before him, something stirred in his heart which had been struggling for expression for years. It was not love, nor was it allied to love, but a deep longing for companionship of such as she, and such as she represented. Norman of Torn could not have translated this feeling into words for he did not know, but it was the far faint cry of blood for blood and with it, mayhap, was mixed not alone the longing of the lion among jackals for other lions, but for his lioness.
They rode for many miles in silence when suddenly she turned, saying:
"You take your time, Sir Knight, in answering my query. Who be ye?"
"I am Nor—" and then he stopped. Always before he had answered that question with haughty pride. Why should he hesitate, he thought. Was it because he feared the loathing that name would inspire in the breast of this daughter of the aristocracy he despised? Did Norman of Torn fear to face the look of seem and repugnance that was sure to be mirrored in that lovely face?
"I am from Normandy," he went on quietly. "A gentleman of France."
"But your name?" she said peremptorily. "Are you ashamed of your name?"
"You may call me Roger," he answered. "Roger de Conde."
"Raise your visor, Roger de Conde," she commanded. "I do not take pleasure in riding with a suit of armor; I would see that there is a man within."
Norman of Torn smiled as he did her bidding, and when he smiled thus, as he rarely did, he was good to look upon.
"It is the first command I have obeyed since I turned sixteen, Bertrade de Montfort," he said.
The girl was about nineteen, full of the vigor and gaiety of youth and health; and so the two rode on their journey talking and laughing as they might have been friends of long standing.
She told him of the reason for the attack upon her earlier in the day, attributing it to an attempt on the part of a certain baron, Peter of Colfax, to abduct her, his suit for her hand having been peremptorily and roughly denied by her father.
Simon de Montfort was no man to mince words, and it is doubtless that the old reprobate who sued for his daughter's hand heard some unsavory truths from the man who had twice scandalized England's nobility by his rude and discourteous, though true and candid, speeches to the King.
"This Peter of Colfax shall be looked to," growled Norman of Torn. "And, as you have refused his heart and hand, his head shall be yours for the asking. You have but to command, Bertrade de Montfort."
"Very well," she laughed, thinking it but the idle boasting so much indulged in in those days. "You may bring me his head upon a golden dish, Roger de Conde."
"And what reward does the knight earn who brings to the feet of his princess the head of her enemy?" he asked lightly.
"What boon would the knight ask?"
"That whatsoever a bad report you hear of your knight, of whatsoever calumnies may be heaped upon him, you shall yet ever be his friend, and believe in his honor and his loyalty."
The girl laughed gaily as she answered, though something seemed to tell her that this was more than play.
"It shall be as you say, Sir Knight," she replied. "And the boon once granted shall be always kept."
Quick to reach decisions and as quick to act, Norman of Torn decided that he liked this girl and that he wished her friendship more than any other thing he knew of. And wishing it, he determined to win it by any means that accorded with his standard of honor; an honor which in many respects was higher than that of the nobles of his time.
They reached the castle of De Stutevill late in the afternoon, and there, Norman of Torn was graciously welcomed and urged to accept the Baron's hospitality overnight.
The grim humor of the situation was too much for the outlaw, and, when added to his new desire to be in the company of Bertrade de Montfort, he made no effort to resist, but hastened to accept the warm welcome.
At the long table upon which the evening meal was spread sat the entire household of the Baron, and here and there among the men were evidences of painful wounds but barely healed, while the host himself still wore his sword arm in a sling.
"We have been through grievous times," said Sir John, noticing that his guest was glancing at the various evidences of conflict. "That fiend, Norman the Devil, with his filthy pack of cut-throats, besieged us for ten days, and then took the castle by storm and sacked it. Life is no longer safe in England with the King spending his time and money with foreign favorites and buying alien soldiery to fight against his own barons, instead of insuring the peace and protection which is the right of every Englishman at home.
"But," he continued, "this outlaw devil will come to the end of a short halter when once our civil strife is settled, for the barons themselves have decided upon an expedition against him, if the King will not subdue him."
"An' he may send the barons naked home as he did the King's soldiers," laughed Bertrade de Montfort. "I should like to see this fellow; what may he look like—from the appearance of yourself, Sir John, and many of your men-at-arms, there should be no few here but have met him."
"Not once did he raise his visor while he was among us," replied the Baron, "but there are those who claim they had a brief glimpse of him and that he is of horrid countenance, wearing a great yellow beard and having one eye gone, and a mighty red scar from his forehead to his chin."
"A fearful apparition," murmured Norman of Torn. "No wonder he keeps his helm closed."
"But such a swordsman," spoke up a son of De Stutevill. "Never in all the world was there such swordplay as I saw that day in the courtyard."
"I, too, have seen some wonderful swordplay," said Bertrade de Montfort, "and that today. O he!" she cried, laughing gleefully, "verily do I believe I have captured the wild Norman of Torn, for this very knight, who styles himself Roger de Conde, fights as I ne'er saw man fight before, and he rode with his visor down until I chide him for it."
Norman of Torn led in the laugh which followed, and of all the company he most enjoyed the joke.
"An' speaking of the Devil," said the Baron, "how think you he will side should the King eventually force war upon the barons? With his thousand hell-hounds, the fate of England might well he in the palm of his bloody hand."
"He loves neither King nor baron," spoke Mary de Stutevill, "and I rather lean to the thought that he will serve neither, but rather plunder the castles of both rebel and royalist whilst their masters be absent at war."
"It be more to his liking to come while the master be home to welcome him," said De Stutevill, ruthfully. "But yet I am always in fear for the safety of my wife and daughters when I be away from Derby for any time. May the good God soon deliver England from this Devil of Torn."
"I think you may have no need of fear on that score," spoke Mary, "for Norman of Torn offered no violence to any woman within the wall of Stutevill, and when one of his men laid a heavy hand upon me, it was the great outlaw himself who struck the fellow such a blow with his mailed hand as to crack the ruffian's helm, saying at the time, 'Know you, fellow, Norman of Torn does not war upon women?'"
Presently the conversation turned to other subjects and Norman of Torn heard no more of himself during that evening.
His stay at the castle of Stutevill was drawn out to three days, and then, on the third day, as he sat with Bertrade de Montfort in an embrasure of the south tower of the old castle, he spoke once more of the necessity for leaving and once more she urged him to remain.
"To be with you, Bertrade of Montfort," he said boldly, "I would forego any other pleasure, and endure any privation, or face any danger, but there are others who look to me for guidance and my duty calls me away from you. You shall see me again, and at the castle of your father, Simon de Montfort, in Leicester. Provided," he added, "that you will welcome me there."
"I shall always welcome you, wherever I may be, Roger de Conde," replied the girl.
"Remember that promise," he said smiling. "Some day you may be glad to repudiate it."
"Never," she insisted, and a light that shone in her eyes as she said it would have meant much to a man better versed in the ways of women than was Norman of Torn.
"I hope not," he said gravely. "I cannot tell you, being but poorly trained in courtly ways, what I should like to tell you, that you might know how much your friendship means to me. Goodbye, Bertrade de Montfort," and he bent to one knee, as he raised her fingers to his lips.
As he passed over the drawbridge and down toward the highroad a few minutes later on his way back to Torn, he turned for one last look at the castle and there, in an embrasure in the south tower, stood a young woman who raised her hand to wave, and then, as though by sudden impulse, threw a kiss after the departing knight, only to disappear from the embrasure with the act.
As Norman of Torn rode back to his grim castle in the hills of Derby, he had much food for thought upon the way. Never till now had he realized what might lie in another manner of life, and he felt a twinge of bitterness toward the hard, old man whom he called father, and whose teachings from the boy's earliest childhood had guided him in the ways that had out him off completely from the society of other men, except the wild horde of outlaws, ruffians and adventurers that rode beneath the grisly banner of the young chief of Torn.
Only in an ill-defined, nebulous way did he feel that it was the girl who had come into his life that caused him for the first time to feel shame for his past deeds. He did not know the meaning of love, and so he could not know that he loved Bertrade de Montfort.
And another thought which now filled his mind was the fact of his strange likeness to the Crown Prince of England. This, together with the words of Father Claude, puzzled him sorely. What might it mean? Was it a heinous offence to own an accidental likeness to a king's son?
But now that he felt he had solved the reason that he rode always with closed helm, he was for the first time anxious himself to hide his face from the sight of men. Not from fear, for he knew not fear, but from some inward impulse which he did not attempt to fathom.
As Norman of Torn rode out from the castle of De Stutevill, Father Claude dismounted from his sleek donkey within the ballium of Torn. The austere stronghold, notwithstanding its repellent exterior and unsavory reputation, always extended a warm welcome to the kindly, genial priest; not alone because of the deep friendship which the master of Torn felt for the good father, but through the personal charm, and lovableness of the holy man's nature, which shone alike on saint and sinner.
It was doubtless due to his unremitting labors with the youthful Norman, during the period that the boy's character was most amenable to strong impressions, that the policy of the mighty outlaw was in many respects pure and lofty. It was this same influence, though, which won for Father Claude his only enemy in Torn; the little, grim, gray, old man whose sole aim in life seemed to have been to smother every finer instinct of chivalry and manhood in the boy, to whose training he had devoted the past nineteen years of his life.
As Father Claude climbed down from his donkey—fat people do not "dismount"—a half dozen young squires ran forward to assist him, and to lead the animal to the stables.
The good priest called each of his willing helpers by name, asking a question here, passing a merry joke there with the ease and familiarity that bespoke mutual affection and old acquaintance.
As he passed in through the great gate, the men-at-arms threw him laughing, though respectful, welcomes and within the great court, beautified with smooth lawn, beds of gorgeous plants, fountains, statues and small shrubs and bushes, he came upon the giant, Red Shandy, now the principal lieutenant of Norman of Torn.
"Good morrow, Saint Claude!" cried the burly ruffian. "Hast come to save our souls, or damn us? What manner of sacrilege have we committed now, or have we merited the blessings of Holy Church? Dost come to scold, or praise?"
"Neither, thou unregenerate villain," cried the priest, laughing. "Though methinks ye merit chiding for the grievous poor courtesy with which thou didst treat the great Bishop of Norwich the past week."
"Tut, tut, Father," replied Red Shandy. "We did but aid him to adhere more closely to the injunctions and precepts of Him whose servant and disciple he claims to be. Were it not better for an Archbishop of His Church to walk in humility and poverty among His people, than to be ever surrounded with the temptations of fine clothing, jewels and much gold, to say nothing of two sumpter beasts heavy laden with runlets of wine?"
"I warrant his temptations were less by at least as many runlets of wine as may be borne by two sumpter beasts when thou, red robber, had finished with him," exclaimed Father Claude.
"Yes, Father," laughed the great fellow, "for the sake of Holy Church, I did indeed confiscate that temptation completely, and if you must needs have proof in order to absolve me from my sins, come with me now and you shall sample the excellent discrimination which the Bishop of Norwich displays in the selection of his temptations."
"They tell me you left the great man quite destitute of finery, Red Shandy," continued Father Claude, as he locked his arm in that of the outlaw and proceeded toward the castle.
"One garment was all that Norman of Torn would permit him, and as the sun was hot overhead, he selected for the Bishop a bassinet for that single article of apparel, to protect his tonsured pate from the rays of old sol. Then, fearing that it might be stolen from him by some vandals of the road, he had One Eye Kanty rivet it at each side of the gorget so that it could not be removed by other than a smithy, and thus, strapped face to tail upon a donkey, he sent the great Bishop of Norwich rattling down the dusty road with his head, at least, protected from the idle gaze of whomsoever he might chance to meet. Forty stripes he gave to each of the Bishop's retinue for being abroad in bad company; but come, here we are where you shall have the wine as proof of my tale."
As the two sat sipping the Bishop's good Canary, the little old man of Torn entered. He spoke to Father Claude in a surly tone, asking him if he knew aught of the whereabouts of Norman of Torn.
"We have seen nothing of him since, some three days gone, he rode out in the direction of your cottage," he concluded.
"Why, yes," said the priest, "I saw him that day. He had an adventure with several knights from the castle of Peter of Colfax, from whom he rescued a damsel whom I suspect from the trappings of her palfrey to be of the house of Montfort. Together they rode north, but thy son did not say whither or for what purpose. His only remark, as he donned his armor, while the girl waited without, was that I should now behold the falcon guarding the dove. Hast he not returned?"
"No," said the old man, "and doubtless his adventure is of a nature in line with thy puerile and effeminate teachings. Had he followed my training, without thy accurst priestly interference, he had made an iron-barred nest in Torn for many of the doves of thy damned English nobility. An' thou leave him not alone, he will soon be seeking service in the household of the King."
"Where, perchance, he might be more at home than here," said the priest quietly.
"Why say you that?" snapped the little old man, eyeing Father Claude narrowly.
"Oh," laughed the priest, "because he whose power and mien be even more kingly than the King's would rightly grace the royal palace," but he had not failed to note the perturbation his remark had caused, nor did his off-hand reply entirely deceive the old man.
At this juncture, a squire entered to say that Shandy's presence was required at the gates, and that worthy, with a sorrowing and regretful glance at the unemptied flagon, left the room.
For a few moments, the two men sat in meditative silence, which was presently broken by the old man of Torn.
"Priest," he said, "thy ways with my son are, as you know, not to my liking. It were needless that he should have wasted so much precious time from swordplay to learn the useless art of letters. Of what benefit may a knowledge of Latin be to one whose doom looms large before him. It may be years and again it may be but months, but as sure as there be a devil in hell, Norman of Torn will swing from a king's gibbet. And thou knowst it, and he too, as well as I. The things which thou hast taught him be above his station, and the hopes and ambitions they inspire will but make his end the bitterer for him. Of late I have noted that he rides upon the highway with less enthusiasm than was his wont, but he has gone too far ever to go back now; nor is there where to go back to. What has he ever been other than outcast and outlaw? What hopes could you have engendered in his breast greater than to be hated and feared among his blood enemies?"
"I knowst not thy reasons, old man," replied the priest, "for devoting thy life to the ruining of his, and what I guess at be such as I dare not voice; but let us understand each other once and for all. For all thou dost and hast done to blight and curse the nobleness of his nature, I have done and shall continue to do all in my power to controvert. As thou hast been his bad angel, so shall I try to be his good angel, and when all is said and done and Norman of Torn swings from the King's gibbet, as I only too well fear he must, there will be more to mourn his loss than there be to curse him.
"His friends are from the ranks of the lowly, but so too were the friends and followers of our Dear Lord Jesus; so that shall be more greatly to his honor than had he preyed upon the already unfortunate.
"Women have never been his prey; that also will be spoken of to his honor when he is gone, and that he has been cruel to men will be forgotten in the greater glory of his mercy to the weak.
"Whatever be thy object: whether revenge or the natural bent of a cruel and degraded mind, I know not; but if any be curst because of the Outlaw of Torn, it will be thou—I had almost said, unnatural father; but I do not believe a single drop of thy debased blood flows in the veins of him thou callest son."
The grim old man of Torn had sat motionless throughout this indictment, his face, somewhat pale, was drawn into lines of malevolent hatred and rage, but he permitted Father Claude to finish without interruption.
"Thou hast made thyself and thy opinions quite clear," he said bitterly, "but I be glad to know just how thou standeth. In the past there has been peace between us, though no love; now let us both understand that it be war and hate. My life work is cut out for me. Others, like thyself, have stood in my path, yet today I am here, but where are they? Dost understand me, priest?" And the old man leaned far across the table so that his eyes, burning with an insane fire of venom, blazed but a few inches from those of the priest.
Father Claude returned the look with calm level gaze.
"I understand," he said, and, rising, left the castle.
Shortly after he had reached his cottage, a loud knock sounded at the door, which immediately swung open without waiting the formality of permission. Father Claude looked up to see the tall figure of Norman of Torn, and his face lighted with a pleased smile of welcome.
"Greetings, my son," said the priest.
"And to thee, Father," replied the outlaw, "And what may be the news of Torn. I have been absent for several days. Is all well at the castle?"
"All be well at the castle," replied Father Claude, "if by that you mean have none been captured or hanged for their murders. Ah, my boy, why wilt thou not give up this wicked life of thine? It has never been my way to scold or chide thee, yet always hath my heart ached for each crime laid at the door of Norman of Torn."
"Come, come, Father," replied the outlaw, "what dost I that I have not good example for from the barons, and the King, and Holy Church. Murder, theft, rapine! Passeth a day over England which sees not one or all perpetrated in the name of some of these?
"Be it wicked for Norman of Torn to prey upon the wolf, yet righteous for the wolf to tear the sheep? Methinks not. Only do I collect from those who have more than they need, from my natural enemies; while they prey upon those who have naught.
"Yet," and his manner suddenly changed, "I do not love it, Father. That thou know. I would that there might be some way out of it, but there is none.
"If I told you why I wished it, you would be surprised indeed, nor can I myself understand; but, of a verity, my greatest wish to be out of this life is due to the fact that I crave the association of those very enemies I have been taught to hate. But it is too late, Father, there can be but one end and that the lower end of a hempen rope."
"No, my son, there is another way, an honorable way," replied the good Father. "In some foreign clime there be opportunities abundant for such as thee. France offers a magnificent future to such a soldier as Norman of Torn. In the court of Louis, you would take your place among the highest of the land. You be rich and brave and handsome. Nay do not raise your hand. You be all these and more, for you have learning far beyond the majority of nobles, and you have a good heart and a true chivalry of character. With such wondrous gifts, naught could bar your way to the highest pinnacles of power and glory, while here you have no future beyond the halter. Canst thou hesitate, Norman of Torn?"
The young man stood silent for a moment, then he drew his hand across his eyes as though to brush away a vision.
"There be a reason, Father, why I must remain in England for a time at least, though the picture you put is indeed wondrous alluring."
And the reason was Bertrade de Montfort.
The visit of Bertrade de Montfort with her friend Mary de Stutevill was drawing to a close. Three weeks had passed since Roger de Conde had ridden out from the portals of Stutevill and many times the handsome young knight's name had been on the lips of his fair hostess and her fairer friend.
Today the two girls roamed slowly through the gardens of the great court, their arms about each other's waists, pouring the last confidences into each other's ears, for tomorrow Bertrade had elected to return to Leicester.
"Methinks thou be very rash indeed, my Bertrade," said Mary. "Wert my father here he would, I am sure, not permit thee to leave with only the small escort which we be able to give."
"Fear not, Mary," replied Bertrade. "Five of thy father's knights be ample protection for so short a journey. By evening it will have been accomplished; and, as the only one I fear in these parts received such a sound set back from Roger de Conde recently, I do not think he will venture again to molest me."
"But what about the Devil of Torn, Bertrade?" urged Mary. "Only yestereve, you wot, one of Lord de Grey's men-at-arms came limping to us with the news of the awful carnage the foul fiend had wrought on his master's household. He be abroad, Bertrade, and I canst think of naught more horrible than to fall into his hands."
"Why, Mary, thou didst but recently say thy very self that Norman of Torn was most courteous to thee when he sacked this, thy father's castle. How be it thou so soon has changed thy mind?"
"Yes, Bertrade, he was indeed respectful then, but who knows what horrid freak his mind may take, and they do say that he be cruel beyond compare. Again, forget not that thou be Leicester's daughter and Henry's niece; against both of whom the Outlaw of Torn openly swears his hatred and his vengeance. Oh, Bertrade, wait but for a day or so, I be sure my father must return ere then, and fifty knights shall accompany thee instead of five."
"What be fifty knights against Norman of Torn, Mary? Thy reasoning is on a parity with thy fears, both have flown wide of the mark.
"If I am to meet with this wild ruffian, it were better that five knights were sacrificed than fifty, for either number would be but a mouthful to that horrid horde of unhung murderers. No, Mary, I shall start tomorrow and your good knights shall return the following day with the best of word from me."
"If thou wilst, thou wilst," cried Mary petulantly. "Indeed it were plain that thou be a De Montfort; that race whose historic bravery be second only to their historic stubbornness."
Bertrade de Montfort laughed, and kissed her friend upon the cheek.
"Mayhap I shall find the brave Roger de Conde again upon the highroad to protect me. Then indeed shall I send back your five knights, for of a truth, his blade is more powerful than that of any ten men I ere saw fight before."
"Methinks," said Mary, still peeved at her friend's determination to leave on the morrow, "that should you meet the doughty Sir Roger all unarmed, that still would you send back my father's knights."
Bertrade flushed, and then bit her lip as she felt the warm blood mount to her cheek.
"Thou be a fool, Mary," she said.
Mary broke into a joyful, teasing laugh; hugely enjoying the discomfiture of the admission the tell-tale flush proclaimed.
"Ah, I did but guess how thy heart and thy mind tended, Bertrade; but now I seest that I divined all too truly. He be indeed good to look upon, but what knowest thou of him?"
"Hush, Mary!" commanded Bertrade. "Thou know not what thou sayest. I would not wipe my feet upon him, I care naught whatever for him, and then—it has been three weeks since he rode out from Stutevill and no word hath he sent."
"Oh, ho," cried the little plague, "so there lies the wind? My Lady would not wipe her feet upon him, but she be sore vexed that he has sent her no word. Mon Dieu, but thou hast strange notions, Bertrade."
"I will not talk with you, Mary," cried Bertrade, stamping her sandaled foot, and with a toss of her pretty head she turned abruptly toward the castle.
In a small chamber in the castle of Colfax two men sat at opposite sides of a little table. The one, Peter of Colfax, was short and very stout. His red, bloated face, bleary eyes and bulbous nose bespoke the manner of his life; while his thick lips, the lower hanging large and flabby over his receding chin, indicated the base passions to which his life and been given. His companion was a little, grim, gray man but his suit of armor and closed helm gave no hint to his host of whom his guest might be. It was the little armored man who was speaking.
"Is it not enough that I offer to aid you, Sir Peter," he said, "that you must have my reasons? Let it go that my hate of Leicester be the passion which moves me. Thou failed in thy attempt to capture the maiden; give me ten knights and I will bring her to you."
"How knowest thou she rides out tomorrow for her father's castle?" asked Peter of Colfax.
"That again be no concern of thine, my friend, but I do know it, and, if thou wouldst have her, be quick, for we should ride out tonight that we may take our positions by the highway in ample time tomorrow."
Still Peter of Colfax hesitated, he feared this might be a ruse of Leicester's to catch him in some trap. He did not know his guest—the fellow might want the girl for himself and be taking this method of obtaining the necessary assistance to capture her.
"Come," said the little, armored man irritably. "I cannot bide here forever. Make up thy mind; it be nothing to me other than my revenge, and if thou wilst not do it, I shall hire the necessary ruffians and then not even thou shalt see Bertrade de Montfort more."
This last threat decided the Baron.
"It is agreed," he said. "The men shall ride out with you in half an hour. Wait below in the courtyard."
When the little man had left the apartment, Peter of Colfax summoned his squire whom he had send to him at once one of his faithful henchmen.
"Guy," said Peter of Colfax, as the man entered, "ye made a rare fizzle of a piece of business some weeks ago. Ye wot of which I speak?"
"Yes, My Lord."
"It chances that on the morrow ye may have opportunity to retrieve thy blunder. Ride out with ten men where the stranger who waits in the courtyard below shall lead ye, and come not back without that which ye lost to a handful of men before. You understand?"
"Yes, My Lord!"
"And, Guy, I half mistrust this fellow who hath offered to assist us. At the first sign of treachery, fall upon him with all thy men and slay him. Tell the others that these be my orders."
"Yes, My Lord. When do we ride?"
"At once. You may go."
The morning that Bertrade de Montfort had chosen to return to her father's castle dawned gray and threatening. In vain did Mary de Stutevill plead with her friend to give up the idea of setting out upon such a dismal day and without sufficient escort, but Bertrade de Montfort was firm.
"Already have I overstayed my time three days, and it is not lightly that even I, his daughter, fail in obedience to Simon de Montfort. I shall have enough to account for as it be. Do not urge me to add even one more day to my excuses. And again, perchance, my mother and my father may be sore distressed by my continued absence. No, Mary, I must ride today." And so she did, with the five knights that could be spared from the castle's defence.
Scarcely half an hour had elapsed before a cold drizzle set in, so that they were indeed a sorry company that splashed along the muddy road, wrapped in mantle and surcoat. As they proceeded, the rain and wind increased in volume, until it was being driven into their faces in such blinding gusts that they must needs keep their eyes closed and trust to the instincts of their mounts.
Less than half the journey had been accomplished. They were winding across a little hollow toward a low ridge covered with dense forest, into the somber shadows of which the road wound. There was a glint of armor among the drenched foliage, but the rain-buffeted eyes of the riders saw it not. On they came, their patient horses plodding slowly through the sticky road and hurtling storm.
Now they were half way up the ridge's side. There was a movement in the dark shadows of the grim wood, and then, without cry or warning, a band of steel-clad horsemen broke forth with couched spears. Charging at full run down upon them, they overthrew three of the girl's escort before a blow could be struck in her defense. Her two remaining guardians wheeled to meet the return attack, and nobly did they acquit themselves, for it took the entire eleven who were pitted against them to overcome and slay the two.
In the melee, none had noticed the girl, but presently one of her assailants, a little, grim, gray man, discovered that she had put spurs to her palfrey and escaped. Calling to his companions he set out at a rapid pace in pursuit.
Reckless of the slippery road and the blinding rain, Bertrade de Montfort urged her mount into a wild run, for she had recognized the arms of Peter of Colfax on the shields of several of the attacking party.
Nobly, the beautiful Arab bent to her call for speed. The great beasts of her pursuers, bred in Normandy and Flanders, might have been tethered in their stalls for all the chance they had of overtaking the flying white steed that fairly split the gray rain as lightning flies through the clouds.
But for the fiendish cunning of the little grim, gray man's foresight, Bertrade de Montfort would have made good her escape that day. As it was, however, her fleet mount had carried her but two hundred yards ere, in the midst of the dark wood, she ran full upon a rope stretched across the roadway between two trees.
As the horse fell, with a terrible lunge, tripped by the stout rope, Bertrade de Montfort was thrown far before him, where she lay, a little, limp bedraggled figure, in the mud of the road.
There they found her. The little, grim, gray man did not even dismount, so indifferent was he to her fate; dead or in the hands of Peter of Colfax, it was all the same to him. In either event, his purpose would be accomplished, and Bertrade de Montfort would no longer lure Norman of Torn from the path he had laid out for him.
That such an eventuality threatened, he knew from one Spizo the Spaniard, the single traitor in the service of Norman of Torn, whose mean aid the little grim, gray man had purchased since many months to spy upon the comings and goings of the great outlaw.
The men of Peter of Colfax gathered up the lifeless form of Bertrade de Montfort and placed it across the saddle before one of their number.
"Come," said the man called Guy, "if there be life left in her, we must hasten to Sir Peter before it be extinct."
"I leave ye here," said the little old man. "My part of the business is done."
And so he sat watching them until they had disappeared in the forest toward the castle of Colfax.
Then he rode back to the scene of the encounter where lay the five knights of Sir John de Stutevill. Three were already dead, the other two, sorely but not mortally wounded, lay groaning by the roadside.
The little grim, gray man dismounted as he came abreast of them and, with his long sword, silently finished the two wounded men. Then, drawing his dagger, he made a mark upon the dead foreheads of each of the five, and mounting, rode rapidly toward Torn.
"And if one fact be not enough," he muttered, "that mark upon the dead will quite effectually stop further intercourse between the houses of Torn and Leicester."
Henry de Montfort, son of Simon, rode fast and furious at the head of a dozen of his father's knights on the road to Stutevill.
Bertrade de Montfort was so long overdue that the Earl and Princess Eleanor, his wife, filled with grave apprehensions, had posted their oldest son off to the castle of John de Stutevill to fetch her home.
With the wind and rain at their backs, the little party rode rapidly along the muddy road, until late in the afternoon they came upon a white palfrey standing huddled beneath a great oak, his arched back toward the driving storm.
"By God," cried De Montfort, "tis my sister's own Abdul. There be something wrong here indeed." But a rapid search of the vicinity, and loud calls brought no further evidence of the girl's whereabouts, so they pressed on toward Stutevill.
Some two miles beyond the spot where the white palfrey had been found, they came upon the dead bodies of the five knights who had accompanied Bertrade from Stutevill.
Dismounting, Henry de Montfort examined the bodies of the fallen men. The arms upon shield and helm confirmed his first fear that these had been Bertrade's escort from Stutevill.
As he bent over them to see if he recognized any of the knights, there stared up into his face from the foreheads of the dead men the dreaded sign, NT, scratched there with a dagger's point.
"The curse of God be on him!" cried De Montfort. "It be the work of the Devil of Torn, my gentlemen," he said to his followers. "Come, we need no further guide to our destination." And, remounting, the little party spurred back toward Torn.
When Bertrade de Montfort regained her senses, she was in bed in a strange room, and above her bent an old woman; a repulsive, toothless old woman, whose smile was but a fangless snarl.
"Ho, ho!" she croaked. "The bride waketh. I told My Lord that it would take more than a tumble in the mud to kill a De Montfort. Come, come, now, arise and clothe thyself, for the handsome bridegroom canst scarce restrain his eager desire to fold thee in his arms. Below in the great hall he paces to and fro, the red blood mantling his beauteous countenance."
"Who be ye?" cried Bertrade de Montfort, her mind still dazed from the effects of her fall. "Where am I?" and then, "O, Mon Dieu!" as she remembered the events of the afternoon; and the arms of Colfax upon the shields of the attacking party. In an instant she realized the horror of her predicament; its utter hopelessness.
Beast though he was, Peter of Colfax stood high in the favor of the King; and the fact that she was his niece would scarce aid her cause with Henry, for it was more than counter-balanced by the fact that she was the daughter of Simon de Montfort, whom he feared and hated.
In the corridor without, she heard the heavy tramp of approaching feet, and presently a man's voice at the door.
"Within there, Coll! Hast the damsel awakened from her swoon?"
"Yes, Sir Peter," replied the old woman, "I was but just urging her to arise and clothe herself, saying that you awaited her below."
"Haste then, My Lady Bertrade," called the man, "no harm will be done thee if thou showest the good sense I give thee credit for. I will await thee in the great hall, or, if thou prefer, wilt come to thee here."
The girl paled, more in loathing and contempt than in fear, but the tones of her answer were calm and level.
"I will see thee below, Sir Peter, anon," and rising, she hastened to dress, while the receding footsteps of the Baron diminished down the stairway which led from the tower room in which she was imprisoned.
The old woman attempted to draw her into conversation, but the girl would not talk. Her whole mind was devoted to weighing each possible means of escape.
A half hour later, she entered the great hall of the castle of Peter of Colfax. The room was empty. Little change had been wrought in the apartment since the days of Ethelwolf. As the girl's glance ranged the hall in search of her jailer it rested upon the narrow, unglazed windows beyond which lay freedom. Would she ever again breathe God's pure air outside these stifling walls? These grimy hateful walls! Black as the inky rafters and wainscot except for occasional splotches a few shades less begrimed, where repairs had been made. As her eyes fell upon the trophies of war and chase which hung there her lips curled in scorn, for she knew that they were acquisitions by inheritance rather than by the personal prowess of the present master of Colfax.
A single cresset lighted the chamber, while the flickering light from a small wood fire upon one of the two great hearths seemed rather to accentuate the dim shadows of the place.
Bertrade crossed the room and leaned against a massive oak table, blackened by age and hard usage to the color of the beams above, dented and nicked by the pounding of huge drinking horns and heavy swords when wild and lusty brawlers had been moved to applause by the lay of some wandering minstrel, or the sterner call of their mighty chieftains for the oath of fealty.
Her wandering eyes took in the dozen benches and the few rude, heavy chairs which completed the rough furnishings of this rough room, and she shuddered. One little foot tapped sullenly upon the disordered floor which was littered with a miscellany of rushes interspread with such bones and scraps of food as the dogs had rejected or overlooked.
But to none of these surroundings did Bertrade de Montfort give but passing heed; she looked for the man she sought that she might quickly have the encounter over and learn what fate the future held in store for her.
Her quick glance had shown her that the room was quite empty, and that in addition to the main doorway at the lower end of the apartment, where she had entered, there was but one other door leading from the hall. This was at one side, and as it stood ajar she could see that it led into a small room, apparently a bedchamber.
As she stood facing the main doorway, a panel opened quietly behind her and directly back of where the thrones had stood in past times. From the black mouth of the aperture stepped Peter of Colfax. Silently, he closed the panel after him, and with soundless steps, advanced toward the girl. At the edge of the raised dais he halted, rattling his sword to attract her attention.
If his aim had been to unnerve her by the suddenness and mystery of his appearance, he failed signally, for she did not even turn her head as she said:
"What explanation hast thou to make, Sir Peter, for this base treachery against thy neighbor's daughter and thy sovereign's niece?"
"When fond hearts be thwarted by a cruel parent," replied the pot-bellied old beast in a soft and fawning tone, "love must still find its way; and so thy gallant swain hath dared the wrath of thy great father and majestic uncle, and lays his heart at thy feet, O beauteous Bertrade, knowing full well that thine hath been hungering after it since we didst first avow our love to thy hard-hearted sire. See, I kneel to thee, my dove!" And with cracking joints the fat baron plumped down upon his marrow bones.
Bertrade turned and as she saw him her haughty countenance relaxed into a sneering smile.
"Thou art a fool, Sir Peter," she said, "and, at that, the worst species of fool—an ancient fool. It is useless to pursue thy cause, for I will have none of thee. Let me hence, if thou be a gentleman, and no word of what hath transpired shall ever pass my lips. But let me go, 'tis all I ask, and it is useless to detain me for I cannot give what you would have. I do not love you, nor ever can I."
Her first words had caused the red of humiliation to mottle his already ruby visage to a semblance of purple, and now, as he attempted to rise with dignity, he was still further covered with confusion by the fact that his huge stomach made it necessary for him to go upon all fours before he could rise, so that he got up much after the manner of a cow, raising his stern high in air in a most ludicrous fashion. As he gained his feet he saw the girl turn her head from him to hide the laughter on her face.
"Return to thy chamber," he thundered. "I will give thee until tomorrow to decide whether thou wilt accept Peter of Colfax as thy husband, or take another position in his household which will bar thee for all time from the society of thy kind."
The girl turned toward him, the laugh still playing on her lips.
"I will be wife to no buffoon; to no clumsy old clown; to no debauched, degraded parody of a man. And as for thy other rash threat, thou hast not the guts to put thy wishes into deeds, thou craven coward, for well ye know that Simon de Montfort would cut out thy foul heart with his own hand if he ever suspected thou wert guilty of speaking of such to me, his daughter." And Bertrade de Montfort swept from the great hall, and mounted to her tower chamber in the ancient Saxon stronghold of Colfax.
The old woman kept watch over her during the night and until late the following afternoon, when Peter of Colfax summoned his prisoner before him once more. So terribly had the old hag played upon the girl's fears that she felt fully certain that the Baron was quite equal to his dire threat, and so she had again been casting about for some means of escape or delay.
The room in which she was imprisoned was in the west tower of the castle, fully a hundred feet above the moat, which the single embrasure overlooked. There was, therefore, no avenue of escape in this direction. The solitary door was furnished with huge oaken bars, and itself composed of mighty planks of the same wood, cross barred with iron.
If she could but get the old woman out, thought Bertrade, she could barricade herself within and thus delay, at least, her impending fate in the hope that succor might come from some source. But her most subtle wiles proved ineffectual in ridding her, even for a moment, of her harpy jailer; and now that the final summons had come, she was beside herself for a lack of means to thwart her captor.
Her dagger had been taken from her, but one hung from the girdle of the old woman and this Bertrade determined to have.
Feigning trouble with the buckle of her own girdle, she called upon the old woman to aid her, and as the hag bent her head close to the girl's body to see what was wrong with the girdle clasp, Bertrade reached quickly to her side and snatched the weapon from its sheath. Quickly she sprang back from the old woman who, with a cry of anger and alarm, rushed upon her.
"Back!" cried the girl. "Stand back, old hag, or thou shalt feel the length of thine own blade."
The woman hesitated and then fell to cursing and blaspheming in a most horrible manner, at the same time calling for help.
Bertrade backed to the door, commanding the old woman to remain where she was, on pain of death, and quickly dropped the mighty bars into place. Scarcely had the last great bolt been slipped than Peter of Colfax, with a dozen servants and men-at-arms, were pounding loudly upon the outside.
"What's wrong within, Coll," cried the Baron.
"The wench has wrested my dagger from me and is murdering me," shrieked the old woman.
"An' that I will truly do, Peter of Colfax," spoke Bertrade, "if you do not immediately send for my friends to conduct me from thy castle, for I will not step my foot from this room until I know that mine own people stand without."
Peter of Colfax pled and threatened, commanded and coaxed, but all in vain. So passed the afternoon, and as darkness settled upon the castle the Baron desisted from his attempts, intending to starve his prisoner out.
Within the little room, Bertrade de Montfort sat upon a bench guarding her prisoner, from whom she did not dare move her eyes for a single second. All that long night she sat thus, and when morning dawned, it found her position unchanged, her tired eyes still fixed upon the hag.
Early in the morning, Peter of Colfax resumed his endeavors to persuade her to come out; he even admitted defeat and promised her safe conduct to her father's castle, but Bertrade de Montfort was not one to be fooled by his lying tongue.
"Then will I starve you out," he cried at length.
"Gladly will I starve in preference to falling into thy foul hands," replied the girl. "But thy old servant here will starve first, for she be very old and not so strong as I. Therefore, how will it profit you to kill two and still be robbed of thy prey?"
Peter of Colfax entertained no doubt but that his fair prisoner would carry out her threat and so he set his men to work with cold chisels, axes and saws upon the huge door.
For hours, they labored upon that mighty work of defence, and it was late at night ere they made a little opening large enough to admit a hand and arm, but the first one intruded within the room to raise the bars was drawn quickly back with a howl of pain from its owner. Thus the keen dagger in the girl's hand put an end to all hopes of entering without completely demolishing the door.
To this work, the men without then set themselves diligently while Peter of Colfax renewed his entreaties, through the small opening they had made. Bertrade replied but once.
"Seest thou this poniard?" she asked. "When that door falls, this point enters my heart. There is nothing beyond that door, with thou, poltroon, to which death in this little chamber would not be preferable."
As she spoke, she turned toward the man she was addressing, for the first time during all those weary, hideous hours removing her glance from the old hag. It was enough. Silently, but with the quickness of a tigress the old woman was upon her back, one claw-like paw grasping the wrist which held the dagger.
"Quick, My Lord!" she shrieked, "the bolts, quick."
Instantly Peter of Colfax ran his arm through the tiny opening in the door and a second later four of his men rushed to the aid of the old woman.
Easily they wrested the dagger from Bertrade's fingers, and at the Baron's bidding, they dragged her to the great hall below.
As his retainers left the room at his command, Peter of Colfax strode back and forth upon the rushes which strewed the floor. Finally he stopped before the girl standing rigid in the center of the room.
"Hast come to thy senses yet, Bertrade de Montfort?" he asked angrily. "I have offered you your choice; to be the honored wife of Peter of Colfax, or, by force, his mistress. The good priest waits without, what be your answer now?"
"The same as it has been these past two days," she replied with haughty scorn. "The same that it shall always be. I will be neither wife nor mistress to a coward; a hideous, abhorrent pig of a man. I would die, it seems, if I felt the touch of your hand upon me. You do not dare to touch me, you craven. I, the daughter of an earl, the niece of a king, wed to the warty toad, Peter of Colfax!"
"Hold, chit!" cried the Baron, livid with rage. "You have gone too far. Enough of this; and you love me not now, I shall learn you to love ere the sun rises." And with a vile oath he grasped the girl roughly by the arm, and dragged her toward the little doorway at the side of the room.
For three weeks after his meeting with Bertrade de Montfort and his sojourn at the castle of John de Stutevill, Norman of Torn was busy with his wild horde in reducing and sacking the castle of John de Grey, a royalist baron who had captured and hanged two of the outlaw's fighting men; and never again after his meeting with the daughter of the chief of the barons did Norman of Torn raise a hand against the rebels or their friends.
Shortly after his return to Torn, following the successful outcome of his expedition, the watch upon the tower reported the approach of a dozen armed knights. Norman sent Red Shandy to the outer walls to learn the mission of the party, for visitors seldom came to this inaccessible and unhospitable fortress; and he well knew that no party of a dozen knights would venture with hostile intent within the clutches of his great band of villains.
The great red giant soon returned to say that it was Henry de Montfort, oldest son of the Earl of Leicester, who had come under a flag of truce and would have speech with the master of Torn.
"Admit them, Shandy," commanded Norman of Torn, "I will speak with them here."
When the party, a few moments later, was ushered into his presence it found itself facing a mailed knight with drawn visor.
Henry de Montfort advanced with haughty dignity until he faced the outlaw.
"Be ye Norman of Torn?" he asked. And, did he try to conceal the hatred and loathing which he felt, he was poorly successful.
"They call me so," replied the visored knight. "And what may bring a De Montfort after so many years to visit his old neighbor?"
"Well ye know what brings me, Norman of Torn," replied the young man. "It is useless to waste words, and we cannot resort to arms, for you have us entirely in your power. Name your price and it shall be paid, only be quick and let me hence with my sister."
"What wild words be these, Henry de Montfort? Your sister! What mean you?"
"Yes, my sister Bertrade, whom you stole upon the highroad two days since, after murdering the knights of John de Stutevill who were fetching her home from a visit upon the Baron's daughter. We know that it was you for the foreheads of the dead men bore your devil's mark."
"Shandy!" roared Norman of Torn. "WHAT MEANS THIS? Who has been upon the road, attacking women, in my absence? You were here and in charge during my visit to my Lord de Grey. As you value your hide, Shandy, the truth!"
"Since you laid me low in the hut of the good priest, I have served you well, Norman of Torn. You should know my loyalty by this time and that never have I lied to you. No man of yours has done this thing, nor is it the first time that vile scoundrels have placed your mark upon their dead that they might thus escape suspicion, themselves."
"Henry de Montfort," said Norman of Torn, turning to his visitor, "we of Torn bear no savory name, that I know full well, but no man may say that we unsheath our swords against women. Your sister is not here. I give you the word of honor of Norman of Torn. Is it not enough?"
"They say you never lie," replied De Montfort. "Would to God I knew who had done this thing, or which way to search for my sister."
Norman of Torn made no reply, his thoughts were in wild confusion, and it was with difficulty that he hid the fierce anxiety of his heart or his rage against the perpetrators of this dastardly act which tore his whole being.
In silence De Montfort turned and left, nor had his party scarce passed the drawbridge ere the castle of Torn was filled with hurrying men and the noise and uproar of a sudden call to arms.
Some thirty minutes later, five hundred iron-clad horses carried their mailed riders beneath the portcullis of the grim pile, and Norman the Devil, riding at their head, spurred rapidly in the direction of the castle of Peter of Colfax.
The great troop, winding down the rocky trail from Torn's buttressed gates, presented a picture of wild barbaric splendor.
The armor of the men was of every style and metal from the ancient banded mail of the Saxon to the richly ornamented plate armor of Milan. Gold and silver and precious stones set in plumed crest and breastplate and shield, and even in the steel spiked chamfrons of the horses' head armor showed the rich loot which had fallen to the portion of Norman of Torn's wild raiders.
Fluttering pennons streamed from five hundred lance points, and the gray banner of Torn, with the black falcon's wing, flew above each of the five companies. The great linden wood shields of the men were covered with gray leather and, in the upper right hand corner of each, was the black falcon's wing. The surcoats of the riders were also uniform, being of dark gray villosa faced with black wolf skin, so that notwithstanding the richness of the armor and the horse trappings, there was a grim, gray warlike appearance to these wild companies that comported well with their reputation.
Recruited from all ranks of society and from every civilized country of Europe, the great horde of Torn numbered in its ten companies serf and noble; Britain, Saxon, Norman, Dane, German, Italian and French, Scot, Pict and Irish.
Here birth caused no distinctions; the escaped serf, with the gall marks of his brass collar still visible about his neck, rode shoulder to shoulder with the outlawed scion of a noble house. The only requisites for admission to the troop were willingness and ability to fight, and an oath to obey the laws made by Norman of Torn.
The little army was divided into ten companies of one hundred men, each company captained by a fighter of proven worth and ability.
Our old friends Red Shandy, and John and James Flory led the first three companies, the remaining seven being under command of other seasoned veterans of a thousand fights.
One Eye Kanty, owing to his early trade, held the always important post of chief armorer, while Peter the Hermit, the last of the five cut-throats whom Norman of Torn had bested that day, six years before, in the hut of Father Claude, had become majordomo of the great castle of Torn, which post included also the vital functions of quartermaster and commissary.
The old man of Torn attended to the training of serf and squire in the art of war, for it was ever necessary to fill the gaps made in the companies, due to their constant encounters upon the highroad and their battles at the taking of some feudal castle; in which they did not always come off unscathed, though usually victorious.
Today, as they wound west across the valley, Norman of Torn rode at the head of the cavalcade, which strung out behind him in a long column. Above his gray steel armor, a falcon's wing rose from his crest. It was the insignia which always marked him to his men in the midst of battle. Where it waved might always be found the fighting and the honors, and about it they were wont to rally.
Beside Norman of Torn rode the grim, gray, old man, silent and taciturn; nursing his deep hatred in the depths of his malign brain.
At the head of their respective companies rode the five captains: Red Shandy; John Flory; Edwild the Serf; Emilio, Count de Gropello of Italy; and Sieur Ralph de la Campnee, of France.
The hamlets and huts which they passed in the morning and early afternoon brought forth men, women and children to cheer and wave God-speed to them; but as they passed farther from the vicinity of Torn, where the black falcon wing was known more by the ferocity of its name than by the kindly deeds of the great outlaw to the lowly of his neighborhood, they saw only closed and barred doors with an occasional frightened face peering from a tiny window.
It was midnight ere they sighted the black towers of Colfax silhouetted against the starry sky. Drawing his men into the shadows of the forest a half mile from the castle, Norman of Torn rode forward with Shandy and some fifty men to a point as close as they could come without being observed. Here they dismounted and Norman of Torn crept stealthily forward alone.
Taking advantage of every cover, he approached to the very shadows of the great gate without being detected. In the castle, a light shone dimly from the windows of the great hall, but no other sign of life was apparent. To his intense surprise, Norman of Torn found the drawbridge lowered and no sign of watchmen at the gate or upon the walls.
As he had sacked this castle some two years since, he was familiar with its internal plan, and so he knew that through the scullery he could reach a small antechamber above, which let directly into the great hall.
And so it happened that, as Peter of Colfax wheeled toward the door of the little room, he stopped short in terror, for there before him stood a strange knight in armor, with lowered visor and drawn sword. The girl saw him too, and a look of hope and renewed courage overspread her face.
"Draw!" commanded a low voice in English, "unless you prefer to pray, for you are about to die."
"Who be ye, varlet?" cried the Baron. "Ho, John! Ho, Guy! To the rescue, quick!" he shrieked, and drawing his sword, he attempted to back quickly toward the main doorway of the hall; but the man in armor was upon him and forcing him to fight ere he had taken three steps.
It had been short shrift for Peter of Colfax that night had not John and Guy and another of his henchmen rushed into the room with drawn swords.
"Ware! Sir Knight," cried the girl, as she saw the three knaves rushing to the aid of their master.
Turning to meet their assault, the knight was forced to abandon the terror-stricken Baron for an instant, and again he had made for the doorway bent only on escape; but the girl had divined his intentions, and running quickly to the entrance, she turned the great lock and threw the key with all her might to the far corner of the hall. In an instant she regretted her act, for she saw that where she might have reduced her rescuer's opponents by at least one, she had now forced the cowardly Baron to remain, and nothing fights more fiercely than a cornered rat.
The knight was holding his own splendidly with the three retainers, and for an instant Bertrade de Montfort stood spell-bound by the exhibition of swordsmanship she was witnessing.
Fighting the three alternately, in pairs and again all at the same time, the silent knight, though weighted by his heavy armor, forced them steadily back; his flashing blade seeming to weave a net of steel about them. Suddenly his sword stopped just for an instant, stopped in the heart of one of his opponents, and as the man lunged to the floor, it was flashing again close to the breasts of the two remaining men-at-arms.
Another went down less than ten seconds later, and then the girl's attention was called to the face of the horrified Baron; Peter of Colfax was moving—slowly and cautiously, he was creeping, from behind, toward the visored knight, and in his raised hand flashed a sharp dagger.
For an instant, the girl stood frozen with horror, unable to move a finger or to cry out; but only for an instant, and then, regaining control of her muscles, she stooped quickly and, grasping a heavy foot-stool, hurled it full at Peter of Colfax.
It struck him below the knees and toppled him to the floor just as the knight's sword passed through the throat of his final antagonist.
As the Baron fell, he struck heavily upon a table which supported the only lighted cresset within the chamber. In an instant, all was darkness. There was a rapid shuffling sound as of the scurrying of rats and then the quiet of the tomb settled upon the great hall.
"Are you safe and unhurt, my Lady Bertrade?" asked a grave English voice out of the darkness.
"Quite, Sir Knight," she replied, "and you?"
"Not a scratch, but where is our good friend the Baron?"
"He lay here upon the floor but a moment since, and carried a thin long dagger in his hand. Have a care, Sir Knight, he may even now be upon you."
The knight did not answer, but she heard him moving boldly about the room. Soon he had found another lamp and made a light. As its feeble rays slowly penetrated the black gloom, the girl saw the bodies of the three men-at-arms, the overturned table and lamp, and the visored knight; but Peter of Colfax was gone.
The knight perceived his absence at the same time, but he only laughed a low, grim laugh.
"He will not go far, My Lady Bertrade," he said.
"How know you my name?" she asked. "Who may you be? I do not recognize your armor, and your breastplate bears no arms."
He did not answer at once and her heart rose in her breast as it filled with the hope that her brave rescuer might be the same Roger de Conde who had saved her from the hirelings of Peter of Colfax but a few short weeks since. Surely it was the same straight and mighty figure, and there was the marvelous swordplay as well. It must be he, and yet Roger de Conde had spoken no English while this man spoke it well, though, it was true, with a slight French accent.
"My Lady Bertrade, I be Norman of Torn," said the visored knight with quiet dignity.
The girl's heart sank, and a feeling of cold fear crept through her. For years that name had been the symbol of fierce cruelty, and mad hatred against her kind. Little children were frightened into obedience by the vaguest hint that the Devil of Torn would get them, and grown men had come to whisper the name with grim, set lips.
"Norman of Torn!" she whispered. "May God have mercy on my soul!"
Beneath the visored helm, a wave of pain and sorrow surged across the countenance of the outlaw, and a little shudder, as of a chill of hopelessness, shook his giant frame.
"You need not fear, My Lady," he said sadly. "You shall be in your father's castle of Leicester ere the sun marks noon. And you will be safer under the protection of the hated Devil of Torn than with your own mighty father, or your royal uncle."
"It is said that you never lie, Norman of Torn," spoke the girl, "and I believe you, but tell me why you thus befriend a De Montfort."
"It is not for love of your father or your brothers, nor yet hatred of Peter of Colfax, nor neither for any reward whatsoever. It pleases me to do as I do, that is all. Come."
He led her in silence to the courtyard and across the lowered drawbridge, to where they soon discovered a group of horsemen, and in answer to a low challenge from Shandy, Norman of Torn replied that it was he.
"Take a dozen men, Shandy, and search yon hellhole. Bring out to me, alive, Peter of Colfax, and My Lady's cloak and a palfrey—and Shandy, when all is done as I say, you may apply the torch! But no looting, Shandy."
Shandy looked in surprise upon his leader, for the torch had never been a weapon of Norman of Torn, while loot, if not always the prime object of his many raids, was at least a very important consideration.
The outlaw noticed the surprised hesitation of his faithful subaltern and signing him to listen, said:
"Red Shandy, Norman of Torn has fought and sacked and pillaged for the love of it, and for a principle which was at best but a vague generality. Tonight we ride to redress a wrong done to My Lady Bertrade de Montfort, and that, Shandy, is a different matter. The torch, Shandy, from tower to scullery, but in the service of My Lady, no looting."
"Yes, My Lord," answered Shandy, and departed with his little detachment.
In a half hour he returned with a dozen prisoners, but no Peter of Colfax.
"He has flown, My Lord," the big fellow reported, and indeed it was true. Peter of Colfax had passed through the vaults beneath his castle and, by a long subterranean passage, had reached the quarters of some priests without the lines of Norman of Torn. By this time, he was several miles on his way to the coast and France; for he had recognized the swordsmanship of the outlaw, and did not care to remain in England and face the wrath of both Norman of Torn and Simon de Montfort.
"He will return," was the outlaw's only comment, when he had been fully convinced that the Baron had escaped.
They watched until the castle had burst into flames in a dozen places, the prisoners huddled together in terror and apprehension, fully expecting a summary and horrible death.
When Norman of Torn had assured himself that no human power could now save the doomed pile, he ordered that the march be taken up, and the warriors filed down the roadway behind their leader and Bertrade de Montfort, leaving their erstwhile prisoners sorely puzzled but unharmed and free.
As they looked back, they saw the heavens red with the great flames that sprang high above the lofty towers. Immense volumes of dense smoke rolled southward across the sky line. Occasionally it would clear away from the burning castle for an instant to show the black walls pierced by their hundreds of embrasures, each lit up by the red of the raging fire within. It was a gorgeous, impressive spectacle, but one so common in those fierce, wild days, that none thought it worthy of more than a passing backward glance.
Varied emotions filled the breasts of the several riders who wended their slow way down the mud-slippery road. Norman of Torn was both elated and sad. Elated that he had been in time to save this girl who awakened such strange emotions in his breast; sad that he was a loathesome thing in her eyes. But that it was pure happiness just to be near her, sufficed him for the time; of the morrow, what use to think! The little, grim, gray, old man of Torn nursed the spleen he did not dare vent openly, and cursed the chance that had sent Henry de Montfort to Torn to search for his sister; while the followers of the outlaw swore quietly over the vagary which had brought them on this long ride without either fighting or loot.
Bertrade de Montfort was but filled with wonder that she should owe her life and honor to this fierce, wild cut-throat who had sworn especial hatred against her family, because of its relationship to the house of Plantagenet. She could not fathom it, and yet, he seemed fair spoken for so rough a man; she wondered what manner of countenance might lie beneath that barred visor.
Once the outlaw took his cloak from its fastenings at his saddle's cantel and threw it about the shoulders of the girl, for the night air was chilly, and again he dismounted and led her palfrey around a bad place in the road, lest the beast might slip and fall.
She thanked him in her courtly manner for these services, but beyond that, no word passed between them, and they came, in silence, about midday within sight of the castle of Simon de Montfort.
The watch upon the tower was thrown into confusion by the approach of so large a party of armed men, so that, by the time they were in hailing distance, the walls of the great structure were crowded with fighting men.
Shandy rode ahead with a flag of truce, and when he was beneath the castle walls Simon de Montfort called forth:
"Who be ye and what your mission? Peace or war?"
"It is Norman of Torn, come in peace, and in the service of a De Montfort," replied Shandy. "He would enter with one companion, my Lord Earl."
"Dares Norman of Torn enter the castle of Simon de Montfort—thinks he that I keep a robbers' roost!" cried the fierce old warrior.
"Norman of Torn dares ride where he will in all England," boasted the red giant. "Will you see him in peace, My Lord?"
"Let him enter," said De Montfort, "but no knavery, now, we are a thousand men here, well armed and ready fighters."
Shandy returned to his master with the reply, and together, Norman of Torn and Bertrade de Montfort clattered across the drawbridge beneath the portcullis of the castle of the Earl of Leicester, brother-in-law of Henry III of England.
The girl was still wrapped in the great cloak of her protector, for it had been raining, so that she rode beneath the eyes of her father's men without being recognized. In the courtyard, they were met by Simon de Montfort, and his sons Henry and Simon.
The girl threw herself impetuously from her mount, and, flinging aside the outlaw's cloak, rushed toward her astounded parent.
"What means this," cried De Montfort, "has the rascal offered you harm or indignity?"
"You craven liar," cried Henry de Montfort, "but yesterday you swore upon your honor that you did not hold my sister, and I, like a fool, believed." And with his words, the young man flung himself upon Norman of Torn with drawn sword.
Quicker than the eye could see, the sword of the visored knight flew from its scabbard, and, with a single lightning-like move, sent the blade of young De Montfort hurtling cross the courtyard; and then, before either could take another step, Bertrade de Montfort had sprung between them and placing a hand upon the breastplate of the outlaw, stretched forth the other with palm out-turned toward her kinsmen as though to protect Norman of Torn from further assault.
"Be he outlaw or devil," she cried, "he is a brave and courteous knight, and he deserves from the hands of the De Montforts the best hospitality they can give, and not cold steel and insults." Then she explained briefly to her astonished father and brothers what had befallen during the past few days.
Henry de Montfort, with the fine chivalry that marked him, was the first to step forward with outstretched hand to thank Norman of Torn, and to ask his pardon for his rude words and hostile act.
The outlaw but held up his open palm, as he said,
"Let the De Montforts think well ere they take the hand of Norman of Torn. I give not my hand except in friendship, and not for a passing moment; but for life. I appreciate your present feelings of gratitude, but let them not blind you to the fact that I am still Norman the Devil, and that you have seen my mark upon the brows of your dead. I would gladly have your friendship, but I wish it for the man, Norman of Torn, with all his faults, as well as what virtues you may think him to possess."
"You are right, sir," said the Earl, "you have our gratitude and our thanks for the service you have rendered the house of Montfort, and ever during our lives you may command our favors. I admire your bravery and your candor, but while you continue the Outlaw of Torn, you may not break bread at the table of De Montfort as a friend would have the right to do."
"Your speech is that of a wise and careful man," said Norman of Torn quietly. "I go, but remember that from this day, I have no quarrel with the House of Simon de Montfort, and that should you need my arms, they are at your service, a thousand strong. Goodbye." But as he turned to go, Bertrade de Montfort confronted him with outstretched hand.
"You must take my hand in friendship," she said, "for, to my dying day, I must ever bless the name of Norman of Torn because of the horror from which he has rescued me."
He took the little fingers in his mailed hand, and bending upon one knee raised them to his lips.
"To no other—woman, man, king, God, or devil—has Norman of Torn bent the knee. If ever you need him, My Lady Bertrade, remember that his services are yours for the asking."
And turning, he mounted and rode in silence from the courtyard of the castle of Leicester. Without a backward glance, and with his five hundred men at his back, Norman of Torn disappeared beyond a turning in the roadway.
"A strange man," said Simon de Montfort, "both good and bad, but from today, I shall ever believe more good than bad. Would that he were other than he be, for his arm would wield a heavy sword against the enemies of England, an he could be persuaded to our cause."
"Who knows," said Henry de Montfort, "but that an offer of friendship might have won him to a better life. It seemed that in his speech was a note of wistfulness. I wish, father, that we had taken his hand."
Several days after Norman of Torn's visit to the castle of Leicester, a young knight appeared before the Earl's gates demanding admittance to have speech with Simon de Montfort. The Earl received him, and as the young man entered his presence, Simon de Montfort, sprang to his feet in astonishment.
"My Lord Prince," he cried. "What do ye here, and alone?"
The young man smiled.
"I be no prince, My Lord," he said, "though some have said that I favor the King's son. I be Roger de Conde, whom it may have pleased your gracious daughter to mention. I have come to pay homage to Bertrade de Montfort."
"Ah," said De Montfort, rising to greet the young knight cordially, "an you be that Roger de Conde who rescued my daughter from the fellows of Peter of Colfax, the arms of the De Montforts are open to you.
"Bertrade has had your name upon her tongue many times since her return. She will be glad indeed to receive you, as is her father. She has told us of your valiant espousal of her cause, and the thanks of her brothers and mother await you, Roger de Conde.
"She also told us of your strange likeness to Prince Edward, but until I saw you, I could not believe two men could be born of different mothers and yet be so identical. Come, we will seek out my daughter and her mother."
De Montfort led the young man to a small chamber where they were greeted by Princess Eleanor, his wife, and by Bertrade de Montfort. The girl was frankly glad to see him once more and laughingly chide him because he had allowed another to usurp his prerogative and rescue her from Peter of Colfax.