A Boon Granted
"S IR ERIC," said Richard, "you told me there was a Parlement to be held at Falaise, between Count Bernard and the King of Denmark. I mean to attend it. Will you come with me, or shall Osmond go, and you remain in charge of the Prince?"
"How now, Lord Richard, you were not wont to love a Parlement?"
"I have something to say," replied Richard. The Baron made no objection, only telling his mother that the Duke was a marvellous wise child, and that he would soon be fit to take the government himself.
Lothaire lamented the more when he found that Richard was going away; his presence seemed to him a protection, and he fancied, now Carloman was dead, that his former injuries were about to be revenged. The Duke assured him, repeatedly, that he meant him nothing but kindness, adding, "When I return, you will see, Lothaire;" then, commending him to the care and kindness of Fru Astrida, Osmond, and Alberic, Richard set forth upon his pony, attended by Sir Eric and three men-at-arms.
Richard felt sad when he looked back at Bayeux, and thought that it no longer contained his dear little friend; but it was a fresh bright frosty morning, the fields were covered with a silvery-white coating, the flakes of hoar-frost sparkled on every bush, and the hard ground rung cheerily to the tread of the horses' feet. As the yellow sun fought his way through the grey mists that dimmed his brightness, and shone out merrily in the blue heights of the sky, Richard's spirits rose, and he laughed and shouted, as hare or rabbit rushed across the heath, or as the plover rose screaming above his head, flapping her broad wings across the wintry sky.
One night they slept at a Convent, where they heard that Hugh of Paris had passed on to join the conference at Falaise. The next day they rode on, and, towards the afternoon, the Baron pointed to a sharp rocky range of hills, crowned by a tall solid tower, and told Richard, yonder was his keep of Falaise, the strongest Castle in Normandy.
The country was far more broken as they advanced—narrow valleys and sharp hills, each little vale full of wood, and interspersed with rocks. "A choice place for game," Sir Eric said and Richard, as he saw a herd of deer dash down a forest glade, exclaimed, "that they must come here to stay, for some autumn sport."
There seemed to be huntsmen abroad in the woods; for through the frosty air came the baying of dogs, the shouts and calls of men, and, now and then, the echoing, ringing notes of a bugle. Richard's eyes and cheeks glowed with excitement, and he pushed his brisk little pony on faster and faster, unheeding that the heavier men and horses of his suite were not keeping pace with him on the rough ground and through the tangled boughs.
Presently, a strange sound of growling and snarling was heard close at hand: his pony swerved aside, and could not be made to advance; so Richard, dismounting, dashed through some briars, and there, on an open space, beneath a precipice of dark ivy-covered rock, that rose like a wall, he beheld a huge grey wolf and a large dog in mortal combat. It was as if they had fallen or rolled down the precipice together, not heeding it in their fury. Both were bleeding, and the eyes of both glared like red fiery glass in the dark shadow of the rock. The dog lay undermost, almost overpowered, making but a feeble resistance; and the wolf would, in another moment, be at liberty to spring on the lonely child.
But not a thought of fear passed through his breast; to save the dog was Richard's only idea. In one moment he had drawn the dagger he wore at his girdle, ran to the two struggling animals, and with all his force, plunged it into the throat of the wolf, which, happily, was still held by the teeth of the hound.
The struggles relaxed, the wolf rolled heavily aside, dead; the dog lay panting and bleeding, and Richard feared he was cruelly torn. "Poor fellow! noble dog! what shall I do to help you?" and he gently smoothed the dark brindled head.
A voice was now heard shouting aloud, at which the dog raised and crested his head, as a figure in a hunting dress was coming down a rocky pathway, an extremely tall, well-made man, of noble features. "Ha! holla! Vige! Vige! How now, my brave hound?" he said in the Northern tongue, though not quite with the accent Richard was accustomed to hear. "Art hurt?"
"Much torn, I fear," Richard called out, as the faithful creature wagged his tail, and strove to rise and meet his master.
"Ha, lad! what art thou?" exclaimed the hunter, amazed at seeing the boy between the dead wolf and wounded dog. "You look like one of those Frenchified Norman gentilesse, with your smooth locks and gilded baldrick, yet your words are Norse. By the hammer of Thor! that is a dagger in the wolf's throat!"
"It is mine," said Richard. "I found your dog nearly spent, and I made in to the rescue."
"You did? Well done! I would not have lost Vige for all the plunder of Italy. I am beholden to you, my brave young lad," said the stranger, all the time examining and caressing the hound. "What is your name? You cannot be Southern bred?"
As he spoke, more shouts came near; and the Baron de Centeville rushed through the trees holding Richard's pony by the bridle. "My Lord, my Lord!—oh, thank Heaven, I see you safe!" At the same moment a party of hunters also approached by the path, and at the head of them Bernard the Dane.
"Ha!" exclaimed he, "what do I see? My young Lord! what brought you here?" And with a hasty obeisance, Bernard took Richard's outstretched hand.
"I came hither to attend your council," replied Richard. "I have a boon to ask of the King of Denmark."
"Any boon the King of Denmark has in his power will be yours," said the dog's master, slapping his hand on the little Duke's shoulder, with a rude, hearty familiarity, that took him by surprise; and he looked up with a shade of offence, till, on a sudden flash of perception, he took off his cap, exclaiming, "King Harald himself! Pardon me, Sir King!"
"Pardon, Jarl Richart! What would you have me pardon?—your saving the life of Vige here? No French politeness for me. Tell me your boon, and it is yours. Shall I take you a voyage, and harry the fat monks of Ireland?"
Richard recoiled a little from his new friend.
"Oh, ha! I forgot. They have made a Christian of you—more's the pity. You have the Northern spirit so strong. I had forgotten it. Come, walk by my side, and let me hear what you would ask. Holla, you Sweyn! carry Vige up to the Castle, and look to his wounds. Now for it, young Jarl."
"My boon is, that you would set free Prince Lothaire."
"What?—the young Frank? Why they kept you captive, burnt your face, and would have made an end of you but for your clever Bonder."
"That is long past, and Lothaire is so wretched. His brother is dead, and he is sick with grief, and he says he shall die, if he does not go home."
"A good thing too for the treacherous race to die out in him! What should you care for him? he is your foe."
"I am a Christian," was Richard's answer.
"Well, I promised you whatever you might ask. All my share of his ransom, or his person, bond or free, is yours. You have only to prevail with your own Jarls and Bonders."
Richard feared this would be more difficult; but Abbot Martin came to the meeting, and took his part. Moreover, the idea of their hostage dying in their hands, so as to leave them without hold upon the King, had much weight with them; and, after long deliberation, they consented that Lothaire should be restored to his father, without ransom but only on condition that Louis should guarantee to the Duke the peaceable possession of the country, as far as St. Clair sur Epte, which had been long in dispute; so that Alberic became, indisputably, a vassal of Normandy.
Perhaps it was the happiest day in Richard's life when he rode back to Bayeux, to desire Lothaire to prepare to come with him to St. Clair, there to be given back into the hands of his father.
And then they met King Louis, grave and sorrowful for the loss of his little Carloman, and, for the time, repenting of his misdeeds towards the orphan heir of Normandy.
He pressed the Duke in his arms, and his kiss was a genuine one as he said, "Duke Richard, we have not deserved this of you. I did not treat you as you have treated my children. We will be true lord and vassal from henceforth."
Lothaire's last words were, "Farewell, Richard. If I lived with you, I might be good like you. I will never forget what you have done for me."
When Richard once more entered Rouen in state, his subjects shouting round him in transports of joy, better than all his honour and glory was the being able to enter the Church of our Lady, and kneel by his father's grave, with a clear conscience, and the sense that he had tried to keep that last injunction.