The Little Duke  by Charlotte M. Yonge

Danes to the Rescue

M ONTEMAR was too near the frontier to be a safe abode for the little Duke, and his uncle, Count Hubert of Senlis, agreed with Bernard the Dane that he would be more secure beyond the limits of his own duchy, which was likely soon to be the scene of war; and, sorely against his will, he was sent in secret, under a strong escort, first to the Castle of Coucy, and afterwards to Senlis.

His consolation was, that he was not again separated from his friends; Alberic, Sir Eric, and even Fru Astrida, accompanied him, as well as his constant follower, Osmond. Indeed, the Baron would hardly bear that he should be out of his sight; and he was still so carefully watched, that it was almost like a captivity. Never, even in the summer days, was he allowed to go beyond the Castle walls; and his guardians would fain have had it supposed that the Castle did not contain any such guest.

Osmond did not give him so much of his company as usual, but was always at work in the armourer's forge—a low, vaulted chamber, opening into the Castle court. Richard and Alberic were very curious to know what he did there; but he fastened the door with an iron bar, and they were forced to content themselves with listening to the strokes of the hammer, keeping time to the voice that sang out, loud and cheerily, the song of "Sigurd's sword, and the maiden sleeping within the ring of flame." Fru Astrida said Osmond was quite right—no good weapon-smith ever toiled with open doors; and when the boys asked him questions as to his work, he only smiled, and said that they would see what it was when the call to arms should come.

They thought it near at hand, for tidings came that Louis had assembled his army, and marched into Normandy to recover the person of the young Duke, and to seize the country. No summons, however, arrived, but a message came instead, that Rouen had been surrendered into the hands of the King. Richard shed indignant tears. "My father's Castle! My own city in the hands of the foe! Bernard is a traitor then! None shall hinder me from so calling him. Why did we trust him?"

"Never fear, Lord Duke," said Osmond. "When you come to the years of Knighthood, your own sword shall right you, in spite of all the false Danes, and falser Franks, in the land."

"What! you too, son Osmond? I deemed you carried a cooler brain than to miscall one who was true to Rollo's race before you or yon varlet were born!" said the old Baron.

"He has yielded my dukedom! It is mis-calling to say he is aught but a traitor!" cried Richard. "Vile, treacherous, favour-seeking—"

"Peace, peace, my Lord," said the Baron. "Bernard has more in that wary head of his than your young wits, or my old ones, can unwind. What he is doing I may not guess, but I gage my life his heart is right."

Richard was silent, remembering he had been once unjust, but he grieved heartily when he thought of the French in Rollo's tower, and it was further reported that the King was about to share Normandy among his French vassals. A fresh outcry broke out in the little garrison of Senlis, but Sir Eric still persisted in his trust in his friend Bernard, even when he heard that Centeville was marked out as the prey of the fat French Count who had served for a hostage at Rouen.

"What say you now, my Lord?" said he, after a conference with a messenger at the gate. "The Black Raven has spread its wings. Fifty keels are in the Seine, and Harald Blue-tooth's Long Serpent at the head of them."

"The King of Denmark! Come to my aid!"

"Ay, that he is! Come at Bernard's secret call, to right you, and put you on your father's seat. Now call honest Harcourt a traitor, because he gave not up your fair dukedom to the flame and sword!"

"No traitor to me," said Richard, pausing.

"No, verily, but what more would you say?"

"I think, when I come to my dukedom, I will not be so politic," said Richard. "I will be an open friend or an open foe."

"The boy grows too sharp for us," said Sir Eric, smiling, "but it was spoken like his father."

"He grows more like his blessed father each day," said Fru Astrida.

"But the Danes, father, the Danes!" said Osmond. "Blows will be passing now. I may join the host and win my spurs?"

"With all my heart," returned the Baron, "so my Lord here gives you leave: would that I could leave him and go with you. It would do my very spirit good but to set foot in a Northern keel once more."

"I would fain see what these men of the North are," said Osmond.

"Oh! they are only Danes, not Norsemen, and there are no Vikings, such as once were when Ragnar laid waste—"

"Son, son, what talk is this for the child's ears?" broke in Fru Astrida, "are these words for a Christian Baron?"

"Your pardon, mother," said the grey warrior, in all humility, "but my blood thrills to hear of a Northern fleet at hand, and to think of Osmond drawing sword under a Sea-King."

The next morning, Osmond's steed was led to the door, and such men- at-arms as could be spared from the garrison of Senlis were drawn up in readiness to accompany him. The boys stood on the steps, wishing they were old enough to be warriors, and wondering what had become of him, until at length the sound of an opening door startled them, and there, in the low archway of the smithy, the red furnace glowing behind him, stood Osmond, clad in bright steel, the links of his hauberk reflecting the light, and on his helmet a pair of golden wings, while the same device adorned his long pointed kite-shaped shield.

"Your wings! our wings!" cried Richard, "the bearing of Centeville!"

"May they fly after the foe, not before him," said Sir Eric. "Speed thee well, my son—let not our Danish cousins say we learn Frank graces instead of Northern blows."

With such farewells, Osmond quitted Senlis, while the two boys hastened to the battlements to watch him as long as he remained in view.

The highest tower became their principal resort, and their eyes were constantly on the heath where he had disappeared; but days passed, and they grew weary of the watch, and betook themselves to games in the Castle court.

One day, Alberic, in the character of a Dragon, was lying on his back, panting hard so as to be supposed to cast out volumes of flame and smoke at Richard, the Knight, who with a stick for a lance, and a wooden sword, was waging fierce war; when suddenly the Dragon paused, sat up, and pointed towards the warder on the tower. His horn was at his lips, and in another moment, the blast rang out through the Castle.

With a loud shout, both boys rushed headlong up the turret stairs, and came to the top so breathless, that they could not even ask the warder what he saw. He pointed, and the keen-eyed Alberic exclaimed, "I see! Look, my Lord, a speck there on the heath!"

"I do not see! where, oh where?"

"He is behind the hillock now, but—oh, there again! How fast he comes!"

"It is like the flight of a bird," said Richard, "fast, fast—"

"If only it be not flight in earnest," said Alberic, a little anxiously, looking into the warder's face, for he was a borderer, and tales of terror of the inroad of the Vicomte du Contentin were rife on the marches of the Epte.

"No, young Sir," said the warder, "no fear of that. I know how men ride when they flee from the battle."

"No, indeed, there is no discomfiture in the pace of that steed," said Sir Eric, who had by this time joined them.

"I see him clearer! I see the horse," cried Richard, dancing with eagerness, so that Sir Eric caught hold of him, exclaiming, "You will be over the battlements! hold still! better hear of a battle lost than that!"

"He bears somewhat in his hand," said Alberic.

"A banner or pennon," said the warder; "methinks he rides like the young Baron."

"He does! My brave boy! He has done good service," exclaimed Sir Eric, as the figure became more developed. "The Danes have seen how we train our young men."

"His wings bring good tidings," said Richard. "Let me go, Sir Eric, I must tell Fru Astrida."

The drawbridge was lowered, the portcullis raised, and as all the dwellers in the Castle stood gathered in the court, in rode the warrior with the winged helm, bearing in his hand a drooping banner; lowering it as he entered, it unfolded, and displayed, trailing on the ground at the feet of the little Duke of Normandy, the golden lilies of France.

A shout of amazement arose, and all gathered round him, asking hurried questions. "A great victory—the King a prisoner—Montreuil slain!"

Richard would not be denied holding his hand, and leading him to the hall, and there, sitting around him, they heard his tidings. His father's first question was, what he thought of their kinsmen, the Danes?

"Rude comrades, father, I must own," said Osmond, smiling, and shaking his head. "I could not pledge them in a skull-goblet—set in gold though it were."

"None the worse warriors," said Sir Eric. "Ay, ay, and you were dainty, and brooked not the hearty old fashion of tearing the whole sheep to pieces. You must needs cut your portion with the fine French knife at your girdle."

Osmond could not see that a man was braver for being a savage, but he held his peace; and Richard impatiently begged to hear how the battle had gone, and where it had been fought.

"On the bank of the Dive," said Osmond. "Ah, father, you might well call old Harcourt wary—his name might better have been Fox-heart than Bear-heart! He had sent to the Franks a message of distress, that the Danes were on him in full force, and to pray them to come to his aid."

"I trust there was no treachery. No foul dealing shall be wrought in my name," exclaimed Richard, with such dignity of tone and manner, as made all feel he was indeed their Duke, and forget his tender years.

"No, or should I tell the tale with joy like this?" said Osmond. "Bernard's view was to bring the Kings together, and let Louis see you had friends to maintain your right. He sought but to avoid bloodshed."

"And how chanced it?"

"The Danes were encamped on the Dive, and so soon as the French came in sight, Blue-tooth sent a messenger to Louis, to summon him to quit Neustria, and leave it to you, its lawful owner. Thereupon, Louis, hoping to win him over with wily words, invited him to hold a personal conference."

"Where were you, Osmond?"

"Where I had scarce patience to be. Bernard had gathered all of us honest Normans together, and arranged us beneath that standard of the King, as if to repel his Danish inroad. Oh, he was, in all seeming, hand-and-glove with Louis, guiding him by his counsel, and, verily, seeming his friend and best adviser! But in one thing he could not prevail. That ungrateful recreant, Herluin of Montreuil, came with the King, hoping, it seems, to get his share of our spoils; and when Bernard advised the King to send him home, since no true Norman could bear the sight of him, the hot-headed Franks vowed no Norman should hinder them from bringing whom they chose. So a tent was set up by the riverside, wherein the two Kings, with Bernard, Alan of Brittany, and Count Hugh, held their meeting. We all stood without, and the two hosts began to mingle together, we Normans making acquaintance with the Danes. There was a red-haired, wild-looking fellow, who told me he had been with Anlaff in England, and spoke much of the doings of Hako in Norway; when, suddenly, he pointed to a Knight who was near, speaking to a Cotentinois, and asked me his name. My blood boiled as I answered, for it was Montreuil himself! 'The cause of your Duke's death!' said the Dane. 'Ha, ye Normans are fallen sons of Odin, to see him yet live!'"

"You said, I trust, my son, that we follow not the laws of Odin?" said Fru Astrida.

"I had no space for a word, grandmother; the Danes took the vengeance on themselves. In one moment they rushed on Herluin with their axes, and the unhappy man was dead. All was tumult; every one struck without knowing at whom, or for what. Some shouted, 'Thor Hulfe!' some 'Dieu aide!' others 'Montjoie St. Denis!' Northern blood against French, that was all our guide. I found myself at the foot of this standard, and had a hard combat for it; but I bore it away at last."

"And the Kings?"

"They hurried out of the tent, it seems, to rejoin their men. Louis mounted, but you know of old, my Lord, he is but an indifferent horseman, and the beast carried him into the midst of the Danes, where King Harald caught his bridle, and delivered him to four Knights to keep. Whether he dealt secretly with them, or whether they, as they declared, lost sight of him whilst plundering his tent, I cannot say; but when Harald demanded him of them, he was gone."

"Gone! is this what you call having the King prisoner?"

"You shall hear. He rode four leagues, and met one of the baser sort of Rouennais, whom he bribed to hide him in the Isle of Willows. However, Bernard made close inquiries, found the fellow had been seen in speech with a French horseman, pounced on his wife and children, and threatened they should die if he did not disclose the secret. So the King was forced to come out of his hiding-place, and is now fast guarded in Rollo's tower—a Dane, with a battle-axe on his shoulder, keeping guard at every turn of the stairs."

"Ha! ha!" cried Richard. "I wonder how he likes it. I wonder if he remembers holding me up to the window, and vowing that he meant me only good!"

"When you believed him, my Lord," said Osmond, slyly.

"I was a little boy then," said Richard, proudly. "Why, the very walls must remind him of his oath, and how Count Bernard said, as he dealt with me, so might Heaven deal with him."

"Remember it, my child—beware of broken vows," said Father Lucas; "but remember it not in triumph over a fallen foe. It were better that all came at once to the chapel, to bestow their thanksgivings where alone they are due."