A Ride for Life
UT not yet was Otto safe, and all danger past and gone by. Suddenly, as they stood there, the harsh clangor of a bell broke the silence of the starry night above their heads, and as they raised their faces and looked up, they saw lights flashing from window to window. Presently came the sound of a hoarse voice shouting something that, from the distance, they could not understand.
One-eyed Hans smote his hand upon his thigh. "Look," said he, "here is what comes of having a soft heart in one's bosom. I overcame and bound a watchman up yonder, and forced him to tell me where our young Baron lay. It was on my mind to run my knife into him after he had told me everything, but then, bethinking how the young Baron hated the thought of bloodshed, I said to myself, 'No, Hans, I will spare the villain's life.' See now what comes of being merciful; here, by hook or by crook, the fellow has loosed himself from his bonds, and brings the whole castle about our ears like a nest of wasps."
"We must fly," said the Baron; "for nothing else in the world is left me, now that all have deserted me in this black time of trouble, excepting these six faithful ones."
His voice was bitter, bitter, as he spoke; then stooping, he raised Otto in his arms, and bearing him gently, began rapidly descending the rocky slope to the level road that ran along the edge of the hill beneath. Close behind him followed the rest; Hans still grimed with soot and in his bare feet. A little distance from the road and under the shade of the forest trees, seven horses stood waiting. The Baron mounted upon his great black charger, seating little Otto upon the saddle in front of him. "Forward!" he cried, and away they clattered and out upon the road. Then—"To St. Michaelsburg," said Baron Conrad, in his deep voice, and the horses' heads were turned to the westward, and away they galloped through the black shadows of the forest, leaving Trutz-Drachen behind them.
But still the sound of the alarm bell rang through the beating of the horses' hoofs, and as Hans looked over his shoulder, he saw the light of torches flashing hither and thither along the outer walls in front of the great barbican.
In Castle Trutz-Drachen all was confusion and uproar; flashing torches lit up the dull gray walls; horses neighed and stamped, and men shouted and called to one another in the bustle of making ready. Presently Baron Henry came striding along the corridor clad in light armor, which he had hastily donned when roused from his sleep by the news that his prisoner had escaped. Below in the courtyard his horse was standing, and without waiting for assistance, he swung himself into the saddle. Then away they all rode and down the steep path, armor ringing, swords clanking, and iron-shod hoofs striking sparks of fire from the hard stones. At their head rode Baron Henry; his triangular shield hung over his shoulder, and in his hand he bore a long, heavy, steel-pointed lance with a pennant flickering darkly from the end.
At the high-road at the base of the slope they paused, for they were at a loss to know which direction the fugitives had taken; a half a score of the retainers leaped from their horses, and began hurrying about hither and thither, and up and down, like hounds searching for the lost scent, and all the time Baron Henry sat still as a rock in the midst of the confusion.
Suddenly a shout was raised from the forest just beyond the road; they had come upon the place where the horses had been tied. It was an easy matter to trace the way that Baron Conrad and his followers had taken thence back to the high-road, but there again they were at a loss. The road ran straight as an arrow eastward and westward—had the fugitives taken their way to the east or to the west?
Baron Henry called his head-man, Nicholas Stein, to him, and the two spoke together for a while in an undertone. At last the Baron's lieutenant reined his horse back, and choosing first one and then another, divided the company into two parties. The baron placed himself at the head of one band and Nicholas Stein at the head of the other. "Forward!" he cried, and away clattered the two companies of horsemen in opposite directions.
It was toward the westward that Baron Henry of Trutz-Drachen rode at the head of his men.
The early springtide sun shot its rays of misty, yellow light across the rolling tops of the forest trees where the little birds were singing in the glory of the May morning. But Baron Henry and his followers thought nothing of the beauty of the peaceful day, and heard nothing of the multitudinous sound of the singing birds as, with a confused sound of galloping hoofs, they swept along the highway, leaving behind them a slow-curling, low-trailing cloud of dust.
As the sun rose more full and warm, the misty wreaths began to dissolve, until at last they parted and rolled asunder like a white curtain and there, before the pursuing horsemen, lay the crest of the mountain toward which they were riding, and up which the road wound steeply.
"Yonder they are," cried a sudden voice behind Baron Henry of Trutz-Drachen, and at the cry all looked upward.
Far away upon the mountain-side curled a cloud of dust, from the midst of which came the star-like flash of burnished armor gleaming in the sun.
Baron Henry said never a word, but his lips curled in a grim smile.
And as the mist wreaths parted One-eyed Hans looked behind and down into the leafy valley beneath. "Yonder they come," said he. "They have followed sharply to gain so much upon us, even though our horses are wearied with all the travelling we have done hither and yon these five days past. How far is it, Lord Baron, from here to Michaelsburg?"
"About ten leagues," said the Baron, in a gloomy voice.
Hans puckered his mouth as though to whistle, but the Baron saw nothing of it, for he was gazing straight before him with a set and stony face. Those who followed him looked at one another, and the same thought was in the mind of each—how long would it be before those who pursued would close the distance between them?
When that happened it meant death to one and all.
They reached the crest of the hill, and down they dashed upon the other side; for there the road was smooth and level as it sloped away into the valley, but it was in dead silence that they rode. Now and then those who followed the Baron looked back over their shoulders. They had gained a mile upon their pursuers when the helmeted heads rose above the crest of the mountain, but what was the gain of a mile with a smooth road between them, and fresh horses to weary ones?
On they rode and on they rode. The sun rose higher and higher, and hotter and hotter. There was no time to rest and water their panting horses. Only once, when they crossed a shallow stretch of water, the poor animals bent their heads and caught a few gulps from the cool stream, and the One-eyed Hans washed a part of the soot from his hands and face. On and on they rode; never once did the Baron Conrad move his head or alter that steadfast look as, gazing straight before him, he rode steadily forward along the endless stretch of road, with poor little Otto's yellow head and white face resting against his steel-clad shoulder—and St. Michaelsburg still eight leagues away.
A little rise of ground lay before them, and as they climbed it, all, excepting the baron, turned their heads as with one accord and looked behind them. Then more than one heart failed, for through the leaves of the trees below, they caught the glint of armor of those who followed—not more than a mile away. The next moment they swept over the crest, and there, below them, lay the broad shining river, and nearer a tributary stream spanned by a rude, narrow, three-arched, stone bridge where the road crossed the deep, slow-moving water.
Down the slope plodded the weary horses, and so to the bridge-head.
"Halt," cried the baron suddenly, and drew rein.
The others stood bewildered. What did he mean to do? He turned to Hans and his blue eyes shone like steel.
"Hans," said he, in his deep voice, "thou hast served me long and truly; wilt thou for this one last time do my bidding?"
"Aye," said Hans, briefly.
"Swear it," said the Baron.
"I swear it," said Hans, and he drew the sign of the cross upon his heart.
"That is good," said the Baron, grimly. "Then take thou this child, and with the others ride with all the speed that thou canst to St. Michaelsburg. Give the child into the charge of the Abbot Otto. Tell him how that I have sworn fealty to the Emperor, and what I have gained thereby—my castle burnt, my people slain, and this poor, simple child, my only son, mutilated by my enemy."
"And thou, my Lord Baron?" said Hans.
"I will stay here," said the Baron, quietly, "and keep back those who follow as long as God will give me grace so to do."
A murmur of remonstrance rose among the faithful few who were with him, two of whom were near of kin. But Conrad of Drachenhausen turned fiercely upon them. "How now," said he, "have I fallen so low in my troubles that even ye dare to raise your voices against me? By the good Heaven, I will begin my work here by slaying the first man who dares to raise word against my bidding." Then he turned from them. "Here, Hans," said he, "take the boy; and remember, knave, what thou hast sworn."
He pressed Otto close to his breast in one last embrace. "My little child," he murmured, "try not to hate thy father when thou thinkest of him hereafter, even though he be hard and bloody as thou knowest."
But with his suffering and weakness, little Otto knew nothing of what was passing; it was only as in a faint flickering dream that he lived in what was done around him.
"Farewell, Otto," said the Baron, but Otto's lips only moved faintly in answer. His father kissed him upon either cheek. "Come, Hans," said he, hastily, "take him hence;" and he loosed Otto's arms from about his neck.
Hans took Otto upon the saddle in front of him.
"Oh! my dear Lord Baron," said he, and then stopped with a gulp, and turned his grotesquely twitching face aside.
"Go," said the Baron, harshly, "there is no time to lose in woman's tears."
"Farewell, Conrad! farewell, Conrad!" said his two kinsmen, and coming forward they kissed him upon the cheek; then they turned and rode away after Hans, and Baron Conrad was left alone to face his mortal foe.