OF THE AMBUSH LAID BY THE MEN OF TAILLEMARTEL

Slowly the months sped, yet towards taking any definite steps to secure
his father’s release Geoffrey could do little or nothing.

The realization of his two great hopes—the return of Sir Raoul from the
French capital, and the expected invasion by King Henry—seemed too
uncertain. The feast of St. Silvester—a critical time in the affairs of
Sir Oliver Lysle—was now but a few days off, and, as the rapidly
dwindling interval appreciably diminished, the need for action on the
part of his son became more and more urgent.

Early one morning in June a horseman rode with loose rein up to the
castle with the news of the approach of a strong body of mounted men
from Malevereux, and that the invaders’ intention was undoubtedly to
sack and plunder the village of Taillemartel, that, up to the present,
had escaped the unwelcome attentions of the ruthless Sir Yves. Possibly
its proximity to the castle had accounted for its immunity hitherto, but
with the force at his command on this occasion the Lord of Malevereux
doubtless thought the opportunity had come to sack the village.

“Now is the time to gain honour and distinction, young sir,” quoth
Gripwell to his charge, as he hurried from the armoury with his harness
but partly buckled, and a sheaf of weapons under his arm. “‘Tis not for
me to give orders, but saving thy presence, I would suggest that we take
steps to thwart these rogues of Malevereux. Though they be the stronger
party I have but little doubt that by stratagem we may worst them.”

“How so, Arnold?” asked Geoffrey.

“Thus,” was the reply, and the man-at-arms proceeded to unfold a
carefully prepared plan of action.

Geoffrey and the seneschal expressed their unstinted admiration of
Gripwell’s proposal, and without a moment’s hesitation the plan was put
into execution.

Leaving but ten men to guard the castle Geoffrey led the rest of the
garrison to the village, which lay but two bow-shots from the walls of
Taillemartel. Here the soldiers proceeded to occupy the cottages on
either side of the only road that passed through the little village,
while outposts were placed with instructions to hasten back to the main
body without being perceived, on the first sign of the approach of the
enemy.

Already the terrified peasants were busily engaged in removing such of
their scanty goods and chattels that were capable of being easily
carried away, while the womenfolk and children were streaming in a
disorderly mob along the dusty road leading to the castle.

“Bid those villeins stop, young sir,” exclaimed Gripwell, pointing with
his sword towards the mob of villagers. “They do but hinder our work of
making good the defences.”

Calmly Geoffrey walked across to where the peasants were, the seneschal
accompanying him. Like the rest of their men they were unmounted, so
that the risk of being seen by the enemy was considerably reduced.

“Listen, men,” exclaimed Sir Oliver’s son in the Norman patois, for,
like most of the knights and squires of that period, he could speak the
French tongue. “Listen, men, and if ye be worthy of the name, I pray you
desist from this work of removing your goods. Is it not better to have a
thatch over your heads than a few sorry remnants of your belongings
without a cottage wherein to store them? We are here, by God’s help, to
protect you from the rogues of Malevereux. Were it otherwise ‘twould
have been more profitable to remain within the walls of Taillemartel and
let the village take its chance.

“Now,” he went on, “this is my pleasure; let all those who have any
regard for their own skins and faith in the protecting arm of their
over-lord—let these stand firm and assist in the defence of their
hearths and homes. Those who are not so disposed, let them hasten behind
the walls of Taillemartel—but, be it understood, not a stick of their
goods must be borne hence.”

Of the three-score male inhabitants only four took advantage of
Geoffrey’s offer to gain the shelter of the castle, and, amid the
hooting and hissing of their fellows, and the rude jibes of the
soldiers, they slunk sheepishly away.

Those of the peasants who stood firm were ordered to drag their wagons
and ploughs to the end of the village street nearer the castle, and to
pile them in a rough breastwork that was practically impassable by
mounted men.

Eagerly the villagers obeyed. Fired by the ardour of their young
seigneur they gained both strength and resolution, so that in a very
short space of time the crowd of demoralized peasants was changed into a
band of determined and comparatively disciplined men.

“Now get you gone to your houses,” continued Geoffrey, speaking
according to Gripwell’s suggestions. “Arm yourselves with scythes,
flails, clubs, or any other weapon ye may have to hand. Moreover, lay in
a supply of stones, but, on pain of severe punishment, let no man stir
or show himself until he hears a trumpet blown.”

In a wonderfully short time the village street was almost deserted, for
the men-at-arms, archers and cross-bowmen had already taken up their
quarters within the houses. Only Geoffrey, Gripwell, the seneschal, and
a few archers remained without. Venturing to the furthermost end of the
village they awaited the arrival of the outposts with news of the
approach of the men of Malevereux.

They had not long to wait. Wellnigh breathless, with his arms pressed
closely to his sides, a lightly-clad archer ran towards the village,
taking advantage of every depression in the ground that might serve to
hide him from the foe. Close behind him ran another, and, a bow-shot in
the rear, a third. All bore the same tidings. A body of mounted men,
estimated at nearly two hundred, and led by Sir Yves in person, was even
now within a league of the village.

“Sir Yves, himself!” ejaculated Gripwell. “Certes, if we cannot bring
him to earth, may I never see Warblington again. Pass the word,
Florestan,” he continued, addressing an archer, “that one cross-bowman
in each house reserve his quarrel especially for the Tyrant of
Malevereux. A crown for the man who brings him down.”

As the archer ran to communicate the order the man-at-arms turned to
Geoffrey: “Tis time that we took cover, young sir. Be of good heart, for
I’ll warrant that these wolves will turn tail and make off faster than
they came. My place is by the side of my master’s son. But above all
things take heed that not a bow be loosed nor a stone thrown till the
tucket sounds.”

Barely had the defenders retired to their rude defences ere the
followers of Sir Yves appeared; for, deeming the village an easy prey,
they had ridden furiously upon it to plunder and kill.

Fortunately for Gripwell’s plan the cottages standing more remote from
the castle were meaner than those in the middle of the village. This
fact was evidently known to the men of Malevereux, for, without waiting
to despoil the poorer houses, they passed on towards that part of the
hamlet where most plunder was likely to be obtained.

In the van, composed of mounted men-at-arms, clad in quilted coats,
breastplates and iron caps, rode a person of quality, for he was armed
cap-à-pied in steel, and bore a shield with the device the red axe.
Previous to entering the village he had closed his visor, so that his
features were not visible.

“Is yon knight the Tyrant Sir Yves?”

“Without a doubt,” replied Gripwell in an undertone. “But ’tis ill that
such a gap divides two companies; the van will have reached the
barricade ere the rear-guard rides fairly into the trap.”

“Who, then, is this?” continued the lad, as a short, broad-shouldered
man passed at the head of the rear-guard.

The leader of the second company was clad in a complete suit of chain
armour, similar to that in vogue two centuries before, but with the
addition of a steel breastplate, gorget, tassets, and sollerets. His
hands were encased with brazen gauntlets, the backs of which were
composed of thin overlapping plates studded with knots of steel. On his
head he wore a steel bascinet with a beaklike visor, but the latter had
been thrown back, disclosing a dark, cruel-looking face, partially
hidden by a heavy beard and moustache.

Geoffrey repeated the question, for this knight’s device was very
similar to the first’s.

“It can be none other than Sir Yves’ brother, Sir Denis. I see that his
shield shows that he is his brother’s cadet. But stand to it; the time
is at hand. Peter, sound a rousing tucket, I pray thee!”

Thus ordered, one of the English archers blew a shrill blast upon his
horn, and the next moment volleys of arrows, bolts and stones whistled
through the air. The close array of mounted men was transformed into a
shouting, panic-stricken, struggling mob. Many fell, dead or wounded,
the plunging, terrified horses adding to the tumult. Here and there, men
braver and cooler than their fellows stood at bay or attempted to force
their way into the houses that sheltered their assailants.

Three cross-bowmen had made Sir Denis their particular mark, but,
doubtless carried away by their excitement, their aim was faulty. One
bolt shattered itself against the knight’s steel breastplate, another
glanced from his helmet, while the third missed entirely.

Closing his visor, Sir Denis slipped from his horse and, mace in hand,
strode towards the door of the nearest cottage. In vain quarrels and
stones rattled against his armour of proof, and, like a man bearing a
charmed life, he continued his advance.

“Make good the door ‘gainst him,” shouted Gripwell to the two English
archers. As he spoke a thunderous blow of the Norman’s mace burst in the
upper part of the door.

Peter, the archer who had given the signal for the onslaught,
immediately delivered a spear-thrust; but the knight, with a sweep of
his ponderous weapon, shattered the head of the spear from the haft.
Quick to take advantage, the archer grasped the end of the mace, and a
fierce struggle ensued.

Sir Denis’ mace was secured to his wrist by a chain, so that even had he
quitted his hold the weapon would still be attached to his person, yet
he had no intention of so doing.

Swaying to and fro on either side of the partially demolished door,
archer and knight strove for mastery. Both were powerful men, and both
equally determined to gain possession of the mace. At one time the
mailed casque and shoulders of the Norman would be dragged through the
irregular aperture; at another the Englishman was sore put to prevent
himself being hauled from his retreat. Nor could his comrades give him
assistance by laying hold of the knight’s weapon; all they could do was
to rain powerful, yet futile, blows upon the armour of the struggling
foeman.

Meanwhile Gripwell, after giving the archer instructions to hold the
doorway, had darted to the inner room, where a pail of charcoal,
intended by its late owner for cooking purposes, glowered darkly on the
floor.

Seizing the portable fire with his gauntleted hands, the man-at-arms
bore it into the other room, where, awaiting his opportunity, he dashed
its contents into the visored face of the Norman knight.

Some of the particles of the red-hot charcoal passed through the narrow
slits in Sir Denis’ bascinet. Nearly blinded by the pain the knight
relinquished his hold on the mace and involuntarily attempted to raise
his arms to protect his face. The sudden release of the object of their
contentions caused the archer to reel backwards, till the strain on the
chain pulled the knight’s arm towards the doorway.

With a shout of triumph, Gripwell also seized the mace, and archer and
man-at-arms united their efforts to pin their formidable antagonist to
the woodwork by the strain upon the chain.

“Yield thee, Sir Knight,” thundered Arnold. “Methinks thou art a good
bond for the safety of my master, Sir Oliver.”

As he spoke Sir Denis gave a powerful heave, the chain snapped asunder,
and the two Englishmen fell heavily on the floor. The Frenchman reeled
backwards a good five paces ere he, too, came to earth.

Unable to rise, by reason of the weight of his armour, he lay helpless,
groaning with the effect of the red-hot embers.

“We’ll have him anon,” cried the man-at-arms, struggling to his feet.
“Look to yon window.”

The warning came barely in time. During the struggle at the doorway a
score of men from Malevereux had assailed the window, which Geoffrey,
sword in hand, was defending by the aid of two archers of the garrison
of Taillemartel and three peasants.

Already one of the latter was down, slain by a quarrel shot at close
range, while one of the archers was severely wounded by a blow from a
“morning star.”

The arrival of Gripwell and the two English archers soon turned the
scale. While the man-at-arms dealt irresistible blows with his heavy
axe, the archers shot fast and true, and in a short space the band of
assailants seemed to melt away.

“We hold our own everywhere,” said Arnold, leaning out of the window
during the brief respite.

The man-at-arms spoke truly. With one exception every house had made
good its defence, and already the demoralized men of Malevereux—those
who had not been slain or grievously wounded—were seeking safety in
flight.

At one place, almost in the centre of the village, the noise of conflict
was still to be heard. Ordering the cross-bowmen from the houses,
Geoffrey gave instructions to form up at the furthermost end of the
village, so as to repel the enemy should they return to the attack, and
also to cut off the retreat of any of the remaining men of Malevereux
should they attempt to escape.

This done, Geoffrey, accompanied by Gripwell and several archers and
men-at-arms, made his way through the corpse-encumbered street to where
the struggle was still maintained.

“We have him safe enough, fair sir,” exclaimed a bowman, pausing in the
act of replenishing his quiver with arrows that were everywhere
‘feathering the ground. “The Tyrant is cornered in yonder house.”

The Knight of the Blood-red Axe had had his horse shot under him early
in the fight. Basely deserted by his panic-stricken followers, he found
his retreat cut off by the infuriated defenders. For a space he kept his
foes at bay, a ring of dead and wounded men surrounding him as he
fought. Wounded in several places till the blood oozed from the joints
of his armour, the knight made a sudden rush towards a deserted cottage.

Here he made a stand, bringing down the seneschal of Taillemartel by a
sweeping cut with his sword, till, borne back by weight of numbers, he
took shelter in one of the rooms.

“Leave him to me,” shouted Geoffrey authoritatively, as he forced his
way ‘twixt the crowd of soldiery.

“Nay, thou’rt foolhardy,” objected Gripwell, laying a detaining hand on
the shoulder of his charge. “Let the men have their way with the rogue;
he is unworthy to be treated as a gentleman of coat-armour.”

“Forbear to hinder me; my purpose is fixed,” replied Geoffrey stoutly,
and, sword in hand, he rushed into the room where the knight stood, back
to the wall, three writhing bodies on the floor testifying to his
prowess as a swordsman.

“Yield thee, Sir Knight,” exclaimed Geoffrey. “I promise thee quarter.”

“Give quarter to those who ask it,” was the reply. “I surrender to no
man.”

The next instant their blades crossed. Both combatants were equally
matched. The English lad lacked the size and weight of his antagonist;
but, with the exception of a slight wound received earlier in the fight,
Geoffrey was comparatively fresh, while the knight had already borne the
brunt of a prolonged encounter against enormous odds.

On his part Geoffrey strove, by means of a succession of rapid passes,
to find a joint of his antagonist’s armour; while the Frenchman,
mustering all the strength at his command, relied mainly upon his
powerful sweeping cuts to disable his youthful and active foe.

At length the Englishman wounded his enemy by a lightning-like thrust
that took effect ‘twixt the flexible plates of the Frenchman’s gauntlet.
But Geoffrey had to pay for his advantage. With a roar like the
bellowing of a bull the knight shortened his sword, and ere the lad
could recover his blade the steel was snapped asunder a span’s length
from the hilt.

The Frenchman was not slow to take advantage of his enemy’s misfortune.
_Swish!_ came his heavy weapon. Geoffrey’s fragment of steel could not
stop the cut, though it deflected the sword-cut, and, receiving the
blade full in his gorget, the lad was sent staggering across the room.

The knight could not forbear from following up his stroke. Unwisely he
left his point of vantage by the wall, and, whirling his sword, prepared
to deal a _coup de grâce_.

In his excitement he forgot the low beam that ran athwart the ceiling,
and ere the stroke could be completed his sword encountered the rafter,
sinking in so deeply that he was unable to extricate his weapon.

Already a dozen men-at-arms were about to intervene, when Geoffrey threw
himself boldly upon his antagonist.

With a resounding crash the two mail-clad bodies fell upon the floor,
the English lad uppermost. The point of his dagger was at the slit of
his antagonist’s visor, and the knight was at Geoffrey’s mercy.

“Yield thee, Sir Knight.”

This time the Frenchman thought ere he declined the proffered condition.

“Thou art of noble blood?” he asked. “If not, slay me.”

“I am the son of Sir Oliver Lysle, whom thou——”

“Then I surrender myself,” replied the knight, without waiting for
further explanation.

Breathlessly Geoffrey leaned upon the shoulder of one of the archers,
while Gripwell and one or two others proceeded to cut the laces of the
Frenchman’s bascinet.

When at length the vanquished man was unhelmed a cry of astonishment
arose from the onlookers.

Instead of the cruel, debased features of Sir Yves of Malevereux the
face of a young man of about twenty years of age greeted the eyes of the
men of Taillemartel.

“Who art thou, young sir?” demanded Geoffrey. “Methought I had captured
the Tyrant of Malevereux.”

“I am Henri, son of him whom thou hast named the Tyrant,” was the reply.