HOW ARNOLD GRIPWELL WAS FREED FROM HIS BONDS

Aghast at the disconcerting discovery that the Castle of Taillemartel
was in hostile hands, the lads stood in dire perplexity. The one refuge
on French soil which they had relied upon was now denied them.

“What hath befallen Sir Oliver, thy father?” asked Oswald at length.
“Surely, had he gained the castle he would have held it against all
odds.”

“I cannot say,” replied Geoffrey. “But, unless we wish to find ourselves
behind iron bars once more, it behoves us to give Taillemartel a wide
berth.”

“And to go whither?”

“To the coast. Since our mission is accomplished, and my father is no
longer in the hands of the Lord of Malevereux—though, for aught I know,
he hath again met with some misfortune—we must needs make our way
homewards. But look! A man approaches.”

“I trust he is peaceably inclined,” observed Oswald, handling the dagger
he had snatched from the luckless soldier. “Let us hide behind yonder
tree till we can make more of him.”

Accordingly the lads took shelter and awaited the stranger’s approach.

“‘Tis Néron de Boeuf,” whispered Geoffrey, as the new-comer drew nearer.
“He was ever a good servant of my father. Let us show ourselves and gain
tidings.”

“Is he still true to his salt?” asked Oswald cautiously.

“Without doubt. Ho, Néron! What’s amiss with Taillemartel?”

The man stood still at the sound of the lad’s voice, with amazement
written in every line of his wrinkled face. He was a short, corpulent,
middle-aged man, who had held a post in the buttery at the castle, and,
as Geoffrey had said, had always boasted of loyalty to his master.

“_Pardieu_, monsieur!” he exclaimed as Geoffrey stepped from behind the
tree-trunk. “What has happened to thee? And Monsieur Oswald also.”

“It matters little what hath befallen us, Néron,” replied Geoffrey.
“Tell us who holds Taillemartel, and where is Sir Oliver?”

“Concerning Taillemartel, the castle hath been taken by Sir Bertrand de
Chargné, though there was but a poor defence. Only the Englishman,
Gripwell, and a few others struck blows for Sir Oliver’s cause. They say
that the King of England hath declared war ‘gainst this country, and
that every Islander hath either been thrown into prison or hath fled
across the seas. Beyond that I know little; but this I can tell you: Sir
Oliver is still a captive of the Lord of Malevereux.”

“But with mine own eyes I saw my father fight his way out of Malevereux,
Néron.”

“Then the saints be praised, monsieur. But, be that as it may, Sir
Oliver hath not set foot in Taillemartel since the evil day when he was
taken by the Tyrant.”

“And Gripwell—what of him?”

“I cannot say with certainty. Some would have it that he hath gotten
clear away, after vanquishing five of de Chargné’s men-at-arms.”

“I trust it may be true; but, tell me, what befel Henri, son of Sir
Yves? I was told that he died before his trencher.”

“Nay, whoever told thee that lied in his throat. He tried to escape by
rending his sheets into strips and making a rope, but the rope broke and
he fell to his death.”

“Whither goest thou, Néron?”

“To the castle, monsieur,” replied the Norman apologetically. “A man
must live, e’en if he hath to serve a new master. But, monsieur, thou
art worn and hungry, and so is thy friend.”

“Ay, that we are,” assented Geoffrey. “Perchance thou canst furnish us
with food, and put us on the safest road to the coast?”

“Concerning food, if ye will bear me company to the village of Tierny,
which hath so far escaped the freebooter, at the house of _ma belle
mère_ ye can be accommodated. ‘Tis but two leagues distant, and it
matters little when I return to Taillemartel.”

“Thanks, good Néron. Some day I hope to repay thee.”

“When Sir Oliver again comes to Taillemartel as its master, monsieur,”
replied Le Boeuf sententiously.

The Norman and the two youths bent their steps in the direction of
Tierny, the former talking volubly the while concerning the events of
the day, in which he seemed well versed.

At the house of his wife’s mother he procured food for the fugitives,
and when they had eaten they prepared to take their leave.

“Nay, I cannot give thee directions for the whole journey,” he replied
in answer to a question. “But ’tis said that the road through Valions,
St. Barre-en-ville and Plesse will bring thee to Harfleur, being more
direct than by the banks of the river. As it seemeth certain that ye’ll
not go further than St. Barre this day, I commend ye to one Charles
Vidoe, who keeps the _Sign of the Lion_. Say that ye are known to Néron
de Boeuf and your comfort is assured.”

With a final adieu the Norman bade the lads farewell, and began to
retrace his footsteps towards Taillemartel, while Geoffrey and Oswald,
still footsore, yet the better for a good meal, resumed their long
journey towards Harfleur and England.

“This is great news, if it be true,” said Oswald. “Perchance ere we
reach the coast an English army will have set foot on French soil.”

“But if so, how are we to find a ship that will bear us across the
channel?” asked Geoffrey.

“In that case we stop with the forces of our King,” replied Oswald.

“Nay, ’tis not that I mean. If war hath broken out, and the English army
hath not yet left our shores, it will be well-nigh impossible to get
clear of French soil.”

“Then we must bide our time. Meanwhile thou and I are poor peasants
bound for Harfleur, whither our relatives have already gone. This will
be the surest way of evading awkward questions.”

Ere the lads reached Valions their plan of action was already decided.
Without incident, and practically unnoticed, they passed through the
little village and began the last stage of their day’s journey.

For the most part of the three leagues into St. Barre the road ran in a
straight line, flanked on either side by gaunt willows.

In the ill-tilled fields a few peasants were at their labours, but the
sight of two strangers had the effect of making them run for their
lives. The frequent attention of freebooters had crushed the spirit of
the miserable countrymen, and a craven fear of their fellow-men had
become the chief characteristic of the French sons of the soil.

“This must be St. Barre,” said Oswald, pointing to a small hamlet at the
foot of a hill. “Think of the pleasure of being able to sleep on fresh
straw.”

“Tis not to be lightly esteemed,” replied Geoffrey. “But let us proceed
with caution, for, unless I be mistaken, there are more people in St.
Barre than the village can hold.”

It was well that the lads exercised care, for on nearing the hamlet they
found that it was in possession of a strong body of cross-bowmen and
spearmen, wearing the arms of De Chargné upon their surcoats.

“Not only does he hold Taillemartel, but the countryside as well,”
remarked Oswald bitterly. “We must needs sleep in the open this night,
since ’tis madness to enter the village. Alas and alack for my bed of
fresh straw!”

“Nay, it might have been worse,” replied Geoffrey encouragingly. “We
might have set our heads in a trap. But the sun sinks low; we must cast
about for a resting-place if we are not to lie upon the open ground.”

A short distance from where the lads stood a ruined outbuilding reared
itself by the roadside. Its thatched roof had almost totally
disappeared, the gaunt rafters standing out clearly against the red glow
in the sky.

“This must needs serve,” exclaimed Geoffrey, as they arrived at the
barn. “I’ faith, if we have no worse company than rats I am content.”

The building consisted of only one storey, but on the horizontal beams
beneath the roof a few planks had been left. Geoffrey contrived with
little difficulty to gain the lofty perch, whence he assisted his
comrade, who still felt the effects of his wound, to reach the scanty
planking of the loft. Here they found that the remnant of the thatch
afforded tolerable shelter, and wrapping themselves in their cloaks they
were soon fast asleep.

When they awoke it was broad daylight. Although their slumber had been
sound, it was the babel of men’s voices that aroused the youths.

“I tell thee ’tis the fault of old Néron le Boeuf,” exclaimed a Norman
voice. “He hath deceived us.”

“If so, he’ll pay dearly for it,” replied another. “Yet why should he
play us false? With promise of a liberal reward—which of a surety his
greed would forbid him from refusing—’tis unlikely that he would have
sent us on a false errand.”

“He said that the English lads were to be at the _Sign of the Lion_ in
yonder village?”

“Ay, that he did. Yet those of our men who were in the village swear
that no stranger passed that way.”

“Perchance the rascals themselves have cheated us.”

“In any case Le Boeuf will pay for it. But we shall rue it too. No
prisoners, no reward, and three of the horses completely foundered. What
a greeting we shall have when we return to the castle!”

“Thou hast forgotten that we have one prisoner?”

“A man of mean condition. By St. Denis, were it not for the information
we may get from him, I’d as lief pass my knife across his throat. And,
look ye, comrades, since some of our horses are done up, ’twill be best
that two of ye stay here with the prisoner. The rest of us will push on
back to Taillemartel, whence we will send more horses for those that
tarry here.”

The lads heard this conversation with bated breath. Evidently Néron le
Boeuf, the trusted servant of Sir Oliver, was a traitor, and had not
scrupled to betray those whom he had appeared so anxious to befriend.

Cautiously the lads looked through a crevice in the planking of the
loft, fearful lest the slightest movement would cause the timbers to
creak, or would dislodge a portion of the mouldering thatch.

In the barn below were six bearded men-at-arms, clad in leather jerkins
studded with iron bosses. Each wore a long, straight-bladed sword with a
plain cross-hilt and a short knife or dagger. Why they had entered the
barn seemed a mystery, for they had not attempted to search the place,
and, fortunately, the lads had made no sound in their sleep that was
likely to betray their presence.

“Now, out with ye, and bring in the horses and the prisoner,” quoth a
man who was evidently the leader of the party. “And mark ye well. While
we are gone take heed that ye be not seen by our master, for, as ye
know, he journeys to Amiens this day. Had we not been fooled by this
rascally Le Boeuf ‘twould have mattered little, but, _ma foi!_ to be
discovered in this plight would mean a raw hide for us all.”

With this admonition four of the men went out, and on returning brought
with them two horses and a man, his arms bound behind his back.

To the lads’ astonishment the prisoner was none other than Arnold
Gripwell.

“Now, hasten, _mes camarades_,” continued the leader. “Ye that remain
keep a sharp eye on this rogue. If he gives trouble pass a knife across
his throat.”

“Give me a knife and a free hand, and I’ll serve any twain of ye in a
manner that ye’ll have good cause to remember,” growled Gripwell.

“Nay, thou rascal. Joseph and Gros Vibart yonder have already good cause
to remember thee. Anon we’ll give thee a knife, Master Englishman,
though not in the way thou wouldst.”

So saying, the Norman leader passed a thong round Arnold’s ankles—a
difficult task, for the old man-at-arms lashed out with his feet like an
untamed stallion—and at length the prisoner was secured. Then with a
parting caution the _sous-officier_ and three of the men rode off.

Left to themselves, the remaining two stood by their captive till the
sound of the horses’ hoofs had died away in the distance. Then they went
out, whereupon Gripwell began struggling to free himself of his bonds.

“Arnold! Arnold Gripwell,” said Geoffrey in a hoarse whisper, “’tis I,
Geoffrey Lysle, and Oswald too! Keep silent, and we’ll be at thy side in
an instant.”

“Save ye!” ejaculated the man-at-arms. “By all the saints of
Christendom, how came ye here?”

“Hush! Here they come,” cautioned the lad. Not a moment too soon; one of
the quick-eared Normans had detected the sound of a voice.

“What wert thou babbling about, rogue?” he asked, throwing down a bundle
of firewood that he had collected, and administering a vindictive kick
at the helpless prisoner.

“Can only a Frenchman call upon his patron saint?” demanded Arnold
fiercely.

Apparently the explanation sufficed, for the man said no more, but
arranged the firewood and set light to it. The thick smoke ascended to
the shattered roof, well-nigh causing the lads to choke and gasp for
breath.

Meanwhile the second Frenchman had taken a small iron pot from his
saddle bow, and had filled it with water from a leather bottle that hung
from the saddle of his companion’s horse, but on rising and stepping
back from the fire the first man upset the utensil and spilled every
drop of the liquid.

“A curse on thy clumsiness, Gros Vibart! Not a drain remains.”

“There is water to be had from the brook——”

“Two bow-shots away. Since thou hast caused the mischief thou canst best
make amends. Off with thee, I say.”

Gros Vibart grumblingly departed, leaving his comrade alternately
reviling him and the luckless Gripwell. Presently the Frenchman, having
exhausted his vocabulary of abuse, came to a standstill in the centre of
the barn, almost underneath the planks on which the lads were lying.

Cautiously Geoffrey raised himself into a crouching posture, then
unhesitatingly sprang upon the Frenchman’s shoulders. Down went the man
like a felled ox.

Without a moment’s delay Geoffrey cut the thongs that bound Gripwell’s
arms and legs, and, stiff and cramped, the man-at-arms slowly rose to
his feet.

“Certes! I little wot that ‘twould be by thy aid, Master Geoffrey. But a
truce to gossiping, for the other rogue will be here soon. Not that I
had lost hope, for I meant to outwit them both. There! Now my limbs
begin to feel themselves once more. Hand me thy dagger, for there’s more
work to be done ere we leave this place.”

Meanwhile Oswald had contrived to descend from his perch, feeling stiff
and weary with the partially-healed wound.

“Welcome, Arnold. But how say ye? How are we to evade the swarm of men
in yonder village?”

“Time to discuss that, young sir, when we have settled with the other
rascal—him I owe much for his scurvy treatment. My word! He’ll pay
dearly for kicking a trussed and helpless man.”

Presently Gros Vibart returned, but on entering the open door his ruddy
face blanched as he realized that the tables were turned. Yet he was not
devoid of courage, for, hurling the water-pot full at the English
man-at-arms, he drew his sword and rushed straight at his antagonists.

With uplifted arm Gripwell parried the missile. The next instant steel
crossed—the heavy double-edged blade of the Norman and the slender
dagger of the Englishman.

With an agility that belied his corpulent frame Gros Vibart got in a
lightning thrust that required all Gripwell’s skill to parry, but the
Norman’s blade, slipping down the steel of his foeman, caught in a
deadly notch in the Englishman’s guard. A powerful turn of Arnold’s
wrist sent his antagonist’s weapon hurtling across the barn; and, so
quickly that the lads could scarce follow its thrust, the dagger was
plunged to the hilt in the Frenchman’s bull throat.

“Now to work,” exclaimed Gripwell breathlessly. “Strip yon carrion while
I serve this one the like. Geoffrey, thou art tall for thine age. That
rogue’s garments will suit thee most passably. I will make shift with
this one’s clothes, e’en though they be over full for my lean frame.”

“And what of Oswald?”

“He must needs go as he is. Thou and I are to be of De Chargné’s
following. Master Oswald is to be our prisoner, and we are bound for
Amiens, where De Chargné is now resting. If that will not serve we are
undone.”

It did not take long to complete their preparations. Geoffrey and Arnold
donned the clothes of the slain Normans, whose bodies were forthwith
hidden in the long grass. The horses were led for a considerable
distance; then, finding they were useless, the Englishmen turned them
adrift.

By making a wide détour the adventurers succeeded in giving the slip to
the troops in the village of St. Barre, and in high spirits the three
comrades in misfortune set off on the road to Amiens.