To the south of Pampeluna in the kingdom of Navarre there stretched a hig_able-land, rising into bare, sterile hills, brown or gray in color, an_trewn with huge boulders of granite. On the Gascon side of the grea_ountains there had been running streams, meadows, forests, and littl_estling villages. Here, on the contrary, were nothing but naked rocks, poo_asture, and savage, stone-strewn wastes. Gloomy defiles or barranca_ntersected this wild country with mountain torrents dashing and foamin_etween their rugged sides. The clatter of waters, the scream of the eagle, and the howling of wolves the only sounds which broke upon the silence in tha_reary and inhospitable region.
Through this wild country it was that Sir Nigel and his Company pushed thei_ay, riding at times through vast defiles where the brown, gnarled cliffs sho_p on either side of them, and the sky was but a long winding blue sli_etween the clustering lines of box which fringed the lips of the precipices; or, again leading their horses along the narrow and rocky paths worn by th_uleteers upon the edges of the chasm, where under their very elbows the_ould see the white streak which marked the _gave_ which foamed a thousan_eet below them. So for two days they pushed their way through the wild place_f Navarre, past Fuente, over the rapid Ega, through Estella, until upon _inter's evening the mountains fell away from in front of them, and they sa_he broad blue Ebro curving betwixt its double line or homesteads and o_illages. The fishers of Viana were aroused that night by rough voice_peaking in a strange tongue, and ere morning Sir Nigel and his men ha_erried the river and were safe upon the land of Spain.
All the next day they lay in a pine wood near to the town of Logrono, restin_heir horses and taking counsel as to what they should do. Sir Nigel had wit_im Sir William Felton, Sir Oliver Buttesthorn, stout old Sir Simon Burley, the Scotch knight-errant, the Earl of Angus, and Sir Richard Causton, al_ccounted among the bravest knights in the army, together with sixty vetera_en-at-arms, and three hundred and twenty archers. Spies had been sent out i_he morning, and returned after nightfall to say that the King of Spain wa_ncamped some fourteen miles off in the direction of Burgos, having with hi_wenty thousand horse and forty-five thousand foot.
A dry-wood fire had been lit, and round this the leaders crouched, the glar_eating upon their rugged faces, while the hardy archers lounged and chatte_mid the tethered horses, while they munched their scanty provisions.
"For my part," said Sir Simon Burley, "I am of opinion that we have alread_one that which we have come for. For do we not now know where the king is, and how great a following he hath, which was the end of our journey."
"True," answered Sir William Felton, "but I have come on this venture becaus_t is a long time since I have broken a spear in war, and, certes, I shall no_o back until I have run a course with some cavalier of Spain. Let those g_ack who will, but I must see more of these Spaniards ere I turn."
"I will not leave you, Sir William," returned Sir Simon Burley; "and yet, a_n old soldier and one who hath seen much of war, I cannot but think that i_s an ill thing for four hundred men to find themselves between an army o_ixty thousand on the one side and a broad river on the other."
"Yet," said Sir Richard Causton, "we cannot for the honor of England go bac_ithout a blow struck."
"Nor for the honor of Scotland either," cried the Earl of Angus. "By Sain_ndrew! I wish that I may never set eyes upon the water of Leith again, if _luck my horse's bridle ere I have seen this camp of theirs."
"By Saint Paul! you have spoken very well," said Sir Nigel, "and I have alway_eard that there were very worthy gentlemen among the Scots, and fin_kirmishing to be had upon their border. Bethink you, Sir Simon, that we hav_his news from the lips of common spies, who can scarce tell us as much of th_nemy and of his forces as the prince would wish to hear."
"You are the leader in this venture, Sir Nigel," the other answered, "and I d_ut ride under your banner."
"Yet I would fain have your rede and counsel, Sir Simon. But, touching wha_ou say of the river, we can take heed that we shall not have it at the bac_f us, for the prince hath now advanced to Salvatierra, and thence t_ittoria, so that if we come upon their camp from the further side we can mak_ood our retreat."
"What then would you propose?" asked Sir Simon, shaking his grizzled head a_ne who is but half convinced.
"That we ride forward ere the news reach them that we have crossed the river.
In this way we may have sight of their army, and perchance even find occasio_or some small deed against them."
"So be it, then," said Sir Simon Burley; and the rest of the council havin_pproved, a scanty meal was hurriedly snatched, and the advance resumed unde_he cover of the darkness. All night they led their horses, stumbling an_roping through wild defiles and rugged valleys, following the guidance of _rightened peasant who was strapped by the wrist to Black Simon's stirrup- leather. With the early dawn they found themselves in a black ravine, wit_thers sloping away from it on either side, and the bare brown crags rising i_ong bleak terraces all round them.
"If it please you, fair lord," said Black Simon, "this man hath misled us, an_ince there is no tree upon which we may hang him, it might be well to hur_im over yonder cliff."
The peasant, reading the soldier's meaning in his fierce eyes and hars_ccents dropped upon his knees, screaming loudly for mercy.
"How comes it, dog?" asked Sir William Felton in Spanish. "Where is this cam_o which you swore that you would lead us?"
"By the sweet Virgin! By the blessed Mother of God!" cried the tremblin_easant, "I swear to you that in the darkness I have myself lost the path."
"Over the cliff with him!" shouted half a dozen voices; but ere the archer_ould drag him from the rocks to which he clung Sir Nigel had ridden up an_alled upon them to stop.
"How is this, sirs?" said he. "As long as the prince doth me the honor t_ntrust this venture to me, it is for me only to give orders; and, by Sain_aul! I shall be right blithe to go very deeply into the matter with any on_o whom my words may give offence. How say you, Sir William? Or you, my Lor_f Angus? Or you, Sir Richard?"
"Nay, nay, Nigel!" cried Sir William. "This base peasant is too small a matte_or old comrades to quarrel over. But he hath betrayed us, and certes he hat_erited a dog's death."
"Hark ye, fellow," said Sir Nigel. "We give you one more chance to find th_ath. We are about to gain much honor, Sir William, in this enterprise, and i_ould be a sorry thing if the first blood shed were that of an unworthy boor.
Let us say our morning orisons, and it may chance that ere we finish he ma_trike upon the track."
With bowed heads and steel caps in hand, the archers stood at their horse'_eads, while Sir Simon Burley repeated the Pater, the Ave, and the Credo. Lon_id Alleyne bear the scene in mind—the knot of knights in their dull leaden- hued armor, the ruddy visage of Sir Oliver, the craggy features of th_cottish earl, the shining scalp of Sir Nigel, with the dense ring of hard, bearded faces and the long brown heads of the horses, all topped and circle_y the beetling cliffs. Scarce had the last deep "amen" broken from th_ompany, when, in an instant, there rose the scream of a hundred bugles, wit_he deep rolling of drums and the clashing of cymbals, all sounding togethe_n one deafening uproar. Knights and archers sprang to arms, convinced tha_ome great host was upon them; but the guide dropped upon his knees an_hanked Heaven for its mercies.
"We have found them, caballeros!" he cried. "This is their morning call. If y_ill but deign to follow me, I will set them before you ere a man might tel_is beads."
As he spoke he scrambled down one of the narrow ravines, and, climbing over _ow ridge at the further end, he led them into a short valley with a strea_urling down the centre of it and a very thick growth of elder and of box upo_ither side. Pushing their way through the dense brushwood, they looked ou_pon a scene which made their hearts beat harder and their breath come faster.
In front of them there lay a broad plain, watered by two winding streams an_overed with grass, stretching away to where, in the furthest distance, th_owers of Burgos bristled up against the light blue morning sky. Over all thi_ast meadow there lay a great city of tents—thousands upon thousands of them, laid out in streets and in squares like a well-ordered town. High silke_avilions or colored marquees, shooting up from among the crowd of meane_wellings, marked where the great lords and barons of Leon and Castil_isplayed their standards, while over the white roofs, as far as eye coul_each, the waving of ancients, pavons, pensils, and banderoles, with flash o_old and glow of colors, proclaimed that all the chivalry of Iberia wer_ustered in the plain beneath them. Far off, in the centre of the camp, a hug_alace of red and white silk, with the royal arms of Castile waiving from th_ummit, announced that the gallant Henry lay there in the midst of hi_arriors.
As the English adventurers, peeping out from behind their brushwood screen, looked down upon this wondrous sight they could see that the vast army i_ront of them was already afoot. The first pink light of the rising su_littered upon the steel caps and breastplates of dense masses of slingers an_f crossbowmen, who drilled and marched in the spaces which had been left fo_heir exercise. A thousand columns of smoke reeked up into the pure mornin_ir where the faggots were piled and the camp-kettles already simmering. I_he open plain clouds of light horse galloped and swooped with swaying bodie_nd waving javelins, after the fashion which the Spanish had adopted fro_heir Moorish enemies. All along by the sedgy banks of the rivers long line_f pages led their masters' chargers down to water, while the knight_hemselves lounged in gayly-dressed groups about the doors of their pavilions, or rode out, with their falcons upon their wrists and their greyhounds behin_hem, in quest of quail or of leveret.
"By my hilt! mon gar.!" whispered Aylward to Alleyne, as the young squir_tood with parted lips and wondering eyes, gazing down at the novel scen_efore him, "we have been seeking them all night, but now that we have foun_hem I know not what we are to do with them."
"You say sooth, Samkin," quoth old Johnston. "I would that we were upon th_ar side of Ebro again, for there is neither honor nor profit to be gaine_ere. What say you, Simon?"
"By the rood!" cried the fierce man-at-arms, "I will see the color of thei_lood ere I turn my mare's head for the mountains. Am I a child, that I shoul_ide for three days and nought but words at the end of it?"
"Well said, my sweet honeysuckle!" cried Hordle John. "I am with you, lik_ilt to blade. Could I but lay hands upon one of those gay prancers yonder, _oubt not that I should have ransom enough from him to buy my mother a ne_ow."
"A cow!" said Aylward. "Say rather ten acres and a homestead on the banks o_von."
"Say you so? Then, by our Lady! here is for yonder one in the red jerkin!"
He was about to push recklessly forward into the open, when Sir Nigel himsel_arted in front of him, with his hand upon his breast.
"Back!" said he. "Our time is not yet come, and we must lie here unti_vening. Throw off your jacks and headpieces, least their eyes catch th_hine, and tether the horses among the rocks."
The order was swiftly obeyed, and in ten minutes the archers were stretche_long by the side of the brook, munching the bread and the bacon which the_ad brought in their bags, and craning their necks to watch the ever-changin_cene beneath them. Very quiet and still they lay, save for a muttered jest o_hispered order, for twice during the long morning they heard bugle-calls fro_mid the hills on either side of them, which showed that they had thrus_hemselves in between the outposts of the enemy. The leaders sat amongst th_ox-wood, and took counsel together as to what they should do; while fro_elow there surged up the buzz of voices, the shouting, the neighing o_orses, and all the uproar of a great camp.
"What boots it to wait?" said Sir William Felton. "Let us ride down upon thei_amp ere they discover us."
"And so say I," cried the Scottish earl; "for they do not know that there i_ny enemy within thirty long leagues of them."
"For my part," said Sir Simon Burley, "I think that it is madness, for yo_annot hope to rout this great army; and where are you to go and what are yo_o do when they have turned upon you? How say you, Sir Oliver Buttesthorn?"
"By the apple of Eve!" cried the fat knight, "it appears to me that this win_rings a very savory smell of garlic and of onions from their cooking-kettles.
I am in favor of riding down upon them at once, if my old friend and comrad_ere is of the same mind."
"Nay," said Sir Nigel, "I have a plan by which we may attempt some small dee_pon them, and yet, by the help of God, may be able to draw off again; which, as Sir Simon Burley hath said, would be scarce possible in any other way."
"How then, Sir Nigel?" asked several voices.
"We shall lie here all day; for amid this brushwood it is ill for them to se_s. Then when evening comes we shall sally out upon them and see if we may no_ain some honorable advancement from them."
"But why then rather than now?"
"Because we shall have nightfall to cover us when we draw off, so that we ma_ake our way back through the mountains. I would station a score of archer_ere in the pass, with all our pennons jutting forth from the rocks, and a_any nakirs and drums and bugles as we have with us, so that those who follo_s in the fading light may think that the whole army of the prince is upo_hem, and fear to go further. What think you of my plan, Sir Simon?"
"By my troth! I think very well of it," cried the prudent old commander. "I_our hundred men must needs run a tilt against sixty thousand, I cannot se_ow they can do it better or more safely."
"And so say I," cried Felton, heartily. "But I wish the day were over, for i_ill be an ill thing for us if they chance to light upon us."
The words were scarce out of his mouth when there came a clatter of loos_tones, the sharp clink of trotting hoofs, and a dark-faced cavalier, mounte_pon a white horse, burst through the bushes and rode swiftly down the valle_rom the end which was farthest from the Spanish camp. Lightly armed, with hi_izor open and a hawk perched upon his left wrist, he looked about him wit_he careless air of a man who is bent wholly upon pleasure, and unconscious o_he possibility of danger. Suddenly, however, his eyes lit upon the fierc_aces which glared out at him from the brushwood. With a cry of terror, h_hrust his spurs into his horse's sides and dashed for the narrow opening o_he gorge. For a moment it seemed as though he would have reached it, for h_ad trampled over or dashed aside the archers who threw themselves in his way; but Hordle John seized him by the foot in his grasp of iron and dragged hi_rom the saddle, while two others caught the frightened horse.
"Ho, ho!" roared the great archer. "How many cows wilt buy my mother, if I se_hee free?"
"Hush that bull's bellowing!" cried Sir Nigel impatiently. "Bring the ma_ere. By St. Paul! it is not the first time that we have met; for, if _istake not, it is Don Diego Alvarez, who was once at the prince's court."
"It is indeed I," said the Spanish knight, speaking in the French tongue, "an_ pray you to pass your sword through my heart, for how can I live—I, _aballero of Castile—after being dragged from my horse by the base hands of _ommon archer?"
"Fret not for that," answered Sir Nigel. "For, in sooth, had he not pulled yo_own, a dozen cloth-yard shafts had crossed each other in your body."
"By St. James! it were better so than to be polluted by his touch," answere_he Spaniard, with his black eyes sparkling with rage and hatred. "I trus_hat I am now the prisoner of some honorable knight or gentleman."
"You are the prisoner of the man who took you, Sir Diego," answered Sir Nigel.
"And I may tell you that better men than either you or I have found themselve_efore now prisoners in the hands of archers of England."
"What ransom, then, does he demand?" asked the Spaniard.
Big John scratched his red head and grinned in high delight when the questio_as propounded to him. "Tell him," said he, "that I shall have ten cows and _ull too, if it be but a little one. Also a dress of blue sendall for mothe_nd a red one for Joan; with five acres of pasture-land, two scythes, and _ine new grindstone. Likewise a small house, with stalls for the cows, an_hirty-six gallons of beer for the thirsty weather."
"Tut, tut!" cried Sir Nigel, laughing. "All these things may be had for money; and I think, Don Diego, that five thousand crowns is not too much for s_enowned a knight."
"It shall be duly paid him."
"For some days we must keep you with us; and I must crave leave also to us_our shield, your armor, and your horse."
"My harness is yours by the law of arms," said the Spaniard, gloomily.
"I do but ask the loan of it. I have need of it this day, but it shall be dul_eturned to you. Set guards, Aylward, with arrow on string, at either end o_he pass; for it may happen that some other cavaliers may visit us ere th_ime be come." All day the little band of Englishmen lay in the sheltere_orge, looking down upon the vast host of their unconscious enemies. Shortl_fter mid-day, a great uproar of shouting and cheering broke out in the camp, with mustering of men and calling of bugles. Clambering up among the rocks, the companions saw a long rolling cloud of dust along the whole eastern sky- line, with the glint of spears and the flutter of pennons, which announced th_pproach of a large body of cavalry. For a moment a wild hope came upon the_hat perhaps the prince had moved more swiftly than had been planned, that h_ad crossed the Ebro, and that this was his vanguard sweeping to the attack.
"Surely I see the red pile of Chandos at the head of yonder squadron!" crie_ir Richard Causton, shading his eyes with his hand.
"Not so," answered Sir Simon Burley, who had watched the approaching host wit_ darkening face. "It is even as I feared. That is the double eagle of D_uesclin."
"You say very truly," cried the Earl of Angus. "These are the levies o_rance, for I can see the ensigns of the Marshal d'Andreghen, with that of th_ord of Antoing and of Briseuil, and of many another from Brittany and Anjou."
"By St. Paul! I am very glad of it," said Sir Nigel. "Of these Spaniards _now nothing; but the French are very worthy gentlemen, and will do what the_an for our advancement."
"There are at the least four thousand of them, and all men-at-arms," cried Si_illiam Felton. "See, there is Bertrand himself, beside his banner, and ther_s King Henry, who rides to welcome him. Now they all turn and come into th_amp together."
As he spoke, the vast throng of Spaniards and of Frenchmen trooped across th_lain, with brandished arms and tossing banners. All day long the sound o_evelry and of rejoicing from the crowded camp swelled up to the ears of th_nglishmen, and they could see the soldiers of the two nations throwin_hemselves into each other's arms and dancing hand-in-hand round the blazin_ires. The sun had sunk behind a cloud-bank in the west before Sir Nigel a_ast gave word that the men should resume their arms and have their horse_eady. He had himself thrown off his armor, and had dressed himself from hea_o foot in the harness of the captured Spaniard.
"Sir William," said he, "it is my intention to attempt a small deed, and I as_ou therefore that you will lead this outfall upon the camp. For me, I wil_ide into their camp with my squire and two archers. I pray you to watch me, and to ride forth when I am come among the tents. You will leave twenty me_ehind here, as we planned this morning, and you will ride back here after yo_ave ventured as far as seems good to you."
"I will do as you order, Nigel; but what is it that you propose to do?"
"You will see anon, and indeed it is but a trifling matter. Alleyne, you wil_ome with me, and lead a spare horse by the bridle. I will have the tw_rchers who rode with us through France, for they are trusty men and of stou_eart. Let them ride behind us, and let them leave their bows here among th_ushes for it is not my wish that they should know that we are Englishmen. Sa_o word to any whom we may meet, and, if any speak to you, pass on as thoug_ou heard them not. Are you ready?"
"I am ready, my fair lord," said Alleyne.
"And I," "And I," cried Aylward and John.
"Then the rest I leave to your wisdom, Sir William; and if God sends u_ortune we shall meet you again in this gorge ere it be dark."
So saying, Sir Nigel mounted the white horse of the Spanish cavalier, and rod_uietly forth from his concealment with his three companions behind him, Alleyne leading his master's own steed by the bridle. So many small parties o_rench and Spanish horse were sweeping hither and thither that the small ban_ttracted little notice, and making its way at a gentle trot across the plain, they came as far as the camp without challenge or hindrance. On and on the_ushed past the endless lines of tents, amid the dense swarms of horsemen an_f footmen, until the huge royal pavilion stretched in front of them. The_ere close upon it when of a sudden there broke out a wild hubbub from _istant portion of the camp, with screams and war-cries and all the wil_umult of battle. At the sound soldiers came rushing from their tents, knight_houted loudly for their squires, and there was mad turmoil on every hand o_ewildered men and plunging horses. At the royal tent a crowd of gorgeousl_ressed servants ran hither and thither in helpless panic for the guard o_oldiers who were stationed there had already ridden off in the direction o_he alarm. A man-at-arms on either side of the doorway were the sol_rotectors of the royal dwelling.
"I have come for the king," whispered Sir Nigel; "and, by Saint Paul! he mus_ack with us or I must bide here."
Alleyne and Aylward sprang from their horses, and flew at the two sentries, who were disarmed and beaten down in an instant by so furious and unexpecte_n attack. Sir Nigel dashed into the royal tent, and was followed by Hordl_ohn as soon as the horses had been secured. From within came wild screaming_nd the clash of steel, and then the two emerged once more, their swords an_orearms reddened with blood, while John bore over his shoulder the senseles_ody of a man whose gay surcoat, adorned with the lions and towers of Castile, proclaimed him to belong to the royal house. A crowd of white-faced sewers an_ages swarmed at their heels, those behind pushing forwards, while th_oremost shrank back from the fierce faces and reeking weapons of th_dventurers. The senseless body was thrown across the spare horse, the fou_prang to their saddles, and away they thundered with loose reins and bus_purs through the swarming camp.
But confusion and disorder still reigned among the Spaniards for Sir Willia_elton and his men had swept through half their camp, leaving a long litter o_he dead and the dying to mark their course. Uncertain who were thei_ttackers, and unable to tell their English enemies from their newly-arrive_reton allies, the Spanish knights rode wildly hither and thither in aimles_ury. The mad turmoil, the mixture of races, and the fading light, were all i_avor of the four who alone knew their own purpose among the vast uncertai_ultitude. Twice ere they reached open ground they had to break their wa_hrough small bodies of horses, and once there came a whistle of arrows an_inging of stones about their ears; but, still dashing onwards, they shot ou_rom among the tents and found their own comrades retreating for the mountain_t no very great distance from them. Another five minutes of wild gallopin_ver the plain, and they were all back in their gorge, while their pursuer_ell back before the rolling of drums and blare of trumpets, which seemed t_roclaim that the whole army of the prince was about to emerge from th_ountain passes.
"By my soul! Nigel," cried Sir Oliver, waving a great boiled ham over hi_ead, "I have come by something which I may eat with my truffles! I had a har_ight for it, for there were three of them with their mouths open and th_nives in their hands, all sitting agape round the table, when I rushed i_pon them. How say you, Sir William, will you not try the smack of the fame_panish swine, though we have but the brook water to wash it down?"
"Later, Sir Oliver," answered the old soldier, wiping his grimed face. "W_ust further into the mountains ere we be in safety. But what have we here, Nigel?"
"It is a prisoner whom I have taken, and in sooth, as he came from the roya_ent and wears the royal arms upon his jupon, I trust that he is the King o_pain."
"The King of Spain!" cried the companions, crowding round in amazement.
"Nay, Sir Nigel," said Felton, peering at the prisoner through the uncertai_ight, "I have twice seen Henry of Transtamare, and certes this man in no wa_esembles him."
"Then, by the light of heaven! I will ride back for him," cried Sir Nigel.
"Nay, nay, the camp is in arms, and it would be rank madness. Who are you, fellow?" he added in Spanish, "and how is it that you dare to wear the arms o_astile?"
The prisoner was bent recovering the consciousness which had been squeeze_rom him by the grip of Hordle John. "If it please you," he answered, "I an_ine others are the body-squires of the king, and must ever wear his arms, s_s to shield him from even such perils as have threatened him this night. Th_ing is at the tent of the brave Du Guesclin, where he will sup to night. Bu_ am a caballero of Aragon, Don Sancho Penelosa, and, though I be no king, _m yet ready to pay a fitting price for my ransom."
"By Saint Paul! I will not touch your gold," cried Sir Nigel. "Go back to you_aster and give him greeting from Sir Nigel Loring of Twynham Castle, tellin_im that I had hoped to make his better acquaintance this night, and that, i_ have disordered his tent, it was but in my eagerness to know so famed an_ourteous a knight. Spur on, comrades! for we must cover many a league ere w_an venture to light fire or to loosen girth. I had hoped to ride without thi_atch to-night, but it seems that I must carry it yet a little longer."