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The Man On Horseback

From: The Doomsman

Gavan of the Greenwood Keep was a prosperous man according to the
standard of these latter days, and his estate was reckoned to be the
largest and finest holding in all the western country-side. A man might
walk from break of day until darkness and yet not complete the periphery
of its boundary-lines, but the palisaded portion included only the
arable land and home paddocks and was of comparatively limited extent.
Viewed from a bird's-eye elevation, this stockaded enclosure appeared to
be laid out in the shape of a pear, the house being situated near the
small end. The greatest length of the area thus enclosed was a mile and
a half, and it was three-quarters of a mile wide at the big or southern
side, tapering down to a couple of hundred yards at the northern
entrance or barrier.

A quarter of a mile back from the north gate stood the keep, not one
distinct building, but rather several, built in the form of a hollow
square and consolidated for mutual protection. The principal entrance,
the one at the northern end, was called the water gate, for it should be
explained that the keep stood on the bank of the Ochre brook and access
was only possible by means of a drawbridge. Some day Sir Gavan intended
to turn the course of the stream so as to carry it around the keep and
thereby secure the protection of a continuous moat. But hitherto other
duties had seemed more pressing, and the plan was still in abeyance.

Entering through the covered way of the water gate, with guard-room and
bailiff's office to the right and left, one found himself in the
court-yard, some fifty yards in the square. On the right were the
cow-barns, horse-stalls, granaries, tool-houses, and store-buildings,
while the dwelling proper, known as the Great House, occupied the entire
left of the square, the kitchens and other offices adjoining the
retainers' quarters on the south. An enormous hall, running clear to the
roof, took up the central portion of the house, staircases and galleries
affording access to the store and sleeping-rooms on the second and attic
stories. The roof proper was surmounted by a para-petted and loop-holed
structure called the fighting platform, and it was thither that Constans
had repaired upon receiving the startling intelligence of his sister's
disappearance. Let us rejoin him there.

In the leisurely moving figure glimpsed through the birches, Constans
had instantly recognized Issa. Plainly she had been out flower-hunting;
with the aid of his binoculars he could determine that she carried a
bunch of the delicate pink-and-white blossoms that we call May-bloom.
She was directing her steps straight for the house, but either she was
unaccountably deaf to the continuous clanging of the alarm-bell or,
still more strangely, unaware of its significance; she walked as though
in a reverie, slowly and with her head bent forward. Thunder of God! it
was a trap, and the foolish girl would not see. Unquestionably, the
Doomsmen had forced the stockade at some distant point and were even now
in ambush about the keep. But Constans, for all his keenness of vision
and the assistance of his glass, could discover nothing to indicate the
presence of any considerable body of men. There was no one in actual
sight save he who sat upon his blood-bay steed, girth deep in the Ochre
brook under shadow of the alders. Only one, but that one!

Constans found himself in the court-yard; how he scarcely knew. The
water gate still stood open with the drawbridge lowered, but both could
be easily secured within a few seconds should the enemy venture upon any
open demonstration. Sir Gavan stood in the covered way talking anxiously
with his eldest son Tennant, who had just returned from an unsuccessful
search of the upper orchard.

Constans, in his confusion of mind, did not notice his father and
brother; he ran across the court-yard to the horse-boxes. His black mare
Night whickered upon recognizing her master, and tried to rub her muzzle
against his cheek as he fumbled with the throat-latch of the bridle. An
instant longer, to lead out the mare and vault upon her back, and he was
clattering through the court-yard and covered way.

Upon reaching the open Constans saw that the situation had developed
into a crisis. The cavalier of the ostrich-feather had forced his horse
up the steep bank of the Ochre brook and was riding slowly towards the
girl, who stood motionless, realizing her perilous position, but unable
for the moment to cope with it. She half turned, as though to seek again
the shelter of the birchen copse; then, clutching at her impeding
skirts, she ran in the direction of the keep. He of the ostrich-plume
spurred to the gallop; inevitably their paths must intersect a few yards
farther on.

From behind came the noise of men shouting and the thud of quarrels
impinging upon stout oak; the Doomsmen, hitherto in hiding, were making
a diversion, in answer, doubtless, to a signal from their leader. A
hundred gray-garbed men showed themselves in the open, coming from the
shelter of the fir plantation back of the rickyards; they ran towards
the open water gate, exposing themselves recklessly in their eagerness
to reach it.

But the defenders were not to be surprised so easily, and Constans,
glancing backward, saw that the drawbridge was already in the air and
the gate closed. The outlaws, realizing that the surprise was a failure,
and unwilling to brave the arrows sent whistling about their ears from
the fighting platforms of the keep, fell back in some disorder. At the
same moment a solitary figure appeared, emerging as though by magic from
the solid wall of the keep--Sir Gavan himself, a father forgetful of all
else but the peril of his children. He must have used the "Rat's-Hole"
for egress; he hurried down the green slope, calling his daughter by
name. All this Constans saw in that swift backward glance. Well, there
was but one thing that he could do.

And Night knew it, too; brave little Night, how cleverly you forced
yourself under the towering bulk of that brute of a blood-bay! A thunder
of hoofs and they were in touch; Constans felt himself hurled into
space; the bridle-reins of tough plaited leather were torn from his
hands; Night and he were down.

The dust cloud cleared and the boy struggled up, although his head was
still spinning from the shock of the encounter. Ten yards away lay the
black mare with a broken foreleg. She was trying to rise, her eyes
glazed with pain and her flanks heaving horribly.

The blood-bay had kept his feet and his master his saddle--a hardy pair,
these two. But the desperate expedient had proved successful in that
Issa was safe. Already Sir Gavan had her in his arms, and before the
horseman had fully found himself the fugitives were under the shadow of
the keep's walls.

The question of his own danger did not immediately concern Constans; he
had no eyes for anything but Night lying there in her agony. His father
had given him the horse when she was a foal of a week old, and Constans
had broken and trained her himself. Well, she had served him faithfully,
and in return he would show her the last mercy. His knife-sheath hung
from his girdle; he drew out the blade and drove it home just behind the
glossy black shoulder. Night shuddered and lay still. The knife had
sunken deep, and Constans had to exert all his strength to withdraw it.
The bare point of a rapier touched him meaningly on the arm; he stood up
and faced his enemy.

The man on horseback laughed softly. "Oho, my young cockerel, it was but
a touch of the gaff, and now that you are ready is reason sufficient why
I should prefer to wait. But that neither of us may forget--" He bent
down and caught Constans by the shoulders, turning him around and
forcing him backward until his head rested against the blood-bay's
withers. Two slashes of his hunting-knife and a tiny, triangular nick
appeared on the upper part of the lad's right ear.

"That is my sign-manual of which I spoke to you an hour or more ago. It
is Quinton Edge's mark, as all men know, and it brands whatever bears it
as Quinton Edge's property. Some day I may deem it worth while to claim
my own; until then you can be my caretaker, my tenant. What! no answer?
And yet it is a generous offer, I think, considering how sore my arm has
grown and how impertinently you behaved just now in interfering between
me and a lady. Light of God! but she is a bewitching bundle of
femineity. But twice, boy, have I seen her; hardly a dozen words have

He stopped abruptly and gazed hard at Constans. Then slowly:

"Your sister, I take it; there is the same straight line of eyebrow. No
answer again? Well, we will pass it over for the nonce; you have still
many things to learn, and, chiefly, to becomingly order body and soul in
the presence of your lord. After all, it pleases me better to have the
last word from the lady's own lips; she had been most discourteously
treated, and I would fain be shriven. Until we meet again, then."

The cavalier put spur to the blood-bay's flank and rode straight for the
Great House. The boy stood staring after him; he did not notice the
trickle of blood from the cut in his ear; he was not even conscious that
he was still in life. He remembered only the unforgivable affront which
this man had put upon him, the mark which was the infamous badge of the
bondman, the slave. Quinton Edge! Ah, yes; he would remember that face
and name.

The Doomsman had ridden in cool defiance up to the very walls of the
keep. It would have been an easy matter for one of the garrison to have
bored his gay jacket through with a feathered shaft, and for a moment
Constans trembled, fearing lest some overzealous partisan should thus
rob him of his future vengeance. But the very audacity of the man proved
the saving of his skin. They were brave men who manned the fighting
platforms of the Greenwood Keep, and they could not bring themselves to
set upon naked courage.

Constans fancied that the man spoke to some one who stood hidden in the
deep embrasure of a window, but it was too far to either see or hear.
Then it seemed that a small object fell lightly from the window-sill.
The Doomsman caught it dexterously and fastened it on his breast.
Another low bow and, wheeling his horse, he dashed down the slope.
Constans ran blindly to meet him; why, he did not know. He who named
himself Quinton Edge swerved slightly in his course so as to pass within
arm's-length, calling out as he did so:

"Gage of battle and gage of love; a fortunate day for me. Believe me
that at some future time I shall answer for them both."

It was a sprig of the May-bloom that the cavalier wore in his
button-hole; Constans had only time to recognize it when the blood-bay
broke into full gallop. The lad flung himself at full length upon the
turf, face downward, and lay there motionless.

Next: The Rat's-hole

Previous: The New World

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