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- SIR NIGEL - 60/72 -
would be down before ever we came to handstrokes."
"By Saint Cadoc, William, I think that you are right," cried the Breton. "If we are to have such a fight as will remain in the memories of men, you will bring no archers and we no crossbows. Let it be steel upon steel. How say you then?"
"Surely we can bring ten men-at-arms to make up the thirty that you desire, Robert. It is agreed then that we fight on no quarrel of England and France, but over this matter of the ladies in which you and Squire Loring have fallen out. And now the time?"
"Surely at once, or perchance a second messenger may come and this also be forbidden. We will be ready with to-morrow's sunrise."
"Nay, a day later," cried the Breton Squire. "Bethink you, my lord, that the three lances of Radenac would take time to come over."
"They are not of our garrison, and they shall not have a place."
"But, fair sir, of all the lances of Brittany - "
"Nay, William, I will not have it an hour later. Tomorrow it shall be, Richard."
"I marked a fitting place even as I rode here this evening. If you cross the river and take the bridle-path through the fields which leads to Josselin you come midway upon a mighty oak standing at the corner of a fair and level meadow. There let us meet at midday to-morrow."
"Agreed!" cried Bambro'. "But I pray you not to rise, Robert! The night is still young and the spices and hippocras will soon be served. Bide with us, I pray you, for if you would fain hear the latest songs from England, these gentlemen have doubtless brought them. To some of us perchance it is the last night, so we would make it a full one."
But the gallant Breton shook his head. "It may indeed be the last night for many," said he, "and it is but right that my comrades should know it. I have no need of monk or friar, for I cannot think that harm will ever come beyond the grave to one who has borne himself as a knight should, but others have other thoughts upon these matters and would fain have time for prayer and penitence. Adieu, fair sirs, and I drink a last glass to a happy meeting at the midway oak."
XXIII. HOW THIRTY OF JOSSELIN ENCOUNTERED THIRTY OF PLOERMEL
All night the Castle of Ploermel rang with warlike preparations, for the smiths were hammering and filing and riveting, preparing the armor for the champions. In the stable yard hostlers were testing and grooming the great war-horses, whilst in the chapel knights and squires were easing their souls at the knees of old Father Benedict.
Down in the courtyard, meanwhile, the men-at-arms had been assembled, and the volunteers weeded out until the best men had been selected. Black Simon had obtained a place, and great was the joy which shone upon his grim visage. With him were chosen young Nicholas Dagsworth, a gentleman adventurer who was nephew to the famous Sir Thomas, Walter the German, Hulbitee - a huge peasant whose massive frame gave promise which his sluggish spirit failed to fulfil - John Alcock, Robin Adey and Raoul Provost. These with three others made up the required thirty. Great was the grumbling and evil the talk amongst the archers when it was learned that none of them were to be included, but the bow had been forbidden on either side. It is true that many of them were expert fighters both with ax and with sword, but they were unused to carry heavy armor, and a half-armed man would have short shrift in such a hand-to-hand struggle as lay before them.
It was two hours after tierce, or one hour before noon, on the fourth Wednesday of Lent in the year of Christ 1351 that the men of Ploermel rode forth from their castle-gate and crossed the bridge of the Due. In front was Bambro' with his Squire Croquart, the latter on a great roan horse bearing the banner of Ploermel, which was a black rampant lion holding a blue flag upon a field of ermine. Behind him came Robert Knolles and Nigel Loring, with an attendant at their side, who carried the pennon of the black raven. Then rode Sir Thomas Percy with his blue lion flaunting above him, and Sir Hugh Calverly, whose banner bore a silver owl, followed by the massive Belford who carried a huge iron club, weighing sixty pounds, upon his saddlebow, and Sir Thomas Walton the knight of Surrey. Behind them were four brave Anglo-Bretons, Perrot de Commelain, Le Gaillart, d'Aspremont and d'Ardaine, who fought against their own countrymen because they were partisans of the Countess of Montfort. Her engrailed silver cross upon a blue field was carried at their head. In the rear were five German or Hainault mercenaries, the tall Hulbitee, and the men-at-arms. Altogether of these combatants twenty were of English birth, four were Breton and six were of German blood.
So, with glitter of armor and flaunting of pennons, their warhorses tossing and pawing, the champions rode down to the midway oak. Behind them streamed hundreds of archers and men- at-arms whose weapons had been wisely taken from them lest a general battle should ensue. With them also went the townsfolk, men and women, together with wine-sellers, provisions merchants, armorers, grooms and heralds, with surgeons to tend the wounded and priests to shrive the dying. The path was blocked by this throng, but all over the face of the country horsemen and footmen, gentle and simple, men and women, could be seen speeding their way to the scene of the encounter.
The journey was not a long one, for presently, as they threaded their way through the fields, there appeared before them a great gray oak which spread its gnarled leafless branches over the corner of a green and level meadow. The tree was black with the peasants who had climbed into it, and all round it was a huge throng, chattering and calling like a rookery at sunset. A storm of hooting broke out from them at the approach of the English, for Bambro' was hated in the country where he raised money for the Montfort cause by putting every parish to ransom and maltreating those who refused to pay. There was little amenity in the warlike ways which had been learned upon the Scottish border. The champions rode onward without deigning to take notice of the taunts of the rabble, but the archers turned that way and soon beat the mob to silence. Then they resolved themselves into the keepers of the ground, and pressed the people back until they formed a dense line along the edge of the field,' leaving the whole space clear for the warriors.
The Breton champions had not yet arrived, so the English tethered their horses at one side of the ground, and then gathered round their leader. Every man had his shield slung round his neck, and had cut his spear to the length of five feet so that it might be more manageable for fighting on foot. Besides the spear a sword or a battle-ax hung at the side of each. They were clad from head to foot in armor, with devices upon the crests and surcoats to distinguish them from their antagonists. At present their visors were still up and they chatted gayly with each other.
"By Saint Dunstan!" cried Percy, slapping his gauntleted hands together and stamping his steel feet. "I shall be right glad to get to work, for my blood is chilled."
"I warrant you will be warm enough ere you get through," said Calverly.
"Or cold forever. Candle shall burn and bell toll at Alnwick Chapel if I leave this ground alive, but come what may, fair sirs, it should be a famous joust and one which will help us forward. Surely each of us will have worshipfully won worship, if we chance to come through."
"You say truth, Thomas," said Knolles, bracing his girdle. "For my own part I have no joy in such encounters when there is warfare to be carried out, for it standeth not aright that a man should think of his own pleasure and advancement rather than of the King's cause and the weal of the army. But in times of truce I can think of no better way in which a day may be profitably spent. Why so silent, Nigel?"
"Indeed, fair sir, I was looking toward Josselin, which lies as I understand beyond those woods. I see no sign of this debonair gentleman and of his following. It would be indeed grievous pity if any cause came to hold them back."
Hugh Calverly laughed at the words. "You need have no fear, young sir," said he. "Such a spirit lies in Robert de Beaumanoir that if he must come alone he would ride against us none the less. I warrant that if he were on a bed of death he would be borne here and die on the green field."
"You say truly, Hugh," said Bambro'. "I know him and those who ride behind him. Thirty stouter men or more skilled in arms are not to be found in Christendom. It is in my mind that come what may there will be much honor for all of us this day. Ever in my head I have a rhyme which the wife of a Welsh archer gave me when I crossed her hand with a golden bracelet after the intaking of Bergerac. She was of the old blood of Merlin with the power of sight. Thus she said -
"'Twixt the oak-tree and the river Knightly fame aid brave endeavor Make an honored name forever.'
Methinks I see the oak-tree, and yonder is the river. Surely this should betide some good to us."
The huge German Squire betrayed some impatience during this speech of his leader. Though his rank was subordinate, no man present had more experience of warfare or was more famous as a fighter than he. He new broke brusquely into the talk. "We should be better employed in ordering our line and making our plans than in talking of the rhymes of Merlin or such old wives' tales," said he. "It is to our own strong arms and good weapons that we must trust this day. And first I would ask you, Sir Richard, what is your will if perchance you should fall in the midst of the fight?"
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