Nevertheless she clung to me, perhaps because I was nearer her own age.
Then the dismal procession of the condemned passed us, followed by my father, who strode in front with his axe over his shoulder, and the laughing and jesting men-at-arms bringing up the rear.
As I stood a little aside for them to pass, the hand of the man fell on my head and rested there a moment.
“God’s blessing on you, little lad!” he said. “Cherish the babe you have saved, and, as sure as that I am now about to die, one day you shall be repaid.” And he stooped and kissed the little maid before he went on with the others to the place of slaughter.
Then I hurried within, so that I might not hear the dull thud of the Red Axe, on the block nor the inhuman howlings of the dogs in the kennels afterwards.
When my father came home an hour later, before even he took off his costume of red, he came up to our chamber and looked long at the little maid as she lay asleep. Then he gazed at me, who watched him from under my lids and from behind the shadows of the bedclothes.
But his quick eye caught the gleam of light in mine.
“You are awake, boy!” he said, somewhat sternly.
I nodded up to him without speaking.
“What would you with the little maid?” he said. “Do you know that you and she together came very near losing me my favor with the Duke, and it might be my life also, both at one time to-night?”
I put my hand on the maiden’s head where it lay on the pillow by me.
“She is my little wife!” I said. “The Duke gave her to me out in the court-yard there!”
And this is the whole tale of how the Little Playmate came to dwell with us in the Red Tower.
THE RED AXE OF THE WOLFMARK
Just as clearly do I remember the next morning. The Little Playmate lay by me on my bed, wrapped in one of my childish night-gowns—which old Hanne had sought out for her the night before. It was a brisk, chill, nippy daybreak, and I had piled most of the bedclothes upon her. I lay at the nether side clipped tight in my single brown blanket. It was perishing cold. Out of the heaped coverings I saw presently a pair of eyes, great and dark, regarding me.
Then a little voice spoke, sweetly and clearly, but yet strangely sounding to me who had never before heard a babe speak.
“I want my father—tell him to send Grete, my maid, to attend on me, and then to come himself to sit by the bed and amuse me!”
Alas! her father—well I knew what had come to him—that which in the mercy of the Duke Casimir and in the crowning mercy of the Red Axe, I had seen come to so many. The dogs did not howl at all that morning. They, too, were tired with the hunting and sated with the quarry.
All the same, I tried to answer my companion.