“Thank the saints! we are nearer to that farm than I thought,” said Sir John.
As he spoke the words a number of men appeared galloping down on them from out of the shelter of a thorn-brake, and the moonlight shone on the bared weapons in their hands.
“Thieves!” shouted Sir John. “At them now, Jeffrey, and win through to the farm.”
The man hesitated, for he saw that their foes were many and no common robbers, but his master drew his sword and spurred his beast, so he must do likewise. In twenty seconds they were among them, and some one commanded them to yield. Sir John rushed at the fellow, and, rising in his stirrups, cut him down. He fell all of a heap and lay still in the snow, which grew crimson about him. One came at Jeffrey, who turned his horse so that the blow missed, then took his weight upon the point of his sword, so that this man, too, fell down and lay in the snow, moving feebly.
The rest, thinking this greeting too warm for them, swung round and vanished again among the thorns.
“Now ride for it,” said Jeffrey.
“I cannot,” answered Sir John. “One of those knaves has hurt my mare,” and he pointed to blood that ran from a great gash in the beast’s foreleg, which it held up piteously.
“Take mine,” said Jeffrey; “I’ll dodge them afoot.”
“Never, man! To the willows; we will hold our own there;” and, springing from the wounded beast, which tried to hobble after them, but could not, for its sinews were cut, he ran to the shelter of the trees, followed by Jeffrey on his horse.
“Who are these rogues?” he asked.
“The Abbot’s men-at-arms,” answered Jeffrey. “I saw the face of him I spitted.”
Now Sir John’s jaw dropped.
“Then we are sped, friend, for they dare not let us go. Cicely dreams well.”
As he spoke an arrow whistled by them.
“Jeffrey,” he went on, “I have papers on me that should not be lost, for with them might go my girl’s heritage. Take them,” and he thrust a packet into his hand, “and this purse also. There’s plenty in it. Away—anywhere, and lie hid out of reach a while, or they’ll still your tongue. Then I charge you on your soul, come back with help and hang that knave Abbot—for your Lady’s sake, Jeffrey. She’ll reward you, and so will God above.”
The man thrust away purse and deeds in some deep pocket.
“How can I leave you to be butchered?” he muttered, grinding his teeth.
As the words left his lips he heard his master utter a gurgling sound, and saw that an arrow, shot from behind, had pierced him through the throat; saw, too, he who was skilled in war, that the wound was mortal. Then he hesitated no longer.
“Christ rest you!” he said. “I’ll do your bidding or die;” and, turning his horse, he drove the rowels into its sides, causing it to bound away like a deer.
For a moment the stricken Sir John watched him go. Then he ran out of his cover, shaking his sword above his head—ran into the open moonlight to draw the arrows. They came fast enough, but ere ever he fell, for that steel shirt of his was strong, Jeffrey, lying low on his horse’s neck, was safe away, and though the murderers followed hard they never caught him.