Now at these bold words arose a clamour of voices speaking in French and English.
“What say you to this, Sir Edmund?” shouted Sir John Clavering above them all. “You are a great lord and a wealthy, beloved by me also as the affianced of my daughter, but I am a loyal Englishman who have no truck with traitors to my King.”
“What say I?” asked Sir Edmund calmly. “I say that if this fellow can fight as well as he can lie, your son has but a poor chance with, him. As you know well, I came hither from France to visit my estates, not to learn what strength his Grace of England, my liege lord, gathers for the new war with Philip.”
“Enough,” said Sir John; “though this is the first I have heard of such a war, for it would seem that you know more of King Edward’s mind than I do. The light begins to fail, there is no time for talk. Stand clear, all men, and let these two settle it.”
“Ay,” croaked Grey Dick, “stand clear, all men, while my master cuts the throat of his cousin Clavering, since he who stands not clear shall presently lie straight!” and he tapped his terrible bow with his right hand, then instantly seized the string again.
The two were face to face. Round them on horse and on foot, at a distance perhaps of twenty paces, were gathered the Clavering men and the French Count’s troop; for now all had come up from the far parts of the marsh. Only toward the river side the ring was open, whether because those who made it feared Grey Dick’s arrows, or in order that he and Red Eve might see everything that chanced.
The pair were well matched, for though Hugh was the taller, John, his senior by a year, was thicker set and better trained in arms. But the sword of John was longer by a hand’s breadth than that Hugh carried as a merchant, which was heavy, of such a make as the ancient Romans used, and sharpened on either edge. Neither of them wore armour, since Hugh had no right to do so, and John had not come out to fight.
They stood still for a moment in the midst of a breathless silence, the red light of the stormy sunset striking across them both. Everything was red, the smoke-clouds rising from the sullen, burning marsh, into which the fire was still eating far away; the waters of the Blythe brimful with the tide that had just turned toward the sea, the snow and ice itself. Even the triangle of wild swans brought by the hard weather from the northern lands looked red as they pursued their heavy and majestic flight toward the south, heedless of man and his affairs beneath.
Not long did these remain heedless, however, since, either to show his skill or for some other purpose of his own, Grey Dick lifted his bow and loosed an arrow, almost, it seemed, at hazard. Yet that arrow pierced the leader of the flock, so that down it came in wide circles, and in a last struggle hovered for a moment over the group of men, then fell among them with a thud, the blood from its pierced breast bespattering Sir Edmund Acour and John Clavering’s black hair.
“An ill omen for those two, and especially for him who wears a white swan for crest,” said a voice. But at the moment none took much notice, except Grey Dick, who chuckled at the success of his shot, since all were intent on greater matters—namely, which of those two young men should die.
Sir John, the father, rode forward and addressed them.
“To the death without mercy to the fallen,” he said grimly.
They bent their heads in answer.
“Now!” he cried, and reined back his horse.
“The first home thrust wins,” whispered Acour to him, as he wiped the blood of the swan off his sleeve. “Thank God, your son’s sword is the longer!”
Perhaps the pair heard this whisper, or, perhaps, being without mail, they knew that it was so. At least for a while they circled round and round each other, but out of reach.
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