Red Eve by H. Rider Haggard

“What then?” asked Dick. “As we cannot fly, where shall we die?”

“On the roof of the old tower, I think, whence we can hurl ourselves at last and so perhaps escape being taken alive, and torment. Look you, Dick, that tower is mounted by three straight flights of steps. The first two of these we’ll hold with such arrows as remain to us—there are three and twenty, as I think—and the last with axe and sword. Listen! They come! Take a brand from the hall hearth and let us go light the flambeaux.”

So they went and set fire to the great torches of wood and tallow that were set in their iron holders to light the steps of the tower. Ere the last of them was burning they heard their enemies ravening without.

“Listen!” said Hugh as they descended to the head of the first flight of stairs. “They are across the moat.”

As he spoke the massive doors crashed in beneath the blows of a baulk of timber.

“Now,” said Hugh, as they strung their bows, “six arrows apiece here, if we can get off so many, and the odd eleven at our next stand. Ah, they come.”

The mob rushed into the hall below, waving torches and swords and hunting it as dogs hunt a covert.

“The English wizards have hid themselves away,” cried a voice. “Let us burn the place, for so we are sure to catch them.”

“Nay, nay,” answered another voice, that of the mad friar. “We must have them beneath the torture, that we may learn how to lift the curse from Avignon, and the names of their accomplices on earth and in hell. Search, search, search!”

“Little need to search,” said Grey Dick, stepping out on to the landing. “Devil, go join your fellow-devils in that hell you talk of,” and he sent an arrow through his heart.

For a moment there followed the silence of consternation while the mob stood staring at their fallen leader. Then with a yell of rage they charged the stair and that fray began which was told of in Avignon for generations. Hugh and Dick shot their arrows, nor could they miss, seeing what was their target; indeed some of those from the great black bow pinned foe to foe beneath them. But so crowded were the assailants on the narrow stair that they could not shoot back. They advanced helpless, thrust to their doom by the weight of those who pressed behind.

Now they were near, the dead, still on their feet, being borne forward by the living, to whom they served as shields. Hugh and Dick ran to the head of the second flight and thence shot off the arrows that remained.

Dick loosed the last of them, and of this fearful shaft it was said that it slew three men, piercing through the body of one, the throat of the second and burying its barb in the skull of the third on the lowest step. Now Dick unstrung his bow, and thrust it into its case on his shoulder, for he was minded that they should go together at the last.

“Shafts have sung their song,” he said, with a fierce laugh; “now it is the turn of axe and sword to make another music.”

Then he gripped Sir Hugh by the hand, saying:

“Farewell, master. Oh, I hold this a merry death, such as the Saints grant to few. Ay, and so would you were you free as I am. Well, doubtless your lady has gone before. Or at worst soon she will follow after and greet you in the Gate of Death, where Murgh sits and keeps his count of passing souls.”

“Farewell, friend,” answered Hugh, “be she quick or dead, thus Red Eve would wish that I should die. A Cressi! A Cressi!” he cried and drove his sword through the throat of a soldier who rushed at him.

They had fought a very good fight, as doubtless the dead were telling each other while they passed from that red stair to such rest as they had won. They had fought a very good fight and it was hard to say which had done the best, Hugh’s white sword or Dick’s gray axe. And now, unwounded still save for a bruise or two, they stood there in the moonlight upon the stark edge of the tall tower, the foe in front and black space beneath. There they stood leaning on axe and sword and drawing their breath in great sobs, those two red harvestmen who that day had toiled so hard in the rich fields of death.

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Categories: Haggard, H. Rider