The Outlaws of Falkensteig [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Rafael Sabatini & Jesse F. Knight
eBook Category: Historical Fiction/Romance
eBook Description: Andreas von Felsheim is a gentleman who is also the boldest outlaw in the territory under the Falkensteig peaks. His wit and bravery are unmatched, and the tricks of the King's men are no match for this wily fox. But let his men be in danger; or let a woman find the way to his heart; and then you will see Felsheim at his utmost! First mass market edition of these lost tales. Edited and with introduction by Sabatini authority Jesse F. Knight.
eBook Publisher: Hidden Knowledge, Published: 2003
Fictionwise Release Date: June 2005
The Outlaw of Falkensteig
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When a man chances to love two women, and yet cannot determine which of them he loves best, then truly is he in a sorry quandary.
Thus was it with me, Otto von Ronshausen, the favourite of Ludwig IV, of Sachsenberg. On the one hand was the Lady Freda von Horst, with her fair hair and soft brown eyes, which seemed to arouse what little good there was within me; on the other, stood the Countess of Barnabatt, dark-eyed, proud, and queenly of carriage -- albeit, but slight of form -- whose laugh had ever a disdainful ring, whose glances stirred the warrior soul that was the patrimony of those who bore my name, and inspired me to deeds of valour.
And I -- I loved them both; each after a different fashion and at different seasons. In times of sorrow -- and there are many sorrows in a favourite's life, although some think it not -- I would turn me to my fair-haired maid for consolation; whilst in my hours of gaiety and recklessness, I would seek out my swarthy queen, who could not brook my duller moods.
As men reckon wealth, the one was poor, but carried in her soul a priceless treasure of tenderness and sympathy; the other one was rich in worldly goods, mistress of broad and fertile lands, and of -- as I then thought -- a barren heart.
And there between those two I swayed like a vane upon a windy day, paying my court now to the one, now to the other; and since the law so stood that I might not marry both, loving them both each day with greater fervour.
But in the end His Majesty -- whose eyes were shrewd, and who noted my perplexity -- settled the matter, as is the wont of kings. Now, although in the year 1638 he was still young, and found more charm in a wine-cup or in a lady's eye than in book-learning or affairs of state, yet had he a wisdom all his own -- wherefore his chroniclers have dubbed him Ludwig the Astute.
"Otto," he said to me one day, "you are not a rich man," which was true enough, for besides my name and the warlike soul that I have mentioned, my inheritance was scant indeed. Yet, being a courtier, and favourite to boot, I smiled and bowed serenely.
"Not rich, your Majesty?" I cried. "Not rich when so greatly honoured with your Royal favours? Who says that I am not rich?"
"Tut, man, I say it," he answered with a laugh, "unless indeed it be in a pert tongue and a largesse of flattery. Peace, man, I am in earnest."
His Majesty in earnest was so novel a thing that the protests died upon my lips, and out of curiosity I was silent.
"There is a certain lady of my court," said he, "who seems, judging by the attentions which you have lately paid her, to hold a prominent place in your regard. She is noble, beautiful, and wealthy, and, methinks, would not be averse to becoming the lady of Ronshausen. Otto, you shall wed her." In so delicate a matter as this, it seemed to me that His Majesty would have done better to have questioned me as to my matrimonial prospects, before commanding me to wed. However, kings and spoilt children have an original way of looking at the world, and being unwilling to lose the exalted position I occupied in Sachsenberg, there was but one reply that I could make.
"I obey your Majesty, as in all things," I said. "Name her, Sire, and if she be willing to become the lady of Ronshausen, and mistress of the lands I hold in trust for a parcel of Hebrew vampires, I will fetch a priest at once."
"You know full well whom I refer to, you dissembling rogue -- Hilda von Barnabatt."
I answered him that I asked no better than to obey his wishes, and forthwith I left him to ride to Leubnitz, where the lady dwelt, happy enough that matters had been thus settled, and humming a gay measure as I went.
Nor would my mood have changed had it not been that as I rode through the park of Schwerlingen I chanced upon a maid who sat meditating by a brook. She had golden hair and soft brown eyes, and her name was Freda von Horst.
I drew rein, and, smitten by a sudden sadness, I watched her, wondering what 'twere best to do, until, as she chanced to turn her head, her eyes met mine. With a glad cry, for she was at heart a child, and all unversed in the dissembling ways of Court, she arose and called me to her side.
I went, and like a stupid fool put forth my hand and said farewell.
"You are going a journey?" quoth she, with eyes wide open.
"I ride to Leubnitz," I said.
"Leubnitz? Why, 'tis not far. 'Tis but five leagues."
"True," I answered like a clown, "'tis but five leagues."
Then noting the tone wherein I spoke, and the terseness of one whose tongue -- to her at least -- was wont to be more eloquent, she guessed the rest.
"You go to the Schloss Barnabatt?" she inquired.
"I go to the Schloss Barnabatt," I replied, hoping that I might find the place in ruins and my future bride buried deep beneath them.
"Ah," she cried, and methought her voice trembled slightly, "I understand. Farewell, my lord," she added quickly, until I was certain that her lip quivered. "May happiness go with you. Adieu!"
I stooped to kiss her hand, but she snatched it from me and was gone before I could say another word -- not that I should have found aught to say had she remained, for I had grown strangely dull that afternoon.
I watched her graceful figure through the trees until it was hidden from my sight; then, with a sigh, I vaulted into the saddle, and giving the reins a vicious shake, I rode dismally away to do my wooing.
From Schwerlingen to Leubnitz I carried the one thought in my mind to the exclusion of all else -- that every stride of my mare took me further from the tender maid I loved, and nearer to the proud and distant lady whom already I began to hate.
A thousand times I cursed the nimbleness of my tongue in pledging my word to obey the King. But although we Ronshausens may not have given many saints to Heaven, yet were we men of honour, and our motto ran: "A plighted word is a deed accomplished." Should I be the first to prove unworthy of that motto? Nay. If it cost me a whole lifetime of misery and regret, my word must be fulfilled so that my descendants might point without blushing to that proud line upon their shields.
And thus it came to pass that as evening fell I drew rein in the courtyard of the Schloss Barnabatt, and alighting with a glum face that would have done more credit to a funeral than a betrothal, went in quest of the mistress of those stately towers.
She received me graciously enough, as was her wont, and, after the dust had been removed from my apparel, led me to a richly appointed table, all a-glitter with costly glass and gold and silver plate, whereof she did the honours with incomparable grace.
I had been taciturn at first and boorish but presently, beneath the influence of the Rhenish wine she set before me, and of the lively wit wherewith she sought to entertain me, my tongue was loosened and my lips remembered how to smile. Before I was aware of it, I was giving her the latest news from Court, and all the current gossipings of Schwerlingen, sprinkling upon my narratives that peppery satire which is learnt in ante-chambers and boudoirs, and which renders a dull story interesting.
And there, with those dark eyes of hers, so full of arch merriment, upon me, I blush to say that all my moodiness was gone, and with it all thought of little Freda. I was a slave, an utter, abject slave to the fascination of this lovely enchantress, and cared not a fig just then for any other woman in the world.
And presently, when our meal was done, and we had gone out on the balcony to breathe the evening air, I told her so. How I said it, I know not, nor does it signify. But I remember that I spoke long and, passionately -- for the moon was in the sky, and the light it shed was full of poetic inspiration -- and when I finished I found myself kneeling upon the cold stones, gazing up into her face intreatingly, and waiting to hear the answer which should make me happy or wretched.
She did not return my gaze. Her eyes looked out across the valley towards the stately Falkensteig, whose eternal snows shone silvery in the moonlight. But at length as the stones began to impart some of their coldness to my knees, I grew weary of my position, and since it would have been a grievous outrage against wooing manners to rise unanswered, I made bold to softly utter her name.
"Hilda! Ah, do not look at yonder mountain; look at me. Give me your answer."
"'Tis well that I should look at the Falkensteig," she replied softly, continuing to gaze wistfully before her, "for I have made a vow that I will be neither wooed nor wed while Basil von Kervenheim is at large upon that mountain."
"What has the traitor von Kervenheim, the outlaw of the Falkensteig, to do with you?" I exclaimed, springing to my feet.
An angry fire shone for a moment in her eyes, and her small, white hands were clenched.
"I will tell you," she said, almost fiercely. "Sit here beside me."
Meekly I obeyed her, and listened to a lengthy story of how this Kervenheim had mortally offended her -- and yet, so far as I might judge, his offence was not an over-heinous one, for it appeared that it did but lie in loving her. Maybe, however, that I did not sufficiently heed the details which she set before me, for my thoughts were far away, dwelling upon memories the name of Kervenheim evoked.
In my mind I saw Basil von Kervenheim as he had been two years ago, the gayest courtier at Schwerlingen, and next to myself in the favour of the King. I remembered how His Majesty had openly slighted him, and how, in revenge, the proud nobleman had gone over to the ranks of those who sought to overthrow the Sonsbeck dynasty.
A curious scene arose in my mind of a private meeting of the council, whereat it was determined by His Majesty that the ten ringleaders of the revolutionary party should be secretly executed -- and upon the list of those condemned stood the name of Kervenheim.
Next I shuddered as I remembered how morning had found eight of those ten stretched stark and cold in their beds. Two had gone free; one was a foreign nobleman, concerning whose escape a curious story was related; the other was Basil von Kervenheim, who, gathering a few conspirators about him had fled to the hills to lead the life of a robber and malefactor. He had appropriated a partly ruined castle on an all but inaccessible ledge of the Falkensteig, and there he held his outlaw's court.
My companion's voice awoke me from my musings.
"Until he whom they call the Lord of Falkensteig be brought to Schwerlingen, Hilda von Barnabatt will listen to no wooings. That, my lord, is your answer."
I arose and took a turn on the balcony, revolving something in my mind. Her elfin beauty, the music of her voice, and the witchery of her dark eyes inflamed me, and I made her at last the inevitable reply. In wild, dramatic words I told her that I would seize Kervenheim or perish.
"You?" she exclaimed, a note of mockery in her voice. "You?"
"And why not I?" I retorted, frowning slightly.
"A warrior is needed for such an enterprise. Not a gallant."
For a moment I knew not whether I loved or hated her.
"Though but twenty-five years of age, madame," I answered, stung by her tone to boastfulness, "there are a score or so of duels to my credit. You are unjust to think that because I have a smooth tongue and a velvet doublet, my heart must be a craven one. If a coarse-spoken lover in a leather jerkin would suit your fancy better, I should advise you to seek for him among your grooms."
"Stay, Ronshausen," she cried, putting forth her hands. "Forgive me! I spoke hastily, nor did I wish to give my words such meaning as you have gathered from them."
My anger vanished like a cloud of smoke.
"'Twere easier far for me to die," I answered gallantly -- and even sincerely -- "Than to live without you. And since in your own words you will not be wooed until Kervenheim be brought to Schwerlingen -- there is but one course open to me. Say no more. I am resolved, and my word is plighted. The duel has begun, my Lord of Falkensteig," I cried, turning my face to the snow-peaked mountain, where stood the outlaw's castle. "Before another sun has set, either you or I will be no more."
Hilda shuddered as I spoke, and crossed herself.
"You are resolved?" she inquired presently. "Then come with me. Perchance I may assist you."
She led me back to a room we had lately quitted, and taking pen and ink she wrote whilst I stood marveling beside her, and bade me read:
I am in sore distress, and greatly in need of a strong arm and valiant heart to defend me. You have more than once spoken of the love you bore me. If it be not dead, and you would give me proof of it, meet me alone at the hour of Angelus to-morrow evening, by the Devil's Altar.
HILDA von BARNABATT
She sealed the missive, and addressed it to the Count Basil von Kervenheim at his castle of Falkensteig.
"A messenger of mine will deliver this before morning, and by noon to-morrow I shall have received an answer, which I promise you will be in the affirmative," she said. "Do you, my lord, get you back to Schwerlingen for a troop of horse, and proceed with them to the Devil's Altar -- to succeed at last where so many have failed for the want of a woman's wit to help them."
I could have cried out for joy at her plan, since apart from the promise it gave of success it was a proof she viewed my suit with favour -- why else should she be at such pains to aid me earn the right to woo her?
I swore again most lustily that before the world was twenty-four hours older the Lord of Falkensteig would find his wings clipped. Then, as I took my leave, I caught her in my arms and would have kissed her. But with gentle firmness she put me from her.
"Afterwards," she murmured. And I, remembering her vow, went forth dutifully without another murmur.
Next morning I waited upon the King at an early hour. The attendant made much ado about admitting me, remonstrating that His Majesty was yet asleep, and that I had best wait for the levée.
But in the end, by dint of much storming and not a little threatening I had my own way, and the unusual honour of beholding the Royal visage beneath a night cap.
He looked pale, and there were black circles under his eyes, for he had drunk every courtier of Schwerlingen under the table the night before -- which was one of his favourite methods of showing them how vastly he was their superior.
He was too limp and drowsy to be vexed by my intrusion. But at the very mention of the name of Kervenheim, he sat bolt upright and showed himself wide-awake indeed. And when I asked for a score of men-at-arms to go and capture the hated outlaw, he gave me his consent without a moment's hesitation.
Half-an-hour later I was in the saddle again, at the head of twenty bold troopers in buff and steel, the jangle of whose accoutrements made pleasant music for a warlike ear. At my side rode Lieutenant Stoffel, a stalwart youngster athirst for adventure and promotion, than whom I could have had no better comrade.
We paused at noon in a shady glen, some three miles from Leubnitz, and whilst we rested there we were joined by an unexpected recruit. It was the Lady of Barnabatt herself.
I was surprised to see her advancing towards us through the trees, mounted upon a grey horse, and garbed in a green riding habit, trimmed with gold lace, which became her lissom figure admirably. But when she had alighted, and laughingly told me that she had come to keep her tryst at the Devil's Altar, I protested vehemently. She had, however, a way with her that generally procured her what she wanted; moreover, she proved to me in a most plausible manner that her presence would be needed.
"Depend upon it," she said confidently, "that, although Kervenheim sends word that he will be there, he will not show himself until he has seen me awaiting him. Not only would you suffer the humiliation of returning empty-handed, but, scenting treachery in my absence, he might investigate matters, and so dispose that you do not return at all."
There was much in what she said. And so in the end I agreed with her, and set myself to pacify Stoffel, who had sworn by the Henker and others that such business as ours was not nice enough for women.
The sun had barely sunk behind the Kreussen Alps when we reached the spurs of the Falkensteig. We had traveled cautiously for the last three or four leagues, keeping under the shelter of the trees, lest the glitter of steel upon so numerous a company should betray our approach to anyone on the look out from the heights above.
We halted for a moment upon the rising ground whilst I held a council of war with Stoffel, and agreed upon the manner in which we should proceed. Then we pushed rapidly forward, so that we might not keep the Lord of Falkensteig waiting.
A few minutes afterwards we were compelled to dismount, and lead our horses up through the dense forest of pines that clad the mountain side, until I again commanded a halt.
A hundred yards ahead there was an open space. Beyond that stood the mass of jagged granite rocks known as the Devil's Altar. The shadows of the trees grew longer and deeper every instant, and where we stood the darkness was almost that of night.
Even as we halted the sound of a bell tolling the Angelus reached us from the valley, borne on a breeze that sent a shivering rustle through the pines. Giving an order to my men to remain, I mounted again and rode forward to the very edge of the trees, leading my lady's horse by the bridle. At the last moment my heart grew heavy within me, lest evil should befall her, and I even whispered to her not to show herself, but to leave the matter to us.
"'Tis too late to draw back now, Ronshausen," she cried.
She was deathly pale, and the hand I carried to my lips trembled slightly. But a brave smile danced upon her lips as she strode out boldly into the open glade.
From the valley came the last peal of the Angelus as she paused by the granite altar; then the sound of hoofs awoke the echoes of the hillside.
I glanced behind me for a moment. Without a sound to betray their presence, my men were gradually spreading through the wood as I had bidden them, so as to encircle the Altar and hold themselves in readiness to spring out when I gave the signal.
The next instant a horseman stood before my lady in the open glade, and was bowing over the neck of his wiry steed with many flourishes of a plumed hat. He was a slim, lithe man of perhaps thirty years of age, with blue eyes and long, fair locks that contrasted strangely with his bronzed skin. He wore a jerkin of stout leather, but the protruding sleeves of his doublet were of rich, crimson velvet, and the lace at his wrists was both fine and plentiful. From his baldrick of black silk, trimmed with gold, hung a long, serviceable-looking rapier -- and generally he had more the air of a court ruffler than of a mountain bandit.
At a glance I recognized Kervenheim, but I had little time to indulge my fancy in any comparisons as to how much he might have changed since last I had seen him. As I looked and noted the details which I have set down here, he urged his horse forward, and, before I could move a finger, he had caught the Lady Hilda round the waist with his left arm, lifted her from the saddle and flung her like a sack of corn, in front of him, across the horse's neck. Wheeling sharply, he drove the spurs into his steed, and, with a wild laugh, dashed off round the altar by the way he had come.
A faint, half-stifled woman's cry rang in my ears. "To me, Ronshausen! To the rescue!"
After them I dashed. Through the intervening trees, across the glade, and round the granite boulders I went, with set teeth and bloody spurs, at a mad pace that might have earned me a short shrift at any moment had my horse but chanced to founder. In front of me ran an almost level road, and along this, some thirty yards ahead, rode Kervenheim. His hat had fallen off, and his long, fair locks fluttered behind him in the breeze his speed created.
Yet, in spite of the double load upon his horse, I did not gain upon him, for his mount was fresh, whilst mine had ridden hard that day, and was beginning to snort in a manner that made me fear a halt at any moment.
"Stoffel!" I thundered. "Stoffel!"
The next minute a shot rang out, fired from the tree on my right, and a bullet whistled past me. Then came another, and yet another. I cursed, and drove my spurs deeper. My horse, infuriated by the punishment, plunged, then reared, and I had but time to leap from the saddle before it toppled over with a bullet in its breast. I did not pause to look to right or left, but, taking my sword under my arm, I ran on as fast as my stiff knees and heavy boots would let me. Behind me came a thunder of hoofs. I turned to look, and, to my joy, I beheld Stoffel and the others advancing towards me at a stretched gallop.
A musket cracked somewhere; then came half-a-dozen shots; then a whole regiment seemed to have let fly a volley. I glanced behind me again. Stoffel still rode a good ten yards in front of his men, but behind him I espied more than one riderless horse.
There was a bridge before me. I sprang upon it, and pushed blindly on. Kervenheim was but a blurred shadow in the twilight, waxing every moment less distinct. My gorge rose at my powerlessness, and, in my rage, I cursed and raved and wept as I ran.
But my feet had scarcely left the bridge when out from the trees on either side of that dusty mountain road came a rush of armed men. In an instant I was seized, flung down, and disarmed before I could draw. Then kneeling upon me they bound me hand and foot; a gag was thrust into my mouth, and I was left there on my back like a trussed fowl to stare up at the blue sky wherein a star was here and there becoming visible, whilst my captors turned to hold the bridge against my men. The galloping company drew nearer, and presently the hoofs rang out upon the bridge as they came fighting their way across. Shouts, oaths, groans broke forth, mingling with the fearful shrieks of the wounded animals.
Presently there was a rush towards the spot where I lay. Half-a-dozen brigands came struggling with a stout knave, who gave their twelve hands more work than they could comfortably deal with. But in the end they bore him down, and pinioned him, then flung him down beside me. It was poor Stoffel. He, too, was gagged and could not speak, but the eloquence of his flashing eye was terrifying.
And there side by side we lay until presently the fighting ceased, and we knew that those of ours who were not dead had run. It mattered little. The dawn, I doubted not, would find us hanging from the Falken's gibbet, whereof I had heard some gruesome stories -- and my heart was heavy within me, not for myself, but for those I had brought upon this mad errand.
Copyright © 2003 by Michael J. Ward.