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Red Axe by Samuel Rutherford Crockett

Part 7 out of 7

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of the horizon and slowly sank, leaving a shallowing lake of orange
color behind.

The red roofs of Thorn grew gray, with purple veins of shadow in the
interstices where the streets ran, or rather burrowed. The nightly hum of
the city began. For, under the cruel rule of the wolves of the castle,
Thorn was ever busiest in the right. Indeed, the cheating of the guard
had become a business well understood of all the citizens, who had a
regular code of signals to warn each other of its approach.

Lights winked and kindled in the Wolfsberg over against me. I could see
the long array of lighted windows where the Duke would presently be
dining with Michael Texel, High Councillor Gerard von Sturm, and most of
his other intimates. There, beneath, were the stables of the Black
Riders, and before them men were constantly passing and repassing with
buckets and soldier gear.

I wondered if the Duke had news of the approach of the enemy.

So soon as I judged it safe I went to the top of the Red Tower and
unfolded the paper which Jan the Lubber Fiend had brought me. It was
without name and address or signature, and read as follows:

"To-night we shall be all in readiness. When the time is ripe let a fire
be lighted upon some conspicuous tower or high place of the city. Then we
will come."

Thereafter Helene, being lonely, climbed up and sat down beside me. I
handed her the paper.

"To-night will be a stormy one in Thorn and the Wolfsberg, little one,"
said I. "I fear you and I are not yet out of the wood."

The Little Playmate read the letter and gave it back to me. I tore it up,
and let the wind carry away the pieces one by one, small, like dust, so
that scarce one letter clave to another.

Her hand stole into mine.

"Ah," she sighed, "I am beginning to believe in it now! To-night may be
as dangerous as yesternight. But at least we are together, never to be
separated. And to us two that means all."

It was a strange marriage night, this of ours--thus to sit on the roof of
the Tower, under the iron beacon which had been placed there in my
grandfather's time, and listen to the hum and murmur of the city,
straining our eyes meanwhile through the darkness to catch the first
spear-glint from the army of the Prince.

"If they do not come by midnight, or if Jan Lubber Fiend does not light
his fire by the White Gate, we must e'en risk it and kindle this one here
on the Red Tower."

So the night passed on till it was about eleven, or it might be a quarter
of an hour later. Then all suddenly I saw a little crowd of men disengage
themselves from that private entrance of the Hall of Judgment by which,
on the day of the trial, Dessauer and I had entered. They made straight
towards the Red Tower at a quick run.

"Dear love," said I to Helene, "see yonder! Be ready to light the
beacon. I fear me much that our time has come to fight for life."

"Kiss me, then," she said, "and I will be ready for all that may be. At
worst, we can die together, true husband and true wife."

Presently there came a thundering knock at the door of the Red Tower. I
crouched on the stairs behind and listened intently. I could hear the
breathing of several men.

"He is surely within," said a voice. "The tower has been watched every
moment of the day."

Again came the loud knocking.

"Open--in the name of the Duke!" cried the voice. And the door was
rattled fiercely against its fastenings.

But I knew well enough that it could hold against any force of unassisted
men. For my father had ever taken a special pride in the bars and
defences of the single low door which led into his much-threatened

So I crouched in the dark of the stairs and listened with yet more
quivering intentness. Presently I could hear shoulders set to the
iron-studded surface, and a voice counted, softly, "One--two--three--and
a heave!" But though I discerned the laboring of the men straining
themselves with all their might, they might as well have pushed at the
rough-harled wall of the Wolfsberg.

"It will not do," I heard one say at last. "We cannot hope to succeed
thus. Bring the powder-bag and prepare the fuse."

So then I knew indeed that our time was at hand. I mounted the stairs
three at a time till I came to the room where Helene was waiting for me
in the dark.

"Fire the beacon on the Tower!" I bade her--"our enemies are upon us!"

"And after that may I come to you, Hugo?" she said.

"Nay, little one, it is better that you bide on the roof and see that
the beacon burns. You will find plenty of tow and oil in the niche by the

I could hear Helene give vent to a little sigh. But she obeyed instantly,
and her light feet went pattering up the stairs.

Then I waited for the explosion, which seemed as if it would never come.
I had my dagger in my belt, but of pure instinct my right hand seized the
Red Axe. For I had more skill of that than any other weapon, and as I had
cast it down when they brought us in from the scaffold that morning, it
lay ready to my hand.

So I waited at the stair-head, and watched keenly the narrow passage up
which the men must come one by one. I measured my distance with the
axe-handle, and made a trial sweep or two, so that I might be sure of
clearing the stones on either side. I could not see that there would be
much difficulty in holding the place for a while, if only Prince Karl
would haste him and come. For to me the game of breaking heads and
slicing necks would be easy as cracking nuts on an anvil--at least, so
long as they would come up singly.

Presently I heard the roar of burning fuel above me, and immediately
after a cry from below. Through the narrow stairway lattice I could see
the uncertain flicker of flames lighting up the street. Men ran backward
across the open square, looking up as they ran. So by that I knew that
Helene had done her work, and was now watching the burning beacon, as the
flames flicked upward and clapped their fiery applausive palms.

But at the same moment, from the foot of the stairs, there came the loud
report of the explosion beneath the door of the Red Tower, the rumble of
stones, and then an eager rush of men to see what had been effected.

"Now for it!" I thought, as I gripped the Red Axe.

But it was not to be so soon. The iron bars, which my father had
engineered so that they sank deep into the wall on either side, still
held nobly, and I heard the loud voice crying again for a battering-ram.
The soldiers of the attacking party went scurrying across the yard, and
presently returned, carrying between them a young tree cleared of its
branches, but with the rough bark still upon it.

Without, in the square, the turmoil increased, and the streets echoed
with shouting. A wild hope came into my heart that Prince Karl had not
awaited the summons of the beacon, and that his troops were already in
the streets of Thorn. But even as the thought passed through my brain I
knew that it was vain.

On the other hand, it was evident that in the town the general alarm had
been given, for the trumpets blew from the ramparts of the Wolfsberg, and
the call to arms resounded incessantly in the court-yard. I doubted not
also that many a stout burgher was getting him under arms--and but few of
them to fight for the Duke.

Suddenly the bars of the door jangled on the stones under the swinging
blows of the battering-ram. I heard feet clatter on the stair. They came
with a rush, but long ere they had arrived at the top the pace slackened.
Only one man at a time could come up the stairway, and it is always a
drag upon the enthusiasm of an assault when at least two cannot advance
together. The light flickered and filtered in from the torches in the
streets, and the reflected glow of the bonfire on the roof made the
stair-head clear as a lucid twilight.

I waited, with the axe swinging loosely in one hand. A head bobbed up,
clad in a steel cap. Bat as the unseen feet propelled it upward the Red
Axe took little reck of the head. Betwixt the steel cap and the rim of
steel of the body armor appeared a gray line of leather jerkin and a
thinner white line of neck. The Red Axe swung. I bethought me that it was
a bad light to cut off calves' heads in. But the Red Axe made no mistake.
I had learned my trade. There was not even a groan--only a dull thud
some way underneath, such as you may hear when the children of the
quarter play football on the streets.

Then the foremost of the assailants were blocked by the fallen body, and
the feet of the men behind were stayed as the strange round plaything
rebounded among them.

"Back!" they cried, who were in front.

"Forward!" replied those who were hindmost and knew nothing.

"Come, men--on and finish it!" cried the voice which had commanded the
powder-flask and the tree--the voice I now knew to be that of Duke
Otho himself.

But the kick-ball argument of the Red Axe was mightily discouraging to
those immediately concerned, and as I felt the muscles of my right arm
and waited, I could hear Otho reasoning, threatening, coaxing, all in
vain. Then his tones mounted steadily into hot anger. He reviled his
followers for dogs, cowards, curs who had eaten his bread and now would
not rid him of his enemies.

"A thousand rix-dollars to the man who kills Hugo Gottfried!" he shouted.
"But, hear ye, save the girl alive!"

Yet not a man would attempt the first hazard of the stair.

"Knaves, traitors, curs!" he cried; "would that there were so much as a
single true man among you--but there is not one worth spitting upon!"

"Cur yourself!" growled a man, somewhere in the dark--"you have most at
stake in this. Try the stair yourself if you are so keen. We will follow
fast enough!"

"God strike me dead if I do not!" shouted Otho; "if it were only to shame
you cowards."

He paused to prepare his weapons.

"Follow me, men!" he shouted again; "all together!"

Again there was the clatter of iron-shod feet on the stone steps
beneath me.

My grip on the Red Axe became like iron, but my joints were loose and
swung easily as a flail swings on well-seasoned leathers.

"Welcome, Otho von Reuss!" I cried; "ye could not be crowned without the
death of Helene my wife! Come up hither and I will crown thee once for
all with the iron crown."

There, at last, was mine enemy at the turn of the stair, rushing
furiously upon me, sword in hand.

"Traitor!" he cried, and his sword was almost at my breast, so
fast he came.

"Murderer!" I shouted.

And almost ere I was aware the Red Axe flashed as it swept full circle
with scarce a pause, but it took the head of a man with it on its way.

Otho von Reuss was crowned. Helene, the Little Playmate, was avenged.



The Duke's body sank down upon that of the soldier, still further
blocking the passage. And as for his head, I know not where that went to.
But the rush of his followers was utterly checked by the barrier of dead.
With a wild cry, "The Duke is dead! Duke Otho is slain!" they rushed down
and out of the Red Tower, eager at once to escape unharmed, and to carry
to their companions in the Wolfsberg the startling news.

Nevertheless, I cleared my arm, wiped my axe, and again stood ready.

"Come!" I cried--"come all of you. You desire to kill me? Well, I am
still waiting!"

But not a man answered. The stairway was clear, save of the headless
dead. And then, sudden as summer thunder, through the dumb and empty
silence, I heard clear and loud the clanging of the hammers of Prince
Karl upon the gates of Thorn.

At that I felt that I must roar aloud in my fierce joy. I shouted angrily
for more and more assailants to come up the stair, that I might kill them
all. I yearned to be first at the gate, to see the men whom I had led
break their way in to deliver the city. I, more than any other, had
brought them there. I had trained them for that work. Best of all, across
the stairway beneath me lay dead Otho, Duke of the Wolfmark, beheaded by
the Red Axe of his own Justicer.

"Husband! Hugo! Are you wounded?" said a voice behind me, a voice
which in a moment recalled me from my bloody imaginings and baresark
fury of fighting.

"Helene!" I cried.

She approached, and would have thrown her arms about me. But I held out
my hand to keep her off.

"Not now, child," I said; "touch me not. I am unwounded, but wet!"

And so I was, wet with that which had spouted from the neck of Otho von
Reuss, as his trunk stood a moment headless in the stairway ere it fell
prone--a hideous thing to see.

"Come, Helene," I said, "we must away. There is other work for your
husband to-night. You I will place with the Bishop Peter. But my place is
with the men of Plassenburg and with Karl, my noble Prince."

And I took her by the hand to lead her out.

"Not that way!" she cried, shrinking back.

For the bodies of the two slain men lay there. And the stairs ran red
from step to step in red drips and lappering pools.

So I bethought me of what we should do, and ran forthwith for my father's
cord, with which he was used to bind the malefactors upon the wheel.

"Come, Helene," said I, and straightway fastened the rope to the iron bar
from which I had made so many descents to the pavement in the old days of
the White Wolves.

I let myself down, and there in the angle of the tower wall, I waited to
catch my wife. She delayed somewhat, and I could not think wherefore.

But at last she came, bringing the Red Axe in her hand.

"Go not weaponless!" she said, and I reached up and took from her hand
that which had already served me so well. The Red Axe had done its work
now, and she was grateful.

Then full lightly she descended to my side, and we went down the streets
of Thorn, which were filled with hurrying burgesses, all with weapons in
their hands, rushing to discover the cause of the clamor. I took Helene
hastily to the palace of the Bishop. And when I arrived there I saw Peter
himself with his head out of a window.

"I come to claim your protection for my wife!" I cried.

He came down immediately with an attendant.

"Fear not," I said, "you will never be called in question for this kindly
deed. The Duke Otho is slain, and the army of Prince Karl of Plassenburg
is already at the gates."

"The Duke is dead!" he gasped. "Who slew him?"

"Who but the Hereditary Justicer of the Wolfmark should slay a traitor?"
said I, smiling at his astonishment. And I held up the Red Axe, on which
there was now no crystal-clear rim of shining steel. All was crimson from
haft to edge--red as blood.

"Here, for an hour, Helene, little wife, I must leave you!" I said.
But now she sobbed and clung to me as she had not done before, even in
the dungeon.

"Stay with me," she said. "I need you, Hugo!"

I took her by the hand.

"Little one," I whispered, as tenderly as I could, "I would not be
worthily your husband if I went not to meet those who are fighting to
save us all this night. They have come from far to deliver us. I were
false and recreant if I went not to their assistance."

"I know--I know," she said. "Go!"

And with that she gave a hand to the good Bishop and went quietly within,
with no more than a smile over her shoulder, like a watery April

Then I betook me with all speed to the Weiss Thor, where I judged the
chief struggle would take place. And as I came I heard the rattle of
shot and the jarring thunder of the forehammers. The soldiers without
shouted, and the men within more feebly replied.

I came in sight of the gate. There on my left hand was the house of
Master Gerard von Sturm.

A fire was still flickering upon the tower of it.

Without I could hear the cheering and clamoring of the besiegers. But the
gates remained obstinately shut. They were stronger than the Prince had

As _I_ stood, uncertain what to do, I saw a slim white figure, the figure
of a woman, flash across the open space towards the gate. The men who
defended the gate towers were all upon the top of the wall. Before any
could stop her she had thrown herself upon the wheel by which the bars
were unfastened, and with a few turns had drawn them as deftly as evil
Duke Casimir had been wont to remove the teeth of the rich Hebrew folk
when he wanted supplies.

The White Gate slowly opened upon creaking hinges. The faces of the
soldiers of Plassenburg were seen without, the weapons gleamed in their
hands as they came on shouting fiercely. The guards of the Duke rushed
forward to close the gate. But the woman had clamped the wheel and stood
holding the bar.

It was the Lady Ysolinde. She saw me as the soldiers of Duke Otho closed
threateningly upon her. She waved her hand to me almost happily.

"_I have saved my soul, Hugo Gottfried_!" she cried. "_I have saved
my soul_!"

At that moment a soldier of the Black Riders struck her fiercely with his
lance. I saw the white bosom of her dress redden as he plucked his weapon
to him again. I was in time to catch her in my arms as the soldiers of
Plassenburg, with Prince Karl at their head, came through the White Gate
like a spring-tide, carrying all before them.

The Prince stayed at his wife's side.

"Ysolinde!" cried the Prince, aghast, bending over her--not heeding, nor
indeed, as I think, even seeing me.

"Karl!" she said, looking gently at him, "try and forgive me all the
rest. But be glad that I opened the White Gate for yon. I, Ysolinde, your
wife, did it for your sake."

I put her into her husband's arms. I saw at a glance that there was no
hope. She could not live many moments with that lance-thrust through
her breast.

She looked at him again.

"Karl--say 'Ysolinde, I love you!'" she whispered, almost shyly.

He looked down, and a rush of unwonted tears came to the eyes of the
Prince of Plassenburg.

"Ysolinde, I love you!" he made answer, in a broken voice.

She smiled, and then looked over his shoulder up at me.

_"Hugo Gottfried, have I not saved my soul?"_ she cried.

And so passed.



There was, however, deadly work yet before the men of Plassenburg. We
found, indeed, that the townsfolk were with us almost to a man. Their
guild train-bands gathered and mustered at their halls. The guards at the
city gates fraternally turned their arms to the ground.

"The Prince will restore your ancient liberties!" I cried. And the people
shouted. "Prince Karl of Plassenburg and our ancient liberties!"

Then we made our way up the street by different routes to the Wolfsberg.
There was little fighting till we arrived under those vast and gloomy
walls. The Black Riders had disappeared within. Those worst tools of grim
tyranny had early withdrawn themselves, knowing that small mercy would be
shown them by the people if once the Wolfsberg were taken. But the common
soldiers of the fighting rank, sons and brothers of the women of Thorn,
tore off the badge of the bloody Dukes and with loud shouts marched with
us as comrades.

But when we came before the walls, and with sound of trumpet and loud
shouts summoned the Wolfsberg to surrender, a discharge of musketry from
the walls, and the determined faces of a multitude of defenders showed us
conclusively that all was not yet over.

It was no use wasting men in attacking the great pile of buildings
with the force at our disposal. We had men in plenty, but for
breeching we needed the cannon left behind by these swift forces,
which, marching day and night, had arrived in the very nick of time
before the walls of Thorn.

Nevertheless, it was not the fate of the Wolfsberg to be taken by Lazy
Peg and her compeers.

These ponderous pieces of ordnance were presently being dragged through
the swamps and over the brick-dust barrens of the borderlands, and it
might be three or four days before they could arrive to aid us. There was
nothing, therefore, to do but to sit down and wait, drawing a cincture
that not a mouse could creep through about the cliffs of the Wolfsberg.

But deep within the heart of the old Red Tower there was one stronger
than Lazy Peg fighting for us.

"Fire! Fire!" cried the people in the streets. "The Wolfsberg is on
fire!" And so, surely, it was. The flames burst out from the windows
of the Red Tower and were rapidly carried by a dry fanning northerly
wind along the wooden workshops and kennels to the main building,
where the Hall of Judgment was soon blazing like a torch. The
defenders seemed paralyzed by this misadventure. Some ran to the
castle well. Some threw themselves desperately from the walls, others
crowded to the gates, and through the bars besought our Prince's
pledge that mercy would be shown them.

Then the crowd without were ill to deal with, for they cried aloud, "No
mercy to the murderers! Show us our Saint Helena!"

Then it was that I leaped once more upon the scaffold, which had seen
such a sight the day before, and cried, "Duke Otho is dead! I, Hugo
Gottfried, slew him with this Red Axe. Prince Karl is come to save you,
and to give you back your ancient liberties. Your Saint Helena is my
wife, and is safe under the protection of Bishop Peter."

But though they cheered at my words they would not cease from crying,
"Show us Saint Helena, and if she bid us we will have mercy on the wolves
of the Wolfsberg!"

So it was necessary for Helene to be brought and to show herself to them,
for the sake of the poor souls sore driven and in jeopardy 'twixt the
fire and the knives.

"Have mercy on the poor folk!" she cried, when they had done shouting
because of her safety. "At worst, they are but misguided, ignorant men!"

By this time the doors of the Wolfsberg were thrown open from within, and
the men crowded out, casting down their arms in heaps on either side the
gate. They were then marched, under charge of the soldiers of
Plassenburg, to various strongholds which were pointed out by the
Burgomeister and the chiefs of the guilds. The fortified halls of the
trades were filled with them. By daybreak the whole of Thorn was in our
hands, while the gray barrens of the Wolfmark were lit for leagues by the
flaming Wolfsberg, which, on its craggy height, vomited fire and sparks
into the blackness of night.

And the reek of this great burning hung for days after in the heavens.
Thus was an end made to the iniquities of the house of the Black Duke
Casimir and the Red Duke Otho. And the last Duke mixed his ashes with
that of the fatal Tower. For on the morrow there remained only the
blackened walls and glowing skeleton beams of all that mighty
palace--which, indeed, has never been rebuilt. For the people of Thorn,
under the mild and equitable rule which followed, erected a great
memorial church upon the spot--as may be seen to this day, a landmark
from far to witness if I have lied in the tale which has been told.

So the Prince Karl gave back to Thorn its liberties, as he had promised.
But the regality of the Dukedom he kept for himself, and he took the
Wolfmark and made it part of his dominions, till, as he had formerly
undertaken, the broom-bush kept the cow throughout the length and breadth
of Plassenburg and the Mark.

It was a noble home-coming when we returned to Plassenburg--victorious
and famous; but also there was mourning deep and solemn for the Princess
Ysolinde, who by her sacrifice had wrought such great things for the arms
of Plassenburg, and had died in the moment of victory.

Then, when after the stately funeral of the dead Princess we returned
back to the palace, it was the Prince's pleasure that Helene and myself
should ride on either hand of him through the city.

And when we were announced in the court, and the councillors of state
stood about, my wife was named by her true name, "Helena, Princess of

Whereat the courtiers opened their mouths and widened their
eyes--thinking, perhaps, that that ancient wizard, Chancellor Leopold von
Dessauer had suddenly gone mad.

But when the representatives of the cities of the Princedom, and the
delegates from Thorn and the Mark, had been received with due honor, the
Prince bade his Chancellor recount all he had learned from my father, and
all that he had discovered in the archives of Plassenburg.

Then, when Dessauer had finished, Karl the Prince arose.

"I am," he said, "a plain, brusque man. And speech was never my
stronghold. But this I say. When Karl the Miller's Son goes the way of
King's son and beggar's son, it is his will that Helene, legitimate
Princess of Plassenburg, shall reign over you. And also that her husband,
Hugo, who, as you know, won her from dreadful death, shall stand by her
right hand."

Then the nobles and great lords, fearing the Prince, and perhaps also
envying a little the man who was the Prince's general of his armies,
shouted amain:

"We swear to obey the Princess Helena!"

Whereat uprose the Little Playmate, very princess-like and full of sweet
regal dignity.

"I thank you, noble Prince," she said. "I am glad that I can claim so
honorable a name and lineage; but I had rather be no Princess, nor
anything else than that which my husband hath made me--the wife of the
captain-general of the armies of Karl, the only true and noble Prince of

Then the Prince rose and clasped her in his arms, kissing her fondly on
both cheeks.

"Fear not," he said, "dear and loyal lady. If you live to be the
Princess, your goodman shall be the Prince. Never shall the gray mare
flaunt it first, in Plassenburg!"

And he gave us each a hand, and conducted us to a pair of seats which had
been set level with his on the platform of the Council-chamber of the

The Prince Karl lived many days after the winning of the Wolfmark and the
ending of the ducal Wolves. But he gave less and less care to the
regalities, leaving them even more completely to me, sitting mostly in
the pleasaunce by the river-side, or in the far-regarding room which had
been the Lady Ysolinde's.

Also he never looked again on the face of a woman--except as it might
be to bid them good-day--save on that of my wife, Helene, who, as you
who know her may guess, waxed but the sweeter and the fairer as the
years went by.

And the blessing of children came to us, and in this thing the Prince
Karl was even happier than we.

One day, however, it chanced that he was seated in full Council, and
right noble he looked. I had just handed him a paper to sign. But he
looked neither at me nor yet at the paper. His eyes were fixed on the
locked doors of the privy bedchamber, through which only those of
princely blood might come.

He stared so long at it that to recall him I put my hand on his sleeve
and said, "Prince, the Council waits your pleasure!"

Bat he heard me not, his eyes being fixed on the door.

"Your pardon, my lords and knights," he said, at last, fighting a little
stiffly with his utterance, "but it seemed that I saw the Princess, my
wife, come through the door, clad in white, and beckon me with her hand.
I must go to her, my lords; I think she waits for me. The Prince Hugo
will take my place at the Council."

And the old man took a step from the high seat. But at the foot of the
throne he stumbled and fell into my arms.

He said but one word after that, with his eyes still fixed on the
bolted door.


And so the Prince Karl and his wife were united at last.

Since then we have lived long, the Little Playmate and I; but never have
we been other than comrades and friends--lovers also, which is the best
of all. And so (an the good God please) we shall abide till the end
comes. And in the gloaming we two also shall see the beckoning finger
from beyond the bolted door and turn our feet homeward, passing the
bourne of the new life hand in hand--and undismayed.


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