XIII.-How Baron Conrad Held the Bridge.
As the last of his followers swept around the curving road and was lost to sight, Baron Conrad gave himself a shake, as though to drive away the thoughts that lay upon him. Then he rode slowly forward to the middle of the bridge, where he wheeled his horse so as to face his coming enemies. He lowered the vizor of his helmet and bolted it to its place, and then saw that sword and dagger were loose in the scabbard and easy to draw when the need for drawing should arise.
Down the steep path from the hill above swept the pursuing horsemen. Down the steep path to the bridge-head and there drew rein; for in the middle of the narrow way sat the motionless, steel-clad figure upon the great war-horse, with wide, red, panting nostrils, and body streaked with sweat and flecked with patches of foam.
One side of the roadway of the bridge was guarded by a low stone wall; the other side was naked and open and bare to the deep, slow-moving water beneath. It was a dangerous place to attack a desperate man clad in armor of proof.
"Forward!" cried Baron Henry, but not a soul stirred in answer, and still the iron-clad figure sat motionless and erect upon the panting horse.
"How," cried the Baron Henry, "are ye afraid of one man? Then follow me!" and he spurred forward to the bridge-head. But still no one moved in answer, and the Lord of Trutz-Drachen reined back his horse again. He wheeled his horse and glared round upon the stolid faces of his followers, until his eyes seemed fairly to blaze with passion beneath the bars of his vizor.
Baron Conrad gave a roar of laughter. "How now," he cried; "are ye all afraid of one man? Is there none among ye that dares come forward and meet me? I know thee, Baron Henry thou art not afraid to cut off the hand of a little child. Hast thou not now the courage to face the father?"
Baron Henry gnashed his teeth with rage as he glared around upon the faces of his men-at-arms. Suddenly his eye lit upon one of them. "Ha ! Carl Spigler," he cried, "thou hast thy cross-bow with thee; - shoot me down yonder dog! Nay," he said, "thou canst do him no harm under his armor; shoot the horse upon which he sits."
Baron Conrad heard the speech. "Oh! thou coward villain !" he cried, "stay; do not shoot the good horse. I will dismount and fight ye upon foot." Thereupon, armed as he was, he leaped clashing from his horse and turning the animal's head, gave it a slap upon the flank. The good horse first trotted and then walked to the further end of the bridge, where it stopped and began cropping at the grass that grew beside the road.
"Now then !" cried Baron Henry, fiercely, "now then, ye cannot fear him, villains! Down with him! forward!"
Slowly the troopers spurred their horses forward upon the bridge and toward that one figure that, grasping tightly the great twohanded sword, stood there alone guarding the passage.
Then Baron Conrad whirled the great blade above his head, until it caught the sunlight and flashed again. He did not wait for the attack, but when the first of the advancing horsemen had come within a few feet of him, he leaped with a shout upon them. The fellow thrust at him with his lance, and the Baron went staggering a few feet back, but instantly he recovered himself and again leaped forward. The great sword flashed in the air, whistling; it fell, and the nearest man dropped his lance, clattering, and with a loud, inarticulate cry, grasped the mane of his horse with both hands. Again the blade whistled in the air, and this time it was stained with red. Again it fell, and with another shrill cry the man toppled headlong beneath the horse's feet. The next instant they were upon him, each striving to strike at the one figure, to ride him down, or to thrust him down with their lances. There was no room now to swing the long blade, but holding the hilt in both hands, Baron Conrad thrust with it as though it were a lance, stabbing at horse or man, it mattered not. Crowded upon the narrow roadway of the bridge, those who attacked had not only to guard themselves against the dreadful strokes of that terrible sword, but to keep their wounded horses (rearing and mad with fright) from toppling bodily over with them into the water beneath.
Presently the cry was raised, "Back! back!" And those nearest the Baron began reining in their horses. "Forward!" roared Baron Henry, from the midst of the crowd; but in spite of his command, and even the blows that he gave, those behind were borne back by those in front, struggling and shouting, and the bridge was cleared again excepting for three figures that lay motionless upon the roadway, and that one who, with the brightness of his armor dimmed and stained, leaned panting against the wall of the bridge.
The Baron Henry raged like a madman. Gnashing his teeth together, he rode back a little way; then turning and couching his lance, he suddenly clapped spurs to his horse, and the next instant came thundering down upon his solitary enemy.
Baron Conrad whirled his sword in the air, as he saw the other coming like a thunderbolt upon him; he leaped aside, and the lance passed close to him. As it passed he struck, and the iron point flew from the shaft of the spear at the blow, and fell clattering upon the stone roadway of the bridge.
Baron Henry drew in his horse until it rested upon its haunches, then slowly reined it backward down the bridge, still facing his foe, and still holding the wooden stump of the lance in his hand. At the bridge-head he flung it from him.
"Another lance!" he cried, hoarsely. One was silently reached to him and he took it, his hand trembling with rage. Again he rode to a little distance and wheeled his horse; then, driving his steel spurs into its quivering side, he came again thundering down upon the other. Once more the terrible sword whirled in the air and fell, but this time the lance was snatched to one side and the blow fell harmlessly. The next instant, and with a twitch of the bridle-rein, the horse struck full and fair against the man.
Conrad of Drachenhausen was whirled backward and downward, and the cruel iron hoofs crashed over his prostrate body, as horse and man passed with a rush beyond him and to the bridge-head beyond. A shout went up from those who stood watching. The next moment the prostrate figure rose and staggered blindly to the side of the bridge, and stood leaning against the stone wall.
At the further end of the bridge Baron Henry had wheeled his horse. Once again he couched lance, and again he drove down upon his bruised and wounded enemy. This time the lance struck full and fair, and those who watched saw the steel point pierce the iron breast-plate and then snap short, leaving the barbed point within the wound.
Baron Conrad sunk to his knees and the Roderburg, looming upon his horse above him, unsheathed his sword to finish the work he had begun.
Then those who stood looking on saw a wondrous thing happen: the wounded man rose suddenly to his feet, and before his enemy could strike he leaped, with a great and bitter cry of agony and despair, upon him as he sat in the saddle above.
Henry of Trutz-Drachen grasped at his horse's mane, but the attack was so fierce, so sudden, and so unexpected that before he could save himself he was dragged to one side and fell crashing in his armor upon the stone roadway of the bridge.
"The dragon! the dragon!" roared Baron Conrad, in a voice of thunder, and with the energy of despair he dragged his prostrate foe toward the open side of the bridge.
"Forward !" cried the chief of the Trutz-Drachen men, and down they rode upon the struggling knights to the rescue of their master in this new danger. But they were too late.
There was a pause at the edge of the bridge, for Baron Henry had gained his feet and, stunned and bewildered as he was by the suddenness of his fall, he was now struggling fiercely, desperately. For a moment they stood swaying backward and forward, clasped in one another's arms, the blood from the wounded man's breast staining the armor of both. The moment passed and then, with a shower of stones and mortar from beneath their iron-shod heels, they toppled and fell; there was a thunderous splash in the water below, and as the men-at-arms came hurrying up and peered with awe-struck faces over the parapet of the bridge, they saw the whirling eddies sweep down with the current of the stream, a few bubbles rise to the surface of the water, and then - nothing; for the smooth river flowed onward as silently as ever.
Presently a loud voice burst through the awed hush that followed. It came from William of Roderburg, Baron Henry's kinsman.
"Forward!" he cried. A murmur of voices from the others was all the answer that he received. "Forward!" cried the young man again, "the boy and those with him are not so far away but that we might yet catch up with them."
Then one of the men spoke up in answer - a man with a seamed, weather-beaten face and crisp grizzled hair. "Nay," said he, "our Lord Baron is gone, and this is no quarrel of ours; here be four of us that are wounded and three I misdoubt that are dead; why should we follow further only to suffer more blows for no gain?" A growl of assent rose from those that stood around, and William of Roderburg saw that nothing more was to be done by the Trutz-Dragons that day.