On the third day after his arrival at the camp Archie received orders to prepare to start with the hound, with the earl and a large party of men-at-arms, in search of Bruce. A traitor had just come in and told them where Bruce had slept the night before. Reluctantly Archie unfastened the chain from the pole, and holding the end in his hand went round with Hector to the front of the pavilion. He was resolved that if under the dog's guidance the party came close up with Bruce, he would kill the dog and then try to escape by fleetness of foot, though of this, as there were so many mounted men in the party, he had but slight hope. Led by the peasant they proceeded to the hut, which was five miles away in the hills. On reaching it Hector at once became greatly excited. He sniffed here and there, eagerly hunted up and down the cottage, then made a circuit round it, and at last, with a loud deep bay he started off with his nose to the ground, pulling so hard at the chain that Archie had difficulty in keeping up with him. Pembroke and his knights rode a little behind, followed by their men-at-arms.
"I pray you, Sir Earl," Archie said, "keep not too close to my traces, for the sound of the horse's hoofs and the jingling of the equipments make him all the more impatient to get forward, and even now it taxes all my strength to hold him in."
The earl reined back his horse and followed at a distance of some fifty yards. He had no suspicion whatever of any hidden design on Archie's part. The fact that the hound had recognized him had appeared to him a sure proof of the truth of his tale, and Archie had put on an air of such stupid simplicity that the earl deemed him to have but imperfect possession of his wits. Moreover, in any case he could overtake him in case he attempted flight.
Archie proceeded at a trot behind the hound, who was with difficulty restrained at that pace, straining eagerly on the chain and occasionally sending out his deep bay. Archie anxiously regarded the country through which he was passing. He was waiting for an opportunity, and was determined, whenever they passed near a steep hillside unscaleable by horsemen, he would stab Hector to the heart and take to flight. Presently he saw a man, whose attire showed him to be a Highlander, approaching at a run; he passed close by Archie, and as he did so stopped suddenly, exclaiming, "Archibald Forbes!" and drawing his broadsword sprang at him. Archie, who was unarmed save by a long knife, leapt back. In the man he recognized the leader of the MacDougall's party, who had captured him near Dunstaffnage. The conflict would have terminated in an instant had not Hector intervened. Turning round with a deep growl the great hound sprang full at the throat of the Highlander as with uplifted sword he rushed at Archie. The impetus of the spring threw the MacDougall on his back, with the fangs of the hound fixed in his throat. Archie's first impulse was to pull the dog off, the second thought showed him that, were the man to survive he would at once denounce him. Accordingly, though he appeared to tug hard at Hector's chain, he in reality allowed him to have his way. Pembroke and his knights instantly galloped up. As they arrived Hector loosed his hold, and with his hair bristly with rage prepared to attack those whom he regarded as fresh enemies.
"Hold in that hound," Pembroke shouted, "or he will do more damage. What means all this?" For a minute Archie did not answer, being engaged in pacifying Hector, who, on seeing that no harm was intended, strove to return to his first foe.
"It means," Archie said, when Hector was at last pacified, "that that Highlander came the other day to our cottage and wanted to carry off a cow without making payment for it. I withstood him, he drew his sword, but as I had a stout cudgel in my hand I hit him on the wrist ere he could use it, and well nigh broke his arm. So he made off, cursing and swearing, and vowing that the next time he met me he would have my life."
"And that he would have done," Pembroke said, "had it not been for Bruce's dog, who has turned matters the other way. He is dead assuredly. It is John of Lorne's henchman, who was doubtless on his way with a message from his lord to me. Could not the fool have postponed his grudge till he had delivered it? I tell you, Scot, you had best keep out of the MacDougalls' way, for assuredly they will revenge the death of their clansman upon you if they have the chance, though I can testify that the affair was none of your seeking. Now let us continue our way."
"I doubt me, Sir Earl, whether our journey ends not here," Archie said, "seeing that these hounds, when they taste blood, seem for a time to lose their fineness of scent; but we shall see."
Archie's opinion turned out correct. Do what they would they could not induce Hector again to take up his master's trail, the hound again and again returning to the spot where the dead Highlander still lay. Pembroke had the body carried off but the hound tugged at his chain in the direction in which it had gone, and seemed to have lost all remembrance of the track upon which he was going. At last Pembroke was obliged to acknowledge that it was useless to pursue longer, and, full of disappointment at their failure, the party returned to camp, Pembroke saying: "Our chase is but postponed. We are sure to get tidings of Bruce's hiding place in a day or two, and next time we will have the hound muzzled, lest any hotheaded Highlander should again interfere to mar the sport."
It was some days before further tidings were obtained of Bruce. Archie did not leave his tent during this time, giving as a reason that he was afraid if he went out he should meet some of Lorne's men, who might take up the quarrel of the man who had been killed. At length, however, another traitor came in, and Pembroke and his party set out as before, Hector being this time muzzled by a strap round his jaw, which would not interfere with his scent, but would prevent him from widely opening his jaws.
The scent of Bruce was again taken up at a lonely hut in the hills. The country was far more broken and rough than that through which they had followed Bruce's trail on the preceding occasion. Again Archie determined, but most reluctantly, that he would slay the noble dog; but he determined to postpone the deed to the latest moment. Several places were passed where he might have succeeded in effecting his escape after stabbing the hound, but each time his determination failed him. It would have been of no use to release the dog and make himself up the hillside, for a blood hound's pace when on the track is not rapid, and the horsemen could have kept up with Hector, who would of course have continued his way upon the trail of the king. Presently two men were seen in the distance; they had evidently been alarmed by the bay of the hound, and were going at full speed. A shout of triumph broke from the pursuers, and some of the more eager would have set spurs to their horses and passed the hound.
"Rein back, rein back," Pembroke said, "the country is wild and hilly here, and Bruce may hide himself long before you can overtake him. Keep steadily in his track till he gains flatter country, where we can keep him in sight, then we shall have no more occasion for the hound and can gallop on at full speed."
Archie observed, with satisfaction, that Bruce was making up an extremely steep hillside, deeming probably that horsemen would be unable to follow him here, and that he would be able to distance pursuers on foot. Ten minutes later his pursuers had reached the foot of the hill. Pembroke at once ordered four knights and ten men-at-arms to dismount.
"Do you," he said, "with the dog, follow hard upon the traces of Bruce. When you reach the top signal to us the direction in which he has gone. Follow ever on his track without stopping; he must at last take to the low country again. Some of my men shall remain here, others a mile further on, and so on round the whole foot of the hills. Do you, when you see that, thinking he has distanced you, which he may well do being more lightly armed and flying for his life, he makes for the low country again, send men in different directions to give me warning. The baying of the dog will act as a signal to us."
While the men had been dismounting and Pembroke was giving his orders Archie had proceeded up the hill with the hound. The path was exceedingly steep and difficult.
"Do not hurry, sirrah," Pembroke called; "hold in your hound till the others join you." But Archie paid no attention to the shout, but kept up the steep path at the top of his speed. Shouts and threats followed him, but he paused not till he reached the top of the ascent; then he unfastened Hector's collar, and the dog, relieved from the chain which had so long restrained him, bounded away with a deep bay in pursuit of his master, whose scent was now strong before him. As Archie looked back, the four knights and their followers, in single file, were, as yet, scarce halfway up the ascent. Lying round were numbers of loose boulders, and Archie at once began to roll these down the hillside. They went but slowly at first, but as they reached the steeper portion they gathered speed, and taking great bounds crashed down the hillside. As these formidable missiles burst down from above the knights paused.
"On!" Pembroke shouted from below; "the Scot is a traitor, and he and the hound will escape if you seize him not." Again the party hurried up the hill. Three of them were struck down by the rocks, and the speed of all was impeded by the pauses made to avoid the great boulders which bounded down toward them. When they were within a few yards of the top Archie turned and bounded off at full speed. He had no fear of being himself overtaken. Lightly clad and unarmed, the knights and men-at-arms, who were all in full armour, and who were already breathed with the exertions they had made, would have no chance of overtaking him; indeed he could safely have fled at once when he loosed Hector, but he had stopped to delay the ascent of his pursuers solely to give the hound as long a start as possible. He himself could have kept up with the hound; the men-at-arms could assuredly not do so, but they might for a long time keep him in sight, and his baying would afterwards indicate the line the king was taking, and Bruce might yet be cut off by the mounted men. The delay which his bombardment had caused had given a long start to the hound, for it was more than five minutes from the time when it had been loosed before the pursuers gained the crest of the hill. Archie, in his flight, took a different line to that which the dog had followed. Hector was already out of sight, and although his deep baying might for a time afford an index to his direction this would soon cease to act as a guide, as the animal would rapidly increase his distance from his pursuers, and would, when he had overtaken the king, cease to emit his warning note. The pursuers, after a moment's pause for consultation on the crest of the hill, followed the line taken by the hound.
The men-at-arms paused to throw aside their defensive armour, breast, back, and leg pieces, and the knights relieved themselves of some of their iron gear; but the delay, short as it was, caused by the unbuckling of straps and unlacing of helms, increased the distance which already existed between them and the hound, whose deep notes, occasionally raised, grew fainter and fainter. In a few minutes it ceased altogether, and Archie judged that the hound had overtaken his master, who, on seeing the animal approaching alone, would naturally have checked his flight. Archie himself was now far away from the men-at-arms, and after proceeding until beyond all reach of pursuit, slackened his pace, and breaking into a walk continued his course some miles across the hills until he reached a lonely cottage where he was kindly received, and remained until next day.
The following morning he set out and journeyed to the spot, where, on leaving his retainers more than a week before, he had ordered them to await his coming. It was another week before he obtained such news as enabled him again to join the king, who was staying at a woodcutter's hut in Selkirk Forest. Hector came out with a deep bark of welcome.
"Well, Sir Archie," the king said, following his dog to the door, "and how has it fared with you since we last parted a fortnight since? I have been hotly chased, and thought I should have been taken; but, thanks to the carelessness of the fellow who led my hound, Hector somehow slipped his collar and joined me, and I was able to shake off my pursuers, so that danger is over, and without sacrificing the life of my good dog."
Archie smiled. "Perchance, sir, it was not from any clumsiness that the hound got free, but that he was loosed by some friendly hand."
"It may be so," the king replied; "but they would scarcely have intrusted him to a hand friendly to me. Nor would his leader, even if so disposed, have ventured to slip the hound, seeing that the horsemen must have been close by at the time, and that such a deed would cost him his life. It was only because Hector got away, when the horsemen were unable to follow him, that he escaped, seeing that, good dog as he is, speed is not his strong point, and that horsemen could easily gallop alongside of him even were he free. What are you smiling at, Sir Archie? The hound and you seem on wondrous friendly terms;" for Hector was now standing up with his great paws on Archie's shoulder.
"So we should be, sire, seeing that for eight days we have shared bed and board."
"Ah! is it so?" Bruce exclaimed. "Was it you, then, that loosed the hound?"
"It was, sir," Archie replied; "and this is the history of it; and you will see that if I have done you and Hector a service in bringing you together again the hound has repaid it by saving my life."
Entering the hut, Archie sat down and related all that had happened, to the king.
"You have done me great service, Sir Archie," Bruce said when he concluded his tale, "for assuredly the hound would have wrought my ruin had he remained in the hands of the English. This is another of the long list of services you have rendered me. Some day, when I come to my own, you will find that I am not ungrateful."
The feats which have been related of Bruce, and other personal adventures in which he distinguished himself, won the hearts of great numbers of the Scotch people. They recognized now that they had in him a champion as doughty and as valiant as Wallace himself. The exploits of the king filled their imaginations, and the way in which he continued the struggle after the capture of the ladies of his family and the cruel execution of his brothers and so many of his adherents, convinced them that he would never desist until he was dead or a conqueror. Once persuaded of this, larger numbers gathered round his banner, and his fortunes henceforth began steadily to rise.
Lord Clifford had rebuilt Douglas Castle, making it larger and much stronger than before, and had committed it to the charge of Captain Thirlwall, with a strong garrison. Douglas took a number of his retainers, who had now joined him in the field, and some of these, dressing themselves as drovers and concealing their arms, drove a herd of cattle within sight of the castle toward an ambuscade in which Douglas and the others were laying in ambush. The garrison, seeing what they believed a valuable prize within their grasp, sallied out to seize the cattle. When they reached the ambuscade the Scots sprang out upon them, and Thirlwall and the greater portion of his men were slain. Douglas then took and destroyed the castle and marched away. Clifford again rebuilt it more strongly than before, and placed it in charge of Sir John Walton. It might have been thought that after the disasters which had befallen the garrison they would not have suffered themselves to be again entrapped. Douglas, however, ordered a number of his men to ride past within sight of the castle with sacks upon their horses, apparently filled with grain, but in reality with grass, as if they were countrymen on their way to the neighbouring market town, while once more he and his followers placed themselves in ambush. Headed by their captain, the garrison poured out from the castle, and followed the apparent countrymen until they had passed the ambush where Douglas was lying. Then the drovers threw off their disguises and attacked them, while Douglas fell upon their rear, and Walton and his companions were all slain. The castle was then attacked, and the remainder of the garrison being cowed by the fate which had befallen their leader and comrades, made but a poor defence. The castle was taken, and was again destroyed by its lord, the walls being, as far as possible, overthrown.
Shortly after the daring adventures of Bruce had begun to rouse the spirit of the country Archie Forbes found himself at the head of a larger following than before. Foreseeing that the war must be a long one he had called upon his tenants and retainers to furnish him only with a force one third of that of their total strength. Thus he was able to maintain sixty men always in the field -- all the older men on the estate being exempted from service unless summoned to defend the castle.
One day when he was in the forest of Selkirk with the king a body of fifty men were seen approaching. Their leader inquired for Sir Archibald Forbes, and presently approached him as he was talking to the king.
"Sir Archibald Forbes," he said, "I am bidden by my mistress, the lady Mary Kerr, to bring these, a portion of the retainers of her estates in Ayrshire, and to place them in your hands to lead and govern."
"In my hands!" Archie exclaimed in astonishment. "The Kerrs are all on the English side, and I am their greatest enemy. It were strange, indeed, were one of them to choose me to lead their retainers in the cause of Scotland."
"Our young lord Sir Allan was slain at Methven," the man said, "and the lady Mary is now our lady and mistress. She sent to us months ago to say that she willed not that any of her retainers should any longer take part in the struggle, and all who were in the field were summoned home. Then we heard that no hindrance would be offered by her should any wish to join the Bruce; and now she has sent by a messenger a letter under her hand ordering that a troop of fifty men shall be raised to join the king, and that it shall fight under the leading and order of Sir Archibald Forbes."
"I had not heard that Sir Allan had fallen," Archie said to the king as they walked apart from the place where the man was standing; "and in truth I had forgotten that he even had a sister. She must have been a child when I was a boy at Glen Cairn, and could have been but seldom at the castle -- which, indeed, was no fit abode for so young a girl, seeing that Sir John's wife had died some years before I left Glen Cairn. Perhaps she was with her mother's relations. I have heard that Sir John Kerr married a relation of the Comyns of Badenoch. `Tis strange if, being of such bad blood on both sides, she should have grown up a true Scotchwoman -- still more strange she should send her vassals to fight under the banner of one whom she must regard as the unlawful holder of her father's lands of Aberfilly."
"Think you, Sir Archie," the king said, "that this is a stratagem, and that these men have really come with a design to seize upon you and slay you, or to turn traitors in the first battle?"
Archie was silent. "Treachery has been so much at work," he said after a pause, "that it were rash to say that this may not be a traitorous device; but it were hard to think that a girl -- even a Kerr -- would lend herself to it."
"There are bad women as well as bad men," the king said: "and if a woman thinks she has grievances she will often stick at nothing to obtain revenge."
"It is a well appointed troop," Archie said looking at the men, who were drawn up in order, "and not to be despised. Their leader looks an honest fellow; and if the lady means honestly it were churlish indeed, to refuse her aid when she ventures to break with her family and to declare for Scotland. No; methinks that, with your permission, I will run the risk, such as it may be, and will join this band with my own. I will keep a sharp watch over them at the first fight, and will see that they are so placed that, should they mean treachery, they shall have but small opportunity of doing harm."
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