There was a new emperor in Germany who had come from a far away Swiss castle; Count Rudolph of Hapsburg, a good, honest man with a good, honest, homely face, but bringing with him a stern sense of justice and of right, and a determination to put down the lawlessness of the savage German barons among whom he had come as Emperor.
One day two strangers came galloping up the winding path to the gates of the Dragon's house. A horn sounded thin and clear, a parley was held across the chasm in the road between the two strangers and the porter who appeared at the little wicket. Then a messenger was sent running to the Baron, who presently came striding across the open court-yard to the gateway to parley with the strangers.
The two bore with them a folded parchment with a great red seal hanging from it like a clot of blood; it was a message from the Emperor demanding that the Baron should come to the Imperial Court to answer certain charges that had been brought against him, and to give his bond to maintain the peace of the empire.
One by one those barons who had been carrying on their private wars, or had been despoiling the burgher folk in their traffic from town to town, and against whom complaint had been lodged, were summoned to the Imperial Court, where they were compelled to promise peace and to swear allegiance to the new order of things. All those who came willingly were allowed to return home again after giving security for maintaining the peace; all those who came not willingly were either brought in chains or rooted out of their strongholds with fire and sword, and their roofs burned over their heads.
Now it was Baron Conrad's turn to be summoned to the Imperial Court, for complaint had been lodged against him by his old enemy of Trutz-Drachen - Baron Henry - the nephew of the old Baron Frederick who had been slain while kneeling in the dust of the road back of the Kaiserburg.
No one at Drachenhausen could read but Master Rudolph, the steward, who was sand blind, and little Otto. So the boy read the summons to his father, while the grim Baron sat silent with his chin resting upon his clenched fist and his eyebrows drawn together into a thoughtful frown as he gazed into the pale face of his son, who sat by the rude oaken table with the great parchment spread out before him.
Should he answer the summons, or scorn it as he would have done under the old emperors? Baron Conrad knew not which to do; pride said one thing and policy another. The Emperor was a man with an iron hand, and Baron Conrad knew what had happened to those who had refused to obey the imperial commands. So at last he decided that he would go to the court, taking with him a suitable escort to support his dignity.
It was with nearly a hundred armed men clattering behind him that Baron Conrad rode away to court to answer the imperial summons. The castle was stripped of its fighting men, and only eight remained behind to guard the great stone fortress and the little simple-witted boy.
It was a sad mistake.
Three days had passed since the Baron had left the castle, and now the third night had come. The moon was hanging midway in the sky, white and full, for it was barely past midnight.
The high precipitous banks of the rocky road threw a dense black shadow into the gully below, and in that crooked inky line that scarred the white face of the moonlit rocks a band of some thirty men were creeping slowly and stealthily nearer and nearer to Castle Drachenhausen. At the head of them was a tall, slender knight clad in light chain armor, his head covered only by a steel cap or bascinet.
Along the shadow they crept, with only now and then a faint clink or jingle of armor to break the stillness, for most of those who followed the armed knight were clad in leathern jerkins; only one or two wearing even so much as a steel breast- plate by way of armor.
So at last they reached the chasm that yawned beneath the roadway, and there they stopped, for they had reached the spot toward which they had been journeying. It was Baron Henry of Trutz-Drachen who had thus come in the silence of the night time to the Dragon's house, and his visit boded no good to those within.
The Baron and two or three of his men talked together in low tones, now and then looking up at the sheer wall that towered above them.
"Yonder is the place, Lord Baron," said one of those who stood with him. "I have scanned every foot of the wall at night for a week past. An we get not in by that way, we get not in at all. A keen eye, a true aim, and a bold man are all that we need, and the business is done." Here again all looked upward at the gray wall above them, rising up in the silent night air.
High aloft hung the wooden bartizan or watch-tower, clinging to the face of the outer wall and looming black against the pale sky above. Three great beams pierced the wall, and upon them the wooden tower rested. The middle beam jutted out beyond the rest to the distance of five or six feet, and the end of it was carved into the rude semblance of a dragon's head.
"So, good," said the Baron at last; "then let us see if thy plan holds, and if Hans Schmidt's aim is true enough to earn the three marks that I have promised him. Where is the bag?"
One of those who stood near handed the Baron a leathern pouch, the Baron opened it and drew out a ball of fine thread, another of twine, a coil of stout rope, and a great bundle that looked, until it was unrolled, like a coarse fish-net. It was a rope ladder. While these were being made ready, Hans Schmidt, a thick-set, low-browed, broad-shouldered archer, strung his stout bow, and carefully choosing three arrows from those in his quiver, he stuck them point downward in the earth. Unwinding the ball of thread, he laid it loosely in large loops upon the ground so that it might run easily without hitching, then he tied the end of the thread tightly around one of his arrows. He fitted the arrow to the bow and drew the feather to his ear. Twang! rang the bowstring, and the feathered messenger flew whistling upon its errand to the watch-tower. The very first shaft did the work.
"Good," said Hans Schmidt, the archer, in his heavy voice, "the three marks are mine, Lord Baron."
The arrow had fallen over and across the jutting beam between the carved dragon's head and the bartizan, carrying with it the thread, which now hung from above, glimmering white in the moonlight like a cobweb.
The rest was an easy task enough. First the twine was drawn up to and over the beam by the thread, then the rope was drawn up by the twine, and last of all the rope ladder by the rope. There it hung like a thin, slender black line against the silent gray walls.
"And now," said the Baron, "who will go first and win fifty marks for his own, and climb the rope ladder to the tower yonder?" Those around hesitated. "Is there none brave enough to venture?" said the Baron, after a pause of silence.
A stout, young fellow, of about eighteen years of age, stepped forward and flung his flat leathern cap upon the ground. "I will go, my Lord Baron," said he.
"Good," said the Baron, "the fifty marks are thine. And now listen, if thou findest no one in the watch-tower, whistle thus; if the watchman be at his post, see that thou makest all safe before thou givest the signal. When all is ready the others will follow thee. And now go and good luck go with thee."
The young fellow spat upon his hands and, seizing the ropes, began slowly and carefully to mount the flimsy, shaking ladder. Those below held it as tight as they were able, but nevertheless he swung backward and forward and round and round as he climbed steadily upward. Once he stopped upon the way, and those below saw him clutch the ladder close to him as though dizzied by the height and the motion but he soon began again, up, up, up like some great black spider. Presently he came out from the black shadow below and into the white moonlight, and then his shadow followed him step by step up the gray wall upon his way. At last he reached the jutting beam, and there again he stopped for a moment clutching tightly to it. The next he was upon the beam, dragging himself toward the window of the bartizan just above. Slowly raising himself upon his narrow foothold he peeped cautiously within. Those watching him from be low saw him slip his hand softly to his side, and then place something between his teeth. It was his dagger. Reaching up, he clutched the window sill above him and, with a silent spring, seated himself upon it. The next moment he disappeared within. A few seconds of silence followed, then of sudden a sharp gurgling cry broke the stillness. There was another pause of silence, then a faint shrill whistle sounded from above.
"Who will go next?" said the Baron. It was Hans Schmidt who stepped forward. Another followed the arch up the ladder, and another, and another. Last of all went the Baron Henry himself, and nothing was left but the rope ladder hanging from above, and swaying back and forth in the wind.
That night Schwartz Carl had been bousing it over a pot of yellow wine in the pantry with his old crony, Master Rudolph, the steward; and the two, chatting and gossiping together, had passed the time away until long after the rest of the castle had been wrapped in sleep. Then, perhaps a little unsteady upon his feet, Schwartz Carl betook himself homeward to the Melchior tower.
He stood for a while in the shadow of the doorway, gazing up into the pale sky above him at the great, bright, round moon, that hung like a bubble above the sharp peaks of the roofs standing black as ink against the sky. But all of a sudden he started up from the post against which he had been leaning, and with head bent to one side, stood listening breathlessly, for he too had heard that smothered cry from the watch-tower. So he stood intently, motionlessly, listening, listening; but all was silent except for the monotonous dripping of water in one of the nooks of the court-yard, and the distant murmur of the river borne upon the breath of the night air. "Mayhap I was mistaken," muttered Schwartz Carl to himself.
But the next moment the silence was broken again by a faint, shrill whistle; what did it mean?
Back of the heavy oaken door of the tower was Schwartz Carl's cross-bow, the portable windlass with which the bowstring was drawn back, and a pouch of bolts. Schwartz Carl reached back into the darkness, fumbling in the gloom until his fingers met the weapon. Setting his foot in the iron stirrup at the end of the stock, he wound the stout bow-string into the notch of the trigger, and carefully fitted the heavy, murderous-looking bolt into the groove.
Minute after minute passed, and Schwartz Carl, holding his arbelast in his hand, stood silently waiting and watching in the sharp-cut, black shadow of the doorway, motionless as a stone statue. Minute after minute passed. Suddenly there was a movement in the shadow of the arch of the great gateway across the court-yard, and the next moment a leathern-clad figure crept noiselessly out upon the moonlit pavement, and stood there listening, his head bent to one side. Schwartz Carl knew very well that it was no one belonging to the castle, and, from the nature of his action, that he was upon no good errand.
He did not stop to challenge the suspicious stranger. The taking of another's life was thought too small a matter for much thought or care in those days. Schwartz Carl would have shot a man for a much smaller reason than the suspicious actions of this fellow. The leather-clad figure stood a fine target in the moonlight for a cross-bow bolt. Schwartz Carl slowly raised the weapon to his shoulder and took a long and steady aim. Just then the stranger put his fingers to his lips and gave a low, shrill whistle. It was the last whistle that he was to give upon this earth. There was a sharp, jarring twang of the bow-string, the hiss of the flying bolt, and the dull thud as it struck its mark. The man gave a shrill, quavering cry, and went staggering back, and then fell all of a heap against the wall behind him. As though in answer to the cry, half a dozen men rushed tumultuously out from the shadow of the gateway whence the stranger had just come, and then stood in the court-yard, looking uncertainly this way and that, not knowing from what quarter the stroke had come that had laid their comrade low.
But Schwartz Carl did not give them time to discover that; there was no chance to string his cumbersome weapon again; down he flung it upon the ground. "To arms!" he roared in a voice of thunder, and then clapped to the door of Melchior's tower and shot the great iron bolts with a clang and rattle.
The next instant the Trutz-Drachen men were thundering at the door, but Schwartz Carl was already far up the winding steps.
But now the others came pouring out from the gateway. "To the house," roared Baron Henry.
Then suddenly a clashing, clanging uproar crashed out upon the night. Dong! Dong! It was the great alarm bell from Melchior's tower - Schwartz Carl was at his post.
Little Baron Otto lay sleeping upon the great rough bed in his room, dreaming of the White Cross on the hill and of brother John. By and by he heard the convent bell ringing, and knew that there must be visitors at the gate, for loud voices sounded through his dream. Presently he knew that he was coming awake, but though the sunny monastery garden grew dimmer and dimmer to his sleeping sight, the clanging of the bell and the sound of shouts grew louder and louder. Then he opened his eyes. Flaming red lights from torches, carried hither and thither by people in the court-yard outside, flashed and ran along the wall of his room. Hoarse shouts and cries filled the air, and suddenly the shrill, piercing shriek of a woman rang from wall to wall; and through the noises the great bell from far above upon Melchior's tower clashed and clanged its harsh, resonant alarm.
Otto sprang from his bed and looked out of the window and down upon the court-yard below. "Dear God! what dreadful thing hath happened?" he cried and clasped his hands together.
A cloud of smoke was pouring out from the windows of the building across the court-yard, whence a dull ruddy glow flashed and flickered. Strange men were running here and there with flaming torches, and the now continuous shrieking of women pierced the air.
Just beneath the window lay the figure of a man half naked and face downward upon the stones. Then suddenly Otto cried out in fear and horror, for, as he looked with dazed and bewildered eyes down into the lurid court-yard beneath, a savage man, in a shining breast-plate and steel cap, came dragging the dark, silent figure of a woman across the stones; but whether she was dead or in a swoon, Otto could not tell.
And every moment the pulsing of that dull red glare from the windows of the building across the court-yard shone more brightly, and the glare from other flaming buildings, which Otto could not see from his window, turned the black, starry night into a lurid day.
Just then the door of the room was burst open, and in rushed poor old Ursela, crazy with her terror. She flung herself down upon the floor and caught Otto around the knees. "Save me!" she cried, "save me!" as though the poor, pale child could be of any help to her at such a time. In the passageway without shone the light of torches, and the sound of loud footsteps came nearer and nearer.
And still through all the din sounded continually the clash and clang and clamor of the great alarm bell.
The red light flashed into the room, and in the doorway stood a tall, thin figure clad from head to foot in glittering chain armor. From behind this fierce knight, with his dark, narrow, cruel face, its deep-set eyes glistening in the light of the torches, crowded six or eight savage, low-browed, brutal men, who stared into the room and at the white-faced boy as he stood by the window with the old woman clinging to his knees and praying to him for help.
"We have cracked the nut and here is the kernel," said one of them who stood behind the rest, and thereupon a roar of brutal laughter went up. But the cruel face of the armed knight never relaxed into a smile; he strode into the room and laid his iron hand heavily upon the boy's shoulder. "Art thou the young Baron Otto?" said he, in a harsh voice.
"Aye," said the lad; "but do not kill me."
The knight did not answer him. "Fetch the cord hither," said he, "and drag the old witch away."
It took two of them to loosen poor old Ursela's crazy clutch from about her young master. Then amid roars of laughter they dragged her away, screaming and scratching and striking with her fists.
They drew back Otto's arms behind his back and wrapped them round and round with a bowstring. Then they pushed and hustled and thrust him forth from the room and along the passageway, now bright with the flames that roared and crackled without. Down the steep stairway they drove him, where thrice he stumbled and fell amid roars of laughter. At last they were out into the open air of the court-yard. Here was a terrible sight, but Otto saw nothing of it; his blue eyes were gazing far away, and his lips moved softly with the prayer that the good monks of St. Michaelsburg had taught him, for he thought that they meant to slay him.
All around the court-yard the flames roared and snapped and crackled. Four or five figures lay scattered here and there, silent in all the glare and uproar. The heat was so intense that they were soon forced back into the shelter of the great gateway, where the women captives, under the guard of three or four of the Trutz-Drachen men, were crowded together in dumb, bewildered terror. Only one man was to be seen among the captives, poor, old, half blind Master Rudolph, the steward, who crouched tremblingly among the women. They had set the blaze to Melchior's tower, and now, below, it was a seething furnace. Above, the smoke rolled in black clouds from the windows, but still the alarm bell sounded through all the blaze and smoke. Higher and higher the flames rose; a trickle of fire ran along the frame buildings hanging aloft in the air. A clear flame burst out at the peak of the roof, but still the bell rang forth its clamorous clangor. Presently those who watched below saw the cluster of buildings bend and sink and sway; there was a crash and roar, a cloud of sparks flew up as though to the very heavens themselves, and the bell of Melchior's tower was stilled forever. A great shout arose from the watching, upturned faces.
"Forward!" cried Baron Henry, and out from the gateway they swept and across the drawbridge, leaving Drachenhausen behind them a flaming furnace blazing against the gray of the early dawning.