The moonlight shimmered hazily, making silvery mists of illusion among the shadowy trees. A faint breeze whispered down the valley, bearing a shadow that was not of the moon-mist. A faint scent of smoke was apparent.
The man whose long, swinging strides, unhurried yet unswerving, had carried him for many a mile since sunrise, stopped suddenly. A movement in the trees had caught his attention, and he moved silently toward the shadows, a hand resting lightly on the hilt of his long, slim rapier.
Warily he advanced, his eyes striving to pierce the darkness that brooded under the trees. This was a wild and menacing country; death might be lurking under those trees. Then his hand fell away from the hilt and he leaned forward. Death indeed was there, but not in such shape as might cause him fear.
"The fires of Hades!" he murmured. "A girl! What has harmed you, child? Be not afraid of me."
The girl looked up at him, her face like a dim white rose in the dark.
"You—who are—you?" her words came in gasps.
"Naught but a wanderer, a landless man, but a friend to all in need." The gentle voice sounded somehow incongruous, coming from the man.
The girl sought to prop herself up on her elbow, and instantly he knelt and raised her to a sitting position, her head resting against his shoulder. His hand touched her breast and came away red and wet.
"Tell me." His voice was soft, soothing, as one speaks to a babe.
"Le Loup," she gasped, her voice swiftly growing weaker. "He and his men—descended upon our village—a mile up the valley. They robbed—slew—burned—"
"That, then, was the smoke I scented," muttered the man. "Go on, child."
"I ran. He, the Wolf, pursued me—and—caught me—" The words died away in a shuddering silence.
"I understand, child. Then—?"
"Then—he—he—stabbed me—with his dagger—oh, blessed saints!—mercy—"
Suddenly the slim form went limp. The man eased her to the earth, and touched her brow lightly.
"Dead!" he muttered.
Slowly he rose, mechanically wiping his hands upon his cloak. A dark scowl had settled on his somber brow. Yet he made no wild, reckless vow, swore no oath by saints or devils.
"Men shall die for this," he said coldly.